Women & Peace

Bring in the Women Peacemakers:
Are We at a Tipping Point?
By Sheherazade Jafari

Two days before the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan war, I sat in the U.S. Capitol anticipating the screening of Peace Unveiled, the third part of the upcoming, groundbreaking series on PBS, Women, War and Peace. For the next hour I was engrossed in the film, which follows three Afghan women's brave and tireless efforts to ensure that women's voices and their rights are not traded away in their country's peace talks. Needless to say, I'll be glued to my TV every Tuesday for the next five weeks as the entire series airs, featuring women in the Balkans, Liberia and Colombia, as well as leading politicians, scholars and activists who pose a compelling argument against the still dominant notion that wars and their cessation are the domain of men. Kathleen Kuehnast, Director of the Gender and Peacebuilding Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace who welcomed us to the event, affirmed: “I think this will be part of a tipping point.”

Ironically, on the very day of the war's anniversary, the world took one step closer to this tipping point: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemini opposition leader Tawakkul Karman became the joint winners of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their commitment to nonviolence, women's rights and women's full participation in peacebuilding. Finally, it seems, the world is waking up to the realization that women's voices, actions and the fulfillment of their rights are critical for lasting peace and security.

And it's about time! As women are disproportionately affected by today's conflicts—waged not in far-off battlefields but in communities—as they are survivors of gender-based war crimes, activists and leaders of countless efforts to bring peace and stability, widowers and heads of households during and after conflict, and even fighters and perpetrators, as they rebuild their homes and communities long after the peace agreement has been signed and international agencies have left, as they educate their children to be the next generation of leaders—they are indispensible to any effort toward a sustainable peace.

So is this the tipping point?

To be sure, both the film series and the Nobel Peace Prize come after decades of work by activists, scholars and organizations in elevating women's rights in and out of conflict. The ‘90s saw the UN conference in Beijing that brought various women's issues to the world stage, and later, the recognition of rape and other forms of sexual violence as not just byproducts of war but, rather, internationally defined war crimes and crimes against humanity. The new millennium saw the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, through which countries are mandated to increase the participation of women in all aspects of peacemaking. All-female peacekeeping troops and police forces have been deployed in several countries, and their presence is proving to help reduce conflict and provide a safer environment for women and children. Recently, UN Women was created to accelerate progress in meeting the needs of women worldwide, with peace and security being a key area of focus. In the United States, just the last few years have seen the establishment of the White House Council on Women and Girls, the State Department Office of Global Women's Issues, and the Secretary's International Fund for Women and Girls—all of which affirm that global security and progress require attention to and investment in the rights of women and girls.

In my own academic discipline of international relations (which scholar J. Ann Tickner notes is one of the last social science fields to open its doors—ever so hesitantly—to feminist perspectives) the last couple of decades have seen a dramatic increase in the number of scholars of war and peace asking in their research and in their classrooms the question: and what about the women? The results of their work are demonstrating that security efforts are likely to fail when women are not taken into account.

Yet ultimately, whether or not researchers, the media, politicians or anyone else has paid much attention, women peacemakers have been steadfastly doing this work in every corner of the world, whether it be under burka, behind barriers and walls, in refugee camps, rural villages, online, or in revolutionary protests amidst hundreds of thousands of people.

As I sat in the dark theater during the screening of Peace Unveiled, I recalled how the Afghan war started 10 years ago with bold statements about “saving” Afghanistan's women. Watching the film brought up a range of emotions, including great frustration and anger that time and again, Afghan women's rights and priorities have been used as a gambling chip during deals with warlords and corrupt politicians. Like everywhere, however, Afghan women are hardly the passive victims, either of Taliban violence or in need of American saving. And so, for as much frustration that I felt, I experienced an even greater sense of inspiration because of the women in the film, and immense excitement at the potential of this series to bring this issue into the mainstream spotlight.

For as much incredible work activists have done to put forward UNSCR 1325, or scholars have done to put forward cutting-edge research on the gendered implications of war and security (and I say this as both a women's rights activist and a PhD student), nothing compares to the power of seeing it with your own eyes.

As Abigail Disney, one of the series' co-producers, said, these films enable people to visualize what 1325 really looks like. Words can't adequately describe the continuous strategizing of the Afghan Women's Coalition, or the looks on their faces as they listened to warlords in the peace jirga, or the reactions of the men who saw women among them for the first time, or even the funny scene in which one of the women's toddler grandchild puts on a burka three times her size because she wants to accompany her grandma to Kabul. To see 1325 in action—the full participation of women in every stage of the peace process—is to see a great deal of strategy, sacrifice, frustration, joy, and indeed, progress.

I feel hope today because of the incomparable impact of mainstreaming these stories and visuals. As I write this, people worldwide are learning about three powerful women Nobel Laureates and their immense influence on their countries. The Women, War and Peace series on PBS will reach households across the country and world with images that will surprise, educate and inspire us to action. As Disney states, films have the ability “to unlock a will to be active.”

So are we indeed reaching a tipping point?

Whether or not we are, depends in large part on us. Will we read a few more articles about the Nobel Laureates and watch the series, but then go back to the reporting of war we normally get? Or will we demand more from our media, assuring them that coverage of women building peace is more interesting to us than numbers of the nameless dead, or the actions and inactions of a handful of politicians? Will we take a moment to ask about the people behind the headlines and statistics, whose lives include families, love, sacrifices, hope and a vision of a better future that probably looks a lot like our own? Will we hold our politicians accountable, letting them know that we know, we get it—the world will remain insecure for all of us if we don't take into account women's rights and needs? And perhaps most importantly, will we really listen, with an open mind and heart, to the many women striving to bring peace and stability to their communities, recognizing that perhaps they know a little bit more than we do about their own security and development needs?

I'm particularly excited to learn of the many opportunities for connection, collaboration, and action surrounding Women, War and Peace in the coming weeks and months. This includes screening parties and dialogues in people's homes and in schools, live conversations online with the women in the films, and community-based conversations on how to organize, take action and learn from the series. Multiple organizations and women-focused media outlets are also holding events and bringing greater attention to these issues. Check out the Women, War and Peace website for more information and updates on these activities, as well as your local listings for air times of the series.

Toward the end of Peace Unveiled, one of the women said: “we are part of the world, the world has to support us on this.” Perhaps the moment when we truly reach the tipping point will come when we begin to understand the truth in this statement. In supporting women's full participation in the peace processes of Afghanistan, Liberia, Colombia, Iraq, the South Bronx, and everywhere else, we are supporting our own security, we're all in this together.

Sheherazade Jafari serves on the board of Feminist.com, and is a doctoral student in International Relations at American University's School of International Service. Her research interests include women's rights, gender and religion in conflict resolution and development. Previously, she led the Religion and Conflict Resolution Program at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, where she worked with religious peacemakers from armed conflict zones around the world. Sheherazade has also worked with women's rights and development NGOs in the Middle East and South Asia, as well as on civic education and rights for Iranian Americans, and has published on related subjects. She holds an MA in International Affairs from The George Washington University and a BA in Sociology and Women's Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also serves on the board of REVEAL, which works to empower and advance the next generation of feminine spirituality. Sheherazade can be reached at sjafari[at]gmail.com.

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