Islamic Relief’s Mousumi Saikia reflects on calls for united faith action on gender based violence made at our recent Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) event.

CSW is a global intergovernmental body dedicated to promoting gender quality and empowering women, in which Islamic Relief participates as part of our global gender justice campaign.

By the time our New York event began on 15 March, news had broken of the terror attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As we stood for a minute’s silence in honour of those who died and were injured in a place for prayer, the need for unity in tackling all forms of violence felt more urgent than ever. People of all faiths were shocked by the violence. It reminded us that we must all work together to fight all kinds of injustices.

Islamic Relief USA CEO Sharif Aly spoke at the CSW side event.

The side event explored how faith, feminism and human rights frameworks enable gender equality and empowerment. It was hosted by the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in partnership with Side by Side, Joint Learning Initiative, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Episcopal Relief and Development, USPG, Tearfund, Act Alliance and World Vision.

All speakers sent an unequivocally strong message. They called for building bridges and coalitions amongst communities and religions. They argued for a strong and unified inter-faith inspired movement, focused on human dignity, to tackle injustice and gender based violence. They were clear that faith organisations and leaders – with their ability to represent the voices of marginalised people – are critical to this endeavour.

Faith and the fight for gender justice

However, faith and religion have been accused of fuelling inequalities in race, class, ethnicity, gender and more. The intersection of religion and gender is closely tied to how religious tenets are interpreted by those in positions of power in a patriarchal society.

Considering this, does faith have any business trying to end injustice against women? If we think it does, how are faith actors and activists addressing perceived tensions between faith-based, human rights and feminist frameworks? How might we interconnect these frameworks, so they learn from each other?

The break between faith and feminism happened when faith became an instrument of colonisation and women’s bodies were used to oppress and disempower the people. Seen this way, religion presents problems in its patriarchal norms and binary understanding of gender. However, it can also be a powerful force for positive change – particularly in promoting ‘positive masculinity’.

Develop new understanding of power

Religious traditions need to be understood and positive role models sought within religion, because there are traditions to keep and traditions to leave.

Founder of Rabata, Shaykha Tamara Gray, speaks in a roundtable discussion.

When organisations like Islamic Relief are engaging with faith leaders to harness religion as an agent of change, we must remember that they may have different understandings of gender-based violence. They themselves may need to change, and unlearn through theological reflections. Once they have done so, faith leaders can pass on the messages to their congregation with great effect.

More needs to be done to encourage Muslim female leaders to speak out. Women leaders are much needed but are currently invisible and unseen largely because they are reluctant to take on the mantle of secular feminism. Islamic feminism is grounded faith teachings in seeking the full equality of women and men in personal and public sphere, not transferring power from men to women.

Finally, if we are ever to end violence against women and girls, we must make sure that the voices of survivors are heard – and listened to. We now, more than ever, understand that we need to come together with our communities and partners to tackle injustice.