The Intersection between Gender and Religion in Humanitarian Responses to Refugees

Responding to: Ethics and Responsibility: Thoughts on the UN General Assembly's Summit for Refugees and Migrants

By: Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

September 23, 2016

Since the 2010s there has been expanding interest in the roles played by faith-based organisations (FBOs) and local faith communities (LFCs) in providing assistance and protection to refugees. However, major concerns—and suspicions—remain about the nature and impacts of faith-based and local community responses to displacement. Such concerns frequently stem from a series of largely negative assumptions about the relationship between religion and gender.


These include the assumption that FBOs are more “conservative” and “patriarchal” than secular organizations and agencies; that LFCs and faith leaders will hinder the participation of women and girls as decision-makers, as aid and service providers, and as beneficiaries alike; and that FBOs will refuse to engage with individuals and social groups who do not comply with dominant norms regarding gender and sexuality.

However, evidence demonstrates that neither FBOs nor secular organizations are automatically “conservative” or “progressive” with regard to gender roles and relations: Both secular organizations and religious organizations can carry gender-limiting beliefs and practices.

For instance, a survey conducted by the Organization of Refugee Asylum and Migration in 2013, which examined attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) asylum-seekers, and concluded that FBOs’ views on providing services to LGBTI people are no better or worse than the attitudes held by secular institutions (cited here).

Other studies have documented the ways in which local faith leaders and LFCs are often well-positioned to engage with issues arising in displacement contexts that are considered too sensitive, taboo, or stigmatized to openly share with external actors. For instance, Parsitau’s study of female internally-displaced Kikuyu victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Kenya concludes that faith communities were the only actors able to provide trauma counseling in that context.

On the one hand it is important to identify and examine such examples and counter-examples to document the complex relationship between gender, religion, and refugee protection. On the other hand, a broader issue that requires our collective attention is the very nature and implications of the assumptions that exist regarding FBOs and local faith community response.

Indeed, it is clear that religion is often “used to legitimize patriarchal hierarchies,” and yet secular worldviews and organizations have their own forms of what Judith Butler refers to as Gender Trouble. This is precisely why secular organizations and international agencies have been constantly encouraged to more meaningfully engage in gender-sensitive planning, programming, and implementation through the Gender and Development (GAD) agenda.

In essence, discussions around gender-limiting beliefs and practices should not focus exclusively on religious beliefs and practices, but on all the intersecting gender-limiting beliefs and practices that inform and are mobilized by different stakeholders in diverse displacement situations, including generational, national, and ethnic identities.

In this regard, the UNHCR’s 2013 Welcoming the Stranger initiative provided a clear indication of the ways that faith leaders can facilitate refugees’ access to services, and can also act as opinion changers—for instance, they can have the potential to influence community members’ views of and responses to refugees, and indeed, of gender relations and inequalities.

Nonetheless, the criteria for “leader” itself needs to be expanded as traditional definitions have tended to identify people with theological and/or ceremonial authority, and have as a result largely excluded women. In reality, women occupy many leadership positions within and across diverse religions, often leading social outreach programs and mobilising volunteers and refugees themselves. In spite of this reality, female leaders are often harder to identify because they are less publically visible than men in many contexts. Crucially, this should not be taken as indicative of their leadership and influence. Muslim women particularly have often been overlooked as agents of change by international organizations because they do not appear to conform to a Western notion of empowered women when they wear the hijab or niqab.

In addition to thinking critically about women’s roles as leaders in their own communities, it is also essential to balance an emphasis on women’s rights and equality, with equal attention to developing gender-sensitive assessments of the particular needs of men and boys with different religious, ethnic, and other social identity markers and forms of identification.

This is particularly important given the extent to which refugee men from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are depicted in the media as threatening sexual predators and terrorists by virtue of their intersecting gender, religious, and ethnic identities. Importantly, refugees’ religious and ethnic identities may be imposed by external observers, rather than being markers of personal identity and actual identification—indeed, refugees from the Middle East are often assumed to be Arab and Muslim, rather than recognizing the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of refugees from and in the region.

This means that there is an urgent need to identify the particular needs and priorities of refugee men and boys through a combination of a gender- and faith-sensitive lens. This will help us better understand how to identify the needs, rights and priorities of both refugee women and girls, and of refugee men and boys, and to identify what roles, if any, religious institutions and faith leaders can play in lifting the structural barriers that limit the safety and dignity of both women and girls and men and boys in displacement situations.

This post summarizes a series of key points and recommendations for policy, practice, and research published in a recent MRU Policy Brief on Gender, Religion and Humanitarian Responses to Refugees (funded by the Henry Luce Foundation) launched at the UN Refugee Summit in September 2016.

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The Intersection between Gender and Religion in Humanitarian Responses to Refugees