The 104: Women Rising!

Imagine this.  Decades of death, hundreds of thousands killed.  Men raiding, burning, killing, committing mind-numbing atrocities against their neighbours, retaliation following upon retaliation.  A collage of images of women and children; their villages and homes still smouldering in the background, gathering the children, rescuing the pots and pans, stoking fires, warming dahl. 

And then imagine those women leaving their pots for awhile, 104 of them, rolling up their sleeves, hiking up their kurti, elbows out, taking all manner of transport from Nagaland and Meghalaya and Manipur to Guwahati in the state of Assam to get themselves trained, equipped to step out of their place, to take their place.   

Please donate to make this happen!

War is a rather gendered thing

The Washington Post has named the North East of India as one of the six most under-reported war zones in the world.  Six hundred thousand people have died.  Male combatants make war and male combatants are given priority at tables of peace negotiations.  Women are expected to accept ‘top-down solutions imposed on them’ in the course of discussions to which they have not been invited.  As if ‘you need a gun to get to the table’. 

A recent op-ed in the Toronto Star posed the question:  ‘Why are women not included in peacebuilding efforts?’  Exactly our question.  Because we know it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.  The International Peace Institute analysed 156 peace agreements and found that, when women are included, there was a 35% increase in the chances of accords lasting more than 15 years.  We know that ‘equality between the sexes is directly linked to peaceful societies; better security for women means that countries are more security and experience lower levels of conflict and war.’  As one of my posters says, ‘When any society marginalises 50% of its population, it condemns itself to a permanent warrior culture and permanent underdevelopment.’  Then why the ongoing exclusion? 

Women who have had the opportunity to challenge social norms that limit their participation at tables of all sorts – from the kitchen table to tables of economic, social and political decision-making -- are like butterflies emerging from their pupa.  Enter these 104 women, sleeves rolled up, leaving the kitchen to the family to sort out, ready to transform themselves into agents of change, agents of peace.  They’ve had enough.  They’ve had enough of the domestic violence within that escalates in tandem with identity-fuelled violence without.  Weary of losing their mother’s grip on sons training for war.  Weary of starting over again.

I’m thinking, women bring a different perspective, more aware of the economic, social, cultural and political rules that get in the way of their agency – and in the way of peace; perhaps less attached to the history and the boxes that divide tribe from tribe.  And so that’s where we’ll begin.  I am imagining that very large circle of 104 women and finding out what they believe they bring that’s different; what’s missing and why they are confident they can fill the gap.  And what do we need to do in order to make that happen.  STAY TUNED! and DONATE!



The Torturer and the Tortured

Frank Chikane was a member of the South African Council of Churches when the system known as apartheid separated out the races as white, privileged, worthy of ruling, and black, less than, caged into volatile townships, their very volatility demonstrating the wisdom of the arrangement.  An articulate and witty activist devoted to bringing down the racist régime of FW de Klerk, Rev’s Frank Chikane found himself one day imprisoned, beaten and tortured, the torturer a white member of Frank’s own church denomination. 

Following his release, Frank reflected on this horrifying juxtaposition of torturer and tortured, both finding their mandate to torture and to resist to the point of imprisonment and torture within the pages of the same sacred text.  

Here in the Philippines during a training for students, aged 17 to 25, I reflected out loud with the students on a thought similar to that above:  how is it that those of the same religious tribe both excoriate and cheer enthusiastically the man who now occupies the White House?  What tenuous and contradictory sinew connects them?  

The same question arises here.  While still the mayor of the city of Davao on the country’s southernmost island of Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte, was keen to do some ‘street cleaning’.  In a poll taken not long before he became president of the country, 49% of the mostly Christian citizens of the city were Ok with the mayor’s death-squad methods.  Now, seven months into his presidency – which he won by doubling the votes of the other two major candidates, it is widely reported that his various ‘wars’ (on drugs, drug dealers, insurgents and people who disagree with him) have piled up an impressive body count of 6,700.  Asked in an interview late last year if he actually kills people himself, he demurred only slightly; ‘about three recently’, he responded.  Today’s news raises the count by seven in a bloody encounter with ‘unknown gunmen’ in Quezon City. 

Duterte’s Peace Implementation Panel Chair bragged to me that she had wrenched a peace agreement from the recalcitrants of the long-standing Mindanaoan civil conflict in five days, ridiculing the Colombians who had taken four and a half years to get to the same place with the FARC.  The day I arrived here, Duterte terminated both the talks with the New People’s Army/National Democratic Front and the long-standing (since 1995) Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) which enabled the ‘consultants’ on the other side to enjoy some freedom of movement as they worked through the elements needed for peace.  The following day he set his lawyers to the task of figuring out how to withdraw without too much fuss from the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights whose signatories have ended all practices of capital punishment. 

While given to both sexist slurs and groping as well as God-talk, Duterte has found himself at the receiving end of scathing critiques from both Roman Catholic and Protestant Bishops.  In my usual unscientific survey of cab and tuq-tuq drivers, they seem little bothered by his excesses, they tell me, as their rear-view mirror silver and gold crucifixes glint in the mid-day sunlight. Besides, the crime rates have gone down.  The ends seem to have justified the ends. 


International Women's Day: Born an Un-Person

My mother was born a non-person.  It was two years before little Barbara Alice Starr, unbeknownst to her, was allowed into that category of human person.  Although the majority of Canadian women had the federal vote by 1919 and a female MP (Agnes Macphail) had been elected to the House of Commons in 1922, the British North America Act (BNA) – our constitution – refused women’s entry into the Senate because they were not considered ‘qualified persons’ – specifically, over the age of 30, holding land valued at least $4,000 and resident in the province of their appointment.  The BNA did not contemplate that that description would ever include anything other than men and therefore felt no need to specify.  (I note that I turned to the Canadian Encyclopaedia for this information, one of the contributors of which is named Barbara Alice Starr McKenna, PhD(c).  Cool.  A Canadian history scholar, granddaughter of an illiterate Irish peasant-woman, she taught for many years at the University of Western Ontario.) 

The theme for our local International Women’s Day event was hope. The Executive Director of our local women’s shelter spoke of her struggle to come up with content for her address.  It seems as if we are in retreat, she said, going backward – slipping back, I would say, into that place of not just non-persons, but, as my friend added, as targets.  Norah Kennedy lamented the seeming impossibility this far down the road of our ‘liberation’ that US voters would elect a man whose misogyny, sexist behavior and language, his xenophobia and racism, were well known, rather than, well, a woman. 

Since then, it has felt like open-season.  Not that we had reached some kind of feminist utopia – these words and insults and inequities have never gone away; it’s the mainstreaming of it all that makes it so disturbing.  Having reached a point that we can say ‘It’s 2015’ – our new PM’s response when questioned about his appointment of equal numbers of women and men in his cabinet – it’s now 2017 and the air feels different. 

The slide presentation at our event included a comparative list of those attributes celebrated in women and those celebrated in men.  Rather discouraging.  Under ‘women’, we find co-operative, supportive, cautious reserved, nurturing, domestic, beautiful, small.  Under ‘men’, we find competitive, leader, tough, self-reliant, handsome, tall…  Wow.  Back into our boxes.  Or have the boxes never changed?  One young woman at our retreat centre once insisted that she was not a feminist.  It seemed not the right moment to ask questions.  Where are we going? 

As I find in my work in zones of conflict around the world – and all sorts of workplace environments, these lists remain all too true.  The speaker yesterday talked about the number of times her daughter was called ‘pretty’ at a birthday party.  And that’s right next to, she noted, ‘perfectionism’ – body-, looks-discontentments that take women and girls down all sorts of dark holes of self-loathing.  And social media have raised it to a new level.  It means that we remain colonised into patriarchy and our role as objects – of desire, lust, admiration, of envy.  What are we teaching our daughters when we dress them in clothing and make-up designed for objectified desire and admiration?  Early sexualisation has our daughters and granddaughters preening by kindergarten before they are even quite clear what for.  We are like fish swimming in waters of subversion, washing over us, around us, everywhere, hardly distinguishable from anything else – telling us who we are and who we need to be.  For what? For whom?  And how does one break out, refuse, drain the fishbowl when our dissent might kill us? 

And yet there is hope.  Endless hope.  Read on about Women Rising!


Flipping the Calendar: Anger, Fear, Resistance

A creche brought from El Salvador in 1989ANGER and FEAR at Christmas

I wrote a paper once on anger.  I had already been working in zones of conflict for a number of years and I was well acquainted with the warrior within and her capacity to interrupt the work of the peacemaker. Actually, that's not quite accurate.  She would unfurl like a cobra, reminding me of my humanity, ready to rage, blessing one, cursing another. Rather like Psalm 137 - 'what a great day that will be when I get to bash your babies’ heads against the stones as you did ours!' rephrased by Bruce Cockburn as - 'If I had a rocket launcher...’ And not so much interrupting the peacemaker as animating the peacemaker. 

Not long after returning from El Salvador in 1989, I went to hear Karen Ridd speak about her experience there.  One man stood up in the Q&A to castigate her:  her: ‘You are so angry! People will not want to hear your anger!’ 

Covering the bodies of the two women killed along with the six Jesuit priestsDuring those November weeks of daily bombardment, tanks and machine guns in the streets, helicopter gunships at night, Karen and I met for the first time, two of the handful of Canadians caught in the crossfire between the FMLN insurgents and the US state department-funded Salvadoran military.  

The out-sourced violence of the death squads was displayed most horribly in the brutal assassinations of six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers: the priests’ faces torn off, their brains pulled out, a message to those who dare to think and speak out.  I remember the mutiny of my body, my descent a few days later into a fear and a helplessness that was immobilising; one telexed message and one telephone call (the latter from my mother) that somehow made it through the country-wide communication lockdown. 

We were each there doing what's called third-party non-violent intervention in the form of protective accompaniment – shadowing people who are doing the dangerous work of the dissident.  Though the theory is that the foreigner gives government forces pause, while their own people are dispensable, fair play in a savage game of heretic-slaughter, -torture and -disappearance, the time came in those dark weeks of November 1989 when the presence of foreigners began to draw, rather than deflect, fire.

I have a friend whose wide embrace of people of all views and opinions I admire deeply.  I’m not there.  In those 1980s Central America, the US State Department was pursuing an ill-advised domino-theory strategy that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.  Hundreds.  Of thousands.  Of People, children, women, men.  Dead, gone.  I have no room in me for such politics; they are not harmless. At the brutal end of those politics are dead bodies, destruction and a scorched and heaving earth.  In the chapel at the Catholic University of Central America (UCA) where the priests and their housekeepers were killed, hang 13 images, the stations of the cross, often offending the visitor: IF NOT HERE, WHERE?

I started writing this at Christmas time, distracted by both illness and the horror of what my US neighbours had done. To imagine that a man now elected to one of the most powerful posts on this planet, holding such views, proposing such actions – to the roaring approval of millions – is to imagine our end.  And Reagan somehow feels benign by comparison. 

I complete this piece of writing sitting at a desk in Colombia, in Cali, on the 20th of January.  The front pages of El País have little else to contemplate this day than the events in Washington.  Facebook explodes with commentary about the preacher’s prayer.  "The US will triumph as never before"Some Canadians are being denied entry at the border when they honestly state their destination and intentions.  Others complain that the queue for entry into the plaza is blocked, limited to 750,000.  Another comments: The fact that the first black President has to shake hands and welcome to the White House a white supremacist endorsed by the KKK makes me mentally and physically sick. 

And so, anger, dread, fear.  I still recall what Karen said that night in Waterloo.  ‘You are right; I am angry.  But sometimes anger is exactly the correct response.  If one can look at these horrors and not feel anger, one has lost her or his humanity.  Without doubt, the challenge is to channel that anger in ways that can be heard – and then acted upon by people of compassion.’ 

It is a challenge for the warrior within when I imagine a conversation with one of those women who wore t-shirts inviting Trump to grab their, well you know, anytime.  I want to bind and gag them and drag them off to the Lincoln memorial tomorrow.  (And that written just after having delivered a playful discourse to a group of profs here on ‘Love your Enemies’.)  Anger, yes, but how to express it and all of its children – despair, fear, grief, anguish, desolation, isolation – without betraying my commitment to nonviolence of all sorts? 

I am grateful to see alongside the FB expletives a growing offering of hope:  an article from the Guardian about ‘Activism in the Age of Trump’, and another posted on the website, Waging Nonviolence, ‘When Women Revolted’ – a compilation of reminders of feminine nonviolent moments of insurgency.  Another offers a quote from Howard Zinn: ‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something, if we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction' – taken from his book, about how You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train

Right here, I am working with people who have been intimately involved in the negotiation and now implementation of the peace accords between the government of Colombia and the world’s oldest insurgency, FARC. There's a long way to go - these very days marred with news of assassinations of indigenous activists in Buenaventura - but there is a palpable hope emerging from emotional tables and circles of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. And, of course, the hundreds of thousands of women gathering in Washington (and in cities around the world, including Toronto) right now sporting t-shirts and holding placards of hope, resistance and love.  Go, sisters!  It seems that some of us are determined to channel a well-justified anger into the creativity of love-fuelled action.  I’m there.


Newsletter 3.3 Peacebuilding Women: A Festival of Women

Extraordinary, stunning, sobering, hopeful, disheartening, disturbing, encouraging, heart-rending - and set on the edge of the magnificent Lodhi Gardens, in Delhi:  The Peace Builders International Film Festival, celebrating women's critical role in transforming situations of conflict, from the kitchen to the commons, the killing fields to the oil fields. Here is a list of my 'favourites', if you can call films so hard to watch one wants to look away 'favourites': 
  • Sri Lankan women's formation of a Jamaat (council) sympathetic to women's issues (Invoking Justice);
  • Nine ordinary women trying to make ends meet and live with dignity in the oil- and violence-soaked Niger Delta (Daughters  of the Niger Delta); 
  • A small group of girls living in one of the most remote forests left on earth who are transformed by the experience of attending a radical high school where they learn to protect the threatened rain forest and build a new life for themselves (Daughters of the Forest);
  • Three women, including 2011 Peace Prize winner, Tawakkul Karman, who lead the women's revolution in Yemen, in which women of all social classes and ages, formerly invisible, relentlessly fill the streets of the capital of Sanaa, defying the brutal government of Ali Abdullah Saleh (The Women's Revolution of Yemen);

  • A group of rural Indian women, led by the energetic, charismatic, Sampat Pal, who travel long distances to fight for the rights of women and Dalits, known as the Gulabi (pink) Gang - for their pink saris;
  • A Naga woman's personal story and its connection to the road that links Nagaland and Manipur, and the complexities of identity that are played out in violence along its length (This Road I Know); 
  • And, the hardest one to watch, the riveting story of a family of survivors of the little known and much-denied Indonesian genocide of 1965 (The Look of Silence).