"Creating a counter culture to violence: Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)"


Acid sprayed on two Afghani school girls on their way to school, a 15 year old Pakistani girl found dead, killed by her brother, a son killing his mother for a suspected affair in Uttar Pradesh, these are just a few of the ‘honour killings’ reported by Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) in 2011. ‘Violence is Not Our Culture’ campaign coordinated by Women Living Under Muslim Laws seeks to put an end to violence perpetrated in the name of religion and culture in Muslim countries. With the support of the MDG3 Fund WLUML strengthens women’s individual and collective struggles for equality and their rights, in Muslim contexts where women’s lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws and customs said to be derived from Islam. The MDG3 Fund is supporting their work specifically in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal and Sudan.

The project rejects the notion that violence is part of Muslim culture, religion, or traditions. The campaign reports and exposes CVAW where it occurs in order to defeat the widespread mis-use of religion and culture against women. The campaign aims to end all forms of violence be it stoning, whipping/lashing, and ‘honour’ killings, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, acid attacks.

As well as providing advocacy and support WLUML courageously tackles the deeper level of  reclaiming and refining Muslim culture in order to enable women to repossess and reconstruct cultural resources including within ‘religion’ and ‘tradition’. The Campaign is in defiance of the cultural/religious discourse which denies women’s rights. As well as running an active and informative website documenting cases the campaign is building skills of the women in the countries. From boxing training for young lesbians in Jakarta, Indonesia to providing information on shelters for women who are experiencing violence in the home.

Going to the root causes means recognizing that culture and religion is often central to women’s individual and collective identities. But it is the misuse of culture and religion that exercises control over women and girls, their bodies, their sexuality, their choice of expression and love, denying their freedoms. What WLUML fights against is the disturbing trend that State and non-state actors are increasingly using culture to ‘justify’ carrying out violence against women. The battle is to break down the claim of conservative forces ownership over an ‘authentic’ interpretation of culture, tradition and/or religion that deny women’s freedoms and facilitate harmful acts against women for alleged sexual and moral transgressions.

This requires exposing the gender based discrimination in deeply held patriarchal interpretations of traditions and norms and religious texts which present women’s bodies and sexuality as the prerogative of male members of her family and community. These cultural beliefs lead to women’s ostracisation, brutally and sadistic treatment by her family.

The Campaign sees its work as helping communities evolve towards more gender-equitable, rights-based value systems. It is a multifaceted and long term task.

The MDG3 Fund supports the work  done through a network of sistercampaigns in the  countries. In these countries, WLUML works not only with gender advocates and women’s rights organisations but also with local authorities and women’s groups through bottom up participatory activities. The ability to respond and intervene at the local level is assisted through media campaigns and system of rapid responses using international social networking and digital technologies. At the highest level of authority, the campaign also works closely with the UN human rights system to foster solidarity at the international level. This is greatly helped by the recent appointment of Farida Shaheed, UN Independent Expert on Cultural Rights founder of the Pakistan based women’s rights organization Shirkat Gah.

As she recently stated in support of WLUML’s work:
‘All harmful practices, regardless of provenance and justification, must be eliminated. All human rights are universal, indivisible and inter-related’.

In strategizing for long-term women’s empowerment the Campaign is creating a counter culture to the forces that are denying women’s human rights. Through creative actions such as documentary film making, grassroots workshops, community radio campaigns, national lobbying, dialogues with policy makers and religious gatekeepers, petitioning officials, online networking and campaigning through the UN human rights arena, WLUML activities have provided important cross-context solidarity.

The Campaign provides a vital space for women from the local level to speak and act in areas which were for some women too taboo even to discuss. Slowly results are emerging as women find their voices. There is evidence of some improvement, even if the project reports shows there continue to be many ups and downs with the coming and going of different regimes. The recent UN Report on Progress of the World’s Women: In the Pursuit of Justice 2010, for example now records the achievements of women’s rights movements in Muslim countries.

As one project partner stated the work of WLUML in fighting VAW is not only about legal and policy change but also about ways to create new forms of citizenship: ‘the work itself of pushing for policy (or other change) is itself constitutive of citizenship- and rights-construction’.

It is this sense of breaking new barriers, creating safe spaces and reshaping culture itself that makes the Campaign such an important and inspiring project.

By Wendy Harcourt