Occasional Paper 13: Women's Peacecast V - In Search of Justice, Human Rights and a Just Peace
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This Occasional Paper features recent activities of Act Together, one of WLUML's networking organisations based in the UK. In July 2006 Act Together, Women's Action for Iraq, hosted Sundus Abass, Director of Women in Leadership Institute (Baghdad) in London for 15 days. WLUML helped to make the visit possible, as part of various network activities in support of women in post-conflict situations, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. This publication is a record of some of the activities that happened during those 15 hectic days. The aim of the visit was to highlight the work that Iraqi women are doing to try to amend the new Iraqi Constitution, in particular to ensure that the pre-existing Iraqi Personal Status Law, one of the more egalitarian family laws in the Middle East, is not replaced by Article 41.
The issues raised by the 2001 broadcasts remain relevant today, particularly in light of the aggressive US-led military intervention in Iraq that was launched in March 2003, the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and the repressive global and domestic policies that have been justified in the name of counter-terrorism in many countries, both North and South. Likewise, alternative media remains vitally important today as mainstream media and governments frequently refuse to hear popular protests against militarization and militaristic responses to global issues.
These broadcasts were produced by Feminist International Radio Endeavour (FIRE), an independent Internet radio station based in Costa Rica. FIRE is a long-standing WLUML ally and shares our goal of promoting international solidarity across boundaries. The broadcast, ‘Women’s Peacecast V: In Search of Justice, Human Rights and a Just Peace’, consciously sought to present a multiplicity of perspectives by bringing women from diverse nations, groups, philosophies and languages to join in these discussions. The participants stressed the need for peace, justice, political restraint and a commitment to the respect for all human rights.
The four WLUML speakers who participated in these broadcasts are all women’s human rights activists in their own contexts as well as long-standing networkers. They are representative of the scope and diversity within the WLUML network and include: Marieme Hélie-Lucas, a feminist scholar from Algeria who founded WLUML; Ayesha Imam, a sociologist from Nigeria who is the Executive Director of BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights (an independent organisation that is also the WLUML Regional Coordination Office for Africa and Middle East); Farida Shaheed, a sociologist from Pakistan who is also a Coordinator of Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre in Pakistan (an independent organisation that is also the WLUML Asia Regional Coordination Office); and Lynn P. Freedman, a lawyer from the USA who is a professor of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.
In their conversations with Maria Suarez and Catarina Forse of FIRE, the speakers addressed the many interconnected issues facing WLUML networkers and their allies in other progressive women’s and human rights movements. Exposing the intersection between seemingly unrelated trends is at the core of WLUML’s work. We stated in the network’s 1997 Plan of Action: “globalisation, i.e. the internationalisation of capital, marked by structural adjustment programmes, relentless privatisation and the growing power of transnational corporations; the changing relationship between the state and civil society; the militarization of society and the outbreak of armed conflicts (including between non-state actors); and the rise of the political right (characterized frequently by the emergence of extremist political groups organised around identity) all have a profound impact on our lives as women and as activists.”
The issues specifically highlighted in the broadcasted interviews included: the importance of definitions, specifically of ‘fundamentalisms’ and ‘terrorism’ — two terms that are frequently used without precision even at the highest levels (such as in UN Resolutions); the conceptual links between anti-Americanism and Islamophobia; the curtailment of civil liberties by many governments following September 11th; the targeting of women and NGOs in the backlash that has followed the bombing of Afghanistan; and the failure of the mainstream international media to publicise democratic opposition to militaristic responses. Each speaker contextualised her discussion of these issues by offering an analysis of the factors behind the global rise of violent identity politics. These factors included global economic inequalities; the worldwide withdrawal of states from social responsibilities towards their citizens; the both opportunistic and naïve support given to politico-religious extremists by certain governments; and the linkages between fundamentalisms across various religious, national and ethnic lines. Finally, the speakers discussed women’s solidarity actions and other possible strategies for responding to these developments.
According to the speakers, the lack of a clear definition of ‘terrorism’ opens up the possibility of the term being used to justify the pursuit of multiple self-interested goals. They were particularly concerned about the US government’s threat to attack other countries whom they (the US government) accuse of supporting or hosting particular ‘terrorist’ groups. This threat has now materialised in the shape of the war on Iraq. The speakers warned that such a policy direction, if pursued without being shaped by a thoughtful analysis of the US’s contribution to current conditions, would only serve to strengthen anti-American sentiment and, in turn, to strengthen the fundamentalist agenda. Meanwhile, the opportunity to analyse the use of terrorism as a political tool and to examine the extremist politico-religious movements behind them is being lost due to an inappropriate focus on specific incidents and specific perpetrators of terrorism and the claimed process of bringing them to trial.
The speakers offered a contrastingly clear definition of ‘fundamentalism’ as “an extreme Right-wing movement which is both national and international in character and which cynically uses religion in order to gain political power.” Moreover, they pointed out that so called ‘fundamentalists’ are generally extremely ignorant about their own religion, a fact that exposes the reality that most people involved in these movements are politically, not religiously, motivated. The WLUML networkers also stressed that Muslim fundamentalism is only one brand of fundamentalism. These movements are growing all over the world; in Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other contexts. Indeed, various fundamentalisms reinforce each other.
When discussing the multiple and complex factors behind the rise of politico-religious movements, the speakers highlighted global economic inequalities and deepening poverty (notably caused by the IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes) as key factors. For example, in Nigeria such programmes have resulted in a mass of disaffected, unemployed youth whose anger and frustration has been manipulated by fundamentalist leaders. The inter-community riots in the Nigerian city of Kano (in Kano state) were an enraged, largely spontaneous, response [of these youths] to the bombing of Afghan civilians. While the response was directly precipitated by the bombings, the intensity of feeling was inflamed by existing domestic tensions between communities. In contrast, the attacks by politico-religious extremists on women’s groups, development NGOs, and human rights organisations that took place in the Pakistan regions bordering Afghanistan at the same time were highly organised. Both events illustrate the impact that global foreign policy decisions can have on the domestic rise of extremism.
By linking women in such different contexts, international networks such as WLUML are in a position to develop a thorough analysis of the factors that contribute to the rise of fundamentalisms. For example on the one hand, in the Pakistan context, a major issue has been the failure of the national government to respond to violent attacks by fundamentalists on groups working for women’s rights and human rights. On the other hand, in Algeria and Afghanistan, foreign support (notably from the US) has been given to fundamentalist groups that were acting against national governments when this is seen to serve US economic interests. In addition, many European states and the US have played host to fundamentalists from Muslim countries and allowed them a political platform. At the same time, the voices of progressive women from Muslim communities (and their allies) that have been warning people about the likely repercussions of providing such space to fundamentalists have been dismissed by both governments and the international media. Similarly, the international media, while providing almost excessive coverage of the events of September 11th and the bombing of Afghanistan, has systematically ignored massive peace protests around the world.
WLUML networkers also noted the deeply worrying rise in racist attacks in the US on people identified as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Arab’. Such attacks not only violate the rights, safety and dignity of the victims, they also serve to support the common perception in Algeria, Nigeria and Pakistan that US foreign policy is directed against Muslims as a whole. However, at the very same time, the speakers raised the point that the foreign and domestic policies of many other governments, including their own, link with the dominant global foreign policy. Accordingly, a purely anti-American analysis is an inappropriately simplistic response that obscures the responsibility of local/national elites.
Across these diverse contexts, these many factors have contributed to the strengthening of fundamentalisms, both in diverse local contexts and as a global phenomenon. The result then is that these many factors all contribute to an ‘undeclared war on women’.
This ‘undeclared war’ has arisen in a context that is much broader than that of specific terrorist attacks and subsequent illegal military responses to them. In this broader context women are the focus and targets of an immense global struggle over identity. Women in Afghanistan have epitomised this situation. As described by the WLUML speaker from Pakistan, Afghan women have suffered through two decades of devastating armed conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion and continuing until the present as the equally brutal Northern Alliance, Taliban and other militant groups (alternatively armed and aided by the US military as has suited changing US interests) continue to struggle to gain political control. During this continuous violence, women have also had to suffer through the repressive policies of those in power (most notably the anti-women policies of the Taliban) and the US-led bombing campaign. The speaker also discussed the attacks targeting women’s NGOs and development workers in Pakistan that followed the start of the bombing in neighbouring Afghanistan. She points out how these attacks illustrate once again how events taking place in one country can have a very tangible effect on women in another.
The WLUML speakers also discussed women’s strategies in response to this ‘undeclared war’. Their first emphasis was on the need to challenge and transcend imposed identities. Equally crucial were the benefits of global alliances and solidarity across boundaries, North-South, South-North and horizontally. These solidarities have manifested themselves both as simple contributions to relief efforts for Afghan women and as letters of solidarity. In addition, women have shown their allegiance by participating in high-level lobbying to promote the representation and participation of progressive Afghan women (women too can be fundamentalists) in shaping their country’s future. Related to the issue of solidarity is the need to use creative analysis to determine who is acting as an ally and who is acting as an enemy in this ‘undeclared war’.
The WLUML networkers emphasised that women’s strategies should go beyond relief and solidarity. These strategies need to include strategically placing women in the decision-making structures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the UN. Above all, they need to include supporting democratic movements, especially progressive women’s movements, by making them both more visible and more integrally involved in peace building and post-conflict processes. Such involvement would enable women to reclaim their cultures on their own terms rather than having their cultures narrowly defined and imposed upon them by self-appointed male leaders.
Regarding the immediate issues of September 11th and the bombing of Afghanistan, the speakers were clear that violence is not the answer and that ‘vengeance is not justice’. They spoke of the brutalisation of society and the cycle of violence that militarization produces. They emphasized the devastating effects that such militarization has on civilians’ daily lives as well as the manner in which militarization can be exploited to suppress civil society for political ends. The speakers encouraged women to support alternatives that are more likely to lead to the long-term democratisation of global society, including, for example, the International Criminal Court (ICC). They therefore called for women to pressurize/lobby their governments to ratify the ICC, to create or strengthen national human rights mechanisms, and to support international human rights law as an appropriate framework for addressing specific terrorist acts. However, their prescriptions were not restricted to policy-level advocacy. They also urged activists to take individual responsibility to move their discussions beyond their usual circles by bringing discussions to schools and community groups and alternative media forums.
As a longer-term alternative to militaristic responses and as a means of addressing rising fundamentalisms, all the WLUML speakers highlighted the need to both expose the role of dominant foreign policies in furthering the ‘undeclared war’ and to end the imposition of a globally dominant agenda. They called for such domination to be replaced with a focus on global democracy and economic justice. Furthermore, they stressed the need to ensure that all those who are usually voiceless, including women and minorities, can participate in decision-making processes. Accordingly, they emphasised that useful strategic initiatives need to focus on demanding and ensuring that these voiceless have a role and a stake in their economic, political and cultural futures.
WLUML is reproducing the FIRE ‘Women’s Peacecasts’ in the hope that it will contribute to resistance of the currently dominant international agenda. Part of this resistance involves remembering all the nearly invisible conflicts that continue to take place around the world, including the continued violence going on in Afghanistan.
WLUML, International Coordination Office