Women’s empowerment: Between religion and culture

Women’s empowerment: Between religion and culture

A people’s shared collective knowledge, acquired over many years, is materialized as culture and becomes their social heritage. Fully comprehending a culture leads to the understanding of behavior and social practices.
Religion is generally considered part of culture, but mixing it with potent elements of traditions that are innate to culture creates explosive religious divisions and distortions that are the result of misconceptions, preconceptions, superstitions and prejudices. The narrative on the impact that religion has on female empowerment is multifaceted and endless.
There is a clear distinction in thought between those — usually in the West — who argue that traditional religions and beliefs are women’s main obstacles to empowerment, and those who claim that women themselves — in Asia, Africa and the Middle East — are to blame because they are too weak to stand up for themselves and too ignorant to know the difference between religion and culture.
There is no doubt that culture impacts women’s empowerment and rights. It is not easy to change the tendencies of a patriarchal society where culture and religion coexist. Sustainable national development can be achieved once there is an understanding of inequality. In other words, by recognizing and subsequently battling inequality, equality is attainable. Gender inequality is the product of culture and distorted religious norms.
In order to eradicate poverty and hunger, achieve universal education, reduce child mortality and so on, women must be empowered, first and foremost through education and health care. These are critical areas, and the Beijing Platform for Action states that “the advancement of women and the achievement of equality between men and women are a matter of human rights… and should not be seen in isolation as women’s issues.”
Islam does not marginalize women. If we agree that it is a religion for all times, we see that through an open-minded and moderate interpretation, it actually empowers women. The struggles women face are indications of sociocultural dynamics infused with history and traditions.
Saudi Arabia is both religious and tribal, with a rich cultural background of traditional beliefs. Yet we are gradually replacing certain patterns and behaviors to include women on a more productive level and incorporate them into the job market as a rich economic national resource. It is part of the necessary evolutionary process of a country that wants global competitiveness and an ambitious economy where priority is given to citizens’ well-being.
By investing in education for both boys and girls, and through our Vision 2030 road map, not only is a new era being created, but also a new generation where men view women as capable partners and equal in society. A lot is yet to be done, especially with regard to changing mindsets, but I am hopeful and believe that we are on the right track.

Hoda Al-Helaissi has been a member of the Shoura Council since 2013, and is a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee.

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