Working Group on DAW commended for resolute voice in times of backlash

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) welcomes the report of the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women on the causes of deprivation of liberty. 

We commend the Working Group on its bold and sustained attention to structural forms of discrimination and the impact of interlocking systems of oppression, and for their unflinching focus on patriarchy as underlying cause.

Whether it be:

  • Women and girls confined to the home or deprived of their rights to free movement and self-determination, justified in the name of ‘complementarity’ or ‘guardianship’;
  • Women Human Rights Defenders monitored and criminalized for their work challenging fundamentalisms, authoritarianism, and extractivism; 
  • Women who are migrants, indigenous, or racial or religious minorities – and those who are sexual and gender non-conforming – disproportionately targeted for policing and control; or
  • Deprivation of women and girls’ liberty arising from systems of economic inequality –

Today our fundamental right of bodily autonomy is profoundly threatened, and a fixation on controlling women and girls’ bodies and lives is a common thread amongst the rising far right – a central preoccupation for diverse fundamentalisms, fascisms, white supremacy, corporate power, and neo-colonialism. 

We must reject these anti-rights ideologies that promote hate, control and inequality – that instrumentalize culture and religion, appropriate human rights language, and threaten multilateral systems in order to foster impunity and violate rights – and unite to defend gender justice and the core principle of the universality of rights.

Over the past 9 years the pioneering work of the Working Group has been critical to further issues of women’s human rights at the Council and beyond; a resolute and essential voice in this time of backlash. We stress our strong support for the mandate, and call upon States to ensure its renewal and to reaffirm their commitment to cooperate with the Working Group in a united effort to protect, promote and fulfil women’s equality and gender justice. 

It is the time for action, to prove our commitment to women and girls’ human rights. There is no excuse for discrimination.

This statement was delivered by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, June 26th 2019.

The globalisation of anti-gender campaigns

Transnational anti-gender movements in Europe and Latin America create unlikely alliances

By Sonia Corrêa, David Paternotte, Roman Kuhar

In 2012 and 2013, thousands of people demonstrated against same-sex marriage in Paris and other French cities. The success of these protests came as a surprise in a country often associated with secularism and sexual freedom.

The organisation La Manif pour Tous led some of the demonstrations, taking to the streets with pink and blue flags. It urged activists abroad to emulate the French with slogans, posters and strategies travelling across borders. While similar mobilisations happened earlier in Spain, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, 2012 appears to have been a turning point.

Spectacular mobilisations have also taken place in Latin America, which is both a key target and a production hub of anti-gender campaigns. A first flare was registered in 2011 in Paraguay, when the term ‘gender’ was contested by the Catholic right during discussions on the national education plan. In 2013, in one of his weekly TV programmes, Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Corrêa similarly denounced ‘gender ideology’ as an instrument aimed at destroying the family. Since 2014, these attacks have intensified, with massive demonstrations in numerous countries, and they decisively impacted the Colombian peace agreement referendum in 2016.

It culminated in November 2017, when American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was viciously attacked in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Although the attack received global attention, it is only the tip of the iceberg in Latin America.

Transnational campaigns

In both regions, these movements contest what they call gender ideology. Sometimes referred to as gender theory or genderism, it is presented as the matrix of the combatted policy reforms, and should therefore not be confused with gender studies or specific equality policies. No less importantly, gender ideology is seen by some as the cover for a totalitarian plan by radical feminists, LGBTQI activists and gender scholars to seize political power.

Numerous scholars have traced the origins of gender ideology back to the Vatican and their political allies.

Crucially, this discourse recaptures and reframes Cold War Catholic discourses against Marxism and stirs anti-communist sentiments in Eastern Europe as well as in Latin America. There, the ‘evils of gender’ are entangled by right-wing activists with the ‘spectres of Venezuela’ or calls for a military intervention. Although national triggers vary (abortion and reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, LGBTI parental rights, gender mainstreaming, gender violence, sex education, anti-discrimination policies and so on), the explanation given by anti-gender campaigners is always the same: all this is due to gender ideology.

These movements not only share a common enemy, they display similar discourses and strategies as well as a distinctive style of action. We label them transnational anti-gender campaigns to emphasise their global scope and underline their particular profile in the wider landscape of opposition to feminism and LGBTI rights.

A Catholic cradle

Numerous scholars have traced the origins of gender ideology back to the Vatican and their political allies. Building on previous projects such as Pope John-Paul II’s Theology of the Body lectures or the New Evangelization, it was designed in response to the 1994 Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, when the term ‘gender’ entered the United Nations vocabulary, surrounded by demands for rights relating to reproduction and sexuality.

This discourse, which relies on ideas espoused by Cardinal Ratzinger in the early 1980s, was developed in Europe and Latin America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading to the Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions (2003) and the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and World (2004).

Gender ideology is not only a lens through which to analyse what happened at the UN, but also a Catholic strategy of action. Based on philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, it propagates its alternative interpretation of gender through means that subvert the notions it opposes. While John-Paul II and Benedict XVI designed this project, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his support, describing gender as a form of  ‘ideological colonisation’.

Campaigns on the ground

Contemporary mobilisations, however, cannot be reduced to a Catholic enterprise, but intersect with other political projects and wider sets of actors. First, present strategies are reminiscent of the US Christian Right, and US organisations are active across continents, propelling transnational networks such as the World Congress of Families.

Since evangelical voices, which are new in Latin America, are more strident, the intellectual role of the Catholic hierarchy is often overlooked.

Second, while the Vatican has been instrumental in elaborating a frame of action, actors on the ground are more diverse. They include other religious groups as well as secular voices, and form coalitions that vary considerably according to local contexts.

The European situation cannot not be understood without looking at intersections with right-wing populisms. Both rely on attacks against corrupt elites and pretend to defend ‘innocent children’. They invoke common sense against decadent ideas and claim that things have ‘gone too far’, depicting themselves as the defenders of a majority silenced by powerful lobbies. These encounters explain why, in several European countries, right-wing populists have joined anti-gender campaigns without being particularly religious. This overlap offers a springboard to anti-genderists while fuelling anti-liberal discourses and sentiments.

Campaigns in Russia and the parts of Europe under Russian influence have been directly engineered from the Kremlin with the support of the Russian Orthodox church. As part of the state machinery, they are instrumentalised to restore the international status of Russia through a global defence of national sovereignty and ‘traditional values’. Poland and Hungary are currently following this path, with Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, increasingly vocal on the issue.

Latin America campaigns displays distinctive features. First, more than anywhere else, the criticism of gender ideology is no monopoly of the right, even though right-wingers are usually on the front lines. Second, these campaigns involve both conservative Catholics and evangelicals (mostly neo-Pentecostals). Since evangelical voices, which are new in the region, are more strident, the intellectual role of the Catholic hierarchy is often overlooked. However, Latin American Catholics have significantly contributed to the development of the anti-gender discourse and current anti-gender formations rely on older Catholic anti-abortion structures.

Third, anti-gender political formations are not exclusively religious but encompass secular actors whose profile differs substantially across countries. In Brazil, they include politicians playing electoral games, extreme-right actors, centre-liberals articulating anti-state arguments alongside anti-gender arguments, middle-class activists longing for social order and transnationally connected Jewish right-wing activists.

Indeed, if anti-gender campaigns are so efficient, it is precisely because they amalgamate actors who would not usually work together.

Despite this unexpected diversity, however, the populist analytical frame, so common in Europe and the US, is inappropriate. Indeed, populist practices have long been deeply ingrained in the regional political culture. As a result, populism has no side and cannot be easily mapped on to the left-right divide in the region.

A complex constellation

Anti-gender movements include a complex constellation of actors that goes far beyond specific religious affiliations. Research has shown that ‘gender ideology’ is an empty signifier, which can tap into different fears and anxieties in specific contexts and therefore be shaped to fit distinct political projects. Furthermore, as stressed by Andrea Peto, Eszter Kováts, Maari Põim and Weronika Grzebalska, the vague notion of gender ideology operates as a ‘symbolic glue’ that facilitates cooperation between actors despite their divergences.

This is precisely what must be understood: what are the specific constellations of actors in each context and how can different sorts of actors, who usually do not work together and can even compete with each other, find a common ground on which to collaborate?

In brief, how to explain joint ventures between believers and atheists, Catholic and Russian Orthodox or Latin American evangelical, or opposed strands within contemporary Roman Catholicism? It must also be reiterated that the debate is not about faith against atheism, and that not all believers of a specific denomination are involved in these campaigns.

A more sophisticated analytical frame would allow us to move away from simplistic grids such as populism, the global right or a global backlash, and pay more attention to the specific political formations at play on the ground. It would also avoid narrow binary frames opposing ‘us’ to ‘them’ that unduly homogenise distinctive contextual conditions and a complex array of forces and actors.

Finally, contextualisation and complexification are not only needed analytically, but are politically essential. Indeed, if anti-gender campaigns are so efficient, it is precisely because they amalgamate actors who would not usually work together. Today, it is crucial to further understand how these mysterious coalitions are forged and sustained.

Originally published by the International Politics and Society Journal

Time to fight global avalanche of misogyny caused by fundamentalism and extremism, UN rights expert says

The world must fight back against a growing threat to women’s rights fuelled by rising fundamentalism and extremism, a UN human rights expert has told the General Assembly in New York.

“Fundamentalism and extremism are giving rise to widespread abuses of women’s cultural rights,” said Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, presenting a report on the global challenges being faced.

“Some of the most urgent threats that women’s human rights will face in coming years will include the diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism that are on the rise across all regions of the world.” 

The Special Rapporteur asked the audience: “What world will your daughters inherit? This is a wake-up call for our times. We face a multidirectional global avalanche of misogyny, motivated by diverse fundamentalist and extremist ideologies. For the sake of all the daughters around the world, let us come together and take an unequivocal stand for women’s equal cultural rights, to reverse this worrying trend.

Ms. Bennoune said protecting women’s rights was not optional in tackling fundamentalism and extremism, which have inequality and rejection of human rights at their core and have to be met with a vigorous international human rights-based challenge.

“These ideologies seek to roll back advances achieved in securing women’s equality, aim to block further advances, and try to penalize and stigmatize women human rights defenders promoting such critical efforts. They give rise to a backlash against women’s rights and those who defend them,” she said. 

“Diverse religious fundamentalists have sought to punish cultural expression incompatible with their interpretations of religion through blasphemy laws, gender discriminatory family laws, campaigns of harassment, human rights abuses and outright violence.”

“Extremists often harass and target women who are members of minority groups, or who are immigrants or are lesbian, bisexual or transgender, as they seek to enjoy their equal cultural rights. They are often motivated by myths of a homogenous nation, claims of cultural or ethnic or racial superiority or purity, and populist ultra-nationalism.” 

The Special Rapporteur called for an immediate end to discriminatory practices such as banning women’s artistic expression, extremist targeting of cultural events associated with women and girls, the imposition of “modest” dress codes, and curbs on women’s equal participation in social, economic, political and cultural affairs.

“Boosting the protection and promotion of women’s human rights is not only essential to tackling extremism, but there is no way to achieve gender equality by 2030 as committed to in the UN Sustainable Development Goals without addressing the human rights impacts of fundamentalism and extremism,” she added.

The Special Rapporteur said she had particular concerns that fundamentalists and extremists were targeting education in an effort to impose their worldviews. 

“The promotion and defence of non-sexist education in accordance with international standards, and of non-discrimination and full equality for women and girls in education, are among the most important measures governments can take to defeat fundamentalism and extremism and defend women’s cultural rights,” Ms. Bennoune said.

“Arts, education, science and culture are among the best ways to fight fundamentalism and extremism and support women’s rights. These are not luxuries, but are critical to creating alternatives and protecting youth from any form of radicalization.”

She also paid tribute to female human rights defenders around the world who “recognized and responded to” extremism, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, and stressed they should be central to developing strategies to combat fundamentalism and extremism. “Empowering them disempowers extremists,” she added.

The Special Rapporteur said the answer lay partially in secular politics and governance.

“The separation of religion and state is a critical piece of the struggle against fundamentalist and extremist ideologies that target women, as it creates or preserves space for women and minorities to challenge those ideologies, and to enjoy their cultural rights without discrimination,” Ms. Bennoune said.

She also stressed that women’s rights should never be used as a bargaining chip in pursuit of peace with extremist and fundamentalist groups. “Giving in to the social demands of fundamentalists and extremists, especially about women, only exacerbates the human rights situation and leads to escalating claims,” she said.  

The Special Rapporteur is convening a side event, The Impact of Fundamentalism and Extremism on the Cultural Rights of Women: Time to Take a Stand, at 1700 local time on 26 October 2017, in Conference Room 11, UN Headquarters, New York. The event will also be live-streamed here.

The World Congress of Families: A prime example of today’s anti-rights lobby

On Thursday 25 May 2017, ultra-conservative activists and policy-makers will come together in Budapest, Hungary for the 11th international World Congress of Families (WCF) under the title “Building Family-Friendly Nations: Making Families Great Again”.

As the biggest annual meeting of the right, the organizers have stated their hopes that this year’s WCF will “help launch a new global pro-family alliance of countries dedicated to defending marriage, the family and the sanctity of human life.

Throughout the four days (25-28 May) delegates from the clergy, civil society, the business world, and politics will build relationships and learn from each other’s tactics for achieving regressive change – all under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Hungary.

While extremely troubling, the WCF is not an exceptional event.  In fact, it can be seen as an archetypal example of much broader trends.  A new report released this week, documents the rise in numbers, increased coordination, and increasingly strategic approaches of anti-rights actors operating in international spaces, and the significant impact they have made so far.

Behind the Research

In 2016 a group of organizations and activists, including AWID, launched a collaborative project called the Observatory on the Universality of Rights – OURs, for short.

The project stemmed in part from a strategy meeting on religious fundamentalisms held by AWID in 2013, during which a number of participants raised concerns about the effects of ultra-conservative groups on our human rights, and shared the work they were doing already to resist.

A clear trend was visible: These anti-rights actors, both state and non-state, were working more concertedly than ever to undermine a core concept of human rights: their universality.

Universality is a cornerstone of international human rights law.  It encapsulates that we are all equally entitled to our human rights simply by being human – whatever our nationality, place of residence, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language, sexuality, or any other status.

The OURs initiative decided to undertake a comprehensive study of the forces working to undermine universality, the impact they have had so far, and ultimately what this might mean for people’s lives.

© | Flickr | WCF 2012

What did we find?

1. A large and complex anti-rights lobby

The research revealed an unprecedented level of engagement by anti-rights actors in international human rights spaces today.   Following an initial foray in the UN arena during the Beijing and Cairo conferences in the 1990s, these ultra-conservative actors have been increasingly targeting the international policy arena.

One of the most notable trends found is the tendency towards strategic alliances. The report maps a complex and evolving anti-rights lobby at the UN, with older forms of affiliation, based on religion or institution, giving way to pragmatic organizing according to shared goals.

2. An evolving repertoire of strategies

A striking finding of the research is that ultra-conservative actors – despite all their rigidity when it comes to worldview – very much move with the times when it comes to strategy.

Where anti-rights actors may have previously been explicit in their religious or “moral” motivations, they now often appeal to supposedly intellectual or “social science” arguments.  What is more, when certain human rights bodies prove difficult to infiltrate or influence, anti-rights groups find new points of entry.

Across all the strategies of these actors, some key trends are visible:

  • Learning from the organizing strategies of feminists and other progressives.
  • Adapting successful national-level tactics for the international sphere.
  • Moving from an emphasis on symbolic protest against the human rights system, to becoming subversive system “insiders”.

3. Expert “double-speak”

The report paints a picture of the myriad creative discourses anti-rights actors use to undermine the universality of rights.  In several cases, these actors take a legitimate concern or struggle and appropriate it for their agenda.

A good example is the way that anti-imperialist discourse is used by both ultra-conservative states and civil society organizations. This narrative revolves around the idea that national governments are being unjustly targeted by UN bodies, or by other states acting through the UN.

Of course, there is much to be said about the instances in which national governments are bullied by other states and by international institutions.

However, we documented the ways this discourse is co-opted to cast a powerful institution – the state – as the victim, in order to justify national exceptions to universal human rights standards. Tellingly, many of those who employ this discourse are in fact global North-based organizations.

Another striking finding is the trend towards co-opting the very language of human rights, women’s rights, and even the notion of “universal” itself.

To give just one example, conservative players have attempted to construct a new category of “parental rights”, which has no support in existing human rights standards.

While sounding something like a genuine area of human rights, this dangerous framework in fact works to twist the rights protections children have, as articulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to support the rights of parents to control their children and limit their rights and autonomy.

4. The impact on our rights is grave… but there is hope

Anti-rights actors have already had a substantive impact on our human rights framework, especially rights related to gender and sexuality.

Take the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), for example.  Precisely when addressing women’s human rights is of urgent importance, the very space dedicated to this has become extremely harder and harder to make advances in. Our energy is taken up trying to hold the ground against conservative backlash – sometimes even on agreements made 20 years ago!

At the Human Rights Council (HRC), in between progressive gains, we have increasingly witnessed ultra-conservative states aggressively negotiating out positive language and introducing hostile amendments to resolutions.

In a whole range of spaces beyond these two examples, the presence of regressive actors is being keenly felt.  However, we should not see this as a done deal.  

First of all, we should remember that these advances have, at least in part, been a response to the gains of feminism and other progressive movements – a backlash that indicates the extent of our power.

We can also take courage from the many times when anti-rights actors’ attempts were unsuccessful due to the strong efforts of progressive activists.

From the limited amount of regressive language conservative actors managed to insert into Agenda 2030, to the repeated fruitless attempts to block the new mandate of the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, to the strong provisions on sexual and reproductive rights and health in the 2016 HRC resolution on discrimination against women – these regressive agendas can and will be thwarted.

Understanding the attacks, to strengthen our rights

This research was founded on the belief that to counter the advance of our “opponents” in human rights spaces we must have an intimate knowledge of the ways they operate. As the first report to come out of OURs, we have focussed most of our attention on the threat itself.

One might wonder if this detailed look at anti-rights efforts risks over-emphasis on the negative aspects of the picture. Our hope is that this first report will act as a strong foundation for building awareness and action in this area.  As we go on, the plan is to build upon these findings, including by documenting the important gains feminists and other progressive actors have made in recent years.

There are many progressive activists doing remarkable and sustained work on our rights related to gender and sexuality – we are many, and we are strong.  Our hope for this research is that it will provide the knowledge to make our collective struggle more strategic, more proactive, and ultimately more effective.

Let’s work together to defend the universality of rights!

Add your voice and apply to become an institutional member. Get in touch to learn more

Culture of Love, a UN Free & Equal campaign

Just ahead of the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia the UN Human Rights Office today launched a new UN Free & Equal mini-campaign that explores the role that culture and tradition play in the lives of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex people around the world.

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Culture and tradition are profound parts of our lives. They allow us to come together to mark life’s milestones, and celebrate our heritage and the people we love. For many, they provide a sense of home, of history and identity.

Culture and tradition belong to everyone. Each of us gets to interpret, adapt and practice the beliefs, customs and rituals that are meaningful to us as individuals. These are basic cultural rights – guaranteed to everyone without discrimination.

Sadly, some people see the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people as a threat to their cultural values. They may try, wrongly, to rationalize violence and discrimination as a way of protecting their beliefs in the name of culture and tradition. No matter how diverse people’s beliefs and values, culture and tradition are not a license to discriminate or an excuse for violence.

Culture and tradition are not fixed: they change over time and are viewed and interpreted differently within societies. There are traditions of hate and repression, just as there are traditions of equality and justice. It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves which ones to carry on.

UN Free & Equal published three videos as part of the campaign. Tradition, Culture and Family can be watched from the campaign website.

  • In “Tradition”, a young man in Mumbai brings his boyfriend to a family celebration of the Festival of Holi.
  • In “Culture”, a genderqueer youngster in Britain joins their father at a soccer match and basks in the comradery that goes with supporting the local team.
  • In “Family”, Chinese parents shake off their initial hesitation and include their daughter’s same sex partner in their traditional Lunar New Year celebrations.


OURs - News piece

Female clerics declare fatwa on child marriage in Indonesia

Female clerics on Thursday issued an unprecedented fatwa against child marriage in Indonesia in a bid to stop young girls becoming brides in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

The fatwa – which is influential among Muslims but not legally binding – came at the end of an extraordinary three-day conference of female Islamic clerics: a rare example of women assuming a lead role in religious affairs in this mostly-Muslim country.

“Maternal mortality is very high in Indonesia. We – as female clerics – can play a role on the issue of child marriage,” conference organiser Ninik Rahayu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Female clerics know the issues and obstacles women face, we can take action and not just wait for the government to protect these children,” she said by phone from Cirebon in the West Java province, where the congress was held.

Indonesia has one of the worst records for under-age marriage – its high number of child brides puts it among the top 10 countries worldwide – and it is common for girls to marry before they turn 18.

Thursday’s fatwa, or religious edict, called underage marriage “harmful” and said its prevention was mandatory.

Read the full story from the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

Indonesia: gay men facing 100 lashes for having sex

The case could become the first time Aceh’s sharia law has been enforced against homosexuality.

Two gay Indonesian men have been arrested and face 100 lashes in a case that is drawing international attention to the enforcement of controversial new Islamic bylaws in the semi-autonomous Aceh province.

Mobile phone footage, showing vigilantes slapping one of the young men as he sits naked on the ground awaiting arrest by local sharia police, has been shared on social media in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

The sentence has already been meted out for crimes such as adultery, but it is believed this would be the first time Aceh’s new statutes concerning religion and morality could be enforced against homosexuality.

Aceh is the only region in Indonesia, a plural democracy, which allows local authorities to maintain parallel laws and police forces based on religious interpretations.

The province, sitting on the northern tip of Sumatra island and holding about 2% of Indonesia’s population of 250 million, was granted this special status in 2001 as a compromise with historical separatist movements.

The anti-gay law was passed in 2014 and Human Rights Watch says these new statutes and punishments violate human rights treaties to which Indonesia is a party, and has asked president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to intervene.

“The agreement which granted Aceh the legitimate right to form its own local bylaws did not allow them to persecute people for their religion or sexuality,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Indonesia. “Across Indonesia today, we are seeing rising discrimination in the name of Islam, including against women and LGBT community”

In October, the moderate Jokowi spoke out against increased abuse directed at LGBT persons in Indonesia, and said police must act to defend them.

“However, Jokowi has not backed up that statement with action,” said a statement issued by Human Rights Watch on 9 April.

The two men, reportedly aged 20 and 24, were caught on 28 March by unknown men who forcibly entered a home. Local bylaws allow this kind of citizen’s arrest and the men are now being held by sharia police.

In the video, one of the men appears distressed and confused. “Brother, please, help me, help me. We are caught.” he says into a mobile phone.

Read the full article from the Guardian.

Orthodox Church debate over women deacons moves one step closer to reality

The prospect of women being ordained as deacons may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.

In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.

James Skedros, dean of Holy Cross seminary and professor of Orthodox history, believes appointing female deacons will have a positive impact by showing people that “there are plenty of ministries in the church that women can and should participate in.”

“When we see that happening to a woman, even if it’s in Alexandria, that’s a powerful image for us Orthodox.”

While women in several Protestant denominations have succeeded in becoming ordained ministers, their sisters in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church continue to push for recognition and acceptance. While the Orthodox Church says its theology has not changed in centuries, the role of women members is now in flux.

Marilyn Rouvelas, chair of Orthodox Deacons, a women’s ordination ministry in Virginia, said deaconesses are desperately needed in the U.S.

“It’s hard for a priest to serve an entire community,” said Rouvelas. “They’re already overworked.”

But each branch of Orthodoxy doesn’t necessarily recognize that need. Rouvelas has monitored and contributed to the discussions since 1992. She said women couldn’t be ordained unless the synod of bishops agrees to it.

“It’s sort of like whack-a-mole,” Rouvelas said with a laugh. “We get going with the issue, and they keep whacking us down.”

Even though discussions seem to be at an impasse, Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, a professor at Holy Cross who has worked her whole life for women being ordained, added: “The critical mass is coming. We’re not going back.”

Read the full article from Religious News Service.

Sri Lankan Muslim Clerics Say Women Are Not Equal To Men, Defend Marriage Before Puberty

In an alarming submission made to several parliamentarians and other conservative groups with regard to proposed amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) has said that they agree with the Hadith “No people will ever prosper who appoint a woman in charge of their affairs” and therefore a woman isn’t worthy of being appointed a Qazi (judge).

The ACJU is the main body of theologians of Muslims in Sri Lanka. In a brief document dated March 2017 of which the Colombo Telegraph possesses a copy, the clerics have said that therefore they oppose the appointing of female judges (Qazis).

The Hadiths, which was compiled at least 230 years after the death of the Prophet quotes Muhammad the Prophet of Islam as making the statement, the veracity of which has been questioned throughout the Islamic intellectual tradition.

The submission also includes the fact of the marriage of the Prophet to Aisha, of which the contract of marriage was said to have taken place when she was 6 years of age.

It uses the story as a justification for the marriage of girls who have not attained puberty.

Again quoting a Hadith the document says “A father giving in marriage his daughter before attaining puberty is possible and this is the evidence that Abu Bakr (RA) gave Aisha (RA) on marriage to the Prophet (PBUH) when she was 6”.

However, the narration is also a construct of later day scholars although documented in Bukhari, one of the most voluminous of the compilers and considered to be a Sahih (truthful) Hadith.

There has been no other evidence to the effect that Aisha was in fact 6 and that the marriage was consummated when she was 9 except for Hadith, which according to academics was compilation though hearsay. Muhammad is said to have been 53 years at the time.

The ACJU accordingly has made a sweeping conclusion saying they are against any female judge sitting in as a Qazi and that her edicts will be not binding as per the Sharia and will therefore be null and void. Instead the ACJU has sought to confine the female in a consultative capacity.

Adding insult to injury, the ACJU has justified its view using the same justification of Saudi Arabia- saying “It is to protect the rights, honour and modesty of women”.

The head cleric of the ACJU Mufthi Rizwe was yesterday on record that the MMDA is “perfect in the present state”.

Several organizations including Muslim led civil society groups and the media have highlighted and documented many issues of rural Muslim women suffering as a result of the MMDA, including many instances of child marriage.

Read the full article from the Colombo Telegraph.

How a Folk Saint of Death Took Off Among Transgender Women in Mexico

Violence against transgender women is common in Mexico, mostly because employment discrimination forces many to turn to sex work for money. Santa Muerte, the skeleton folk saint with her female form and association with death, is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.

Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.

“The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,” said Betzy Ballesteros, a 26-year-old transgender sex worker. “She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.”

The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.

Condemned as satanic by the Catholic Church and frequently portrayed as a narco-cult in the media, worship of Santa Muerte is nevertheless a fast-growing new religious movement in the Americas, according to Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”

“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice,” said Chesnut. “But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”

In contrast, many transgender women feel rejected by mainstream churches.

“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time,” said Ballesteros. “The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”

The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.

“Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,” he said. “Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.”

As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.

“True religion looks for the devotee to fulfill the will of God, not the other way around. If they opt for another church or belief that justifies what they’re doing, they are looking for a god made to their own measure.”

Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.

The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.

The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,” said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.

Except as victims, transgender women are virtually invisible to the rest of Mexican society. Even the brutal murder on March 11 was relegated to the back pages of local newspapers.

Transgender activist Ari Vera Morales was expelled from a teaching training college.

“The school said I was creating a negative image,” she said. “The problem with being a transgender women in Mexico is that your identity, your existence is criminalized.”

Yet Santa Muerte plays a vital role in helping to unify a community that lacks a voice and visibility.

“When I was 14 my mum kicked me out and I went to live in the house of a friend,” Ballesteros said. “She had a big altar. I learned what a cult was, what death was, what everything was for.”

Read the full article from Religious News Service.