BLOG: Peace and the Gathering Power of Women

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 20:00
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In Aristophone's play Lysistrata, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been raging for 21 years. Fed up with the violence, Lysistrata and the women of Athens decided to take matters into their own hands. Wives and mistresses barricaded themselves in the Acropolis and refused all sexual favors until the men stopped fighting. With tongue-in-cheek humor, Aristophone described how the men, unable to bear such deprivation for any length of time, put down their arms, stopped the war, and Athenians and Spartans finally made peace.

In reality, the Peloponnesian War didn't end until it led to the total defeat of Athens by Sparta. What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta. The desire to dominate and the fear of being dominated make war inevitable. Consequently, human existence has been plagued with wars; according to global security there are currently 38 war conflicts around the globe.

As much as we engage in wars at a tremendous human and economic cost, we have also struggled to find ways to prevent them and stop them. Aristophone's solution, where Lysistrata and the other women created a choice between making war or making love, may sound far fetched, but there is an underlying wisdom. When women form local and global alliances with each other and stand together for peace, they can impact systems that generate and perpetuate war. Ordinary women, like you and me, have accomplished extraordinary things by gathering together. Like Lysistrata, they took things into their own hands and asserted a feminine presence.

In 2005, the McCartney sisters stood together to break the long, unwritten code of silence in Belfast, Ireland, by publicly demanding justice in the brutal slaying of their brother, Robert, by the Irish Republican Army. These women dared to challenge the aggressive hold that Sinn Fein had on people's minds, shook the political landscape, and had hundreds of supporters join them in a protest march. Witnesses found the courage to speak up about what they saw and arrests were made. The McCartney sisters' courage to stand together initiated a women's alliance.

In Liberia, thousands of women, Muslim and Christian united, grandmothers and mothers and daughters, came together in the midst of a bloody civil war, armed only with white t-shirts and their determination to not be deterred. They took on the warlords and brought peace to their shattered country. Courageously vulnerable, their non-violent resistance succeeded where traditional diplomacy had failed. Their demonstrations culminated in the exile of dictator Charles Taylor and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state.

In 2003 in Zimbabwe, Zodwa Sibanda and other women were thrown into jail for gathering together. Their crime? Passing out roses with notes calling for an end to state sponsored violence. This was the fifth time Zodwa had been jailed except this time she had to strip naked in front of male guards. Zodwa did not give up, and persevered, bolstered by her circle of women. Zodwa died in 2004.

In Namibia, where daily rapes and degradation of women was the status quo during a long guerrilla war, women sprang into action when a two-year-old was raped, calling together an initiative against sexual violence. The initiative led to Namibia's president condemning sexual violence in a new law.

Every Thursday for thirty years, the Mothers of the Mayo Plaza linked arms as they gathered outside the Congressional House in Buenos Aires, Argentina demanding to know the fate of their loved ones, the "disappeared." Dressed in black and wearing white handkerchiefs with the names of their "disappeared" sons and daughters on their heads, they challenged and denounced the military dictatorship that killed their children, and they ultimately became symbols of human rights activism and courage. Their desperation gave them strength to overcome their fear of gathering together, but it was from their circle that they drew strength, to not succumb to their terror of being disappeared themselves. And some of them did disappear, including the founder Azucena Villaflor. Although their leader, Azucena Villaflor, was abducted, the women refused to be intimidated, and continued their gathering.

Ada Aharoni, founder of International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace (IFLAC) in Israel, has Jewish and Palestinian women gathering monthly. They found a way to peace where they don't talk about religion because it brings them back to war. Instead they read poems, folk tales and stories relating to peace. "The main difference between human beings is culture," she told me not so long ago when I was researching women and peace. "How do we bridge that difference? Only through knowledge of each other."

Today, September 21, is International Day of Peace. Let's celebrate the women peacemakers around the world and learn from them. They can show us the elusive path to peace if only we pay attention.