In generalizing groups as homogenously ‘vulnerable’, we risk closing our eyes to existing spheres of power, diversity and capacity that exist among populations affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence. By going beyond broad monolithic categorizations and instead accounting for the specific needs, risks and capacities of affected people through an intersectional framework, we can tailor our humanitarian activities and include affected populations as active agents with dimensions beyond their vulnerability. In this post, Ahmed Al-Dawoody, the legal adviser for Islamic law and jurisprudence at the ICRC, and Saman Rejali, Thematic Editor at the International Review of the Red Cross, explore intersectionality between gender and Islam, drawing on the works of prominent Islamic female scholars and leaders to profile how Muslim women affected by conflict go beyond the mould of ‘vulnerable women’ and exercise power and agency over their lives.
There is a shared concern in the humanitarian sector, which has almost evolved into a mantra: we must protect ‘vulnerable groups, particularly women and children‘ and uphold the rights of ‘the most vulnerable‘ in compliance with international humanitarian law.
The aim is commendable: let us be of service to those who need it the most and designate our resources accordingly. However, it is time to be more specific about how we use the label of vulnerability, and in so doing engage in more inclusive humanitarian action by considering the specific perspectives, abilities and needs of the affected people we aim to serve. What sets women apart from children? Are all women and children equally vulnerable? How about women — do they all face the same needs? And — more to the point of this post — what about Muslim women in armed conflicts and other situations of violence: should they be lumped together as homogenously vulnerable, or should we instead look to them as the agents of their own lives and follow their lead?