Update: International: Challenges of Change Symposium Considers Religion, Secularism and Rights

Women's Learning Partnership

A glance at any day's headlines makes it clear that cultures and religions worldwide are and have always been in constant flux. A day-long Women's Learning Partnership (WLP) symposium on September 21 in Washington DC sparked debate, laughter, and cheers as participants vowed new commitment to steering that change toward broader human rights for women.

The central message of the four panels at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies was that moments of transition like this one can cause anxiety and reaction, but women today can seize such cracks in the social structure as places to plant the seeds that will challenge cultural and religious restrictions.

"The 'clash of civilizations' between Islam and the West is really just a clash of masculinities," said Yakin Ertürk, professor of sociology and chair of the Gender and Women's Studies Program at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey.

The work is long, hard, and sometimes dangerous, but dialogue between cultures is essential to spread ideas and strategies, said Mahnaz Afkhami, WLP founder and president. The U.S. civil rights movement inspired women in Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, and elsewhere, she said. Women can and will change patriarchal systems piece by piece, starting at home with their children and families.

More than 110 women and men of every age attended the symposium's four panel sessions, including a group of enthusiastic young women who had taken an overnight bus trip from Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just for this gathering.

Karima Bennoune, professor of law at Rutgers University, said many political aims are now expressed in religious terms, so we tend to misread them as religious and cultural movements. For example, the Taliban and other armed political groups in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia have adopted the language of Islam, so some of their opponents have wrongly conflated extremism with Islam as a whole.

Similarly, patriarchal extremists use Islam to justify discrimination against women as God’s law, said Zainah Anwar, project director of Musawah and former executive director of Sisters in Islam. “We need to build public outrage at this misuse of Islam… Public law and public policy must be by definition the product of public discussion,” Anwar said. If Islam is immutable and divine law, it must be removed from the public sphere.

 LeShawn Jefferson, Karima Bennoune, & Zainah Anwar


Read more and view the symposium online:

Source: WLP