By Zubeida Mustafa
MARCH 8 is International Women’s Day which is generally an occasion for stock taking on the status of women. As the world has moved towards a violent future and governments have focused more on what they term national security in the military context, they have lost sight of the issues that actually form the basis of true security — human rights, social justice, education, liberty, health care and the quality of life provided to the people. As such the women’s cause has also come to be overwritten by security issues.
As a result women’s movements worldwide have undergone a shift in paradigm and they have taken up causes which are not really gender-specific. They are now fighting for issues that affect men and women equally. If women are in the lead it is because they are mobilized and have developed the art of protesting in such a way as to make the maximum impact. At no stage have women tried to exclude men who have always been invited to join hands with them to struggle for a cause that is of concern to both.
On women’s day 2006, the focus is on peace. This is not surprising, given the numerous wars that are being waged in different parts of the world today and the violence that has destabilized many states and threatens to devastate mankind itself. Women are now mobilizing for peace and since this is just the beginning one cannot say if they will succeed. A significant effort has been made by a group in the United States calling itself Codepink which has launched the “Women Say No to War” campaign. The war in Iraq and the American military presence in that country that has taken 32,000 lives in the last three years has had a profound impact on women not just in Iraq but also in the US.
Codepink, which was set up in November 2002, says it is bringing over a delegation of Iraqi women to the United States for women’s day to talk of the destruction war causes. All these women have been affected by the war unleashed by the US. Ironically, two women whose families were shot dead by American soldiers have been denied visas on the ground that they do not have enough family members in Iraq to ensure that they would return home. Codepink is also collecting signatures for an appeal in which women from the United States, Iraq, and all over the world declare that they “have had enough of the senseless war in Iraq and the cruel attacks on civilians around the world.” They go on to say, “We’ve buried too many of our loved ones. We’ve seen too many lives crippled forever by physical and mental wounds. We’ve watched in horror as our precious resources are poured into war while our families’ basic needs of food, shelter, education and health care go unmet. We’ve had enough of living in constant fear of violence and seeing the growing cancer of hatred and intolerance seep into our homes and communities.”
Demanding an end to the bloodshed and the destruction in Iraq that is perpetuating an endless cycle of violence, they call “for a shift from the military model to a conflict-resolution model” that includes the withdrawal of all foreign troops and foreign fighters from Iraq, negotiations to reincorporate fully disenfranchised Iraqis into Iraqi society, the full representation of women in the peacemaking process, Iraqi control of its oil and other resources, a massive reconstruction effort that prioritizes Iraqi contractors, and draws upon financial resources of the countries responsible for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the consideration of a temporary international peacekeeping force for Iraq that is truly multilateral.
Is this to be the beginning of a new peace movement, albeit this time with international dimensions? Communication technology has made this possible. Although the desire for peace recognises no borders and embraces many generations, races, ethnicities, religions and political persuasions, in the final analysis every society will have to pressure its own government to act and negotiate a political settlement with its adversaries.
This is not an easy assignment. Take the case of Pakistan. The conflict that has devoured this country in the last few years has created paradoxes for the peace activists, with mainly women in the forefront. Considering the suffering war has caused and how its impact has been felt by women, one feels that the demand for peace should have been stronger, louder and universal. It has not been. Just before America invaded Iraq in March 2003 and a peace movement took the world by storm, male and female voices were raised in Pakistan for peace in Iraq. Vigils were held and demonstrations staged against the war. But after the invasion when violence became endemic in Iraq, attention drifted and Iraq was forgotten.
The following year the India-Pakistan composite dialogue was launched and this front became the focus of attention. This was important because the dialogue owes a lot to second track diplomacy that women along with men from both countries had conducted for nearly a decade. But the fact is that the women’s movement in Pakistan failed to make that impact on peace that it was capable of making.
Women played a significant political role in the 1980s, when a ruthless and misogynist military dictator ruled the roost. Their movement appears to have run out of steam. Initially, it was strongly focused on women’s rights issues, its aim being to raise the status of women in the country and safeguard their legal, economic and family interests. But gradually the struggle was broadened to include in its scope wider issues which affect women as well as men.
It was at this stage that the struggle for women’s rights began to lose its momentum. Many of the activists moved on to focus on issues that had a bearing on women but were quite diverse such as human rights, economic imperialism, democracy and peace. This had its advantages but with the shift in focus the women’s rights agenda has remained incomplete. Since many serious problems that have been recognised as being of a fundamental nature in respect of the status of women have remained unresolved, women have not been truly empowered. Neither has the consciousness been created in women that peace and the struggle against violence has a direct bearing on their life. If the primacy of this had been generally recognised women would not have been divided on the peace agenda.
In Pakistan, peace is perceived in two contexts. One is its international dimension, notably, normalising relations with India, resolving the Kashmir problem and conciliating the parties confronting each other across the Durand Line. All these have a bearing for the lives of the people in Pakistan because these are issues that can bring about radical changes in the politics and economics of the country. It may be recalled how the Soviet intervention and the civil war in Afghanistan and the jihad waged from Pakistan’s soil transformed life in this country.
The second dimension of peace is in the domestic context. The emergence of the Islamist parties and their willingness to resort to violence and bloodshed to achieve their goals have far reaching implications for our society. It is beyond belief that the gravity of these developments has not been understood by women generally. In fact, many of them are willing to support parties which as a matter of policy take recourse to violence. Hence the deep polarisation in our society on the issue of peace.
While peace in this context has an ideological aspect, no one should hesitate to condemn violence per se. Take for example domestic violence which is a manifestation of an undesirable pattern of behaviour “rooted in the structural relationships of power, domination and privilege which exist between women and men” (to quote Miranda Davies in Women and Violence).
On this issue too which is so widely prevalent there is no consensus. Although it can lead to injury and death, yet it has not been possible for the National Assembly to adopt the Prevention of Domestic Violence Bill, 2004 that seeks to provide a legal remedy to women victims of domestic violence. It is over a year that it was introduced in the National Assembly. We still have a long way to go before our men and women will understand the importance of peace.