Nobel Women's Initiative

The first day of the Nobel Women's Initiative first international conference "Women Redefining Peace: The Middle East and Beyond" has been an inspiring and invigorating meeting. Activists from all over the world engaged in discussions, listened to each other, and focused on possible actions of the future. Diverse, yet committed, to a ‘different world' free from violence, discrimination, and poverty women re-stated the creative efforts of women to promote peace and work for justice in the various communities.  The day started with welcoming remarks from our host Nobel Laureate, Betty Williams stressing that what was once impossible peace in Ireland is today a reality. Betty also read a letter from Ireland's president Mary McAleese. Betty also indicated that even though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been on house arrest in Burma for the past ten years, is not able to be with us at the meeting, the Laureates created a space for her placing her picture and flowers to symbolize her participation in the conference and as a continuous reminder of her struggle. Laureate Jody Williams then reiterated the goals and vision of the Nobel Women's Initiative indicating that the hope is to organize an international conference every two years. Jody emphasized that we are often dismissed politically and as activists because we are women. We are often relegated to talking only about ‘women's issues' as if women's issues is a narrow domain that only concerns women and no the whole society and as if peace, justice, war, and economics are not women's issues.

After an introduction into the "Gender Dynamics of Violence and Conflicts" by Valentine Moghadam that attempted to lay out the overarching picture in a global context, the rest of the day was structured around three panel presentations followed by conversations as well as an exercise of small group discussions involving the concept and practice of power, in its visible, hidden and invisible forms.  

The first panel presentation on "Women's Rights Violations in the Middle East: A Closer Look," featured Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Farida Shaheed, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, and Nayereh Tohidi. The panelists discussed in more details the problematic aspects of violence in the various domains addressing issues of political linkages, violence in its various forms, fundamentalism, identity politics, and silencing and policing mechanism.

The Panel titled "Lessons from Darfur" featured Jody Williams reporting on her recent trip to Darfur and the various initiatives of divestment and accountability that have been taking place, and a comment from Abeer Mahmoud on the difficulties facing women in Darfur. In addition, Nan Lao Lian Won from Burma discussed targeted violence, including rape that the Burmese regime has inflicted on women in times of war and in times of peace and the efforts of women's organizations to counteract that. This panel made clear that the use of women's bodies as weapons of war between men has occurred in many places and the links need to be uncovered and discussed. It also unveiled the fact that divestment from Chinese entities that are supporting the military and gang actions in Darfur should also focus on the same efforts taking place in Burma.

The last panel on "Power and Its Impact" featured Antonia Juhasz, Yanar Mohammad, and myself discussing the varying ways in which US corporations, governments, and the funding and international aid agencies have contributed to increasing the conflicts in the region and dramatically negatively impacting women's rights. A challenge was laid out to prevent the privatization of Iraqi oil and for the support of the right of Iraqi people to self-determination. In addition, an important analysis of the role of oil companies and the private corporations of the US and multi-nationally in the current war and continued conflicts in the region. A negative assessment of the role of donor agencies aligned with US foreign policy interests and imperial project was also presented.

The day ended with inspiring comments from Laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Wangari Maathai. They both emphasized the need to act and speak up and the important role that women have played in promoting non-violent resistance, putting into focus issues of self-determination, justice, equitable distribution, just governance, and sustainability.

Zeina Zataari is the Global Fund's Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa.

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