Forward, global women

Rula Quawas, a professor at the University of Jordan (left), Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Rina Bar-Tal, past chair of the Israel Women’s Network. Photograph courtesy of Forward Global Women.

Sandy Pappas, Rula Quawas and Rina Bar-Tal believe that world peace can be achieved by bringing together women political and civic leaders from nations that are often at war with each other. Forward Global Women is the nonprofit organization they founded four years ago to convene and train women leaders from the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries of Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco along with women from the United States.

The Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with the three women in May 2015, about their views on women’s leadership toward world peace. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Minnesota Women’s Press: What is the power in people with different cultural perspectives and history coming together to work for peace?

Rula Quawas: I want to cross out “people” and say “women.” We are passionate, courageous women who are committed to making a difference. Women are believers. We are peace weavers and peacemakers. But we have been ignored, marginalized.

People come together, not because of sameness, but differences. Women see things through different lenses. We are tolerant. We listen to each other and engage in dialogue and conversation.

Women are agents of change. We believe in joining hands. We believe in the power of our words. We speak our hearts. We are courageous.

Our voices are polyphonic – our voices are different, but we are composing a symphony of love and truth to make a difference for the next generations. That is our power – our voices, breaking the silence. We won’t permit ourselves to live in a culture of fear. … This is our strength. We are strong people who believe in change.

Rina Bar-Tal: It is extremely important to know that the differences among us are very big. You must understand that the United States has not seen war on her homeland for hundreds of years, whereas both Jordan and Israel have been in conflict with one another or other neighboring countries for years.

We are all women. I believe that not enough women are involved in world affairs today. Women don’t hold the money. Women don’t hold world peace. How can we women, who represent one of the hottest political areas in the world today, make a difference? First of all, by meeting one another, talking to one another, looking into one another’s eyes. If we sit across the table from each other we don’t look that different. We don’t have horns. We have legs and hands. So what is the problem?

Sandy Pappas: The data is in that when women are at the negotiating table, the peace is more sustainable, because women are in touch with what the needs are on the ground. And if you ignore the implementation after the agreement – be it about food, land, water, climate issues or educating girls – then it is not as sustainable. And even though we know that, women are still only 5 percent of the world’s negotiating teams.

MWP: You speak with such passion and commitment. Where do you find hope? What makes you still believe peace is possible?
 Without hope, you are rendered actionless. You don’t know where to go or what to do, so you have to have hope and keep looking for a path. The path we have decided on is to work with women who are willing to see how we can come together, what we do can and how we can bridge differences as women.

Bar-Tal: One very important factor in empowering women is having role models. There are not many, but there are women who have made big changes in conflict areas in the world – like the women in Northern Ireland who got together around the peace table. We look to the women in South Africa, women in the eastern parts of Europe – women were very much involved in [leading change] in these places.

The problem is that not enough women hold important political positions, so their political power is not as strong to make decisions and lead change.

What we need to do is train women who are not politicians and activists and give them the right tools to use their voices. We need to encourage the politicians among us to understand that peacemaking is important because your education, your culture, your agriculture, your business world, your entire life depends on whether you live in peace or war.

The difference between a country that lives in peace and one that lives in war is day and night. It is also a very big challenge to try to make those changes. We must be optimistic. And we must believe that as women – being over 50 percent of the population – we have the strength, the voice and the ability to move our leaders toward change.

Quawas: Hope springs from choices. Every human being has the right to choose. You either choose aggression or you choose compassion and empathy, to join hands. This is where we get our hope.

I see hope in my classroom. I see hope in the eyes of kids playing in playgrounds. I see hope when the sun rises. We live in hope because we know what war is all about. War has destroyed us and it is time to resurrect ourselves, to rise from the ashes. Our hope is that it is possible for us to make peace.

MWP: With women coming from the same area of the world, but having different senses of place, how does that enter into your conversations?
Bar-Tal: It is not easy. Our differences are very big. We have religious differences, cultural differences, language differences. We have many, many more differences than you can even imagine. Some never grew up with peace and don’t know what peace is.

But they have ideas, imagination, wishes. They can look at other countries that live in peace and aspire and dream of living that life.

The negatives are much bigger than the positives. The problematic issues are much greater than the common issues. But I believe it is exactly that that gives us the edge. It gives us the thrill and the aspiration and the opportunity to make a big change.

Quawas: We believe that we can create a space – not a place, but a space for us. It is as if the sense of place becomes porous. You can commune. You can attach. You can identify. It is not the place itself; it is the sense of place.

MWP: What else should the Women’s Press readers know about these efforts?

Pappas: You just do whatever you can do. You just make the effort. For some people it may just be responding to a crowdsourcing request and sending $5. It’s important to educate yourself and express your opinions as women. We need to speak out more. Write blogs and letters to the editor. Just be more engaged on issues of war and peace. It is women who have led the charge in the anti-nuclear movement and the peace movement internationally.

Bar-Tal: I want your readers to know that women like myself and my team from Israel, we almost have no opportunity to meet women from the MENA countries. We do not have diplomatic relations with most of the countries, which means that we don’t travel there. It is a big gift for us, a big opportunity for us, to come together. If we can sit around a table we see that we are almost the same – our dress, haircuts, makeup’s almost the same. Today, most of us speak English as a common language. For women from these countries to meet women from Israel is not an easy matter. I have participated in other convenings where women from various other countries have stood up and left the room [because I was there].

The opportunity for everyone to meet people from other countries is also an opportunity to put some of these stereotypes about each other away. When people go home and are talking about issues, they can say, “Wait a minute, I know some of these people, and they are not like you say.” For me personally, this is very important. When we convene together we do not have to agree on anything, but we do have to respect and listen to one another.