IDEOLOGICALLY motivated sexual grooming of women and girls from religious-minority backgrounds should be recognised officially as sexually abusive behaviour, a new report from from the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) states.
It argues that, for too long, there has been a “blind spot” in literature on the equality of women and on religious persecution. This is the overlap between the sexual predation of which, globally, women and girls are victims and the sexual grooming that is used to convert women from a minority to a majority religion.
Dr Mariz Tadros’s report, Invisible Targets of Hatred: Socioeconomically excluded women from religious minority backgrounds, was published on Tuesday. She argues: “While poor vulnerable girls and women have been the targets of sexual grooming with the intention of sexual predation, there is also an ideologically motivated grooming process aimed at the religious conversion of religious minority women.”
The latter is “a subtle, coercive, and insidious form of power” distinct from “overt, direct acts” of violence,” she writes.
“Contrary to the violent use of force described in proposition two (abduction, rape, forced impregnation, etc.), the phenomenon described here usually commences with soft, even positive expressions of power. At the outset, the lack of violence may even suggest a consensual relationship, thereby making it very difficult to unravel the predatory intentions.”
She continues: “Ideologically motivated sexual grooming does not detract from its sexually exploitative and abusive nature but it does indicate an intent not just to harm the subject but also the religious community to which she belongs.”
The predation is perceived as both a “victory” for the religious majority to which the perpetrator belongs, and a “humiliation” for the religious minority.
Dr Tadros is director of CREID and Professor of Politics and Development at the Institute of Development Studies, in the University of Sussex.
Her report is based on data from Egypt, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nigeria, India, and Iraq. It makes five propositions in all, of which another is that women in these contexts experience intersecting vulnerabilities. “When women are poor and they belong to religious minorities, they will experience power and powerlessness in particular ways,” she writes.
They are used as “political pawns in power struggles and their bodies as the battlegrounds for the subjugation of religious communities at large”.
Gender hierarchies also play a part. “A religious minority community’s respect for gender equality significantly influences poor religious minority women’s sense of their own power.”
Dr Tadros is frank, however, about the problems associated with the terms and concepts of religious-minority women, women’s equality, poverty, freedom of religion or belief, and religious “otherisation”.
“What distinguishes the targeting of poor women who belong to religious minorities is neither the religious differentiation per se nor their poverty, but where these factors combined with others put them in a position of vulnerability. What is specific about the sexual grooming of girls and women who belong to religious minorities is first its ideological intent and second, that the law protects such acts.”
This is her fifth and final proposition: that “the law is an instrument of subjugation”: “the legal domain can discriminate against women who belong to religious minorities in direct and indirect ways, and where economic vulnerability accentuates the experience of marginalisation by the law.”
This includes laws that discriminate against women and religious minorities (men and women); laws that enforce the supremacy of the majority religion; and laws (such as blasphemy laws) that are “worded in a seemingly neutral way but are used to target religious minorities”.
The report concludes that this persecution is compounded by religious supremacy and otherisation; concepts of honour; the political appropriation of women’s bodies; the “power of silence”; and a lack of data.
Governments should be held accountable for these “invisible” persecutions of women from religious-minority backgrounds, it states. It also calls for accountability to ensure that police forces secure the return of captives without delay. Families must be afforded a safe and neutral place to meet, while ensuring full protection from any harassment or mortal fear.
An accompanying press release draws attention to the plight of 16-year-old Saneha Kinza, who was abducted on her way to a church in Pakistan last month by a Muslim man. Her parents told the CREID programme: “We have never done anything for which the people in the community should resent us. Christians and Muslims here live together peacefully. . .
“We do need support to get our girl back. It is particularly the government’s responsibility to look into this matter, since they have the means and the institutions to get justice for Saneha. . . People can definitely help by raising their voices against this injustice, negotiating, or pressuring our government to help us bring her back and get justice.”