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Saudi women on the road to empowerment

May 29, 2011

A women’s movement is beginning to take shape in the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia after a brave woman Manal Al-Sharif drove a car and posted videos to YouTube. Manal has been arrested but her brave initiative is already providing courage for other Saudi women to follow her footsteps.

The Guardian has learned that Saudi women are planning another mass drive within days to protest against a de facto driving ban in force across much of the kingdom. The event is being organised covertly with details circulated by email and text message in an attempt to catch the Saudi authorities off guard, human rights campaigners told the Guardian.

“There are many underground calls to take advantage of momentum and to do something right now,” said one female organiser, under anonymity. “People are talking about women going out and driving and it is not just women who are supporting us, men are too.”

Sharif was first released after just five hours only to be rearrested in the early hours of Sunday when the authorities learned she had posted a video and encouraged other women to do the same. It showed her driving through the streets wearing a headscarf and black sunglasses telling the camera in Arabic: “If a husband has a heart attack what is a wife to do if there no one else around and she can’t drive … Not everyone is able to afford a driver. It’s just too expensive for poorer families.”

In an earlier interview, she said she was inspired to organise the Women2Drive movement by the experience of Bahia al-Mansour, a 20-year-old student at King Faisal University who started to struggle in her studies after difficulties in arranging transport.

“Every lady has something to do in the city, she’ll just drive, do her business and come back,” Sharif told the Dubai-based Gulf News. “So, it’s as simple as that. People can’t call it a demonstration, we’re not going against the law, we’re not going against anyone, we’re not even demonstrating.”

Eman al-Nafjan, a teacher and PhD student in Riyadh who writes a blog under the name Saudiwoman, told the Guardian that Saudi conservatives and the wealthy were determined to keep women from driving because it blocks anyone who cannot afford a driver from competing for jobs.

“Only the upper middle classes have drivers and that gives so much power to them,” she said. “If you lift these obstacles then a lot of women will go out to work and society will change, they believe for the worse. Women will compete with men and they even believe it will cause more bastards to be left on the steps of mosques.”

Samar Badawi, a human rights campaigner also from Jeddah, said she believes only a minority of men would object to women driving.

“It would change everything if women drove,” she said. “Women would be able to go to hospital, take their children to school and do all this without a man. It would allow women to respect themselves if they drove their own cars. Maybe 15% of men would be offended, the rest would like women to drive. I know lots of women that drive, but Manal was the first to film it and put it on YouTube. This is why the government was angry.”


Rannamaari, Women’s Day and Sheikh Fareed

March 9, 2011

This year March 7 coincided with the day Maldives was converted to Islam by a North African or Iranian traveller. The details of that moment in Maldivian history is shrouded in mystery and mythology but the popular narrative that has been spoon fed for generations of Maldivians is that a virgin girl was sacrificed at a seaside temple every month for a sea demon called Rannamaari. The foreign traveller saved the capital Male from the sea demon and invited the reigning king to convert to Islam.

If there is an ounce of truth in this narrative, young girls of Maldives were terrorized one thousand years ago. However, the conversion to Islam did not stop Maldivian women from being terrorized, bullied or marginalized in society. In fact, in the 21st century, the biggest advocates of misogyny in the Maldives are those who marginalize women in the society in the name of Islam. Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed and several other religious scholars who preach a religious narrative that promises to take modern Maldivian women back to the times of the seaside temple, sea demon and sacrifice.

It seems Sheikh Fareed is toying with the idea of retirement. However, it is hard to believe he is ready to jump into the obscurity of history merely a year after we delivered him underwear on Valentine’s Day.

Whether Sheikh Fareed retires or not Maldivian women are not ready to be sidelined to the margins of society. Watch this video and celebrate the resilience of Maldivian women as we all mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Will there be a Gender Ministry in the new cabinet?

June 30, 2010

The mass resignation of the entire Cabinet of the Maldives has shocked the country and created an intense debate on the possible implications of this staged political drama. Speculation is rife about the possible changes that would be brought to the new Cabinet. While it is too early to say whether President Nasheed would choose to appoint fresh faces to the Cabinet, it is a timely and relevant question to ask if there will be any new portfolios in the Cabinet.

One of the changes that the first democratically elected government of the Maldives brought to the Cabinet, after assuming office in November 2008, was abolishing the Gender Ministry. The roles and functions of the former Gender Ministry were assigned to a Department running under the Ministry of Health. It remains debatable whether this department has been able to function according to its mandate, protect the women and children of the Maldives, and counter the rising tide of misogyny and violence against women.

At a time when the fate of this department itself is uncertain, perhaps it could be wishful thinking to hope for a Gender Ministry in the structure of the next Cabinet. It could also be a mere wish to think there would be no Islamic Ministry in the new Cabinet, even though the ministry — handcrafted for the political ambitions of a particular political party — has created so much divisions in our society. The least we could hope for is to have more women in the next Cabinet of the Maldivian government, rather than the lone face of Aminath Jameel, heading the Ministry of Health, and that spineless department assigned with the gigantic task of protecting the Maldivian women.


May 30, 2010

By Sara

I’ve kept my opinions about religion to myself for a long time now. Even when I was verbally tortured in school all those years ago because of the mere reason that I did not wear the head scarf, at the most I’d say to the abusers to let me be a Muslim in my own right and to keep their version of Islam to themselves. Discussions about Islam would mostly take place between my close friends and my family and that’s just about it, because I knew if I were to protect my right and my practices I’d be unjustifiably compared to a Kafir. Women like me shouldn’t have to tell people like them how many times a day we pray and how many good deeds we do in a day! We shouldn’t have to tell them that we actually do not resort to narcotics, alcohol, violence and premarital sex! So I always kept my good deeds and my belief in my Allah who is my sole guardian, who protected me through bad times and gave me much luck, to myself.

But I can see clearly now that I’m amongst the minority. So it’s high time I came out of my shell and spoke out. I’m not even in the Maldives right now and yet I feel like I’m going to be an outcast when I go back. I’m here in a far off country studying to pursue a career in a field that would allow me to actively involve in helping my fellow Maldivians whom I’ve loved every single day since the beginning. I’ve always heard of Maldivian hospitality and our broadmindedness and how highly appreciated all these attributes are (were?) worldwide. But then I came to know about these threats again non-buruga-wearers and how hard the Muslims that are higher on the extreme scale are trying to implement their islam into people’s hearts and minds. And then this whole Nazim vs Dr. Zakir Naik plus the rest of the extremists thing came up and now everything is in a stir up! Is it safe for me to go back to my home country at the end of my course? Would I be forced to take refuge somewhere else?

I thought I come from a religion which promotes people to ask questions about their doubts so that the people who knew the answers could answer them and then everyone would be at peace! And I also thought my religion was one which had its foundation on peace and harmony with no bloodshed and violence. Well, and I also supported Dr.Zakir Naik and his logic, science and other various beliefs which I thought were more moderate than some other people who were, like I said, higher on the extreme scale. I supported him until he lost his cool last night that is. I expected to see something miraculous when Nazim asked his question; something remarkable where a Muslim “scholar” peacefully instills belief in Allah and Islam into a non believer merely by his words, logic and science. And then it ended rather abruptly without any satisfaction on my part, on Nazims part and I highly think neither on Dr. Zakir Naiks part. Islam is a religion of peace (oh yes! I sill believe so) and I wanted something beautiful to happen! There could have been, I think, various efforts that Dr. Zakir Naik could have made on his part to answer all the questions asked, that could have brought out an incredible result, rather than to ask the non-believer questions to deliberately humiliate him and create an unstable atmosphere. Or, even when Dr..Zakir Naik couldn’t satisfactorily answer the question, the rest of the “knowledgeable” people, also higher on the extreme scale, could have more peacefully taken the non-believers circumstances into their hands and attempted to also instill some belief into him. All these could have been done more gently rather than build and uproar, threaten to kill and then actually attempt to do this eventually!

Where is the peace in all this that have happened? Isn’t Islam a religion of peace? Where is the beauty in all this? Where is the possibility of something remarkable happening? Oh wait a minute! Did those people who claim to know their religion better actually lose their footing and resort to something non-Muslim? Who are the non-Muslims now? I didn’t certainly go and threatened to behead a non-believer and run after him, so certainly I cannot be a “Kafir” now, can I?

I hope there are more people like me, who are more knowledgeable in this area willing to come out and prove their points in the face of all this injustice! Our beautiful paradise on Earth is in blood shed and sinking in its own blood. I say, we need to come out of this shell, prepare for anything that can possibly happen and attempt to bring an end to all this nonsense and violence happening in the name of Islam. What on Earth is President Nasheed doing?

Letter-writing Campaign Protesting Sonee’s Funding for Dr. Bilal Philips

May 27, 2010

27th May 2010

Mr. Moosa Kaleem
Sonee Building No7
Ibrahim Hassan Didi Magu
Male, Maldives

Dear Sir

Protect the Girl Child! Withdraw Support for The Call 2010!

We are a group of concerned citizens writing to voice our concern about your financial support for The Call 2010: Liv Islam organized by Jamiyathul Salaf, a wellknown extremist Wahabbi NGO in the Maldives.

In 2006, the Ministry of Gender and Family, which was abolished in 2008, conducted a study showing that one in three(1/3) women in the age group of 15 to 49 years reported some form of physical or sexual violence, at least once in their life time. One in five (1/5) of the women reported physical or sexual violence by a partner and one in nine (1/9) reported experiencing severe violence. More alarming is the statistic that one in six women (1/6) in Male and one in eight (1/8) women countrywide reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse under the age of 15 years. Of those women who took part in the survey, who had been pregnant at least once, six (6) percent reported having been physically or sexually abused during pregnancy. A survey reported that many respondents perceived women to be subordinate to men, and that men used Islam to justify restrictions of and violence against women.

According to Jamiyyathul Salaf The Call 2009 attracted a large public audience of eight thousand people. Television and Radio audiences were estimated to be a hundred thousand (approximately 30 percent of the population). In addition to this, four other events were held: one lecture held for students of Aminiya, Majeediya and CHSC for which attendance was mandatory; and a lecture aimed at women, which was held at Islamee Marukazu.

In these sermons, Dr. Philips preached that it was Islamic to marry off young girls as soon as they reached puberty, irrespective of their age. On the issue of women becoming heads of state, he said that although it was permissible in Islam for women to become heads of states, there were grave consequences. “It’s a fact,” he said, that rule by women ended in failure, pointing out that this was what the prophet Muhammad had warned us a long time ago.

The endorsement of a misogynic regressive interpretation of Islam, in a public lecture by Dr Philips, was condoned by Jamiyathul Salaf. The Ministry of Health and Family, UNICEF, Doctors Association, Child Protections Unit at the Maldives Police Services, Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Education and almost all the NGOs working on child rights in the Maldives remained silent, reluctant to be labeled as un-Islamic.

The Maldives is signatory to numerous international treaties protecting the girl child, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed: 1990; ratified: 1991),Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (ratified: 2005) and Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, (ratified: 2002) and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (adopted 2001). At a local level, the law on Protection of the Rights of the Child (1991), the Family Act (2000) and the Child Sex Abuse Act which codified child sex offenses in November 2009 all protect the rights of children in the Maldives in the form of bodily dignities and protection from harm, INCLUDING child marriages.

However, as of yet, there exist inadequate mechanisms to ensure child protection in all of the areas covered by the laws. Adding to this dilemma, the coordination for the implementation and monitoring of the conventions and laws is deficient within the government, leaving the most vulnerable children in our society exposed to child sexual abuse and minors being exposed to sexual assault under the legal guise of the so called ‘Islamic marriages’.

In this society, pedophilia is rampant and sexual assaulters and sympathizers of sexual assaulters who prey on minors often make the claim that a girl who has reached menarche is able to give consent to sexual activity. In the rare cases that make it to the courts, judges often rule in favor of the assailant.

Unless we as a society send a clear signal to those preying on minors, we will not be able to protect those children who are most vulnerable to being sexualized and harmed. We as a society need to step in and call for an IMMEDIATE stop to those among us who try to justify and rationalize sexual assault on minors in and outside the bounds of marriages. In an environment where sexualized violence towards children and minors are rampant, irresponsible preaching result in both intended and unintended repercussions that affect our young population. Laws and conventions cannot be implemented unless we as a society stand up to implement them.

It is in this spirit that we sincerely request that your company withdraw your funding support for The Call: Liv Islam 2010. We hope that you will refuse to associate your esteemed and well-placed brand of ‘Sonee’ business with calls for misogyny and regressive attitudes towards the Maldivian girl child. We trust that you will understand the gravity of this issue for us as mothers, women and citizens who are concerned with this trend becoming more and more prevalent in our society.

Respectfully yours

Rehendhi is a feminist movement operating in the Maldives:

Enough is Enough is an anti-extremist movement operating in the Maldives:


May 22, 2010

Though widely regarded by Maldivian media as a Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Afghani priminister from 1993-94 and then briefly in 1996)used to be the commander of the southern- based Hezb-e Islami (Party of Islam).

Heavily bankrolled by the US when he was fighting against the Soviet forces, his views and alleged activities regarding women’s position in society is closely aligned to what we usually group as ‘Taliban’. The US later claimed a moral justification of invading Afghanistan by championing women’s rights.

In order to welcome Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the Maldives, paradise on earth and what not, we publish the following article from the British news paper The Independent.

For more information on the plight of Afghan please visit the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women’s website

Afghanistan: Girls targeted in gas attack

13 May 2009
By Jerome Starkey
Source: The Independent

Taliban militants blamed after 90 pupils poisoned in third attack on girls’ school in three weeks.

The pupils were lining up outside their classrooms for morning assembly when one girl suddenly collapsed unconscious. “She was only little,” said Gulcheena, a 13-year-old student of the school who fell ill herself moments later. They were among 90 Afghan school girls rushed to hospital yesterday unconscious and vomiting, possibly victims of a gas poisoning attack on their school in Mahmud Raqi village.

“The teachers picked her up and carried her to the school office,” Gulcheena said. “We went into our class and the teacher was calling the roll call when suddenly she told us to go outside.”

Of the 90 girls from the Qazaam school admitted to hospital, at least five slipped briefly into comas, officials in Kapisa province, north-east of the capital, said. Six teachers and at least two other staff were also admitted.
One of the teachers, Zakira, collapsed in front of her students. The headmistress, Mossena, said there was a strange odour which engulfed the courtyard as girls began retching uncontrollably. Medics said most of the victims were between eight and 12 years old.

It was the third such attack against a girls’ school in Afghanistan in as many weeks, raising fears that the Taliban are resorting to increasingly vicious methods to terrorise young women out of education. Police officials blamed Taliban sympathisers but the insurgents’ spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied any involvement. “Harming children is not the work of holy warriors,” he said. “We absolutely reject this.”

Gulcheena described the gas smelling like a chemical known locally as Mallatin, which farmers sometimes spread on fields to poison foraging birds. The provincial police chief, Matiullah Safi, said none of the students, teachers or support staff had seen anything suspicious. “It looks like something was sprayed in the school but so far no one has been arrested,” he said. “There’s no proof, at the moment, that this was an attack.”

But the alleged poisoning comes just days after girls at a school in nearby Charikar, on the road north of Kabul, complained of similar symptoms.
Last November, men on motorbikes used water pistols to squirt acid in girls’ faces as they walked to school on the outskirts of Kandahar. More than a dozen girls and several teachers at the Mirwais School for Girls had the acid thrown in their faces and one was so badly disfigured she had to go abroad for treatment. The attacks caused such distress and fear that many parents kept their girls at home for several weeks but most have since returned to school, vowing not to be intimidated.

The Taliban denied involvement in the acid attacks too but police claimed the men were paid by insurgents hired by rogue elements within the Pakistani intelligence agency. President Hamid Karzai, seemingly intent on avoiding any confrontation with Pakistan over the matter, subsequently denied there had been any Pakistani involvement.

Women’s education was banned under the Taliban, and girls’ schools are routinely torched or closed in areas where the insurgents hold sway. Prior to the acid attacks, the Taliban had strengthened their grip in the Mirwais area and other districts close to Kandahar and posters had started appearing warning local people not to let their daughters go to school.
Large parts of Kapisa are now under the control of men loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord once bankrolled by the US who is now in talks with the Afghan government of President Karzai. Parwan province, where the two previous gas attacks took place, is widely considered to be one of the safest places in Afghanistan.

Speaking from her hospital bed, Gulcheena said she collapsed moments after rushing outside. “The teachers splashed water on my face, but when I opened my eyes the next thing I knew, I was in hospital.” Seayahmuy, a 15-year-old student in her final year at the school, said doctors had ordered her to stay in overnight. She said she did not remember a strange smell, nor did she see any gas. Dr Abdul Mateen said most of the patients were suffering from vomiting, nausea and dizziness. “We don’t have the equipment here to do a full diagnosis,” Dr Mateen said. Blood samples were being sent for analysis to the US base at Bagram.

The Taliban have shown themselves capable of increasingly complex attacks and Nato accused them this week of using white phosphorus. But they are not thought to have used gas as a weapon in recent years.
One girl, Leda, 12, said from her hospital bed: “We were very weak, sick and dizzy. When I opened my eyes we were in hospital. I am so sad, what went wrong with our school? I want to study.”


May 21, 2010

While fundamentalist movements may vary according to the global context in which they operate, for women this diversity is outweighed by the core characteristics, strategies and impacts that they share.

By Deepa Shankaran*

In a televised sermon on April 16, 2010, a senior Iranian cleric, Hojjat ol-eslam Kazem Sediqi, declared a need for a “general repentance,” warning of the “prevalence of degeneracy” in the country. He pointed to the real consequences of immodesty and promiscuity among women, noting that “many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes.” Sediqi’s comments follow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s forecast that Tehran will be the site of an imminent and devastating quake. In the last ten years, earthquakes in Iran have claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the country rests upon some of the most earthquake-prone land in the world. “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?” Sediqi asked. “There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes.”

The proposal may seem far-fetched, but it is far from isolated. Disaster and salvation are often linked in far-right interpretations of religion. For instance, soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana, Pat Robertson, a prominent voice for evangelical Christianity in the United States, broadcast a theory linking the wreckage to the endurance of legalized abortion in the country. Citing an interpretation of the Old Testament about “those who shed innocent blood,” he described the consequence: “the land will vomit you out.” This discourse can be applied to not only natural disasters, but political disasters as well. With slogans like, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” Pastor Fred Phelps and his followers in the Westboro Baptist Church have protested at more than 200 military funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, insisting that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.

What we see in the press is the hard line face of religious fundamentalisms. This is a term that many women’s rights activists use to identify religious actors who are absolutist and intolerant, who seek to impose a dogmatic worldview in society and politics, and who oppose democratic values, pluralism and dissent. It can be tempting to dismiss these caricatures as an irrational element – somewhere out on the fringe. In reality, though, the fault-lines of this phenomenon are everywhere, and women across regions and religions bear the impact in very real ways.

AWID launched its Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms initiative four years ago, following conversations with women’s rights activists working on a range of issues – from reproductive rights and LGBTQI rights, to education, political participation and HIV/AIDS – that revealed the threat posed by fundamentalist movements to their work. Although they described very similar experiences, these activists felt isolated in their struggles, without a clear view of whether and how religious fundamentalisms were active in other contexts.

Responding to the call for more international dialogue on the issue, AWID’s initiative began as a research and advocacy program that sought to examine how the global rise of religious fundamentalisms was understood and experienced by women’s rights activists within different regional and religious contexts. In 2007, we launched a global survey in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, with responses from over 1,600 women’s rights activists, and conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than 50 key experts.

We learned that while religious fundamentalisms may vary according to the global context in which they operate, this diversity is far outweighed by the core characteristics, strategies and impacts that they share. Across regions and religions, women’s rights activists experience the rising influence of these movements in very similar ways. In our study, a number of key defining characteristics of the phenomenon appeared to resonate across contexts. Among these, the most frequently mentioned by women’s rights activists was “absolutist and intolerant.” Throughout the world, fundamentalist movements are also experienced as “anti-women and patriarchal,” “about politics and power,” “anti-human rights and freedoms,” and “violent”.

Although the term often evokes particular and sensational imagery, women’s rights activists caution against presumptions about who is a “religious fundamentalist” and who is not. The main players in these movements may be active as political or religious leaders, charities and NGOs, religious organizations, missionaries, and ordinary members of communities and families. They can operate across local and global levels, within religious and secular institutions, and among the masses and the elite. Above all, the research affirms that there are no “typical fundamentalists,” and that these players are better identified by their politics rather than their pretence.

In these politics, the key platforms are grounded in “morality”, “the family” and gender roles, and fundamentalist campaigns often call for a return to “traditional” values, speaking to the fear of social upheaval brought about by women’s growing autonomy, sexual liberation and the increasing visibility of LGBTQI people. According to women’s rights activists, a major fundamentalist strategy in every region is the use of discourse that blames social problems on a “decline in morality” or the “disintegration of the family”; and that presents rigid gender roles within the family as “natural.” As Alejandra Sardá in Argentina notes, among the “three fundamentalist expressions that dominate the international debates: Islamists, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians… the only issues on which they agree are those related to restricting the exercise of sexual rights on the part of women, but also of others with non-conventional identities and practices.”

As these discourses translate into fundamentalist campaigning on specific laws, policies and practices, they give rise to concrete consequences for women’s human rights. Among Muslim fundamentalisms, the focus on “morality” and sexuality takes the form of campaigning on veiling, Hudood laws (which criminalize sex outside marriage), and restrictions on women’s movement; while Catholic and Christian fundamentalisms campaign for abstinence and against pre-marital sex, politicizing the bodies of young people. In Nigeria, for example, some Christian colleges have introduced virginity testing as a precondition to academic scholarships or graduation. And in the United States, Southern Baptists introduced a university-level mandatory “homemaking” course for women, “to prepare them for their proper role.” As they work to re-order notions of masculinity and femininity, fundamentalist movements also pressure men to control their women, as Gita Sahgal writes, “to push them back into the home, make them behave in ways that are acceptable – otherwise you’re not a man.”

In the experience of 8 out of 10 women’s rights activists surveyed from over 160 countries, religious fundamentalisms have a negative impact on women’s rights. The survey yielded over 600 such examples, including reduced health and reproductive rights, reduced sexual rights and freedoms, reduced autonomy and rights in the public sphere, and increased violence against women. More than three quarters of women’s rights activists say that “women in general” are frequently or sometimes targeted for verbal and physical attack – in short, that they are subject to fundamentalist violence simply because they are women.

Fundamentalist movements also exert a profound and long-lasting psychological impact – a reality that often goes unacknowledged. As Lucy Garrido in Uruguay remarks, “the most serious impact is that many women believe and feel that they don’t have the right to have rights, that decisions about themselves, their minds and bodies, are influenced by and can be made by others.” Describing the Indian context, one women’s rights activist notes how the freedoms that previous generations of women enjoyed are increasingly suppressed by fundamentalist influence: “Women were quite able to move freely in my childhood and youth. They would go to public parks on holidays and festivals, or to the two rivers to wash clothes. All of that has disappeared because of the growing influence of the fundamental reading of the holy book.” Susana Chiarotti in Argentina recalls the Cairo Plan of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995: “that’s when we noticed extremely strong obstacles to activism, and the participation of religious fundamentalist groups. Since then, we have seen a constant rise in fundamentalism, both nationally and internationally.” No matter how strictly they refer to a “pure tradition” or “glorious past”, religious fundamentalist movements are very much part of today’s globalized world, shaping it and being shaped by it. For 76% of women’s rights activists surveyed by AWID, the strength of religious fundamentalisms has increased globally in the past ten years. Wanda Nowicka in Poland observes the paradoxical shift, “conservatism and religion are coming back as something in opposition to what has been for many years.

So what is seen as conservative and traditional and old has now become a new, modern option.” Fundamentalist agendas and strategies are to a degree built in reaction to global commitments to women’s rights, human rights and equality, but while this may be a sign of vehemence on their part, it is also a statement of weakness. There is no shortage of examples of rights advances in the face of religious fundamentalisms. For instance, in response to the spectacular extremism of the Westboro Baptist Church, there emerged a creative and collective counter-force, The Pastor Phelps Project: A Fundamentalist Cabaret. When the satirical production premiered at a 2008 Toronto theatre festival, it drew out a handful of Westboro members wielding hate-ridden picket signs, but it also mobilized the city’s gay community to stage a broad counter-protest. As the playwright Alistair Newton observed, “by them showing up to picket my show, they’re empowering me. When they show up I get all this press. They have provided a platform for me to engage in these issues of fundamentalism and homophobia.” Across regions and religions, signs of resistance are visible everywhere along the spectrum – from public demonstration to discrete defiance. Indeed, as many reports of the repressive climate of Iran also note, “many young Iranians sometimes push the boundaries of how they can dress, showing hair under their headscarves or wearing tight-fitting clothes.”

Over the last two years, AWID’s initiative has been working to document and share the broad range of feminist strategies to resist and challenge fundamentalist movements, and a series of case studies was recently launched. These cases shed light on the numerous actions that women take up on a daily basis, as they reject fundamentalist dictates through individual choices or collective organizing, and cast lines to groups in different regional or religious contexts. In news coverage of his recent earthquake sermon, the senior Iranian cleric described the violence and mass protests that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009 as no less than a “political earthquake.” Just like the natural phenomenon, however, real solutions might begin from an understanding of why the ground shakes, and then move to mitigate the destructive potential, rather than wait with eyes shut until the end.

* Deepa Shankaran is a Research Associate with AWID’s Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms Strategic Initiative.