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Religion and Faith: Important Allies in the fight against Gender- Based Violence?

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UK Faith leaders call for Istanbul Convention

“You cannot be a feminist and believe in religion”, a respected colleague who works with women from Middle Eastern and Afghani backgrounds, declared to me two weeks ago, a statement that hurt me a little but wasn’t surprised by as I have often heard it before. The following week I chaired a conference on intersectionality as part of the Strategic Partnership between the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls. The conference discussed the importance of taking account of the differing facets of our identities, and where they intersect as a starting point of the support and service survivors of domestic and other forms of gendered abuse, receive from specialist organisations and charities.

“You cannot be a feminist and believe in religion”

It therefore follows that tackling any form of violence and abuse requires a nuanced and holistic approach that should be led by the needs and safety of survivors. Many of whom identify and align themselves with faith and spirituality.

Historically the women’s sector and those who work in supporting victims and survivors of domestic abuse or so called honour-based violence have been, at best and with good reason, ambivalent to engaging with religious and faith actors and or institutions that are part of a survivor’s social network and form and support a component of their sense of self. This failure, I believe, is leaving an unmet or misunderstood gap in supporting women who may view their faith or spirituality as a source of empowerment.

Conversely there is a sense of confusion and a real lack of awareness about the forms of support and practical help available to women experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of gender based violence, which can lead to suspicion and mistrust from community groups, community advocates and faith leaders that women turn to for help and advice. Often these women come from ‘hard to hear’ communities that experience multiple barriers such as gender and or racial discrimination, disability, poverty and ill health. Therefore, their local Imam or Pastor is the only source of support, who are unlikely to be the most qualified or knowledgeable about risk or appropriate and safe support for women and their children. On many occasions religious and faith leaders can knowingly or inadvertently collude with the abuse or abuser(s) and provide the veneer of religious justification for abuse.

“…those advocating for equality and an end to gender based violence can make faith and religious institutions relevant and important allies in the fight against violence against women and girls. “

It was therefore a welcome and important step for the campaign group ICChange to host ( along with Faith Action and Restored) and secure the support of UK Faith leaders in the call for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention which was launched at the House of Lords on 5 December. It brought together Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu faith leaders to call on the UK government to ratify the Convention on violence against women and for MPs to support the Private Member’s Bill by voting for it on 16 December. The launch is a great example of how those advocating for equality and an end to gender based violence can make faith and religious institutions relevant and important allies in the fight against violence against women and girls.

The Istanbul Convention, described as ‘the best thing you’ve never heard of’ is a set of life-saving minimum standards on tacking violence against women and girls that states should ensure when tackling this widespread phenomenon. If the UK government ratifies the convention it will enable a root and branch change in its response to support and protect women suffering violence and abuse. It will also be duty bound to prevent and tackle the root causes of violence as well as hold perpetrators to account through the criminal justice system. Four and a half years on from the government’s promise to make the Convention law we are still waiting for this to be realised.

Here at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, we have long advocated for a more coordinated community response to gender based violence and domestic abuse in particular. The most effective and lasting solution is one that brings together as many agencies, services and civil society groups including community and the family to support the needs of survivors; puts them at the centre of the response to abuse and holds perpetrators to account.

Through our Safety Across Faith and Ethnic Communities programme (SAFE) we aim to address a gap in the response to domestic abuse. We know that most survivors of abuse will likely reach out to friends, family and community networks for help in the earliest stages of abuse.  The SAFE Communities project will ensure that domestic abuse and violence against women and girls are tackled holistically by targeting support to those who will be most likely to be the first approached by survivors for help. We believe that working with and empowering communities to understand, recognise and address domestic abuse is essential. Grassroots communities and faith groups have the power and potential to make a real difference in the lives of survivors and hold perpetrators to account.

Looking at the wider context, the current political climate promises long and protracted negotiations over our divorce from Europe and the rise of nationalist right wing politics across Western nations in America and Europe, the Private Members Bill which calls for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, presents an important and narrow window of opportunity to safeguard more than thirty- years’ worth of advocacy, activism and hard fought battles to get us to the very lacking and imperfect state we are in today.

It is precisely when the perfect storm of fear, economic and social instability, and the rise in regressive politics that the threat of hijacking faith for intolerant or oppressive rhetoric and purposes must be repelled by all people of faith and non.

*If you would like to see the U.K. government ratify the Istanbul Convention, then contact your MP now and ask them to support it by attending the debate on Friday 16 December, and voting for it – details here. And you can sign this petition.*

By Huda Jawad

Huda has worked for over 21 years in the Third Sector. She has held various positions in local government, national and international NGOs and charities tackling a wide range of issues relating to social exclusion, justice, equality and conflict resolution.  Huda currently works as a Domestic Violence Housing Coordinator at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence. Read more about her work and achievements on her website.

Image courtesy of IC Change
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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Talking Taboos #Porn

by Sabrina Mahmood

'Hot Girls Wanted' promotional poster

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ promotional poster

Yep.  You heard it. It’s time we all stopped blushing and avoiding the hugely important topic of porn. By chance I came across a documentary called ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ about how young women (aged 18/19/20) break into the amateur porn industry in America. It was scary but gave an insight  into the mindset of some of the young  women who wanted to ‘make it’, have ‘freedom away from home’ and ‘make money’. It’s a perfectly normal aspiration to want to be successful and to be known for something, and everybody is entitled to their own lifestyle choices. Let’s be totally honest, porn is never going to be eradicated, especially not in the digital age that we live in.

However, our approach to it needs to change. If we look at the girls in the documentary, they were looking for jobs through an online advertising site called ‘Craigslist’. The advert was entitled ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ and immediately drew their attention to a ‘new life in the city’. After a quick search on Google myself, I found the UK ‘Craigslist’ and went to the TV/film/radio section where the adverts, as in the documentary, are centred on adult film work. One push of the button and it is so easy to source work like this. Imagine young and vulnerable people who are looking to ‘make it big’ and they find adverts like this. Where are the regulations to safeguard people from exposure to these adverts and similar content? Surely if people wanted to find adult work, it should be posted within specific adult sites or adult job search engines, rather than the wider search engines.

“Where are the regulations to safeguard people from exposure to these adverts and similar content?”

Sex EducationTo break down some of the key issues from the documentary, one of the first things I noticed is that the young women believe sex is just a part of modern society and no longer has any value or meaning. And that’s where sex education  comes, our children are taught about the mechanics of sex and porn, but not the principles and values. If as a society we are so adamant for them to learn, let’s at least teach them the crucial things. When did we actually ever learn about the mechanics of a healthy and normal relationship both emotionally and physically? And the emotional connection between a couple or the huge amount of trust and respect involved? When did we have an understanding of a woman’s role in porn and subsequently a woman’s role in society? If we aren’t taught about respect, and if we aren’t shown it, we will never learn it or have it.

One of the young women was subjected to ‘facial abuse’ porn which uses sexual humiliation of the partner and physical violence towards them during sexual acts and involves forcing them to vomit. She said that ‘acting’ in scenes like this were ‘harmless’ as people were watching it on their screens rather than committing the acts in person. In the UK crime and statistics release from 2013/2014, the number of sexual offences recorded was ‘highest recorded’ in over ten years (64,205) http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2013-14/index.html.

“One of the young women was subjected to ‘facial abuse’ porn which uses sexual humiliation of the partner and physical violence towards them during sexual acts and involves forcing them to vomit.”

So, evidence shows otherwise, when young people consume these violent and graphic portrayals of ‘normal’ sex, there is a greater chance of replicating the violence they have seen. In the Prevent Together report on impact of pornography on youth, results from meta-analysis show that there is a “significant overall relationship between pornography consumption and attitudes supporting violence against women”. And all of this is available freely by typing the word ‘porn’ into Google.

A hugely concerning issue raised in the documentary was the lack of protection for the women in terms of contraception and sexual health. Without the use of condoms, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS is significantly high. The young women in no way were warned of the dangers associated with their sex work and they were led to feel a false sense of security in the routine fortnightly testing for STIs. As with any job, health and safety issues should always be prioritised and there should be safeguarding protocols in place to allow these women sufficient training and education to understand the great risks they are face whilst performing sexual acts. As a society we have an obligation to protect our vulnerable women and girls regardless of the choices they make. Sadly they are often misinformed or coerced as shown in the documentary.

Some of the women discussed having breast enlargement as they also felt it was more desirable in the industry. On the other hand the documentary states that the word ‘teen’ is the most common one used in porn searches. So there are two main desirable pornographic ideals, a young under-developed female, and a woman with big breasts and a curvy figure. Both of these images cannot relate to real life women, who all vary in shape and size. When the viewers of porn are looking for gratification in these images, they become disillusioned with real life women and therefore real life sex. And isn’t it a horrific thought that grown men are increasingly looking to watch porn that involves young females?

It’s time we muster up the courage to speak up about the issues surrounding violence against women and girls every day. We need to be brave enough to challenge the abuse our young people endure in a culture created to view porn as a norm.  We must give appropriate and relevant sex education to our young people before they start seeking answers themselves on the all too familiar Google search box.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Image credits: ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ promotional poster; ‘Sex Education’;‘Girl with heads in hands’