Geneva Day 2 Part A

Day 2 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks (Part A)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

More from Geneva –

A brief glimpse of blue sky over Geneva this morning, now back to chilly gray, a view snow atop the black mountains across the lake, but none of the snow in the city that is falling now in Boston.

I’m writing this on Tuesday on Wednesday, (my “Day 3,” just to be confusing!), the day on which the official Syrian Peace Talks are supposed to start up in the mountain resort of Montreux, outside Geneva. A busload of women are on their way their now to hold signs and unfurl banners calling for peace and for Syrian civil society women activists to be at the official table.

The last we’ve heard, there will be 3 women in the Opposition’s delegation and 2 on the Assad government’s delegation. None of them have been given a speaking role. Last evening (Tues.) in the WILPF offices, at “the meeting after the meeting,” as soon as the 3 Opposition delegations’ women members’ names came out, everyone around the crowded table (orange peels, coffee mugs, yogurt cups, notebooks, 6 Mac laptops) compared notes on what they knew of the three women appointed by the Opposition.

Even though the male heads of the Opposition Council probably added them chiefly in response to Syrian activist women’s persistent public calls for women’s inclusion, none of the three are known civil society activists inside Syria..

This posed a dilemma: Should feminists be pleased or not that at the last minute the men leading each of the warring sides added a few women to their official rosters? To answer this salient questions, one has to be able to tell what is mere “window dressing.” Then there’s a follow-up question to answer: Can even a token be turned into something substantive? The Syrian women civil society activists and their transnational feminist supporters (in groups such as WILPF, ICAN, Madre, Code Pink, and Sweden’s Kvinna till Kvinna) never have called for just “any” women to be included. Rather, they have wanted Syrian women “at the table” who now are actively involved “on the ground” inside Syria with providing wartime aid, building community reconciliation and providing knowledge of what the majority of Syrian women want for their own and their country’s futures. More on this below….

Yesterday, Tuesday, was “Day 2” of the alternative Syrian women’s and their international supporters’ gathering. We came from Italy, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Britain, the US, Turkey, Iran, Norway, Sweden, Western Sahara, France, Germany, Guatemala – and probably other countries that I didn’t catch. Most women had paid their own way, though several women whose experiences were important to be shared had had their travel expenses paid by generous donors. All together, there were about 80 of us crowded good naturedly into a room at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

From what anyone could tell, only a few embassies sent any staff to listen, a mere smattering of people from any of the UN agencies came, and no mainstream media seemed to be in the room. Code Pink activists had arranged for the day’s discussions to be live Web streamed so as to broaden the global audience. Even with this savvy innovation, the story of the Syrian war and peace negotiations continues to be told by CNN, Reuters, the New York Times, BBC, and the rest of the mainstream media as if only men with guns and men from powerful gov’ts matter. How to “change the narrative of the politics of war?” is still a huge political challenge for women peace activists.

Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Leareute from Northern Ireland speaking to the audience. On her left, Ann Patterson also from Northern Ireland, and on her right, Chaba Seini from Western Sahara.

Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Leareute from Northern Ireland speaking to the audience. On her left, Ann Patterson also from Northern Ireland, and on her right, Chaba Seini from Western Sahara. Photo by WILPF (

Tuesday (Jan. 21) morning started with a semi-circle conversation among women who’d taken part in previous peace negotiations. Each woman had lessons and caveats to offer the Syrian women about these political processes. The two Northern Irish women – Anne Patterson and Nobel Prize laureate Mairead Maguire – said that the key to their success in getting women with genuine representative (non-partisan) credentials into Northern Ireland’s 1995 “Good Friday Accord” meetings was years of organizing across the Catholic/Protestant divides, women having mustered the courage and stamina to join with women with whom they deeply disagreed, women whose sons had shot their own children. Out of this trust-building they created a non-party coalition to run for the posts of peace delegation representatives, winning enough popular votes to be inside, “at the table.” Anne and Mairead acknowledged that it can be pretty discouraging for Syrian women to hear that they had to take years to build such a cross-community anti-violence coalition. So they added: don’t be daunted; find your own pace to fit your own Syrian conditions now.

Once inside the peace negotiations, Anne and Mairead recalled, they refused to let the “men’s egos” subvert the talks: when opposing male delegates threatened to walk out unless they got their way, the women from the women’s coalition talked them back to the table. Importantly, they told us, they insisted that in the formal peace agreement were inserted commitments by all sides to create new public commissions, one on poverty, the other on women’s rights. Once created, each was headed by a woman. That is, the women’s coalition realized that a peace agreement has to be a civil society rebuilding plan. Laying down weapons was itself not sufficient for reweaving a tattered social fabric.

Anne’s and Mairead’s message to the Syrian women and all of us listening: *don’t imagine that external military intervention (i.e., the British Army’s coming) will solve anything, *reach out even though it’s excruciatingly hard, *build a genuine coalition among women for peace, a coalition that’s driven by the demand for the end to violence, not by personal ambitions, *get inside, to the table, to be a signatory so you can hold all the other signatories accountable in the coming weeks and months — and don’t let opposing men’s ambitions on show at the table prolong the violence. Finally, they warned us all: *don’t imagine you can demobilize women’s wartime organizing once the peace accords are signed – implementation of those accords will take years of continuous pressure, monitoring and public involvement by women.

Guatemalan feminist peace activist Luz Mendez spoke next. She told us that, initially, she was on an official delegation to the Guatemalan UN-brokered 1990s peace talks that represented one of the opposing sides, the anti-regime insurgents Their agenda: to end the 30 yr long deadly Guatemalan civil war. But, more significant, Luz told us, she also was simultaneously part of local women’s civil society groups and kept constantly in touch with them. That open channel of genuine communication built trust between the official delegates at the talks and the wider citizenry whose priority was ending the violence. At the same time, this formal channel allowed for creative ideas, especially from women civil society activists, to make their ways into the official deliberations.

Thus these Guatemalan peace negotiations were structured differently than those in Northern Ireland. True, Luz was “at the table,” but for most of the talks she was the only woman in the room: 1 woman, 29 men. Still, the structure created for the talks gave civil society groups a formal channel through which they could monitor what was going on and send their own thoughtful experienced-based advice directly to the delegates. That made a major difference in the final agreement. Today, Luz warned us, though, post-war violence continues, including systematic violence against Guatemalan women, violence fueled not only by persistent poverty, but by the growing transnational drug trade.

Lutz’s double message to her Syrian counterparts and to all of us: first, the structure of any peace talks matter; it determines how transparent (or opaque) the talks will be, whether process of negotiation builds trust in the wider society or serves only to undermine what little social trust even exists; and, finally, creating a formal channel through which civil society activists’ ideas and priorities actually get on to “the table,” can positively effect the negotiations’ outcome.

Sitting next to Luz was a Sri Lankan woman who has been active in organizing Sinhalese and Tamil women during and since the deadly 25-year long conflict in her country. She confirmed her Northern Irish and Guatemalan colleagues’ point: don’t give up when your first try at building trust among women of warring communities fails. Her own initial efforts failed. She and other pro-peace women just kept at it, trying again and again until they could find common ground for diverse women to come together and, together, build a vision for a revived Sri Lankan peace-sustaining civil society.

Tuesday night, Code Pink activists arranged to have shown 3 documentary films by feminist filmmakers, each exploring women’s diverse experiences of conflict. One of the films was Abigail Disney’s much-acclaimed documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” The film documents how Liberian women managed, against all odds, to build a grassroots women’s movement in the midst of violence. Its activists decided not to wait to be invited into the Liberian peace talks. Instead, they dramatically forced their way into the masculinized negotiations and successfully pressed the rival men to reach a ceasefire.

Several people at the Geneva gathering have been wondering out loud if such direct popular action by Syrian women was going to be the only strategy that would compel the Syrian male-led warring sides to prioritize peace instead of their own political survivals. But here’s a crucial hitch: the Liberian peace talks – just as the Guatemalan and Northern Ireland peace talks – were held in the country where the conflict was occurring – and where local women were creating their own peace movement. The official meeting place could be reached on foot or by bus. By contrast, the present Syrian official talks are being held hundreds of miles – and checkpoints, visas and plane flights – away from all but a small handful of Syrian women. This geographic choice by the talks’ international brokers (the US and Russian governments and the UN) has put the rival delegations well beyond the reach of any popular physical pressure.

I’ll pause here. Next will come “Day 2, Part B,” focusing on what Syrian women told us later on Tuesday afternoon of their lives now in war and their efforts to provide support for everyone effected by the current violence and to craft a program for ending the escalating violence.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.