Interfaith peacework: a glimmer of solidarity

Just as borders, once drawn, become subject to militant patrol, so are the lives and bodies of women once they are marked by religious tensions. The need to address the nexus between religion, gender and conflict is becoming vital to peacebuilding
Deepa Shankaran
18 October 2010

In Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia, planning and conservation experts Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth explore the political parallels between five urban centres violently partitioned across along ethnic and religious lines. The study observes “the means by which fear and misunderstanding are given physical form,” and among the green lines, buffer zones, barricades and borders, some critical patterns emerge. In these cities, as in many of the world’s current conflicts, religion is visible as a key institution that structures and sustains divisions between and within communities. Indeed, in recent years, the role of religious fundamentalisms in fuelling intolerance has become a central subject of public debate, and the impact of these movements on women’s human rights is increasingly apparent.

From her experience as founder of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, where communities are overwhelmed by daily violence, Yanar Mohammed remarks, “To prove that you have politically dominated other groups, you raise your flag on top of your building, or even better, the flag is the black cloth that women are wearing as they are walking all over the streets of that city.” Just as borders, once drawn, become subject to militant patrol, so are the lives and bodies of women once they are marked by religious tensions. For rights-based activists and movements, the need to unpack the nexus between religion, gender and conflict is becoming increasingly vital to peacebuilding.

October 31, 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which calls for not only greater protection for women and girls during war, but also the full participation of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction. Building on the momentum leading up to this date, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), an interfaith movement for peace and active nonviolence, convened a meeting of women peace activists in September 2010. The venue was perhaps chosen for its symbolism: the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, where Turkish and Greek communities have been physically segregated since 1963.

IFOR’s Women Peacemakers Programme brought together activists from over 20 countries for this “Consultation on Interfaith Peacebuilding: the Need for a Gender Perspective.” The meeting sought to identify the dilemmas and opportunities in the work of women peacemakers operating within religious contexts or from religious frameworks, and to develop approaches towards gender-sensitive inter-faith peacebuilding. The gathering reflected not only the relative isolation of various fields of activism, but also the potential for solidarity networks and innovation.

The framework of the IFOR consultation was set to explore not only the implication of religion in global conflicts, but also the role of religious initiatives for peace. Participants were quick to identify the common ground between their contexts, with respect to the values that drive their work and to the roadblocks they frequently encounter. Many had initially come to peace and women’s rights activism through religious motivation, and continue to feel sustained in their efforts through their commitment to religious value systems. At the local level, it appears that peace activism by women across religions is a prominent and useful strategy, yet many participants expressed a sense of isolation, struggling against their own religious institutions for a public role. As the dialogue progressed among these women working across a range of religious traditions, a common and recurrent theme was the resistance of conservative religious hierarchies to women’s leadership. A striking symbol of this exclusion is the Vatican’s recent denouncement of the attempted ordination of women, which it equated with clerical sex abuse of minors, heresy and schism as “one of the gravest crimes under church law.” In such contexts, where religion and gender are pitted against each other in peacebuilding, the development of an interfaith solidarity network among international women’s groups takes on greater meaning.

At the international level, interfaith work has long been the province of religious fundamentalist movements, which often seek to elevate the status of religion over individual human rights. In a global survey of women’s rights activists conducted by the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), 52% of respondents stated that using interfaith alliances was an important religious fundamentalist strategy; 25% thought it was “very important.” A recent case study of fundamentalist challenges to women's rights in the Legislature in Brazil shows that despite the formal rivalry of Catholic and Evangelical blocs, these groups also collaborate at the parliamentary level to obstruct progressive laws on sexual and reproductive rights. AWID’s research also found that in Kenya and Nigeria, Muslim and Christian fundamentalist organizations have occasionally engaged in joint lobbying ventures against homosexuality.

In a recent article entitled Religious Right-Wing Groups Are Uniting to Fight the Culture Wars, Kathryn Joyce examines the emergence over the last ten years of conservative religious coalitions. She remarks on what Christian Right author Francis Schaeffer once described as “co-belligerency,” where doctrinal differences are transcended to form a common front against global adversaries – feminism, secularity, sexuality and reproductive rights.

In this context, a parallel co-belligerency, or perhaps better framed as solidarity, might be cultivated by rights-based movements working to mediate and resolve religious conflicts. During the IFOR consultation UNSCR 1325 was often revisited as a building block toward the active participation of women in formal mechanisms for peace and reconciliation. Recognizing that religion is a central feature in many communities, and that women are central to peace processes, religious initiatives to resolve and prevent conflict must not fail include women and foster their leadership.

Women peacemakers are facing a struggle with many fronts; not only against belligerent movements that promote violence, or conservative religious hierarchies that exclude, but also between women’s rights movements working for justice from varying ideological standpoints – challenging regressive doctrinal interpretations from within their own religious communities, or promoting and defending the secular nature of the state. AWID’s research has shed light on the polarizing effect of religious fundamentalisms on women’s rights activism itself: 17% of respondents to the global survey characterized religious fundamentalisms as “about the fundamentals of religion,” which would imply that religion is prone to absolutism, and thus inherently problematic for women’s rights. At the same time, many women’s rights activists on the ground consciously and unconsciously challenge the dichotomization of secular and religious strategies. While solidarity networks among progressive religious and non-religious actors have yet to be formally established, what is clear above all is that failing to create space for a critical feminist engagement with the question of religion has worked to the benefit of fundamentalist movements.

On the consultation’s third and final day, what emerged was an informal yet international interfaith network of grassroots women peace activists intent on engaging with UNSCR 1325, and on implementing related advocacy initiatives at the local level. What this develops into, in practice, is yet to be seen, but the glimmer of solidarity within the group was compelling. Similar struggles began to recognize each other, and participants left for home with a heavier sense of responsibility, or commitment to crossing borders.


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