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Democracy is Every Woman, It is all in Her

By Michael Houseman

I’ve been feeling something lately and dissonance may be the word for it. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a report over the weekend claiming that political parties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were struggling to meet the legal requirement to recruit women to run for parliamentary seats. “I don’t like politics,” or “I’ll have to ask my husband first,” were many of the answers given when party officials asked women to join and represent them in parliament. The report stated that the capitol, Kinshasa, had the greatest amount of women holding local political office at 7%. The war-torn province of Kivu? 3%. Not quite the 30% that Congolese law mandates.

My sense of dissonance appeared when my friend and I were talking about the issue over dinner, and she convinced me that quotas for women’s placement in parliaments was something to be frowned upon. Her critiques of the policy were valid: is this a true democracy if voters cannot wholly decide who they elect? What about equal opportunity? Women are getting preference over men, is this not reverse sexism? I have been a proponent of Resolution 1325, which strives to bring women to the table and ensure their voice in conflict resolution. But turning around and opposing quotas seemed off-putting, though at the time I simply could not find the words to articulate why. I grudgingly agreed with her. “After all,” she said, “no woman wants to hold office just because she is a woman.”

Unraveling my apprehension that night took some research. Is it democratic to give women a place in government on the sole basis that they are female? I am not sure, so I looked to our friends in India, the world’s largest democracy. Electoral law in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Tripura requires 50% of seats in panchayats and municipalities to be filled by women. While legislation to bring quotas on the national level remains stalled in the Union Government, the topic provides a sharp contrast to the United States, where ideas of quotas are entirely unheard of. Only 16.9% of American seats in the House and Senate are occupied by women, ranking the country 69th among all nations in terms of women’s participation, just 0.1% higher than Turkmenistan. It seems that in a “true” democracy the demographics of representatives would match the demographics of their constituents, at least in terms of gender. This is not to say that some states in India are a “truer” democracy than the United States—both nations have dismal examples where democratic values lose ground to more immediately negotiable virtues—but do quotas help realize an ideal democracy in the long run?

Then there is the issue of barriers to women’s advancement: many women are not afforded equal opportunities if institutional sexism views them as likely to leave work to start a family or as emotionally unstable, prone to buckling under the pressures of having to perform in “a man’s world.” Quotas compensate for these hurdles in the short-term, and they are a bold step toward the direction of creating lasting equity in representation. If women have a seat in legislative bodies now, no matter how, it would set the stage to normalize their presence in government, challenging the “man’s world” of politics and opening the path for women to be elected for qualities more than for simply meeting legal requirements. If democracy so far has vastly underrepresented 51% of the population, should we here in America not be scrambling for concrete solutions to address this situation?

Settling for quotas appears to be an uneasy affair in the short term, but they can be an invitation for a truly gender representative democracy in the future. Allowing more women in legislative positions will bring a more diverse outlook to politics, no matter if it is in Congo or Kerala or California. They may like politics more, they may not have to ask their husbands to run for office, and they may surprise us.

From Amazons to Glamazons

By Quinn Van Valer-Campbell

The media is an undeniable force that changes and shapes our feelings and persuasions at will. Since the presence of women in war is pervasive, one would think that it is high time for countries in conflict to actually recognize this fact and include women.

There has been some recent progress: Women, War, and Peace premiered on PBS in October, the organization Women Make Movies is present throughout much of the world, and the movie Miss Representation premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Furthermore, awareness is at an all-time high with NGOs and other organizations working toward the inclusion of women at the peace table and in societies emerging from conflict. Articles abound on the dire necessity and importance of the roles of women. Keeping these contemporary examples in mind, how are women’s roles in the media, conflict, and peacebuilding not changing?

Unfortunately, the media as a whole has been misleading and two-faced. Take a look at war movies, television shows, and video games, as examples. Then, look at women and what they are (not) wearing. Amazon women from ancient Greece were some of the most renowned and feared women warriors in history, known for their skill and ability to carry out a “man’s” job with ease. But look up Amazon women today, and skimpy Halloween costumes and Glamazons are invariably the first items to appear. This is in stark contrast to the historical Amazons, who allegedly would remove one of their breasts so as to better use a bow and arrow. The media has taken the quintessential warrior woman and sexualized her to the point of pornography.

Xena the Warrior Princess and Lara Croft are further examples of women in war who have been sexualized by the media. With their skintight clothes and huge breasts, these women are supposed to be fighters but end up only serving the fantasies of men. While these two women are not necessarily real or realistic examples of women in war, they are indicative of popular Western perceptions and attitudes. The only place for women in war may be on the frontlines, but they will all be glamorized to the point of ineffectiveness and humiliation.

To take the example of the Amazon women further, they were able to maintain their role in society as warriors but this did not diminish their femininity. They may have even taken it a bit too far with some marriage laws requiring young women to have killed someone before being eligible to marry. However, they were not sought after as glorified sexual objects, but rather were desired in marriage because they were strong, fearsome, and respected.

In a society like ours and the rest of the Western world, where we cannot even accept women in combat roles without adding sex to the mix, it is not surprising that women are not taken seriously either during war or during peacebuilding.

Hear Our Voices: The Exclusion of Women in the Lebanese Peace Process

By Sasha Sleiman

While the heartbreak, pain, and suffering of war can be universalized between men and women worldwide, women’s particular experience during war is inherently different than men. To reflect this difference, women must be involved in decision-making before, during, and after conflict in order to craft sustainable peace and fully understand the ramifications war has on women. Women, because of their unique and complex experiences in war, must be equal contributors to post-conflict negotiations and rebuilding.

Women are affected by war in unique ways, namely due to their traditional roles within the home as family caretakers, but not limited to these roles alone. The Lebanese Civil war provides an excellent example of the diversified roles women take on in times of conflict. The experiences of Lebanese women ranged from providing food and first aid supplies to combatants, to taking up arms and actively fighting in the name of their country or a specific religious sect, to having violence imposed upon them (women made up the majority of the civilian death toll). However, there is no one way to categorize women’s collective role in the Civil War. Despite the active role women played in the war, there is little to no evidence that they were significantly involved in the peace process, including the negotiations and signing of the Taif Agreement; yet male representatives from all religious sects were included. History repeated itself in 2006 when women’s official involvement and political influence proved to be limited during the reconstruction phase after the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

This underrepresentation is not just a historical fact; it is a real issue today despite the government’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination Against Women (CEDAW) and public support for and claimed adherence to Resolution 1325. Lebanon clearly shows us that while women’s experiences in war are multifaceted in ways that men’s are not, they are unable to influence peace processes in any significant way, resulting in their specific needs and stories being disregarded. Lebanon is not an isolated incident: this exclusion happens in almost every conflict around the world.

Whether as victims, survivors, combatants, or activists, words shape the way we understand and perceive women’s experiences in war. Their stories can complete the picture of war and its implications, because while men are out fighting wars, women are left to deal with their destruction. No matter if a woman is fighting in the war or at home with her family, her words must be heard. Without them we only hear one perspective, and conflicts cannot be truly resolved without understanding the holistic ramifications of war. Equal participation for women in in post-war peace processes is absolutely essential for a just and peaceful society.

Is Afghanistan ripe for peace or will absence of women sour reconciliation?

By Rebecca Halton

Friday, October 7, 2011 marked the ten-year anniversary of the presence of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. According to an ActionAid report, 90 percent of Afghan women surveyed said they are worried about the Taliban “returning to government and believe it would risk the gains made for women in the past ten years.” As ActionAid’s Director of Policy Belinda Calaguas said, “In 2001 our leaders went into war in Afghanistan saying that improving women’s rights was a goal of intervention. Ten years on as the international community begins withdrawing troops and enters into peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, women are being frozen out of the process and are worried that their rights are being traded away for peace.”

Historically, women have been the primary victims of violence and oppression in Afghanistan. Now, looking to the future and the violence still endured by women, it is extremely difficult to envision a peaceful future without the greater inclusion of women in the peacemaking process.

To exclude one of the primary stakeholders in the decision-making process would be detrimental not just to women, but to the country as a whole. Without assurances that women will be involved and heard and that there will be legal, procedural, and cultural safeguards in place, the progress of the past ten years hangs in the balance.

Just as the exclusion of women is a concern for Afghanistan, so too is the upcoming absence of U.S. troops as they prepare to withdraw. While the presence of U.S. and coalition forces has been flawed and has faced many challenges in Afghanistan, the growing incidence of violence, particularly against human- and gender-rights activists, raises concerns about what is to come without the same level of military and security forces.

So with less physical protection (in the same ActionAid report, 66 percent of women surveyed in Afghanistan said that they feel safer now than they did ten years ago) and no significant cultural and legal safeguards, will women in Afghanistan be more vulnerable than ever, despite the progress made during the past decade?

One can only hope the decision-makers already at the table make room, or, until they have made more room, make wise decisions based not on re-elections or comfort or sheer power, but on the best interests and best way forward for every man, child, and woman in Afghanistan.

Are you listening, President Rajapakse?

By Pushpa Iyer

There was a time when, in the Sri Lankan Diaspora, the voices of the Sinhalese were subdued amongst the strong voices of the LTTE supporters and in the infighting between the Tamils. How much has changed since then.

This past Saturday, I heard the loud voices of the Sinhalese Diaspora at an Amnesty International sponsored event in Palo Alto, California. Amnesty had decided to screen the UK Channel 4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. As someone very familiar with the conflict in Sri Lanka, I am certain that both the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE committed atrocities against the Tamil population during the final stages of the war in May 2009. However, the point of this film was to show how much and how disproportionately the Tamil population, mostly innocent civilians, had suffered at the hands of the Sri Lankan military during those hot summer days. The film does refer to the LTTE using Tamil civilians as human shields and shooting them for trying to flee.

Amnesty officials repeatedly stated that the film was only intended to generate conversation. They stressed that they condemned all acts of violence and human rights abuses committed by all parties, including the LTTE, and explained that they hoped for an impartial inquiry into all human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Their approach, they said, was to pressure the international community, especially the US, to force the Sri Lankan government to accept an international war crimes inquiry.

Barring some occasional snickering, the hall was very quiet while the documentary was being screened. But at the end of the film, the Sinhalese community in the audience erupted. They discredited the speakers, accused Channel 4 and Amnesty of taking sides, and insisted that we, the audience, watch the counter-film prepared by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. They threatened, intimidated, or silenced Tamils and others in the audience who spoke up asking for space to express their opinions. The film has brutal, heart wrenching footage. It is impossible to imagine that fellow human beings would be unmoved by what they saw. However, that seemed to be the case on Saturday evening.

I heard one Sinhalese woman yell, “I lost half my family in this war,” followed by fits of giggles with her friends on having successfully played a role in disrupting the meeting. I really listened to her, because yes, I am sure she and her side have suffered a lot in the years of violence. However, my question to her is: after you lose half the members of your family in a war, are you pleased when you see and know that many from the ‘other’ side (innocents like you) lost half their family because of ‘your’ side’s acts of violence? Do you really believe that an horrific end was what the Tamil people deserved? Would you explain it as Tamils facing their karma? Do you feel justice has been served? Do you sleep better now? Are you able to celebrate ‘your victory’? I sat there wondering if it was possible for any woman to not be outraged upon seeing the naked bodies of women who had been gang raped being tossed irreverently into trucks while the soldiers made crude comments. Apparently, some women can.

I am convinced that empathy is a skill with which most of us are not born, and I strongly believe that it is important that we all work hard to acquire it in order to qualify as a decent human being. Empathy is what teaches you that a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy is a doomed strategy. I am also certain that empathy alone can play a huge role in ending violence.

The Sinhalese in the crowd succeeded in their mission to disrupt the meeting. The police were called, and over fifteen of them descended into the hall and made us leave the premises in less than ten minutes.

So, Mr. Rajapakse, let me be honest. I have never been impressed with your approach or your actions and now having witnessed the boisterous and belligerent behaviour of your country’s citizens (read: Sinhalese) last Saturday, it is obvious to me that you have failed. Your strategy to militarily wipe out the LTTE at great human (read: Tamil) cost has failed to “resolve” the conflict that has plagued your country for over forty years. The divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils is as wide as ever.

Force is never the solution. It is a simple lesson, Mr. Rajapakse.

Confronting Double-Standards

By Marina-Savinovich

After the sexual attack on Lara Logan, a CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent in Egypt, most of the media attention was given to questions such as why a “mother of two young children”, “a charming blonde journalist”, and “a beautiful rising star” had subjected herself and her family to the potential dangers that may arise at any given moment in conflict zones. Her explanations that it is her job and that this is what she felt passionate about were not worthy justification in the eyes of the media and the public. Interestingly enough, we rarely come across these types of comments when it comes to male journalists, who submit themselves to the same, if not worse, dangers as women. While Ms. Logan was praised and compared to Dan Rather and Mike Wallace for her uncanny resourcefulness and ability to gain access to information, her male rivals compared her to Mata Hari, who exploited her “God-given looks and charm” to gain access to restricted information or interviews. It is interesting how no one ever questions a male reporter on how he gained access to exclusive information, and that he is instead praised for his resourcefulness, bravery, and wisdom. Another aspect of Ms. Logan that marked her image as a charming rather than skilled reporter was the fact that during her college years she worked as a swimsuit model. This fact is further used to diminish her credibility as a world-class reporter and insinuate that she should stick to what she is good at; that is, standing there and looking pretty rather than playing a dangerous boy’s game.

Another relevant incident that took place last March in Libya was the capture and mistreatment of four New York Times journalists by Qaddafi loyalist soldiers. The only woman on that team, photographer Lynsey Addario, described how she was sexually taunted and groped by Libyan soldiers. Despite her own ordeal, she felt that her male coworkers were treated much worse than her, being hit on the back of the head with rifle butts and smashed in the face. She was perplexed and at the same time amused by the negative public reaction as to why she exposed herself, as a woman, to such a dangerous situation. She poses the question, how we can quantify trauma? Just because she is a woman, she was automatically labeled a victim, while the public and the media did not give her male counterparts the same criticism or compassion.

Rarely do we react with horror at how male journalists are beaten, tortured, or even killed in conflict zones, but when a woman is subjected to similar circumstances, the media and society immediately criticize her as being reckless, provoking her own demise, being an irresponsible mother. They turn her into a victim, but definitely not a hero, or should we say, heroine.

Women give a unique perspective on conflict. Apart from reporting on the political changes, they address the condition and status of women and the underprivileged populace caught in the crossfire. It is interesting that our society is fighting to position women in the frontlines of combat zones, but at the same time is critical of women journalists in conflict zones. To overcome this double standard, it is imperative to include women in all forms of social roles, be it in combat, social activism, or media coverage. We must encourage women journalists, rather than stigmatizing them for pursuing their passion.

Bosnia’s Past Torments its Future

By Quinn Van Valer-Campbell

The past haunts and deeply impacts many people, especially those who were directly involved in violence. It can torment and consume their lives. How do they move on?

This summer I worked with an organization of women in Bosnia that formed during the war in the 1990s to combat the reality of losing their families and to have a space in which they could share their own experiences.

I learnt that on the eleventh of every month, in order to commemorate the victims of the July 11th 1995 massacre, women gather silently in Tuzla, Bosnia. In one of the commemoration ceremonies I witnessed, the women held pictures of those who were killed and those who are still missing. They pray and then disperse, and life goes on until they meet again next month.

Many of the women I met defined themselves through the war and the men they lost which in turn means that they placed themselves in a very small box without much hope of ever escaping. Women have allowed the past to surround and define their lives. I strongly believe that the minute the past is a significant and descriptive part of an individual in such an encompassing and indicative manner, it is no longer constructive and eradicates a hope of a viable future.

Bosnia was ravaged by the horrors of the war and the people have certainly been left with the damage. As a country, Bosnia has done nothing to address the problems of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological issues stemming from the aftershock of living through a horrific war. Therefore, women (who have been proven to suffer at higher rates than men) are left to remember what was once there and what no longer is. Their identity is shaped almost solely by the past.

With the foundation of their lives built on the memory of the past, there is little hope to move out from under the label of “war widow” or “victim”. In order to move on, these women must allow themselves to be a part of the present and a part of society as an individual and not simply as the aftermath of the war.

The women of Bosnia must assess how they incorporate the war and how they can move forward. There is no solution that will work for everyone. However, one thing is certain: they are not able to be present in life with the past looming as an unchecked demon.

Teaching Terror to Children in the Post 9-11 World

By Jasmine Wolf

A few days before the 10th Anniversary of 9-11, a Muslim friend and I were having an everyday conversation when I asked how her children were doing. The response I received saddened me as only injustice can. She proceeded to tell me that they had been subjected to extreme racism and physical abuse in the past few weeks. Her younger son had been attacked at his middle school for being a “bomb-maker” while her older son has been plagued by harassment at his high school, constantly being called a “terrorist” and receiving threats. After my initial anger and sadness subsided, I began to think about the children growing up in the post 9-11 world and what we, as a society, are teaching our youth.

Most of these children were either very young when 9-11 occurred or were not born yet. They have grown up with the images of the raising of the flag amidst the rubble at Ground Zero, Tower One with smoke rising from its top floors, or civilians walking the streets of lower Manhattan covered in ash. These children have been indoctrinated with “us versus them” rhetoric. However, it is rarely discussed that “terrorists” are an anomaly within the Muslim community or that ‘Islam’ literally means ‘peace’. Our society is so quick to blame without fully grasping who or what we are blaming and what the outcome of that blame might be.

In October 2010, a 16-year-old Muslim boy named Kristian was horrifically beaten by his classmates at a Staten Island high school. The beating came after months of harassment as well as verbal and physical abuse. His parents went to school authorities and the police, but little was done until the local media got involved. Kristian and my friend’s children’s stories are just two examples of the growing racist abuses suffered by American citizens because of their religion. This happens while our children are taught in school that America is the land of freedom. They are taught that the Constitution gives all citizens unalienable rights and told how Martin Luther King dreamed of freedom from racial injustice, yet in these same classrooms Muslim children are being targeted because of race, religion, and fear. Our children are taught that a democracy is a place where all voices can be heard, however, there have only been two Muslims ever elected to Congress. How is a Muslim child growing up in the “War on Terror” supposed to feel included in the American democratic system when they have so few representatives and are constantly told they are the enemy? It is time that we teach our children that everyone is entitled to the rights provided in the Constitution, no matter whom they are or what their religion is. How can we as a society continue to teach our children about freedom and justice for all while the abuse of citizens’ rights is tolerated?

Make Love not War: Sex and Peacebuilding

By Michael Houseman

Sex! Now that I have your attention, allow me to confront you with this question: what would you give up sex for? And for how long?

A successful sex strike brought peace to a village in the midst of a separatist rebellion. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the modern day Lysistrata unfolded in Dado village on the Filipino island of Mindanao where insurgent violence closed the only road between the village and outside markets. The women of the village, confronted with the prospect of prolonged hunger as fighting raged around them, banded together at their sewing cooperative to withhold sex from their husbands until the violence abated and the road was reopened. The husbands mobilized and negotiated with leaders of the surrounding villages to restore peace and road access to food markets.

This situation brings up interesting implications about the power of sex in peacebuilding. From a conflict resolution standpoint, the strike is a form of resistance and a step in the direction of creating lasting peace. It seems that to the men of Dado village, sex, like power, is most important to those who do not have it. While women are denied political participation, their sex strike rapidly motivated peace talks. Furthermore, the strike not only ended the surrounding conflict, but also energized the village with a sense of empowerment as they can now provide food for themselves rather than depending solely on foreign aid. With the extra money gained from access to the regional market, one woman claims she wants “to help other families who cannot provide for their children.”

However, one irate online commenter on this story laments “the hypocrisy of it all,” suggesting that women “should not be treated like sex objects while we act like one and wield sex as a tool.” This view seems to miss the point entirely. This individual views the sex strike not as a cause for peacebuilding, but as a symptom of patriarchy. “Sex as a tool” implies that the motives are self-centered, or that the women had no other means to call for peace. I feel this makes too much of an effort to paint a picture where the women of Dado village fell victim to their own success, or to suggest that the women should have thought of some “less hypocritical” means to end the violence. But the strike succeeded in more than just stopping the violence—it created the empowerment required to make their village more self-sustaining. This commenter also fails to acknowledge the extraordinary risk the women took, as their refusal of sex could have resulted in forced submission. Where this commenter sees an objectified woman, I see a non-violent resister. Where she sees sex as a tool, I see sex as peacebuilding.

Manipulating sex is not inescapably evil. We see here that it can have beneficial impacts on conflict resolution. Having sex to get what you want can be effective, but so can opting out.

The Surprising Power of Humility

By Anita Seth

Humility has a special kind of long-lasting, far-reaching power. This is something I realized after noticing some interesting connections that give new meaning to the idea that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Revolutions are everywhere. This year there was the Arab Spring, followed by large spontaneous uprisings that broke out in another unexpected place this summer – India. There, along with the rising economy, the people have had to tolerate ever-increasing greed and corruption at all levels of government, and decade after decade they have seen shameless “public servants” in the pockets of big corporations. When New Delhi police barred revered anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare from entering a public park where he planned to stay and fast in protest of rampant corruption, hundreds of thousands of fed-up people came out to street demonstrations all over the country. As India is my family’s place of origin, these protests caught my attention. It all happened so suddenly, this passionate outpouring of ordinary people.

Then there is Anna Hazare himself, a fascinating leader whose ideas we should all get to know. As the story goes, Kisan Baburao Hazare (“Anna” means “older brother”) was a decorated war hero, the sole survivor of an attack on his platoon during the India-Pakistan border wars in 1965. Returning home from the war, he changed his life to serve and empower the people by spreading ideals of nonviolence, self-sufficiency, and anti-corruption. Hazare learned about nonviolence from the work of a great Gandhian social change activist named Vinobha Bhave. Bhave’s gentle revolution – the Bhoodan Movement (the Land Donation Movement) – was a simple, breath-taking journey of humility that brought about social justice and dignity. In the 1950s Vinobha walked hundreds of miles, making unique use of the Indian cultural custom where a son is entitled to ask for a portion of the family’s land. As he walked, he visited property owners, asking them to consider him as a son and give him some land. That land was then transferred to a needy family. For years, he trekked on, joined by others from India and abroad, providing 5 million acres to landless families and bringing out compassion among the privileged landowners.

I recently met another nonviolent leader, Pietro Ameglio of Mexico, who also counts Vinobha Bhave as an important influence in his work. Pietro has undertaken efforts to help create a widespread nonviolence movement in Mexico to end the suffering caused by drug wars. Pietro told me about his deep admiration for Vinobha Bhave and the Bhoodan movement, and how they have influenced his own ideas and life’s work. Pietro described the reality of the drug wars in Mexico not as the crime-fighting scenarios we are led to believe, but as a confounding web of corruption connecting drug cartels to government officials, police, and business leaders. In Mexico, Pietro says, the people are truly fed up, and they are ready to make change happen.

Our tendency is to associate leadership and great movements with power and assertiveness. What we are witnessing now is that a conscious act of humility and service can ultimately inspire many thousands of people to fight corrupt powers a generation later and on both sides of the globe.