Gender discrimination has been a prevailing problem for years now in South East Asia and is an issue, for which many people use religion as an excuse.
Especially in Bangladesh, Islam is often confused with cultural traditions, where women become a minority and are discriminated daily through the issues of child marriage, divorce, male-centric polygamy, physical abuse, and more.
To shed some light on the matter, on May 16th, 2015, a seminar titled Women's Empowerment, Gender, Justice and Religion, was organised in Spectra Convention Center, Dhaka.
The seminar was a collaboration between Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, World Faith's Development Dialogue (WFDD), and BRAC University's Department of Economics and Social Sciences. It was divided into three sessions- with three separate panels of speakers including Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir from Fahmina Institute, Indonesia, Zainah Anwar from Sisters in Islam, Malaysia, Flavia Agnes from Majlis, India, Ferdous Azim from BRAC University, Bangladesh, Nani Zulmirnarni from PEKKA, Indonesia and Sara Taylor from Asia Foundation, Bangladesh.
The opening remarks were made by Syed Hashemi, Chairperson, ESS, BRAC University. He introduced Katherine Marshall who talked about WFDD, the Berkley Center and their work in Georgetown University.
The first session was Understanding Concepts and the Terrain of Gender Justice: The Secular and Religious Divide, the second session was Advocating for Gender Justice in Religious Traditions and the third session was Voices from the Ground: Women of Faith and Issues of Empowerment in Bangladesh.
Throughout the seminar, some serious discussions took place where the interpretation of Islam was the main focus. The audience had learned about how Islam can be more of a reason for women to be liberated instead of repressed. It was inspiring to hear Faqihuddin talk about his work where he educated people from the grass-root level to interpret Islam in a non-misogynistic manner, while Zainah stressed on how gender-justice is necessary, since feminism is considered a more secular belief. “Religious leaders and activists have to come together to change the negative perception on Islam,” she said.
Some more ideas came from others like Sara Taylor, when she talked about the brilliant project 'Leaders of Influence,' where they take religious leaders likes Imams, and their wives, and show them the status-quo of women facing discrimination, which they often think comes from Islam.
Flavia Agnes then mentioned how Islam and the Holy Qur'an say nothing about child-marriage, and how this is a more cultural tradition, which has stemmed from Hinduism. She also spoke about the famous Shah Bano case in India, which was the result of Muslims being a minority in the country.
The third panel was the most interesting because it featured four regular Muslim Bangladeshi women, who talked about being a part of the Asian Foundation workshops, where they learn new ways to interpret religion. They stressed on how education is necessary for young girls, and how they have been setting up committees to tackle child marriage, domestic violence and polygamy, in a religious context.
It was refreshing to see male and female Islamic Religious Leaders talk about Islam in such a moderate and liberal manner, and also women and men from other religions discussing how Islam is actually a woman-friendly religion, contrary to popular belief. With more discussions and seminars like this, we can hope to see Bangladesh reach higher standards where our men and women can live equally, in peace and harmony.