An Intelligent Approach to Changing the Minds of Men
It was a thrill to hear Molly Melching of Tostan at the Women in the World Summit 2012. It was great to see someone so strong and humble at the same time. Molly was on a panel with one of her colleague’s, Demba Diawara, an Imam (A Muslim spiritual leader) from Senegal who has been influential in helping to eradicate the practice of female genital cutting in Senegal. Although female genital cutting cuts across many different cultures and religions, this particular campaign to end female genital cutting was in a Muslim majority area of Senegal. Hearing Molly’s experience of teaching people about the terrible consequences of female genital cutting, to the Imam’s foresight to talk to other more knowledgeable Imams and other Muslim leaders about the practice kept the audience engaged. It turned out that when Imam Demba spoke to more knowledgeable Muslim leaders about the practice of female genital cutting, it became clear that the practice has nothing to do with Islam, it is a cultural custom that has been practiced by their culture for generations. Because Islam is so central to the lives of these communities in Senegal, once the Imam found out that the practice was not Islamic and that it was harmful to girls, he immediately set out to talk to every family member and every leader about eradicating this harmful practice. One of the things Imam Demba happily recollects is that his niece Belo called him a hero for fighting for the rights of the girls in their village and country. Because of Tostan and Imam Demba’s foresight and action plan, 1000’s of villages in Senegal have abandoned the practice of female genital cutting through public declarations. They are also training the younger generation of Imams to follow in these footsteps. The government of Senegal has taken on the eradication of female genital cutting as a national action plan and over 50,000 villages have already abandoned the practice. With the support of the government of Senegal, Molly and Imam Demba believe that by 2015 the country of Senegal will have ended the practice completely.
Cultural consequences for women range widely. For example, in the West, gender discrimination exists where women are consistently paid less for the same job a man does. As women rise into higher level positions, the “air gets thinner” and women typically hold less than a third of the top executive and board-level positions. It is also widely recognized that in households where both spouses work equally, most of the housework is left to be done by women. Overtly sexualized images of women in the West have social repercussions that are inhibiting both girls and boys in the West. In other cultures or societies, women can be very marginalized. Culture also many times gets intertwined with religion creating a thick fabric that is hard to unravel. It has been very beneficial to work with Imam Umer Esmail, a Muslim spiritual leader and promoter of women’s rights in Austin, TX. Imam Umer who has three daughters has been a huge supporter of women’s rights. On Fridays, a religious day for Muslims where Imam Umer gives a Friday sermon, he frequently speaks to the mostly male congregation on the topic of women’s rights and respect for women in hopes that the attendees leave with a renewed and enhanced understanding, appreciation and value for women. This grassroots, educational approach is key to educate people about injustices against women globally and inspire the community to appreciate and really see and hear women on all levels. There are many challenges in Muslim majority countries regarding the marginalization of women that are cultural in nature. When people are educated and learn that religion is not a factor in these oppressions, they will change, just like the case of Demba Diawara, the Imam from Senegal who was influential in eradicating the practice of female genital cutting by learning it had nothing to do with religious obligations. I think Imam Demba said it best when he said, “intelligence is the only thing that can help you be successful in ending such a tradition”. Watch this amazing video called “Toppling Tradition” (scroll down to the 31st video) to find out how Imam Demba went from a supporter of female genital cutting to fighting to eradicate the practice altogether.
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Post by Lila Igram