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March 9, 2005

Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy: An Interactive Dialogue

Moderator: Michael Conroy
Panellists: A. El Bindari Hammad, Mahnaz Afkhami, Huda Imam, Morena Herrera Argueta, John Raines

The panel Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy: An Interactive Dialogue, highlighted the numerous forms of violence suffered by women. In the panellists’ view, however, this was no excuse for passivism. There was agreement that women needed to be empowered, so they could become dynamic agents for change, especially in environments in which women’s social participation was limited by traditional cultures, norms or religious values. It would be wrong, one panellist argued, to underestimate the extraordinary power of the ‘weak’! The panel was organised in co-operation with Globalitaria and The Rockefeller Brothers Fund.


Complete audio of the conference

Transcription / Transcripción

Michael Conroy, Program Officer, Rockefeller Brothers Foundation
The panel this afternoon is entitled “Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy: An Interactive Dialogue”. My name is Michael Conroy and I have the privilege of working for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund which is a foundation based in New York City that is focused on many aspects of an interdependent world.

This panel has been co-organized between the Rockefellers Brother Fund and Globalitaria, which is a Spanish group, which is an interdisciplinary forum for dialogue, training, and action on issues related to peace processes.

We’re going to manage this session a little differently than others. We meant it when we said we wanted to be interactive forum. In a moment I’m going to stand up and ask you to give us some questions that you had in your own mind as you walked into the room knowing that the title of this session was “Women, Terror, Religion, and Democracy” and I’m going to write those questions up on this newsprint pad and we’ll come back to those questions later in the session if they aren’t appropriately covered in the opening comments of our panelists.

We have a truly distinguished panel today to address this particular topic. I will introduce each of them as they are about to make their presentation, but the structure in general of the panel will be the following: we will invite you to raise questions that you would like to have the panel address before the end of the session. After spending about 5 minutes getting those questions from you, each of the panelists will make a brief introductory presentation, no more than five minutes. I will then ask them questions, which are based upon your initial set of questions and others that arise in the intersection of the presentations for about 15 or 20 minutes and then we will turn it to you to raise additional questions on this very important set of topics, OK?

I d like to begin by establishing a couple of very simple rules for our engagement in this panel. The first I would argue is that we all have to very respectful of the positions that other people take. This is a panel in which there are controversial topics that will be discussed and we have to have patience and respect for the comments of anyone or the questions that are raised by anyone in the audience.

I would suggest that the second rule should be that in order for everyone to have an opportunity to participate, we should all be very brief. That includes me with my introductory comments.

The third suggestion I would have for a rule is that there’s only one kind of dumb question: that’s the question you ask yourself as you’re going out the door after the panel and you say “I wish I had asked this question.” That’s the only dumb question. Any other question is a perfectly fair and open for this particular panel, OK?

Let me begin, then, by asking you to give us some very brief questions that you had in mind as you came into this section and hoped that this section would address. I will write them in abbreviated form up here. Yes, please.

Member of the audience
The paragraph in the briefing book is a very short one but it does not talk about women as agents of change in a positive way. It describes this panel as discussing women as victims of terrorism rather than as actors who can move change within the communities that contribute to terrorism or work towards a more sustainable peace after violent conflict. I wonder if any of the panelists are going to address that set of issues.

Michael E. Conroy
Thank you. Who else would like to raise a question? Since we’re a nice small group, could I ask you to identify yourself before you ask your question.

Member of the audience
My name is and Wama Hadif [?] and I’m the president of Eumacher Association. More than a question, it’s a comment. The title is very long, “La Mujer, Terror, Religión, Democracia,” so is it that complicated dealing with women’s issues? My comment is also –Morena Herrera, Mahnaz– I hope you are representing all the cultures, women in all the cultures have more or less similar problems.

Michael E. Conroy
Thank you. We’ll cover all cultures.

Member of the audience
Mi nombre es Isabel Blas. Soy escritora y periodista y no represento aquí nada mas que mis propios intereses por los temas relacionados con la mujer por los que llevo luchando muchos años. Mi pregunta es por qué en todos los congresos, seminarios, jornadas, cumbres internacionales o nacionales a los que asistimos sobre temas relacionados con la mujer, el porcentaje tanto de ponentes como de público hay uno, dos, tres, cuatro, no mas allá de seis hombres. ¿No les interesa los temas relacionados con la mujer?

Michael Conroy

Member of the audience
My name is Carmen Magellón. I am the director of a foundation for this research in Zaragoza and my question is why women have to save the world from terrorists, from war, and we are not so convocated to rule the world, so what about power? What about the capability of women to make decisions about the world, how to rule conflicts? Thank you.

Michael E. Conroy
Thank you. Another question.

Member of the audience
My name is Nikki Stern. I’m the executive director of Families of September 11. My question is assuming relationship between women as related to terror, religion, and democracy. Could we also discuss women as related to empowerment and public perception?

Michael Conroy
Thank you.

Member of the audience
Terry Wright, I’m a student at Columbia University. Could we talk about the intersectionality between gender and race? I think that women are discriminated or terrorized against only because they’re female and weaker, but based on their religious beliefs as well as their skin color.

Michael Conroy
Thank you. I have room for one more on the tree here.

Member of the audience
Alaui(8:34) from Baghdad University. I want to ask why you accepted the religion and terror between women and democracy.

Michael Conroy
Thank you.

Member of the audience
In relation to our lunch conversation, we have a question generally why is there a panel of women and terror, etc. in a forum of this sort of event. There’s no similar panel on the issue, for instance, of men and terror. Why do we have this privilege?

Michael Conroy
Thank you very much. With these questions, then, we’ll turn to the opening presentations of just five minutes. I have promised and prepped with our speakers that I would be very stern in keeping of the five minutes so that you can have a lot of interaction after their initial set of comments and questions.

I think because there is no other order that’s necessarily logical, we will use the order which is in the program, it turns out there are various speakers, and the first speaker then will be Mahnaz Afkhami who is listed as the founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership. She also was Minister for Women in the government of Iran some years back. She has worked on women’s leadership issues and women’s leadership training in 20 different Muslim majority countries and has developed materials on women and leadership that have been translated into 15 languages and distributed worldwide. Mahnaz?

Mahnaz Afkhami
I will begin by addressing in the short time I have in my opening statement that I will try to be inclusive of a couple of the statements.

The question that Rosemary asked about why women and terror and the question about culture, and I hope later we will do our best with some of the other aspects. The question why women and terror, I think that they do relate, the one on women and terror, and culture. I think that I would like to begin by just briefly saying something about culture.

This is something that, especially in relation to Muslim-majority countries, has been closely connected with aggression and violence. I think it would be good to first get some kind of a definition of culture which is in fact the perceptive medium to which we relate to our environment. In that sense we’re not talking about the aspect of culture that has to do with aesthetics, that has to do with music, and cooking, and rites of passage but with how we interpret our world, how we establish our values.

I fear usually in the western world, where people think basically that culture is something that exists somewhere else and not in the west, because we all know that culture is something that applies to everybody. In the western world, culture has developed in a dynamic way almost always indigenously. In the parts of the world that we’re talking about, culture has come as almost an imposed item from the outside because of the discrepancy and power relations especially with regards to the media. And also other factors, but media is one strong aspect of it.

The reason that that is important is because when culture is seen to be coming from the outside and not indigenously –I’m referring again to the aspects of culture that have to do with formation of values and relationships of people– this kind of a change that comes to all cultures and is accepted in various cultures if it is indigenous. In parts of the world where it is not indigenous because of levels of development and so forth and especially technical development, what happens is that there is a strong reaction to these changes. Sometimes these changes are related to values which many people would aspire to if it weren’t because of this identity problem and because of this perceived imposition of certain cultures.

I’m talking now, of course, about the way extremism and fundamentalism as a reaction to changes that are perceived to come from the outside affect women. Because other aspects of change are seen a lot more easily accepted and we’re seeing a lot more as possible to implement, but when it comes to women, it becomes particularly difficult to accept these changes and the reactions to these changes are much more strong and violent. So this is what fundamentalism and extremism, especially in the Muslim world, focuses so much, on women, their role in society, so many things such as what they wear, how they cover their heads, where they move about, and how they relate to the other gender, and how they relate to the public spaces.

Now this way of interpreting culture as related to the role of women is something that has had a great deal to do with the kind of terror that women experience in many Muslim-majority countries. I’m trying to speak of terror not in the sense of the usual acts of violence against civilians and support that we have seen as political terror only, but what women experience is a daily fear, a daily lack of power, a daily lack of justice, a daily lack of chances and hopes and possibilities that they would like to have in their lives. This kind of daily experience of terror that women go through in Muslim-majority countries especially, is legalized and has built into the structure they experience, that women live with every day. They have very little power over the future of their children, very little power on choice of marriage partner, very little power over how they or whether they get a job or whether they need permission to get a job, and many other things like this.

Now this again is not something that is very specific to Muslim-majority countries, it is just more exacerbated in those countries because of the way the development of the relationship between human beings and their environment has been interpreted and has been lived on a daily basis.

I’ll try to say something about in relation to do this, what are they doing. Even though the relationship between women and their legal and state and governmental interactions is a very skewed, very asymmetrical, division of power, women and groups and non-governmental groups in civic society organizations as individuals have been extraordinarily active, have been extraordinarily dynamic. They have tried things such as reinterpreting religious and cultural traditions and as positive ways as positive resources, they have connected extraordinarily well across to other women’s organizations, human rights organizations, solidarity movements all across the world. They have started a series of actions to empower themselves, to first of all begin to think that they’re agents of change, that they can determine their own destiny, that they can make a difference and that first step that power can only be gotten if you ask for it and if you mind it, it’s not given to you on a silver plate.

These things are happening, and more and more skilled women are entering the workforce or entering civil society and of course segregation in some ways, gender segregation in some ways, has helped in this area, ironically, because if you have to train separate sets of doctors, separate sets of professional people, and so forth, sometimes like in my own country, Iran, or places like Saudi Arabia, it has helped generate a lot of skilled and professional women who are now in fact pushing for gender equality and democratic practices. Thank you.

Michael Conroy
Thank you very much . Our second speaker will be Aleya El Bindari Hammad who has a chair of the International Advisory Board at the Wagner School of Public Service in New York, but more importantly, Aleya is a founder of the Suzanne Mubarak Peace Movement and secretary-general of a new and rapidly growing organization called Women Defending Peace. Aleya?

Aleya El Bindari Hammad
Thank you. I just want to say a few words because I think some of us it’s hard [...]. I think for some at the early age, they know exactly what they would like to become: musicians, doctors, politicians, hound of fashion, and to the logical path they come to where they are. I was thinking of myself as we were having lunch that this did not happen to me at all. I don’t have a degree in political science, nor have I spent years in analyzing security issues. I wanted to be a painter but with a lot of pressure from my family, I became a public health position. [...] here to talk about the peace and security issues.

I think it’s important for us to realize this. So some of us are newcomers in that field. But as a health professional, let me just say that I took an oath to protect people’s health. As a public health official, I explored the social political reasons that make people sick and strove for changes that would prolong and improve their lives.

As an amateur painter, because I paint now, I look for and try to express beauty. Maybe this is the most logical place to be here. For, after all, war and terrorism are the main obstacle to health and beauty in our world today. Thank you.

Michael E. Conroy
Thank you very much, Aleya.

Our third presentation will come from Huda Imam. Huda is a director of the Center of Jerusalem Studies at Al-Quds University, the Palestinian university, in Jerusalem. She’s also the founder and a member of Jerusalem Link, which is an organization that focuses on issues engaging both Palestinian and Israeli women, rights questions. She has been active in campaigns for peace and democracy in Israel, and she shared with us over lunch today, she was one of the first fifty Palestinian intellectuals who signed an appeal to the Palestinian people to stop the suicide bombings. Huda?

Huda Imam
Thank you, Michael. I’m very honored to be here. I was invited by Maria and Rosemary from Globalitaria, so, thank you very much for inviting me. It’s really an honor to be here. As Aleya said, I am not a political scientist either and I don’t think I’m a politician. I happen to be a Palestinian from Jerusalem, who is today deprived from residing in Jerusalem with the choice of mobility. Holding a French passport, for Israeli new Ministry of the Interior, for Palestinians from Jerusalem is today illegal. I happen to be a peace activist despite all the frustrations that Palestinian movement already in this society can confront but also against the occupation. So we have as women, Palestinian women, Arab women, Muslim women, double or triple confrontations and more challenges than men like Michael to face, I imagine.

In order perhaps to mention something about the title, and more precisely about one of the first questions, which you have asked here referring to the victims. Despite the fact that I’m occupied, and despite the fact that I’m a woman, and despite the fact that I may be confronted by all sorts of violations against human rights, not only women’s rights, but humans rights in general, I do not feel I’m a victim. Today within my capacity at the university with women and men students, male and female students, in my capacity as a member of the Jerusalem Link together with Israelis and Palestinian women working to empower women, I do not feel I’m a victim. Despite the fact that my mother used to probably also ask me and my sister to wash the dishes at the end of meals, not by three brothers, I don’t feel that I’m a victim. Within my capacity as a peace activist today, I’m presently teaching the conflict, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace studies at the Jaume Primer in Castellón and to choose the title of the course, I chose the following title: The Strength of the Weak: the Power of Non-Violence.

I believe today that Palestinians, including Palestinian women almost representing 50 percent of Palestinian society today, we should not feel that we are victims. It is perhaps easy to say that myself because I’m very privileged compared to many, many Palestinians who are not even able to move from one town to another, for a pregnant woman to pass through the checkpoint to deliver her baby, or for children who are confronted by a terrorist world, who cannot go even to their schools today and compared to many other Palestinians who have brothers sentenced to death two times and three times or students who cannot even go to university and doctors who cannot go and see their patients. So I’m very privileged to be here today and talk about non-violence. But within this capacity and within this privilege and being a woman and being very aware that women have to express solidarity amongst each other and not all on the Palestinian-Israeli level but on the international level.

I’m trying to mobilize as many women as possible and as many people as possible, whether Arabs, Jews, Hindus, whether they are Spanish, Europeans, Americans, Canadians, to work together and to work on solidarity for freedom in the Middle East. I don’t want even to say peace because we Palestinians do not believe in peace anymore. What we want today is to feel that we are ordinary people, and we are normal people, and we are human beings. We have the right to live in dignity and we try to do that through non-violent resistance.

Thank you very much.

Michael Conroy
Our fourth panelist is Morena Argueta Herrera. Morena is from El Salvador, she identifies herself as a feminist, activist, human rights issues, women’s rights issues. She was during the Salvadorian civil war a member of the FMLN. She has had studies in philosophy, gender, and local development ands she was one of the cofounders of one of the most powerful women’s groups in El Salvador during the time of the civil war called Las Dignas. Morena?

Morena Herrera Arqueta
Gracias, buenas tardes, voy a hablarles en español.

Yo vengo de un país, vengo de un país que ha vivido muchas formas de violencia y que sigue sufriendo muchas formas de violencia. Conocemos el terrorismo de Estado, lo que es digamos, los bombardeos sobre población civil, los ataques indiscriminados contra la población civil, y también conocemos lo que es la impunidad. A pesar de que se firmaron los acuerdos de paz, el sistema judicial sigue siendo muy ineficaz en mi país. Se da una grave crisis carcelaria.

Considero que es importante y necesario condenar, cualquier tipo de acto violento indiscriminado contra la población civil indefensa, pero me parece importante de cara a este panel y de cara a la conferencia, distinguir el terrorismo de distintas formas de violencia. Creo que uno de los primeros problemas es que el concepto terrorista se aplica de forma indiscriminada a diferentes situaciones. Voy a poner un ejemplo. Hace pocas semanas en mi país, el Presidente de la República, en una conferencia sobre terrorismo hizo declaraciones diciendo que no descartaba que las pandillas juveniles, que en El Salvador llamamos Maras, tuvieran vínculos con Al-Qaeda. El Presidente no lo aseguró porque se cuidó de poner delante el “no descarto” pero era una declaración de un jefe de Estado. Las pandillas juveniles en mi país son un problema social, son un problema de seguridad, pero su constitución, su relación es mucho más compleja y el problema de acuñar el terrorismo para tratar cualquier situación es una manera fácil de evadir la responsabilidad de tener que analizar las causas de los problemas.

Así como se dijo ahora en la plenaria, que la peste hace unos años en Madrid no se entendía, así la guerra civil en el Salvador se interpretó como una confrontación Este-Oeste y no se analizaban las causas de exclusión social, las causas de la pobreza, una dictadura militar de más de 60 años que estaba a la base de quienes nos habíamos alzados en armas en aquel momento. Así también yo recuerdo que en la Edad Media se hablaba de lo diabólico, de lo diabólico contra toda la divergencia de aquel momento e igual que terrorismo, el conflicto este-oeste, lo diabólico, la peste, en razón de eso se quemó a muchas mujeres, y algunos hombres también.

Pues creo, en primer lugar, que es importante distinguir las cosas. Aquí se ha hablado también de los factores que subyacen al terror. Y se ha hablado también de la dificultad de manejar la diferencia. Me parece que el problema no son las diferencias, sino las diferencias cuando son convertidas en disagualdades, en motivos de inferiorización, en forma de justificación, de justificar la subordinación y la opresión. Ahí es donde las diferencias constituyen causas de conflictos en la manera que empezamos a tratar nosotros y ellos, nosotros los que estamos de este lado los buenos y los malos los que están del otro lado. Lamentablemente creo que la condena social y política a los actos de terror pierde efectividad cuando se recurre fácilmente a estos conceptos que se acuñan y que toman tal ambigüedad que terminan justificando actos terroristas también.

Yo creo que las mujeres, aunque no conozco en profundidad otras situaciones, no creo que las mujeres seamos especialmente víctimas del terror cuando se trata de actos indiscriminados contra la población civil. Sin embargo creo que –y en Centroamérica hay un debate en este momento–, creo que el tema del terror y la subordinación de las mujeres se juntan y se vinculan, cuando hablamos de determinadas formas de violencia contra las mujeres. En Centroamérica, sociedades que han sido o están siendo globalizadas con las economías periféricas con empleos precarios para las mujeres, la mayoría en el mercado informal, se están presentando situaciones parecidas a las que hay en la frontera de México con Estados Unidos, que son conocidas como las víctimas de Juárez.

Son asesinatos contra mujeres cuya causa principal es el hecho de ser mujeres. En este caso, si bien la víctima no se escoge de forma particular, sí tiene un perfil. El perfil de mujer joven que sale de la casa, que ha incursionado en el ámbito laboral. [...] feminista hemos estado proponiendo. Es la dificultad de transformar las relaciones de poder que se expresan en los diferentes estratos de la vida social y política. Que se expresan en estas conferencias al hacer una conferencia ad hoc titulada con el nombre de mujeres con menor importancia a la que fundamentalmente participamos. Y creo que es un problema de las mujeres y de los hombres. Seguimos viendo a las mujeres como víctimas. Creo que es desperdiciar el potencial que tenemos de transformar y de recuperar el tejido social que destruye la violencia y la capacidad de diálogo que necesita nuestra sociedad. Muchas gracias.

Michael Conroy
Thank you very much. Thank you also for respecting our time limits.

The final panelist, John Raines, is here in part, as I am, because we wanted to make it very clear that the topic is not a topic for women. The topic Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy in the context of this overall summit is a topic of constant importance for men as well.

John Raines is a professor of religion who is at Temple University in the United States. He has done extensive research and publications on topics of justice and its intersection with gender. He has organized and run a comparative religious program in Indonesia. The one other dimension of his life that he asked us to share with you is that his life was literally saved in 1961, when as a freedom writer in the civil rights movement of the United States, he was jailed and a black farmer whose name he still does not know essentially raised the bail to get him out of jail where his life was in danger by putting a mortgage on his farm.

John Raines.

John Raines
Thank you, Michael.

Who first taught us that the world was safe for our trust? Whose face welcomed us into the world? Who first taught us to talk and then listened and talked back and therefore taught us that we have a voice that […][1:51]? Women do much work in this world but over time and across all cultures, women have been assigned the fundamental work of nurturing children. It is the most important work done in any society and yet it gets no pay. It doesn’t even get Social Security in my country.

The work of women is to introduce us to a world that welcomes us: where we’re safe; where we acquire what we have to acquire in order to be as human beings, namely that vast array of cultural competences. That’s the work of women.

Our second word is terror. That’s a difficult word, a complex word. One side’s terrorism is the other side’s struggle for freedom. So to narrow down that word a bit more, it seems to me that terror is a tactic used by persons directed indiscriminately, usually, at civilian populations, innocent third parties, noncombatants. With this purpose in mind: to create a massive suspicion and fear in society that takes away from us as members having to live side by side and usually having and being able to take that for granted. Taking that away from us. The work of terrorists is to undo the work of women. Mostly they can’t do it. That’s what’s interesting.

The third word is religion. You notice it comes between terror and democracy. Unfortunately, women have been subjected to religion in such a fashion that, ironically, those who first gave us a voice find their voice taken away from them. In sacred texts, in almost all sacred texts of the world, if you ask yourself, “what voice am I hearing?”, it is the voice of a male divinity talking to a male audience. Women appear in those texts hardly ever speaking as “I”. Hardly ever spoken to as “you”. Almost always in those texts women are spoken of as “them.” The “they” to the intramale discourse of male sacred texts.

Why then have women throughout all history, strong women, resorted also to religion and found in religion a source of strength? Because besides the oppressive qualities in all patriarchal religions, there are also in those very same religions, strong, deep courses and strains for social justice and equality. I use just one example from my own tradition, from my own Bible, Isaiah. Isaiah speaks to the people of Jerusalem back then and he says, “how does God measure this country?” How does God measure nations? Does God ask how are the wealthy doing? How’s the stock market going? How are productivity levels, what’s your gross national product? Does God ask any of those questions? No. Isaiah says God asks “how does your country treat the widow and the orphan?”

Women have sensed in all religions that there was in these religions strong resources for a cry for social justice and resistance against all that oppresses human beings and denies them dignity.

Now democracy. At the heart of democracy is having a voice. At the heart of having a voice is having a voice that others hear and respond to. At the heart of democracy are the voices, the strong voices of the many people of that society and country. How can a democracy be a democracy when it takes the voice and the strength of that voice away from a majority of its citizens and replaces that voice with the voice of money?

Michael Conroy
Thank you John.

Aleya, who took only a minute and a half of her time, has now asked for a couple more minutes and I think it’s only fair.

(Continued in: Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy: An Interactive Dialogue, part 2).


Panel on 'Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy: An Interactive Dialogue'. Left to right: relator Rosemary Vargas, Vocal de Globalitaria; Morena Herrera Argueta, member of parliament in El Salvador; Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership and former minister of state for women's affairs in Iran; Chairman Michael E. Conroy, Programme Officer, Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, USA; Huda Imam, Director, Centre for Jerusalem Studies, Al-Quds University; Aleya El Bindari Hammad, Chair, International Advisory Board, Wagner School of Public Service, and visiting professor, New York University and George Washington University; John Raines, Professor of Religion, Temple University, USA
Chairman Michael E. Conroy, Programme Officer, Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, USA, on the panel 'Women, Terror, Religion, Democracy: An Interactive Dialogue'. Besides him (right to left), John Raines, Professor of Religion, Temple University, USA; Aleya El Bindari Hammad, Chair, International Advisory Board, Wagner School of Public Service, and visiting professor, New York University and George Washington University; Huda Imam, Director, Centre for Jerusalem Studies, Al-Quds University. (Photo Club de Madrid)
With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
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