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Overcoming cultural barriers with sound economics

Zainab Salbi's picture

This post is the first in a series on "Gender and Conflict" which explores gender issues in the context of crisis and violence. Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, discusses the cultural complexities involved in working to improve the lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states.

   Photo © Women for Women International

Working to improve the lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states raises complex cultural issues, but sound economic arguments paired with practical solutions can help overcome resistance. 
Culture and tradition are too often used to justify the stifling of debate about change, especially when it relates to women’s lives. As an Iraqi-American woman who grew up with Muslim traditions and ended up traveling the world through my work with Women for Women International, an organization that supports women in conflict-affected areas, I have had plenty of exposure to these attitudes.

The use of culture as a defensive weapon blights the lives of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sudan and Afghanistan.  It is used as an excuse to silence opponents. Although the intention may be to respect cultural traditions, it often leads to policies that undermine the social and economic advance of women. 
A classic example of this occurred in the first year of the Iraq invasion, when the US governing authority switched food distribution from public stores to mosques. This policy was intended to respect Iraqi culture but, in fact the policy changed the role of the mosque from a private to a public role. For the mosque has played a public role associated with government actions in Iraq’s modern history.

The result was to shift power towards the religious authorities. Those who felt the brunt of this shift were women.  Previously they got food as equal citizens from the store.  Now they had to go to the back room of the mosque and struggle to get the same food they use to get as citizens from the stores regardless of their religious practices.
Navigating cultural barriers 
Cultural change is never easy to manage. There is a fine line between respecting cultural values and facilitating the status quo. The risks are many.  It is easy to come across as patronizing, disrespectful of cultural values or, just as often, more conservative than cultural traditions require.  None of this is good.  My experience suggests that the only way to navigate these cultural minefields is through sound economic arguments. 
At Women for Women International, working in very different cultural circumstances from Afghanistan to Iraq, we have discovered that it is far easier to win the approval of men in leadership positions when we focus on economic issues, highlighting the positive and practical impacts on women’s lives. When the economic benefits are clear, cultural norms become flexible and negotiable rather than rigid and untouchable. 
In Iraq, for example, we managed to get a religious decree from the Imams stating that women’s education and access to income is not only allowed in Islam but actually encouraged. That way, women in many places were able to leave their homes and get educational programs about their rights as well as training in vocational and business skills that led to jobs and sustainable incomes that benefited everyone. 
Highlighting economic benefits

We have so many stories to share.  I was speaking with a woman—covered from head to toe—about how our program addresses her immediate economic needs, when her husband joined the conversation.  It was a very traditional family and I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the husband’s reaction. When I turned to him and asked what he thought, he said: “We are so poor. We are so hungry. I don’t care how you help the family. If it will be through my wife, then so be it.” 
I have experienced that same attitude in the villages of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Sudan and numerous other countries. When economic progress is at stake, rigid cultural arguments become more flexible. Once economic necessity lowers cultural barriers, women can use the opportunity to renegotiate power relations within the household and the community. Cultural arguments may act as barriers to women’s empowerment, but they cannot conceal its economic benefits.


Submitted by Mayada El-Zoghbi on
Zeinab, I am in total agreement with what you write here. I have had similar responses from communities in Afghanistan and other very difficult environments who are looking for ways to improve their livelihoods and find it much easier to throw out cultural barriers when there is an economic incentive to do so. In the West and in other countries that have seen changes in cultural attitudes toward women, that path has mostly been led by economic integration -- ie women entering the workforce or starting their own enterprises. I appreciate your taking a tough stand on a very sensitive issue.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Zainab, thanks so much for posting this blog on The World Bank. I am very happy to see your name. I read "Get What you Want for Nothing" article in Fast Company magazine where you were one of the positive examples mentioned of staring up a business. But that's not the reason I am writing. I am very passionate about the issue of women's rights. Maybe the solution is to educate societies under oppression -- to teach people that women can grow up to be strong, independent and leaders in society and still tolerate religious and cultural norms? But it stems even deeper and more hidden. In Turkey for example, women not only work, but they are expected to raise their children, take care of their parents and even sometimes friends. It's too much for a working women! So there are hidden things ... everything is not so black-and-white either. There are also gray spots even in the United States and European Union. Pay wages, discrimination, etc. Cheers, Kim

Submitted by Fareed Bangale on
I quite agree and disagree with Zainabu's viwes expresed in regards to culture being used as a defensive mechanism to sideline women. True is that, in Some places in Sudan, Congo, Uganda even Ethiopia policies have been made biased towards women emanicipation, although the ultimate authorities claim to be fronting the women role in leadership. this should and must be discouraged as it promotes unfairnes which affects overall development. However, i quite disagree with views expressed by Zainab in response to the place of women in africa or the world over. we should be careful in promotion of women equality in Sudan forinstance or Africa at large. Human beings are different and there is no way they can be equal to one another. the definition of equality must be made clear. the harminsing position should be that, human beings must be treated with all fairness and respect it deserves. if this position can be acieved then conflicts in Africa may be minimised. when resolving conflicts, we look at the true causes or sources of the conflicts and in so doing, we need to identify true possible actors or players and look at what their true interets are. if this is true, with all due respect, we realise that, African conflicts are perpetuated or caused by men and their male interest need to be identified therefore, efforts much be geared to finding out why men are doing what they are doing . to me that is where the answer lies. involvement of women is to gain the sympathy which is good in management of conflicts but not its resolution or transformation. i therefore agree that, when we are looking at solutions to conflicts with viwes of resolving them so as to get meaningful development, then culture must be respected because they are a Dogam that when affected negatively they lead to escalation of vioence. a good exampe can be sighted in the case of Sudan's CPA. much as the CPA has lead to improved security situation in South Sudan since its signing in 2005, it has not given Sudanes the peace it should have brought. with only one article left for its full implementaion, we still have alot of ethnic conflicts and to me this is so because, the cultural aspects of each tribes in Southern Sudan were not deeply considered but focus or much attention was put at the political level at the expense of the cultural views of the people of South Sudan.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I completely disagree with you and agree with Zainab's view that cultural traditions are used to sideline women. Rather, shut them up and give them no place in society except to do only what others believe they are capable of doing as opposed what they believe they can achieve. Yes, everyone is different and as regards to the difference in genders, the only thing is sex and physical strength. But we all have an intelligence to tap into that can contribute to the overall success of a nation. The definition of equality is the state or quality of being equal. So how would you do this except to allow the same privileges to all human kind ; Whether, it’s in education, business, class or position in society. I do agree with you that men and their conflicts lay in their capability to make decisions that impact a certain issue. And finding the reasoning behind it can help them to work more efficiently. However, your opinion in women only being able to provide emotional support is absolutely incorrect. Consider women that are in high positions in the U.S? Mrs. Clinton, Condoleezza Rice. Do you think only their emotional characteristics allowed them to make it to the place they are? No, it is their intelligence, their education their commitment and experience in the fields they currently hold or held. Again, I agree with you that culture is absolutely important to a group’s society. But, if the culture is a result to their poverty then its obvious change will need to happen. I'm not familiar with the CPA situation that you stated above, therefore, I cannot speak much on that. But, if violence resonates because of liberating women to be free agents then the problem again is not in the women but it’s in those that cause the violence. We are in a new era where we need to re-consider the things that we think are important from those that are not. Crippling women does not help the economic development of a nation. We need to utilize their strengths and abilities to help growth and bring balance to the world. Consider the family structure, it was made up of a man and woman to be in a home, why would that suddenly change when it comes economic issues in the world.

Submitted by Hamza on
I think the approach adopted by the Women for women International to achieve results of women empowerment is laudable and commendable. Indeed, methodologies for gender equality could utilize economic factors as possible entry points whereas the ultimate and long term goal should be related towards political emancipation. To fulfil and complete gender equality, sufficient power must be given to women.

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