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Women chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Idlib in northern Syria in 2012. (Rodrigo Abd — AP)
Are women more “peaceful” than men? If you read the new national survey by the Pew Research Center, you might think so. Only 19 percent of American women support airstrikes, while 49 percent are opposed. Women are also reserving judgment, with 31 percent offering no opinion compared to just 15 percent of men. While the study reveals significant opposition to Syrian airstrikes in the general American public, the gender gap in this survey is far greater.
Why might this be so?
“Women” is a broad category, and it is difficult, if not impossible to make significant generalizations about their views. But with only 19 percent of women supporting the airstrikes, the gender gap on missile strikes is large. Some gender generalizations may apply.
But the most striking statistic, in my view, in the Pew Survey, is how skeptical women are that the violence of bombing can accomplish anything. A third of American women are withholding judgment.
Now, not all women agree, of course. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she “supports the president’s effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons.”
But clearly many American women do not agree with Secretary Clinton.
One reason may be that large numbers of women, in the U.S. as well as around the world, know violence because they have been treated violently. More than a third of women (35 percent) have experienced violence against themselves at some point per the extensive global survey on violence against women just released by the World Health Organization.
Another reason may be that women know that women and their children are the primary victims of war. The heart-breaking pictures of the bodies of dead children killed, we now believe we know, by poison gas has moved the world. Women seem not to conclude, however, that bombing is the right answer to this atrocity, perhaps because bombs also frequently kill women and children.
But it may be that the other thing that many women know is that the alternative to bombing is not “looking the other way” as Secretary John Kerry so astonishingly said before the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
I would argue in particular that actively pursuing peace instead of bombing is not “looking the other way.” Not by any measure. In fact, peacemaking takes looking right at violence in all its complexity and not kidding yourself that dropping bombs from a distance will make a difference. Peacemaking is brave and difficult work, work that women (and of course many men) often do against incredible odds.
Peacemaking is always done with “boots on the ground,” and sandals on the ground, and flats on the ground, and high heels on the ground. There is no other way.
The PBS documentary series,
Women, War, and Peace, that first aired in the fall of 2011 (now available online), goes a long way toward showing that while women are not “inherently peaceful” as older gender stereotypes might suggest, women are far more skeptical about war. These documentaries also showcase that brave women take action in the face of war, and the threat of war by risking peacemaking. These actions are often done through grassroots, practical work to end conflict and bring about negotiated peace.
Indeed, as one film in the series shows, women who have had enough of war can become grassroots peace activists and end an entrenched conflict.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
, one of the films in the series, is the incredible story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war, and won a once unimaginable peace for their shattered country in 2003.
I begin the chapter on Nonviolent Direct Action, in the book
Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War
, with the work of this coalition of Liberian women of different religions who came together, motivated by their faith, to denounce violence and transform their society.
If you think Syria is an intractable ‘problem from hell,’ it can well be compared to Liberia and its years of savage warfare as a horrific conflict.
For more than 15 years Liberia suffered the ravages of intense warfare. In 1990 two factions of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, one led by Prince Johnson and the other by Charles Taylor, invaded the capital city of Monrovia. A bloody civil war resulted. Thousands of Liberian citizens were evacuated from their homes and access to food, clean water and adequate health care was nearly eliminated. Although a peace treaty was signed in 1995 violence continued. Murder, rape and the use of child soldiers became commonplace, making living conditions unbearably dangerous, particularly for women.
By 2002, the women of Liberia had had enough. In that year Leymah Gbowee and Comfort Freeman, presidents of two different Lutheran Churches, began to speak out. They organized the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), a group that encouraged recognition of the import role women play in peacebuilding. Determined to change their circumstances, WIPNET issued a statement of intent: “In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails.”
Inspired by the work of WIPNET, Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Minister for Administration and Public Safety of the Liberian Ministry of Justice, formed the Liberian Muslim Women’s Organization. These Christian and Muslim women soon joined together to create Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Together they held peace vigils at churches and mosques, organized mass meetings Monrovia’s City Hall and marched in the streets proclaiming “We want peace. No more war.”
Peace negotiations began in 2003, as the parties could not come to a peaceful resolution, violence once more began to escalate. After a missile landed in the American and Muslim compound where many displaced Liberians were living, the women staged a sit-in outside of the presidential palace, determined that no one would come out until a peace treaty was signed. A tentative treaty was signed and the UN eventually charged Charles Taylor with crimes against humanity. The women of Liberia became a political force against violence and later helped bring to power the country’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”
And if that film doesn’t convince you that peacemaking by women (and committed male allies) is not “looking the other way,” then try these films in the series:
I Came to Testify
is the emotionally compelling story of how a group of 16 women who had been imprisoned and raped by Serb-led forces in the Bosnian town of Foca broke history’s great silence and stepped forward to take the witness stand in an international court of law.
follows three women in Afghanistan are risking their lives to make sure women’s rights don’t get traded away in peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The War We Are Living
is about another ‘problem from hell,’ set in Cauca, a mountainous region in Colombia’s Pacific southwest. Two extraordinary Afro-Colombian women are braving a violent struggle over their gold-rich lands.
concludes the film series, Women, War & Peace, and challenges the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain through incisive interviews with leading thinkers, Secretaries of State and seasoned survivors of war and peace-making.
I challenge you to watch this film series and then argue that peacemaking is “looking the other way” while war and atrocity happen. It is not.
Just Peacemaking, the alternative paradigm of making peace instead of war, is simply this:
You look right at the hell of war and you make peace anyway.
Ask these brave women featured in the films if you don’t believe me.
And that is why there is a gender gap on bombing Syria.
Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is the editor and author of Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, a collaborative effort by thirty Jews, Christians and Muslims to articulate an interfaith perspective on Just Peace.