Dispatches from AWID 2012: The New World War? Fundamentalism vs. Human Rights


The 12th Annual AWID Forum is taking place April 18-22 in Istanbul, Turkey, drawing more than 2,000 feminist and development thinkers from around the world. The theme is Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson and Global Contributor Jessica Mack are in Turkey for the event and will bring you up-to-date news and insights throughout. Follow #AWIDForum and #AWID2012 on Twitter for more updates.

The rise of religious fundamentalisms is having a profound impact on rights, in every sense, in every region of the world, from Sudan to the United States. If you think you’re free of it, think again. In the panel, “Ongoing Dilemmas: Religion, fundamentalisms and human rights,” human rights advocates and progressive religious representatives discussed the ways in which religion has far overstepped its bounds, while insisting that it’s still important to continue pushing on and trying to understand religion in our human rights work.

Dawn Cavanaugh, from the Coalition of African Lesbians in South Africa, pointed out the the intense contradictions between civil society and religious fundamentalism in the country. South Africa boasts one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, which includes an impressive equality clause and a bill of rights. Yet young, black lesbians continually face violence and marginalization, and women more broadly face serious discrimination. The country’s president, Jacob Zuma, was tried and acquitted of rape in 2006, but not before he admitted publicly that he thought the woman wanted sex because she was “wearing a skirt.” Discrimination is attributed to a confluence of factors, but its religious underpinning should be overlooked. 

The Catholic Church hierarchy is immensely powerful worldwide, and seems to have its long fingers in almost every pot. Pam Spees, a senior staff attorney from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), discussed the “veil and impunity of the Catholic Church on issues of rape and sexual abuse, and the role of US evangelicals in exporting hate.” CCR, an advocacy and legal aid group, is not only tracking this but working to undo it. They have filed a lawsuit against prominent Evangelical Scott Lively, for inciting hate crimes in Uganda and for his participation in formulating the “Kill the Gays” Bill, in the Ugandan Parliament, which has been recently “on hold,” but could re-surface at any time. The prospect of religious figures from the United States, some of whom receive federal funding, serving as a crucible for hate speech and legislated homophobia worldwide is not only terrifying, but all too real. As Spees put it:

“The pope has suggested that the US is a state with radical secularism. But if you watch the [GOP presidential] debates or have ever been to the US, you know that’s laughable.”

Maria Jose Rosado Nunes, an expert on Catholicism and rights, discussed the fundamentalist face of the Catholic Church in Brazil, where she says the Church wants to appear as if they are concerned with human rights, but is actually only concerned with rights in so far as they can control and quash them. Their efforts are relentless, and increasingly strategic, she said. For example:

“Recently the Church achieved something completely unprecedented. They reached an agreement with the state, almost overnight and in silence, allowing the Church and other religious institutions to teach religion in the schools, which used to be forbidden.”

While most of the panelists discussed specific and systematic ways in which religious institutions are prohibiting and eroding human rights, there was the acknowledgement that this is not a reality we can simply run away from. In particular, in religious countries and where religion is part and parcel of individual identities, denying or misunderstanding that role can actually hamper effective human rights work. The idea is not to ignore, disrespect, nor “get rid” of religion, but rather to see it as a force for expansion of basic human rights for all.

Zainah Anwar, from Sisters in Islam, is based in Malaysia, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with a plural legal system. While the trajectory of law reform for 40 percent of the population, which is non-Muslim, has been toward equality for men and women, it has run largely in the opposite direction for the 60 percent Muslim population, or “a continued chiseling away of rights we already had.” For example, the Inheritance Act was amended to give men and women equal rights, but not so for Muslims, who are still ruled by current interpretations of Islamic law, which discriminate against women. Yet despite a troubling rift, Anwar’s work is to continue engaging religion, and not take it for granted.

“In Malaysia and Indonesia, there is no discomfort among feminists working with religion. Faith is very much a part of your life, even if you don’t believe. Faith is important to the women that you’re trying to help. We need to recognize the importance of engaging with religion to push our work forward.”

Anwar said young feminists are especially good at navigating this apparent tension.

“One of the greatest responses we get [in our work] is from young women who to say, ‘I want to be a Muslim, and I want to be a feminist. I want to claim both identities.’ And they do.”

Perhaps this will be a new generation of human rights defenders better equipped to tackle the ills of fundamentalism.

Part of the challenge in examining these tensions is on one hand is to understand how successful, well-organized, and globally-coordinated current fundamentalist movements are, while at the same time pointing out that these movements cannot be easily expelled. Rather it will take rights advocates being smarter, more strategic, and better coordinated to move the human rights agenda forward for vulnerable groups like women and the LGBT community, many of whom also celebrate their own faiths. 

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