by Molly Lower
On July 1, 2013, Women’s Voices Now attended a panel discussion in Tel Aviv inspired by Palestine-Israel Journal’s 2011 “Women and Power” issue, in which WVN Executive Director Heidi Basch-Harod published the article, “Women of the Middle East: The Jihad Within.” The event was hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, whose support along with the Samuel Rubin Foundation in New York made the publication of the “Women and Power” issue possible.
Romy Shapira of the Heinrich Böll Foundation opened the panel with a penetrating introduction to the framework of women’s rights and the terminology that encompasses it. Inspired by the 2000 adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates the involvement of women in political processes and the quest for peace and security throughout the world, the title “Women and Power” reflects the ideological consensus that women are not merely victims of conflict and oppressive societies but active agents in their own liberation. Issue coordinators Prof. Galia Golan and Lucy Nusseibeh contend that the original title, “Women’s Empowerment,” implies a lack of power among women who are waiting for someone to hand it to them. Rather than reinforce a disenfranchising rhetoric, they hoped to acknowledge the work that women are already doing, and the accomplishments they have already achieved, as well as debate the nature of what remains to be done.
Women need to join the conversation and help make the decisions
Four panelists presented the contents of their articles published in the issue. Anat Saragusti, one of the founders of Itach-Maki Women Lawyers for Social Justice, who stepped in for Prof. Golan, discussed her own ideas on the dilemmas facing the implementation of a National Action Plan for UNSCR 1325 by Israel, the first UN member to implement this resolution as law. As a country involved in violent conflict, Israeli national discourse centers on security. This creates two dilemmas wherein we must define what security means to various groups of people and then address the gender imbalance in the preexisting security apparatus. When we think of security, we often think of militaristic security for the state, but Saragusti contends that this model excludes the personal and economic concerns of women. This exclusion is further underlined by the general lack of female security experts in Israel. Women do not rise to the highest ranks in the army, thereby denied the know-how and lacking the confidence to speak on matters of state security. Consequently, women’s needs are not considered when state security decisions are made. Saragusti affirms that women need to join the conversation alongside men and help make the decisions.
Is it possible for Israeli and Palestinian women to participate equally?
Sonia Najjar, an expert on gender and development issues, spoke next about the factors oppressing women under occupation. Externally, she cites Israel as the architect of the occupation and the resultant oppression of Palestinian women, identifying the international community as complicit by failing to adhere to the mandates of international law. Internally, the Palestinian local governing structure lacks the framework to support women under occupation. Najjar ended her presentation questioning whether it was currently possible for Israeli and Palestinian to participate equally in peace efforts, considering the inherent imbalance between one woman as part of an occupying army and another as part of the occupied.
Supporters of gender equality are more likely to support peace
Dalia Scheindlin, an independent public opinion analyst and political consultant, followed with an investigation into the potential differences in the ways men and women in the general public think about the conflict and peace efforts, concluding that attitudes toward gender equality were greater predictors of attitudes toward peace efforts than gender itself. In other words, a man who supported gender equality was more likely to support peace-building efforts than a man who did not support gender equality. Research conducted before and during Operation Cast Lead revealed that women were more supportive than men of conciliatory democratic efforts by a negligible amount, and somewhat less supportive of provocative Jewish settlement in the West Bank, again by a negligible amount. From these and other findings mentioned in her presentation, Scheindlin concluded that differences between men and women in the general public were small and inconsistent. To further the cause of gender equality for all women, including Palestinian women, education toward feminist values was paramount.
Moving from a state security to a human security discourse
Lucy Nusseibeh, founder-director of MEND (Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy) concluded the panel by identifying increasing fragmentation in society and pointing to the need to establish human security to halt this process. Human security, Nusseibeh says, is a focus on the security needs of the individual and a movement away from the state-centric security discourse that Saragusti previously discussed. Human security primarily affirms the need to honor human dignity, an aim that can never be accomplished with the buildup of weapons. A military, Nusseibeh contends, perpetuates the cycle of violence and is ultimately the opposite of security. By focusing on the security needs of the individual, we can shift the paradigm of security discourse from militaristic to humanistic.
During the question and answer session that followed, several in the audience asked what practical steps we as a society can take to ensure equal participation of all men and women in all levels of society. “Education” was the resounding answer from the panel. While this was generally affirmed by the audience as a means to advance gender equality, one woman in the audience pointed out that in order to ensure equality between Palestinian and Israeli women in particular, mutual understanding must be built through consistent, sustained contact between people. Though several programs exist that bring together Palestinian and Israeli children for a day, consistent exposure to each other’s cultures, preferably through shared education, is the sustainable way to enhance mutual cultural understanding.
Women’s Voices Now - http://womensvoicesnow.org/ - is an NGO whose mission is to empower all women living in Muslim-majority societies by promoting their free expression, thereby giving voice to their struggles for civil, economic, political, and gender rights.