Podcast transcription - Laureate Jody Williams: Telling it like it is

1 June 2009


Podcast transcription- laureate Jody Williams: telling it like it is


The following is a transcript of an audio interview with Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams (JW) by Jane Gabriel (JG). It forms part of openDemocracy's coverage of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference to Redefine Democracy in 2009.


JG: Hello, and welcome to an openDemocracy podcast. When the Nobel Women’s Initiative was formed three years ago they decided to hold international conferences every two years, with women’s with women’s rights activists and researchers working to address the root causes of violence. The first conference was held in Galway, and met to redefine peace in the Middle East and beyond. Last week the second international conference was held in Antigua, Guatemala where more than 80 women from around the world met to discuss how to redefine democracy. 

I’m Jane Gabriel, and I spoke to laureate Jody Williams about how the conferences work. She began by telling me what the impact of the Galway gathering had been.

JW: For me personally, it was helping me think more and more about what the message I want to bring to people about peace is, and what it means to build peace. I think everybody in any conference…even if you come out with a statement and a declaration, that’s only one manifestation of what happens in a meeting, in a coming together of people who share similar goals and values even if not the same methods of reaching them. And so each of us also goes through a process of, how does this fit in to what I’m thinking, how…you know…how does it help me think more broadly. And I’ve been really angry about the wimpification of peace, the kumbaya-my-lord vision of peace, the dove-in-the-rainbow vision of peace. Those are elements of what I would consider meditation and personal serenity. Peace is hard work every day. People who work for peace every day are not wimps. If people who work for peace are wimps, I want to be a Nelson Mandela wimp. I want to be a Martin Luther King wimp. I want to be a Shirin Ebadi peacenik wimp. I want to be an Aun Sung Suu Kyi still imprisoned for democracy in her country wimp. There’s nothing, nothing, nothing wimpy about a vision of a world that treats everybody with justice and equality. We….I mean, the purpose of a Galway or the purpose of this meeting in Antigua re-defining democracy is also for us at the Nobel Women’s Initiative to hear from the women how we as the Initiative can support their work.  

JG: And you’ve said that one of the purposes of the Nobel Women’s Initiative is to listen to the women who you gather every two years. What have you been able to do since Galway in terms of the request help with peace-making and peace building.

JW: Of course, every…every woman who comes to one of these meetings is not just an individual, she’s also representing an organization or a network of organizations of women working. Each comes with their own desire to see the Nobel Women’s Initiative support their efforts. And that’s what we wish to do. That’s the only purpose of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, is to use the influence and access that we have by virtue of having been recognized with the Peace Prize to shine the light, to elevate the voices of those who don’t have as much access, and make their issues and causes known. So of course everyone who comes here wants their issue advanced immediately. That’s a challenge, because obviously we’re six women and it’s not possible. But every time…I can speak for myself…every time I come, I come away with new understandings of how the bits that we’ve already done can be expanded in a way that’s logical and makes sense and grows the work, and also grows the connection of the women with the same vision for a different world. For example we have always supported the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi, our sister laureate imprisoned in Burma. But she is also the symbol of 2000 other political prisoners. When I say Aung San Suu Kyi I’m not just thinking of her and she would be appalled if people were only thinking of her - because she’s an activist and a symbol of the democracy they’re all seeking. So we have always done that as Nobel Laureates, but after the conference in Galway we expanded to having a delegation of women that we brought to the Thai-Burma border, because there are millions of undocumented Burmese refugees in Thailand, and we also took that delegation to Africa, to the Darfur region of Africa, to show the links. To you know – yes, the situation of the people of Burma is unique to Burma. The situation of the people and women of Darfur is unique to them. At the same time, the strategies and tactics of the wars being carried out against these people are disgustingly similar. And they are supported by China. And so making the linkages, making the linkages, making people….helping people understand that even if you’re if your passion is about freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, the political prisoners, and bringing democracy to Burma, you strengthen your own argument, you strengthen your own case if you can say…you know, wouldn’t it be wonderful if this horror was only confined to Burma. But it isn’t. Women are experiencing the same difficulties and challenges in Darfur. Here in Guatemala. In the Congo. Etc.etc.etc And then you go back to your passion of Burma. My goal is to help people see that linking, linking, linking, linking makes us all stronger. And that’s part of what I bring away personally from all of these meetings, is ok - here’s another you know…chic-chic, click, of how I can help people try and make the linkages, make their own arguments stronger by saying we all have this vision, we all these challenges, we all want to work for a transformation that makes us all better. 

JG: Lisa VeneKlasen is executive director of Just Associates, a network of activists in thirteen countries. She was one of the participants at the first conference in Galway.

LV: Galway gave us a sense of the huge opportunity that being connected to the Laureates gives us as women’s rights activists to amplify our message, to legitimize our message, and really focus on very concrete women’s rights issues and struggles. And that became clear. That agenda wasn’t completely clear when we went in to Galway, but it became clear in Galway. We’ve worked with the Laureates, where they have given statements of solidarity and leant their prestige and to be able to spot light these events. So for example, in the last two years the Mexican government in Oaxaca acted very violently in repressing a strike by the teachers that were mostly women. So we did an event in response where the Nobel Laureates leant a statement of support. Similarly they really amplified the work of women in the context of the Nicaraguan elections when Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas won which, while considered left, busily have reversed women’s rights. So probably the biggest and most successful relationship was around really spotlight women’s organizing and women’s voices against the passing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in Costa Rica. So none of the issues that I’m talking about are particularly women’s issues, these are peace, justice, and rights issues where both feminists, women’s rights activists, and women in social movements, women who are organizing, and indigenous groups and farmer’s organizations are coming together. And I think that’s the opportunity with the laureates. To give visibility to a broad base of women’s leadership, women’s perspectives on critical global issues that have a local, a very local expression.

JG: The Nobel Women’s Initiative meets in a different country for each continent. I asked Jody Williams why they had chosen the theme of ‘Re-Defining Democracy’ as the subject of the Antigua gathering.

JW: I think it was kind of logical. I mean, another feature of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conferences every two years is that they’re hosted by one of the Nobel women. The first was in Galway hosted by Betty, but it was also hosted by Shirin Ebadi because the theme was you know, peace in the Middle East and the issues of bringing peace to the Middle East and women. Here we’re hosted by our sister-Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum who ran for president in Guatemala, a break-through campaign. She didn’t win unfortunately but just by virtue of an indigenous woman in Guatemala where the Indigenous people have been so oppressed, ethnic cleansing, some would say genocide here. To come here the logic…to me there was no other logic than to discuss democracy. Even though it has become a really, really tainted word after the Bush administration’s desire to export democracy. But since she ran for president, ok that’s one kind of participation in democracy. But democracy isn’t voting in an election every four years or six years or whatever. Real participatory governance is a daily commitment to shaping the world in which you live. Locally in your community, in your state or province, in your country, and in the world. And so that’s what we’re talking about here.

JG: You’ve been talking about the difference between tolerance and acceptance, and the use of language. What’s it about? 

JW: Well if I’m tolerating you it doesn’t really mean I understand you right? I can still think your vision of the world is repugnant...

JG: I’m your other?

JW: Yeah, you’re my other, but I’ll tolerate you. That is not the same as ‘I accept your difference’. I don’t have to like you personally to accept your difference. I don’t have to want to be you. I don’t have to join your vision. But I can accept that your vision is yours as long as you don’t impose your vision on me. And I think that’s a huge difference between tolerance and acceptance 

JG: And are you saying that acceptance is part of how you re-define democracy and build democracy? 

JW: Absolutely. Until we accept ‘the other’ and accept the ability of the other to live their vision we don’t have democracy. As long as somebody, I don’t care who it is, Bush or Ahmadinejad or the Taliban or the Guatemalan government or Ortega in Nicaragua, as long as they’re trying to impose they’re vision, of what reality is and how it should function on people who don’t share that reality that’s not real participatory governance. That’s not allowing the expression of each individual and each group that has a different way of wanting to live. 

JG: What are some of the key conversations that have struck you in the last couple of days here.

JW: I think it’s mostly been deepening my thinking. In the opening session, Srilatha from India talked about deep democracy. And you know, I hadn’t thought of the term that way but that’s the kind of work that I’ve done for 25 years. Deep democracy meaning…some would call it grassroots activism, grassroots empowerment. I am a fundamental deep democracy activist. You know, I have no vision to the other kinds of power. I believe that when you empower everybody the transformational possibilities are outstanding. So hearing deep democracy provoked some thought. Thinking again about democracy and what the hell it means…I think I prefer participatory governance or participatory citizenship or something. But it’s going to make me think more about what words I am comfortable with personally. And it’s also interesting to watch or hear anger, resentment, othering, even among people who consider themselves to be progressive, who consider themselves to be above all that. It’s interesting, it’s understandable…we’re human. I ‘other’. I work like hell not to other, but of course I other. It’s human nature.

JG: Before the conference started, you hadn’t met the vast majority of the women you’ve  gathered from all corners of the earth here. Have you had any surprises in terms of conversations you’ve had?

JW: I…honestly I’ve been busy trying to be a good hostess, making everybody feel comfortable. And my friend Judy Jane sitting right here is just like choking because that is not my nature!

JG: So is part of being a member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative personal training for you?

JW: It’s like getting older. That mellows you inevitably. No but this Nobel Peace Prize. It really has had a profound effect on…

JG: Your whole life?

JW: Yeah. You know I’m glad I got it. It’s helped my work. It’s outstanding to be in partnership with these women. But I didn’t ask for it. I don’t like when people Nobel me, you know? I don’t wanna be Nobelled. I’m Jody Williams, activist since Vietnam War. I don’t like the assumptions people make about me because that label is attached. Because I didn’t…you know for me October 9th I was Jody Williams, Landmine Lady, October 10th I was Jody Williams, Landmine Lady - also Nobel Peace Laureate. And suddenly everybody wanted to talk only to me about landmines and not the thousands of activists without whom there would be no treaty. That pissed me off profoundly. And I had to work through that part. I also had to work through the fact that even if I wished to transform it, there is the reality that when people ask me to come speak or participate there are certain expectations and to belittle the hope or the inspiration that the success of our campaign has given them by being surly isn’t being fair to them. And that took me five years. And in that process I suppose I’ve become slightly nicer. Would we say Judy Jane? But it’s been a shock to my system to be honest.

JG: I’m struck by the way that the Nobel Women’s Initiative is transparent and honest and open. And you’re not pretending there aren’t differences, that you’re very different women from different backgrounds. I don’t know who was a feminist, if anyone is a feminist now…

JW: Some days I feel like a feminist. There are years I’d never even think of that term. Does it matter?

JG: You said yesterday, “If we were granted what we are, we wouldn’t even need to be here”.

JW: This is true. If we were granted…you know people say, ‘why do you women have together and you know, agitate about rights’. Well if women every where in the world were treated as human beings and granted they’re rights that they have by virtue of birth, we wouldn’t be here for Christ’s sake.

JG: So if we were recognized as equal human beings?

JW: As equal human beings! If each and every one of us had the open ability to choose what we wanted to be without the imposition of somebody else’s definition of that, whether it’s an individual somebody or a Taliban somebody or a Bush somebody or a white ring Republican somebody, we wouldn’t be here. Maybe I, Jody Williams, would choose to say home and be the barefoot pregnant wife. But knowing the full possibilities that I would have in the world. And then I would choose, this is how I choose to express myself on the planet. But we do not have that choice.

JG: And is that because we don’t have real democracy?

JW: Abso-fucking-lutely. Abso-fucking-lutely.

JG: Joanna Kerr was executive director of AWID and now works for Oxfam in Canada. As a board member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, she works closely with the Laureates as they look for a common approach and develop their strategy.

JC: I get to come together with them to be quite analytical and critical, you know, constructively and positively around what we learned, what we can do better. What are the kinds of conversations that we need to be having at this time. It’s small and nimble, and the fact is there are six laureates that are part of it that have very different styles, very very different agendas, and very very different needs of the organization. That’s actually the beauty of it. So you end up then, with the need to approach democracy in Iran from a peace perspective, a sustainability perspective, Mairead talks about non-violence…so in many ways it forces the Nobel Women’s Initiative to have a much more holistic approach. It cannot work in silos. And therefore they can make the connections between Iran, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, you know…the climate crisis, anti-nuclear weapons, cluster bombs, all the rest of it. And these aren’t women that came to this work through feminist organizing. No. They came from doing work on their own issues. So I think it’s a very very powerful organization in that sense, because they have access to front page of the International Herald Tribune which those of us who work away at this for 20 years, we just never have access to that kind of space.  We can feed them with the kind of analysis, or support the kind of thinking and organizing that they want to do. So you know, I think it’s a kind of…it’s just a really amazing kind of model that more of us need to utilize.

JG: Have you seen these 6 women change in any way in the course of the two and a half years that they’ve been running their own initiative?

JC: Well I have…I have seen changes, I mean I can’t…It’s not necessarily see them change, but seeing how they talk about this work change. And I take the example of Wangari, who you know plays a very important role in Africa and she’s the one whose won the prize most recently and so came in to the organization with the most amount of media buzz still around her. And I can remember just last year before the Olympics in China, where she was being asked to carry the Olympic torch in Kenya. And a very very deep and thoughtful conversation amongst the Laureates asking her not to carry it because the Chinese government is behind so much of the conflict in Burma and Sudan and to do that would actually undermine so much of their other political agenda. But also obviously China plays a very huge role in Africa these days. So at the end of the day she chose not to carry it. It was front page news. Her response was extraordinarily thoughtful. And it’s only because of her involvement in this collective process that enabled her to do that. And she was very very thankful of that kind of input and feedback and support. So that’s just one example of how this initiative is really changing the mould in very significant ways.

JG: Lisa VeneKlasen has seen how the Nobel Women’s Initiative has been able to move to focus its support for women in areas where they’re the objects of systematic violence.

LV: The laureates themselves are very different, very different interests and agendas so they don’t automatically have a consensus agenda. But during the last couple of years, we’ve worked with them closely to identify moments where women are very clearly the objects of systematic violence of one form or another, and they have really organized around those moments for high level delegations, extensive fact finding, tribunals, Sudan, Burma…there’s support consistently for meso America and the petateras so I think they’re becoming more and more responsive to the big crises, particularly where women are often invisible. They’re invisible as victims and invisible as leaders in solving those issues. And I think they’ve chosen a few very strategically and I think it’s a boost to women’s rights, it’s really given women’s voices and women’s rights a huge amount of attention. Obviously we have a long way to go, so…

JG: It’s the third day of discussions in Antigua about how to re-define democracy. Back to Jody Williams. Three days of listening to more than a hundred women from more than thirty different countries, all wanting democracy. Where does it leave you as a member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative who believes that action is the only way to change the world?

JW: Well it leaves me inspired because every woman here is an activist. I go away with a reinforced belief that if we share a common vision and acknowledge that we are sharing a common vision to transform the world, it doesn’t really matter the actions you take in your context to make that happen. I mean that’s how the landmine campaign succeeded. The Cambodian landmine campaign was absolutely different from how the campaign was conducted in France, or how it was conducted in Brazil, or Mexico or Angola or Mozambique. And nobody tried to tell anybody else how they should convince their government representative to accept the call for a mine free world. And it succeeded because it was enriched by everybody’s vision and creativity in their own context to bring about that change. And what we did was share experience.

JG: This is the first 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.


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