In order to effectively combat gender-based discriminatory practices and de-legitimize destructive interpretations of Islam against women, the WISE program utilizes an approach that is multi-pronged and sensitive to particular contexts. By establishing a global network of in-country collaborative projects, it strives to facilitate action and implement its objectives at a local, grassroots level, while providing support from the global WISE community.
Imam-Training Program on Women’s Rights
In Afghanistan, the denial of women’s rights and violence against women are widespread. IRIN, the humanitarian news and analyses service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, offers some grim statistics on women’s lives in Afghanistan: Every thirty minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth. 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate, while only 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan. One in every three Afghan women experience physical, psychological, or sexual violence. The average life expectancy rate for women is 44 years, and 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages.1
Traditional practices including the betrothal of young girls in infancy, early marriages, and crimes of “honor” (where a female is punished for having offended custom or tradition) are common in Afghanistan, where culture and custom in have taken precedence over laws. Islamic teachings have been interpreted through the language of tribal culture and custom by men who for their own political gain have developed laws in which women have no value. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of adequate social welfare services, customary and traditional laws and procedures, and weak judiciary and law enforcement bodies all contribute to the restriction of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
In order to address the promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan, WISE collaborated with the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO), a non-governmental development organization dedicated to helping women and children in need. Jamila Afghani, NECDO’s director, was inspired to create a project to train Imams—religious leaders—on women’s rights after learning about a similar program in the Philippines during the 2009 WISE global conference. In Afghanistan, Imams are highly influential in shaping society and can be key allies in tackling gender inequality.
Because structural violence against women has become deeply woven into Afghan society, Jamila faced a difficult challenge in educating Imams about the relevance and importance of women’s rights in Islamic teachings. However, Jamila and her team were able to successfully promote women’s rights awareness through the Imam training program, which was implemented in two phases.
In November 2009, the program began as a six-month pilot project focused on training and mobilizing Imams from twenty influential and populous mosques. The Imams met regularly at NECDO to learn about patriarchal violence associated with marriage, inheritance, ownership and property, and political and social participation. Specific attention was given to the prevalence of violence, accurate related scriptural interpretations, national laws and instruments on women’s rights, international human rights instruments on gender, and strategies for change. Imams were advised to use these themes to develop Friday sermons, which were monitored by university students.
Jamila faced significant challenges throughout the project, including criticism from some Imams who thought the program too “Western.” The training sessions demonstrated that numerous harmful traditional practices against women were a result of patriarchal (mis)interpretations of the Quran and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). In supporting women’s human rights, the sessions utilized the Afghan constitution, other national and international legal treaties, and the WISE Compact, which encapsulates the WISE mission and defends gender equality through the objectives of Islamic law. Jamila later won over the doubting Imams after deciding to conduct sessions in smaller workgroups with a balance of moderate and conservative Imams and foster extensive discussions.
In phase one, twenty participating Imams delivered more than 300 sermons during the six-month project period to approximately 117,600 congregants, of which an estimated 12% were women. Media attention and coverage were extensive, with an estimated 9.5 million people being exposed to sermons on women’s rights in Islam. The NECDO and the Imams also developed a series of booklets on the five women’s human rights issues in simple Dari. 10,000 copies of the booklets were printed and distributed throughout the community.
In June 2010, supplemental funding was secured to extend the project for a year in the twenty mosques in Kabul and ten new mosques in Jalalabad. The project proposal objectives included hiring thirty university students—both male and female—to monitor the Imams’ Friday sermons, and publishing and distributing 15,000 copies of the booklets on women’s rights. The extended program also aimed to establish formal women’s sections in the ten participating mosques in Kabul and to appoint twenty women as leaders of these sections. Lastly, the program sought to expand women’s rights in Afghanistan by further developing the communication, presentation and networking skills of the Imams, university students, and women’s section leaders.
WISE agreed to establish and facilitate systems for the monitoring and evaluation of the project; disseminate information globally about the projects’ operations, outcomes, and replicability. NECDO agreed to implement the project as proposed, provide reports of monthly progress and consultant site visits, and solicit local media coverage of the projects’ successes.
Both phase one and phase two exemplified the efficacy of mobilizing Imams for women’s rights in Afghanistan. In phase one, the program achieved the following results:
- Twenty Imams participated in the program: Twenty Imams from influential and populous mosques in Kabul met regularly at NEC to learn about five major women’s human rights issues (education, marriage, inheritance, ownership and property, and political and social participation) and related forms of violence.
- The twenty Imams developed and delivered over 300 Friday sermons on these five issues to approximately 117,600 congregants in total, of which an estimated 14,400, or 12%, were women.
- Twenty university students monitored these sermons by documenting key themes and people’s reactions, problems, and suggestions: Sermons covered a range of topics, but those on marriage and inheritance received the most interest. Reactions typically varied by age—younger attendees were generally more engaged and receptive—and differed by whether the mosques offered religious education for girls or other services for women and girls.
- According to the university student project monitors, 97% of the 240 individuals interviewed after the Friday sermons believed that Islamic human rights for men and women were equal and the same. For example, one of the project monitors noticed an elderly man sitting at the back of the prayer hall after one Friday sermon. The monitor asked him if he needed any help, and the man replied, “No one can help me. Now time is gone and I have committed all sorts of violence against my daughters. I have received walwar [bride price], I stopped them from getting an education, I forced their marriages. They are suffering every day because of my wrongs. Why were these Imams not talking on these issues before?” This man’s story is indicative of how effective these sermons were in impacting the community.
- More than 15,000 booklets on ending violence against women were produced and distributed among mosques: Easy-to-read booklets on the five key women’s rights issues were written in Dari and English with input from the Imams, local and international experts, and the university students. These booklets incorporated scriptural and legal justifications, including quotations from the Quran and Hadith.
- The initial success of the program enabled WISE to extend the project for another year in twenty Kabul mosques, and to replicate the project activities in ten Jalalabad mosques: An additional 15,000 booklets were printed and distributed. Formal women’s sections were created in ten Kabul mosques, where two women were assigned to lead each section. They received the same training as the Imams, and female university students were hired to monitor sermons in the women’s section of the mosques.
Phase two further provided further evidence of using a religious, cultural framework to reduce violence against women:
- The Imam training program promoted community awareness about ensuring the safety and rights of women: Monitors reported that women at the mosques were very interested to learn about their rights from an Islamic perspective. Many of the women in attendance said they were interested because they are deprived of many basic rights in their communities. One of the women in the community felt that the men of the family had become more careful not to violate women’s rights since the Imams began discussing them regularly.
- More than 200 women attended Imam Abdul Wasi’s khutbah in Kabul: After the khutbah several of the women expressed their appreciation of the project because they now were more aware about their Islamic rights. Women particularly liked the booklets because it gave them written evidence to refer to, and empowered them to ask about their rights in education, marriage, inheritance and social participation.
- Jamila Afghani won the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding’s 2010 Peacemakers in Action Award: After being nominated by WISE, Jamila won the Tanenbaum award, which honors individuals inspired by their faith to work peace on initiatives in regions of armed conflict.
- The Imam-training program was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative as a 2010 Commitment to Action: CGI members showcased Commitments, or initiatives to address various global challenges, in order to spark constructive feedback and garner partnerships.
Noor Educational & Capacity Development Organization.
“Jamila Afghani,” The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
WISE Stories of Impact: Jamila Afghani (page 53).
Eradicating Female Genital Cutting
Female genital cutting (FGC) is a practice that “intentionally alter[s] or injure[s] female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”1
FGC originated in some parts of Africa, primarily in Egypt and Sudan. It dates back thousands of years—to the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs—and was performed long before the birth of Islam in the 7th century. It is a longstanding, pervasive practice in certain Muslim-majority countries, particularly Egypt. Despite being condemned by Islamic scholars, denounced in fatwas (opinions of Islamic law), and rendered illegal by governmental statutes, FGC is widely practiced, condoned, and seen by some as a cultural norm and authentic ritual.
From 2008 to 2010, WISE collaborated with a local partner organization dedicated to raising awareness about discrimination against women, in an effort to reduce the number of FGC cases in the Dair El Nahia region of Giza, Egypt. WISE worked with the partner organization to create a replicable program that promoted the elimination of FGC through religious training sessions and financial incentives for FGC practitioners to stop performing the procedure. The project to eliminate FGC as a common cultural practice was implemented in two phases.
In phase one, the project team identified two common practitioners of FGC, a barber and a midwife—Amin and Zeinab, respectively—who were receptive to participating in pilot projects. The provision of religious and monetary incentives was coupled with several supplementary conditions. These included ensuring the practitioners’ personal and business hygiene, workplace sanitation, religious observation, and routine communication with clients about FGC’s negative effects and lack of religious mandate. Lastly, a strong record of no longer performing FGC was required; otherwise monetary stipends allocated to FGC practitioners had to be repaid.
The results of these two pilot projects confirmed the feasibility and effectiveness of combining religious education and income replacement strategies in eliminating the practice of FGC in Egypt’s slum areas. The economic status of FGC practitioners represented a key challenge, as it was a major impediment to the cessation of these procedures. For this reason, offering income replacement for a sufficient period of time for FGC practitioners to begin or extend other income-generating activities and obtain comparable income levels was essential. This strategy gave the practitioners the economic security to abandon the practice of FGC.
In addition, providing the practitioners with religious training in the form of accurate scriptural interpretation and guidance on conveying messages to clients and others was crucial for terminating FGC practices. The religious training, which included an affiliation with a respected teacher and a certificate from the well-respected Al-Azhar University confirming that FGC is un-Islamic, gave the practitioners the religious authority to stop the practice themselves and advocate for its cessation throughout their communities.
In phase two of the program, WISE and the local partner extended the 2010 project for another year in order to target two remaining practitioners of FGC in Dair El Nahia, Giza: Faiza, a former midwife, and Magdi, another barber. Faiza had been conducting 180 FGC procedures per year for thirteen years prior to participating in the project, while Magdi had been conducting an estimated 120 FGC procedures for the past five years.
After the success of the pilot programs, additional advocacy seminars and educational sessions on FGC for Dair El Nahia residents were planned, and incentives were offered to families who agreed not to allow their daughters to undergo the practice. As with the pilot programs, phase two of the project entailed the provision of economic support with income replacement strategies (temporary salary, training, and material resources) so that practitioners would not lose their economic livelihood after they ceased practicing FGC. Educational support through religious training was implemented in order to demonstrate that FGC is not religiously mandated. Lastly, accurate health and social information about the practice was administered.
 The American Society for Muslim Advancement’s Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality prefers to use the more sensitive term Female Genital Cutting instead of Female Genital Mutilation out of respect for the millions of women and girls around the world who have undergone the procedure and live with its consequences.
In phase one the program effectively reduced the rate of FGC in the Dair El Nahia region of Giza, Egypt:
- Two of the major pilot project practitioners stopped all FGC practices: Neither Amin the barber nor Zeinab the midwife conducted any procedures during their project periods. Additionally, neither has reverted to their old practices in the months since the project ended.
- Amin regularly committed FGC illegally so he could financially support his wife and three children. After receiving educational training demonstrating that FGC is un-Islamic and harmful to women and broader society, he agreed to stop the practice in exchange for monetary compensation and new tools for his barbershop business. It has been well over a year since Amin committed an FGC procedure and he proudly displays in his barbershop a declaration from Al-Azhar University that FGC is un-Islamic and haraam (forbidden).
- Zeinab agreed to stop practicing FGC in 2009 in exchange for an investment in her upstart fresh poultry store. She has since been able to employ other members of the community after opening her poultry shop.
- Weekly monitoring indicated that the barber and midwife followed the program conditions 90% of the time: The majority of the non-compliance issues occurred in the initial weeks of the project and were related to hygiene (e.g. not wearing a clean uniform, not using hot water, not cleaning outside the shop).
- The program has effectively resulted in 264 fewer FGC procedures: Best estimates indicate that the projects have resulted in 264 fewer FGC procedures in the targeted area annually, a substantial reduction.
- The economic incentives program proved effective and replicable in deterring FGC: Based on the projects’ operating budgets, estimates are that it costs $16.66 to stop one FGC procedure by the health barber and $10.20 to stop one procedure by the midwife.
Phase two of the program targeted two additional FGC practitioners in Dair El Nahia, Giza:
- Five awareness sessions were conducted monthly from June to October 2010, with 65 members of the Dair El Nahia region attending each session: 70% of the attendees were female and 30% were male. Sessions were held at the Youth Center in Dair El Nahia and outlined the legal, social, psychological, and health consequences of practicing FGC. Additionally, the religious aspects of FGC were explored through a discussion of the critical role men play in perpetrating and combating FGC.
- Two training workshops educated community leaders on the hazardous effects of FGC on the health of women and girls: These Dair El Nahia workshops helped build a stronger coalition of advocates against FGC in the region.
- Five families—one a month—were awarded economic incentives for agreeing not to allow their daughters to undergo FGC: Families were given 500 le for their commitment to stop practicing FGC.
- Two former practitioners of FGC successfully transitioned off of an economic livelihood based on FGC:
- Magdi, a former barber and practitioner of FGC, now works as a Tuk Tuk, or autorickshaw, driver.
- Faiza, a former midwife and practitioner of FGC, now runs her own grocery store.
Domestic Violence Awareness Campaign
Domestic violence against women is a longstanding pervasive practice in many cultures and countries, and a major violation of women’s human rights. In some Muslim-majority countries, such practice is based on mistaken beliefs about its religious origins and social purposes, and perpetuated by unjust rulings or unenforced and unrecognized laws. Legal systems in many countries are male-dominated and patriarchal, further limiting women’s access to justice.
In 2009WISE collaborated with Bedari, a women’s rights organization based in Islamabad, on a domestic violence awareness campaign in district Jhelum, an impoverished region of Punjab, Pakistan. Impetus for the project came after a bill against domestic violence passed in late 2009 by the National Assembly of Pakistan but which later lapsed in the Senate.
Bedari, a non-governmental development organization holds a 15-year record of successfully supporting women survivors of violence through crises centers and other services, such as increasing public awareness about domestic violence through creative community-based education and cross-sector communication among legal and social service professionals. Anbreen Ajaib, program manager at Bedari, proposed a joint collaboration with WISE after attending the 2009 WISE convening in Malaysia. She was influenced by the Change through Communication module of the conference to develop an education and advocacy campaign against domestic violence.
With WISE, Bedari developed a domestic violence awareness campaign designed to encourage dialogue and understanding of gender equity. The program consisted of four key components: producing literature in Urdu on domestic violence; producing theatric community performance on domestic violence; facilitating dialogue among all members of the community, including police, politicians, and opinion makers in ensuring strong domestic violence legislation; and holding community-based awareness workshops with experts on how to recognize or speak out against domestic violence.
The project replicated proven effective awareness and sensitization campaigns that had been used in other districts. The collaboration was designed to focus on increasing awareness of domestic violence against women and related pending legislation. The project responded to an identified need to expand its work on domestic violence awareness geographically in very impoverished and illiterate or semi-illiterate communities in the district of Jhelum (Punjab). Because a large segment of the community is illiterate, a critical component of the program was staging community theatre productions on domestic violence. Bedari and others have found that street theater is an effective communication tool in areas where most of the population is either illiterate or semi-literate, and that inclusion of youth actors helped to attract young viewers. Staging the theater performances in multiple community locations helped reach multiple audiences efficiently in a short time period.
The project’s key results included:
- Producing 5,000 illustrated booklets on domestic violence awareness: A short booklet written in simple Urdu on domestic violence was developed and 5,000 copies were distributed through two of Bedari’s partners. The booklet also included a two-page position paper against domestic violence using scriptural based arguments from the WISE Shura Council’s Jihad Against Violence statement.During the production process, religious and legal experts in Pakistan were involved in the production of the booklet, in addition to the WISE Shura Council.
- Educating community members by holding 20 community theatre performances on domestic violence: Because the rate of illiteracy was high in the community, street performances were critical in creating awareness about domestic violence. The project team reported there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that audience members were engaging with the subject matter and learning more about domestic violence. For example, after watching one of the performances, Riaz , a street vendor, was “impressed by the efforts of young women.” He is struggling to provide quality education to his children, two of whom are teenage girls. He said: “I am really ashamed that we men who have power and education are not doing anything for the betterment of the society … I have daughters at home. One is studying in grade 9 and the other in grade 7. One day, they would get married, and if they face violence from their husbands or in-laws, that would be very painful for me.”
- Mobilizing individuals in the community through three awareness workshops: Three advocacy and awareness sessions on domestic violence were held with community leaders. These sessions involved expert presenters and groups of 10 or more. Participants received booklets and actively shared the information with their families and neighbors.