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What Thwarts Feminist Activism in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia?

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Across the world, women have agitated for greater rights, freedoms, and protections, but with differing degrees of success. In some countries, feminist activists have mobilised widespread dissent, secured legal reforms, and pressed for enforcement. Elsewhere, they have been marginalised and maligned. What explains this international heterogeneity?

Women are much more likely to collectively criticise unfair practices and organise for reform if they have economic autonomy, move freely in their communities, broaden their horizons through city-living, and become emboldened through civic resistance. Without these preconditions, feminist movements fail to take off.

Warning: this is a very depressing post.

It pinpoints obstacles in the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. These include powerful religious authorities, underdevelopment, and female seclusion. If you prefer to listen than read, check out 'Rocking Our Priors' (Spotify).

Religious authorities maintain discriminatory laws

Powerful religious authorities have consistently opposed attempts to reform discriminatory family laws - as famously showed by Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon.

Feminists have always fought back. When Tunisia’s Ennahda Islamist party raised discussions about women, activists effectively galvanised widespread public resistance. Compatriots were receptive, since they were accustomed to relatively egalitarian gender relations, harking back to the 1956 Code of Personal Status. Likewise in Northern Indonesia, Muslim women’s groups have built alliances with progressive reformers to push for a more egalitarian interpretation and implementation of Islamic law.

But fear of antagonising clerics, risking angry mobs, and jeopardising political authority has often sapped rulers' drive for reform - as in Pakistan. In Indonesia, riots broke out when Suharto introduced a bill to improve women’s rights. Angry Islamic groups opposed the abolition of polygamy. Thirty years later the Government initiated but then withdrew a similar draft, acquiescing to outraged Muslim conservatives. Meanwhile, the King of Jordan has repeatedly tried to improve women’s rights, but is perennially frustrated by Islamists in parliament. Orthodox, authoritarian clerics in Iran's Guardian Council have consistently vetoed bills on women’s rights. Iranian feminists have fought back against discriminatory laws, orchestrating a ‘One Million Signatures Campaign’. But with state harassment and intimidation, they soon demobilised. Having retreated underground, women’s organisations struggle to network and gain visibility. In the Philippines, most people think divorce should be legal, but reform is obstructed by a powerful Catholic Church.

Reformists have been more successful when clerics lost power - such as Turkey in the 1920s, Tunisia in the 1950s, Iran in the 1960s, Indonesia in the 1970s, and in the Marxist states of South Yemen and Somalia in the 1970s. Since the late 1970s, clerical influence has returned with a vengeance. Sexist laws thus endure, entrenching patriarchal kinship, curbing women’s autonomy, and thwarting activism .

Leaders have been more receptive to feminist activism when trying to cultivate international legitimacy – as in Turkey and the Maghreb. Turkey’s women’s movement massively expanded over the 1990s and early 2000s. They organised public campaigns, street protests and sit-ins to galvanise public support for legislative reform. Eager for EU membership, the Turkish government sought to demonstrate its liberal credentials. The new civil code (2001) legislated spousal equality – concerning marital property, divorce, custody, inheritance, as well as the right to work and travel. Yet more laws tackled labour market discrimination, marital rape and domestic violence. Bureaucratic machinery was established to promote enforcement – such as an app to report gender-based violence.

But rulers’ desire for global approval does not entail implementation – which remains paltry in the Maghreb. On paper, Morocco has made great strides towards gender equality: its 2011 Constitution enshrines gender equality; its 2004 Family Code removed the obligation of having a male guardian; and women’s rights to divorce and child custody are recognised. However, conservative family courts routinely ignore top-down edicts. Indonesia introduced an Anti-Domestic Violence Law in 2004, in response to feminist activism. But it remains pervasive. Many still believe that men have the right to physically intimidate their wives, daughters, and sisters.

In sum, powerful religious authorities obstruct feminist activism, legal reform, and implementation.

Underdevelopment undercuts gender quotas

African women’s movements have secured gender quotas and progressive laws, but their impact is inhibited by underdevelopment and low state penetration.

War-torn Rwanda was the first country in the world to establish a female-majority parliament. In the struggle to survive bloody, brutal, and disruptive conflicts, African women increasingly undertook traditionally masculine roles. In Liberia, Uganda and Rwanda, women became breadwinners, heads of households, community organisers, and leaders in peace movements. They organised to repair the damage. Women came to perceive themselves as capable, strong and autonomous. Through prolonged exposure to women demonstrating their equal competence in socially valued domains, people came to question their gender ideologies. This attitudinal shift cultivated growing support for women leaders in parliaments, executive branches, government bureaucracies, judiciaries and civil society.

Engaging in post-conflict processes, African women’s movements pressed for quotas. They were especially successful in post-conflict, authoritarian, aid-dependent countries, where rulers sought to improve their international reputations.

In power, women legislators have passed several bills on intimate partner violence and inheritance rights. But this has not radically improved outcomes on the ground. In Liberia, women’s movements have pushed for enforcement, but this is generally paltry, especially in remote rural areas. Rwanda’s majority-female parliament did pass an inheritance bill, but women struggle to secure these rights in practice.

Women’s mobilisation and gender quotas are constrained by low population density and low state penetration. Remote villages may be several hours drive from the nearest police post - or longer if waterlogged. If victims cannot get help, violence continues with impunity. Communications are also limited. Extremely poor families cannot afford radios, let alone smartphones. Remoteness forestalls exposure to critical discourses, networking, and contentious claims-making. In rural Zambia, neighbours may privately condemn assault but hesitate to intervene because they anticipate community disapproval. Despondency curbs social and political change.

Female seclusion inhibits claims-making

South Asian women’s movements have secured laws on dowries, divorce, domestic violence, acid attacks and inheritance. But women’s capacity to claim these rights and challenge patriarchal guardians is constrained by social seclusion and economic insecurity.

Social change is certainly possible. When women gather together – as a result of paid work in the public sphere, social mobilisation, or Self-Help Groups – they develop new friendships, discuss important matters, share information, practice deliberation, gain confidence, solidarity, and collective protection against patriarchal backlash.

We have done many things in the village. We have solved issues for children

in the village. We have also fought for the prohibition of alcohol. A new team

from our SHG has been formed on the issue of intoxication. If women are being

beaten or harassed by men, then we help them. We go to the Panchayat together.

Wherever is any issue all we sisters go there collectively – female participant of a SHG in Madhya Pradesh.

We have to establish the rights of women all over Bangladesh, not only in our area. In our area, we talk to those families who only send their sons to school. We ask them to send their daughters as well. We even make arrangements for her notebooks, pen, school fee and books, which are essential to go to school. Before the teachers were not taking classes regularly; but now we monitor and take information about their attendance, regularities and class performances – female participant of a social mobilisation NGO in Bangladesh.

We have the right to expression, to protest, procession and gathering. But we were obstructed in many cases. After the formation of the samiti we have been struggling in this region to establish all these rights. Many people come to us with their various problems. We all decide together about what should be the responsibility of us in this regard. There was a time when we all acted according to the wishes of village leaders. Now we do not take notice of them. Instead, village leaders cannot supercede our decisions - female participant of a social mobilisation NGO in Bangladesh.

But such experiences are uncommon. The South Asian public sphere teems with testosterone. Men go out into the world, run family businesses, migrate to new economic opportunities, resolve community problems, mobilise political networks, make the laws of the land, then unwind playing cricket. From the village panchayat to the lok sabha, it is a man’s world.

Women’s paid work in the public sphere is low in places with traditions of purdah. Most Delhi women working in manufacturing do so within their own home - with scant opportunities to expand their networks, organise, gain skills or autonomy. In Lucknow, working women are concentrated in subcontracted work and as unpaid labour in family enterprises. They work, but rarely interact with outsiders. They remain dependent on male intermediaries.

Home-based workers have organised for better conditions. But most South Asian women remain economically dependent on male providers, with smaller social networks, and less knowledge of the wider world. If women remain secluded and separated, they are less likely to collectively critique and challenge their subordination. Women may not question gender wage gaps, as they presume men to be more competent – as in Pakistan’s garment industry. As Jobeda (a member of a social mobilisation NGO in Bangladesh) explained,

Whatever the village elders said we used to take as the truth. We never protested even though there was a lot of injustice and oppression in the locality. We were afraid of the chairmen, village leaders and members. Moreover, we could not see any reason to protest. After all they were our village leaders, we used to honour them. We thought that to argue with the chairmen was to commit an offence.

In India also, women are much less likely to attend or speak at village meetings, let alone make claims on local leaders. Attendance rates range from 25-33% for men and 6-11% for women. It is especially low in areas with tight restrictions on female mobility. In the absence of strong female networks and contentious claims-making, men continue to dominate informal and formal institutions in ways that maintain control over women’s bodies.

Legal protections do exist – for acid attacks, domestic violence, divorce, and inheritance. This is a result of hard-won feminist battles. But – given female seclusion and separation on the ground - these paper rights are seldom claimed. 73% of survivors in Bangladesh remain silent. Beatings are widely regarded as a private matter, women’s fault, a source of shame. As long as women are economically dependent on men, without a field of their own, divorce brings destitution. Many thus endure abuse. Reliant on patriarchal guardians, Indian Muslim women campaigned ardently to end the triple talaq, so wives are not easily abandoned. India introduced all-female police stations but these have not increased reporting or accountability for gender-based violence.

Even if survivors do report, they are seldom supported. ‘The police officers didn’t help at all. The police pushed me to drop the case and to say that he didn’t do it. Whatever I said the police refused to write down’ – explained an acid-attack victim in Bangladesh. In Punjab the conviction rate for violence against women is less than 3% of registered cases. Likewise in Bangladesh, courts, police, doctors, and nurses are unsympathetic to victims of gender-based violence. Victims of acid-attacks are isolated and stigmatised, pressured to marry their assailants. Indeed, survivors are nearly always encouraged to reconcile with their abusers. Most Indians think women’s safety is best preserved through strict social surveillance, rather than protecting their freedoms.

Such disregard perpetuates despondency. Sadia was in an abusive marriage for 12 years. Never once did she report her husband. She didn’t trust the police to protect her, she worried reporting would only enrage her husband. Observing persistent impunity, young women like Joya ask ‘What’s the point of complaining?’. The same goes for inheritance – seldom claimed for fear of alienating kin. As a Bangladeshi lawyer explained, ‘There are so many wonderful things… in the national action plan, but when you look in the field it isn’t happening’.

This is largely a result of female seclusion, which not only compounds dependence on patriarchal guardians but also checks collective critique and claims-making. For women to claim their rights, they first need to come out of their homes. That requires labour-intensive growth and safer public spaces.

In sum, powerful religious authorities, underdevelopment, and female seclusion impede women's collective criticism, networking, and resistance. This entrenches gender inequalities.


Religious authorities maintain discriminatory laws

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Underdevelopment undercuts gender quotas

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Female seclusion inhibits claims-making

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