Gender, Religion, and Forced Displacement in Muslim Settings: Missed Opportunities?

By: Sandra Iman Pertek

September 11, 2023

Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons: Gender, Religion, and Displacement

Continued armed conflicts and humanitarian and climate emergencies doubled the number of forcibly displaced people globally in the last decade. Forced migration trends are increasingly feminized, as seen through the Ukrainian population and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, where the majority of the displaced are women and children. Forced migration involves the continuum of violence from conflict and flight to refuge, with women disproportionately affected. The needs of displaced survivors are widely unmet as the protection and provision of mobile services for people on the move remain widely underfunded.

Discourse, from scholars and practitioners alike, surrounding gender and forced displacement explores how gender roles and gender relations must evolve in the processes of displacement to include a closer focus on women. A more recent age, gender, and diversity agenda expanded the focus to other vulnerable groups, such as men and diverse minority groups. However, religion remains an overlooked category in humanitarian responses to displacement, even though many migrants affiliate with religion.

Here I discuss the need to adapt humanitarian responses to violence against women (VAW) to Muslim forced displacement settings by recognizing specific capacities and risks. While I refer in this post to the term “Muslim settings,” I am wary that these are heterogeneous and cannot be generalized. However, by addressing these contexts collectively I highlight the importance of accounting for religious factors as intersectional risks—misused religious beliefs and practices—and resilience resources, such as religious teachings, values, and ethics to protect and honor women.

Religion and VAW Response

Limited policy engagement around gender, religion, and displacement results from secular humanitarian actors being too cautious to deal with religion and associating religious organizations with gender inequalities. Religion remains an elephant in the room, which is often perceived beyond the humanitarian agencies’ mandate and as the responsibility of faith-based organizations (FBOs).

Yet, religion intertwines with complex sociopolitical structures in which humanitarian responses operate daily. And it never comes on its own—religion intersects with culture, identity, power, and politics, with ripple effects across different levels. For displaced women, religion is an important resilience resource, which enables coping mechanisms in crises, but religious influences can also multiply risks. Actors who wish to centralize power, control resources, and limit women’s participation to impose certain (dis)orders can misuse religion to these ends.

Religious factors can shape barriers but also opportunities for VAW prevention and response. An increasing body of scholarly and practical evidence suggests accounting for religion (beliefs, practices, organization, and experience) as risk and protective factors is important for addressing violence against women effectively.

Gender, Islam, and Forced Displacement

Anecdotally, Muslim-majority countries host and generate the majority of the world’s refugees, indicating the relevance of engaging with Islam in gender and forced displacement discourse. Preconceived notions about Islam, gender inequality, and violence may promote hatred and violence. Islam has often been essentialized as inciting abuse, even used as an argument to justify armed occupation in countries with a “violent religion.” The “post-war on terror” geopolitical circumstances and anti-Muslim sentiments complicate judgment about Islam and women. Requesting humanitarian agencies to engage with religion may require too much commitment, but the basic ability to work with religion, as it intersects with tradition and culture, in an unbiased fashion shall remain a prerequisite of any humanitarian intervention.

Although there is little data on how anti-Muslim sentiments shape international humanitarian policy on VAW, evidence from the Global North—Europe and North America—shows it would be useful to neither sensationalize nor pathologize Muslim women’s experiences in VAW responses. Some evidence indicates Islamophobic reactions can spill over to service provision. For instance, some Muslim survivors of domestic violence in Canada, when seeking support, have been confronted with derogatory comments such as “Doesn’t your religion allow the husband to hit his wife?” and encouraged to remove their head covering. Lack of religious sensitivity in mental health provision can adversely affect victims’ mental health and deter them from seeking support in a bid to protect their religion’s image.

Secular Responses, Religious Settings

Secular humanitarian frameworks tend to avoid religion in gender equality and violence against women and girls (VAWG) programming, even though religion matters for many survivors. Humanitarian stakeholders work with religion with caution and the fear that “touching religion” could breach their humanitarian standards. In practice, such attitudes can pose additional barriers to VAWG prevention and weaken humanitarian commitments to neutrality and religious freedoms. While many international organizations work with FBOs and have developed frameworks for religious engagement (such as UNHCR’s Welcoming the Stranger Initiative in 2013; partnership note on FBOs, local faith communities, and faith leaders in 2014; and Multi-Religious Council of Leaders in 2021), such initiatives do not account for VAW, which is often perceived as too risky and taboo to address with religious actors.

Research illustrates that humanitarian agencies favor secular discourse as the best solution to women’s empowerment and VAW, raising doubt if there is any space for religious identity in such responses. Humanitarian programming renders Islamic identity and practices invisible within the secular humanitarian frameworks. It is fair to conclude that marginalizing and privatizing religion in responses to VAW does not serve survivors for whom religion is an important part of lived experiences. Secular responses in religious settings can fuel gender backlash and even reinforce barriers to protection in local communities.

Missed Opportunities

Muslim countries are often blamed for inaction around women’s rights and marginalization, while less attention is paid to socioeconomic progress made in some countries, as suggested by the OIC Women and Development Report 2021, and opportunities for improvement. References to women, Islam, and protection in international humanitarian policy fora are often missing, such as in the recent 3rd Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum (RIHF) in February 2023, which brought together the heads of multiple state departments as well as UN and Gulf humanitarian agencies. It may be useful, for us as insiders and outsiders, to reflect on what is known about the Islamic traditions of protecting and honoring women.

While the international community increasingly recognizes the culture of Islamic philanthropy—for example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, highlighted the importance of philanthropic culture from the Gulf region in a global context at the 2023 RIHF—it is important to ask what else can be learned from Muslim settings which would be useful to the advancement of women. Muslim scholars and feminist theologians have been developing a body of scholarship to promote women’s rights within the religious framework in the last decades. Many draw on the Quranic principles of justice, equality, and dignity to promote women’s status and argue the liberatory functions of Islam are not exclusive from feminism. However, scholarship on Islam and the protection of displaced women is missing and, therefore, lesser known across humanitarian platforms. More should be done to leverage Muslim discourse of displaced women’s protection in crises.

Considerably, in recent years, the international community has paid more attention to Islamic philanthropy to fund the humanitarian system. For instance, UNHCR promotes Islamic philanthropy to mobilize funds for dire humanitarian crises, including through the Refugee Zakat Fund and the sharia-compliant Global Islamic Fund for Refugees together with the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development (ISFD). It would be vital to see such initiatives and other social financing and anti-poverty mechanisms, such as zakat and sadaqah, adopt a gender-sensitive lens to promote social inclusion and the protection of women from violence in forced displacement, including support to survivors.

To constructively progress humanitarian dialogue on gender and forced displacement in Muslim settings, faith literacy and sensitivity to local values, beliefs, and traditions are much needed to support change from within. Discussions on the opportunities and challenges of addressing women’s socioeconomic exclusion and protection concerns in Muslim settings need to engage displaced women themselves to begin a much-needed conversation.

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