Podcast transcript- To know that we are not alone
The following is a transcript of interviews with participants at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference to Redefine Democracy in 2009. Jane Gabriel (JG) reports.
JG: Hello and welcome to an openDemocracy podcast. 124 women from 35 countries gathered in Antigua last week to tell the Nobel Women’s Initiative about their work and to discuss re-defining democracy. The Laureates, Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Jody Williams, and Rigoberta Menchu Tum listened. I’m Jane Gabriel, and I talked to the conference participants as they came and went between sessions. Nathalia Green helped write the new Ecuadorian constitution.
NG: Well, I came to the conference invited by the women’s Nobel Initiative to talk about my experience with the Ecuadorian constitution process. During 2007-2008 we wrote a new constitution and this constitution is based on rights. Especially we worked on rights of more vulnerable groups like women, indigenous groups, and nature. So our sort of like incidents there, and our infiltration in the constitutional process was to guarantee that those rights were in that constitution. And we ended up with an amazing constitution.
Something that we definitely want to share is our experience in Ecuador, it’s something that should be known and should be celebrated in the whole world. And should be replicated in some parts of the world as well. I definitely learned a lot of things in this conference, it’s amazing….
JG: like what?
NG: Well, first of all sharing this space with such wonderful and powerful women, that’s one of the best things that can happen to someone who’s fighting….to know that we are not alone, that we’re all together, and that we’re all looking for the same thing. I think that something that everyone’s talking about and something that I want to highlight, is that we need to be talking about democracy of the earth in general. Not only talking about women and women rights, but talking about pretty much the planet – who are we, what’s our role in the planet, and what is the democracy of the earth, what should we be doing for the earth, for us, and for the men too – because they are the victims!
I’ve met some amazing people and I think the only way to actually achieve what we are trying to do in our country is create networks, to pretty much build, and to sew, and to weave networks. And I think that’s an important thing here. And I think that in spite of what we talk and what we achieve and what we reach during these three days of conference, the best thing is actually gaining all these contacts and networks to make this fight more powerful.
JG: Nayereh Tohidi is an Iranian academic lecturing in America.
NT: As an academic, I am not necessarily learning anything new theoretically. But it refreshes and polishes my academic thinking. It makes many of the ideas, you know abstract ideas that we read in books and teach everyday in our classes, more real and kind of a reality check for me to see ok, what in those theories are applicable in real life. Or how women activists in different countries are relating to these issues that we are studying and I am teaching to my students. Actually I am learning a lot because I am kind of applying what I have learned or testing myself or challenging some of my assumptions, the realities that these women represent. For example one of the things that was new to me that was very refreshing was the new constitution of Ecuador, this new declaration of the rights of the nature. This was unbelievable! I teach gender and development, sustainable development, human development, and especially for feminists to hear that a small country in the world for the first time has articulated a constitution which integrates all these issues together…the question of poverty, the question of sustainability, environment, gender, sexualities, minorities, indigenous people…this was unbelievable, so refreshing. So that’s what I’m taking with me as good news to my students.
JG: Fatima Ahmed is president of Zeinab for Women and Development in Sudan
FA: I met three of the Nobel women laureates last year in Juba in Sudan. They invited us for a meeting as part of delegation from different parts of Sudan and we did have very good meeting and very productive meeting in Juba last year.
JG: These are the peace talks?
FA: This is about peace talks in Sudan, yeah. And from that I get to know them and we really appreciate their effort to unite the women at leadership level internationally and at national and at local level and I really feel that it’s a very very good place for me. Pushing hard for women’s rights, women’s issues, pushing hard for the achievement to address the needs, the basic needs at the ground level.
JG: So how does coming to this conference help you with your work, and if so in what way?
FA: First of all it encourages me, it gives me more inspiration to be connected and to network with these wonderful women, women who have power and vision… and really I feel like I have very good affiliations and I feel myself not alone. So re-defining democracy, this is really very critical issue and for me and my groups at this time in Sudan because of the problem with conflict, and now we are hoping for peace and democracy transformation which we are hoping to begin by the beginning of next year. So I feel the topic is very relevant with what we are doing and what we are preparing ourselves to have in Sudan.
JG: Safaa Elajib Adam works as a community leader and peace activist in Darfur.
SE: I received an invitation from the Nobel Women’s Initiative to share my experience which is an experience of women struggling in a conflict situation - my involvement in the Darfur peace process especially, the inclusion of women in the peace process. I also participated in the Darfur peace process in the seven rounds from the perspective of civil society, where it is a different experience, when peace is only defined as a political issue, where there are only conflicting parties, the government and the movement, and they discuss political issues although the whole peace is about us, it is about the whole people, the nation, power sharing, economic sharing, and security….and we are impacted with that, especially the women. On the ground, they are the majority of the displaced and refugees. It brought me as an activist working there delivering the services, voicing the voice of the women to share that experience, and to make forward with other women and different levels.
The very good thing at this conference is that I feel that we are not alone. I am not alone in Sudan and in Darfur. And also, women are suffering not only in Sudan but other conflicting countries, even not during conflict. This is very important. And we have the same vision - it is about women effective participation, women who are controlling politics, who are defining things. Also people share experiences with me, because I found women who were being kicked out of the peace process. And their agenda has not been in incorporated and now they try and struggle in how to get that right. Like the Guatemalan women when they speak about the repression issue. I asked them, have you been to the negotiation, because there – democracy can start from there. Democracy starts when we are shaping the peace agreements, where the constitutional issues, all these things, where the dividend of that peace should be reflected in terms of gender, in terms of rights. I told them that you have to struggle. But I told them that for us as Darfurian women, still we have the opportunity to participate in the negotiation table and in several rounds of the peace process we developed something called Darfur Women’s Priorities for Peace, our deconstructions, which we managed to influence both conflicting parties through allying with women in these parties to put some of this agenda in the Darfur Peace Agreements. Although it is a fragile document, it has been signed by one faction, but it is still one of the most sensitive documents.
We share with other women how we can also support our right to be included. We can have one voice. This is the most important thing. Also, we met with people, with Nobel Laureates, where we think they have different experiences, they have different position in the world wide. But we found that there are very good linkages for us at the international level. We can find the way to network with them.
JG: Rhonda Copeland is a leading international human rights lawyer.
RC: One fundamental aspect of my experience of being here is that I am blown away by the power of what women are doing under some of the most difficult situations. And I would use as an example the Sudanese women. And not only are they doing these things under extraordinarily difficult situations, but we don’t hear about them in the West. We hear about the terrible problems, and we don’t hear enough – even as a feminist, even as someone involved in international women’s rights, we don’t hear enough about the agency. So I think whether you’re talking about the women in Zimbabwe, or the women in Sudan, or the women in Congo, or the women in Columbia, or the women in Guatemala, or the women in Mexico, there is in this gathering a tremendous energy that understands the obstacles and is persistently committed to overcome them. And so I have to say on a very personal level that I go away with a sense that more is possible than one sometimes thinks sitting in the belly of the beast.
JG: The networking and conversations between sessions are such that at times, it’s difficult to persuade participants to go back into the main conference hall. One moderator, Kavita Ramdas, tried singing to get them back in…
Every session at the conference is framed by the question of how democracy should be re-defined.
RC: The question of democracy I think is a really important and challenging question. And for me, I think the question here has deepened my sense of the complexity of doing it and also the level. For example, I worked for many years with the Algerian women who were fighting the Islamic - the armed Islamic groups - and we brought a legal case against one of the leaders in Washington, who is living in the States and we could bring a human rights case against him. And of the things that always happened when people talked about the Algerian situation, which is typical of many, is ‘well the Algerian government stopped the elections and the reason that there’s violence is because they called off the elections’. Which is not true in the sense that you had growing an incredibly violence, dangerous theocratic movement that was hell bent on eliminating any possibility of democracy - which wasn’t very great at the time but which was a little bit opening. You had civil society out in the streets demanding that the elections be called off because of the fact that they were not going to be legitimate and real and so from that time on and for other reasons, living in the United States and hearing ‘democracy’ and knowing how limited that concept is, the notion that elections are democracy was infuriating. So we would talk about, you can’t have democracy without human rights. And when you see human rights very broadly it gets to a great deal of what we want to accomplish in terms of democracy.
I think it’s a difficult question that we were just talking about in small group. I think the difficulty is in the different cultural situations, different words mean something. For example the Mexican woman today in our group said ‘well substantive democracy means something to me’. And I said ‘ well, it means something to me because I’ve done human rights but I don’t think it means something to most people in the country where I live’. And then someone else said ‘balanced democracy means something’, and I thought mmm…and she said, I can explain that. And I thought great, nobody would know what that means and we’d probably be attacked for being too one sided if the concept were balanced. So it’s a challenge…
JG: Charlotte Bunch is executive director of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership and is working on the reform of the gender architecture of the U.N.
CB: What’s been interesting for me here is to see different women’s groups from local struggles, how they’ve been thinking about democracy. To be honest it hasn’t been my own major theme, democracy. I’ve been working more from human rights and peace and security. But it has helped me to think about, ok – work that we do on human rights, peace and security is really about democracy and it is about realizing that democracy, so I probably will use the word more than I have. I will describe how what we are doing fulfills democracy. And probably before the conference, I didn’t think about it that way very much. It’s not really that I’ve heard new things about democracy, but just a kind of re-invigorated idea of how to utilize that discourse in what we’re doing.
JG: Kavita Ramdas is executive director of the Global Fund for Women.
KR: I hoped to get a sense of what women were doing to actually redefine democracy in really pragmatic terms on the ground. I also hope to see hope to see how the Nobel Women’s Initiative engaged with the process of both resisting militarism and re-defining women’s participation and leadership and bringing about a new understanding of democracy in their countries.
It’s been actually very interesting. The sense that I have is that for the Nobel women, there is a strong sense of commitment to issues surrounding peace and equality and that militarism does lie at the heart of how many of our current democracies are defined. I was actually very moved by the fact that Mairead Maguire spoke so clearly about the need to challenge our democracies and our nation states on their own hypocrisies and the fact that we have essentially given the state the right to use violence. She said that in a public forum, I thought that was extremely striking.
I think it hasn’t really changed my ideas of how we should be working, I think if anything what it has done is strengthened my sense that this is a conversation that cannot be had without challenging the underpinnings of state privilege as we see it. It hasn’t been talked about in quite those ways - this is not an academic conference - but I think there has been in panel after panel, including the panel I moderated yesterday, a sense that the abuses that governments and that nation states get away cannot be tolerated anymore and there has to be a whole different process by which the people hold their governments accountable.
JG: After two and half days of discussing how to re-define democracy, it fell to Srilatha Batliwala to summarize the ideas of 124 women from 35 countries.
SB: There are several ideas sort of capturing discussions over the last two and a half days. First is the idea of feminists pursuing democracy within and outside of formal political institutions, but that we need to make it known that feminists are at the forefront in defending democracy. They need to be seen as defenders of democracy.
In order to ensure that women and men in power do the work we want to do, that women’s groups must also engage with formal political institutions however messy or however difficult that is.
That women need to be recognized as a collective in a democratic arrangement, and not just as individuals.
That women’s participation in political movements, in assemblies, in gatherings – and – here’s the rider – be paid for. Democracy should be promoted in the public and private domains. And I think we’ve had a lot of discussion on that.
JG: The Nobel Women’s Initiative held its first conference in Galway, Ireland on re-defining peace in the middle east and beyond. Nayereh Tohidi was there, and told me about how the Nobel Women’s initiative now supports women in Iran.
NT: The receiving of the Nobel Prize by Shirin Ebadi itself was a turning point for the women’s movement in Iran. It was a big moral boost for people in Iran that brought diverse groups of women together, mobilized women, gave them new hope. Then learning that 6 Nobel sisters are going to get their forces together and create an international organization, we were really hopefully - including myself - that this is going to be a big support for the women’s movement. Now, whenever something happens in Iran to women, when a woman activist gets arrested, we kind of…the first group that we think of is the Nobel Women’s Initiative because they are the group that we know if they talk about, if they speak out against harassment or arrest of women activists, other people are going to listen. Fortunately, none of these Nobel women are lackey of any government, they are independent minded activists, they are peace advocates, they are against military attacks. So the government of Iran, which always uses the excuse of the threat of the US attack, military attack, or the threat of regime change and conspiracy, all that, they cannot accuse Nobel women of anything like that. So this is a legitimate, respected, internationally known and renowned and respected force that when they speak for Iranian women, and government of Iran has to listen to. So therefore, for me personally, as an activist, this has really been a source of hope, reliance, support, and assurance.
JG: The initiative as it is meets every two years and it meets in the home of one of the laureates. Shirin Ebadi is one of the laureates. Do you think there is any possibility at all that they will meet in Iran two years from now?
NT: I just suggested it to her. I said you know, we should pressure the Iranian government that we want to hold the next conference in Iran and if they don’t allow us, that’s their shame. We can shame them by showing them that a country like Guatemala that had a long history of dictatorship, corruption, repression, has at least improved to the level that they are allowing a feminist, open, critical conference in their country. They have held it in the best place they have, the most beautiful place, with lots of hospitality. And Iran, such a great country, much bigger country than Guatemala, much richer country than Guatemala, and is also pretending to be the leader of the Shia Muslims or the whole Muslims in the world, if they don’t dare to have a hundred or so women activists to come and hold a conference, then its going to speak a lot about the extent of repression and the extent of insecurity on the part of the Iranian government and also the sense of sexism in their views toward women. If they cannot let Nobel women to hold a conference in Iran, they’re only going to expose their own weaknesses and the nature of their repressiveness.
So if they do that, wonderful. If they allow us, then we can have a big impact among women in Iran and also in the region. Because then we can invite people from the region. And if they don’t, then we are going to use it as an issue to shame them, to show expose the extent of their repressiveness and their sexism. And then I would suggest, move to another country, maybe a neighbouring country to Iran so that we can have more impact in the middle east. Because I think the middle east and the Muslim majority countries have really a lot of issues when it comes to women’s rights.
JG: This is the second of three podcasts from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference “Re-defining Democracy”. If you would like to read articles on the conference blog written by participants and the openDemocracy team, or listen to more blogs, please go to our website www.opendemocracy.net and click on the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
If you wish to comment on this interview, please go to the audio page.