x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A better future needs a big tent

It is pragmatism, not polemics, that will achieve a better future for women.

What happens when you take five women of faith and a female atheist and put them in front of a global audience to discuss the future of feminism?

If that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, then you’d be wrong. There were no laughs to be had during this debate. Instead, a panel discussion that could have built solidarity among women was laden with vitriol against the world’s women who identify themselves as faith adherents while at the same time struggling to radically improve life conditions, opportunities and rights for the women in their societies. It’s a story of lost opportunity, but one that is repeated with disheartening regularity, pitting faith and feminism against each other instead of combining forces.

The debate asked: are faith and feminism compatible? It was the final session of a pioneering experiment called 100 Women, convened in London by the BBC and broadcast to the world.

The 100 Women project was a radical bid to bring more female voices to news coverage and raise the profile of the work and issues that women are tackling around the world. These 100 women were selected to illustrate the varied subjects facing women globally. The usual suspects were there, such as politicians. But the 100 also included some who would never ordinarily be heard in global reportage, women working at the grassroots on microfinance, investment, water quality, in convents, as teachers in ghettoes and in many other settings.

I was fortunate to be chosen as one of the 100. The day was a platform to interrogate what feminism means, to pitch “big ideas” for change, to understand how motherhood affects women’s struggles, how glass ceilings still exist, and whether faith and feminism can be reconciled.

This last topic was the day’s most heated debate, underscoring the fact that women’s rights movements around the world are rooted in different perspectives, with varying visions of what society should look like to best nurture, protect and give justice to women.

During the debate, religion was called a “deep mistake” and “fundamentally incompatible” with feminism. And yet, in front of our eyes were women who were living proof that faith inspires and drives forward movements to improve women’s status.

Western feminism has undoubtedly made huge, positive impacts that have benefitted women as a whole. But we must also admit that it hasn’t got everything right, and women elsewhere are looking at how not to make the same errors. What western and atheist feminists need to get their heads around is that women of faith make up the majority of the world’s women, and women’s movements globally are taking different paths.

For western feminists to argue that their vision and strategies – even with all the unanticipated problems it has thrown up – are the only path and everyone else’s is “incompatible” or engaged in a “deep mistake” smacks of an arrogance rooted in privilege. It carries a whiff of “four legs good, two legs better” in its superior relationship to women’s movements rooted in other traditions and religion.

By agreeing on non-negotiables such as the right to be free from violence, to access education and healthcare, to speak freely in public, to have access to employment and to ensure it is for an equal wage, and so many other issues that we can all agree on, we can achieve greater results. It is pragmatism, not polemics, that will achieve a better future for women.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk