World Courts of Women: against war, for peace
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
At the World Court of Women meeting held in Bangalore witnesses to violence and injustice highlighted political lessons and resistance, asking that we all take responsibility to oppose the unending wars against women.
"Lights slips into every place where the women were killed,
the houses, the streets, the doorways
light traces the blood stains
light pours into the wells
where they threw the bodies
light seeks out the places where sound was silenced."
These words, from the Palestinian poet Lisa Suhair Majaj, introducedthe most recent session of the World Court of Women held in Bangalore, in November 2015. Under the title "Against War, For Peace", theCourt was hosted by Mount Carmel College and Vimochana Women's Rights Forum, which works on a range of issues from domestic, sexual anddowry violence, to communities and human rights.
The Court was held inconjunction with the international gathering of Women in Black( WiB) , an international network founded in Jerusalemin 1987 to oppose war, occupation and violence. A thousand students joined WiB to listen to testimonies that focussed on war as genocide, wars without borders, warsagainst civilizations, and wars against women. The final session spoke ofbuilding resistance, peace and justice in a "gathering of spirit".
Millions of women and girls are killed, brutalised and intimidatedinto silence every year. The World Court of Women has held over 30 sessions since 1992, hearing from survivors of violence, conflict and war from around the world. By focussing on the voices, experiences andresistance of women ignored and marginalised by mainstream politics, differentkinds of peace-building and solutions are emerging from these hearings.
Along with Lisa Majaj, I was one of eight jurors chosen fromIndia, the Middle East and Europe. CorinneKumar of Vimochana, the initiator of theCourts of Women, asked us to "listen actively", reflect at theend on what we had heard, and look to the future. The Bangalore session extended from earlymorning to late evening, with harrowing testimonies interlaced with expressivedance, poetry and short films. Inexpressing the anger and pain of their direct personal suffering, many of thewitnesses highlighted political lessons and resistance, demanding that we alltake responsibility to oppose these unending wars on women.
Some women shared their names, like Iraqi academic EmanKhammas. She spoke first of the struggle to keep going through Saddam Hussein'syears of brutal dictatorship, and then of the greater calamity that blightedlife in Iraq due to the disastrous US-UK invasion of 2003. Dr Khammas spoke of the impact of war, astowns and communities in Iraq were wiped out "first by the US-ledoccupation and now by the sectarian militia". People who had nowhere else to go continue to face"human rights violations on a daily basis". Others, like Eman, were forced to flee withtheir families. With her PhD and academic and human rights credentials, she wasluckier than most; which made it even more shocking to hear her stories of dailypoverty and humiliations as a refugee in Europe, where she and her family areoften feared as terrorists and resented forthe needs that they have.
Some speakersrequested anonymity. Intestimonies on different aspects of Afghan resistance we heard from women who rancommunity projects, such as the Organization of Promoting Afghan Women'sCapabilities (OPAWC), and who managed - at least for now - to work openly with international organisations. And weheard from Afghan activists connected with the RevolutionaryAssociation of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) whose lives are daily threatened because of their work for women'srights and protection. Despite seeing their mentors and friends assassinated, thesewomen continue to resist the layers of oppression inflicted andsustained by misogynist patriarchal traditions, and successive wars perpetratedby Russians, Americans, British, Taliban and other armed men.
Lives that had seemed distant came close as listeners grappledwith our own relative privileges and responsibilities. Here we confronted our countries' roles in culturaland ethnic genocides, including mass unemployment and eradication oflivelihoods as people have been cleared out of the way so that big dams,nuclear power projects, agribusinesses, and mass production from electronicgoods to cheap clothes can be taken forward in the name of"development". We listened totestimonies about everyday violence in poor communities living on the marginsof society, where girls and women are routinely sold, bought, violated andmurdered.
Women from South Asia spoke of struggles against violenceand erasure in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Nagaland and communities across the region. Some arise from conflicts over land,resources, religion or political dominance, often across borders artificially imposed by imperialist leaders and administrators in the recentpast. Others have their pernicious roots in historical, systematized, culturalprejudices and traditions. RuthManorama, for example, told of the layers of overlapping oppression suffered byDalit women from the so-called "Untouchable" caste in India, who are strugglingfor rights and education. Our heartswent out to the women as they relived the abuse theyhad suffered in marriages that poverty, tradition and misogyny trapped theminto as young children. One afteranother their heads raised and voices strengthened as they told of theirefforts to escape and gain education and independence.
Few of us had previouslyheard of how women's rights and conditions for the poor had deteriorated inNepal, exacerbated by the recent earthquake. Radha Paudel gave testimony aboutthe efforts of the Madhes Movement to get "meaningfuldialogue" with the government about human rights abuses, and thecorrupt practices that ensure the rich elites in and around Kathmandu obtainwhile the poor and hill people go hungry. Describing daily life contending with severe restrictions on access tonecessities such as cooking gas, food and medicines, she spoke of empty marketsand unemployed men taking their frustrations out through heightened levels ofviolence against women and children. Radha called the current situation in Nepal"bloodless genocide", but alsodescribed women's blood being spilled by "their" men, even ifnot by soldiers acting on behalf of governments and military commanders as inmore overt wars.
In one of the filmed testimonies shown to the Court, anAfrican child who looked about 11 years old spoke haltingly about being gangraped by armed men who swept through her village, killing her mother. Then she was raped again by UN soldiers whowere supposed to have protected her. henarrator said something about impunity - that the blue bereted rapists wereprotected from prosecution for crimes they committed while carrying out their"peacekeeping" duties. As oneof the jurors, I sat on the platform making notes on everything I heard. So many appalling, unbearable testimonies. Ididn't allow myself to look away, but often found that I had covered my mouthand nose, holding my breath. The childstared into the camera with haunted eyes and said "they were very badmen."
No-one was spared. The Court heard from women who had grownup feeling relatively secure and comfortable, till their lives were destroyedby armed men who wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of religious or ethnicpurity. Our differences of age andbackground dissolved as so many women told how they were turned into refugees,widows, mothers of dead children, the raped and trafficked spoils of war.
The roles of our own politicians and institutions also cameunder scrutiny, with recognition of the way in which armed masculinity perpetratesviolence in pursuit of military-industrial power and profits that are frequentlydressed in high-minded concepts we've been taught to venerate – like"development", "democracy", "freedom" and"security". Indian and Africantestimonies particularly challenged assumptions about the desirability of colonialist,"Western" models of development that dispossess the majority,desecrate the environment, and devalue women and rural communities.
Giving the jury's responseto the evidence and arguments that we had heard on that long day in Bangalore,we first paid tribute to all the witnesses - "the brave, brilliant, indomitablespirit of women… resisting the oppressors, violence, wars, environmentaldestruction and attacks on our lives, sexual identities and rights". The jury recalled the capitalist, colonial andpatriarchal roots of the pervasive "wars against women", and calledon all - individually and collectively - to do whatever we could in our ownlives to support each other, work beyond borders, expose the perpetrators ofviolence against women, and build peaceful, just alternatives with whateverresources we can bring together.
The Court held "accountablethose who own, control, run, enable, govern, manage, implement and benefit fromall forms of violence". It demandedan end to impunity for officials and military forces who harass and violatewomen, including so-called "peace-keepers" and the men who harm womenwhile hiding behind progressive organisations, political parties and NGOs. Calling for the implementation of UN SCR 1325 (2000) and related resolutions on Women, Peace andSecurity, including UNSCR 2242 (2015), the Court highlighted the importance andall round benefits of enabling the full participation of independent, feminist womenin all aspects of negotiations and peace-making.
To build genuine structures for peace and security, theCourt recognised the need to challenge and dismantle patriarchal assumptionsand practices on personal as well as political levels. Never easy, this means taking on friends andcolleagues as well as exposing the hypocrisy of governments that point fingers atnon-state terrorists and declare an unending "war on terrorism", while expanding military alliances likeNATO and arming themselves with more bombs, guns, missiles, drones and allkinds of weapons "on land, in the air, the waters and even space… withthousands of nuclear weapons at the apex of the pyramid of patriarchal violence".
The World Courts of Women are important platforms for restoring and amplifying voices that have beensilenced by oppression, poverty, violence and denial of human rights andeducation. Some of the stories are soterrible that it's hard not to feel despair and turn away. But that would be a cop out. The purpose ofthe Courts is to enable us to learn about each other's experiences as a spur tocollective action. Many of the participants in Bangalore joined in the Women inBlack conference that was held over the next few days to discuss the issues inmore detail and propose actions. On the last day we demonstrated at a majorcrossroads by a military barracks in the centre of Bangalore city, standingshoulder to shoulder with our banners and messages opposing violence againstwomen in all its aspects.
The Court concluded: the "best way to bring justice tothose who've testified… about so much loss is for us together to build apowerful global women's movement to transform this world… to build better peace, justice, equality,environmental and human security, nurturing our Earth's precious resources insustainable ways, sharing her fruits and putting the poor and needy first". Thatfuture must start with this New Year.
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