Women crucial in better East-West Relations

by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
Amman - Samuel Huntington's 1993 "Clash of Civilisations" depicts a world in which fundamental cultural differences form the basis of conflict between Muslims and the West. Current events seem to bear out his warnings, as the US wages its Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (a.k.a. the Global War on Terror or, less favourably among some, the War on Islam) and Muslim perceptions of the United States sink to new lows.

Despite headline-grabbing news of conflict between the West and the Muslim world, there are fundamentally positive cultural commonalities between these two imaginary realms, such as the inviolability of life, tolerance for differences and aversion to war. One of the most promising ways of tapping the commonalities is the movement called Culture of Peace. If Huntington has correctly diagnosed the problem -which many doubt- then supporters of Culture of Peace are working to advance a solution.

Culture of Peace is an international program that promotes education, democracy, socio-economic development, equality and human rights. Culture of Peace is "a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations." Culture of Peace does not deny that differences exist but offers ways to manage differences so they do not lead to violent conflict.

Women in many societies experiencing, or at risk from, conflict are at the forefront of efforts to rebuild the social fabric that allows for the coexistence of different ethnic, religious or social groups. Consciously or not, they are promoting cultures of peace. As Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Sirleaf, authors of the United Nations Development Fund for Women's (UNIFEM’s) global study Women, War and Peace wrote: “Women were taking risks in every place we visited. They were putting communities and families back together, providing healing and recovery services and organising solidarity networks across ethnic, class and cultural chasms. Through women, we saw alternative ways of organising security and of building peace.”

While the majority of people killed in conflict are men, women are particularly vulnerable to the violence of war, and are often left to rebuild shattered families, communities and societies. They bear the brunt of male fighters' trauma through the increased domestic violence, alcohol abuse and psychological shock that often accompany demobilisation. But their efforts at promoting coexistence are often underestimated or ignored, especially when serious political negotiations begin. Despite strong UN resolutions supporting the role of women in peace-building, such as UN resolution 1325 on women and conflict, they still suffer discrimination in this field. An October 2005 report from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue notes that "Of the senior conflict mediators involved in today’s peace processes, hardly any are women."

That is not to say that women are simply victims of conflict or passive recipients of policies. Women often also play a fundamental role in waging war, whether as supporters of policies that sustain conflict, in support of combat operations or even as fighters engaged in warfare. But the impact of conflict on women is generally disproportionate to that of men, and they often bring different issues and dialogue strategies to the peace table.

Women play an essential role in showing the human cost of conflict and in promoting better East-West relations. The international community can develop this underused resource by providing more funds in greater recognition of women involved in people-to-people diplomacy. This can be done through capacity-enhancement of women’s peace-building initiatives; commissioning better studies on the social impact of war-induced, post-traumatic stress disorder; and supporting exchanges of women who have lost the primary breadwinner in their families to conflicts involving some combination of the West and the Muslim world. Women make up an estimated 57.8% of the global primary school workforce, and governments and international bodies in the Western and Muslim worlds can do more to promote Culture of Peace materials in primary and secondary schools to help foster tolerance and conflict resolution skills among the young.

The under-representation of women in peace-building and conflict negotiations is a lost opportunity. To avoid making Huntington's “clash” scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy, the international community needs to put more resources and support behind women working towards a culture of peace both in the West and in the Muslim world. As Dr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, acting president of the Security Council when Resolution 1325 was unanimously passed, said, “Women are half of every community … Are they, therefore, not also half of every solution?”


*Jason Erb and Noha Bakr are International Affairs Representatives for Quaker Service-AFSC and are currently based in Amman, Jordan. Quaker Service-AFSC is an international peacebuilding and development organization that includes people of different faiths that seeks to promote reconciliation, sustainable development and non-violence.

Source: This article is part of a series of views on "The Role of Women in US-Muslim Relations", published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity (CGNews-PiH) and United Press International (UPI).

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service – Partners in Humanity.

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Other articles in this series

Women and a culture of peace by Claude Salhani
American and Muslim Women Working Together by Hiam Nawas
Muslim-American Relations: Women’s Crucial Role by Cyra McFadden
Women setting their own agenda by Asma Afsaruddin