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Archive for May, 2007

by Roja Bandari, NWI rapporteur, PhD student in electrical engineering

Getting up wasn’t so easy this morning and my jetlag has been so hard to shake off. I got a cab to get to the conference this morning and had another good conversation with my driver. The Irish are really nice people! It is in the culture of taxi drivers in this region to entertain you with the most friendly conversations the whole way they drive. The B&B that Rebecca and I are staying at is also very cute and feels like home. I will definitely have to come back here with my husband as tourists!

Today was another amazing day at the conference. Women from Northern Ireland have achieved monumental success in ending a terrible conflict and have great insight and experience which must be utilized in dealing with similar situations especially the Palestine-Israel conflict. At the workshop titled “Challenging Fundamentalisms” we had a great conversation at our table with Iranian, Palestinian, Croatian, Syrian and Irish activists. I learned about Croatian women challenging Christian fundamentalisms in their country and also realized that collaboration among women from countries in the region who share some similar obstacles in women’s rights such as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan, Kosovo, Iraq and Syria is a great opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

The stories of Robi Damelin and Nadwa Sarandah from the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum, who had all lost someone dear to them but were taking steps toward peace, made me cry but also showed me how we should never simplify the issue and take out the human factor.

In the end of the day, we watched a video on the Iranian women’s campaign for equality (the One Million Signatures Campaign). There were explanations given by Dr. Tohidi and Dr. Ebadi and questions asked about the forms of international support that are suitable. As supporters of this campaign in the US, a group of university students and I had been struggling for the past few months to contact someone from the NPR (national public radio) and ask them to include a report about the campaign but it is very difficult to find any contacts. I brought up this issue in the session and to my delight, Jody Williams immediately suggested that she would contact them so me and her can have an interview about the campaign. That was one of the highlights of this conference for me.

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by Jameen Kaur, NWI rapporteur, Amnesty International Ireland

Today we danced. We moved our bodies to the banana song sang by Nani from Indonesia. However my heart feels sore as I write. The peace process causes me pain. The peace process requires a deep inner strength, which sadly governments do not initiate. I saw the real face of conflict today and the emptiness it leaves behind. We heard stories from Northern Ireland, the pain and suffering of conflict to the peace it has now set. People move on, but they do not, cannot forget. That is peace and reconciliation. But the journey as recounted by our speakers is not easy. ‘Peace is hard work, we suffer, emotions suffer, families suffer… yet we do it for our children, our grand children..’ said Anne Carr, Ireland. Families, communities accused each other of betrayal as hate made room for peace and reconciliation.

Though, not all our delegates shared this view. A Palestinian delegate spoke ‘Peace is a dirty business. In order to co-exist, first one must exist. Palestinians have been used in the peace process. Just another point on the Israel’s agenda? How can we be included, without being abused? Tough, hard hitting questions, for which as we all realise only time holds true answers.

However, the brutal experience of countries like Ireland and South Africa gave hope. Change is possible, but its hard work. Long work. Dialogues cannot be set in stone, there has to be manoeuvring at each step, for each side. Women must be at the negotiation table. That is vital for long term peace. There can be no long term peace without the women.

I witnessed courage in its purest form today. I heard two stories, which I will forever carry with me. One by an Israeli Jewish mother who lost her son: David to a sniper. The other a Palestinian, on the loss of her Harvard educated sister. Both whom have started a bereaved family support group. Which speaks to the ‘enemy’. Through projects in their most practical form, they change minds and hearts, by giving strength to the belief that there is another option. We also watched a moving documentary ‘Encounter Point’ which brought hope but also tears. We learnt that true compassion is about knowing your own darkness well enough to sit with others. It is a relationship of equals.

All the stories and the real experience of woman on the ground , whether in their homes or as they walk away from a burnt village resoundingly stress that it is not that women are voiceless, that they do not cry and shout at the violence that is being inflicted on them, but more tragically that the world is ear less. It is our biggest task and challenge to create ears for the ear less. It begins by owning our own story. And then deciding how we will use it, so it is not exploited by politicians and individuals for power and control.

It is good to see that friendships among the delegates are forming. Names are being remembered quicker. Night time activities bring a celebratory atmosphere and the trophy for party animals has great competition. The Laureates too bring a uniting factor, each one bringing her own unique personality and charm. As Shirin Ebadi stated : ‘Allow the tree of friendship to go into full bloom.’

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by Jane Gabriel, openDemocracy’s program director

“There comes a time when you lose your fear and thing are never quite the same again.”

The fact that we are in Ireland is having a powerful effect on us all – because amidst the terrible stories, the attempts to analyse, explain and come up with new solutions to end conflict and build peace , we have the constant reminder of how peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland. Women from the peace process – Ann Carr and Bronagh Hinds are here along with Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire and others. It’s impossible to not share their joy.

Anne Carr and Bronagh Hinds talked us through the determination and the imagination it took; the painstaking, careful, detailed, dangerous work that the women of Northern Ireland have undertaken since 1976 in the name of peace. When they said that “there comes a time when you lose your fear and thing are never quite the same again”, it captured the spirit of the story they told.

The message was that “peace-building is hard work”- it involves suffering, keeping your feet on the ground while you try to convince all parties that in really understanding violence, there is the understanding that it will never work, that there will never be a winner, that we are all losers. Ann had spent two years visiting prisons, working on her own with 46 men every two weeks –and dialogue, being able to think through what the other side needed, was the key to the eventual change of heart and minds.

The women talked of the goal of inclusivity at all levels and at all times – the only negative comment was from Bronagh about some of the feminists she’d known to whom she’d said “we are living, managing, resolving transitioning from conflict and you want us to try and transform the whole of society too? Give us a break!”.

Hinds had said at some point that while we can’t supplant one conflict on another we can and must “listen carefully for grains of assistance”.

When Mairead Corrigan Maguire spoke to the whole conference she said “your stories resonate with us. We hope that by you knowing that if we can keep hope alive we can make a difference”.

There are all sorts of tensions and struggles going on here at the conference as women from thirty countries with immense experience, suffering, determination and skills refuse to give up the struggle to end violence – and try to empower each other by exchanging views and experiences. “Listening for grains of assistance” is what everyone is doing here. So when Hibaaq Osman from Somalia spoke I realised how this can work. She said “when the Irish were speaking I said yes, yes! – I thought they were speaking about Somalia, my country!”. She explained that in working at the height of the conflict in Somalia the hardest thing was to have the humility, the respect and the openness to understand the culture of her own country, to start by being yourself, to make mistakes, and that only then had she been able to help bring people from all sides to the table, to persuade them that they would be listened to, respected and recognised.

Her message was a mixed one, for although she had recognised the lessons from the Irish peace work, she was adamant that there is no role for donor agencies and the international community in solving other people’s conflicts, that they should “shut up and if they want to support us, and get out of our way” – a comment that sparked heated discussion amongst some participants well into the night.

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by Rebecca Barlow, NWI rapporteur, PhD Candidate at the Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam Policy Studies in Melbourne

Yesterday I wrote about those moments during the NWI conference when the entire room has been left in momentary silence, but it is the afternoon session of day two of the conference that has left me most affected.

This afternoon’s panel focused on Israel and the Occupied Territories. The anguish expressed in the words of the two women who spoke to us (one Israeli and one Palestinian) was tangible, and weighted by the knowledge that these women represented the tragic realities of thousands upon thousands of other men, women, and children on the ground. But these women were not here to simply tell us about their pasts. They were here to talk about the future, and strategies for change. One theme resounded in this respect: there is no military-oriented solution to the problem of Israel-Palestine.

As part of my position as PhD candidate at Monash University in Australia, I tutor second and third year students in Middle Eastern politics. Of course, the Israel-Palestine conflict features predominantly in the course. If I can impart just some of the reality of experiences expressed to me by the women that I have listened to and engaged with today back to my students in Melbourne, it has the potential to make a profound difference to the way we study and engage with the subject matter. What I have realised here today is that while we study conflict and the history of conflict, we must maintain a commitment to study and focus predominantly on peace and strategies for peace. Otherwise, what really is the point?

To speak frankly, it is somewhat difficult to write about such complex, politically sensitive, and sometimes deeply personal issues in a blog. To be even more frank, at this point in the evening of day two I share the sentiments of my Croatian friend who I sat next to during this afternoon’s session and who turned to me at the end of the women’s stories and said: “Okay, now I need alcohol.”

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by Jane Gabriel, openDemocracy’s program director

I’m struck by the completely relaxed way the five Laureates wander around the hotel with us all – sharing breakfast tables, smoking breaks, chatting with everyone as they go. This is direct, informal contact, anyone can and does talk to anyone. Jodi Williams has said that they want to use their Nobel Prizes to highlight the work of women and to link women. With 80 women activists here from thirty different countries and the chance to talk openly informally and honestly with the Laureates for three days, this is an extraordinary gathering. We’re all going to be in one room, seated at about ten round tables, with the Laureates amongst us. It feels like we may be seeing a new way of exercising power.

The morning was spent listening to the ways women in the Middle East are experiencing violence on a continuum, whether from religious fundamentalism, economic deprivation or in the domestic sphere. In discussing types of violence the topics range from the need to contest the construction of our collective identity as women, and to refuse to make the false dichotomous choice the fundamentalists impose of being either ‘for or against us’, to the fact that all societies have to explain three things – birth, death and the existence of at least two sexes – and therefore the construction of identity means that we have to address gender.

Farida Shareed urged the participants to remember that collective identities are negotiated and contested. When we, as women, ask for changes in how we define ourselves we’re asking for the whole society to change; that is what gender means. She called for us to recognise that “culture is an explosive term. It’s used as a barrier to talk about gender based violence. Just because slavery and apartheid were part of your culture it didn’t mean that you couldn’t talk about it. We must and we can.”

Nadera Shalkoub Kerkorian spoke of the way domestic violence is so often culturalised; she called for the recognition that domestic violence is a political and ethical issue, and not a cultural issue. She told harrowing stories with an awful clarity. She described one woman who took her seven year old son back to see their demolished home. She wound a piece of wire all the way around the boundary of where their home had stood and held it in place with small sticks. Then she made a tiny door and gave the boy a small key. She told him, “now this is your home and no one can come in”. She spoke of the women she works with and asked us to remember that when we look at victimization we are also looking at resistance and agency and resilience and pain; that in order to address domestic violence it is necessary to oppose the dominant political order and to criminalise it – not the individuals.

As she said, “Can the master’s tools be used to pull down the master’s house”?

(more…)

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by Roja Bandari, NWI rapporteur, PhD student in electrical engineering

I don’t know how one can sleep after such a day! I stayed awake in my bed until 4 am thinking about it. So many outstanding speakers from all over the world pumped information into my head all day. It was surreal and I shouldn’t really try to describe what it was like. I was especially surprised by these extraordinary women’s humility and sense of humor (Jody Williams is very funny) and I definitely wished I could pull off wearing the gorgeous bright yellow clothes that Wangari Maathai was wearing. I’m genuinely jealous.

I don’t think a woman engineer has ever had the chance to be in my position. Engineering is a masculine field (not in nature, but by current social norms) and my fellow woman graduate students in engineering and sciences at UCLA have recently started regular meetings that address issues of women working in these male dominated fields. During a section of the conference talks yesterday, the point was made that many weapons producers are from the US. As an engineer, that makes me think about who develops these weapons? In electrical engineering and especially in telecommunications – my area of graduate studies – much of the leading research is funded by the defense companies and a large portion of research funds is often spent by the government in defense projects. More often than not, a novel method or product is invented for a military application, and after several years it gets commercialized or used in urban spaces by the general public. A good example is the internet or wireless communications. This is accepted among the engineering community as something natural and research professors and scholar constantly seek projects funded by the US department of defense because of both the generous funding and the opportunity to work on the most exciting cutting edge technology. If an advisor gets funding for his or her student through a defense company, the student usually will not decline because there are not that many other funding opportunities.

It means engineers are passively contributing to the weapons development simply because of a passion for our profession, and shortage of other forms of funding. But is it ethical to contribute to a technology that can be used to kill others? To me this seems to contradict the first canon of the engineering code of ethics, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” I understand that this is not a black and white matter since the choice of the government to heavily fund research in defense projects is certainly something that has to do with policymakers and not engineers. An engineer can develop the internet for the public or for the military and it’s the government who decides which of these two has priority. But in either case you can’t ignore the personal choice that an engineer has to make in whether or not to be a part of a defense project.

What I will take away from this day is a plan for a more serious and in depth examination of this issue following a discussion about the engineering ethics of working with a defense company. Presence of more women in engineering will inevitably change the nature of this profession and maybe a harder look into our role in the cycles of violence in the world can enlighten all engineers in making career choices and maybe improve the nature of our profession. I plan to take this discussion into our next meeting with other UCLA women scientists and engineers.

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by Roja Bandari, NWI rapporteur, PhD student in electrical engineering

As an Iranian-American, I work to help my sisters in Iran while living in the US where my own life is affected by women’s image and position in the society. When I came to the US at the age of 20, I was accustomed to the Iranian society with its own forms of male and female stereotyping and a different (and more visible) version of patriarchy. I had gotten used to ignore or maneuver around most of these issues.

Americans have a different set of stereotypes (although there are some overlaps) and especially negative language associated with women which insulted me all anew when I started integrating into American society. I am specifically quite irritated at the media and popular culture’s image of women and the way it leads to how women see themselves and how men and women view other women. It’s not a very pleasant image, and not one that I’d like to be associated with. I have often wondered why there isn’t a more widespread and unified campaign to change this and to improve the public image of women in the US.

Today, when Yanar Mohammed brought up the issue of Iraqi television programs and how women are portrayed in them, I immediately remembered my own struggle at home. Yanar suggested for an international women’s television channel to be established. That sounded incredible and it compelled me to raise my hand and say how I think this channel will not only empower women in Iraq and other countries, but it can also empower the American women. It seems to me that American women are sometimes viewed by the international community as women with no problems and even maybe as a powerful group that perpetuates oppression on other people. I think this is not true.

I believe that the average American woman has to learn to feel solidarity with her sisters inside America in order to learn to also have solidarity with the rest of the women in the world. And for most American girls, that solidarity does not seem to be there, or at least I don’t see it. American women are not all-powerful forces that are sitting at the top of the world. They experience discrimination and violence as well, and especially when the world complains about the US acting as a bully (with its military, its media, etc.). In some situations, it’s not far off to think that American women can get bullied by their own macho media at home. Fighting the macho mentality inside America might help ameliorate the macho foreign policies of the US as well. I’m not a sociologist nor an academic in Women’s studies, but this simply seems to make sense to me.

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