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This week’s front page editor


Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Editor and Director of democraciaAbierta.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Everybody on the ground wants peace

"Everybody on the ground wants peace"

Mairead Maguire is currently travelling on board the MV Rachel Corrie delivering aid to Gaza. Read the Nobel Women's initiative call for the safe passage of MV Rachel Corrie.

Liberia: Women Peacekeepers and Human Security

In her second report from Liberia Kristen Cordell looks at the impact of the all female Indian police unit working in Monrovia.

The deployment of female peacekeepers has recently become recognized as not simply "desirable, but an operational imperative." In the words of Rachel Mayanja UN Assistant Secretary-General, "without women's participation in peace efforts there can be no peace and security."

One highly visible step to including women in peacekeeping operations has been the all- women police unit serving as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). 130 Indian policewomen currently make up the Formed Police Unit (FPU) in Liberia, the third such unit to be installed post conflict. The primary function of the group is to provide security within the city during public events with high profile leadership. I spent time with the group during my recent work with the UN in Liberia. I found the experience nothing short of inspirational.

No Help for Sex

Kristen Cordell reflects on the countrywide effort in Liberia to stop sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers.

Last month the UN Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1888, reaffirming the UNs commitment to ending rape as a tool of war. The UN Mission in Liberia is leading efforts in six countries in Africa to check its own staff on a highly visible and challenging part of the problem: sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers. 

“Deal with your demons, and you will be free”

A disease of homosexuals, junkies, minorities; the myths surrounding HIV are parasitic, feeding off the vulnerability of those who have already been consigned to the margins of society. They are woven into a fictitious world where the sick and healthy are discrete and identifiable categories, and where membership in each is determined arbitrarily by race, sexual orientation, and gender.

They are the myths that the Sophia Forum is seeking to dismantle. Initiated in 2005, the Forum is a voluntary women's network based in UK exploring how HIV affects women at home and abroad. In its panel discussion on October 1st entitled "In Sickness and In Health: Women and HIV in 2009", the Sophia Forum drew attention to the acute need for gender specificity in understanding a condition that effects not merely homosexuals or the "socially marginal", but an estimated 30,000 women in the UK every year.

A disease of homosexuals, junkies, minorities; the myths surrounding HIV are parasitic, feeding off the vulnerability of those who have already been consigned to the margins of society. They are woven into a fictitious world where the sick and healthy are discrete and identifiable categories, and where membership in each is determined arbitrarily by race, sexual orientation, and gender.

They are the myths that the Sophia Forum is seeking to dismantle. Initiated in 2 5, the Forum is a voluntary women's network based in UK exploring how HIV affects women at home and abroad. In its panel discussion on October 1st entitled "In Sickness and In Health: Women and HIV in 2 9", the Sophia Forum drew attention to the acute need for gender specificity in understanding a condition that effects not merely homosexuals or the "socially marginal", but an estimated 3 , women in the UK every year.

Those of us with a voice to speak

On 30 June 2009, Mairead Maguire was taken into custody by the Israeli military along with twenty others, including former U.S. Congress member Cynthia McKinney.

The Iranian Nightmare


These past days have been a nightmare. I and my fellow Iranians have been watching the small amount of democracy present in Iran erased within a day. Everything we hear from Iran is heartbreaking but more than anything, I have been anxiously watching the international media. Although some reports are accurate, many huge mainstream media sources still frame the events in a way that really feels as if they are twisting the knife in our wounds.

What media does in this situation can make a difference in saving lives in Iran. If those in power in Iran realize that the western media has become sympathetic to them, they will be as brutal as they desire. I'm asking you to please use all your resources and connections to raise awareness about a few things and spread the word.

Some media are framing the protests as "people whose candidates didn't win are now angry". This is not true. People (including myself) are not angry because Mousavi didn't win. We are angry because we feel the election was stolen. We are in the streets to defend our right to decide a president (at least out of the 4 we could choose from). We are angry because something has happened that is changing our system fundamentally.

The allegations of fraud are portrayed as only brought up by Mousavi or only the reformists. But the other conservative candidate, Mr. Rezaei, has in fact filed a complaint about this election as well, asserting that the vote counts don't make sense. So this is not a complaint among two candidates, or two sides. This is about committing electoral fraud.

Some call the peaceful protests "riots." People are not rioting. Yesterday's protest which ended in killing of innocent people was a "silent" protest. People were walking in complete silence for the majority of the march. We are not hooligans. We are citizens who are very aware of what is happening and we will not stay quiet.

Protesters are portrayed as pro-western and young. While most are young, and many might be interested in improving relations with the west, this is an inaccurate generalization. In pictures of large protests you can see older people, and you see many who seem more religious. It's really not about the west.

If Iranian state media (currently completely in the hands of a certain political segment) post any news in this regard, most mainstream media regurgitate it exactly, amplifying their voice and making it resonate all around the world. Often it is propaganda that gets amplified which is carefully crafted with the aim of crushing the protests.

Most Iranians have no doubt that the results are fraudulent. A president with 24 million votes, does not face such persistent protests with people, whole families even, coming out in the face of blind violence. If you cheat a whole nation people will not accept it.

Maybe there is a subconscious attitude among western spectators that thinks Iranians can not take the results of a democratic election if it's not who they liked most. But we are not savages, in fact that is exactly why people are in the streets. If the right to vote was taken away in the US or Europe, everyone would be protesting. That's why Iranian people are coming out day after day after day.


Iranian Elections 2009: A New Spring?

From the stone carving adorning the War Museum in Tehran, two women, chadors wrapped tightly around them, stare grimly ahead. Their lips are contorted into determined frowns. One wields a rifle.

The great African housewife

I am back from Guatemala, from this exciting, spiritually-connected gathering: a great dance, party, food, and robust conversations at an invigorating meeting. It’s so exciting that I keep smiling to myself remembering the energy in the room, the sisterhood, the fact that as women race, colour, region, affinity, language never matter. For us it was about how to make a difference and truly redefine “Democracy”. As I transit in Texas, my realities hit again and I leave dreamland.

Hope's reflections

Many of us travelled on the same flight from Houston to La Aurora International Airport. Our entry into Guatemala was grand. We were welcomed by Erin Allison and the other organisers.

There was a comfortable minibus waiting to take us to our hotel, Casa Santa Domingo in Antigua city. Six of us, an ‘assorted' group of sisters, enjoyed the unknown landscape, and each other's company.  A few of the sisters already knew each other but the others were meeting for the first time. We easily fell into a conversation that took us from the personal introduction to the introduction of our organisations. We shared our hopes and excitement for the conference and located ourselves in it. Before we went to our different rooms, we agreed to meet at the end of day two, go into town and explore pubs, restaurants, the remarkable history of Antigua; its taste, texture and smell.

Flying with Hope


This presentation is based on an imagined airplane conversation  between Hope Chigudu, other sisters and a man (fellow passenger) who introduced himself as Tino. 

For democracy to flourish, it has to be a culture as well as a process

Behind the high walls of a hotel in Antigua, the tranquil colonial capital of Guatemala, as the more than 100 women participants moved into the third day of “redefining democracy” some 40 miles away in the modern capital Guatemala City, democracy did a little redefining of its own. It was precipitated by an event unusual even for Guatemala: the distribution at the funeral of a murder victim of a video in which the deceased, a respected lawyer, accused the president, his wife and his secretary of organising not only his own murder – he was shot on the streets of Guatemala City while riding his bicycle on Sunday - but the murders earlier in the year of two of his clients.

Redefining democracy: conference declaration

Declaration of the Nobel Women’s Initiative Conference on
Women Redefining Democracy
Antigua, Guatemala, May 10-12, 2009

The priveleged ones

It’s Time to Return to the Hotel Brochure

Day Three. One of the plenary speakers, I can’t remember who it was, told the delegates, ‘We are the privileged ones’. People nodded and you could see that this struck a chord. I have been wondering exactly what it meant. The most obvious reading belongs to the same family as the jesting remark made by Jane Austen’s Elizabeth when she suggests that she fell in love with Darcy when she first saw his lavish ancestral home, Pemberley.

Another morning in Antigua

It's hard to believe it's the third and final day of the conference. In a way, it seems like we just arrived. In another, it feels like we've been here for weeks, if not longer. We've come to expect conversations across meals and coffee breaks that span region, sector, discipline, and point of view.

We are the ones

All events of this kind have their own shape and dynamics. If Day One was an eager and passionate Tatiana’s letter, not to Onegin, but to an already cynical yet surely reclaimable democracy – we seem to have collectively matured overnight. There are three major themes to this great day’s proceedings: lessons from some extraordinary women who have run for and held political office, strategic thinking from women reporting unforgettably from the front line of war-torn societies, and the sliding into place of the last gargantuan building block for our overhaul of democracy – the battle for women’s human rights.

The neglected story of war

When men have done making war on each other and on each other’s women, many return to home to make war on their own. Aftermath is the neglected story of war: what happens to the guerrilla fighter after he lays down his gun? Or to the former soldiers with stories of horrors never told, men cast adrift from the companionship of shared military experience, alone with unspoken memories?

The evidence is that many come home to act out their nightmares through violence against women.

The trouble with elections

Monday's program was full of provocative and interesting discussions by women working for rights and democracy in repressive and violent contexts.  Upcoming elections in both Sudan and Burma will present opportunities for democratic transformation, but also significant challenges.

In Sudan, the first general election since 1984 will be held in 2010.  There have been significant problems with the census, specifically that many displaced and refugee Darfuris were not counted. 

Yes we can

STEPS is a women’s organization founded in 1991 and registered under the Tamil Nadu Societies Act 1975, based in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, to work on the empowerment of all poor women, and particularly Muslim women in the region. It aims to bring about a change in the dominant perception – including among Muslim women themselves – about the rights of women in Islam. It believes that interpretation of the Qu’ran through a patriarchal lens resulted in discrimination against the women of the community and forced them to lead subjugated lives in a way that is not sanctioned in Islam.

Democracy then women's rights?

On Sunday, the presenter from Palestine made an impassioned speech, arguing that feminists in Palestine should be primarily part of the struggle against Israeli imperialism, rather than focusing on patriarchy within their own culture.

In a further discussion on challenges to democracy in national contexts, participants from Mexico, and myself from Canada, discussed the pressure on feminists not to “divide” the progressive forces in society, but instead, to work as united movements, men and women.

The utopias that motivate us

Thomas Rainsborough was the highest ranking supporter of the Levellers in the New Model Army when he spoke in the Putney Debates in July 1647, and uttered the immortal words for British parliamentary democracy:

"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under."

A new type of gender action watch

The first day of deliberations was Women’s Day in Guatemala, and participants at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference had awoken to the sound of firecrackers in Antigua celebrating the role of mothers and the sight of a local volcano erupting ash, apparently an every day occurrence. Naomi Tutu as the first moderator deftly appropriated the motherhood theme, which she said needed renovating, to give an undertaking on behalf of participants: we were going to be gestating a new definition of democracy capable of celebrating women’s achievements over recent months and years. Many of these definitions were offered during the next eight hours of discussion, though none perhaps so pithy as Mairead Maguire’s emphasis on ‘empowering people where they live – giving them dignity and hope’.

Building democracy from the bottom up

In Day One’s morning conversation, we discussed the meaning of democracy from a feminist perspective - how it had been defined, traditionally, through a patriarchal lens, and how it could be redefined to be more encompassing, holistic, and deeply permeating not only the political sphere but the personal sphere of our lives. A sister from the Sudan remarked that while the conversation about democracy was interesting, that it would have no bearing on the reality of the women she worked with, who are more concerned with the day-to-day material struggles of their lives. How was such a lofty conversation meant to impact them in a way that would produce real results? How could they possibly be asked to focus on conversations, which largely seem theoretical, in a space where the achievement of democracy seemed like a long-lost hope?

Courting justice

What can a government do to harass women fighting for their rights when they are not breaking the law? In Iran, according to Shirin Ebadi, Nobel prize winner, lawyer and human rights defender, one answer is to use the power of the courts against them. The Iranian delegation to the second meeting of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which opened today in Guatemala, was meant to have five members. Two of them were prevented from leaving the country. Narges Mohammadi, spokesperson for the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights and an award-winning human rights defender in her thirties, and Soraya Arzizpanati, a Kurdish Iranian journalist active in the campaign to clear land mines in Iran, had passed through passport control at Tehran airport, their exit visas safely stamped in their passports, when they were called back by the police. Their passports were confiscated and they were notified that both were subject to court cases. They will now face charges in the revolutionary courts.

Engaging with Power

The night the SAS stormed the Iranian embassy in London, May 5th 1980 - a very wet bank holiday as it happened - I was entertaining the writer Marilyn French, who died last weekend, to a very expensive dinner in the Savoy. The choice of location was hers and the bill, fortunately, was picked up by my then employer, for whom I was to interview her.

It did not go particularly well. I was a big fan. Like many women of my generation, I had devoured The Women’s Room, French’s first novel. It read like a souped up fictional account of the insights that Betty Friedan had published in The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier. I was keen to meet the author.

Conference opening by Rigoberta Menchú Tum

La dictature de la majorité politique

Je serais venue à Antigua pour échanger avec vous sur ce thème, parce que ce sujet me concerne au plus haut point mais d'autres réalités m'y empêchent.

Lorsque je regarde ce qui se passe en Afrique, je fais de constat suivant: depuis que le vent de la démocratie a soufflé en Afrique après de longues dictatures, les élections ont été organisées dans plusieurs pays pour élire les dirigeants du peuple mais des présidents élus démocratiquement, les uns sont tués avant la fin de leur mandat, les autres s’octroient de mandat à vie et arrivent même à changer la constitution, s’il le faut, pour se maintenir au pouvoir. Et d’autres encore par intimidation ou par terreur se portent candidat unique à leur propre succession.

The dictatorship of the political majority

I would have come to Antigua to speak with you on this topic, because it concerns me greatly, but prior engagements have prevented me.

When I look at what is happening in Africa, I make the following observation: since the wind of democracy finally blew through the continent, after long dictatorships, elections were organized in several countries to elect leaders of the people. However, of the presidents elected democratically, some are killed before the end of their term of office, while others grant themselves life in office, and even manage to change the constitution, if necessary to keep power. Still others intimidate or terrorize their way into being the only candidate for their own succession. As for those who lose elections – instead of accepting the verdict of the ballot boxes, they take up arms to remain in power, or demand a power-sharing deal from those who won.

Can sexism co-exist with democracy?

As a staff member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the path to Guatemala for NWI’s 2nd International Conference - Women Redefining Democracy - began long before my colleague Liz Bernstein and I boarded a plane in Ottawa on Tuesday morning. It began in meetings, conference calls and concept note drafts, and culminated in the big questions and reflections about the conversations we’ll be having here in Guatemala.

A rugged climb

It was the nineteenth day of August, 1951. It was a typical day in the tropical, sun-bathed town of Koforidua, the Eastern regional capital of Ghana that Beatrice Bernice Boateng was born.

It was not long before I felt the pangs of real disaffection from my parents, especially my mother. My father, who was a nurse anaesthetist, worked outside Koforidua. My mother, who was a trader, was reported to have commented bizarrely that she had given birth to a ‘bird’ (I had no hair on her head).

Journeying to Guatemala

First impressions

In 1998, nearly a decade after his influential post-Cold War piece, 'The End of History?', Francis Fukuyama addressed himself to the question of Women and the Evolution of World Politics in the influential journal, Foreign Affairs. Commenting on what was then an emerging gender gap in support for (US) national defence spending, he announced that it was quite evident that women were more peaceful than men. Women, he argued, are different.

It’s so hard to find obedient girls these days...

Five days before coming to Antigua, I stopped by my neighbourhood salon. It’s become a little hang out for me, where the ladies love to chit-chat as they scrub scalps, push back cuticles and fight to straighten Egyptian curls. All the workers come from working class families, so the salon is also a slice of Egypt that isn’t as easily accessible to expatriates like myself.

Our drama is that we cannot continue at the same speed

It is difficult to fully appreciate the importance of the historic moment we are living. The fact that we are on our way to a global intercultural meeting in Guatemala, with our esteemed colleague Rigoberta Menchu as host, along with the majority of other women who have been Nobel Peace Prize winners, amounts to a truly excellent opportunity to ponder our changing circumstances. We are a generation that has advocated across two centuries, characterized by a bewildering increase of high-speed communications, but where there are ever greater numbers of people excluded from the most minimal conditions for a human life, and deprived of the capacity for others to hear their voice.

Before the conference

As I near the end of the dissertation process, I feel I have been given an extra shot of adrenaline as I make my way to Guatemala in a few days. While I have never been on the red carpet of the Oscars, I feel as though attending the Nobel Women's Initiative conference may invoke some similar emotions. I have an incredible feeling of excitement coupled with a slight fear that I may slip and fall right in front of Shirin Ebadi or have food in my teeth when saying hello to Jody Williams. I have quoted, referenced, researched, and utilized stories of the many women activists who will be in attendance and I’m eager to meet these women whom I seem to know through their writing. I look forward to enriching discussions and debates, and to sharing new ideas and implementation methods to redefine democracy.

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