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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 15: Mathew Guest

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On the penultimate day of the UN 16 Days of Activism, we speak to Professor Mathew Guest.

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 

I am a professor in the sociology of religion at Durham University, and have been on the teaching staff there for the past 14 years. Working in a department of Theology and Religion has meant I have several colleagues whose work engages with issues of ethical significance, but my own research has for the most part remained fairly dispassionate, focusing on a range of institutional contexts that frame religious identities within contemporary western cultures, especially families, congregations and universities. This changed in 2013 when I co-wrote (with my colleagues Sonya Sharma and Robert Song) a report on gender imbalance within departments of Theology and Religious Studies in UK universities. Researching the experience of women working as academics or as students within my own discipline opened my eyes to how embedded gendered disadvantage is within the academy. It’s one thing to appreciate this on an intellectual level; it’s quite another to hear the stories first hand. The report mapped patterns of disengagement by gender among students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, tracing experiences of alienation to structural problems that continue to inform the professional lives of women in Theology and Religious Studies as they progress from early career fellowships, to being a full-time lecturer, through to more senior appointments. It’s the work I’m most proud of, and has had real impact on challenging practices that disadvantage women in my subject area, although there’s a lot more work to be done.

It was listening to women’s testimonies about their experiences that led me to get involved in a campaign against gendered violence. Alongside my academic work, in recent years I have become more engaged in activist networks, driven chiefly by my convictions as a Quaker and a pacifist. A couple of years ago I became involved in the establishment of Tyne and Wear Citizens, an alliance of organizations in the north east affiliated with the national organisation Citizens UK. We use broad-based community organizing to identify challenges facing local residents and pool our resources to exert influence on those in power in order to bring about positive change. Two of our most vibrant and committed organizational members are Newcastle Central Mosque and the Islamic Diversity Centre, based in multi-cultural Fenham, in the west end of Newcastle. Religious-based hate crime is a serious problem in the north east, often targeted at Muslims or others presumed to be Muslims but who are simply dark skinned or cover their heads in public. This highlights how colour prejudice is a big part of the problem. Another major dimension is misogyny, as this is largely gender-based violence. In researching religious-based hate crime in the north east region, we learnt that many of its victims were Muslim women, especially those wearing the hijab or niqab, a common act of assault being the forceful removal of the face veil, although others had also been physically hit, spat upon and verbally abused, often on public transport. Whether driven by the cowardice of racist men too afraid to confront male Muslims, or by a perverse sense of entitlement to have dominion over women’s appearance, the experiences we heard about were unsettling and abhorrent. Unfortunately, they are not uncommon, and recent comments by public figures like Boris Johnson, presenting the veil as a dubious cultural oddity, risk validating existing prejudice and ignorance. In response, we launched a campaign to get hate crime addressed more seriously, particularly on public transport, where many incidents take place.

The testimonies I heard from Muslim women were truly shocking, recounting acts of disrespect, verbal abuse and physical violence. In some cases victims were too afraid to go to the police; in others, their reports were dismissed. Some felt supported by the authorities, but our campaign group felt too little was being done to address acts of religious-based hate on the region’s buses and on the Metro network.  So we arranged a meeting with representatives of the region’s main transport companies, and they too were faced with the testimonies of the Muslim sisters who had experienced some of the abuse we hoped they would want to address. They spoke with passion and conviction, and it was inspiring to see these two women – who I can now call friends – tell their stories to a row of white men in suits in a city centre boardroom. They spoke truth to power, and were visibly empowered as a consequence.

We were asking these representatives of the transport companies to work with us in devising a hate crime policy for the region, and they agreed. I believe the testimonies of the Muslim sisters were too powerful to ignore. That’s not to say our corporate colleagues didn’t need a little more encouragement, and so we organized a public demonstration – a celebration of our diverse Tyne and Wear community – in order to raise awareness of hate crime and demystify the hijab for those unfamiliar with Muslim traditions and what they signify.  This demo took place on 13th October. Entitled ‘Reclaim the Metro’, around 160 of us gathered at the Grey’s Monument in central Newcastle and listened again to the testimonies of our Muslim friends. In solidarity, we then all boarded the Metro and took a trip to Whitley Bay, where we enjoyed together a fine British tradition: fish and chips on the seafront. We also deployed an activist tradition very much at the heart of the Citizens method: we invited the media and got the event covered on BBC Look North. We also informed our colleagues from the public transport companies that the media would be covering the event, and that we could tell a story about how wonderful it is that they have responded to our concerns with a change in policy, or we could tell a story about how awful it is that they hadn’t. Their charter on hate crime on public transport – clarifying reporting processes, committing to training staff, and to working further with voluntary groups to tackle this urgent issue – was published just before the demo.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

Given my work with the local Muslim community, as well as current research I am undertaking about the experiences of Muslim students, I would really like to see more work done on engaging British Muslim women. Their voices often go unheard and their experiences are often grossly misunderstood. Unfortunately, secular feminist commentators do not always help, and the common equation of the hijab with gendered oppression is symptomatic of how certain women’s voices are often privileged over others. Let’s hear more from the testimonies of Muslim women.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

Well the hate crime campaign still has a lot of work to do. Our success in securing a hate crime charter does not solve the problem, although it was a pragmatic step towards creating safer public spaces in the region. We at Tyne and Wear Citizens need to ensure that the hate crime charter is adhered to and translates into practical solutions, like improved training for bus drivers, publicity to inform the public on what is religion-based hate crime and why it is not acceptable, and a system of accountability that joins up public transport providers with local police so that all incidents are properly followed up. I know that my fellow citizens at Newcastle Central Mosque and the Islamic Diversity Centre will be at the heart of this, and hope that Muslim women will feel safer and more secure in their communities as a result of the campaign.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 13: Fatima Pir Allian

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Today’s activist is Fatima Pir Allian, spokesperson for Bangsamoro women in Mindanao (the Philippines).

(For information about the long struggle for peace and the establishment of human rights in Mindanao, see here. The roots of the conflict lie in large part in the discrimination against the minority Muslim and indigenous population of Mindanao.)

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Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

I am Fatima Pir Tillah Allian but friends and family call me by my nick-name: Shalom. In 2005, after a stint as a college instructor at the Mass Communications Department of the Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City, the Philippines, I joined the development world as an NGO worker.

I belong to and represent a group of women called Nisa Ul Haqq fi Bangsamoro (Women for Justice in the Bangsamoro). Our work and mission is:

1. To provide a venue for Bangsamoro women for a progressive interpretation of Islamic teachings on gender, women’s rights, peace and development.

2. To influence decision-makers in policy development towards more spaces for women in law,religion, culture, and institutions.

3. To provide technical assistance to network members and their communities on issues related to the network’s advocacies.

4. To link the Muslim women of Mindanao through the network to other like-minded women’s organizations and to the rest of the Muslim ummah.

5. To understand and document the condition and position of Muslim women in Mindanao and other areas in the Philippines.

Since 2012 we have been working with, consulting and documenting narratives and recommendations from a number of women, men and youth community leaders on peace process related issues between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

One of the important parts of the agreement is to document narratives and recommendations of the Bangsamoro people as part of the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission’s (TJRC) output (2015). Nisa Ul Haqq fi Bangsamoro was part of the team that documented the historical injustices, legitimate grievances and marginalizations of the Bangsamoro people, such as through land dispossession and human rights violations. But we are also focused on the ways forward in terms of healing and reconciliation.

In addition, we also respond to emergency situations by providing gender-sensitive humanitarian assistance to both human-induced and natural disasters. In whatever ways we can, we respond to the needs of women, including needs that arise from gender-based injustice and violence.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

Personally, my hope is to continue contributing to the work Nisa is doing. I am committed, too, to strengthening our advocacies in responding to the needs of the community. Empowering the marginalized is not an easy task. The need to continue the engagement with the marginalized, the invisible members of the community, who are disproportionately female, is pivotal in ensuring thatthey, too have a platform and are heard. Utilizing a lens that is sensitive to both gender and the advancement of peace in the process of policy formulation with decision makers, serves moreeffectively to address the lived realities of marginalized groups, whether they consist of women, men, youth, the elderly, persons with disabilities, or any disadvantaged groups in our society. Responding to the needs of the community, means that the community is consulted and part of the process as we do our planning. That is one way to empower communities. People sometimes think that we know what they need but actually we always need to be ready to learn from them. The communities serve as our classroom. There is so much to learn and we appreciate the exchanges and the kinds of connections we form. Communication, exchange, a willingness to learn from all – that is how I hope to advance the aims and goals of the Shiloh Project.

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The Shiloh Project in Ghana

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In late October we, Katie and Johanna, travelled to Accra. We were going there to participate in a collaborative project funded by WUN (the Worldwide Universities Network). This project is led by Rev. Dr. George Ossom-Batsa, of the Department for the Study of Religions, University of Ghana (UG). Alongside us three, the project also includes Shiloh’s third co-lead, Caroline Blyth, who will take the lead in compiling and editing a special issue on religion and gender-based violence (GBV) for the journal The Bible and Critical Theory (BCT).

Our project has the title ‘An Intersectional Exploration of Religion and Gender-Based Violence: A Case Study of Accra in Global Context’. The idea for the project grew out of the Shiloh Project.

Just looking out the car window on the way from the airport to our hotel, the prominent presence of religion in public spaces was very striking. Huge billboards depict Christian preachers and advertise crusades and prayer meetings, or promise prosperity and blessings, or proclaim the imminent return of Jesus. Religious leaders on these billboards take up the kind of space reserved in our own context only for mega-celebrities. 

Over the days we would see some publicity also about leaders and revered figures in the Muslim and African Traditional Religions communities – but a dazzling array of Christian churches certainly predominate over other religious communities. We would see all kinds of products sold using Bible verses and allusions to God’s will and endorsement. Be it gear boxes, drains, beauty products or foods – God is all around in public and commercial spheres.

The central part of our visit was a day-long conference followed by a day of workshops to investigate our topic from a range of perspectives. The conference day was opened on 30 October by the Provost of UG’s College of Humanities, Professor Samuel Agyei-Mensah. 

The keynote speaker was Prof. Akosua Adomako Ampofo who, until recently, directed UG’s Institute of African Studies. She is also founder of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy and winner of the Feminist Activism Award. A sociologist by training, Prof. Ampofo has a long and strong record of challenging GBV, including through her advisory role in the process of passing the Domestic Violence Act and criminalizing marital rape (2007), and her extensive empirical work on masculinities in a range of African contexts. Her work on African masculinities resists both what she aptly calls the ‘Western gaze’ and the disproportionate emphasis on South Africa – to the exclusion of other African contexts.

Prof Ampofo was a hard act to follow – but Katie’s and my joint presentation was next on the conference programme. We introduced the Shiloh Project and spoke on rape culture manifestations in the Bible (Johanna) and on the application of religious iconography in popular culture (Katie). 

The next co-presentation was by George Ossom-Batsa and Dr. Nicoletta Gatti, both biblical scholars from UG’s Department for the Study of Religions. Their presentation focused on the Hebrew Bible book of Job alongside prosperity preaching by Ghanaian Pentecostal churches. The paper demonstrated on the one hand, how in the prosperity gospel poverty has come to signify absence of blessing and, on the other, how poverty (and therefore such preaching) disproportionately harms women who are far more likely than men to be impoverished. One distressing statistic cited was that the estimated average hourly wage for women in Ghana is only 57% that of men.

The next two presentations moved away from biblical studies. First Dr. Rabiatu D. Ammah (of UG) explored the Qur’anic verse 4:34, sometimes described as ‘the verse of abuse’ or the verse that condones wife beating. Dr. Ammah describes herself as a scholar-activist and her paper covered a range of interpretations of the verse and infused this with her qualitative research consisting of in-depth interviews with 15 local imams, three of whom openly acknowledged having beaten their wives. Her conclusion was, however, that there is none the less no prima facie or Qur’an endorsed case for GBV in Islam. 

The final presentation of the day was by Dr. Yaw Sakordie Agyemang (University of Cape Coast) and explored GBV in the context of the indigenous beliefs of the Asante people. Again, research was centred on empirical research, this time constituting 16 focus group discussions guided by two questions: How do women and men experience violence? And, how does gender inequality affect violence? The paper offered insight into all sorts of forms of ritual violence, ranging from female genital mutilation, to the harvesting of body parts for ritual purposes, and rites surrounding both apotropaic and polluting qualities of menstrual blood. 

Whereas the first day focused on academic presentations, the second day gave the floor to practitioners, before we all separated into groups to discuss practical strategies to confront, address and eliminate GBV. 

The first practitioner to present was Dr. Angela Aboagye Dwamena, Executive Director of The Ark Foundation. The name of the Foundation already reveals its foundation in religious principles. It is not, however, named after Noah’s Ark but after the Ark of the Covenant, alluding to God as a refuge and strength. The presenter has a background in law and has for over 25 years defended the human rights of Ghanaian women and girls, and sometimes also boys, particularly with regard to GBV. The Foundation focuses on advocacy, community-based education, law reform and services provision. Dr. Dwamena was vocal as to the constraints of the Foundation. For instance, the first shelter for battered women was opened in 1999 but 17 years later it had to be closed, due to lack of funds. A campaign is in progress to reopen and keep open the Ark Shelter (see www.arksheltercampaign.org).

Next up, was a representative from the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice. The Commission conducts research into social justice matters and offers protection on a range of human rights matters, including concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. In Ghana, the law, which has remained unchanged since 1960, designates a number of sexual acts ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’. These acts include ‘sodomy’ and oral sex. Ghana’s LGBT community is particularly vocal in resisting this law. The matter of LGBT rights was seized on in the discussion that followed the first two presentations and members from both Christian and Muslim communities expressed horror at homosexual orientation and acts, comparing them to the sin of murder, to bestiality and pedophilia. Also clearly articulated was that LGBT persons regularly do not receive justice – including in matters that have nothing to do with matters sexual (e.g. when they report crimes of property). The vulnerability to GBV of the LGBT community is likely to be considerable. It was very clear to us both that the conversation around LGBT rights in a setting like that of the conference and workshop, dominated as it was by religious leaders and practitioners, was a particularly difficult and unreceptive one. There was not really a sense that dialogue was possible. 

Three practitioners from the Muslim community presented next. First to present was Sheikh Yacoub Abban, the General Secretary of Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama, an organization that conducts marriage guidance counseling alongside other dispute settling activities (e.g. concerning inheritance). The organization has only men on its board but the perception by members of the Muslim community in attendance was that it was very supportive of women’s cases. The Sheikh reported a growing number of GBV cases brought before the organization by women. Whereas in 2016 cases (in Accra alone) by 96 men and 264 women were brought to the organization, by 2017 the numbers were 75 men and 384 women. Thus far in 2018, the number of women’s cases already stands at 407. The Sheikh reported that while men’s cases do not reflect physical violence, instead reporting wives’ ‘recalcitrance’ or wives who pressed for divorce in cases where husbands did not want divorce, the cases brought by women are often very disturbing and distressing. The presentation included anonymous examples of severe emotional torture, physical maltreatment and of marital rape. While the Sheikh did not deny the possibility that some men are also enduring physical violence perpetrated by women he confirmed that cases reflect that women are disproportionately victims of violence and that this violence shows no sign of abating.

Next up was Dr, Nas iba Taahir, Educational Consultant and Psychologist of the Montessori Foundation of Ghana. She disclosed that she herself is a victim of long-term marital GBV and reported, too, on her work in the capacity as a school psychologist. Both her accounts of counseling victims of physical violence in domestic settings and her own story of a six-year trial, exclusion from her religious community and of stigmatization were harrowing. 

The final presenter from the Muslim community was Hajia Maliki, a marriage guidance counselor with 15 years experience. She reported that marriages in the Muslim community of Ghana very often deteriorate quickly and end in acrimonious divorce. Unlike in Christian communities, she reported, pre-marital guidance counseling was not a requirement and nor was mandatory post-marital counseling.

The final practitioner to present was the most affecting. This was Superintendent Alice Awarikaro, Regional Coordinator for the Accra Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit. Charged with domestic violence and child abuse issues, the Superintendent had seen many awful violent crimes close-up. In 2017, her unit dealt with 4,511 cases (about one third of total cases country-wide) and, as she stressed, far more cases have gone unreported. Victims of violence, including sexual violence, were male, female, young and old. Again, however, violent crimes against women and girls far outnumber those perpetrated against men and boys. Also, perpetrators were far more likely to be male than female. She showed graphic images of terrible abuse and outlined efforts to address GBV, including sensitization programmes, capacity building, proactive and reactive measures. 

With particular relevance to our project, the Superintendent reported that in her experience religious leaders and religious beliefs play an obstructive role. Advice from religious leaders is often detrimental, delaying the reporting of crime, or adding to failure to report (e.g. on account of instilling stigma with regard, for instance, to divorce). She urged that counselors and advisors be properly trained professionals and advocated the following: creating safe spaces for those reporting GBV, not judging or condemning those who report GBV, education across the sectors, and encouraging reporting and following through with the legal process so that more perpetrators are brought to court and more victims protected. 

Following group discussions and then a plenary session that pooled key points from discussions, we collectively determined that the conference and workshops had done much to explain what GBV is and to begin to plumb the complexity of its causes and effects. We determined that we would endeavour to apply for more funding to harness the energy of the event and to achieve more concrete results through user-led and research-underpinned activities and resources. 

With the funds left in the budget from WUN we will produce and disseminate a leaflet that: 1) defines GBV; 2) supports intervening bystanders, with a section setting out what to do and where to turn (in Accra) if you suspect someone is a victim of GBV; 3) details victim support and legal rights for those who are themselves victims of GBV; 4) contains a section that specifies the rights and services of members of the LGBT community in Ghana.

While in Accra we also had opportunity to interview theologian and activist Prof. Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Mercy Oduyoye recently turned 85. She is a pioneer for African women and remains as active as ever – both in her Talitha Qumi Institute, based at the Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra and through the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, which she founded in 1989. Well before this already she initiated women’s rights initiatives, campaigning for women’s inclusion and against women’s economic deprivation and vulnerability to other inequalities, including GBV. 

We also taught classes both at the Trinity Theological Seminary and at UG, which was a lively experience.

Lastly, no travelling in Ghana should be complete without visiting the coastal fortresses that facilitated the Portuguese-, Dutch- and British-administered slave trade. We visited both Castle Osu and Elmina and saw the awful dungeons where slaves were crammed together in tight, dark stone surroundings before being herded into ships bound for the Americas. While African slaves sat in fear and terror below, the European slave administrators sexually abused those whom they selected, dined while looking out at the sparkling ocean, and prayed in their chapels. Here, too, as everywhere in the streets of Accra today, biblical verses were prominently displayed – mere metres from where massive atrocities took place. 

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White Rose Collaboration Fund Project Update

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On Wednesday 10th October members of our White Rose Collaboration Fund Project met for an update.

The White Rose Collaboration Fund is designed to support emerging collaborative activities across the three White Rose universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Our project focuses on using religious imagery in popular culture to explore and challenge everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse together with secondary school students.

In consultation with secondary schools from all three White Rose regions and Fearless Futures, a third-sector organization offering gender equality training for school-age girls, the network will conduct three pilot workshops with secondary school students (girls and boys) to investigate interactions with religious imagery in popular culture and the ways in which these representations shape understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.

Members of the White Rose universities involved in the project include Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Professor Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Dr Meredith Warren (University of Sheffield), Dr Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Dr Jasjit Singh (Unversity of Leeds), Dr Caroline Starkey (University of Leeds), Sofia Rehman (University of Leeds), Dr Sarah Olive (University of York) an Emma Piercy (University of York).

As usual, the meeting buzzed with energy, ideas and enthusiasm. We’re very much looking forward to working with our partners Fearless Futures and the local schools. We’ll update again after our training!

 

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‘Feminism and Trauma Theology’ project

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To live in 2018 is to live in a ‘moment’ for feminist issues. Late last year, the #MeToo movement, originally founded by African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, became a viral hashtag when co-opted for use following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. Through #MeToo, women from various industries, careers, perspectives and social backgrounds began to share their stories of trauma relating to sexual harassment or assault.

What has happened since has been unprecedented. The realisation that we do not live in an equal, post-feminist society has become inescapable. Slowly, it is being realised (albeit not without some resistance) that violence against women is, tragically, a far more pervasive and ordinary occurrence than ever understood.

The #MeToo hashtag is not the only social movement in which women’s trauma is being voiced. Say Her Name seeks to raise awareness for black female victims of police brutality and anti-black violence in the United States. There are ongoing protests by Sisters Uncut, who protest the cutting of services for women and gender-variant domestic violence victims in the UK.

Recently, the Repeal the 8th Campaign has taken place in Ireland, and we have heard stories of suffering related to oppressive reproductive legislation. Movements such as the Dahlia Project seek to care for women who have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). Everyday Sexism is an intersectional online project, documenting experiences of sexism, harassment and assault.

In these movements, and in this wider moment, there is a turning point. The normalisation of systemic violence against women is being denounced. Those who have committed violent acts are being exposed and shamed in public view. In ways big and small, in politics and in pop culture, the violence women have experienced as a result of power imbalances is being acknowledged. Now, more than ever, a new story is beginning to take shape – one in which women’s experiences of trauma are being articulated in their own voices, and in their own time.

It is because we are on the opening pages of this new story that Karen O’Donnell of Durham University and I (Katie Cross, University of Aberdeen) find it so important to give voice to the many varied experiences of suffering that women face. As such, we are in the process of putting together an edited volume on feminism and trauma theology. The area of trauma theology highlights the ways in which studies in trauma have impacted and reshaped the central questions of the Christian faith. Some notable works in this area include those by Shelly Rambo, Serene Jones, Stephanie Arel, Musa W.Dube and Jennifer Beste.

Notably, all of these thinkers have either been informed by feminist theology, or are overtly feminist in their approaches to the study of trauma. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the issues surrounding trauma are similar to, and intimately connected with, feminist issues – those concerning power in both individual and societal contexts, control over the body and bodily integrity, and the narration of experience as liberative. Even so, trauma theology remains a small and underrepresented area.

We hope that our collection will provide a space in which to voice women’s experiences of suffering, abuse, and trauma from the perspectives of feminism and theology, and that it will speak to the new and unfolding context we find ourselves in.

If you are interested in contributing to the volume and being a part of this project, you can find information about our call for contributions on our website: https://feminismtraumatheologies.wordpress.com. The deadline for abstracts (of 250 words) is 7th September 2018, and these should be emailed to feminismtraumatheologies@gmail.com. Karen and I are also happy to answer any questions or queries about potential pieces of writing. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Author bio:

Dr Katie Cross is a newly-appointed teaching fellow in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen. Her doctoral work examined trauma and suffering through the lens of the Sunday Assembly’s ‘godless congregations’ in London and Edinburgh.

You can find her on Twitter at @drkatiecross.

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Interview with Saima Afzal: Founder of SAS RIGHTS

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Today in our occasional series on lesser-known organizations working to combat gender-based violence and rape culture we speak to Saima Afzal (MBE). Saima leads on training and research through her initiative called ‘Saima Afzal Solutions’ and has founded a Community Interest Company (CIC) related to this called SAS RIGHTS.

Before we turn to Saima’s many achievements in the arena of activism, let us congratulate her on her recent political victory in the Blackburn with Darwen (Lancashire) council district in the May local UK elections! Although Blackburn has one of the largest Asian populations of any council district, it has taken Saima multiple tries on the ballot and numerous battles both within and outside of the Blackburn Asian community to win. But Saima does not shy away from a fight

Background

Saima was born in Pakistan and moved to the UK with her parents when she was 4 years old. She is the eldest of 11 children, 9 girls and 2 boys. Saima was victim to a forced ‘marriage’ (banned under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014). She refuses to recognize the union, because she never said ‘yes’. She declares she has never had a husband, only an abuser and that she will only ever marry for love, as is her right under all of Sharia, UK law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Saima has come up against many challenges, prejudices and barriers and this has fuelled her commitment to campaign for the rights of those who are oppressed and stigmatized by persistent social injustices in today’s UK.

Saima has worked extensively in community development for the past 15 years – particularly in relation to religion, gender and South Asian cultures of the UK. She has led projects to confront and challenge both domestic abuse and forced marriage, and has conducted research in the areas of drug and substance misuse, child sexual exploitation in South Asian communities, sexuality in Islam, childcare support and provision for South Asian women, and (mis)use of stop and search powers by police officers against members of minority communities – to name but a few.

Saima served for over 10 years as an Independent member of the Lancashire Police Authority. Her key contribution in this role focused on effective engagement with minority communities and the issues that affect them, such as: hate crime, use of stop and search powers, forced marriage, ‘honour’-based violence (more about the inverted commas in a moment!), and female genital mutilation, among others. In the course of this Saima developed a concept she calls ‘Parallel Engagement’ (to resist what she considers a dominant model of ‘Hierarchical Engagement’) and taught this to police officers. Saima also served as an Executive Board Member for the Association of Police Authorities in the capacity of national lead for Equality, Diversity & Human Rights (2007–12).

Between 2012–14 Saima served as an Assistant Commissioner for Policing in Lancashire, leading on the key portfolio area of supporting victims of crime. In 2015 Saima was appointed by the West Yorkshire Police Commission to lead on the Victims & BAME (= British English Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Project. Additionally, Saima is recognized as a national safeguarding/public protection expert adviser on the National Crime Agency database, with specialization in dealing with cases involving forced marriages, ‘honour’-based abuse, trafficking, child sexual exploitation and other safeguarding crimes affecting BAME communities. She has served as an expert witness in court and spoken on such topics in numerous public media outlets.

Saima is an active human rights campaigner, seeking protection, as well as platforms of opportunity for members of marginalized communities. Saima was recognized for her prolific and dedicated work when she received the MBE for her Services to Policing and Community Relations in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list (June 2010).

‘Honour’-Based Abuse (HBA) and Community Coercion Control (CCC)

Honour-Based Abuse (HBA) or Honour Based Violence (HBV) is defined as a crime or an incident, which has, or which may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of a family or community.

Honour is an abstract concept and refers to an individual’s or group’s perceived quality of worthiness and respectability affecting both social standing and self-evaluation of an individual or institution such as a family, school, regiment or even nation. Certain groups – in both antiquity and modernity – are sometimes designated as honour cultures (or, sometimes, honour-shame cultures), because group or kin identity is particularly strongly developed and manifests in distinctive ways.

Saima is uncomfortable with the associations of the designations ‘honour’ or ‘honour killing’, which sometimes have a restrictive conception in view. Some media examples, for instance, tend to imply that HBA is pretty much entirely an ‘Asian problem’. Saima believes the situation is more nuanced and that all kinds of communities – including but not only Asian ones – exert damaging coercion and control. The model she has developed is called a model of Community Coercion Control (CCC) [see below, too]. In this model ‘community’ can refer to different and diverse set-ups in a case-by-case way. It emphasizes that coercive control (including as exerted by religious communities) encompasses a wide range of acts and behaviours designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent, such as by isolating them from sources of support, or exploiting their resources and capacities, or by regulating their everyday behaviours, and thereby depriving them of the capacity for independence, or resistance, or escape. In its most severe forms coercive behaviour involves acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation used to harm, punish or frighten. Occasionally, CCC transpires in murder. Identifying and understanding the various patterns and mechanisms of CCC is the first step, according to Saima, for facilitating help and support for vulnerable persons. Intervention and facilitating help and support are other important dimensions of Saima’s work.

As ever, please help us to promote SAS and SAS RIGHTS. Saima has self-funded very many of her initiatives. She endeavours to attract funding to develop SAS and SAS RIGHTS and to pay for the expenses of volunteers who offer their energy and support. Towards obtaining such funding, Saima offers training, workshops, bespoke research and report writing, participation in relevant research grants, as well as consultancy, in a range of areas relevant to the Shiloh Project. You can find out more, or contact Saima, on:

saimaafzal@sasolutions.info

www.sasolutions.info

Twitter: @saimaafzalmbe

Interview with Saima Afzal.

Tell us about your NGO and your own role!

I founded and now lead ‘Saima Afzal Solutions’ (SAS, active since 2011) and Community Interest Company (CIC) ‘SAS RIGHTS’ (since 2016). A CIC offers me more flexibility for the many different things I want to do to improve life for vulnerable and marginalized people in UK communities. Very often these vulnerable and marginalized people I support are women, often women from UK South Asian communities. This is because as a British woman of Pakistani heritage myself and as someone who lived and escaped from a forced ‘marriage’ and who continues to live in and now represents in local government a Lancashire community with a large South Asian contingent, such work just keeps finding me. Also, this work is not ‘just a job’ but my vocation and my life. When I see inequality in any form – be it Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia… – I want to find ways to confront, resist and detoxify it.

My work for SAS is aimed at offering training (e.g to address religio-cultural and belief-based conflicts and public protection situations), subject matter expert advice, peer review, academic research and leading seminars, or lectures. Through the CIC I can diversify the work I undertake with SAS to include also such activities as peer mentoring, community engagement aimed at confidence and resilience building, collaboration with likeminded organizations and the development of materials to inform and raise awareness about matters central to SAS.

The Shiloh Project explores the intersections between, on the one hand, rape culture, and, on the other, religion. On some of our subsidiary projects we work together with third-sector organizations (including NGO’s and FBO’s). We also want to raise awareness and address and resist rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence directly. We’re interested to hear your answers to the following:

How do you see religion having impact on the setting where you are working – and how do you perceive that impact? Tell us about some of your encounters.

Religion and its manifold ways of exerting impact are everywhere in the settings I tend to work in!

Many of the vulnerable and marginalized persons I deal with are from Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh communities, as well as from Catholics of the Roma and Traveler communities. Religion infuses virtually all the manifold situations I encounter in the course of my work – including those involving violence, abuse and microaggressions. Sometimes it is hard to identify or explain precisely how – but religion is wrapped up with it. I don’t reject ‘religion’. My own parents are devout and I consider myself spiritual. I have seen religion create or contribute to problems and I’ve seen it be part of the solution.

I have a personal passion that drives my work in its various capacities, not least due to my own experience of forced ‘marriage’, rape and being denied equality of human rights.

From what I have seen, religious mantras, or distorted and ill-interpreted variants of them, are widely utilized as a vehicle to control people – women in particular Still today, despite the changes in the law of 1991, when rape within marriage was criminalized on the statute books, many women from religious backgrounds, including some Christian and Muslim ones, believe it is their husbands’ right to demand sex as part of their conjugal ‘rights’ enshrined in the contract of marriage. The notion of consent in each sexual encounter is often not considered, due to an assumption that consent is conferred once and for all in the marriage ceremony.

Religious mantras also often serve the agendas of those who disseminate them. Some that have damaging outworkings for women are used by men to retain and legitimate male control and female inequality. When these are in the name of Islam they do Islam an injustice and also provide fodder for far-right groups to fuel Islamophobic and therewith yet more toxic agendas. Too often I am trapped between toxic representatives of both the Muslim and of the right-wing extremist communities. I am blamed for being ‘deficiently Muslim’ and exposing Muslim communities to charges of misogyny and inequality (which do sometimes hold legitimacy) and on the other, I am charged with feeding Islamophobic discourse (which is never my purpose). Shining a critical light on how Islam is interpreted and subverted does not mean a rejection of Islam. It means using Islam for justice and good not for oppression and injustice.

I often work within predominantly British Asian Muslim communities with strong orthodox values relating to the roles of men and women. These roles are, in my experience, too often restrictively binary, as well as prescriptive, with particularly damaging consequences for women’s freedoms but also for the freedoms of men who do not conform to orthodox norms. Non-adherence to the allocated roles often attracts reprisals, and harsh punishments are enacted on both men and women for any perceived deviation from religious and other cultural norms.

The work I do often involves a clash between religious values and human rights. Matters of equality or of safeguarding legislative standards that are expected to be adhered to in the UK sometimes come into tension with certain values held by religio-cultural communities. This can be sensitive and tricky territory.

Crimes relating to forced marriage (FM), rape, female genital mutilation (FGM) or ‘honour’ based abuse (HBA) are actually not rare in the UK and I have often been involved in them as an adviser in policing and safeguarding contexts. Increasingly, too, issues such as South Asian gang activity and grooming and child sexual exploitation are emerging in the wider public domain. Religion, being so intricately entwined in British Asian communities and cultures, is always a presence. Sometimes it is drawn on to provide perpetrators with justification for their actions. Sometimes it removes and sometimes it instills inhibitors for the facilitation of crimes against vulnerable persons. It’s complicated. Religion fills many roles in these various situations.

I seek to educate women, men and young people across communities, to highlight the particular issues that affect or maybe disadvantage them and to ensure that appropriate support is made available.

Often I am viewed as a trouble-maker, or as unnecessarily antagonistic by faith leaders and influencers. But in my defense, I am not opposed to ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. I only challenge individuals when their words or actions threaten or violate others’ safety or rights to equality and human dignity.

The sensitive and often controversial nature of my work, whereby I, for example, seek to support women in sexually abusive and exploitative marriages in challenging claims to conjugal ‘rights’ that violate their bodies and humanity, often gets me into conflicts with members of their family or more extended community. My work in the area of prevention, education and empowerment has been viewed as ‘corruptive’, even heretical, or as ‘inciting divorce’ and family disharmony, including by some faith or community leaders. This comes with the territory.

I often have to conduct my work discreetly or when a crisis situation has arisen. Statutory institutions are often afraid to tread heavily on what are considered ‘religious sensitivities’ and there is resistance to and fear of offending faith and community leaders. As a woman of colour, raised in a British Asian, Muslim majority community, I am both inside and on the edge of the communities I represent and that can be an advantage, or disadvantage – and religiously loaded, too.

The private or hidden nature of some of the crimes I work with sometimes results in a denial of their existence and as such funds and resources can be hard to come by. These would, however, allow me to undertake invaluable, even life-saving, research, as well as to provide consistent and sustained engagement with women, men and children to explain the rights that religion can offer regarding gender-based violence and abuse.

The current HBA definition [see above!], in my view, is restrictive and also creates unconscious bias that the issues mentioned, such as FM or rape in marriage, are exclusively a South Asian and/or minority community phenomenon. I have developed an alternative model entitled ‘Community Coercion and Control’. This model seeks to be more nuanced and to facilitate more practitioner flexibility. It can be applied to any set of values and beliefs, across faith, nationality and ethnicity spectrums and as such helps remove the association bias that may have become unwittingly embedded within the current statutory definitions.

I use my CCC model in the reports that I am required to produce when assisting police forces in prosecuting cases that involve religious and/or cultural dynamics.

How do you understand ‘rape culture’ and do you think it can be resisted or detoxified? How does the term apply to the setting where you are working?

Rape culture operates wherever sex is used as a means to oppress and coerce. It is also about contexts where rape is not called by its name, or where sexual violence and exploitation are otherwise trivialized or not resisted. Rape culture is not only about rape itself (though I know that rape is not rare and happens also in my own community) but also about the many things that create an environment where sexually oppressive attitudes thrive and go unchallenged.

Religious communities, too, need to be detoxified. In these communities, sexual rights and varieties of expression, what is legal and what is not, need to be explained and discussed. But this can only occur when all individuals are empowered and given a voice and after community-based punishments and reprisals (which may be coercive and hard to pinpoint) are removed.

Misogyny, for instance, needs to be tackled at the lower levels of microaggression and not just in situations of crisis when the damage has been done. Crisis doesn’t just happen. It is often preceded by many far less visible or invasive factors, including the systemic factors that breed in settings where inequality and alienation are rife. Effective and open communication, hearing from and listening to all members of the community, nurturing empathy and long-term education are important for tackling misogyny – which feeds rape culture.

How does your project encounter or address gender-based violence and inequality?

In a number of ways, some of which I have already touched on. Often this begins with opening networks of communication, or doing research in affected communities. This might be with children in social care, for example, or in families or communities where crime cases have taken place and which the National Crime Agency sometimes refers to me.

My work through SAS and SAS RIGHTS seeks to address gender-based violence, abuse and inequality, including the complex things that give rise to them, by taking part in research, through engagement, education and awareness-raising projects. Detoxifying religion is part of this, too, as are empowerment of individuals and the creation of opportunities.

In relation to individual cases, my work seeks to, in partnership with the relevant statutory organization, facilitate civil protection or, in crisis and criminal cases, the prosecution of offenders.

How could those interested find out more about your CIC? How can people contribute and where will their money go?

I welcome hearing from individuals and representatives of likeminded organizations. SAS and its community-based arm SAS RIGHTS are there both for training or taking initiative in activism and for collaboration with those who share our ideals.

 

 

My email is saimaafzal@sasolutions.info and my Twitter handle, @saimaafzalmbe. You can also consult or refer others to the SAS website: www.sasolutions.info

SAS and SAS RIGHTS is how I channel my experience and expertise. As with other CIC’s all profits go towards social betterment and benefiting vulnerable persons and communities. This includes a range of things, such as the production of films and other resources that raise awareness, running workshops for vulnerable persons to develop empowerment or recognize and realize opportunities, or peer mentoring.

What kinds of posts would you like to see on The Shiloh Project blog and what kinds of resources that come into our orbit would be of value to you?

I’d like to see more about research days or conferences, so persons with different expertise who care about the intersections of religion and rape culture can form networks or collaborate and share strategies and opportunities for research and project funding opportunities.

I’d also like to see the findings of such events publicized on the Shiloh Project blog.

A regular newsletter would be great, as well as posting about international opportunities for collaboration and exchanges.

 Thank you, Saima!

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DEADLINE EXTENSION- call for papers

Shiloh Launch

Many of our members (including our conference organising team) have been on strike over the last month as part of the UCU (University and College Union) industrial action over USS pensions. Over 60 universities in the UK are involved. Members of UCU continue to be on action short of a strike.

We are extending the call for papers deadline for our Religion and Rape Culture conference to 5pm March 29th.

See updated call for papers:

We are thrilled to announce our keynote speakers will be Professor Cheryl Exum and
Professor Rhiannon Graybill.

The Shiloh Project is a joint initiative set up by staff from the Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland (NZ) researching religion and rape culture. We are proud to announce a one day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. In particular, we aim to investigate the complex and at times contentious relationships that exist between rape culture and religion, considering the various ways religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

We are also interested in the multiple social identities that invariably intersect with rape culture, including gender, disabilities, sexuality, race and class. The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but we also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference is open to researchers at any level of study, and from any discipline. We invite submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short bio no later than 5pm March 29th. Please indicate whether your submission is for a poster or a presentation. We particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

Gender violence and the Bible
Gender, class and rape culture
Visual representations of biblical gender violence
Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
Teaching traumatic texts
Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
Spiritualities and transphobia
Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

@ProjShiloh

This event is supported by AHRC and WRoCAH.

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Booking and CFP for Religion and Rape Culture Conference, 6th July 2018

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Booking is now open for our Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Places are limited so book your ticket fast!

Please note that we have small travel bursaries to contribute to travel costs for UK students who wish to attend the conference. These bursaries will be awarded on a needs basis, and speakers/those with poster submissions will also be prioritised.

The deadline for submission of proposals for our Religion and Rape Culture Conference is fast approaching! Get your proposals in by 19th March 2018. See the CFP below for more details.

Email shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk for more information.

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Call for papers! Religion and Rape Culture Conference, 6th July 2018

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Religion and Rape Culture Conference

  • The University of Sheffield, 6th July 2018
  • We are thrilled to confirm that one of our key-note speakers will be Professor Cheryl Exum.

We are delighted to announce a one day interdisciplinary conference exploring and showcasing research into the phenomenon of rape culture, both throughout history and within contemporary societies across the globe. In particular, we aim to investigate the complex and at times contentious relationships that exist between rape culture and religion, considering the various ways religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

We are also interested in the multiple social identities that invariably intersect with rape culture, including gender, disabilities, sexuality, race and class. The Shiloh Project specialises in the field of Biblical Studies, but we also strongly encourage proposals relating to rape culture alongside other religious traditions, and issues relating to rape culture more broadly.

This conference is open to researchers at any level of study, and from any discipline. We invite submissions of abstracts no more than 300 words long and a short bio no later than 19th March. Please indicate whether your submission is for a poster or a presentation. We particularly welcome abstracts on the following topics:

  • Gender violence and the Bible
  • Gender, class and rape culture
  • Visual representations of biblical gender violence
  • Representations of rape culture in the media and popular culture
  • Teaching traumatic texts
  • Methods of reading for resistance and/or liberation
  • Sexual violence in schools and Higher Education
  • Religion, rape culture and the gothic/horror genre
  • Spiritualities and transphobia
  • Familial relations and the Bible

For more information, or to submit an abstract, email shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

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Using religious imagery in popular culture to explore and challenge everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse together with secondary school students

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Our White Rose Collaboration Fund project will begin soon and the webpage is already live!

Revelations of pervasive sexual harassment and abuse are emerging from numerous settings. Moreover, educational research shows that such is prevalent already among school pupils. Children as young as 7 experience sexualized name-calling, unwanted touching and appearance-related bullying. Teachers report witnessing such practices and feeling ill-equipped to respond (Women’s and Equalities Committee Report, 2016).

Our multi-disciplinary collaboration brings together academics from Education, English, Biblical and Religious Studies to explore sexism and sexual harassment in secondary school settings using one discrete focus and lens: the role of religious imagery in popular culture (particularly advertising and music videos).

Religious imagery (e.g. the veil, the Cross) is widely used in popular culture both to represent and reinforce ideologies about such complex concepts as ‘sexuality’, ‘purity’, ‘virginity’, or ‘im/morality’. This imagery also conveys notions that casualize or glamourize sexual harassment or violence, reinforce the normativity of heterosexuality, and perpetuate racist associations between Blackness and certain sexual characteristics/desires. Such representations can be regarded as problematic in relation to young people’s understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.

In consultation with secondary schools from all three White Rose regions and a third-sector organization offering gender equality training for school-age girls (Fearless Futures), the network will conduct three pilot workshops with secondary school students (girls and boys) to investigate interactions with religious imagery in popular culture and the ways in which these representations shape understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.

Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York) will lead the project with Dr Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), working alongside colleagues Dr Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Dr Sarah Olive (University of York), Dr Jasjit Singh (University of Leeds), Dr Caroline Starkey (University of Leeds), Ms Sofia Rehman (University of Leeds) and Dr Meredith Warren (University of Sheffield).

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