Challenging the architecture of human relations

"The essential problem in relation to our predicament as women, but also with our world, is the architecture of human relations - a system of social organization that is based on hierarchy. This architecture is all pervasive from the family to the state and it holds across the world. We decided that we cannot “fix” what ails women without attending to what ails the world". Mahnaz Afkhami talks to Deniz Kandiyoti
Mahnaz Afkhami
18 April 2011

Deniz Kandiyoti: As the driving force behind the Women’s Learning Partnership and Sisterhood is Global, you clearly have confidence in the efficacy of transnational women's networks in promoting women’s empowerment and human rights. How did you start, and what kept you going?

Mahnaz Afkhami: It all began at the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, in 1995. Three previous gatherings of women from across the world had already produced knowledge and relationships that had strengthened the ties between women activists across boundaries—of nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, and class-- and had brought a degree of common understanding about women’s common concerns and challenges. Also, in 1995, incomparably more national, regional and international preparatory meetings were held prior to Beijing, and over 35,000 NGO representatives participated - compared to only 800 in 1975. Nonetheless, some of us who had participated throughout this process and witnessed its evolution over the past thirty years realized that, despite growing numbers, all was not rosy. Women had succeeded in making the world take notice of their importance to progress, health, well being, and development. But we had also splintered into so many divergent strands, themes, and identities that it became hard for us to come together as a movement with some semblance of a shared vision. So, we began to study how we might engage in an activism that would spring out of our unique socio-cultural context as individuals and as members of our communities and nations, and yet address our common goal—which, after all, was very much at the top of all of our lists regardless of our diversities—namely creating a world of freedom, justice, equality, and peace for both men and women.

We continued these discussions with women from several countries, most of them in the MENA region, and in 2000 several of us gathered in New York to analyze the challenges we faced and develop the strategies to meet them. These brainstorming sessions and exchanges led us to reaffirm, once again, that what brings us together is far stronger and more basic than what separates us. In sum, we identified that the essential problem, not only in relation to our predicament as women but also with our world, was “the architecture of human relations,” namely, a system of social organization that is based on hierarchy, the rule of the powerful, and a vertical command structure in leadership. This architecture was all pervasive from the family to the state and it held across the world-- from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Everywhere politics, economics, culture, arts and religion replicated and reinforced this foundation. We decided that we cannot “fix” what ails women without attending to what ails the world.

We decided to establish a transnational women’s organization that focused on finding ways to dent if not immediately change this “architecture of human relations,” the way people relate to each other, make choices, and implement those choices. This involved creating a new concept and practice of leadership that would apply at the individual, family, community, national, and international levels.

Deniz Kandiyoti: More concretely, can you give us examples of initiatives that you consider particularly productive?

Mahnaz Afkhami: Our most significant initiative was the launching of the Women's Learning Partnership as a global learning network of grassroots women and women's organisations across the world, established to promote a set of objectives that converge on one common theme: empower women to participate as leaders in the decision-making processes that affect their personal, family, community, and national condition. In a nutshell, WLP is a link that connects a set of ideas about how to reconcile indigenous cultures with universal values of individual freedom, sustainable and equitable development, democracy, and peace; how to formulate and implement a concept of leadership suitable to the experience of women across the world - that is, leadership that is participatory, communicative, and horizontal; how to create synergy by facilitating interaction among women leaders across the world; and how to select a set of tools from among the global communications resources to produce a matrix of communication that makes taking and coordinating initiatives on a global scale feasible.

Let me briefly suggest that at the heart of all this is our participatory leadership curriculum based on the idea of releasing the untapped energy of individuals and a belief in each person’s capacity to contribute. The programme caught on rapidly and in less than six years, it was tested, adapted and published in 20 languages, from the French, Russian, and Spanish, to the more esoteric such as Pidgin English, Hausa, Shona and Kyrgyz. Gradually participants across four continents began demanding more specialized manuals on political participation, violence against women, the use of social networking for advocacy, and monitoring and evaluation using the same participatory, dialogical methodology.

The leadership workshops outcome has been diverse. Domestic workers in Morocco ended up forming a union, a young participant in Jordan ran for the local council after convincing her family that there was no shame in going around the neighbourhood and asking for votes, the partners in Kyrgyzstan created a radio program where scenarios are acted out in a workshop setting and listeners call in to participate in the dialogue, a graduate of an Institute becomes a cabinet member in Liberia. Others have used the leadership skills they have learned to become skilled advocates for the human rights campaigns initiated by the partners on citizenship rights, family law reform, and implementing CEDAW . Another example from our partners is that, in addition to conducting workshops for those involved in the Springtime of Dignity Coalition, our Moroccan partners in ADFM held a leadership and political participation work shop for grassroots Soulaliyate women and the women of Guich lands, who have been advocating for gender-just land rights for years. This campaign has achieved concrete results, with the Ministry of the Interior recognizing the right of women of collective lands to have compensation and access to land on equal footing with men.

Deniz Kandiyoti: The question of alliances must be critical to the success of mobilization through networks. How and with whom did you seek and form alliances?

Mahnaz Afkhami : Our principal alliance is between the twenty autonomous organizations that together form the WLP. We believe that in order to learn from each other, sustain our connection, and retain our focus on our shared vision, we need to be in continuous dialogue. Technology has been, from the outset, our most important vehicle; without it, WLP would not be possible. But it is also indispensable that we meet once a year with the entire partnership and several times in smaller, thematic groups to sustain and grow our work together.

The groups have a variety of backgrounds and organizational capabilities. Many of the them are in countries that do not have a history of strong civil society. To achieve lasting change we must engage in institution building, which depends on organizational development, strategic planning, mentoring, and exchange, among others. Our experience tells us that South-South dialogue and exchange are keys to institutional strengthening, that peer-to-peer exchange is the most effective way of sharing experience in an environment that is conducive to open dialogue, horizontal interaction, self-confident openness to and respect for others, and goal-oriented learning.

In 2008 we convened a Strategic Planning and Capacity Building Institute for six of our core partner organizations, during which we collectively developed a bilingual toolkit for peer-facilitated, long term strategic planning.This enables the partners and other NGOs and networks in the global South to develop organizationally in a manner that is self-directed and responds to local needs. Partners in Egypt, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, and Palestine have created comprehensive strategic plans working with other partner organizations as well as within civil society in their own national networks. WLP’s Africa regional hub in Nigeria conducts long-term mentoring and on-site internships, and exchange with our partner in Zimbabwe, focusing on management systems and diversification of financial resources. Our Moroccan partner works closely with our partner in Mauritania on more effective implementation of grassroots leadership workshops, strategies for national level advocacy, and has provided a model for a grassroots network of women’s shelters. Most recently, our partners in Egypt and Jordan are sharing experiences and building capacity in workshops, strategic planning, and national network outreach. The partners who have taken on the role of mentors and peer-facilitators have become increasingly sophisticated in this role, and we collectively draw from and document their experiences in order to further hone our capacity building programs.

Deniz Kandiyoti: The operational principles you describe seem to be radically different from the manner in which institutions of global governance (including the UN) and international donors attempt to promote a gender equality platform by using instruments such as gender mainstreaming which are exportable and transposable, rather than context-specific. Would you agree with that evaluation?

Mahnaz Afkhami: I agree fully. Most transnational donor institutions have certain pre-determined goals and implementation methods that they try to achieve through funding specific organizations. Transnational NGOs have for the most part a different view of partnership and collaboration. Whereas WLP began as a partnership, and developed its goal and agenda collectively in partnership, others begin with a goal and agenda and then seek individual or organizational partners who don’t necessarily meet face to face, but communicate through messages primarily initiated by the transnational organization to the members in the network.

Deniz Kandiyoti: The recent uprisings in the Arab world have brought to the fore the whole issue of democratization and women’s rights. How do you evaluate the relationship between democracy and women’s rights?

Mahnaz Afkhami: I believe that however one defines democracy, a significant part of that definition must involve full participation of all members of society in the decisions that impact their lives. I do not believe that a political system that excludes , partially includes or differentiates between men and women can be called a democracy. I believe that the change I spoke about earlier in “the architecture of human relations” involves the elimination of hierarchical, autocratic decision - making that has stymied so much of the energies, creativity, and contribution of so many people across the world, especially women. In the Arab world as elsewhere, democracy has to be learned daily by living the process. One doesn’t wake up one morning a democrat just because one shouts lofty slogans in the streets. The euphoria and energy of standing for freedom often topples tyrants, but seldom leads directly to democratic systems. I wish fervently that the work our partners have been carrying out on a relatively limited scale could be instrumental to diffusing the practice of democracy. But I am optimistic for several of the countries that are undergoing transitions, and believe that the will is there in the men and women who risked their lives to bring change. There is good reason to believe that over time they will succeed. Women, however, will have to remain vigilant and must insist on having a place where democracy is being contemplated, defined, and implemented. This, I think, is the lesson of our history.


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