UN Identifies ‘Extremism and Conservatism’--Not Islam--As Impediments to Gender Equality

By Patrick Goodenough | March 10, 2015 | 4:09 AM EDT

U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka addreses opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York on Monday, March 9, 2015. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

(CNSNews.com) – Twenty years after a landmark U.N. conference on promoting gender equality, the head of the agency known as U.N. Women said Monday that a growing “conservative and extremist resistance” to equality between the sexes needs to be understood and confronted.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called the problem “one of the new dangers” in the way of efforts to pursue the goal of global gender equality.

Neither she, nor a major report prepared for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting she was addressing in New York, identified radical Islamic ideology as a leading factor, although surveys have found Muslim nations fare worst in gender equality rankings.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said the phenomenon was evident in ways like “ongoing attacks on girls’ education, women’s public participation and women’s control over their bodies.”

The report before the CSW meeting, submitted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also referred to the issue, but was equally vague about the types of countries and communities where it is most commonly seen.

“Extremism and conservatism are on the rise, manifested in diverse forms across different contexts,” it said, adding that examples include “tolerating or even promoting violence against women and limiting women’s and girls’ autonomy and engagement in the public sphere.”

Twenty years after the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing pledged to achieve gender equality by 2005, U.N. member states over the next two weeks are deliberating on how successful attempts to reach that goal have, in fact, been.

Hillary Clinton, who as first lady spoke in Beijing in 1995, is scheduled to address the event on Tuesday.

The report acknowledged progress in some areas, including legislative initiatives removing discrimination, higher rates of school enrollment and parliamentary representation for women, and some declines in the rate of child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

But violence against girls and women, it said, “persists at alarmingly high levels, in many forms, in public and private spaces.”

Data in a 2013 UNICEF report shows that countries with the highest rates of female genital mutilation are Islamic states. (AP Photo/For representational purposes only)

In several areas Ban’s report touched on problems that are common in Islamic contexts, where radical interpretations of religious texts, teachings by extremist clergy, the actions of jihadist groups and implementation of shari’a impact on women’s rights and freedoms. But it stopped short of identifying Islam as a factor:

--In advancing the agenda of women and security, “such emerging threats as the rise of violent extremism,” had limited and even set back progress.

--Many countries have legal systems that include “statutory, customary and/or religious law, which often do not work together to uphold the human rights of women.”

--Women human rights defenders face “stigmatization and ostracism by extremist and conservative groups, community leaders, families and communities who consider them to be challenging traditional notions of family and gender roles in the society and threatening religion, honor or culture through their work.”

Gap widest in Islamic countries

Every year the World Economic Forum (WEF) evaluates countries of the world for its “Global Gender Gap” report, which measures gaps between women and men in the areas of political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival.

In 2014, 19 of the 20 countries with the lowest scores across those four areas were majority Islamic nations.

Worst was Yemen, followed by Pakistan, Chad, Syria, Mali, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Guinea, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Algeria, Turkey, Bahrain and Tunisia. The only non-Muslim state in the bottom 20 was Ethiopia, ranked 16th from the bottom, between Oman and Algeria.

A similar pattern was recorded in previous years’ surveys, when about 17 of the bottom 20 were Islamic states.

In two specific serious problem areas identified in the U.N. report – FGM and child marriage – Islamic countries are also disproportionately represented.

According to 2013 U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data, FGM rates are highest in Somalia (estimated 98 percent prevalence), Djibouti (93), Egypt (91), Guinea (96), Mali (89), Eritrea (89), Sierra Leone (88) and Sudan (88).

With the exception of Eritrea, all are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of Muslim-majority nations.

Ban’s new report states that while rates of child marriage have declined since the Beijing conference, in 2014 some 700 million girls were married before the age of 18, and 250 million were married under 15.

According to the “Girls Not Brides” campaign, the child marriage problem cuts across religions and cultures. Nonetheless, 10 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of marriage under the age of 18 are OIC states, including four of the top five (Niger, Chad, Bangladesh and Mali).

The OIC disputes that there is any link between Islam and practices like FGM and child marriage.

In a statement delivered during a CSW session in 2013, the Islamic bloc described FGM as a “cultural” practice that is “disguised as part of religious tradition.”

It also said that “child marriage, violence against women as well as other negative acts perpetuated are often misidentified as being part of Islamic tradition, whereas they are part of the local tradition and we should raise awareness at the local level to de-link these practices from religion.”

At that same 2013 CSW session, Egypt – then under a Muslim Brotherhood government – led a push to reject a draft declaration on violence against women, warning that it would “be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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