‘Meaningful participation’ does not simply refer to representation and quotas; it means that women’s interests and lived experiences are fully reflected in peace processes. This is the mission of Women Wage Peace (WWP), a grassroots Israeli peace movement founded shortly after the 2014 Gaza conflict. Their goal is to encourage a bilaterally acceptable agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including women in all aspects of decision making.
Last week, a delegation from WWP brought their practical message of peace through dialogue to our country. The delegation comprised four women from diverse faith groups, all situated at different points on the political spectrum but bound together by a mutual commitment to bringing an end to the conflict. The movement’s strength lies in its not being affiliated with any political party, and by the diversity of a membership drawn from a broad spectrum of Israeli society, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Druze, and Bedouin. These women are not just sitting behind their work desks waving white flags; they are standing at the country’s intersections, pushing bills at parliament, fasting in solidarity, educating in public spaces, screening movies, marching in the streets. They will not stop till they reach an agreement. This is their slogan.
Meeting with a diversity of South Africans throughout the week, it quickly became apparent that the delegation’s message of peace is one that resonates broaqdly. The visitors were comfortable confronting difficult questions, speaking truths that were often difficult to hear. They often said that they don’t have the privilege of sitting in hotels, eating caviar and hoping that peace will fall from the heavens. They are sick and tired of sending their sons to war, mourning their relatives, accepting the status quo. They want a peaceful negotiated settlement, and they want it now.
Yasmin Rubin-Cooper, a Jewish delegation member, described a recent experience that South Africans will readily relate to. She spoke of sitting alongside two parents from opposite sides of the border, a Palestinian father who lost his two daughters when an air missile landed near their house and an Israeli mother who lost her son in a terror attack. In tears, Yasmin told us how despite their diverse backgrounds, both bereaved parents shared one common desire, the same desperate urge to have their pain recognised, to be heard from the other side so that their suffering was acknowledged. Both shared the desire to be able to mourn and feel compassionately and empathetically heard by the other. More than any media piece that I had read until then, these testimonies truly brought the tragic conflict to life.
I was reminded this week that the ultimate victims of any conflict are the masses on the ground, people like you and me. Regrettably, South Africans have become so accustomed to news confirming their own biases that they forget the individuals living through constant conflict. Whereas we should be playing a mediating role, these women were the ones forcing us to sit down and engage in real conversation, to listen to the hard truths and, as Hyam Tannous, an Arab delegation member told me, “to see the other as an opportunity and not a problem”.
Our guests exposed us to the refreshing efforts that are being made to put an end to the violence in their region. They broke down the stereotypical impression of Israelis that broadly prevails here, demonstrating that there is much to learn about Israeli society over and above what we are fed through mainstream media.
During an engagement with the youth at UCT, one student asked if there were any critics of their message. Who, after all, could oppose a message of peace? As I reflected on this question, it dawned on me: It is Peace, not war that frightens men. War excites and has become part of us; it has become part of us to take sides, to do what we believe protects us at the expense of others, to focus on some truths but to hide from others, to rescue and repair but also to conquer and to destroy.
Peace scares us men, I believe, because deep down, something about it reminds us of what we fear the most: loss of control, of position, of dominance. Force, on the other hand, we understand. In force we trust, not peace. One might even argue that men treat peace the same way they treat women: with a knowing smile of contempt. And little wonder. Because, when all is said and done, men fear women, and don’t understand them. At the very essence of what they are capable of accomplishing, men perceive women as a threat. Why else would we need to belittle and silence them? Why else would we mansplain, overwork, underpay, and under-appreciate them, brand them naive and unrealistic, bury them under glass ceilings and gaslights? Yet until now we have been the ones leading at the negotiation table.
The word ‘Peace’, ‘Salaam’ or ‘Shalom’ is returning to the language of the Middle East, thanks to these courageous, compassionate women who are reminding us of our essential humanity. They are showing that women will go to any length, cross any divide and make any sacrifice to keep their children safe. It is time, if you ask me, that men step aside and allow them to take the lead.