#Bringbackourgirls hasn’t brought back Chibok’s girls, but it has changed Nigeria’s politics

I wrote this for The Guardian on the one year anniversary of the abductions from Chibok that sparked global consciousness (at least for a while). As of today, it’s been 412 days.

The story that emerged from Nigeria this time last year should have read something like this. “Last night, armed men attempted to kidnap more than 200 girls from Chibok government secondary school in Nigeria’s north-east Borno state. Security forces, stationed at the school to protect the girls, foiled their plan. The president, who flew to Chibok this morning to meet the girls and their families, apologised, admitting more precautions should have been taken. In the wake of several such attempts to kidnap women and girls over the past two years by Jama’at Ahlus-Sunnah Lida’awati wal-Jihad , commonly known as Boko Haram, he announced his government would undertake a comprehensive review to make sure this never happened again. The girls and their families will now benefit from comprehensive medical care and counselling offered by the government.”

If the story had played out like that, it would never have caught the attention of global politicians, celebrities and the Twitterati. But, of course, the girls were in fact abducted by Boko Haram, and one year later, the majority are still missing.

In all the discussions and news coverage that followed the abductions, the voices of women in the region were rarely heard. But they were the first to speak out, continuing the protests and activism in which they have been engaged since the start of the insurgency. A week after the abductions, Borno women, coordinated by Baobab for Human Rights, called on the government and their president to take action. They warned that the government would be seen as accomplices in the abduction if they failed to rescue the girls. They went to Chibok, lobbied the state government and made links with women and men all over the country and around the world.

Chibok was the not the first abduction, and it hasn’t been the last. It is estimated that at least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of 2014. Boys and young men have also been taken. It was not that this was not known before; a typical sentence in a Nigerian newspaper reporting on an attack would be “56 people were killed, 29 women and girls taken and property burned and destroyed.” Even before the abductions from Chibok, women activists in north-east Nigeria had been trying to raise awareness of what was happening, urge political action and provide services and assistance to those who escaped or were rescued.

This time, the world paid attention. In cities across Nigeria, including Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Jos, people went out on the streets, demanding that the government “Bring Back Our Girls”. There were marches and protests across the world. Syrian women in a refugee camp spoke out in solidarity. This increased attention led the government to develop guidelines on gender-based violence, including provision for counselling, mental health services and continued education for girls. Women’s rights activists also drew attention to the fact that Nigeria has no national laws against violence against women and girls, despite numerous attempts and civil society pressure to pass legislation since 2003.

Women’s activism and participation in public life in what is now north-east Nigeria stretches back to the time of the historical Kanem-Bornu empire. In the modern day, women have played a direct role in hostilities – as security officials, Boko Haram fighters and members of community security groups. They walk the line between different sides of the conflict, negotiating for the return of women and girls, for access for humanitarian workers to give medical care, and for the end of the fighting itself. Acting as mediators, they try to negotiate peace between Boko Haram and the government.

Women also support those who have experienced the brunt of the violence. They provide services to survivors of rape and sexual violence and speak out against the stigma and shame they experience. The University of Maiduguri Muslim women’s association is one of many women-led organisations which have provided food and shelter to those who have fled rural areas for the state capital. The Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment, and Tapestry, have set up a support network to address trauma in girls and women, training lay counsellors in communities across the north-eastern states affected by the insurgency. Working together across ethnic and religious lines, women have repeatedly marched and protested in the streets of Maiduguri, against the continued detention of their family members, for human rights, and for peace and justice.

Tomorrow marks one year since the girls were taken from Chibok government secondary school. Although not at the same fever pitch as in May and June last year, and perhaps all but forgotten outside the country, the abductions are still present in people’s minds in Nigeria. Newspapers still carry boxes declaring the number of days it has been since the abductions. Women in Borno carry on supporting women and girls who have managed to escape – and push for human rights, justice and an end to the conflict. Women from the state capital Maiduguri will be in Chibok tomorrow to commemorate, support and comfort families through the anniversary.

The indefatigable Bring Back Our Girls movement continues to hold protests. Rallying people all around the world, they have called for a week of action in solidarity. A man is cycling across west Africa, from Abidjan to Lagos, to raise awareness. The anniversary will see the Empire State building lit up in purple and red. There will be a Global School Girl March, taking place from Tasmania in Australia to Stavanger in Norway, from Santiago in Chile to London in the UK – and, of course, in cities across Nigeria.

This campaigning has been successful in highlighting the plight of the abducted girls, and although it hasn’t led to their safe return yet, it has had an important effect on Nigerian politics. Perceived government inaction in the wake of Chibok abductions was not the only reason Nigerians voted Goodluck Jonathan out of office last month, but insecurity and violence in the north-east was one of the main factors in prompting many to vote for change. In the run up to the presidential elections, people still asked: what has he done to bring back our girls? The Bring Back Our Girls movement was instrumental in mobilising the country in protests and conversations about the abductions, and in doing so, helped remove a Nigerian president from power in what will be the first democratic transition in the country’s history.

The president of Nigeria is set to change on 29 May, but women in the north-east will continue to push for justice, peace, human rights – and the return of women and girls who have been abducted in the past two years. Once in office, the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, has to deliver.

 Now that Buhari is in office, I’m looking forward to the steps he will take to ensure genuine, meaningful and sustained peace and security for all – both women and men – in the North East.

initial thoughts on Buhari’s inauguration speech

I don’t know about you but I was quite impressed. He did what he needed to do. He was gracious, set out the vision of his administration, reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and human rights, admitted that there were huge challenges ahead but stated that they were not insurmountable. He called on the spirit of the past, referring to the founding fathers of the nation and civilisations from the Kanem-Borno to the Oyo Empires that existed in the land that now makes up Nigeria.

Well done to his speech writers and well done to him. I do wish he had spoken about women’s rights though. Given the momentous signature of Jonathan of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill four days ago and the record low levels of women’s representation in the National Assembly (now a woeful 5.11%), it was an opportunity missed to show that he would govern for the best interests of women as well as men.

My top 5 highlights of the speech

1) Taking a holistic approach to peace and security

Where do I start? Moving the Command Centre to Maiduguri. Overhauling the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations. Placing the security forces within the overall security architecture. Making sure to focus on all security issues in Nigeria, not just those in the North East. If he had added just a few more things (like transparency of funding for security, addressing the phenomenon of vigilante groups, prioritizing security needs and realities of women as well as men and building trust between security forces and communities), I feel like he might have been listening in to conversations that I have been having recently!

I assume his thanks to the forces of Cameron, Niger and Chad for their assistance is symptomatic of an increased willingness of this administration to cooperate than was present in the last? Given the increasingly regional dimension to the conflict and violence and the need for a joined up approach, I hope this is the case.

The move of the Command Centre to Maiduguri is a welcome one. It is as much important for perceptions that the government takes what is happening seriously and cares for the people of the North East as it is for any improvements in intelligence gathering or increased fighting capacity. I wonder though what this means for the rest of the country? Will this be accompanied by Command Centres being set up in other conflict affected parts of the country (such as the Niger Delta) too?

It was also important that he mentioned the girls from Chibok who were abducted, said that victory would not be achieved without their being rescued, and committed to trying to do so alive. I hope this extends to all the women and girls who have been abducted over the past two years – and is linked with proper health and psychosocial care and assistance to reintegrate into their communities.

The announcement that he intends to commission a sociological study to examine the origins, sponsors and international connections of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS, commonly known as Boko Haram) to ensure something similar does not recur is welcome. He showed a more nuanced view of the origins of the sect than I was expecting, linking it to the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf by the police and the sense of injustice this caused and talking of negligence, bungling and complacency. Those in Maiduguri that I talk to do speak of forces within government (both state and federal) who may directly or indirectly be supporting JAS. If true, I hope they feel right now that judgment will come one day.

However, he did only talk about the use of force in terms of dealing with the insurgency. Although better training and equipment for the armed forces, cooperation with neighbours and increased effectiveness of armed forces is necessary, I do hope that this ‘kinetic approach’ is not seen as all that is needed to ‘destroy Boko Haram.’ It needs to be married together with address the root causes of the conflict, including lack of trust in state institutions and perceptions of inequality and unfairness engendered by underdevelopment and human rights violations.

Focus and prioritisation of the situation in the North East should go hand in hand with addressing conflict that is either more latent or just does not make the headlines. Let us not take our eyes away from areas affected by violent conflict, such as the Middle Belt and Delta, and wait for things to flare up again before doing anything about conflict dynamics there. After starting from talking about the North East, Buhari said that this was not the only security issue in the country, talking about cattle rustling, the situation in the Delta and clashes between farmers and pastoralists. He committed to investing heavily in projects and programmes currently in place in the Delta, particularly in light of the amnesty due to end in December and called on people to cooperate with rehabilitation programmes. He did not have time to go into detail about what this means, but I’m looking forward to more details. And I’m just so happy that he didn’t buy into the (dangerous) narrative of ‘marauding Fulani herdsmen’ which seems to have infected national and international media and discourse, not only making things worse but criminalising ethnicity.

2) Showing commitment to democracy and human rights

In the election campaign, much was made of his past as a military dictator. Given this history, it was good to see him talk about democracy. He started by emphasising that today was an occasion to celebrate freedom and cherish democracy, giving credit to Nigerians, who had shown their commitment to entrenching the culture of democracy. He then went on to talk about the three arms of government, stating he was not seeking to encroach on legislative and judicial functions. He committed to reforming the public service and judicial system to ensure integrity and stability. In addition to looking at the breadth of government, he also looked at its depth, talking of the limits to the powers of each of the three tiers of government but that the federal government should not close its eyes to what is happening in the states and local government. Corruption at the local level was particularly picked up here as needing to be checked. He committed to doing this to ensure responsible and accountable governance, within the bounds of the constitution. With the fears of Buhari overstepping the boundaries of his authority as President that were present, it is good that he stated this so clearly in his inaugural address.

I think my favourite part of the whole speech was when he spoke of human rights violations committed by security forces. These are well documented in Nigeria but, as with most other countries, the government has not always been open to their possibility, let alone taking decisive action to prevent and punish. I am looking forward to the overhaul of the Rules of Engagement that he mentioned to avoid violations of human rights in operations. I also hope that this understanding of human rights violations includes sexual violence committed by security agents. This is something I hear about again and again when talking with civil society activists and women living in communities, but this is under-documented. Whenever this has been mentioned to security or government, the response has always been either to deny it happens or words to the effect of ‘What can you expect? They’re so far away from their wives.’ I’m looking forward to a Buhari administration instituting a zero tolerance policy towards all human rights violations, including sexual violence, starting a training programme to inculcate this at all levels and investigating allegations and punishing perpetrators (after a fair trial).

3) Planning for power and employment

He name-checked a lot of issues, from education and health to climate change, and from communicable diseases to cyber-crime and infrastructure, but the focus of his speech was, not surprisingly, on youth employment and the power sector. It is a shame he did not expand further on the others. Education and healthcare in particular are key sectors needing fundamental reform. I guess you only have a certain amount of time and you can’t talk about everything.

As someone who has (as have we all) suffered from lack of light, particularly in the last few days, I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the several studies he says are underway to bring light to the country safely, quickly and reliably. He, quite rightly, calls it a national shame.

His plans for increasing employment, particularly of young people, were described more fully than during much of his campaign. He talked about revival of agriculture and mining sectors, giving credits to small and medium size businesses, examining the best way to revive labour industries and accelerating the development of railways, roads and other infrastructure. I hope he does so in a way that is sensitive to both gender realities and conflict dynamics. After all, of the 6 million young women and men who enter the labour market in Nigeria every year, only 1/3 of the 10% of them who find jobs are women. Young women also experience sexual harassment and violence when at work, perhaps no more so than the girls who hawk products on the roadside. Research in Anambra showed that 93.1% of girl hawkers experienced some force of abuse, with 69.9% of them experiencing sexual abuse. Presently, youth employment and empowerment programmes in Nigeria not only do not work for young women, but they are seen as actually increasing conflict in communities. This is as selection procedures are not fair, so many people believe that spots go to those linked to politicians. It is because they have been designed with no market needs assessment in place so, there are no jobs in place once youth go through the programmes. And it is because not enough information is given about them, so young people do not know how or when to apply. Buhari’s administration needs to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor here.

4) Reaching out to different groups

He started his speech by thanking the outgoing President, Goodluck Jonathan, for setting a precedent that he said, made us ‘proud to be Nigerians wherever we are’ and for his support to the transition. Of course, this comes in the context of the APC complaining of lack of cooperation by the PDP and Jonathan to the Transition Committee two weeks ago – but it was important that Buhari rose above this.

The new President also made sure that, when he referred to the founding fathers (of course none of them were women) and great civilisations, he talked about those from all corners of the country. This is important, especially given the ways divisions between the North and South were drawn upon and exacerbated during the election campaign itself. Although elections were not as violent as we previously feared, tensions persist and have heightened, particularly in the South South and South East. My friends and colleagues in Port Harcourt talk about a state of ‘uneasy calm’ that has persisted weeks after the elections took place.

Buhari needs to be and be seen (perception as important as reality here) as a President for the entire nation. He needs to govern in a way that actively reaches out to and involves those in areas that did not vote for him. He needs to avoid the perception that these states are being punished.

Buhari also spoke about trade unions, the private sector, the media and civil society, as well as the importance of the legislature and judiciary performing their functions, including that to check government power. I am pleased he talked about both unions and the private sector – hopefully this means the approach taken towards stimulating the economy will be one that respects workers’ rights as well as supports employers.

He appealed to the media, including social media, to exercise its power with responsibility. This is particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the high levels of hate and dangerous speech that we saw in both traditional and social media before and during the elections. I do hope that this is not a coded message however, given initial worrying signs such as his decision (since reversed by his party) to bar AIT from covering his activities. Let us hope this was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

5) Quoting Shakespeare

This was a bit unexpected. He ended his speech by quoting Brutus in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Here, Brutus urges his friends for quick and decisive action and to seize the opportunities that are being now available. Better Shakespearean scholars that I can analyse what this means in the context of Buhari’s speech and his presidency, but it does add to the general impression of needing to act and being at the cusp of something that could be great. As Buhari himself says, ‘the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of good will and high expectations,’ seeing this as a ‘window of opportunity to fulfil these expectations.’

The expectations surrounding Buhari are (unrealistically) high. The day after Jonathan’s concession, when I arrived at work, I was met by a colleague from Maiduguri. The first thing she said to me, before even greeting me, was ‘Now we can go home.’ I spoke with young men who felt they had no alternative but to drive informal taxis who insisted that, once Buhari took office, that they would all have the meaningful careers of their dreams.

It is wonderful to have people so invested in a government and so certain that they will stand up and deliver on promises made in their elections. The lack of cynicism is both heartwarming and breathtaking. It is a welcome departure from the resignation and frustration that has been there until now. But, I worry that expectations are just too high. It is good to know that Buhari is aware of the weight of these expectations, of the burden of history upon his shoulders, and is determined to act quickly to keep the momentum of goodwill flowing.

As he himself said, ‘We have an opportunity. Let us take it.’

inauguration is finally here – remembering #NigeriaDecides and post-election joy…

It’s Inauguration Day! And Democracy Day! Change is in the air and there’s almost too much excitement to bear.

When I think about where we were this time last year, or even this time two months ago, who would have ever thought we would get to this? During the days following the election, I felt I was living a dream – except I would never have dared to dream what actually took place. Despite all our worries and fears, although there were some irregularities and violence associated with the elections, these were much lower than thought almost certain to happen. Plus Jonathan conceded even before all the counts were in – who would ever have thought that would happen?

The night before the Presidential elections, I wrote this detailing 5 stages of emotions around the elections:

1) acute engagement: when you spend every second thinking about elections, politics and the personalities and relationships involved e.g. ’I’ve gone 10 minutes without checking Twitter – what’s happening with elections? 

2) anger: when you look too closely at what is happening and step back to think on what this all means e.g. How can human beings actively incite violence just to hold on to power even if it means people die? 

3) intense worry: when you become overwhelmed with worries: about your country, it’s future, what may happen or not happen e.g. If that happens, the South-South is going to burn/ there will be nothing left in the North. How many people will die? 

4) resignation: when you’re completely overwhelmed or you’ve just given up e.g. What will happen will happen. There’s no point being angry or worried. 

5) boredom: when you’ve just had enough e.g. They just need to happen already. I almost don’t care who wins as long as they hold and we can then get on with our lives.

You can read the whole post here.

And then, the night President Jonathan conceded defeat, I wrote a piece for The Guardian: What I saw at the Nigerian polling booths was inspirational. Brits could learn from it. It was published the following afternoon:

At 3am this morning, the official announcement came. Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate for the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC), had gained 15.4 million votes; the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic party (PDP), had won 12.9m. Jonathan had already made a telephone call to Buhari the night before, conceding defeat.

This is a landmark moment for Nigeria. It is the first time a sitting president has conceded defeat, and will lead to the democratic handover of power for the first time in the country’s history.

I was an elections observer and spent my weekend moving between polling units in Abuja. I have been inspired by democracy more in these past four days in Nigeria than in five years in London – and it is the people, not the politicians, who have been responsible.

The atmosphere at polling stations was a joy to witness. At 47%, the turnout might seem low, but that percentage is remarkable given the country’s insecurity, the number of people unable to collect voters’ cards, and the long queues. For most people, voting was an all-day event, and for some, an all-weekend one. In the UK, turnout is 65%. Imagine what it would be if people had to wait hours or even days to vote.

People waited patiently at polling stations in Nigeria from 6am on Saturday; the polls opened at 8am. By the time officials arrived, voters had organised themselves, signing up to a list of names in order of arrival or handing out numbered slips of papers to ensure there would be no rush when accreditation started.

In every single polling unit I visited, people waited for hours without food or water. Temperatures reached 38C. It was so hot that my phone shut off, warning me that it needed to cool down before I could use it. At one unit, I spoke with women who had been waiting for nine hours, and expected to hear their complaints and frustration. Instead, they spoke about how excited they were and how fun they were finding it all: “We are exercising our civic responsibility,” they said. “We don’t get the chance to do this every day.” This joy at being part of the democratic process was something I encountered everywhere I went.

At a small number of polling stations voting continued into Sunday. I spoke to some voters who, after waiting to vote from 7am to 9pm on Saturday, returned at 9am on Sunday. And many stayed at the polling units after they had voted. They were determined that their presence would stop potential rigging, saying, “I am waiting for the count because I want to see it with my own eyes.” When darkness fell, they brought their own generators or switched on car headlights. When officials counted ballots, voters gathered around and chanted the numbers alongside them. There were people who first went to vote at 7am on Saturday morning who were still there when counting finished at 11.15pm on Sunday night.

The nation was glued to the election for four full days. Attahiru Jega, the chair of the independent electoral commission, became a household name. Countless discussions were devoted to how he was bearing up under the pressure. Once results came in, people started to practice their arithmetic. They gathered in viewing centres with paper and pencil, subtracting six- or seven-figure numbers to determine the margin. In workplaces, people had one ear tuned to updates. Everyone was hooked to the drama and theatricality of it all. Who knew that watching a series of men (it was overwhelmingly men) reading out numbers could be so gripping?

The result of the Nigerian election coincides with the start of campaigning in the UK. I have always been against compulsory voting; casting your ballot is a right not an obligation. And I understand voter apathy. There are good reasons why people do not want to vote. But it’s difficult to spend two days watching people who are so excited about voting, regardless of the fact it has taken up their whole weekend, and not to start changing your views about democracy.

Every reason people in the UK might have not to vote, Nigerians also have, in spades.

Politicians are corrupt and only care about themselves? In Nigeria, an alleged $20bn of government funds have gone missing from one government agency alone.

I can’t bring myself to vote for any of them? As the Economist stated, the choice in Nigeria was between a former dictator and a failed president.

They’re all the same? Well, there is no ideological difference between the APC and PDP. In fact, given the number of defections and counter-defections, they are essentially the same group of people.

I don’t think my vote will matter? Nigeria is a country with a history of rigging elections.

Despite high levels of disillusionment in politics, people in Nigeria still voted. I wondered for days why this was the case, why the atmosphere felt so different to that in the UK, and then I realised. This election galvanised the country, with many becoming interested in politics for the first time, because Nigerians trusted in their power to effect change. The majority felt the president was not performing and needed to leave office to give someone else a chance to do a better job. They believed that although the candidates, the political establishment and the system were not perfect, that they, and by extension their votes, mattered.

People in the UK have lost this sense that they have the ability to change what happens among those in power. This is despite having a real political choice. Yes, there’s a rush to the centre ground in the UK, but parties do have different visions for the future of the country and concrete plans for how to get there. As voters, we need to make our opinions on this known.

In the hours following the Nigerian elections, commentators focused on what Nigeria can teach the rest of Africa about democracy – but the UK has a lot to learn too. Like Nigerians, we also have a stake in the future of our country, and the power to decide which direction it takes.

And now transition is actually happening. Happy Democracy Day everyone. May Buhari live up to at least some of the (very high) expectations surrounding him.

put away the scriptures and follow justice

I’ve not been very good at keeping this updated with articles I’ve written and had published elsewhere. Here is a piece that I wrote for openDemocracy back in February. I’ll be putting up others over the next few days.

During a visit to Bayelsa state in Southern Nigeria last year, I was taken aback to hear a male Christian leader quote Karl Marx to describe how trust in God reduces the potential for struggle and mobilisation: “religion is an opiate of the masses.” Belief in the divine can stop people from acting when those with power are seen as favoured, regardless of their corruption, crimes and human rights abuses. All too often, inequality is seen as God’s will.

When I began doing human rights and peace-building work in Nigeria in 2013, I struggled with the role religion should play. I worried about strengthening structures that continue to be patriarchal and homophobic, and which in some cases accentuate religious tensions that lead to violence. The conflict in the Middle Belt of the country is a good example. This recent sermon by David Oyedepo, one of the most influential pastors in Nigeria, is another:

God has anointed me to lead the revolution against Islamist jihadists… You catch anyone that looks like them. [Stamps foot] Kill him. There is no report to anybody. Kill him. Pull out his neck and spill his blood, I will spit it on the ground.”

When I talk about religion, I’m referring to religious institutions and ‘big men’ rather than to the personal beliefs that people hold. Many people of faith question the power of religious institutions and the ways in which they use it. When the Ebola virus came to Nigeria last year, for example, many pastors and faith healers invited those who were worried to come to them for a cure. Most people of faith I know denounced this act as highly irresponsible.

But faith-based organisations in countries with inadequate welfare states also serve the vulnerable and marginalised. They garner huge respect and influence by offsetting the failure of the state to provide basic services. They are filled with women and men who have a genuine passion for the work they do—setting up safe houses for women experiencing violence and abuse, bringing different religious communities together in inter-faith dialogue, providing food and shelter for the displaced and much more. My time spent with them has been among the most rewarding in my work.

So I’ve come to realise that I have to work with what’s already here—what has meaning for and influence over people’s lives—and that often does mean religion.

I was brought up a Hindu. I tried to see my way through the thicket of hetero-normativity and male domination by learning the history of alternative practices, but I couldn’t find a form of Hinduism that wasn’t shot through by Brahminical patriarchy, one without ingrained caste-based ablist discrimination.  I go to temples with my family and do puja (worship) with them, but I am guided by my own ethics rather than religious morals.

I doubt whether any revisionist Hinduism could uproot its oppressive nature: even the most reform minded believers come up against unambiguous words in religious texts and practices eventually. For example, most religions teach the superiority of men over women. The Buddha may have changed his mind about allowing women to join the Sangha (community) after protests from female followers, but the eight Garudhammas or “weighty rules” still entrench hierarchy between women and men regardless of their knowledge and experience.

Hetero-normative and patriarchal interpretations dominate. This is unsurprising given that most texts are written, interpreted and taught by men. It is vital to reinterpret these texts, to question what is presented as ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ and recover the lived experiences of different people in the past. This is particularly so in countries where there’s little room for manoeuvre outside of religious frameworks.

One of the most effective strategies in the toolbox of the activist can be their knowledge of culture and religion, whether this is the history of same sex love and desire in India or the role of women in Buddhism. Our ancestors can surprise us with what was permitted, accepted and even celebrated: so-called ‘unchanging’ traditions are never static since social mores alter over time.

Nevertheless, transforming religious structures isn’t easy. As a woman in Port Harcourt recently told me, “I am a Christian and we are taught we must be submissive wives. I now know that although I still must submit, there are some things that should not be tolerated.” She was talking about violence against women and girls, so there is progress of a sort in shifting consciousness. But the transformation I seek is not that women know that violence against them is wrong, but that they see themselves as equals—and so much else besides.

Perhaps these deeper changes won’t happen unless religion itself is fundamentally transformed. Given the power religion has already, do we risk strengthening the hands of reactionaries and patriarchs when working with religious institutions? Recently an Indian activist told me about an all-male gathering of religious leaders that was organized by an international aid agency to talk about the struggle against sex-selective abortion. On returning home, the men started speaking about all abortion as ‘sin.’

An over reliance on religion can also marginalise religious minorities that are already ostracised. It can strengthen narratives that declare that ‘religion’ and ‘nation’ are synonymous, such as the myth of “Hindutva” culture propagated by Hindu nationalists in India. The logical result is that all others are seen as ‘foreigners’ who dilute the ‘purity of the nation.’

This includes those who do not believe in any religion, whose numbers are often kept artificially low by social opprobrium and the danger that comes with questioning religious orthodoxy. Apostasy is a death sentence in many places. Most of my friends in Nigeria who see themselves as humanists are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, families and friends, which is understandable when the potential risks include being beaten by family members, committed to a psychiatric hospital for the medical diagnosis of “the personality disorder of atheism,” and receiving death threats.

In the UK, those wishing to leave religion have a safety net since there are structures in place to protect them. However, even here, the move from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’—where ethnic minorities are viewed through the lens of religion, often at the expense of any analysis of race—marginalises the diversity of voices and viewpoints. Relations with racialised communities have become mediated by religious leaders. Black people have become essentialised as inherently religious, casting those who are not as ‘inauthentic.’ Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion—everywhere and for everyone.

Yet fundamentalism is increasing in many parts of the world. Contemporary religious-political movements make use of the state machinery to consolidate power and impose their version of doctrine. The primary victims of fundamentalist action are those who come from the religion, community and society in question. There are many, like those in Women Against Fundamentalism, who are fighting these trends, and they need allies.

Nevertheless, in countries where religion is a major social force, there’s a real need to engage with religious leaders precisely because of the power they have. Not doing so minimises impact, and means that one can’t reach the majority of women and men for whom faith is a daily lived public and private reality, often mediated through religious structures.

In some cases, pushing for the implementation of religious doctrine may actually help to realise human rights, at least to some extent. For example, using the technicalities of Sharia jurisprudence saved Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal from death by stoning for adultery in Nigeria—a ‘crime’ supposedly ‘proven’ by their pregnancies. Safiya says she was repeatedly raped, but she was still judged guilty. In many communities, pushing for rights by using religious arguments is more likely to be listened to, heard and accepted, both by those who are marginalised and those in power.

Religion also offers its own possibilities for transformation. In Malawi for example, Anais Bertrand-Dansereau writes about how youth organisations that are faith based can have a more positive approach to sexuality by telling young people that “sex is a gift from God.”  They can raise and discuss issues that others shy away from for fear of being seen as ‘immoral.’ This teaching is restricted to sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, so it has its limits in terms of human rights, but still it is instructive.

However, the women and men everywhere who are trying to challenge oppression and discrimination need to be supported directly, not just through religious leaders. I recently heard a woman in the Niger Delta talking about violence against women and girls:

“I now have a platform to challenge our imams about what they say. Mostly our husbands don’t allow us to meet and attend gatherings. They choose which Islamic schools we attend… It’s our imams who are asked to represent us. Women don’t attend Friday prayer – but Muslim women organise too.”

The growing trend in the development industry to work with those in power—meaning men, religious leaders and traditional authorities—at the expense of strengthening the mobilisation of those oppressed is profoundly dangerous. Religion is power and it represents the status quo.

For these and many other reasons, we need to engage with religion, but to do so critically. We also need to fight for, maintain and strengthen secular spaces where people of all faiths and none can come together and organise, outside of the influence that established religion can exert elsewhere.

Do we see transformation in terms of negotiation and compromise or disruption and revolution? This has implications for the nature of the changes we’re working towards and the process of how to get there. Working with religion can be an important stepping stone along the way, but we should not be constrained in our vision or strategy by what is said by holy books or holy men.

After all, in the history of struggle, freedom is only gained when it is demanded. It is achieved when those who are oppressed and their allies rise up and force the hands of those in power. We should not be constrained by religion when we envision and strive for the transformation of society. As the Indian activist, intellectual and architect of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar once said, “Put away the orthodox scriptures. Follow justice.”