Celebrating UN Women Panel 2: Culture, Religion, and Human Rights: Applying what we have learned (video)

Celebrating UN Women Panel 2: Culture, Religion, and Human Rights: Applying what we have learned (video)

Resource Type
Event Recording
Publication Year
English (US)




This video presents the second panel discussion and an audience Q&A at Celebrating UN Women: The Way Forward, a symposium presented by WLP to celebrate the launch of UN Women, the most significant structure yet devised by the community of nations to address challenges and strategies for bringing about fundamental and all-encompassing change in gender relations. June Zeitlin moderates.

Karima Bennoune (Algeria/USA) begins with a short video from recent protests in Algeria.  She recommends to UN Women a vigorous championing of universality without exception, and frames her comments in the context of people-power movements of the Algerian and North African region. She discusses opposition demonstrations of Feb 12 (March for Change) and Feb 19. Police officers tried to shut down a group of 2000 women protesters. Police ranks included female police officers, whose careers were only possible because of the challenging work of the protesters over many years. She points out that, in these events, women’s rights advocates were demanding universal human rights, not religious or cultural rights . She calls on UN Women to be an unapologetic promoter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; universality can be a progressive and unifying idea. She comments that she is proud of her North African heritage, given the courage showed by women and men across the region, and discusses recent events in Libya. Libyans revolted against dictatorship and provoked a special session of the Human Rights Council. Libyan diplomats challenged traditional notions of sovereignty by saying they represented their people, not their government. The Human Rights Council recommended suspension of Libya from membership in the council due to human rights abuses. Karima Bennoune hopes that UN Women can show this type of institutional courage in defending the principle of universality and challenging religious fundamentalism, calling for courageous politics.

Leila Ahmed (Egypt/USA) discusses women and Islam in America. She began her research on the topic in the 1990’s and comments that the issue skyrocketed in contemporary narratives after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and greatly increased in political importance.  Issues of veiling re-emerged with renewed vigor. She remarks on the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, a surprising observation for her. She noted that some of her assumptions about veiling were incorrect. In some cases, the veil has been cut loose from patriarchal notions; some women wearing typically-fundamentalist veils are quite concerned with social justice issues, including women’s issues. Ms. Ahmed points out that Islam can reflect the democratic society in which it is located, and that Islam is no more intrinsically patriarchal than other religions. She advocates for challenging old assumptions, and comments on the revolutions of  Egypt and the Arab world, where young people are risking their lives for democracy and human rights. Women’s rights may not be explicitly involved in these revolutions, but they are certainly implicitly involved in revolutionary activities and protests. She notes that leaders of Germany and England (Merkel and Cameron) do not see Muslims as holding potential for democratic support in their countries. She asks why, if Muslims in Arab countries are fighting for democracy, would they not be capable of it in Europe?  

Francis Kissling (USA) begins with comments on Liberty University, her alma mater, and its history and place in the development of contemporary Christian right viewpoints. She notes that a sense of economic security can create social generosity. During her young adult years, America was a time of prosperity, and social justice issues improved; we can afford to give rights to others when we feel secure ourselves. Then, during the Reagan years, America contracted. Religious fundamentalists entered political space and played on people’s fears. Now, we are in a period of economic distress; fundamentalism again is on the rise. She discusses conversations with students from Liberty University and how they reflect challenges at the cultural level that we face in the United States. She suggests that UN Women should consider how to proceed with meetings and agendas in a way that cannot be disrupted by fundamentalist religionists. 

Radhika Coomaraswamy (Sri Lanka), originally scheduled to participate, could not be present.