Even outspoken advocates of eliminating bias can argue about what to do. Two big questions cloud the discussion: First, how to define the desired change, and second, how to create it. After 10 years of research on Muslim women’s organizations in Nigeria and Ghana, I have identified some ways in which advocates might wish to begin to answer these questions.
What is gender equality, exactly?
Around the world, visions of what gender equality might look like vary widely, as do the experiences of women in different political, cultural, economic and social contexts. While women in the North are often able to shape global, regional and national discussions and policies on gender equality, this power itself comes from greater access to resources and often centers the experiences of one group women to the exclusion of others.
African Muslim Feminist Scholars like Amina Mama, Ayesha Imam and others have written about how to cultivate broader and more representative global feminist theories and agendas by examining how women create local feminist agendas and activities. Their approaches make it possible to influence larger movements and political systems. Without it, global feminist movements might end up, for example, seeing Islam as a constraint to gender equality rather than a resource that women can interpret and use promote equality, just as other founding religious and political texts can be reinterpreted.
In Africa, grassroots feminist movements often have to challenge conservative claims that feminism is a Western construct, a kind of cultural colonialism. Feminist Africa features gender studies work by scholars and activists in the region, including a wide range of African Muslim feminist perspectives – and may disrupt that narrative. These scholars reject the efforts of both Western liberal feminism and Islamic conservatism to treat them as homogenous and passive. Instead, they offer arguments from feminist perspectives drawn from a deep understanding of their own cultural contexts.
How different types of groups can really work together, without the most powerful dominating
Women who lead international non-governmental organizations generally have more economic resources than women involved in local, non-governmental and community organizations. My research reviews umbrella organizations that include multiple groups, including large international and local organizations, and others research has helped organizations develop strategies to better understand and act on the needs of their various stakeholders.
For example, I worked with the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN), whose members include both types of organizations. Nigeria is a presidential federal republic like the United States, with similar relationships between the different levels of government: federal, state, local. FOMWAN was established in 1985 and has chapters in all 36 Nigerian states. FOMWAN offers programs that focus on basic needs, such as improving access to education through building schools, feeding programs for students, and increasing retention and graduation rates . He also works on voter registration campaigns, vaccination campaigns, and other programs and policies.
The coordination group creates its agenda by consensus among all its members, so that economically vulnerable women have a say on an equal footing with those with more resources.
All these women’s groups operate independently, outside the umbrella organization. When working together, using consensus to decide what programs and activities the coordinating group should undertake requires members to discuss and negotiate among themselves to agree on priorities rather than letting the majority rule. FOMWAN tries to prevent disagreements within its purview from harming other areas where its member groups might collaborate. Of course, none of this works perfectly. But these strategies can be replicated and modelled.
How to turn decisions into action
Of course, agreeing on the agenda is only one step. Then comes deciding how to put it into action. In northern Nigeria, many groups and women working on gender equality through civil society organizations sometimes partner with local, state and federal government authorities, allowing the government to monitor gender equality. effectiveness with which groups work to increase access to health care facilities, clean water and sanitation, and address other types of inequalities.
Not all organizations side with the government to accept its oversight; some instead lobby the government through advocacy campaigns from outside, pushing for things like maternal health care, fiscal accountability and transparency, and protection for vulnerable groups. Still other women are running for national and state legislatures. Of course, legislating requires obtaining the agreement of others, limiting what elected officials can achieve – particularly because those with more economic, political and social capital are better placed to win and serve and may not support a legislation that would redistribute their power. But having women represented and visible is important nonetheless because it normalizes seeing women as key decision makers.
Working both inside and outside institutions can help change them. For example, FOMWAN collaborated with other women’s organizations and legislators to work for the passage of a bill on free maternal and child health care in Kano, a state in northern Nigeria. The umbrella organization helped formulate key provisions and identify logistical barriers that prevent economically vulnerable women from accessing care. Other groups held meetings where women leaders from underserved communities met with local Ministry of Health officials to tell them about the barriers women faced in accessing facilities.
The examples of African Muslim feminist scholars, activists and grassroots organizations can be helpful in showing others around the world how to define equality and put it into practice – recognizing and responding to the diversity of needs. women as they themselves define these needs.
Adrian Wallace (@AdryanWallace1) is Assistant Professor of African Studies and Affiliate of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University.