Challenges of Change Panel 1: Religion, Culture and the Challenges of Change (video, English)

Challenges of Change Panel 1: Religion, Culture and the Challenges of Change (video, English)

Resource Type
Event Recording
Publication Year
English (US)




This video presents the first panel discussion from Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights, a WLP conference. 

Frances Kissling, panel moderator and former president of Catholics for Free Choice, calls conference participants “the best and brightest of the bad girls.” Religions understand the use of symbols better than any other institution; women need to compete in symbology. Cultures vary so much in the rights they confer on various groups that it’s clear rights are societal in origin, not divine. But the absence of women in the formation and discussion of their societies’ values over history has caused their rights to be neglected.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, will become the chair of WLP’s board of directors upon her retirement in December. She is “going back to the lion’s den” to press for change in her native Saudi Arabia. Change for women in any country is particular to that place and cannot be imposed or imported from outside: “The bottom line is about ownership.” At the current global development summit, heads of state see women’s issues as confined to particular ministries, not as a generalized need that can, for example, inform the decision of whether a road goes to the estate of a rich man or to a clinic that serves a community.

“Human rights and culture collide around issues of gender,” she said. Religion and culture blur: in Bangladesh, acid attacks are a Hindu practice against women whose dowries are said to be too small, but they also now occur against Muslim women, even though in the Islamic tradition it is normally the groom who makes the marriage payment. “Cultures are neither static nor monolithic; they can and should be contested.” Progress is halting: good labor and family laws in Iraq in 1990 were lost in the social upheaval that followed the invasion of Kuwait, and the laws reverted to 1958. “We need to take the principles of human rights and see how we can fit them into contemporary societies.”

Yakin Ertürk, professor of sociology and chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, notes that individuals formed their identities along political lines in the 1970s (e.g., bourgeois vs. revolutionary), but they now form their identities along religious and cultural lines. At this time of social upheaval from market transformation and globalization, rights are being extended readily to multinational organizations and corporations, but insecurity and loss of traditional patriarchal power create reaction and a demand for stability, so that family patterns have become more entrenched. 

Shared values mean social continuity and a culture of domination by one group over another; competing values mean openings for change and a culture of protest, as between parents and children, citizens and the state, men and women, and the state vs. the international community. Negotiations over these competing values constantly adjust the culture, usually in small increments that are barely noticed but that eventually transform it.

“We must constantly interrogate the cultural context” of existing laws and restrictions, using the global turmoil over values as an opportunity to suggest new approaches, she says. “In the context of dialogue across cultures, the human rights framework provides tools for the women’s movement that we have not fully utilized.”

Q&A Discussion: 

Secularism is tied with Hinduism with a billion adherents, number three among world faiths in a recent survey. Ertürk notes that all religions tend to suppress alternatives to themselves where they can, so secularism arises from individuals’ need for diversity. The “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is in reality a clash of masculinities – the Taliban claims to protect women from western corruption and the west claims to protect them from the Taliban, but the claims of women themselves are suppressed.

Obaid noted poor villages have little if any awareness of human rights. UNFPA’s Network of Faith-Based Organizations for Population and Development works to unite faiths in bringing human rights-based approaches to the 60 percent of health care that is delivered at the village level. It address issues such as family planning, safe motherhood and prevention of HIV/AIDS and violence against women. Catholics, e.g., can deliver instruction on delaying sexual initiation while Protestants can deliver condoms.  Negotiations create compromises that create solutions; but extremists do not negotiate. “You don’t dialogue where the doors are closed; you dialogue where there’s a window.”

Women, Ertürk said, are “often put in the position of having to choose between alternative repressive agendas.” Women may also be enlisted as cultural enforcers for the patriarchy against other women when few other status roles are open to them. The new agency UN Women faces the challenge of mobilizing several ineffective bureaucracies to stir member countries into acting on their rhetoric; Obaid urged young people to help by keeping the spotlight on patriarchy in multinational institutions as well. American power, Ertürk added, should be exerted on behalf of human rights, first by observing them at home and abroad.

Runtime: 01:03:11


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