India’s First Women’s Mosque Goes Solar

Last week, India’s first all-women mosque made yet another powerful statement by announcing it would run on solar energy. The move will improve the city of Lucknow’s air quality and empowers women by putting them at the center of sustainable energy solutions and combating climate change.

Gender and climate change are cross-cutting issues that need to be addressed simultaneously to achieve sustainable development goals and to address existing inequalities. The effects of climate on human society, and our ability to mitigate and adapt to them, are mediated by social factors—including gender. Although several challenges remain to integrating gender issues more comprehensively into climate and energy policies on a global level, positive changes are emerging increasingly. Ambar Mosque’s transition to solar power is one such example.

Opened in February 1997 by Shaista Ambar in defiance against patriarchy, Ambar Mosque has played a unique role in facilitating a dialogue within the community on women’s rights. With the installation of solar panels, the mosque will not only feed electricity back into the grid but also help improve the air quality by reducing its carbon footprint. ““Over the last few years, air quality in the city has become worse while rural areas of Uttar Pradesh have been suffering frequent power cuts,” Shaista Ambar said in a public message about the mosque’s new solar energy effort. “Everybody should have access to clean air and clean electricity.”

India’s energy capital, Singrauli, is situated about 500 kilometers from Lucknow and has about 20GW of coal-based power capacity. The concentration of coal mines and coal-fired thermal power plants in the area has led to an increased level of air pollution all along the Indo-Gangetic plain. Efforts to reduce such rampant pollution by positive individual measures can send a cumulative message of change nationally as well as across the world.

The mosque’s move, however, also disproportionately impacts women—who have more at stake in the fights for renewable energy and against climate change. Increasing women’s access to sustainable energy and opportunities is a pre-requisite for poverty alleviation and women’s economic empowerment. WHO surveys show that in many countries, men consume more energy than women—particularly for private transport—while women are often responsible for most of the household consumer decisions about food, water and household energy. There is also evidence of gender differences in relation to the health and safety risks of new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such information could support more targeted, more effective efforts to bring about healthier and environmentally friendly policies.

Usha Nair, representative of the All India Women’s Conference and the Women and Gender Constituency, a network of organizations working to ensure women’s rights within the climate change convention framework, knows this all too well. Her work aims to popularize the concept of clean energy in India by empowering female entrepreneurs to educate people in their communities on the benefits of using clean energy products—and make them customers. The female entrepreneurs also sell household products such as clean cookstoves and solar lights.

“It is indeed heartening to see people coming forward voluntarily to embrace low carbon pathways,” Nair said of Shaista Ambar’s push for solar power. “It is also very encouraging that religious and spiritual leaders are endorsing the call for mitigation actions to combat climate change.” Involving religious leaders in climate action and lobbying can go a long way in enthusing the masses—especially in a country like India, where religious leaders of all denominations have a strong hold.

Nair also connected Ambar’s work on gender to her latest work on renewable energy in her comments. “Ms. Shaista Ambar has been a pioneer in championing gender equality based on the tenets of Islam,” she said. “She has been at the forefront to protect the social rights of Muslim women. Now she has shown sensitivity to environmental issues by making the all women mosque, set up by her in 1997, 100 percent powered by solar energy. Let us hope more and more religious, spiritual and social activists, who have wide influence and acceptance among the masses, come forward to champion such causes for the global good.”

UN Women is currently working on an integrated set of actions to unleash the potential of women entrepreneurs in sustainable energy. Their flagship program on Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Energy, which brings together women’s economic empowerment and sustainable energy for all, is seen as a key means of implementation of the gender equality and women’s empowerment compact. The program is supported by the UK’s department for international development and will be implemented in four Indian states—Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh— during this year, impacting 100,000 disadvantaged women through better access to sustainable energy.

“This is a remarkable initiative by Shaista Ambar—one that highlights the role women can, and do, play in drawing attention to the need for clean energy solutions,”UN Women Multi-Country Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka’s Representative, Dr. Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, said of the effort. “Ms. Ambar is leading by example, and I am certain this project will inspire many others—particularly women, who are energy managers in households, communities and workplaces—to integrate clean energy into daily lives and practices.”

There is an urgent need to remove gender-specific barriers and shift the current paradigm from one where women are passive providers and users of energy to one where they are agents of change in promoting sustainable energy technologies and their productive uses. Shaista Ambar’s initiative is an example to follow—not only for women in India, but for those around the world.

Sarah Hurtes is a freelance journalist and humanitarian worker, having previously worked for UN Women and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

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