The unequal distribution of power embedded in the social structure of societies is also a direct reflection of poverty, which results in structural violence. One of the main reasons for violence against women is the total absence or lack of choices available in society, and the cultural habits that are formed in such situations. Poor families, for example, decide to educate the male child in the household because there is not enough money to pay for fees for all children. A male child is selected over a female child because of the belief that he will bring income to the family. Where a country is poor and education is not provided by the State, those beliefs form part of systematic violence and inequality.
Structural violence manifests in social and economical inequalities (Farmer, 2005,40). It limits people's ability to realize their potential. Such structural violence is legitimized by law, ideologies, religious beliefs and cultural norms. Much of it owes to the way human society has evolved with heavy reliance on patriarchal family structures. Women in many Muslim societies face structural violence in the form of limited access to education, health services and employment opportunities.
Although women are still fighting for equal rights to economic opportunities in many parts of the world, structural violence are prominent in many Muslim and non-Muslim societies. This is mainly due to the unequal social status of women. Islam is often considered to be the reason for oppressing the socio-economic development of women. Contrary to the common view of Islam subjugating women's socio-economic position, the Quran advocates that a woman is a human being and equal to all who have accepted that there is no God but Allah and that Prophet Mohammed (SAW) is his last prophet. It is clearly stated in the Quran in Surah An-Nisa, verse 1, which is translated as “O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul”.
Even though the Quran states that men and women have been created from the same soul, women in Muslim communities have received unequal treatment both historically and in present time, especially in the context of domestic, social and legal matters. As compared to the gender inequality in the pre-Islamic Arabian time, the rights and status given to women by Islam were revolutionary. It is mentioned in the Quran in Surah An-Nahl verse 58 that the people in Pre-Islamic Arabia (jahilliya) used to bury female infants. An eldest son in a house then was allowed to marry his father’s widow. There were many forms of marriages and women were treated as slaves because a man could marry as many women as he wished. Women had no right to inherit property from their husbands, fathers and blood relatives (Engineer, 2008). While many religions compromised with this view and gave men an upper status over women, Islam challenged this view and placed women equal to men.
Islam provided women with dignity and legal rights and prohibited those practices which were considered to be against humanity. Women in different Muslim societies have enjoyed various social, economic and legal rights throughout history. The emerging new liberal social structures follow Islam in challenging the traditional behaviour towards women. The irony is that despite the renewed emphasis on empowering women, the social systems in many tribal societies deprive women from their basic human rights to education, health services and economic opportunities. To respond to such discrimination resulting from structural violence, many local and international non government organisations are joining hands with governments to implement gender-equality development programmes to enable women to play their part in the social and economic progress of their countries.
Muslim Aid is one of the international faith based charities whose humanitarian principles are deeply rooted in the Islamic teachings of equality of gender and provision of basic amenities for the most needy. The Charity runs many skills training, education and microfinance programmes in different developing societies to help women improve their social conditions and bring prosperity to their communities. For example in 2011 around 948 women in Pakistan benefitted from skills development projects in the area of cooking, ceramic making, English language, handicrafts, office management, sewing and flower making. Similarly, microfinance loans provided to women in 2011 in Bangladesh helped them to start small businesses in various sectors like poultry farming, bakery and agriculture. In 2010, Muslim Aid provided business courses for disadvantaged women in Bosnia. Participants included widows who were forced to fend for themselves as bread winners, single mothers, war victims and victims of domestic violence. In 2012, Muslim Aid implemented a training course for midwives as a long term development project in Aceh Besar, Indonesia. These are few examples which illustrate the importance of integrating the empowerment of women and gender equality in poverty reduction and sustainable development programmes. Such initiatives also help in mitigating discrimination that women face in different societies as a result of structural violence.
The aim of development programmes is neither to bring about major structural changes within the society nor to challenge the social and cultural norms of the society. Skills development, education and micro finance for small scale business serve as catalysts through which women can help themselves to change their social conditions, break the poverty chain and build confidence in the future generations through their knowledge and skills. Investment in women's skills and education facilitates them to enhance their social status and encourages them to deal with the challenges of modern living.
*The copyright of this article is held by the Information and Public Affairs Department of Muslim Aid, UK. Use of its contents is allowed subject to acknowledgement. The opinions expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent the point of view of Muslim Aid.
By: Amal Imad Information & Public Affairs Assistant Muslim Aid