Musings of a Cultural Relativist: Community Development, Gender Mainstreaming, the ‘New World Order’ and Refugee Women at Risk


Musings of a Cultural Relativist:  Community Development, Gender Mainstreaming, the ‘New World Order’ and Refugee Women at Risk

written by Zahra Summayah

Prophet Muhammad (saw):
“The most perfect of the believers in faith are the best of them in morals. And the best among them are those who are best to their wives.” [Narrated in Mosnad Ahmad, #7354, and Al-Tirmizi, #1162]

Community development in a globalized neo liberal corporate consumer capitalist plutocratic world order – is it really a time for theorizing about ‘sexual orientation of middle aged Western white women’? Truly how is a Middle Class, White Western ‘Radical Secular Feminist’ ideologue going to help a starving and embattled Palestinian Muslim woman, who is being bombed by Israel with profits earned from the consumption of a Starbucks ‘skinny latte’ of a Western Feminist Ideologue? Extreme imagery aside, the point of the analogy is to question how the particular interests and privileged position of Western Secular Feminists could inform the necessary justice needs of women from non-Western, Non-Secular societies and why should the Western Secular Feminist agenda be the standard by which National and international Development bodies address the social justice issues of women in the Developing world? It also makes me wonder surely the plight of the Palestinian Muslim woman is far more to do with unjust macro level international politics and economics than whether she is a woman of Faith, wife and mother. And surely when these external injustices wreak havoc on accepted normative gender roles and functions, the solution would not be to destroy the gender roles and functions but rather to remove the external unjust pressures?

This was going to be a reflection on cultural relativism and Gender Mainstreaming, it was going to be a paper examining my dis-ease with the GAD (Gender and Development) ideology – particularly when expressed from a radical feminist perspective that appears to disparage the ‘traditional’; Conservative and/or Faith Based’ lives of Non Western women. Lyons (1999) argues that Third World women are silenced by Western feminist discourses; that Western women and men continue to maintain the authoritative voice within the discourses of gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is not a value-free concept and is inherently political because it aims at provoking social change. The proposed empowerment and opening up of opportunities for women is underpinned by an often indirectly stated Western feminist agenda. These ideological imperative becomes obvious when attempting to debate gender mainstreaming in other cultures. Gender, as a cultural construct, differs from one culture to the next, and as such the status of women can only be advanced through gender mainstreaming strategies that are adapted to each specific culture and place, addressing the concerns and aspirations of locally active agents of change. If this is not the case then one may be forgiven for wondering if gender mainstreaming is truly about assisting women in developing countries, or more about promoting a Western, white feminist middle-class consciousness? (Lyons, T et al, 2004)

I was then going to outline Normative Islamic Gender Equity as defined in the Quran and deeds of the Prophet (saw). When researching that I did come to see that Secular Feminists and Islamic Gender Equity advocates are more similar than different as far as the just treatment of women. According to Badawi (2011) a gap between normative Islam and the actual practice of Muslims exists regarding ‘Gender Equality’ and is a cause of concern for both Muslim and Non-Muslim reformers. However, the disagreement between Muslim and Non –Muslim advocates of social justice pertains to the most effective frame of reference and specificity of implementation. International bodies and women’s rights organizations tend to consider documents and resolutions passed in conferences as the ultimate basis and standard expected of all diverse peoples, cultures and religions. Committed Muslims, however believe in the ultimate supremacy of what they accept as God’s divine revelation (the Quran and authentic Hadith). To tell Muslims that one’s religious convictions should be subservient to “superior” man-made (or woman-made) standards or to secular humanism, is neither acceptable nor practical. Even if pressures, economic and otherwise, are used to bring about compliance with such resolutions or documents, the resulting changes are not likely to be deep-rooted and lasting. For Muslims, divine injunctions and guidance are not subject to a “voting” procedure or to human election, editing, or whimsical modifications. They constitute, rather, a complete way of living within Islam’s spiritual, moral, social, political and legal parameters. Imposed cultural imperialism will not succeed in addressing the gaps in social and gender justice between normative Islamic teachings and actual Muslim practice.
But at the end of the day, sitting here about to write, with the documentary ‘End of Poverty’ (2009) on in the background, I find myself questioning this gendered ‘Tower of Babel’ that has White Western Secular Feminist perspectives informing the UN and Development agencies about the lives of Non-Western, Non- Secular women; and insisting their well-being will only be found in dismantling their social meaning and practices. I question the arrogance of such a position and more to it I question the futility of gnawing at the edges of the real source of suffering for all people, in all places – Globalized Corporate Capitalism and Pseudo-Democracy. It is like the elephant in the room and all these theorizers are blinkered and describing this elephant from different sides. Say from their limited gendered lens perspective of Feminists; for instance. I recall after having completed ‘Politics of International Aid’ with Jeni Whalen feeling completely despondent and demoralized about working in a ‘Corporatized’ Community Development field, a field where the welfare of others is a political football of Western Donor Countries – whose political and economic practices impoverished populations in the first place. I look at how conflict (often foreign instigated for Corporate agendas) and impoverishment (by a globalized neo liberal economic order) all lead to the breaking down of traditional community supports, how it demoralizes men who then fail in their role of protector and provider but instead become abusers of women. Eric Toussaint (2010) posits in his speech to the General Assembly session of the United Nations, assessing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for targeting poverty that policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on Developing countries deprive them of all forms of basic protection, placing them in a vulnerable position. The outcome of such policies was manifold, for instance they led to a reduction in land areas normally used for subsistence crops; resulted in specialization in one or two export products in the absence of price control mechanisms. Economic liberalisation led to the abandonment of self-sufficient grain production and the reduction of their reserves, to the weakening of economies due to an extreme dependence on global markets and to a sharp reduction in social spending budgets. Finally the suppression of subsidies for basic foodstuffs and the opening of markets led to unfair competition between local small producers and the multinationals. The outcome of which, was the world food crisis of 2007/2008.
According to Kanji and Menon-Sen (2001), the deregulation of labour markets, fragmentation of production processes,        de-industrialisation and new areas of export specialisation have all generated an increased demand for low-paid, flexible female labour. As a consequence of economic liberalisation, market oriented growth and the feminization of the labour market; men in Developing countries have faced difficulties in fulfilling their gender-ascribed ‘breadwinner’ roles. The reaction to these difficulties has been marked with increased levels of depression and suicide, violence and abandonment of their families. In richer countries, the declining achievement of boys at school has become a public policy concern, as has male violence, alcohol and drug abuse. In poorer countries, there is not enough research into these problems or public resources to address them. The longer-term consequences of this ‘crisis in masculinity’ and whether more healthy and equitable gender relations can be forged are largely unexplored questions. For Muslim men particularly, this potential behavioural response is in opposition to their social normative teachings of Islam and demonstration of the Prophet (saw) that commands ‘the best of men are those best to their wives’. As such, I posit it is not the presence of differential gender norms at issue, particularly when those norms promote social justice. Rather, the problem is when such norms are denied expression as is the case with the enforcement of economic liberalism and other foreign social and political policies. Indeed it feels like we are on a sinking ‘Neoliberal Corporate Consumer Capitalist’ ship, and as such re-arranging the deck chairs of gender roles, seems about as effective as mopping up the water on a submerged deck. No doubt, there is an importance in understanding for each community what the differential roles and functions are for men and women, and thus understand how a conflict or environmental disaster may be impacting them and thereby putting undue pressure on individuals and families. By taking a novel approach of actually consulting with community members as to their needs and wants, and facilitating them in getting their needs met, it would be hoped that the normally functional gender roles would return to pre trauma status. Of course, if the community wishes to amend their gendered roles and functions, that is their business and to be done according to their chosen ideology and mechanisms.

Implications for the Women at Risk (WaR) Consultations

The Congolese women in their interviews proudly spoke of their roles and skills as good homemakers – they spoke of husbands they loved and missed and missing the protection and support they had – they mentioned wanting to be married again. They mentioned the isolation of this ‘individualistic’ society. They spoke of having to do EVERYTHING now – still look after kids and work to put food on the table and without any of the big family/social structure to help. If their countries were not suffering conflict and poverty and the dislocation from that – I am sensed they would not have rushed to this Secular Western way of doing things. But stayed in their homes that they owned and raising their families. My observation was that their trauma was a result of the conflict and subsequent poverty in their homeland that negatively impacted their relational roles and functions. Roles and Functions they took great pride in expressing to us during their interviews. As far as the impact of a Secular Feminist GAD ideology on the research lens, I was a concerned by a tone of dismissal of the validity of their expressed desires to be with their husbands and/or married again. I may have misunderstood, but I perceived, debriefing after the WaR Community Consult, that this expressed desire was being viewed as a kind of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ – whereby these women were romanticizing their ‘abusers’. It was as if it were impossible to conceive any of these women had loving and supportive marriages despite all the external injustices, or worse still that marriage as a ‘Patriarchal’ institution provides no real meaning or joy.

I could be wrong, and indeed when you look at the statistics of abuse of women and girls in this field, it would not be inconceivable to see all women as victims of ‘bastard men’. But the truth is, not all men are bastards and by even a small probability some of these women could well have had loving and supportive marriages and indeed truly miss their husbands and the support had in the ‘Patriarchal’ institution of marriage. I suppose the lesson I take from this is no matter the theoretical framework it is important to not view others by a limited set of preconceived notions, even if they are backed up by statistically significant evidence in the field. These women are all individuals, and thus must be addressed as such.


So then I come full circle and wonder about the legitimacy of Community Development in this current Global Political and Economic climate. Where the rogue elephant in the room that is the Global Neoliberal Corporate Capitalist world order; is on the rampage and in need of being destroyed. I do then wonder where I can work in this field, or even if I can; we have gone way beyond micro level fixes when the macro level is gangrenous and in need of amputation.
I think calling things patriarchal and the like is meaningless – the truth is the ‘us and them’ is the 99% of humanity against the 1% of neo liberal corporate warmongers. Yes of course due to the differences biological and social between men and women, there can be differential impact of this Globalized economic and political terrorism, that as part of a holistic remedy needs to be acknowledged and worked with. BUT the remedy is NOT in my mind, neutralizing those differences. The solution is dismantling the World Order and its mechanisms, that Development and Humanitarian Aid are situated in and complicit with. Of course the $64 million question is how to dismantle the current world order.


Badawi, J (2011) Gender Equity in Islam: The Ideal and The Reality, World Assembly of Muslim Youth
Available link:

Kanji, N and Menon-Sen, K (2001) What does the Feminisation of Labour Mean for Sustainable Livelihoods? World Summit on Sustainable Development Opinion, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED),
Available link:

Lyons, T et al, 2004. ‘Developing gender mainstreaming and ‘gender respect’’, Development Bulletin, no. 64, pp. 37-41
Available link:

Toussaint, E (2010) Neoliberal solution to poverty? International Socialist Organization
Available link: