With Her Feet on the Ground: Women, religion and development in Muslim communities

Since September 11 and the focus on Afghanistan symbolized by the Taliban treatment of Afghan women, those working in development and advocacy in Muslim countries and communities have noticed a resurgence of interest in the topic of women and religion.
That this runs across bilateral, multilateral and international NGO donors indicates that the topic is seen both as a developmental question and a foreign policy issue among donor countries.
Although bringing a renewed commitment to funding women’s groups in Muslim countries and communities, there is a need to question the discourses underlying this focus. It is important to examine their potentially harmful long-term impact on women’s struggles in contexts where identity politics are a key factor in determining women’s options.

Most noticeable is the apparent conflation of faith with culture, which in the case of women in Muslim contexts, can have at its core racialized and often racist discourses. The focus on religion as an implicit obstacle to development may pinpoint blame for ‘backwardness’ on local men and local culture, ignore local women’s struggles and divert attention away from global structural inequalities. Even when religion is conceived as a potentially positive influence on development, the focus on women and religion can reinforce the straightjacket of conceptualizing women as the pivotal territories, markers and reproducers of the narratives of nations and other collectivities (Yuval-Davis, 1997: 39). All too often, the question of how women in Muslim contexts regard their own cultures and what aspects they regard as obstructive and conducive to their development is missed. Ultimately, the ‘fashion’ of women and religion among development agencies and initiatives may be contributing to the narrowing of spaces for secular alternatives (preferred even by many believers). Following a detailed discussion of these points, this paper will highlight alternative approaches that may provide women in Muslim countries and communities more effective support in their struggles.

This paper draws upon my decade and more experience with the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), writings by networkers, an Internet search for the keywords ‘women and religion’, and a critical examination of documents related to donor-funded initiatives; while some documents date back to the early 1990s, these remain (unfortunately) representative. A critique of donor policies and positions regarding women and religion may seem in my case like ‘biting the hand that feeds’, but if donors and indeed the organizations they support are to continue to claim to work for women’s benefit, it is vital that a constructive dialogue begin around these issues. That the focus of this paper is donor support for initiatives on women and religion, does not excuse the women’s organizations they support from critically examining the same issues and their own roles.

Women and religion

‘Women and religion’ has been a developmental topic subject to almost cyclical fashions since the 1980s when there was a combined increase in identity politics – specifically promoted by extreme Right politico-religious groups, or ‘fundamentalists’, a mushrooming of feminist women’s groups in developing countries, and greater donor commitment to advocacy initiatives, particularly in the areas of women’s development. I cannot give here a full listing of all relevant events and initiatives sponsored by donors, however, examples range from the large, international seminar on ‘Women, Islam and Development’ sponsored by the Netherlands Foreign Ministry in 1993 to the current UK Minister for Women’s initiative to formalize linkages with ‘Muslim Women in the Community’; from the Asia Foundation’s funding support for the Centre for the Study of Gender and Religion within the Indonesian Ministry of Religion (Katjasungkana, no date) to unpublished World Bank manuscripts titled ‘Muslim Women in Southeast Asia: Do They Have Less Autonomy Than Their Non-Muslim Sisters?’ (Mason et al., 2002). Even where the overall issue may be broader, women and religion appear to be a necessary focus. The Asia Foundation’s 2000 ‘Democratic Transitions and the Role of Islam in Asia’ meeting included discussions on women while the SIDA-funded South Africa country profile focused exclusively on women and religion in its ‘gender and religion’ section (Baden et al., 1998).


First, a clarification of terms is necessary. I would like to point out the distinction between (private) faith and religion as a (more public) aspect of individual and collective identity, acknowledging that this binary is undoubtedly a simplification. I focus on the latter understanding of religion, where symbols of identification invariably focus on women: veiling, polygyny, female genital mutilation (FGM), etc.

In the context of Muslim communities, WLUML has repeatedly highlighted the dangerous confusion created by the use of ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ as synonyms. Failure to draw a distinction can imply that what Muslims do accurately reflects the ideals of Islam, and thus the crucial difference between practice or custom and religious precepts is lost. The conflation of ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ is used by extreme Right politico-religious leaders to legitimize their monopoly over religion and control over the community – particularly its women – and is a basic problem in donor approaches towards women and religion in Muslim contexts. While a brief nod may be given to these important distinctions, donor documents frequently slip back into talking of ‘Islamic society’. Many women activists in Muslim contexts believe only theologians should debate whether a particular practice is or is not ‘Islamic’ and that human rights should be the foundational framework for women’s development activities (Hélie-Lucas, 1993). Moreover, one must be careful not to label as ‘Muslims’ all people born into a Muslim community as they may choose or prioritize other markers of identity for themselves. Even those who identify themselves as ‘believers’ are not homogenous, as Hélie-Lucas (1993) observes: there are ‘believers for whom Islam must constitute its own liberation theology, and “sociological believers” (i.e. women who feel they belong to a culture impregnated by Islam) who operate at the level of strategic alliances; between the two, all shades of religiosity are observable.’

Donor approaches to ‘women and religion’ appear to fall into three broad categories, although these can overlap and may each be found in any one donor’s initiatives. The first perceives religion as a developmental obstacle, the second highlights religion as the most significant developmental issue to the exclusion of others, and the third, characterized by support for ‘Islamic feminism’, regards religion as a developmental solution. As with so many other areas of women’s development, the debate is suffused with the tensions between universalist and cultural relativist discourses.

Religion as a developmental obstacle

As ‘issues’ women and Islam, and religion and development are historically linked with colonialism. Leila Ahmed argues that the European colonialization of the Middle East and, ironically, feminist struggles in the colonial metropolis(1) resulted in an Orientalist discourse on Islam that characterized it as inherently oppressive of women, with veiling and segregation epitomizing that oppression. (Ahmed, 1992: 151-4). Even today within the donor countries, discussion of women in Muslim societies is a common shorthand for wider assertions of cultural superiority.

Similarly, studies founded on liberal Enlightenment concepts have presumed religious identification to be an inferior form of collective identification (Anderson, 1983). Whereas people in the colonial metropolis have gained the right to define themselves as nationals of a certain state, people from developing countries are regularly requested to clarify their ethnic origins, tribe, religion, etc. (Hélie-Lucas, 1993). The train of thought becomes cyclical: religion is presumed to be antithetical to development and since ‘third worlders’ are underdeveloped, ergo they must be religious zealots. Identifying women as developmental ‘victims’ of religion fails to address community and national power dynamics. As Shaheed (1998: 417) notes, ‘practices flowing from any given religion are determined as much by collective memories, existing social structures and power relations as by the doctrine.’ Such a focus crucially also ignores global economic structural inequalities that obstruct women’s development.

Meanwhile, feminists from developing countries have challenged the presumption that women are purely victims of religious discourses. In the context of communal violence in India, Butalia (1999) notes the role played by Hindu fundamentalist women in orchestrating and carrying out attacks on men and women from other communities. There is need for a more complex analysis about women’s relationship with religion as a mobilizational force. Moreover, positing women in Muslim communities as developmental victims of male religious dictates, not only fails to examine the role of some women (notably mothers-in-law) in the continuing control of other women, but also disregards the many progressive believing men in Muslim societies who are actively engaged in women’s development initiatives.

The focus on religion as a developmental obstacle is almost exclusively directed towards Muslim societies.(2) An example is the assertion that: ‘In many Muslim cultures motherhood constitutes a dominant part of Muslim concepts of female identity’ (Netherlands Special Programme, 1993: 21). This misses the rather obvious point that motherhood is a dominant part of female identity in virtually all cultures, and reinforces the view that Muslim societies are more ‘problematic’ than others.

Donor policies that regard religion as a key obstacle to women’s development conflate the precepts of religion with custom. An example is the assertion regarding Bangladesh that: ‘The prevailing constructs of femininity among Muslims may be considered to be discriminatory towards women and bear a striking resemblance to formal Islamic doctrine. Women are impure (na pak). In common with the Hindus, Muslims believe…’ (Netherlands Special Programme, 1993: 42). This statement leaps with complete ease between customary practices among Muslims, the tenets of Islam, and practices informed by patriarchal notions that are found across communities.(3) The confusion remains a decade later. A recent World Bank paper regarding the differences between women’s mobility in different religious groups concludes that: ‘The religion and ethnicity are often important for women’s empowerment’ (Mason et al., 2002). That the paper could not talk of religion without also referring to ethnicity in the context of Filipino, Indian and Malaysian women illustrates the importance of viewing religion as but a part of a wider cultural complex: ‘The infringement of women’s rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, or morality. Always it is justified in the name of culture’ (Afkhami, 1998).

Conflating religion with culture plays into the fundamentalist discourse that claims a pervasive threat to ‘Muslim identity’, an identity that is defined in homogenous – and anti-women – terms. A main thrust of WLUML’s work has been to unravel the interconnections between nation, religion and custom, allowing women to strengthen their analysis of the forces that limit their life choices. When local interpretations rather than the letter of the Qur’an are acknowledged as problematic it is crucial also to question local power dynamics and the political misuse of religion.

Shaheed (1998: 415) has noted that: ‘In the absence of women’s recorded narratives of their lives and of their experiences of religion, analysis has often reduced people’s experiences/relationship with religion to the political use of the latter in the public arena. These two phenomena are not synonymous.’ Approaches which fail to make this distinction and which focus on religion as an obstacle to women’s development are discordant with aspects of women’s own experience of religion where it can provide women a space which is absolutely their own and a means of self-affirmation and social participation (Shaheed, 1998: 431). If meaningful alternatives are not available for women, such donor policies may not answer their needs.

Religion as the primary developmental issue

Conceiving religion as the primary developmental issue even if not in ‘negative’ terms is equally problematic, and is characterized by questions such as ‘what does it mean for women to live in a Muslim society?’ These questions presume that, while diversity in Muslim countries and communities is often acknowledged, there are sufficient similarities to speak of ‘Muslim women’ as a group and that this group is distinct from ‘other’ groups of women. Often the focus on Islam is justified by a ‘we want to understand’ comment (sometimes placed in the context of relations with immigrant communities and asylum seekers); such an approach characterizes the UK government’s current initiatives to develop links with ‘Muslim women’ in the UK.(4) But does the commonality of religion really make a Nigerian Christian woman’s life easier for ‘Christian’ British authorities to comprehend than a Nigerian Muslim woman’s life? There has been much feminist scholarship pointing out that individuals may hold multiple, conflicting identities that are mutually constitutive (Anthias and Davis, 1983; Brah, 1996; Harding, 1991; Pollert, 1996). Despite the centrality of religion as a political mobilizational force in Muslim countries and communities, it has failed to break down internal barriers of class, ethnicity, and tribe, often leading to civil disturbances and even armed conflict. By focusing on religion as the primary identity, donors homogenize ‘Muslim women’ and ignore other aspects of identity, notably class and age, which may be crucial for example to determining mobility (Balchin, 1996: 180).

Treating ‘Muslim women’ as a homogenous group also raises questions of who defines this identity – and for what purpose; whose definition of ‘Muslim’ is legitimate and who is excluded. It can reinforce hegemonic claims to legitimate representation of ‘the community’ and the right to define religious practice and the parameters of women’s development. The discourses that inform for example multiculturalist policies in the UK where activist minority women’s groups have faced considerable frustration in having their voices accepted as legitimate by both regressive community leaders and the British authorities (Sahgal, 1992) no doubt similarly inform foreign policy and bilateral support for women’s development.

While highlighting religion as the main developmental issue, donors may propound the most conservative version of Islam. Statements such as: ‘Under Islamic jurisprudence, men are responsible for keeping their wives’ (Netherlands Special Programme, 1993: 16) ignores three points vital to women’s development initiatives. First, that it is statutory law and customs which govern women’s lives, (both of which may or may not be based on varying interpretations of jurisprudence);(5) second, that many women in Muslim communities are contesting provisions for maintenance of wives because of the consequent link drawn with obedience to the husband; and third, perhaps most importantly, that in reality many husbands either do not provide wives maintenance or the wife is a significant breadwinner. (WLUML, 2003)

A recent World Bank Institute on-line debate regarding the potential developmental role of religion in Pakistan and Afghanistan was inconclusive (World Bank, 2003). Many donors continue to highlight religion, and specifically Islam, as a central developmental theme. The most immediate result can be naïve donor support for development initiatives run by fundamentalist groups, which undoubtedly strengthens their claim to political legitimacy and increases recruitment (WLUML, 1997: 12). Fundamentalists advocate ‘separate development’ for women under the guise of Islamic specificity – an approach that was globally condemned as racist in the context of apartheid South Africa (Hélie-Lucas, 1993). Unless donors simultaneously support analysis and initiatives that strengthen women’s capacity to resist compulsion for example in the matter of segregation, acceptance of Muslim societies as ‘naturally’ segregated inadvertently strengthens fundamentalist definitions of ‘appropriate’ development.(6)

Religion as a developmental solution

‘Islamic feminism’ has recently been strongly supported by some donors as a counter discourse to fundamentalist visions of women’s role. Whereas in certain contexts, notably Iran, a feminist reclaiming of political space may only be possible within the framework of religion, in other contexts such an approach has been but one of many strategies used by local feminists. The issue here is that donors may give priority to this approach, to the exclusion of secular approaches and irrespective of the local political context. For example, the Asia Foundation organized a seminar on the ‘Democratic Transition and the Role of Islam in Asia’, inviting only resource persons from Malaysia and Indonesia who work within the framework of Islam, even though there are secular feminist movements in those countries which could have added to the debate.

‘Islamic feminism’ has been strongly critiqued by other feminists on three grounds: it sets up divides among women of the world according to their religion; ignores the heterogeneity within each feminist movement; and endorses strategies that incapacitate women with cultural and religious backgrounds different from the mainstream (Mojab, 2001: 64: ). While I would disagree with Mojab’s apparent characterization of all faith-based feminist strategies in Muslim communities as ‘particularist’, an exclusive emphasis on ‘within’ discourses can fall into the trap of reinforcing the Orientalist view of ‘other’ societies as necessarily fanatically religious. Such an emphasis leaves little space for the feminists in Muslim countries and communities who are either of minority communities or who may already be under siege from the state and Right-wing extremist groups for their secular approach.

Donor support for ‘Islamic Feminism’ and initiatives such as progressive reinterpretations of the Qur’an may in part be a recognition of the very real problem of the constant accusations faced by feminists in Muslim communities that they are ‘westernized’ (and therefore not legitimate) and that their demands are not ‘appropriate’ to the community’s culture. It may also be a well-meaning but naïve response to accusations of ‘cultural colonialism’ from states that are politically unwilling to respond to women’s demands.(7) Finally, such support may also be informed by cultural relativist concepts that by implication dichotomize human rights and Islam requiring a separate ‘Islamic take’ on human rights. However, these are all essentially defensive positions which do not question the political motives behind the attacks on feminists in developing countries.

As Shaheed (1998: 436) notes in the case of Islamization policies in Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990: ‘Instead of being shaped by an independent feminist analysis, women’s activism came to resemble a negative mirror image of the discourse it opposed.’ There is the danger that, by emphasizing women’s analysis from within the framework of religion to the exclusion of alternative approaches, donors may be inadvertently discouraging the development of a proactive agenda for women’s empowerment and reinforcing the very discourses they seek to undermine.

Many donors support a ‘pick and choose’ approach to religion (both as culture and as doctrine), highlighting emancipatory elements and women’s strategies to overcome elements which have been used against women. This would appear to be close to the perspective of many feminists in Muslim communities, including some of those linked through the WLUML network. There is, however, one crucial distinction: many feminist activists in Muslim communities go beyond this to question the power structures and social divisions which prevent most women from having the power and capacity to take this approach. Less closely analysed is the reflexive question of how far the social positioning and capacity of some women that permits them to ‘pick and choose’ emancipatory elements while retaining a certain legitimacy in the eyes of dominant forces alienates them from marginalized women. If one set of hegemonic presumptions about women’s position in Islam is simply replaced by another, and the power processes behind, for example, Qur’anic interpretations is not deconstructed and challenged, then even ‘progressive’ interpretations will ultimately not change the balance of power.

Rashid and Shaheed (1993, quoted in Shaheed, 1998: 417) talk of the ‘re-tribalization of society’ which has emerged as a response to unequal economic and social development and blatant injustices in the post-independence context. Rather than responding to these injustices, an emphasis on religion as solution seems to follow the same path of national leaders who have unsuccessfully attempted to use religion not only as the only coherent ideology at their disposal but also as a symbol of their cultural identity and integrity (Kandiyoti, 1991: 3-4). Yet, the most visible result of such policies has been the flourishing of fundamentalisms.

An emphasis on ‘Islamic feminism’ as the only ‘legitimate’ developmental solution for women in Muslim societies dichotomizes faith-based and secular strategies and can ignore the realities of activism. Hélie-Lucas (1993) notes that most women’s groups float between faith-based and secular strategies depending upon the issue. She presents the example of Algeria where a law allowing men to vote on behalf of their female family members was resisted by women on the basis of references to women’s sacrifices for the liberation struggle which had greater local resonance in that particular context. Many women’s groups in Muslim societies use both strategies simultaneously, donor preference for only one set of strategies can impoverish the range of developmental strategies available to activists.

Women, religion and development on the ground

While religion – as faith – may be immensely important to some women,(8) its significance as a developmental issue is by no means clear. Indeed, even donor-sponsored research into the link between religion and women’s development fails to find a definitive link.

For example, the Netherlands Special Programme report (1993), which entailed detailed country studies,(9) found that rather than Islam or ‘Islamic ideas’ the primary factors determining women’s equitable participation in development include: the household’s financial status poverty and lack of education among minority communities and male perceptions of women’s role. Women in Muslim communities have faced both imposed dress codes and forced de-veiling. Many now ridicule simplistic discussion of the developmental impact (or not) of veiling (Al-Marayati and Issa, 2002), instead highlighting the more central and political question of determinants of choice, and developmental concerns articulated by women (Thomson, 2001).

Research by the Asia Foundation on the role of civil society, religion and the media in influencing Malaysia’s foreign policy highlights as the real issue not religion but the need for budgets that are more equitable and accountable to all citizens’ needs, especially women and the poor (www.asiafoundation.org/programs/prog-asia-mala.html). Similarly, an AUSAID study found that behind the continued emphasis on respect for religious and customary laws which obstructed implementation of CEDAW in Indonesia, lay the lack of political will to use human rights as a policy foundation, an unresponsive judicial system, and cultural obstacles (not uniquely determined by religion) (Katjasungkana, no date). A World Bank report examining Indian Muslim women’s autonomy compared to that of non-Muslim women found that ‘Muslim households and women have greater access to most gender specific and non-gender specific basic needs that are privately accessed’ but is unable to determine whether this is due to women’s greater control over household income in Muslim communities, restrictions on their mobility, lesser leakage of income on alcohol or government policies towards the Muslim minority; religion per se was not identified as the direct factor (Murthy et al., 2002).

Yet religion is undeniably an important factor in many women’s lives in Muslim countries and communities. The question is: what is the precise nature of this link and what does it mean for development initiatives? There have been few studies recording women’s narratives of their experiences of religion.

Religion is clearly identified by women as an obstacle to their development when it is misused by failed post-colonial states and undemocratic regimes, by opportunistic populist political parties and by extreme Right politico-religious groups to monopolize definitions of collective identity as a means of capturing and/or preserving power (Kandiyoti, 1991; Sahgal and Yuval-Davis, 1992; Tokhtakhodjaeva, 1995).(10) Thus even a government or political group which is not ‘fundamentalist’ per se may misuse religion. ‘Women’s subordination is thrown to fundamentalists like crumbs to the poor, while serious political matters remain with the political leadership… Could it also be that control of women prepares for a brutalization of the society?’ (Hélie-Lucas, 1993). This manipulation of religion has been witnessed by women in diverse contexts including Algeria, Pakistan, South Africa and the UK.

Alternative approaches to women, religion and development

There remains within development agencies and donors a tendency to view ‘development’ primarily as a matter of service delivery: increasing access to health, education, micro-credit, etc., as the developmental goal in itself. When this is the perspective, as seen above religion has little relevance to development; custom rather than religious precepts dominate questions of access, and these precepts can be used both as an argument for increasing or reducing women’s access. Thus, it is crucial to widen concepts of development, seeing it as a shifting of the balance of power enabling the marginalized to improve their own lives as they see fit. Once this is the perspective, questions immediately arise about who is limiting women’s access to development resources and benefits and their ability to determine the community’s path of development. Assertions that understanding Islam is key to discussions of women’s status become meaningless without reference to human rights frameworks or defining who has set this agenda and to what ends.

This remains the focus of the network WLUML. That WLUML defines itself as linking women in Muslim countries and communities – rather than ‘Muslim women’ - is crucial here. Those it links may identify themselves as Muslim, or may belong to other religious communities, or may prioritize other markers of identity such as nation, culture, sexuality, profession but are united by the fact that laws and customs shaped with reference to interpretations of Islam affect their lived experience. The political nature of this reality is explicit: ‘Generally speaking, men and the state use these against women, and they have done so under various political regimes’ (WLUML, no date).

Recognizing the diversity of the women it links, WLUML therefore does not impose a particular ideology, a single set of political objectives, a ‘proper’ strategy or a precise form of organization and aims at providing access to a wide range of standpoints (Hélie, 2000: 30). It has worked actively on feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an which it recognizes as a useful strategy, (11) but cautions that the issue needs to be raised by women themselves who are aware of alternatives (Hélie-Lucas, 1993). Those networking groups that use faith-based strategies have either built successful national and regional alliances with secular groups or themselves combine faith-based and secular strategies in their activities. Alliances are emphasized by the network since these strengthen women’s capacity for effective analysis of power structures and their overall struggles. However, it does not presume that all issues have to be dealt with through Islam, recognizing that many women prefer to pursue alternative strategies. That a group focuses on working within the Muslim community does not mean they take a faith perspective. Indeed, one group has rejected approaches by two major international foundations precisely because in the highly communalized Indian context, it does not wish to reinforce communal divisions by being seen to work exclusively within the framework of religion or with women from the Muslim community, instead preferring to emphasize secular approaches and a broad feminist agenda even while the major focus of its work is with the Muslim community.

Secular strategies may be pursued by networkers who are themselves believers since WLUML ‘does not focus on religion itself but on the concrete realities resulting from different interpretations of religious texts’ (Hélie, 2000: 28). This subtlety is often missed in the highly contested field of women’s development in Muslim contexts and WLUML is often seen as either ‘too religious’ or ‘too secular’ depending upon the perspective of the contact and their network point of contact (Shaheed, 1994).


In development writings religion is often casually mentioned as part of a list of social divisions (usually along with gender and ethnicity) which impact upon women’s development. But academic enquiry has not studied its ontological basis and precise nature to the same extent for example as gender, class, sexuality and age. Since, in the context of women’s development religion is rarely mentioned in isolation of culture, ethnicity, tradition, morals, it is clear that religion needs to be seen as a ‘package’ of ideas, and as a package it contains room for diversity within and diverse understandings of what it means. At the same time, there has been little or no recent debate and research into secularism as a strategy. Has it become a dirty word, discredited by its apparent association with currently unfashionable Left politics or even wrongly conflated with atheism? Since both religion and secularism are concepts vital to understandings of any links between women’s activism and development, perhaps it is time that the two be more closely examined.

Mernissi has pointed out that discourses calling for restrictions on women in the name of religion point to the reality of women’s success in redefining traditional notions of gender in their favour to a degree that provokes a backlash (Shaheed, 1998: 433). Yet both discourses which view religion as a developmental obstacle as well as discourses which focus exclusively on faith-based strategies risk ignoring essential aspects of women’s resistance: the former fails to recognize and support women’s challenges to the status quo through their daily lives while the latter overlooks challenges from secular and non-Muslim groups. Such discourses also in effect counterpose Islam and human rights. Progressive Muslim scholars dispute this dichotomization (An-Na’im, 1990).

It is important for women to avoid the dichotomous logic of dominant male groups by rigidly counterposing feminism and secularism on the one hand and religion and women’s oppression on the other (Shaheed, 1998: 441). Yet an alternative over-emphasis on ‘Islamic feminism’ does not address this problem as it fails to recognize that in certain situations and for certain issues even believing women may prefer secular strategies or combine faith-based strategies with secular strategies or act in alliance with secular groups. It may also undermine alliances with women of other religious communities who may be facing precisely the same issue (the struggle against FGM is an example where all communities justify the practice with reference to their various religions). When religion becomes the singular focus (either as problem, issue or solution), there is the danger that ‘the community’ is homogenized as in the fundamentalist project where ‘inner contradictions are veiled’ (Hélie-Lucas, 1993) and that the divisive straightjacket of identity politics is reinforced. Donor support for initiatives that address the issues of women, Islam and development must recognize these limitations, while women’s organizations receiving donor support must retain the right to explore other aspects of their oppression and liberation, and both groups must place any link between these issues in a context of community, national and global power relations.


1 There was a convenient marriage between the colonial need to denigrate ‘other’ cultures and the Victorian male establishment’s need to contest feminism, and Ahmed calls contemporary European feminists ‘the midwives’ of this discourse (Ahmed, 1992).

2 Only rarely does one find discussions, for example Health from a Christian Perspective

3 This statement also contradicts the report’s earlier acknowledgement that ‘Islam, while spreading, absorbed local cultures and incorporated them, thus reinforcing traditions which may be unfavourable to women by covering them with the intangibility of the word of god. This makes it even more difficult for women to separate what is religious from what is cultural’ (Netherlands Special Programme, 1993: 7).

4 Since 2000 the Minister for Women, Patricia Hewitt, has held a series of meetings with what is loosely called the ‘Women in the Community’ group. Although this has been welcomed by women who have participated and has led to the establishment of a formal Working Group, it is clear from the interactions that the UK government is only beginning to grasp the highly contested nature of identities within the Muslim community itself.

5 Uncodified ‘Sharia’ is justiciable in only a tiny minority of countries, for example, Nigeria and the Gambia; even there, it is subject to local interpretation and influenced by the dominant School.

6 Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre in Pakistan has been occasionally amused and sometimes frustrated by the lack of willingness by some donors and international women’s NGOs to accept its male programme staff as ‘suitable’ representatives of the organization’s advocacy initiatives at conferences and trainings, etc.

7 Mayer (1995: 185) critiques ‘particularisms’ contained in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam issued in 1990 by the OIC which she sees as ‘nothing more than disguises for the universality of male determination to cling to power and privilege’ (Mojab, 2001: 77).

8 The findings of research in Pakistan are discussed below in this section.

9 These were: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Senegal, Sudan and Yemen.

10 See also numerous articles appearing in the WLUML Dossiers, http://www.wluml.org/english/publications.shtml

11 In 1990, WLUML held its first Qur’anic Interpretations meeting bringing together theologians, experts in jurisprudence and exegesis, and women activists. In 2001, a second such meeting was held for West African networkers and in 2004 a third meeting is being planned for francophone West Africans.


Afkhami, Mahnaz (1998) ‘A Vision of Culture in Gender’, speech presented to the World Bank/UNESCO conference Culture in Sustainable Development: Investing in Cultural and Natural Endowments, September 1998. Available at: http: //wbln0018.worldbank.org/Institutional/SPRConferences.nsf/0/e371bbd40fad69cd852566b3007d7765?OpenDocument&ExpandSection=2

Ahmed, Leila (1992) Women and Gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Al-Marayati, L. and Issa, S. (2002) ‘An Identity Reduced to a Burka’, LA Times Sunday Opinion, 20 January.

Anderson, Ben (1983) Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

An-Na’im, Abdullahi (1990) Towards and Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Anthias, F. and N. Yuval-Davis (1983) ‘Contextualizing feminism gender, ethnic and class divisions, Feminist Review 15: 62-74.

Balchin, Cassandra (ed.) (1996) Women, Law and Society: An Action Manual for NGOs. Lahore: Shirkat Gah and WLUML.

Baden, Sally, Shireen Hasim and Sheila Meintjes (1998) ‘Country Gender Profile: South Africa’. Report prepared for the Swedish International Development Office (SIDA) Pretoria, Republic of South Africa. Available at http://www.ids.ac.uk/bridge/re45.pdf

Brah, A. (1996) Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting identities. London: Routledge.

Butalia, Urvashi (1999) ‘Gender, Religion and Ethnicity’, briefing note presented at World Bank conference on Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence, Washington DC, June 1999. Available at: www.worldbank.org/gender/events/Butalia.doc

Harding, S. (1991) ‘Reinventing Ourselves as Other: More new agents of history and knowledge’, in S. Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

Hélie, Anissa (2000) Feminism in the Muslim World Leadership Institutes: 1998 & 1999 Reports. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Centre for Global Women’s Leadership and WLUML.

Hélie-Lucas, Marieme (1993) ‘Women and Development in “Islamic” Countries’, unpublished paper presented at the seminar ‘Women, Islam and Development’, organized by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, 15 September.

Kandiyoti, Deniz (ed.) (1991) Women, Islam and the State. London: Macmillan.

Katjasungkana, Nursyahbani (no date) ‘The Indonesian Legal System and the Empowerment of Women’. Available at: www.law.unimelb.edu.au/news/assets/Nursyahbanipaper.doc

Mason, Karen Oppenheim, Herbert L. Smith, Angela Stach and S. Philip Morgan (2002) ‘Muslim Women in Southeast Asia: Do they have less autonomy than their non-Muslim sisters?’. Unpublished report, Washington DC: World Bank.

Mayer, Ann Elizabeth (1995) ‘Cultural Particularism as a Bar to Women’s Rights: Reflections on the Middle Eastern experience’, in Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper (eds) Women’s Rights Human Rights: International feminist perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Mojab, Shahrzad (2001) ‘The Politics of Theorizing ‘Islamic Feminism: Implications for international feminist movements’, Dossier 23/24 (July 2001). Grabels, France: WLUML.

Murthy, Ranjani K., K. Raju and Amitha Kamath (2002) ‘Towards Women’s Empowerment and Poverty Reduction: Lessons from the participatory impact assessment of South Asian Poverty Alleviation Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India’. Available at: http: //poverty.worldbank.org/files/13338_murthy_etal.pdf

Netherlands Special Programme (1993) ‘Study prepared by the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of Nijmegen on behalf of the Netherlands Special Programme on Women and Development for the seminar Women, Islam and Development, organized by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs’. Unpublished conference paper, The Hague, 15 September.

Pollert, A. (1996) ‘Gender and Class Revisited: Of the poverty of ‘patriarchy’, Sociology 30(4): 639-59.

Rashid, Abbas, and Farida Shaheed (1993) ‘Ethnic and Sectarian Violence in Pakistan’, paper presented at the seminar ‘Violence in Society’, Goethe Institute, Karachi, October 1992.

Sahgal, Gita (1992) ‘Secular Spaces: The experience of Asian women organizing’, in G. Sahgal and N. Yuval-Davis (eds) Refusing Holy Orders: Women and fundamentalism in Britain. London: Virago.

Shaheed, Farida (1994) Controlled or Autonomous: Identity and the experience of the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Occasional Paper 5. Grabels, France: WLUML.

Shaheed, Farida (1998) ‘The Other Side of the Discourse: Women’s experiences of identity, religion and activism in Pakistan,’ in Farida Shaheed, Sohail Akbar Warraich, Cassandra Balchin and Aisha Gazdar (eds) Shaping Women’s Lives: Law, practices and strategies in Pakistan. Lahore: Shirkat Gah.

Thomson, Alice (2001) ‘Lifting the Veil on What Afghan Women Really Want’, The Daily Telegraph, London, 23 November.

Tokhtakhodjaeva, Marfua (1995) Between the Slogans of Communism and the Laws of Islam: The women of Uzbekistan. Lahore: Shirkat Gah.

WLUML (no date) introductory flyer available on all WLUML Dossiers

WLUML (1997) Dhaka Plan of Action. London: WLUML.

WLUML (2003) Knowing Our Rights: Women, family, laws and customs in the Muslim world. London: WLUML.

World Bank (2003) ‘E-Dialogue Summary: Pakistan and Afghanistan - Opportunities and Challenges in the Wake of the Current Crisis’. Available at: www.worldbank.org/wbi/communityempowerment/pak_afghan.html

Development, volume 46.4 (December 2003), pp. 40-47 © Society for International Development