Countering Hybrid War: Civil Resistance as a National Defence Strategy

This article examines the possibility of deterring aggressive actions by a powerful state through civil resistance. Maciej Bartkowski argues that, while the Western response to Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been predicated on a show of military force, nonviolent civilian defense promises another path. His argument draws both on an understanding of the strength of nonviolent forms of resistance, but also on a recent opinion poll of Polish citizens in which 37%, or almost 12 million Polish adults, said that they would resist an armed invasion of their country through non-military means, in contrast to 27% saying that they would take up arms.


Since the annexation of Crimea and the start of conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Russian form of hybrid war that spearheaded these events has raised significant concerns among eastern European states about an effective response to non-traditional warfare. Russia’s hybrid war – a term meaning a mixture of conventional and irregular warfare – has presented a vexing problem to conventional armed defense. It also demonstrates the need to determine whether a national strategy of nonviolent civilian defence can be a viable option for the current and potential victims of hybrid war to fight back non-militarily.

The meeting between former Russian and US defence and intelligence officials in March gave us a glimpse into the Kremlin’s thinking about hybrid war. Instead of sending troops without insignia across the border with the Baltic states, Moscow would use at first non-military means to entice local, mainly Russian but sometimes non-Russian populations (like the Polish-speaking minority in Lithuania) toward Russia. This would hardly constitute a rationale for deployment of tanks and warplanes and would put a defending military in a dilemma of whether or not to shoot at unarmed civilians. As the commander of the US army in Europe, Lt-Gen Frederick “Ben” Hodges observed recently: Russians “don’t want a clear attack, they want a situation where all 28 [NATO member countries] won’t say there’s a clear attack.” If the alliance decided to go heavy-handed against mobilized and seemingly peaceful minorities it would turn itself into an aggressor, offer Putin a propaganda coup for more interference and rally Russian society even closer around the Kremlin’s belligerent policies.

Despite facing such unconventional threats, the western response has been predicated on a show of military force, while nonviolent strategies have largely been absent from defence plans. The most recent Operation Dragoon Ride publicity stunt saw hundreds of US soldiers and their armed vehicles meandering through the roads of central Europe in a public display of force. Meanwhile, countries such as Poland have beefed up their armouries while civilians have volunteered to join shooters’ clubs and paramilitary groups to prepare for potential armed resistance.

Thinking beyond the ‘fight or capitulate’ dichotomy

The choice society has in facing foreign aggression seems rather simple: fight with arms or surrender. That sentiment was reflected in the 2014 Gallup survey conducted in more than 60 countries that asked: “Would you fight for your country?” Globally, 60 percent were willing to fight or, as it was interpreted, “take up arms,” while 27 percent would not. By default, “fight” was understood as armed struggle while its opposite – not to fight – as a capitulation.

A recent opinion poll in Poland, however, showed a far more nuanced gamut of responses. Last month, the survey asked Poles what they would do if their state faced armed invasion by another country. Tellingly, 37 percent of respondents – the equivalent of almost 12 million Polish adults if applied to the nation’s population – said they would resist foreign aggression “not by fighting with arms, but by engaging in other, non-military activities.” Only 27 percent declared it would take up arms. The remaining would emigrate, were undecided or would surrender.

Many more Poles – a population that could very well find itself in Russia’s crosshairs – are ready to engage in nonviolent resistance than in armed struggle to defend their country. While at first blush, Gallup’s global survey suggests the default is armed struggle, responses by Poles indicate that when given more choices, nonviolent resistance has more support than is often recognized.

That point is not lost on Russia and China. My study published by the Krieger School of Johns Hopkins University in March 2015 on countering hybrid war with nonviolent civilian defense shows that these countries are preoccupied equally with shielding themselves against nonviolent resistance, while at the same time using civilian mobilization to propel their hybrid war machines. The new Russian military doctrine released at the end of 2014 identifies social movements and civilian-led demonstrations as a major weapon in territorial conflicts. This strategy is no doubt the result of Russia’s lessons from the so-called colour revolutions, the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian Euromaidan.

Nonviolent resistance as part of a nation’s defence strategy?

Ironically, authoritarian states seem to give more credit to people power than their democratic counterparts. Only one tiny democratic state – recognizing both the historical contribution of this type of warfare to its pro-democratic and pro-independence struggle in the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, as well as the costs and risks of armed defence against a militarily stronger adversary – has explicitly integrated strategies of nonviolent resistance into its territorial defence. Last January, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence published a manual that asks Lithuanian citizens to engage in civil resistance in case of invasion and occupation. It offers specific examples of how civilians can wage nonviolent actions against a foreign adversary while referring to Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent resistance. The manual acknowledges that “Civilian-based defense or nonviolent civil resistance is another way for citizens to resist aggression…This method is especially important for threats of hybrid war.”

Lithuanians recognized that nonviolent civilian defence could turn a whole nation into a resistant society as it strengthens its cohesion, solidarity and self-organization – essential ingredients in a struggle against a polarizing hybrid war. Nationwide, nonviolent civilian defence turns the whole nation into a fighting society that is disciplined to wage a long-term, all-encompassing and targeted noncooperation effort with the aggressor, including its allies at home and abroad to disrupt their control and undermine their legitimacy in each area of social, political, economic and cultural life.

Seemingly weak, occupied populations have in fact been able to exercise direct and indirect leverage over the occupiers when they engaged in nonviolent resistance. The experience of the past anti-colonial and anti-occupation struggles suggests that civil resisters were most effective when they were able to look beyond their domestic struggle and extend their immediate battlefield outside the borders to mobilize external actors, including adversaries’ international allies, as well as drive a wedge between the aggressor’s government and its own society.

As a result, organized collective actions of millions of ordinary people were able to erode the loyalty of the adversary’s allies often more effectively than arms. During the occupation of the Ruhr after World War I, German citizens were so effective in nonviolent outreach to the occupying French troops that Paris was gravely concerned about their loyalties and readiness to continue implementing occupation orders. This and other civil resistance actions forced the French government to call up reservists, which increased the cost of occupation, deepened the budget deficit and raised resentment among the French public.

Civil resistance has also undermined oppressors’ domestic constituencies, as it did during the Indian independence struggle when Gandhi effectively reached out to the British media and the public to put pressure on the British government. Similarly, during World War II, civil resistance by the Norwegian teachers and trade unions against the pro-Nazi Quisling regime, the Danes’ collective nonviolent actions against the Nazi occupation, the first Palestinian nonviolent intifada against Israeli occupation and the East Timorese nonviolent pro-independence struggle against the Suharto regime were all credited with protecting civilians, and reducing civilian deaths particularly in comparison with violent resistance. Nonviolent resistance also increased the economic, political and social costs on the violent adversary, often forcing it to offer tangible concessions that were hardly likely to have been extracted through direct violent challenge.

The untapped potential of nonviolent defence

At its core, nonviolent civilian defence is about engaging the greatest number of people with the least amount of risk for civilians and greatest number of disruptions for the adversary, including its key domestic and international supporters.

Historically, nonviolent resistance has worked far better than its armed alternative. Civil resistance has been determined to be twice as effective against a violent adversary than armed struggle, able to mobilize campaigns that are 11 times larger than average armed resistance ones, likely to reduce civilian deaths and tenfold more likely to bring about a democratic outcome compared to a victory though arms.

The untapped powers of nonviolent resistance offer a serious alternative against the threat of contemporary hybrid wars. Furthermore, as shown in the Polish survey results, pursuing this form of waging conflict might match people’s own instincts in the face of external aggression. When it comes to mobilizing the masses, enhancing internal solidarity and unity, limiting overall human costs, maximizing strategic effectiveness of disruptions to a foreign adversary and increasing chances for post-conflict stability, democracies would do well to take note of the potential that nonviolent civilian defence holds for their defensive capabilities to counter protracted hybrid wars.

This is particularly relevant to smaller nations and their populations vulnerable to external threats from authoritarian states who are equally afraid of people power and eager to manipulate it to their benefit.

Maciej Bartkowski is an adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, where he teaches strategic nonviolent resistance. He is editor of Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles and the author of White Paper on Nonviolent Defense to Counter Russian Hybrid Warfare.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. We encourage you to take a look at this wonderful resource. All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


An Introduction to Gender and Peacebuilding (2)

Violence is one of the most gendered of social activities, but this goes beyond the fact that the perpetrators of violence are overwhelming male, keeping in mind that far more men are victims of other men’s violence than perpetrators themselves. Violence is also gendered in terms of how we think about violence, and specifically how we think about men’s violence and women’s violence.

Indeed, women are quite capable of violence. Women have generally stood on the sidelines of war, but have encouraged their sons – and other mother’s sons – to go to war, and often been militant supporters of atrocities being committed against their enemies. Women are increasingly crossing one of the most rigid of gender barriers by going into combat. What is significant is not that women can engage in violence, but that their violence has generally been seen to be fundamentally different than men’s violence, and that it needs to be explained in a way that men’s violence needs not. It is a very telling statement with significant implications for the creation of a more peaceful world that men’s violence typically requires no explanation: it just is.

Historically, the women who committed murder, deemed a male crime, generally received a much tougher sentence than a man.  A wife who murdered her husband was guilty of petit treason, while up into the 20th century in Canada, a man who killed his wife was often tried not for the crime of murder, but under the lesser offense of passion killing (Frigon 2010). His actions were emotional, yes, yet still somehow reasonable, but the women’s was unthinkable, a crime against the social order. If a woman’s murder could not be explained in terms of the maternal instinct to protect her children, she was either mad or bad. The narratives surrounding the first typically explained her insanity in terms of her inability to find a husband, have a child, or accept her natural role, while the bad woman was a monstrous, usually sexually deviant woman. Even the women who engages in political violence today is typically understood as being motivated by very personal drives, such as the loss of a loved one or the need to redress the shame of a rape at the hands of the enemy, in contrast to the man’s assumed more political goals (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007).

In contrast, male violence is normal, rational, and capable of creating and sustaining order. The mythical Amazons posed a threat to the status quo, needing to be either killed off in battle or captured and married off to assuage the Greek audiences that this aberration was eliminated (Kirk 1987). The male warrior in contrast has been glorified through history, and man’s assumed capacity for violence has made him fit for leadership, thereby providing a much needed justification for patriarchal societies. In western democracies, the white male citizen-soldier received first-class citizenship, while minority men struggled to gain the right to serve and access combat units to prove their value; today, the feminists, who support the recruitment of women in their country’s armed forces, present a similar argument.

Even when male violence disturbs, women’s violence shocks far more. Most Americans were relatively unbothered when photos emerged in 2005 that depicted US soldiers engaging in torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison. What was found troubling, though, was that three of those involved were female soldiers;   conservatives responded by saying that this depravity is what happens when women take on warring, while numerous feminists expressed their disbelief that women could participate in torture (Ehrenreich 2004). Indeed, many feminists are uncomfortable with attention being given to the violent women, and given the epidemic rates of violence inflicted on women by men this is understandable. Yet, it is problematic since recognizing that violence is a human problem, albeit a very gendered human problem, rather than a male problem, is essential for creating a less violent world.

The distinction between male violence and female violence, and the corresponding normality of masculine violence and feminine nonviolence provides a cultural foundation for our acceptance of violence. Male violence becomes connected to the traditional masculine traits – rationality, strength, dominance, power, and independence; equally problematic, peace and nonviolence can be all too easily feminized as emotional, naïve, and weak, likely resulting in submission and dependence. As a result, disarmament initiatives – both domestic ones aiming to reduce the number of weapons in the hands of private citizens and international ones to reduce the expenditures and reliance on military force – are all too often viewed as emasculating. As Madeleine Rees describes in “This is What a Feminist Foreign Policy Looks Like,” when Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström decided to cancel her country’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, citing its terrible human rights record, she was immediately denounced as  “naïve, emotional and lacking political judgment” – in other words lacking the manly qualities needed for leadership.

In her path-breaking participant observation of the community of North American nuclear defense intellectuals and security affairs analysts in the 1980s, Carol Cohn was surprised to find out how much gender mattered in discussions about US national security: “in their informal conversations, it was not their rational analyses that dominated their response, but the fact that for them, the decision for war, the willingness to use force, is cast as a questions of masculinity – not prudence, thoughtfulness, efficacy, “rational” cost-benefit calculation, or morality, but masculinity” (1993: 236-7) And, in their conversations, anything deemed feminine – “the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity” (232), along with nonviolent actions, such as seeking negotiations, going to the United Nations, or urging caution, were silenced or, if they somehow made it into the room, not taken seriously. In the 21st century, this view still holds strong as revealed by the numerous criticisms of how Obama’s foreign policy has been outmatched by Russian moves, orchestrated by the more macho Vladimir Putin.

As Cohn argues, this perspective “degrades our ability to think well and fully” about the issues of violence, war and peace (232). Political psychologist Steven Kull tells of an insightful anecdote from a conversation with a renowned Cold War strategist. When Kull challenged him with the logical contradictions inherent in nuclear deterrence theory, the strategist admitted that it was unnecessary to match the Soviet Union, missile for missile, but then added: “‘I don’t know. I just feel better that way…I just do” (Kull 1988: 224).

How is it that we can find it so easy to ignore the absurdity of yearly worldwide military spending regularly exceeding more than 1.6 trillion dollars, or $3 million/per minute, particularly in the context of a world where the unmet needs of millions continue to create the conditions for violence and terrorism to spread? Why do we seem to be so blind to the repeated examples of the inability of military interventions to bring the security we seek? Or, as Cynthia Cockburn puts it in her article, why is war culture “the prevailing common-sense?”

To transform this tendency, violence must be recognized as a human problem. We do need to recognize women’s capacity for violence, as this opens the door to viewing violence as a human choice, not something natural or normal. But, this will do little to revalue peace and de-link it from its frequent connection to weakness, naivety, and submission. This requires a far more radical change, compelling us to rethink our ideas about masculinity and femininity, and emphasize women’s and men’s capacity for nonviolence.

This latest collection of articles offers much to provoke a rethinking of gender. A few address masculinity directly. Jennifer Allsopp examines how the Syrian men seeking refuge in Europe remind us that many men refuse to take up arms, Melanie Cura Daball’s article on UN peacekeepers identifies one of the most silenced consequences of a gender identity that is militarized and entitled, and Michael Kaufman, founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, discusses why transforming ideas about gender is so difficult. In her article espousing a feminist foreign policy, Madeleine Rees calls on us all to pressure our governments to put “principles and human decency above ‘business as usual,’” while Cynthia Cockburn’s offers a deeper reflection on why gender must be confronted in peace work.  We also offer an interview with eminent feminist academic Cynthia Enloe on the complexities of gender, touching on female soldiers, military recruiters and peace movements, a short video on what gender equality means, and personal stories from two Dawson students on how their lives have been affected by violence. Once again, the collection offers insight in what is needed for peace to flourish.

  Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College


Cohn, Carol. “‘War, Wimps and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War.” Gendering War Talk. Eds.  Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1993. 227-246.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Foreward: Feminism’s Assumptions Upended.” One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers. Ed. Tara McKelvey. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007. 1-5.

Frigon, Sylvie. “Mapping Scripts and Narratives of Women Who Kill Their Husbands in Canada, 1866-1954: Inscribing the Everyday.” Killing Women: The Visual Culture of Gender and Violence. Eds. Annette Burfoot and Susan Lord. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006. 3-20.

Kirk, Ilse. “Images of Amazons: Marriage and Matriarchy.” Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Eds. Shirley MacDonald and Shirly Ardener. London: MacMillan, 1987. 22-39.

Kull, Steven. Minds at War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policymakers. New York: Basic Books. 1988.

Sjoberg, Laura and Caron E. Gentry Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books. 2007.

This is What a Feminist Foreign Policy Looks Like

Since taking office, Canada’s new government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced calls to cancel its $15 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia – a country that has one of the worst human rights records, and in its current bombing campaign in Yemen, has been accused by the United Nations of responsibility for most of the civilian casualties. However, so far, the government has resisted, ignoring Canada’s own export controls that prohibit selling arms to countries with “a persistent pattern” of human rights violations, putting expected jobs from Canada’s largest ever arms deal before human rights. In this article, Madeleine Rees examines the very different decision taken in March 2015 by Sweden’s new foreign minister Margot Wallstron, who upon taking office, announced that her country would be taking a “feminist foreign policy.”


Margot Wallström’s decision not to sell arms to Saudi Arabia demonstrates the fundamental rethink needed to achieve a feminist foreign policy. It may have escaped your notice, but something very significant has happened. It made the news briefly in the European press, not at all in the US, but in Sweden the papers are now in debate. The “significant something” is a particular decision made by Margot Wallström, the Swedish Foreign Minister.

How many of us read the papers, listen to the news of what is happening in places like Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or Ukraine and feel disgusted and upset – but also helpless to make a difference? We watch with horror the impact of explosive weapons, like rockets and artillery and mortars and barrel bombs, wielded by all sides in these wars. The use of these explosive weapons in towns and cities brings deaths and injuries to civilians, destruction of their homes, schools and hospitals, and loss of food, water, shelter and sanitation.

Do we pause to worry about where these and other weapons come from and how they get into the hands of those who bombard towns and cities, who commit war crimes, or who perpetrate crimes against humanity?

Think of this phrase: “crimes against humanity”. It describes violent acts, which are so horrific that they denigrate all of us and our common humanity. There are laws against such acts, international laws that States and individuals are supposed to respect. But they do not respect them and we let them get away with it because we are missing something. That missing link is between us as an electorate, our leaders as our State, and the impact of what they do in our name.

Margot Wallström just gave back the people of Sweden their humanity, although not all see it that way. And, of course, she is being criticised for it and the nature of that criticism is, inevitably, gendered.

If you missed it: she denounced the Saudi authorities for their human rights record and in particular the sentence of 1,000 lashes and flogging of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. “Mediaeval” she defined it. How many of us have said the same? But she is a Foreign Minister and has authority, so she did not just turn off the radio and walk away. She complied with international law and said no to the cooperation agreement on arms deals with Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s worst human rights violators, also to be found in the UK list of such transgressors but with no consequences.

Margot Wallström is now being condemned as naïve, emotional and lacking political judgment. Former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has said that “There is a real risk… [the cancellation] will hit Swedish interests, not only in Saudi Arabia itself.” Does he mean that Sweden has an interest in providing weapons that might be used to violate human rights? I think not. He is more likely referring to the money that will be lost to the economy, which is the reason why Sweden made the deal with Saudi Arabia in the first place.

Margot Wallström’s decision has angered even those who do not seem to have a dog in this fight: Volvo, H&M and the SEB bank group. This illustrates just how close all economy is to the arms trade.

As David Crouch wrote on 11 March in the Guardian:

The bust-up could also weaken Sweden’s chances of re-election to the UN Security Council next year, which the government has made a strategic foreign policy goal. “No one will listen to Sweden now for many years to come,” said Per Jönsson, a Middle East expert at the Institute of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm. Worsening relations with Israel and the Arab world meant Wallström, seen as a star when she took office, was now “becoming an obvious problem”, commented Sweden’s leading business newspaper, Dagens Industri.

Am I the only one who sees the comment about the membership of the Security Council as a condemnation of that body? As if, if you play the game of the Permanent 5, you are one of the boys, if you don’t, then you don’t get to play. The United Nations is ostensibly the world’s largest peace organization.

Is this what we want? A world where only those who sell weapons are taken seriously? Where only those who carry and use weapons are to be respected? Where courageous women who denounce violence and extremism become the subject of attack and vilification? How very “mediaeval” – but with men in suits instead of men in cloaks.

There is now even more reaction: Saudi Arabia is to deny visas to Swedes. Game theory: a response is expected. That response should be global solidarity with the action taken by Sweden.

There are choices that we have to make. We can have foreign policies that give succor to regimes that kill, torture and maim their own citizens, and then pass on the weapons we sell to their protégées in other countries. Or we can choose a fundamental change in the way we do business and demand foreign policies that promote human rights and that refuse to facilitate conflict through the use of more and more violence and militarism. It requires a serious rethink of our understanding of peace and security towards a more holistic approach.

Our governments represent us: they sell arms in our name, they support rogue regimes in our name, and they claim that by doing so, they are securing our economic wellbeing and our security. Well, they do neither.

Our inaction in the face of what we see and read on a daily basis, and on what we allow to be done to others, makes us complicit in the catastrophes that affect ordinary people, just like us, every day.

Margot Wallström showed us what can be done when we put principles and human decency above “business as usual.” This is what a feminist foreign policy looks like.

She needs support and we should let it be known that she has it.

Editor’s note: Following Saudi retaliation, which included the denial of business visas to all Swedes and the ending of diplomatic relations, three letters were delivered to the Saudi king, one from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and two from the prime minister. The contents have been classified as a secret, but the conclusion is that they contained an apology, and relations between the two countries have been re-established. 

Madeleine Rees is Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom ( WILPF). She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to human rights, particularly women’s rights, and international peace and security.  In 1998 she began working as the chief of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Bosnia – Herzegovina. From 2006 to 2010 she was the head of the gender unit for the OHCHR.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


The Refugee Crisis: Demilitarising Masculinities

In international politics, men are regularly viewed as security threats. All military age men killed by US drone strikes are automatically counted as combatants, unless information conclusively identifying them as civilians is available. In its decision to open its borders to 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees, the Canadian Government set its priorities: women, children, families and gay people. The young men who are the primary targets of ISIS recruitment are purposely the ones to be left behind, and to most of us this makes perfect sense. But, the vast majority of the men seeking to flee war zones are precisely those who do not want to pick up arms. Our militarized conception of masculinity, though, often serves to hide their existence. In this article, posted online last September 17th, Jennifer Allsopp examines how some of the “photos emerging from the borders of Europe weave a new narrative around what it means to be vulnerable, to be a man, to say no to war and to be a refugee.”


Three photographs of the refugee crisis unfurling at Europe’s borders have resonated particularly strongly with us from behind our tablets and TV screens as consumers of news, drawing empathetic gasps and a profound disquiet.

The first is a modern day rendering of the Madonna and child: Syrian Laith Majid clasps tightly his two children as he is brought ashore to the island of Kos in Greece after their tiny boat capsized; his face distorts in a look of abject desperation, his lip heaves over gritted teeth and tears stream from his eyes. Photographer Daniel Etter who took the photo explained on Facebook that while he may not be “the most emotional person…the father, Laith Majid, and his reaction when he and his family reached Greece still makes me cry.”

The second and third photos document the tragic death of a small Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi. Laying face down in the sand as the tide washes over his tiny frame, his image has been replicated around the world: in graffiti on the London underground and in sand sculptures on the coast of India.

The third related photo that has become iconic of the crisis is that of Aylan’s father, Abdullah. Standing in a freshly dug grave in his native town of Kobane he holds his son’s body in a white shroud. A man to his left offers his own arms to support the little body. Abdaullah’s pained expression suggests he could collapse with grief at any moment, leaving the small boy to fall through his arms a second time.

These photos have mounted an attack on Europe’s political conscience and with effect. Some argue that it was these photos that finally prompted a response from British Prime Minister David Cameron who has in recent days visited refugee camps and committed more aid, further promising to welcome some 20,000 Syrian refugees to Britain.

Besides depicting Syrians forced to flee, the photos share another fundamental characteristic: they picture men. For it is men who are the protagonists of the current refugee crisis. Together these photos do not just document facts but they have begun to weave a new narrative around what it means to be vulnerable, to be a man and to be a refugee. They depict new masculinities of war that challenge the militarised assumptions that are now resurgent on the Hungarian border.

Militarised Masculinities

In common narratives of war it is the women and children who are the victims. The history books tell us that while the men stay and fight heroically, the women and children flee. ‘Woman and children first!’ From the historic Titanic to the contemporary flotilla of migrant boats with distress flares aflame in the Mediterranean sea, it is a common refrain. Despite the popularity of the trope of ‘man at war’ and ‘woman refugee’, the UN Refugee Agency reports that children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees, and about half of all refugees are women. That means, of course, that the other half are men like Laith and Abdaullah.

Men’s experiences of war – and their ability to be victims of war – has long been neglected in the media and in research. It is only in recent years that the international community has begun to recognise the extent to which sexual violence is used as a weapon against men as well as women, for example. Meanwhile, the high levels of post-traumatic stress experienced by veterans returning to the US and the UK from Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade have been well documented but ill-treated, despite the US government spending over $3 billion in 2012 alone on rehabilitation. For many men, whether civilians caught up in the fighting or soldiers on the frontline, suffering remains a taboo.

The images of the two fathers depict a vulnerability rarely associated with men in times of war. In fact the dominance of images of men suffering on our screens has marked something fundamentally new in the way in which war is reported. This is something that has the power to radically alter our ideas about masculinities in both war and peace time.

A more traditional militarised vision of masculinity nevertheless appeared yesterday on our screens as fighting broke out between mostly male Hungarian border police and groups of mostly male refugees who have been barred from crossing the border from Serbia. The men once cast as vulnerable sea victims were swiftly and conveniently re-depicted as belligerent fighters who, by virtue of their sex alone, posed a security threat. Their protests to cross were met with tear gas and water cannons. As one BBC reporter said, ‘it looks like a war zone on the edge of the European Union’. A Hungarian spokesman on the BBC spoke of ‘an armed mob of hundreds of thousands of people’, meanwhile Serbia strongly condemned the violent retaliation and “brutal treatment” from the Hungarian authorities.

The footage reminds me of the way in which protests and riots in immigration detention centres have long been portrayed in the UK media: desperate men, resorting to desperate measures are cast as anarchic threats as they try to survive having been forced to flee, the force used against them disproportionate and inhumane. What fails to be shown in either case are the peaceful tactics being used: hunger strikes rarely make good TV. As Chloe Lewis has argued, the refugee man is ‘invisible’ and as such, a vessel for convenient securitised state discourses. In the ‘mob’, the suffering individual disappears.

I glance up from writing now and in one screen shot a baby who has been caught in a cloud of tear gas is screaming, its eyes stream with tears. ‘Look at this!’ shouts the father to the news camera, a situation that leads a representative of the Hungarian government to accuse the refugees of using their children as human shields. In another clip a man who has tried to cross is forced into an ambulance as he chokes with respiratory problems; his hands are cable tied. The refugees are now cast as bandits, with scarves over their faces to protect them from the tear gas; using force to try and break down the fence which was, until just recently, open.

Faced with increasingly restrictive and securitized borders, the conflict they fled has chased them here.

The human face of the refugees has dissipated; border crossing has become a combat sport, for ‘real men’ once more. While boat arrivals are met with a humanitarian response, the land border is governed by law and order. ‘The young men’, the BBC reports as I write, ‘decided to keep up their fight well into the night’.

‘Fighting Like a Real Man’

The cynics who have already advanced the argument that the men fleeing are weak and should go back and fight for their countries find, in today’s footage, fuel for their fire. ‘If they came here to fight, why don’t they go home and fight the regime instead of running away!’ comments someone on Facebook. ‘It will now be our men who risk their lives trying to save their women and children’.

But for many, saving their woman and children is the point of their migration. For many male migrants, whether from Syria or Afghanistan, fleeing is a response to an economic war ravaging their families. Many war victims die at the hands of related food shortages, not bullets. The act of migrating, they believe, is a more productive contribution to peace than to stay and fight and perpetuate the violence. Through fleeing they seek to contribute money back home and perhaps to bring their families to a position of safety from their exile. As BBC reporter Lyse Doucet has commented, in some of these cultures, it is traditional for the men to leave first and establish themselves, meanwhile sending money to enable the family to survive back home. Border crossing is a great risk and families seek to spread risks evenly. ‘What other option do I have?’ says one migrant.

Some, having decided against militarism, will seek to continue their political struggle from exile. It is well documented that exiled communities can play a huge role in post-conflict reconstruction and in economic development. In exile refugees are able to stage opposition to the repressive factions and work towards peace from a position of safety. As a student I used to accompany hundreds of Zimbabweans to the embassy in London where week in, week out, they would petition for an end to human rights atrocities alongside allies from a position of strength and safety. Other more famous examples of the roles of refugees in bringing political change include the resistance fostered from exile against the oppressive Guatemalan regime. Led by Nobel Peace prize laureate, Rigoberta Menchu, refugees mobilised for a peaceful solution to the conflict and to secure the safe return of some 100,000 refugees. Many of the thousands of Eritrean refugees who make up the flows coming to Europe now will also remember the crucial role of Eritrean refugees in winning independence through referendum in 1993. They know that exile is a place of sanctuary but also a site for a new kind of fighting and politics; for peaceful mobilisation. For many refugees, the decision to flee is a decision to fight on without violence.

How do you fight ISIS? The truth is I do not know, but I do know that Abdullah and Laith wanted the very best for their children and thought that the best way to achieve that was not to go to war. Meanwhile, as another day begins and there is little hope of a diplomatic solution at Hungary’s border, the men who rub their eyes with water and tend to their wounds are still trying to flee it.

The explosion of violence on the border is a response to an increasingly desperate situation. But our news anchors, in their obsession with ‘these groups of men’ would do well to remember the famous portraits which elicited a very different reaction. Men cannot be cast as either victims or soldiers: they can be at once vulnerable and agentic too.

Jennifer Allsopp is a regular contributor and Commissioning Editor at openDemocracy 50.50. She has worked on a number of research projects at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Oxford including on asylum, youth migration, gender and poverty. She has also worked with a range of refugee and migrant organisations. She is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Follow her on twitter @JenniferAllsopp

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


The Masculinisation of Complexity

Our understanding of the gendered nature of war has been profoundly shaped by the thought-provoking work of one eminent feminist scholar. In this next article, Marion Bowman interviews Political Scientist Cynthia Enloe; they begin with the situation that confronted the courageous women who sought to end WWI and then continue into a discussion of today’s female soldiers, military recruiters, and men’s peace movements. Following the interview, you will find an interesting video where Madeleine Rees reflects on gender, war and equality.


Marion Bowman: The 1915 Women’s Congress at which the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was founded had a backdrop of social segregation between women and men with women excluded from public life. Is the backdrop different now?

Cynthia Enloe: I think when we look at those fabulous photographs of those women in 1915, they look as though they do live in another age. They seem to be dressed in an almost Victorian way, not even Edwardian, and it seems as though it’s ‘back then’.

Now we appear different, we seem to move more freely, but in fact in a lot of public life, the segregation has continued, based on the notion that only certain kinds of men and virtually no women, unless those women can pass as men in the way they present themselves and talk, can really understand the complexities of public life. It’s the masculinisation of complexity.

Now in fact women in all walks of life deal with, cope with, challenge complexities all the time but it’s so narrowly defined as to what kind of person you have to be to handle questions of the arms trade or questions of financial reform that I think the segregation has been modernised. It’s changed its public appearance but it still exists in that mindset about who can handle the complexity of modern life. It’s a myth but a very important myth.

MB: Throughout history binaries have been important – women/men, us/them, soldier/civilian – why? And have they broken down at all?

CE: They are important because they are a way to tell a story that seems as though it’s got a more driven plot. I think about this all the time. I’m not a story teller but I find that the way that stories get told that get passed on are the stories that have powerful ‘us and thems’

Feminist story-telling is much more engaging and interesting because it takes on board that there are not just grey areas in between, there are overlaps and contradictions and fluidities. Those are the stories that are much more gripping than these cartoon stories made up of these simplistic binaries. You never can solve a difficult problem by resorting to a narrative of binaries. It doesn’t work.

MB: Is the concept of equality helpful in the context of war and peace? I’m thinking of women soldiers.

CE: It depends on who sets the bar as to what you are trying to be equal to. The question of women’s equality in state militaries or women in insurgent militaries are rather different questions.

Let’s take state militaries. Most state militaries around the world have been deeply masculinised and male-run, both, for centuries. So there was a lot of resistance to women doing anything in those militaries because there was a real protection around the masculinised privilege of the state’s militaries. It was part of what gave it its status. Then when women started pushing to have some role in the national security apparatus a lot of military professionals as well as civilian overseers began to realise ‘Oh, we can make good use of women, maybe we should let down our resistance a bit, 10%, if pushed maybe 14%, but we will use them the way that our masculinised military system finds women useful.’

So I’ve spoken to a lot of women who are former soldiers or currently soldiers or young women aspiring to be soldiers and a lot of them are motivated because they want to break down walls that privileged their brothers. But a lot also see joining the military as the only way to prove they are real patriots. I think that’s very worrisome.

I speak very respectfully to women in militaries because I need to learn from them – what are they doing? – why did they think it was appealing to join? – but I need to respect the fact that a lot of these women are fighting sexism inside a very sexist institution and women who fight sexism inside any powerful institution need to be listened to. So I am quite willing to admit I am on a see-saw between, on the one hand, being very wary of the notion that women joining their state’s militaries are advancing genuine equality and, on the other hand, listening to women in militaries rather than just dismissing them as somebody’s puppet. That I don’t think gets us anywhere.

MB: What does the incorporation of women into militaries do for concepts of femininity in civilian life? Is the distinction between civilian and military life blurred by it?

CE: I think conventions of femininity are different from place to place and age to age but the idea of femininity is alive and well. It’s pushed by the fashion industry and the general media. The idea of what’s feminine and what’s not has been challenged but it’s very powerful. So you can see military recruiters and commanders trying to play with that. On the one hand they have to convince parents of girls and friends of girls and boyfriends and husbands of young women that joining the military will not make them unfeminine. On the other hand, they have to convince them that joining will be progress, that they will do something that usually only their brothers were allowed to do. So you can watch a lot of confusion on the parts of militaries, and I’m always very interested in watching patriarchal confusion. Oftentimes you will see photographs of women in recruiting posters – they may be in full uniform but in the next picture they will be putting on makeup in their off hours – which really says to the worried parent or the young girl thinking about joining ‘Don’t worry, dear mother, don’t worry, dear young school girl, you can be a real soldier and still keep your femininity’.

MB: When women first started demanding equality and a share of power, like the 1915 women, they were told it was ‘unnatural’, that it was abandoning their function as mothers, even that their reproductive organs would stop working. Has that gone?

CE: I don’t think it ever really goes, the threat has been updated, modernised, but there is a still worry in the general public that soldiering is really mainly a man’s job.

The first thing militaries realised they could do was recruit women into military nursing. I became very interested in the history of nursing because I could follow the history of debates about femininity. As more women have moved into classically masculinised roles, the politics of femininity is still vital to explore because you can also shed light on militarists’ confusion and that is very useful.

I don’t think the politics of femininity has gone away. You can see a lot of women in women’s movements really trying to make sure that people who are coming in don’t imagine that their own femininity is going to be jeopardised by being part of a strong feminist movement, because the media and anti-feminists portray feminists as somehow not feminine.

MB: Why is the issue of women in combat roles, on the frontline, killing people such a potent question?

CE: The first thing is that it is the last bastion of masculine privilege in most militaries and one of the things I’ve been told by a lot of women in militaries challenging the sexism in their institutions is it is also the kind of experience you have to have if you are going to rise to a senior officer’s position. We don’t think of that oftentimes, but a military is just like a business, it’s is a career system. It’s not just a fighting force, it’s a ladder for promotions. One of the reasons why women officers battled to break down the men-only combat rule is not because they wanted to be in combat. Most said they were not interested in carrying big packs and slogging through the mud, rather they didn’t want the area of military jobs that was most the masculinised to also be the one that is most likely to earn you promotions. It was really a promotion discrimination system they were challenging as much as it was wanting to fire a gun.

But I think a lot of patriarchal men and women who see combat as something that only real men can do, they did feel very challenged by it. They really felt it was going to dismantle the kind of masculinity they think is the core valued masculinity. They did feel challenged.

MB: Where are the men’s peace movements?

CE: There are men’s peace movements. We can see them in some of the new men’s anti-violence movement, we can see them in a lot of the conscientious objector movements that were very powerful in apartheid South Africa and that still exist in Germany, South Korean and Turkey.

But what has often been found by women peace activists, especially as they become feminists, is that even in a peace movement that doesn’t have a feminist consciousness, men still think they know the most about wars so they are the best leaders of a peace movement. They think they know the most about public speaking, they know the most about the technicalities of weaponry so they think they are the peace experts in a very narrow masculinised way unfortunately. You would think a peace movement would be the least patriarchal of all social movements but you can masculinise anything. Groups like WILPF with a feminist attitude and feminist understanding of what it takes to make peace have really challenged what it takes to make peace.

MB: Is there a crisis for men in the post-industrial western world that is having an impact on war and peace?

CE: I’m very interested in recruiters – they have to meet quotas, especially for governments that have done away with male conscription. They have to find some way to persuade 17, 18, 19 year old men that joining the state’s military will make their lives more satisfying, give them a sense of being real men, give them skills (which is often a myth), give them status in their communities. Recruiters often have a hard time. Every recruiter I’ve ever listened to says unemployment is really good for them. When the economy is tanking, with fewer jobs, specifically male jobs, when construction has gone down, then military recruiters can fill their quotas. They still have to do persuasion, they still have to play the masculinity card but they can also play on young men’s worry about not having a job.

When economies revive especially when they revive across racial and ethnic communities, because most economies are divided amongst men in racial and ethnic terms, the military recruiter’s job becomes much harder. So healthy economies and economies that are not racialised are helpful in building alternative notions of how a young man can gain a sense of self esteem and even social security in ways other than wielding the government’s gun.

Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor in the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is the author of 14 books, including Bananas, Beaches and Bases (updated 2014, original published 1989), Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (2004), and Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (2011). Cynthia Enloe was awarded the International Studies Association’s Susan Strange Award in 2007 and the Peace and Justice Studies Association’s Howard Zinn Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

Marion Bowman was Director of One World Media, and worked for many years in broadcast journalism at Channel 4, ITV, and the BBC. She has written for numerous publications including The Guardian, Sunday Times, Observer and New Statesman.

Madeleine Rees is Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom ( WILPF). She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to human rights, particularly women’s rights, and international peace and security.  In 1998 she began working as the chief of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Bosnia – Herzegovina. From 2006 to 2010 she was the head of the gender unit for the OHCHR.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.

UN Peacekeeping: Blue Banner for Hope, or Red Flag for Abuse?

In this article, Melanie Cura Daball addresses what is perhaps the most silenced of issues in international relations – the sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeeping forces. The vast majority of cases implicate members of national contingents serving under the UN, who enjoy immunity from crimes committed while on duty in the host country.  Reports of sexual assault on UN missions have been occurring since the 1990s, and throughout the “UN’s instinctive response” has been to “ignore, deny, [and] cover up.” For feminists, this is one further examples of the devastating costs of militarization, and a reminder that so-called protectors can all too easily become threats.


For decades the ‘Blue Helmets’ have been sexually exploiting and abusing those they were sent to protect. The UN is complicit in creating an environment in which these abuses can flourish unfettered.

When ma asked me to go to the stream to wash plates, a peacekeeper asked me to take my clothes off so that he can take a picture. When I asked him to give me money he told me, no money for children, only biscuit (cited in UNHCR & STC 2002).

As part of its commitment to maintaining international peace, the United Nations has tasked thousands of peacekeepers with protecting vulnerable populations affected by conflict. While the UN’s ‘Blue Helmets’ are often welcomed with relief and hope, they have also inflicted even greater harm, sexually exploiting and abusing those they were sent to protect.

Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) first surfaced in the context of peace operations in Cambodia and Somalia in the early 1990s. Ever since, peacekeepers of a wide variety of nationalities – including citizens of some of the most stable democracies in the western world – have been involved in SEA during peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Sudan, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Recent allegations have centred around the Central African Republic (CAR), where French peacekeepers sexually abused orphaned boys searching for food.

The Cancer in Our System

On 13 August 2015, Ban Ki-moon declared his ‘distress and shame’ over the reports of SEA at the hands of UN forces. He reaffirmed his commitment to the organisation’s “zero-tolerance policy” on SEA (introduced in 2003) and referred to sexual abuse as a ‘cancer in our system’ requiring radical treatment.

Acute underreporting of SEA is endemic due to fear of stigmatisation, economic dependency, and the lack of an investigatory apparatus. In 2006, after years of turning a blind eye to sexual crimes committed by UN forces, the organisation began recording allegations of SEA. Even this publically available but limited data makes clear that SEA is not a rare or isolated matter: more than 200 allegations were made under MONUC/MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ongoing since 1999), alone. Knowing that the real figures are likely to be much higher, it is clear such abuse cannot be attributed to the random acts of a few rogue individuals. However, instead of critically assessing its own role in providing an environment in which these sexual crimes can flourish, the UN has overwhelmingly directed its resources at diverting attention away from fundamental questions about its peacekeepers.

Unequal Power-Relations and Limited Supervision

The immense purchasing power of the Blue Helmets in comparison to the local population in countries ravaged by war contributes to sexual exploitation. The daily allowance of most peacekeepers often exceeds the per capita annual income in the host country. During their mission in the DRC peacekeepers received around $138 per day in Mission Support Allowance, which is between 500 and 1000 times the average capita income of the Congolese population. With sex costing as little as $1-3 per encounter, it is easy to see how peacekeepers’ purchasing power translates into sexual exploitation.

Another factor is the staff chosen by the UN for peacekeeping. Military personnel form the biggest part of peace operations. It is commonly stated that soldiers of all ranks have almost always raped during wartime and that the presence of the military has seriously fuelled the sex industry. It should come as no surprise that superior officers find it difficult to thwart behaviour considered commonplace in other settings, where soldiers are not held to the same standards as Blue Helmets.

Limited supervision, loose control-structures and numerous cases of collusion between commanders and subordinates have considerably contributed to opportunities for sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers. According to the Save the Children, during the United Nations Mission in Liberia ‘the lack of senior and international staff presence in the camps was reportedly allowing junior agency staff to behave with impunity’.

Human Rights Watch reported that in Somalia victims of SEA entered the African Union Mission soldiers’ accommodation through ‘official and guarded gates’, and some were even given official badges enabling easier entrance to the facilities. These practices suggest that SEA were tolerated and even organised by senior officials.

Immunity and Impunity

The vast majority of SEA allegations have been made against members of national contingents, which have absolute immunity in the host jurisdiction. In theory, the Blue Helmets enjoy functional immunity: they are immune to prosecution for crimes committed whilst on duty. Crimes falling outside their official functions – such as sexual abuse – are technically subject to the criminal and disciplinary jurisdiction of their sending nations. In practice, however, peacekeepers who “go rogue” have little to fear.

The UN does not publish details of reported attacks, or the names or nationalities of perpetrators, mainly to avoid embarrassing countries who send troops for peacekeeping since the UN, without its own standing army, is wholly dependent on these contributions. In the rare cases that (often incomplete) information on peacekeepers’ misconduct is made available to the sending nation, Member States have overwhelmingly allowed most perpetrators to go unpunished or have handed out extremely lenient sentences. To name but one example, Amnesty International criticised the conviction of three UN peacekeepers in Haiti as a ‘travesty of justice’. They were found guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy and were each sentenced to one year in prison. To date however, even this example is a rare exception and the overall number of peacekeepers officially charged and punished for sexual abuse and exploitation remains inconsequential.

Serious Disconnect between Words and Actions

The UN is plagued by a serious contradiction between its discourse on a zero-tolerance policy and its actions when tackling the problem amongst its ranks. The UN continues to issue condoms to peacekeepers to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS – while laudable, such a gesture flies in the face of the UN’s absolute prohibition on sexual contact during the mission. Each year, new accounts of the UN covering up scandals emerge: it seems the UN has zero-tolerance for whistleblowing, rather than for sexual abuse.

In April 2015, concerns were raised about the way allegations of misconduct by UN peacekeepers were handled. Anders Kompass leaked confidential documents to the French authorities detailing the sexual abuse and rape of abandoned orphans in the CAR by French peacekeepers. Instead of implementing a zero-impunity scheme to apprehend the perpetrators, the UN actually suspended Kompass from his post as director of field operations. The UN’s Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids Free World, told The Guardian: “The regular sex abuse by peacekeeping personnel uncovered here and the United Nations’ appalling disregard for victims are stomach-turning, but the awful truth is that this isn’t uncommon. The UN’s instinctive response to sexual violence in its ranks [is to] ignore, deny, cover up, dissemble.”

Just months later in July 2015, yet another case of the UN’s failure to take appropriate action in the face of SEA surfaced. According to a strictly confidential report leaked to The Guardian, the UN discovered that members of the Russian Aviation Company UTair had drugged, raped and sexually tortured a teenage girl before dumping her naked and unconscious at a helicopter base in 2010. The incident was held to be ‘indicative of a wider culture of SEA at the company’. Copies of the report have allegedly been circulated among top UN staff, including the NY office of the Secretary-General. Upon learning about the incident, the UN did not end its contractual relationship with UTair, as its zero-tolerance discourse would suggest. Instead, it actually extended its billion-dollar contract with UTair for missions in Lebanon, Western Sahara, the DRC, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and Mali.

Rather than engaging with these problems, the UN has repeatedly ignored the systemic nature of SEA among its peacekeepers. It refuses to recognise its own role in creating an environment of impunity, choosing to simply reiterate its hollow discourse on zero-tolerance. The organisation’s continued failure to deal with the problem head-on undermines the very foundations of peace operations and will ultimately bring the whole notion of peacekeeping closer to crisis.


Melanie Cura Daball is a recent MSc Conflict Studies graduate from the London School of Economics and Politics. Having specialised in gender-based violence issues academically, she has since followed stories covering the refugee trail and environmental hazards in India. She currently works as a freelance journalist based in London.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


The Thread of Anger

In this very personal story, a Dawson science student reflects on why she alone was subjected to her father’s abuse and laments on the fact that our society still hasn’t learned that we can’t solve violence with violence.


As a child, “anger” and “fear” has always followed me like a shadow. It isolated me from others, taught me how to doubt, and took away every bit of confidence I had. Unfortunately, even children under the age of six can be plagued with negative thoughts and emotions, especially if they have been victims of everyday physical and mental violence.

Thinking back, how I wish I had forgotten that blue patch on my arm, that painful bruise on my forehead, that swollen left cheek… Instead, my father’s strong hands and menacing face have become the clearest memories of my childhood. But the worst part of it all was that I was the only one in the house to be treated in such a manner. My younger brother never endured such a treatment, since he was the “precious son” of the family. After all, in many cultures, boys are considered as more important than girls, so my father unconsciously thought that way too. He wouldn’t lay a finger on my mother either, since she never had the courage to stand up against his violent behavior. In short, I was the best person for him to vent on.

As I grew up, I started to believe that things might be better off for me if I was born as a boy. I constantly felt the need to prove myself, to do better than my brother, and to hope for a bit of respect and approval from my father. In my head, the best solution was to become as boyish as possible by cutting my hair short, by throwing away all my girly clothes, and by excelling at school (in order to prove that I can be just as smart as everyone else).

But after many failed attempts, nothing really changed, and I became more and more angry. Why can’t I fight back? Why can’t I protect myself? Why is strength given to those who can harm others? Although I was a weak puppet in front of my father, I became a brutal aggressive child once I was at school. I often lashed my anger onto my friends in order to reassure myself that I am not the weakest after all. If someone annoyed me, I would kick, punch or shout. If someone insulted me, I would insult them back with words that were ten times more hurtful.

However, during high school, something finally made me change. That day, I was reading a play called “Incendies” by Wajdi Mouawad, and fell upon a quote that made me truly reflect upon my actions. The dialogue was something along the lines of: “You also will receive anger as your heritage, but you must break this thread of anger to make a better world.” After some thought, I realized that I have become the violent individual that I used to hate. But if anger, revenge and violence wasn’t the right solution, then what is the true solution in this case?

That night, my father and I had a long talk for the very first time. “I need to know WHY you do this me,” I told him. At first, we just stared at the table awkwardly. After a moment of silence, he apologized. But I still felt skeptical. Was he truly sorry for everything he has done? Why was he sorry? And then I suddenly noticed how weak he actually looked. Why haven’t I noticed his sunken eye sockets and his exhausted gaze? “I never wanted to hurt you, and I feel guilty about it everyday,” he replied. He then told me about being stressed at work because of his Asiatic origins, and even admitted that as a child, he was a victim of domestic violence too. That day, his revelations broke my thread of anger. After all, forgiveness was the real solution, and my family finally found the path towards happiness.

Sadly, our society still doesn’t grasp that we can’t solve violence with violence. Many victims believe that revenge and strength is the only solution, but it actually only strengthens the thread of anger. One must keep in mind that violent aggressors shouldn’t be considered as non-guilty. However, instead of sentencing them to prison, healing the wounds of the violent criminal can actually be more effective than punishing him. (A violent person will still come out of prison as a violent person, and maybe even worse than before.) In short, it may be better to heal rather than punish, and to help rather than blame. After all, the main goal is to break the thread of anger that has kept violence and hatred alive until this day. If people were aware of their threads, and are taught to fight violence with forgiveness and understanding, maybe we could’ve lived in a better, more peaceful world.

A Dawson Student

Pure and Applied Sciences

A Normal Day

In this beautifully-written story, Dawson student Maryam Parvez reveals how gender-based violence touches generations, but remains surrounded by silence.


Darkness overwhelmed her, it seeped into her pores and grew. She was not always like this, frail, weak with a body that was just bones, and eyes that were lifeless. No, she was not supposed to end like this. Her once round and beautiful face had shrunk to the point her eyes seemed to be bulging constantly; as if there were two hands taking her life away slowly. No, she had had eyes that showed eagerness to enter the world and make a change. She could not have known that she would end up here, at this moment, in a room where darkness was her companion where she lay sprawled on the floor, unable to move.


“Mama! Mama!” she wailed at four years old. Her mother silently shook and did not respond to her daughter’s cries. She would not face her daughter to show her what her face had become. I mustn’t let her see me, she thought, she needs to sleep, she needs her teddy; yes, I’ll turn the light off. Darkness will help me.

The light is off and her cries seem ever more so haunting like a wolf howling in the night.

“Hush, baby, hush. You can’t cry like this. Be brave, my child, be brave.” The pain was torturous when she spoke. Open her mouth and she was beaten, open her mouth to comfort her child and she was punished. Stay quiet forever. Yes, that is the solution to my problems, the mother thought. Her eyes had swollen to the size of a fist and were the color of a ripe plum. Blood seeped out of her nose into her mouth and she could not stop it. The smell of the blood, like coins in her hand, was making her nauseous.

Yet, she fought when he attacked her with a knife. He had gotten her, swiped that knife into her flesh as if her skin was made of paper, a clean cut down the arm and across her jaw.

My baby needs a mother, my baby needs me.


Her mother had ironed her clothes stiff for her graduation. She was excited, and so eager to walk down the aisle to get her diploma. After all, it’s not everyone who gets to graduate grade six, especially in her family. At the ripe age of twelve she almost had the same level of education as her parents. But this is why her father came here, for a better life for his children. This girl adored her father, but didn’t understand why her mother was so quiet all the time. She barely spoke. A little nod here and there, a hmm and ohhh. Her father, too, was somewhat reclusive and scary, she thought. His hands were scary. Big with veins sticking out like tree roots. Nonetheless, she loved her father dearly: he gave her the opportunity to get a higher education. And she would make her father proud. High school: the next step. She felt a shiver at that thought.


Thud, thud, thud. No, no, no, no. No more please, she begged, in her head. Never did she voice her pleas. No use, just like an animal can cry all it wants in a cage it never gets out. Why did she say yes to her father when this wedding proposal came? How could she ever have loved this man? He was so gentle at first. His eyes would gleam whenever she walked by. Now, there’s an emptiness, a void. It’s not her fault she aged. It’s not her fault he’s always in a drunk stupor. It’s not her fault he can’t keep a job. Yet, he blames her. You are the worst thing that has happened to me. And from there on, he becomes more creative: I only married a whore like you so I can come here; you were a disgrace to your father and a burden to me, and he would continue with a slur.

The worse is when the children are there. The daughters are beaten along with the wife. The two boys are shielded from this and sent to their rooms. The boys, the boys, the boys! What if they become like their father? After all, if I become as mute as my mother why can’t they become as violent and inhuman as their father?


She heard the expensive perfume bottles breaking. She imagined her mother fell and her father was picking up the tiny shards of glass, while cautioning her mother to not step on the glass. The tiny shards scattered on the floor. There was blood. Undoubtedly, father would tell mother to be more careful; and if there are any bruises on her it must be because of the fall. No more thought was given, she had homework.


All the men were sitting and having an uproar. “You saw that sweet thing on the street? Aye, was she something! Her legs never ended and her hair”, she was next to her mother making tea for those men. Is this what they think of us? No, no, of course not. She noticed her mother was trembling, she looked smaller as if she was cowering in her own shadow. Lately, that’s what she was: a shadow in the house.

Slapping their thighs they continued their meaningless talk while smoke swirled around them. The girl (or should we say woman as of now?) entered to bring tea and pastries for those men. She didn’t go back inside. The men stopped talking. “Go inside”. “Yes, yes I will sir,” she began, her heart was pounding, “I just wanted to know who you were talking about?” Her father stood. He walked towards her. She remained standing, but not for long. It burned, that spot where his hammer like hands made contact with her doll-like face. It was red and it throbbed. The men were quiet. No body rose to stop him. But truth be told, this was not the first time.

Maryam Parvez

Health Science

Transforming Masculinity

Following the 1989 massacre at the Université de Montreal, three Canadian men – Michael Kaufman, Jack Layton and Ron Sluser – decided that men needed to work together to end violence against women. In 1991, they launched the White Ribbon Campaign, which today has become a worldwide movement in over 60 countries. In this article, Kaufman reflects on why it is so different to transform ideas about masculinity, and offers some ideas on how we can develop campaigns that are effective.


Those who’d like to redefine manhood and engage men and boys in promoting gender equality have a very basic challenge. Ideas about gender are not simply disembodied thoughts or ideas that float around in our heads. If that were the case, then change would be simple: let guys know how our current gender ideals hurt both women and men and, the rational creatures that we are, we’d toss out the old ideas for the new. It would be like an anti-smoking campaign: not simple, but ultimately straight forward.

The problem is this: gender is deeply embodied in our bodies and our brains. I don’t mean that sexist ideas are “natural” nor, as some would have it, that men’s and women’s brains are fundamentally different (they’re not) nor that we have a fundamentally different genetic makeup (99.8% of our genes are the same.).

What I mean is that we begin to learn to be “real men” before we can even speak. As we grow, we are unconsciously bringing in our culture’s ideas of manhood into our developing brains. The intense process of brain development in our first few years – in which we are creating millions of new neuro-pathways each day  – is one in which we absorb society and, in a sense, turn it into neurons. Our brains become gendered.  Our bodies are not only male or female bodies but, become gendered: masculine and feminine. (You can see that every day in how men and women often walk or sit differently.)

This means that change is extremely difficult.  I might deeply believe in gender equality, I might hate men’s violence and the codes of tough masculinity, but I still look forward to the next James Bond movie. It’s not just that I know that James Bond is pretend, it’s that his daring, his bravado, his invincibility still tugs on things that are deeply embedded in my brain.

It gets worse! What makes it hard to reach men and boys with a message of change, though, is not only how deeply these ideas are held. It’s also that we carry a huge amount of fear about not being real men. (I’ve written a lot about this, including in my book, Cracking the Armor: Power, Pain and the Lives of Men which will be republished in 2012 as an eBook.)

Manhood is defined not only in terms of what we should be, but even more, but we should not be.  In many cultures this means we should not be weak, not be too soft, not show too many feelings.  Why? Because the more you display those things the more you are, supposedly, like a woman and hence, not a real man.

This combination of deeply-embedded ideas and paralyzing fear presents a huge obstacle for reaching men and boys with a message of change. It is also the reason why many men don’t challenge sexist comments or violent behaviour: we’re scared the guys around them will think we’re not a real man, we’re scared to reveal our own feelings even to ourselves.

With that in mind, some of us have worked hard over the years to figure out ways to overcome this fear. So, for example, our original slogan in the early 1990s of the White Ribbon Campaign was: men working to end violence against women. It wasn’t men being more sensitive to the problem; it was doing something men have learned to define as part of masculinity: we work hard.  Or, in another example, my pamphlet about preventing dating violence is called “Man Talk!” and the cover proclaims this in big bold letters as if talking about dating violence is as manly as hand-to-hand combat. Or why, in White Ribbon Campaigns in many countries, we’ve recruited tough-looking athletes to be on posters.

Another approach has been to use humour.  Michael Kimmel’s and my new book, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism uses a lot of humour to allow the male reader to laugh away his fear and take in ideas of equality.

And so, as you can imagine, I love a new video project that encourages young men to talk about their feelings and to get help.  “Soften the Fck Up” takes the idea of men “toughening up” or “hardening up” and turns it on its head.

An Australian bloke named Evon Chan (who describes himself as a social entrepreneur and digital branding professional) created the one-and-a-half minute video as part of a project to prevent suicide by young men but it has a broader implication.

Of course, in videos such as this, we’re walking a fine line. There is, indeed, something very macho about throwing the “fuck” into “soften up.”  And White Ribbon is explicitly using images of macho guys speaking out to end violence against women. In doing so, we are trying to create a safe space for a boy or man to actually listen.

Take this approach too far and you reproduce and encourage sexism. Do it right (and give your audience some respect that they’ll get it) and it will allow them to get beyond the fear and actually take in some new ideas.

Taking in those ideas means to create new neuro-pathways, just like we did when we learned how to be a real man.

And that, my friends, is part of the pathway to change.

You can find many important resources on gender issues and men’s violence on Michael Kaufman’s blog and website, including a 2011 article where he reflects on the White Ribbon Campaigns history and founding principles.

Take a look at “The Day the White Ribbon Campaign Changed the Game” by clicking here.

Michael Kaufman, PhD, is a public speaker, writer, and consultant, whose innovative approaches to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality and transforming men’s lives has taken him around the world over the past three decades. He has worked extensively with the United Nations and with governments, non-governmental organizations, corporations, trade unions, and universities. Michael has graciously allowed Inspire Solutions to repost his article that was original published, under the title, “Soften Up Men,” on his blog in October 2011; you can read it by clicking here

Getting to Peace

In this article, first posted in 2010, Cynthia Cockburn addresses the fundamental questions How can we create more peaceful world? What underlies war’s continuing widespread acceptance? She suggests that we need to “create a nonviolent movement for a nonviolent world,” and that this must be grounded in a “transformative change in gender relations.”


Today’s antiwar movements could become wider and deeper and more united if they took the critique of gender properly to heart

I went to see the film Avatar the other day. As you know, it’s about a people, the Na’vi, on another planet: Pandora. They have a culture that is respectful of nature, unexploitative, integrated and empathetic with other life forms. Unfortunately they also have a mineral that people of planet Earth lust after.  Human space ships and personnel are out to destroy this pleasant people and appropriate their valuable resource. The film ends ‘happily’. The Na’vi prevail over the mighty and ruthless, technologized, militarized (and evidently American) invaders. But, the outcome is achieved by – an apocalyptic war.

Why did the story have to culminate in war? It cannot be beyond the bounds of the script writer’s imagination to have had the Na’vi prevail over Earthlings in some other way. Maybe they could have melted the invaders’ technology away? Maybe they could have won over their hearts and minds? Maybe the lush vegetation of Pandora could have quietly consumed them and turned them into fertile compost? But no, a war, of course, there had to be. It is the climax that every child, adolescent and adult watching the film is waiting for. They would feel cheated without it. Avatar would not have been the supreme box office success it is without a war.

What underlies war’s continuing widespread acceptance?  This question opens up a useful approach to the roots of war, in my view, because it opens up to questions about society, people, you and me, who are implicitly the ones to accept (or question, or refuse) war. It invites us to interrogate a film like Avatar, which is so characteristic of the culture we live in, the culture that enables, limits and shapes us. It leads to an exploration of the continuum of violence, the connections between the explosive violence of actual war, the perennial violence inherent in our militarized condition, and violence in everyday life and everyday culture

If Mary Kaldor is right  in saying that wars are very often fought, not to be won but rather as a kind of mutual enterprise in which the warring parties share some benefits, this too must point us towards an examination of cultures. Some of the benefits that war-making people and classes gain from the perpetuation of armed conflict will certainly be economic. But some may be advantages in self-identity as men, or regard and status with regard to other people and groups. What messages are we taking in, telling each other, that make fighting, deliberate injury and killing, seem reasonable, desirable – even glorious?

Avatar is just one of a zillion instances of cultural production that normalize and glorify fighting, militarization and war.  And this violent culture in which we’re immersed is profoundly gendered. Gendered mindsets, expectations, behaviours and attitudes feed and are fed by films like this, by video games, advertising, the fashion industry and TV reality shows, that bombard our consciousness day in and day out.  Masculinity and femininity are endlessly constituted in idealized, contrasted and complementary forms that are parodies of real human ‘being’. We are made over as avatars fitted out for a virtual world in which each sex is a truncated, incomplete human being, a world in which he will survive violence and deal it out, while she will allure, invite and comply. The feminist women and pro-feminist men who resist such deformation are so marginal to the narrative they scarcely make the list of credits. And, unfortunately, this is no cinema fantasy but the very world we live in.

Gender struggle in the peace movement

One thing I have discovered during research in and among peace movements is that a gender struggle goes on in them too.  The majority of organizations are mixed. They have many women in the membership, though frequently the leading personalities and spokes-persons are male. In most countries however there are a handful of feminist antiwar, antimilitarist and peace organizations. These are often differentiated from the mainstream peace movements of which they are a part, and to which they contribute, by one particular quality. While they don’t fail to pay attention to the large-scale issues and events that concern all peace movements – weapons of mass destruction, huge global military expenditures, the worldwide system of United States military bases, and so on – they simultaneously call attention to more mundane violence and the individual lives it affects, to pain, care and responsibility.

For instance, Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence (OWAMMV), like the rest of the Japanese peace movement, are concerned with the huge burden of the US bases that spread their razor wire all over the archipelago. But they also campaign against the abuse, rape and murder of individual women that is too often associated with the areas of bars and brothels surrounding these bases. OWAAMV’s first act on learning of a new assault, however, is always to check on the wellbeing of the victim before launching (yet another) mass protest against the system that has harmed her. Likewise, In South Korea, Women Making Peace are notable for having introduced into the movement a stress on ‘peace culture’, changing lives and practices, starting with one’s own. Which does not mean they don’t go out to join demonstrations against sending troops to Afghanistan or Iraq, or join in the campaign for the reunification of Korea. They do that too.

After spending time with the women of many such organizations, and as a member, myself, of both Women in Black and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, it seems to me that together we are introducing a fresh new thought into the field of international relations and war studies. We are saying: if the gendered cultures of violence in everyday life bring about ‘widespread acceptance of war’, then gender relations, as we know and live them, must be recognized as, in fact, causal in war.

A predisposing cause

Most visible in the news analysis of any given war, of course, are economic factors (access to resources and markets). And yes, fair enough, capitalist expansionism and corporate interests certainly do motivate war-making governments and other social actors. Also visible, perhaps more hyped, in the conventional analysis are political factors. And, indeed, wars often are about the control or exclusion of particular kinds of people (the ones the wrong side of a border, the ones with the wrong god, or skin colour, or national name). Sometimes these two sets of motivations are summed up as ‘greed and grievance’, or ‘capitalism and nationalism’ or ‘class and race’. But the male power system (still widely called patriarchy, for lack of a better name) is intertwined with the capitalist mode of production and the nation-state system among the causes of war.  As a source of cultures that produce sexual divisions – sexual divisions of labour, of war, of love – gender power relations ready us all the time for violence. They are a predisposing cause.

Raewyn Connell, a well-known theoretician of masculinity and gender power, endorses this view. She writes, in The Postwar Moment, that ‘masculinities are the forms in which many dynamics of violence take shape’. While the causes of war are many, therefore, and include ‘dispossession, poverty, greed, nationalism, racism, and other forms of inequality, bigotry and desire… Yet given the concentration of weapons and the practices of violence among men, gender patterns appear to be strategic’.

If gender relations are indeed one of the root causes of war, it follows that transformative change in gender relations must be part of the effort for peace. Gender work is peace work. This opens the door to men in the peace movement. To quote R.W.Connell once again, ‘Evidently, then, strategy for demilitarization and peace must include a strategy of change in masculinities. This is the new dimension in peace work which studies of men suggest: contesting the hegemony of masculinities which emphasise violence, confrontation and domination, and replacing them with patterns of masculinity more open to negotiation, cooperation and equality’.

Men in the peace movement

Men in the peace movement could step through that open door now and work on a critique of the manipulation of masculinity for militarism, making it a conscious part of their antiwar activism. They could say, as we wrote on our banner at the Women’s Gate of the Aldermaston Blockade a month ago, ‘No fists, no knives, no guns, no bombs. No to all violence’. Such a simple slogan links, in one giddy move, bedroom and battlefield, the violence of so-called peace and that of so-called war, in a single continuum. That is, I think, a concept with a perspective capable of inspiring a movement on a matching scale.

War culture is hegemonic in our society. It’s the prevailing common-sense. The antiwar movement is, by comparison, patchy, disparate, and on some issues even divided. Parts of it focus on nuclear weapons, parts on the arms trade, parts on contemporary war-fighting. Its discourses include various kinds of socialism, pacifism, feminism – and those of various religions. These sectors and segments pull together on some issues, part company on others. To prevail over the taken-for-granted militarism of the dominant culture, I believe the movement has to follow the lead of organizations such as OWAAMV and Women Making Peace, and others like them in different countries, and allow a critique of gender to become a prompt to reinterpret and transform the peace movement, its aims, its structures and its own cultures. What is today a movement against war could become something wider and deeper, effectively a counter-hegemonic movement, a nonviolent movement for a nonviolent world.


Cynthia Cockburn is an honorary professor in the Department of Sociology at London’s City University and at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender. She has is the author of many books and academic articles, including her most recent book, Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements. She has also been a long time peace activist involved in the international feminist peace groups, Women in Black against War and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Cynthia Cockburn provided a deeper discussion of the themes above in her 2010 article, “Gender Relations as Causal in Militarization and War: A Feminist Standpoint” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics. The quotes from R.W. Connell are taken from her chapter in Cynthia Cockburn and Dubravka Zarkov’s edited book, The Postwar Moment: Militaries, Masculinities, and International Peacekeeping.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


An Introduction to Our Topic: Gender and Peacebuilding

But presently I would come to know you had arrived at some fresh decision more fatally foolish than ever. ‘Ah! My dear man,’ I would say, ‘what madness next!’ But he would only look at me askance and say: ‘Just weave your web, please; else your cheeks will smart for hours. War is men’s business!’

From the play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, Athens, 411 BCE.

Men and war, women and peace – these gendered ideas have endured over the centuries, and continue to resonate in our world today. War frequently has been depicted as the quintessential male activity; one that offers confirmation of manhood and proof of first class citizenship. Human responses that have been viewed to be problematic for the warrior – fear, uncertainty, guilt, grief, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence have been feminized, and women linked to war’s opposite. In Aristophanes’ famous play, women actually prevail, exasperated by their men’s continuous warring, the women from all sides decide to take action by banning their men from the bedrooms; all it takes is one night for the men to lay down their arms. If only it were that easy!

But these ideas of warring men and peaceful women are far from accurate representations of the real world. In surveys of US riflemen immediately after close combat with German or Japanese troops during WW2, only 15 to 20% admitted to firing their rifle at the enemy (Grossman 1995, 3-4). The most decorated British soldier of the First World War was a stretcher bearer, a man who would rather die than kill (Elshtain 1987: 204). And, of course, the extent to which warring does not come naturally to men is demonstrated over and over through the significant number of veterans of modern war who return home physically intact, but psychologically broken. Similarly, women have diverse relationships to war; during wartime most have provided important support and they are in recent years increasingly crossing the ultimate barrier of combat.

However, the image of the peaceful woman, or the outsider to war when her essential support becomes visible, is deeply rooted. The traditional feminine counterpart to the warrior’s sacrifice is the mother’s sacrifice; a British bishop in WWI made it starkly clear what was expected: she was a woman who saw “neither sense nor reason in the slaying or maiming of those whom she has brought into the world”, but who gave her sons “without a word,” with “no reproach,” and with “noble endurance.” (Grayzel 1999: 227-228) And, still today, a military mother who has lost a child to war is asked to lay a wreath on Remembrance Day; no such gesture is offered to a father whose son or daughter has died in war.

During WWI, though, women were also demanding their right to express their views on war. As Cynthia Cockburn’s article, “Women’s Power to Stop War: Hubris or Hope,” notes, in the midst of WWI, more than a thousand women from 12 countries travelled to The Hague to talk peace, dispatching women envoys to speak to the heads of state in belligerent and neutral countries. These women later strongly opposed the Versailles Treaty, arguing that it was simply creating the foundations for more war.

Many women’s peace actions that followed have sought to transform the culturally-devalued symbols of the “feminine”. In the early 1980s, women from all over the United Kingdom came to Greenham Common to establish a permanent peace camp outside an American military base in Britain to protest the deploying of US nuclear weapons on British soil; in one action they stripped naked, covered themselves in ash to commemorate the victims of Nagasaki, and laid down on the main road, successfully blockaded the base, turning a symbol of physical vulnerability into strength (Jones 1987: 201). In 1988, Israeli women formed Women in Black, a group that uses the image of the silent, grieving woman to demonstrate their outrage over their country’s policies in the occupied territories; it has since become an international movement against war. More recently, Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee bridged religious and ethnic divides to unite women into becoming a powerful voice for peace, and in one key moment prevented the security forces from arresting the protesting women during a tense standoff outside ongoing peace talks by threatening to disrobe; in African culture, such an act by a married or elderly woman represented a powerful curse on the man.

In their diverse struggles, women have shaped a particular critique of war. They have illustrated that war is at the extreme end of a continuum of violence, pointing out that the struggle against war must involve efforts to end all violence. Over and over again, they have revealed the extent to which the violence of war results in an increase in other forms of societal violence, including the sexual abuse of women, that peace must mean more than the absence of war and that it will only endure if it focuses on meeting the basic needs of individuals and communities. They have also offered a powerful critique of militarized security, demonstrating how so-called protectors can all too easily become threats; the frequent sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeepers is a disheartening example (Wolfe).

In the official world of international and national peace negotiations, however, women’s voices are still silenced. Ironically, it tends to be those who did the fighting who are expected to become their country’s peacemakers. Last month marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution, passed unanimously on October 31, 2000 after years of feminist campaigning, calls for the equal participation and full involvement of women in all initiatives to maintain and promote peace and security. The resolution was historic, seen by feminist activists as confirming recognition that leaving women on the sidelines leads to the failure of peace efforts.

Unfortunately, too little has changed. Bringing a gender perspective into UN peace and security efforts has kept attention on the widespread sexual abuse that is so often a part of war, but it has continued to keep women in the primary role of victims. Women were signatories in only two out of 61 peace agreements between August 2008 and March 2012 and represented less than 3% of chief mediators and 9% of negotiators in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011. Moreover, the issue of women’s lack of security in post-conflict situations – and relatedly the needs of civilians and communities – continue to be ignored: in a review of 585 peace agreements signed between 1990 and 2010 only 92 contained references to women (O’Gorman).

Our latest collection of articles draws attention to the need to listen to women’s voices on war and peace, but also on the extent to which women themselves refuse to be pushed to the sidelines. While the violence against women both during war and so-called times of peace remains at epidemic levels, many women’s responses are inspiring, and point to the extent to which the traditional gendered ideas of rational male agency and women’s passivity, or naiveté about the serious issues facing our world, are not only inherently flawed, but fundamentally damaging to our construction of a more peaceful world.

In addition to Cynthia Cockburn’s questioning of whether women really have the power to end war, we invite you to read her account of an important meeting that brought Bosnian and Syrian women together to confer about what happens when women are excluded from peace negotiations. We offer, however, an important reminder that women’s peacemaking role should not be taken for granted by examining the diverse motives that have led women to leave their homes to offer their support to the Islamic State. Women, though, are also asserting their agency in trying to protect the women suffering under the violence of ISIS, as illustrated in an interview with Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed. Finally, this collection includes two articles addressing women’s efforts to respond to the worldwide problem of rape, including one by Dawson student Catherine Duret on the value of a transformative justice approach for many victims of sexual assault, and then ends with a passionate call by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, given on the launching of a major women’s international peace initiative, to focus attention on the need for a peace treaty to finally bring the Korean War, the longest unresolved war in modern history, to an end.

Pat Romano
Humanities, Dawson College

For an award-winning film on the women of Liberia’s struggle for peace,
watch the film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, from the wonderful PBS series Women, War and Peace.


For a picture of women’s varied peace efforts over the years, have a look at the following:

A Partial Chronology of Women’s Peace Activism

Works Cited
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Grayzel, Susan A. Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995.

Jones, Lynne. “Perceptions of ‘Peace Women’ at Greenham Common 1981-85: A Participant’s View.” Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Eds. Sharon MacDonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener. London, Macmillan, 1987. 179-204

O’Gorman, Eleanor. “On the Frontline: Women Building Peace. OpenDemcracy 50/50. 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Wolfe, Lauren. “The UN Is Not Serious About Its Peacekeeper Rape Problem.” Foreign Policy. 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Women’s Power to Stop War: Hubris or Hope

As the world’s oldest women’s international peace organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, prepared for its 100th anniversary this year, Cynthia Cockburn looked back to the roots of women’s peace activism, illustrating that from its beginning women took a holistic perspective, drawing out the links between women’s rights, social justice and peace. She ends her article by looking ahead, proclaiming that women’s power to end war lies in their reach, “into every corner of life, into the heart of families, into civil society and, increasingly, into the structures of governance.”


On the sixth day of the Second Battle of Ypres, one of the First World War’s most futile and costly engagements, chlorine gas, a new weapon of choice, was seeping over the trenches. The battle would end in stalemate, leaving 105,000 dead and wounded men. A mere hundred miles north of the battlefield, at The Hague, in neutral Netherlands, more than a thousand women assembled to talk peace. They travelled there from twelve countries, on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the conflict, drawn by a belief that women could achieve something male leaders were unwilling or unable to do: stop the carnage. When the congress ended, they despatched women envoys to heads of state in belligerent and neutral countries, urging them to initiate a peace commission. In vain. The war continued for another three years until 37 million men, women and children had died.

The organization emerging from the Hague Congress called itself the International Women’s Committee for Permanent Peace. A few years on, it would be renamed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and establish an office in Geneva. So, today, we of WILPF are mourning the victims of Ypres and simultaneously marking our 99th birthday. As we do so, and prepare for our centenary a year hence, we are rolling out a world-wide mobilization under the bold banner-headline: Women’s Power to Stop War.

Bold… but also bald. The slogan stops people in their tracks, we find. They pause and puzzle over it. Are WILPF making a statement of fact here, or is this mere aspiration? The story of the Hague Congress hardly inspires confidence in women’s power to stop war. Besides, the very fact that we have a centenary to ‘celebrate’, that we have had wars to contest throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, suggests not power but impotence.

If we really mean women have the power to stop war, in what does that ability reside? Why has it been ineffective till now? How may we believe in it? Recently I was invited to sketch out the first draft of a new Manifesto for WILPF. It will be debated in the organization throughout this year, and a final version issued at our centenary Congress a year from now, when we shall once more assemble in The Hague. To prepare for this daunting writing job (or to put it off a little longer?) I sat down, as is my wont, to read. Setting aside for the moment women’s failure in 1915 to achieve a peace initiative and end the war, I took from my shelf some books about women’s activism in the preceding period, in the early 20th and late 19th century.

What they reminded me was that the concern with ‘peace’ of many of our fore-runners emerged from, or combined with, engagement in other social movements. They did not limit themselves to the injunction ‘thou shalt not kill’, but addressed injustice, inequality, exploitation and unfreedom, laying the groundwork for a women’s peace movement in the 20th century that would understand these wrongs as presaging violence, and indeed as of themselves violent. Women’s campaigning tended to be joined-up, holistic.

The rapid urbanization of Britain, the USA and other industrializing societies in the latter part of the 19th century had brought widespread, and highly visible, suffering to the poor. Exploitative conditions of labour, together with appalling housing conditions, lack of sanitation and consequent disease experienced by the growing industrial workforce and their families gave rise to socialist and social reform movements. Many women gave their energies to humanitarian philanthropic work. Others were active in the anti-slavery movement. And some joined campaigns against war – the Crimean war, the American civil war, the Franco-Prussian war, the Boer war.

Middle class women’s exposure to the oppression of others heightened consciousness of their own oppression as women. The more involved they became in social and charitable projects, the more they felt the injustice of their inferiorisation by the confident public men who led these institutions. (For decades after their foundation in 1816 the Peace Societies did not allow women members to speak at meetings. It would be 73 years before the men agreed to accept a woman on the national committee.) Unlike male pacifists, then, whether secular or religious, women were liable to note the gender implications of war. Had not Mary Wollstonecraft, first and boldest of feminist writers, stated emphatically way back in 1792 that militarism threatened women by reinforcing masculine habits of authority and hierarchy? She wrote, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, ‘Every corps is a chain of despots…submitting and tyrannizing without exercising their reason’. The failure of successive Reform Acts to accord women the vote led to a surging suffrage movement, at its height just before the outbreak of World War I.

Now – look where the founders of WILPF learned their activism. Jane Addams, who presided over the Hague Congress, was already a well-known figure in the USA for her pioneering social work. She founded Hull House in Chicago, one of the first settlements, a refuge for the poor. She was incipiently socialist, campaigning nation-wide for child labour laws and trade unions. She espoused women’s rights, joining the suffrage movement. Then, as war threatened, she embraced peace campaigning. Addams was nothing if not holistic in her activism. Historian Catherine Foster writes of her, ‘Partly because of her work with poor people [she] believed strongly that there could be no peace without social and economic justice’.

Then consider how many of the women who founded WILPF came to it directly from the struggle for women’s political representation. In Britain as war approached there were two strong suffrage organizations, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies with 50,000 members, and the smaller Women’s Social and Political Union. Both split on the war issue. While most of their members supported the government, some became the backbone of the women’s peace movement. Suffrage and peace activism remained tightly linked in the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, to which many anti-war pro-suffrage women shifted their allegiance.

Consider two women who travelled from Europe to the USA in 1914 to galvanize women’s opposition to the war and support the launch of a National Woman’s Peace Party in Washington. One was Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a British woman whose activism had been formed in both socialist and suffrage movements and whose concern with peace was founded, as she wrote, on ‘the idea of the solidarity of women [that] had taken a deep hold upon many of us; so deep that it could not be shaken even by the fact that men of many nations were at war’. Another was Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian feminist and suffragist, member of the IWSA. Often sharing a platform, these two women from enemy nations would later be present at the Hague Congress and go on to be active in the League. Aletta Jacobs, an opening speaker at the Congress, was president of the Dutch suffrage movement. Thus there was in the 1915 peace initiative a deeply embedded belief that women’s entry into politics bringing with them a wealth of fresh and gender-specific experience, their full acceptance on equal terms in public life, would of itself contribute to ending militarism and the taken-for-granted use of war as foreign policy.

The imbrication of struggles for social reform and women’s rights with the women’s peace movement showed its effects in WILPF’s campaign for a just peace after the 1918 Armistice. The leaders that gathered in Paris in 1919 to dictate the terms of peace to the defeated Central Powers were all men, despite women’s appeal for the inclusion of women delegates. Women from seventeen countries therefore autonomously organized their own congress. It took place in Zurich just as the text of the Treaty of Versailles was issued. The women were shocked by its savagely punitive terms which condemned the defeated populations to hunger, poverty and disease for a generation to come. And here we see clearly women’s distinctive ‘take’ on war – a recognition of the link between the power relations of the powerful and weak nations, the ruling and ruled class, and the dominant and subordinated sex.

The Women’s Charter issued by WILPF (which took its present name at the Zurich congress) was of course an appeal for universal disarmament, an international mechanism to ensure permanent peace and an end to the ‘right’ of any government to make war. But it also called for the social, political and economic status of women to be recognized as of supreme international importance. They demanded the franchise, freedom from dependence and full equality for women universally. They called for recognition that women’s services to the world as wage earners and homemakers are essential to peace. Women should be eligible for every position in the anticipated League of Nations. In addition, they showed concern for minority rights and racial equality; called for self-government for colonized peoples; the right of asylum for those fleeing persecution. They also had a revolutionary economic vision: fair distribution; and controls on capitalists and profiteers. They expressed sympathy for workers’ (nonviolent) uprising.

In this way, in explicitly seeking, beyond the end of one war, the eradication of war itself, WILPF was obliged to identify and address war’s root causes. It thus became a holistic movement for freedom and justice, against oppression and exploitation – in other words a movement against both physical violence and what would come to be termed ‘structural violence’. In doing so it drew strength and experience from the campaigns from which it had originally sprung: those for social reform and women’s rights.

It is this holistic, multi-facetted struggle for a nonviolent revolution in the relations of gender, class, ethnicity and nation to which we shall soon commit ourselves anew in our forthcoming centenary Manifesto. If we assert, with breath-taking optimism, Women’s Power to Stop War, it’s not to suggest that women ‘have power’ – on most counts we have little. Rather, it’s to remind ourselves that we have agency. Of course, not all women lack privilege and security. Nonetheless, women as a sex have seen millennia of injustice, many of us have learned how to organize, and above all we have reach, into every corner of life, into the heart of families, into civil society and, increasingly, into the structures of governance. ‘Our weapons’, reads our campaign website, ‘are dialogue, knowledge and insistence.’ Women as women are the ones who have the potential to translate the principle and practice of ‘care’ from the individual to collective, so that a caring society becomes the principle of politics, embraced by men and women alike. And war becomes unthinkable.


Cynthia Cockburn is an honorary professor in the Department of Sociology at London’s City University and at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender. She has is the author of many books and academic articles, including her most recent book, Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements. She has also been a long time peace activist involved in the international feminist peace groups, Women in Black against War and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.

To celebrate their 100th anniversary, the WILPF proclaimed the bold slogan
“Women’s Power to Stop War” and wrote a new manifesto on what needs to be done to create a world without war.

We invite you to consider the potential of peace presented in the WILPF’s new manifesto by clicking here, and watch the following inspiring videos:

A celebration of 100 years of peace activism, a reminder of misplaced priorities and a cogent call for peace by WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Rees.

Plotting a Woman-Shaped Peace: Syrian and Bosnian Women Confer

Wars eventually end, but the peace that is implemented may do little more than reinforce the divisions that deepened through war; the needs of ordinary people tend to be ignored as the male war leaders negotiate “peace”. In 2014, while the UN mediated Syrian peace talks, without any representation from the country’s women’s organizations, twenty Syrian women travelled to Sarejevo to meet Bosnian women who had much to tell them about what happens when women are excluded from peace talks. Cynthia Cockburn gives us an account of this remarkable meeting.


The war now raging in Syria differs in many ways from the frenzy of ethnic aggression that afflicted Bosnia-Herzegovina twenty years ago. Nonetheless, when twenty Syrian women sat down in Sarajevo on February 10 for a five-day exchange of experience with Bosnian counterparts they found plenty of common ground. Both groups described hyper-masculinized societies featuring the sexual abuse of women as men’s weapon of choice for humiliating enemy males. And Bosnian women recognized themselves in Syrian women’s stories of misogynistic religious conservatism encroaching on their secular and civil space. Even in areas where you are safe from bullets or barrel bombs, ‘It’s ever harder to go out of doors without head cover and a man,’ said one young Syrian participant.

This conference in Sarajevo, organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) brought Syrian women directly from the conflict, and yet others from refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The meeting coincided with UN-mediated peace negotiations being conducted in Switzerland, at which Syrian women’s organizations, despite support by UN Women, WILPF and other international NGOs, had so far failed to get representation. The purpose of the Sarajevo conference was for Syrian women to strategize in the light of Bosnian women’s experience of exclusion from the Dayton peace negotiations of 1995, and the consequent marginalization of women’s interests in the post-conflict decades.

Bosnian women recalled how the war had galvanized them in projects of self-help and mutual help. Memories of unity in Yugoslav days had enabled some of them to reach out across the ethnic conflict lines and support each other in work for women refugees and survivors of war rape. But the negotiation of a peace agreement, when the moment came, had taken place five thousand miles away at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio. The negotiators, dragged to the table by international actors, were the male war leaders, their sole motivation to retain territory and maximize power. Women and civil society had no presence and no voice in that process. What’s worse, the Dayton peace accord simultaneously created a state and a constitution. It drew territorial lines between the now deeply antagonized Serb, Croat and Bosniak (Muslim) identity groups in such a way that each became a dominating majority in one part and disadvantaged minority in the others. What’s more, the constitution set up a clumsy fourteen-level political and administrative system, further subdividing the population, impeding public services and inviting corruption.

‘You see,’ Gorana Mlinarević told the meeting, ‘the Dayton Peace Agreement taught us precisely how not to live together’. The lesson for the Syrians was: get your act together now, with all the international support you can muster, to achieve a voice in the peace negotiations. And on no account allow the negotiators to double as constitution-builders. The constitution must be hammered out later, back home, in an inclusive, democratic process.

The Syrian women reflected on the Bosnian experience in separate daily strategy meetings. They also discussed what they could learn from Bosnian women’s struggle for ‘transitional justice’ after the war. They learned how, post-war, the Bosnian women had pressured the government for legislation giving women survivors of rape in the war the right to acknowledgment and reparation. They were deeply touched by the testimony of Nura Begović and Hatidža Mehmedović, two elderly members of the Srebrenica Women’s Association who are still pursuing the perpetrators of the massacre of ten thousand men in that Bosnian enclave in July 1995. Many of the Syrian women told how they are trying right now to document human rights abuses occurring in the course of the fighting, to get autopsies done, medical evidence of injuries recorded and deaths certified, with a view to taking war criminals to court when the fighting ends.

The solidarity that grew between the Bosnian and Syrian women during these intense five days was heart-warming to see. Bonding was fostered by the organizers’ understanding that emotions matter as much as thoughts: participants could take a break at any moment to enjoy “wellbeing” sessions run by feminist therapists. Another gift was skilled and sensitive three-way language interpretation between Arabic, Bosnian and English.

However, it early became apparent that, despite sharing a language, the Syrian women were seriously challenged to reconcile their political differences. Attendance at the conference had been by open application. The women who came were of different ages, differently feminist, and active in women’s organizations with a range of views as regards a solution of the conflict. Some, like those of the Syrian Women’s League, and its partner organizations in the Coalition of Syrian Women for Democracy, including Msawat (Equality), were already deeply committed to gaining access to the Geneva peace negotiations. Others saw a certain elitism in such venerable women’s NGOs, and perhaps wondered whether long survival under the Assad regime had compromised them. Some, particularly younger participants, were involved with groups that had sprung up during the war, such as Refugees Not Slaves (Lajiaat La Sabaya), prioritizing the urgent needs of displaced and refugee families. Najlaa Alsheek, for instance, told me her own appalling story – how the regime detained her husband and her father, how she fled a bombed house with an injured child, how she escaped across the border to Turkey. Now she was running a project from her small temporary home to empower a group of refugee women through making and selling handicraft products. At one moment in the conference, a women involved in the Geneva initiative called out to Najlaa, “Leave the knitting! Come with us to the peace talks!” She was unshaken by this scornful evaluation of her daily work for refugee women. No, she said, I stick with the knitting.

Some of the Syrian participants were living in ‘liberated’ areas, and had close relations with the armed opposition forces. Some of these were suspicious of the word ‘reconciliation’ and hungered for victory as much as peace. Others were part of the Syrian NonViolent Movement (Alharak, or ‘Uprising’), who disagree with an armed response to Assad. How were these women to find common ground, meeting each other here in a foreign city? One said, “In Syria we so like to attack each other. We need to start respecting each other, even if we disagree. Personally I need to work on that. I have seen it modelled here among the Bosnian women.” Nawal Yazeji, a leader of the Syrian Women’s League, candidly admitted in the concluding session, “This has tested my ability to learn from the younger generation. But if I am open to them, I myself am young.” Najlaa too, notwithstanding the knitting jibe, told me that in these five days she had come to understand the importance of the work some women were doing to influence peace negotiations. These new relationships had changed her, she said.

The Syrian women, in telling their story to Bosnian counterparts, constantly referred back to women’s presence in the ‘revolution’ of 2011, their moment in the Arab ‘Spring’ before the nonviolent uprising was brutally crushed by the regime and turned into civil war. What gave added meaning to our conference was that, during the week before we arrived, and even as we spoke, Bosnians were out on the streets in their own ‘strike for dignity’ – as the Syrians put it. Protests were happening in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Mostar and other towns. Buildings had been burned. Already four cantonal authorities had resigned in response. Several Bosnian women, among us all day, were out in town at night doubling as protesters. They ferried news back to us from a thousand-strong plenary, at which a third of the speakers had been women. They confirmed our sense that these were the first stirrings of a unified popular rejection of the divisive and corrupt nationalist authorities installed by Dayton. We learned that protesters were demanding the governments’ resignation; drastic cuts to the inflated salaries and perks of political leaders and officials; diversion of mis-spent money into public social spending; and a reversal of the privatization of industry.

The Bosnian women felt this rebellion clinched their argument. The Bosnian political system was a stitch-up between rival nationalisms – militaristic, patriarchal and corrupt – reducing ordinary people, and especially women, to penury and impotence. Learn the lesson, they warned their Syrian friends. If civil society doesn’t get a say in shaping post-war Syria, before long you too will need another revolution.

Cynthia Cockburn is an honorary professor in the Department of Sociology at London’s City University and at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender. She has is the author of many books and academic articles, including her most recent book, Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements. She has also been a long time peace activist involved in the international feminist peace groups, Women in Black against War and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, reconciliation and peacebuilding. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at . All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


For a passionate talk on the need to look at the “two sides of war” and include women in peace processes, watch this talk by Zainab Salbi, the Iraqi founder of Women to Women International.

Understanding the Recruitment of Women and Girls to the Islamic State

While many women worldwide are working to build peace, locally and globally, it is important to remember that the connections between men and war and women and peace have never been accurate representations of reality. Women also provide necessary support for war. Despite the brutality and repression being currently inflicted by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on civilians, a significant number of women and girls are among the thousands of locals and foreigners joining the ranks of ISIS. As international law specialist Julia Brooks points out in this brief Q&A, women, like men, are participating for a variety of motivations.


Why do women join armed groups?
Women join armed groups for a variety of reasons, some unique and some common with men. Some women are abducted by fighters, or otherwise forced or coerced into joining the group. Many join voluntarily, whether convinced by the group’s ideology or attracted by the sense of mission and purpose. Some join armed groups out of retaliation for suffering inflicted by “the other side”, or as a means to escape problems at home, alienation or disillusion in their communities. Others follow their husbands into combat, or join for economic or survival reasons, motivated by financial gain, access to resources or enhanced status as group members.

Why are local women joining ISIS?
In the territories under its control, ISIS has attracted female members with many of the same motivations as men. As Nimmi Gowrinatha notes, ethnic, religious or political grievances; ideological motivations; humiliation, abuse or assault by opposing forces; or simply survival have been driving factors:

As elsewhere, most Iraqi women take up arms because they fear for their safety or because they feel ISIS represents their political interests. In many cases, violence also appears to be the only available means of political expression. For many women, and especially for women from the marginalized Sunni community, violence becomes a vehicle for political agency.

Last year, reports surfaced of an all-female brigade in Raqqa, Syria, established for policing purposes to enforce strict religious law among other women. “Jihad,” said an ISIS official in Raqqa, “is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well” (Gilsinan).

As Amanda Taub notes, “ISIS’s approach towards female recruits is driven by a calculating military strategy designed to further specific recruitment, military, and state-building goals — and there are signs that it is working.” Female recruits are particularly useful in generating popular support, argues Gowrinathan, since “they have better ability to access civilian women, to engage civilian women, and also to recruit” (Taub).

Why are Western women joining ISIS?
A significant number of women and girls from Western countries have also answered ISIS’ call to jihad, as part of an active online recruiting campaign. As reported on incredulously in Western media, teen girls from countries such as Austria, England, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States have sought to join the group; an estimated 100 women from Germany – mostly between the ages of 16 and 27 – have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, some with their husbands while others went on their own to marry or fight in the movement; others have been stopped by authorities en route. Last week, three British schoolgirls dominated the headlines when they traveled to Turkey, presumably en route to Syria.

Some young Western women are attracted to ISIS by the same messages as Western men: ranging from religious obligation to adventure to solidarity with Syrians in the fight against the Assad regime. In other cases, ISIS has used a romanticized narrative of marriage to attract women as wives and future mothers for jihadi fighters. “Women give birth to the mujahideen [warriors] and they are the ones who raise them and teach them,” notes one Western Jihadiwoman (Dettmer).

Countering the lure of violent extremism
In order to combat this type of extremism, we must question our assumptions about women and war in general, and ISIS in particular. As Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, notes:

Women and girls have scant rights under the medieval control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. Our instincts say they would never join in its abusive rule over other women, and yet they have. We’re used to thinking that men have a monopoly on violent extremism — except they don’t. We need a better understanding of what drives women to take part in, and even give their lives for, violent movements that insist on their inferiority. We can’t counter radical narratives if we don’t understand the motives of the radicalized.

Leaving aside the ongoing debate in the media over whether ISIS’s violence is “medieval” or in fact highly “modern,” a limited understanding of violence paints men as perpetrators and women as victims misses the much more complex reality. Women, as men, fill diverse roles in armed movements such as ISIS, yet their experiences and perspectives are often overlooked. “Women fight for personal as well as political power,” writes Gowrinathan, “often sacrificing one for the other. If the world ignores that fact, it will miss a chance to deal with the identity politics that sustain war.” In countering ISIS’s narrative of violence, we cannot overlook the motivations, grievances, contributions or crimes of women in armed groups. Missing that chance will not only cripple efforts at cutting off support to ISIS and facilitating a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria and Iraq but also hinder the equal participation of women in the creation of a more inclusive post-conflict order.

For another excellent article on the recruitment of young women to ISIS, check out

Works Cited
Dettmer, Jamie. “The ISIS Online Campaign Luring Western Girls to Jihad.” The Daily Beast. 8 June, 2014. Web.
Gilsinan, Kathy. “”The ISIS Crackdown on Women, by Women.” The Atlantic. 25 July 2014. Web.
Gowrinathan, Nimmi. “The Women of ISIS: Understanding and Combating Female Extremism.” Foreign Affairs. 21 Aug, 2014. Web.
Harman, Jane. “Why Do Women Turn into Suicide Bombers.” CNN. 5 August 2015. Web.
Taub, Amanda. “No, CNN, Women Are Not Joining ISIS Because of ‘Kittens and Nutella.’” Vox World. 18 February, 2015. Web.

This article was originally posted on Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative’s ATHA Blog. You can find it here.

Julia Brooks is the Legal Research Associate for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) at the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard University. Here previous work has included positions with the UN, having worked at UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) in Sarajevo, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands. Julia holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she received the Alfred P. Rubin Prize and Leo Gross Prize for excellence in international law. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Public Policy from Brown University, magna cum laude.

Iraq’s Female Citizens: Prisoners of War

In our western media, Middle Eastern women are often depicted as passive victims needing our rescue; indeed in 2003, the defense of women’s rights was presented as a justification for the US invasion of Iraq. The occupation, however, intensified religious extremism and resulted in massive violence against women. Jennifer Allsopp’s interview with Iraqi human rights defender Yanar Mohammed examines how war has impacted women in her country, while documenting the resistance of Iraqi women and their efforts to respond to the new threats posed by ISIS.


Jennifer Allsopp: What is the situation of women’s human rights in Iraq right now?

Yanar Mohammed: The new update of 2014-2015 is, of course, the attack of ISIS. But this is rooted in recent history. It is the direct result of all the politics that came into Iraq with the occupation. The US empowered the Shi’a Islamic political groups and marginalised a big part of the country who were recognised as Sunni people. It was only to be expected that the next step would be for the sectarian religious dynamics to surface, for one religious group to be fighting another religious group. The leading members of ISIS were either tortured in US military prisons or in the prisons of the Shi’a government which the Americans put in place. When you torture a person for long periods you might get a very passionate human rights defender but most probably you will get a beast whose only concern is to seek his revenge in the best way possible. And that’s what happened with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was in Bucca prison, being tortured by the Americans and being prepared for his next role in life, head of ISIS. Before 2003, none of us knew which part of the country was Sunni and which part was Shi’a. This was something new to Iraq and we are reaping the results at this point. Women’s wellbeing has paid the price.

As well as the crisis of ISIS we’re dealing with other fallout from the last war, like the ongoing crisis of Iraqi orphans. There are 5 million Iraqi orphans of war, and tens of thousands of them have been trafficked in the last decade. Five million orphans growing into teenagers is a very big difficulty for any society. Young women growing into situations with no parents are usually material for exploitation in the brothels. Many do not have proper identification papers. Although the law is not against giving them papers, whenever they go to any governmental establishment and ask for them they are asked to bring their father or their brother, when they don’t have anybody. They reside in the worst houses in Iraq and they are exploited on a daily basis because they do not have access to citizenship. It’s been more than 10 years since this started. The exploited female teenager’s right to citizenship is a major, major issue.

JA: Before the emergence of ISIS, were things improving at all for women in Iraq?

YM: We saw some relative peace in the previous years, relative in the sense that the capital was in control and the major cities had peace, but the religious parties always held the upper hand. They didn’t let a single year pass without surprising us. The last time was in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced their intention to introduce the Al Jaafari law, which is the Shi’a Islamist law for personal status that rules family life. This law would allow the marriage of a 9 year old girl, the humiliating treatment of women in matters of marriage and divorce, and generally to treat women like objects, not as human beings. This law is hundreds of years old and they wanted to make it a reality for us now; they want to abort hundreds of years of improvement in Iraq.

JA: How did the women’s movement respond?

YM: We demonstrated. We spoke over our radio. We have a community radio in Baghdad called Al Musawat, which means Equality radio. We spoke out very strongly. We had slogans that said “we will not allow you to rape our young daughters”. We explained to the public what the law means and we were able to gather quite some opposition against it so that the government eventually had to announce that it will not be passed “at this point”. They say it needs to be amended, but this is an excuse for them to hide the draft of the law. Eventually we were ordered to close the radio on the pretext that our “registration was not complete”. So yes, even before ISIS, the government’s attack on women’s rights and women’s status in law kept us busy.

JA: How has the women’s human rights movement in Iraq evolved in response to ISIS?

YM: When ISIS took over the Northern city of Mosul in June last year, which is the second biggest city in the country, that was a landmark for us all, that really was a landmark. We felt: the government is not the only oppressor of women, there is a new group which has emerged and which has turned gigantic, which is claiming a big part of the country. We were aware that the political situation was not secure and that our safety was not guaranteed. Many of us have our families in the parts of Iraq which ISIS has taken over. My father’s family is from the city of Telafar, which was taken by ISIS, and I have thousands of relatives who are homeless now.

And what has ISIS done to the women in the cities they have conquered? Direct enslavement, humiliation and turning women into concubines to be bought and sold. This was something nobody expected to see in Iraq. In the beginning, in 2003, there was the Iraqi resistance, which didn’t want the US occupation, then they developed Al Qaeda, but even then it was never this monstrous, this inhumane and as misogynistic as what we’re seeing now under ISIS.

We began immediately contacting the women in Mosul and in the other cities that were occupied. We set up a network of women in that city to whom we speak continuously. We try to be in touch with their difficulties and to be of use to those who face direct attacks. We also set up a coalition for ending the trafficking of Iraqi women and we came up with two recommendations. The first one was to gain legal status for our shelters for women and the second recommendation was that the Iraqi government recognise the Yazidi women’s enslavement and their status as prisoners of war who have been tortured by the enemy, and to give them benefits as such. We have had many wars with other countries and when a prisoner comes back they get many benefits: they get a house, they get a salary and we want the Iraqi government to do this for the Yazidi women so that they can have the social status that would allow a good future, a good family and a good status in society.

The women of Yazidi faith in my country have witnessed the most horrific practices, things that not many women in modern times have seen. A few months ago, I made a trip to the Kurdish part of the county, to where the women who were enslaved by ISIS had run away. I sat down with women in the Kadhiya camp and asked them about their experiences. A girl as young as 15 had been bought and sold more than ten times, from one ISIS fighter to another. She was raped by all those men. I asked her, “what was your most difficult moment during those two months that you were detained there?” She said, “it was the moments when one man would be selling me to the other and they would stand around me and look at me as a piece of meat on which they would be jumping the next day”. She told me that one of the fighters who had bought her would pray daily; after he finished prayer he would come and rape her. She told me stories that I would never expect to hear in a country where people were used to living peacefully with each other. We did have dictators, we did have times of war but it never reached the point where one person, or a group, would be attacking another group and would be enslaving all the women of that group.

JA: Are your recommendations being recognized, is the coalition having an impact?

YP: We’re still working on it. We started the coalition in its embryonic shape last September but in January and March the campaign picked up and we are beginning to see some results. The campaign has many aspects but the shelter is the most important one. At the very start of the war on Iraq our organisation made it known that we intended to start a shelter for women at risk, but the government did not allow us to do that; they said it was illegal. But from that time until now, with the support of our sisters in the international community and with the support of some actors like the Dutch government and the EU, we have been able to do it anyway. We’ve set up three women’s shelters in Baghdad and two in Karbala for the refugee women who are escaping ISIS, in addition to one LGBT shelter in Baghdad. So although they try to illegalise our sheltering activity, in practice we’ve persevered and we’ve been able to multiply them. This is crucial. It means that, at this moment, when a woman feels threatened by honour killing, by domestic abuse and political oppression, they are knocking on our doors and they know there is the network that will protect them and be there for them.

We see different kinds of things. Two months ago a woman came to me, her name is Zainab. She was in charge of a meeting hall in Baghdad and she’s extremely good looking. She was accused of being corrupt and of taking bribes by some officials who wanted to have sex with her. So they put her in prison, they made her go through very humiliating treatment, and when she left prison she felt she was threatened. She came and knocked on our doors and asked if we could protect her. So she is staying with us in one of our shelters and her daughter comes to visit her from time to time.

JA: And what’s the next step for you? What would you like to see happen in the next year?

YM: In the next year I would like to see a law legalizing women’s shelters in Iraq. I would like to see our radio being opened again as a result of the pressure that we’re putting on the governmental body that could allow this. I would like to see the Iraqi government guarantee social insurance for the Yazidi women who were enslaved and to recognize their status as prisoners of war.


Jennifer Allsopp is a regular contributor and commissioning editor at openDemocracy 50.50. She has worked on a number of research projects at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Oxford on asylum, youth migration, gender and poverty. She has also worked with a range of refugee and migrant organisations. She is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

Yanar Mohammed graduated from Baghdad University in 1984 and received a Master’s degree in Architecture in 1993. Her family came to Canada in 1993, but she returned to Iraq after the US occupation to work on women’s rights. She is co-founder and director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq whose work includes advocating against honour killings and child marriages, and has received several prestigious awards for her work.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, reconciliation and peacebuilding. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at . All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.

Searching for Good News in the Fight Against Rape

The Women Under Seige Project aims at raising awareness on the extent of the devastating worldwide epidemic of sexualized violence, particularly in conflict zones. Women, however, are fighting back, and in this article, Shazdeh Omari looks for some positive developments.


We began 2015 by looking at underreported stories of rape and sexualized violence around the world. Cases involving sexualized violence against women—its aftermath, its consequences—were falling below the public’s radar. Now, six months in, we thought we’d take a look at some of the good things that have happened—the steps forward in the march to end sexualized violence globally.

It turns out that this is easier said than done.

A simple Google search yields results that are more depressing than encouraging: hundreds of stories on rape and sexualized violence all over the world. There’s only a handful of any kind of positive developments. It seems very few good things have happened this year in the fight against sexualized violence. But, in the places where good things have happened, they’re worth noting.

Read more by clicking here

The Women Under Seige Project is a journalism project launched by the Women’s Media Center that investigates how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Shazdeh Omari is the Associate Editor of the Women Under Seige Project and the news editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Healing from Within: An Interview with Layel Camargo

Dawson student Catherine Duret faces her own fears when she goes off to interview international feminist activist Layel Camargo on their work in promoting transformative justice responses to child sexual assault. As revealed below, Layel’s passion and commitment is contagious, and their call for a more compassionate and community-based approach to sexual assault, along with a new openness to talk about the problem, needs to be heard.


I went into this assignment like a virgin, completely terrified, unprepared and without a twenty-four hour notice of what was about to happen. The morning of a conference at Montreal’s Center for Gender Advocacy, a teacher of mine asked if I would be willing to attend and interview the keynote speaker, Layel Camargo. Of course I agreed, because like every communications student who wants to get anywhere in this field, you jump at the chance to exercise your journalistic muscle, no matter how inexperienced and nervous you may be – and anyways I was already wearing a blazer, how could I say no?

As I prepared myself for what the evening would have in store for me, making sure all of my pencils were sharpened, my phone charged, and that I had enough paper to take extensive notes, I also made sure I knew exactly who I would be meeting and what we would be discussing.

Here to give a talk on transformative justice and how such attitudes benefit survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence was Layel Camargo (PGP/preferred gender pronoun: they). Originally from San Diego, they are an educator, activist, and member of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, which focuses on transformative justice approaches to help children who have experienced sexual violence. Having experienced violence in their childhood, they began fighting for social justice in high school, and have become an internationally known feminist and activist. Aside from being a general kind-hearted badass, an eloquent and emotional speaker, and a gender nonconforming trans-identified person, Layel is muxe, also known as a third gender in Mexico, and according to their Instagram, they adore artsy things and vegan food.

Nine hundred people were expected to show up at the talk, which was giving me all kinds of performance anxiety, and had me show up an hour early to the university campus. The interview was supposed to take place beforehand, and so with the gracious okay of the organizers, I sat patiently waiting in the auditorium for an hour and a half, my notebook of alphabetically ordered questions held in between my clammy and jittery hands. Just writing this out has me feeling as anxious as I was that night, overcome with the need to prove myself worthy and professional before this important international activist, and all those who would later go on to read what I had to say about them. Is this a good place to ask how I am doing? Okay, great thank you.

By the time 6 o’clock appeared on my phone screen, I had changed seats three times and Layel had just arrived. The freezing and dimly lit auditorium was filled with only a hundred or so people ready to sit through what would be for many an emotionally tolling presentation. My interview would have to wait, but that didn’t stop the answers to my questions from already finding their way to my eager pen and paper.

“The beauty of transformative justice,” Layel stated, “is that we can’t tell you how to do it – you only need to start thinking about it for it to be put into action.” In fact, transformative justice is a philosophy that rests on a liberatory approach to violence and puts the person who has been hurt at the center. Another Bay Area collaborative, named generationFIVE, pioneered the use of transformative justice to end child sexual abuse. As they put it, transformative justice is “a liberatory approach that seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration and policing” (5). It encourages those who have been hurt to recognize the injustice perpetuated on them, yet use the communities surrounding them to heal, instead of turning to legal entities that may do more harm than anything else.

Layel recognizes that there is no satisfaction in “leaving the power to the perpetrator”, but as they highlight, transformative justice is only one of the ways we can start bringing honest justice back to those who have lost an integral part of themselves, be it by sexual violence or any other kind of abuse. Realizing that in relation to sexual violence, getting rid, blaming and shaming a perpetrator doesn’t solve any issues, the applied practice of transformative justice asks us to look beyond our condition to look forward to accountability.

As generationFIVE explains,

Transformative Justice seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations, while holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities. This accountability includes stopping immediate abuse, making a commitment to not engage in future abuse, and offering reparations for past abuse. Such accountability requires community responsibility and access to on-going support and transformative healing for people who sexually abuse. (5)

Laval focused greatly on the extent to which we often forget or brush aside sexual assault as a form of violence. Is it because we are too afraid to speak of it, even though the concept of consent and sexual violence, which lack acknowledgment, understanding and teaching, is not only applicable to the bedroom, but happening in factories, on campuses and in the general workplace and street every day?

This culture of unhealthy interactions and relationships, where 50 to 60% of transgender lives will experience sexual assault – and 70% of those actions will be based on hate* – demands us to not only hold ourselves accountable, but our community as a whole. The fact that few of us are safe these days is troubling, but this makes it much more of a necessity for us to create safe spaces where we can come together and talk about assault, violence and the experiences we go through as humans of this world. “It’s important to think of healing as a collective thing,” Layel emphasized. There is undeniable value in collective action and interdependency, and as we seek to build trust for transparency and confidentiality within our social circles, the need to stretch our compassion muscle as they put it, is greater than ever.

Two hours later, after an enthralling presentation and a very personal question and answer period, I was finally able to put my two hands together to honour Layel for their work and commitment to such an important cause, and their ability to translate and instill in us the importance of individual accountability. It was now or never to go up to them and ask for that interview, and I can tell you that I wasn’t the only one in the room who wanted to talk to them. As I finally approached Layel and introduced myself timidly, still overcome with emotion and babbling slightly, I remembered to hit record and ask the one question on my list that hadn’t been answered during the conference: “If there was one thing you’d want to let students on campuses know about sexual violence, what would it be?” Their answer was what I had been waiting to hear all evening long.

Talking about sexual violence is hard, and so nobody wants to talk about it. It’s not the sweet juicy conversation starters and stories that people want to hear. Even the people who are doing the work probably don’t want to talk about it.
We’re doing this though because some people have vocalized that this is good for them, but we also want to highlight that there are some individuals that can’t disclose their sexual assault – there are individuals who prefer to be anonymous because of the hardships that come with disclosing, and we also recognize that there are some people walking around the planet not knowing they are survivors or that they have caused sexual assault.
What I want to stress the most is that sexual violence is prevalent in different institutions, and systems, and so it’s often about what is being left out, and it’s in those left out places that we really have to increase that visibility. It’s unfortunate that when we do talk about environmental racism and labour abuses, the conversations around sexual abuses is always left to the sidelines But the conversation never ends up being about that, and that alone is a horrible experience that is often un-highlighted, so I think if there’s ever an opportunity to have conversations about it, and have a space where people can have dialogue, we have to take it.

It’s with that rekindled fire within me that I thanked Layel for their presence that night, and their message of courage. I left the auditorium, emerging back onto a bustling de Maisonneuve Street on a Thursday night, hope in my heart and tears in my eyes, all nerves pushed aside and humanity and self-love reinstated within myself. I now felt ready to share with others around me. Then I realized something. I had just done something that absolutely terrified me, but now I stood on the other side of that fear, accomplished, proud and ultimately transformed and finally at ease with myself – just as I will be when I finish writing this article.

The fact that, on my short walk to the metro, I ran into a friend that I hadn’t seen in two years, whom I considered one of the most important people in my life at one time, isn’t at all a coincidence. It was the consequence of me allowing myself to forgive all those, including myself, who have hurt me in the past, as well as in the future. All Layel was asking of us, was to find the humanity within ourselves, and I can only imagine what would happen if we all did.

Work Cited:
Kershnar, Sara, et al. “Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and other forms of Intimate and Community Violence.” generationFive. June, 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

*The statistics on violence against transgendered peoples were given in Layal Camargo’s talk.

Layel Camargo (PGP: They/Them) is a 26 year old educator and activist who is a gender non-conforming Trans-Identified person. Layel is a Mexican of Mayo and Yaqui indigenous descent, and identifies as Muxe, a third gender in Oaxaca, Mexico. Originally from San Diego, California they are a first generation American and college graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with two majors in Feminist Studies and Legal Studies. Layel Camargo is currently working with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), which highlights the need for community-based responses to incidents of child sexual assault.

Catherine Duret is a graduating Arts & Culture Student at Dawson College, a proud feminist and writer. She is also enrolled in the Women’s/Gender Studies Certificate program.

For more information on the potential of transformative justice, we invite you to have a look at our posting on reconciliation by clicking here.

From Northern Ireland to Korea: The Power of Nonviolence and Love in Action

Seventy years ago Korea was divided into two separate states by the US and former Soviet Union — an event which precipitated the 1950–53 Korean War. The war resulted in the death of 4 million Koreans, mostly civilian, and left millions of families separated by a 2 mile wide demilitarized zone. This past May, thirty international women peacemakers from around the world walked with thousands of Korean women, north and south, to call for an end to the Korean War — the world’s longest un-ended war, the reunification of families and women’s leadership in the peace process. As the women prepared to cross, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire spoke of the role of women in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and her hopes that they can play a similar role to end the more than 60 year cold war between North and South Korea.


Dear Friends,

Good Morning – Jo-eun-achim-imnida

I believe passionately in the power of women as peacebuilders because I have witnessed their power of nonviolent love in action. In l976 when Northern Ireland was on the brink of civil war, it was the civil community, particularly women, who marched in their thousands against the ongoing violence, and articulated a clear moral message ‘stop the violence, stop the killing, there is another way to solve our problems’.

When my sister Anne’s three children were killed in ‘the troubles’ in August, l976, their deaths, preceded as they were by thousands of violent deaths, touched the conscience of us all. Many people realized violence was wrong, life was sacred, and indeed we each had a right not to be killed and a responsibility not to kill each other. There was also an acknowledgement that violence was fueling retaliatory violence and deepening the fear and anger in the community. Something had to break this vicious downward cycle, of killing and destruction.

It was the civil community, particularly women, who by articulating ethical and moral values, and by calling on everyone including the political leaders and governments, faith and spiritual leaders, paramilitary groups, to take up their responsibility, unambiguously reject all violence, and begin, through dialogue to solve the problems faced by the Northern Irish people.

There was an acknowledgement by all parties, both state and non-state actors, that militarism and paramilitarism could not solve the deeply complex, historical, ethnic, political problems, which the Northern Irish people had inherited. Indeed for every bullet fired, bomb exploded, civil and political rights curtailed, there was a violent reaction. Women, many of whom experienced at first hand horrific violence, raised their voices and mobilized to end the war. They started to make space to create the critical will of the political leaders and paramilitaries to enter into genuine dialogue, diplomacy, compromise and co-operation. Women insisted that violent begets violence and this included violent rhetoric and a demonization of each other. They acknowledged that we needed to start peacebuilding in our own hearts, homes, communities, schools, and to teach peace, nonviolence and conflict resolution. The task of building a culture of nonkilling and nonviolence and changing the mindsets of militarism and war, was taken up by many people as they embraced a new consciousness of respect for each other, diversity, and the environment.

In a divided society, such as Northern Ireland, where there was a great deal of fear and anxiety, and where identities are changing, people are often traumatized by separation, isolation, and they lack confidence and belief in themselves and each other. Therefore it is not enough to insist only on dialogue, courageous and risk-taking efforts must be made, by both people – and particularly by political leaders – to open the paths to dialogue. In Northern Ireland in order to give people a chance to talk, and to listen to each other, women/men/youth helped to set up hundreds of peace groups. They traveled across Northern Ireland, setting up exchanges and discussing how to cross the emotional/religious/political divides and how to build a just, equal, and peaceful Northern Ireland.

They also traveled across the border to the Republic of Ireland to build links, cultural exchanges, economic co-operation. In the North of Ireland, women visited the prisoners and families who had lost loved ones during ‘the troubles.’ Their focus was on forgiveness and reconciliation, realizing that forgiveness is the key to peace. When the peace process was happening in Northern Ireland women played a critical and decisive role at the negotiating table, insisting on all inclusive, unconditional talks and bringing difficult issues, such as demilitarization, prisoners’ rights, equality and minority rights, to the power sharing negotiations. We have been blessed to see an end to the Northern Irish violent conflict, but acknowledge too that post-conflict peacebuilding is a work in progress.

I pray this story gives hope, and helps to deepen your confidence, courage and conviction that peace is possible. Indeed, it is a basic human right and a concrete step to ending the suffering. In North Korea, we are conscious that you and your families have suffered so much, and I am truly sorry for this. Our delegation have come on this visit, to both North and South Korea, and to walk across the De-Militarized Zone as we want to tell you that we love you, we care for you all, and we join in solidarity with you and your work to end the Korean war, unite Korean families, and bring more women into the peace process and negotiating table for a peace treaty.

President Obama said recently in response to the opening up of diplomatic relations with USA/Cuba, ’50 years of isolation for Cuba has not worked’, we hope he will also say that ’70 years of isolation for North Korea has not worked, and it’s time to end the war, time for peace’. Such visionary political leadership would not only give hope to the Korean people as they build a nonkilling peaceful Korea, but also to the whole world that disarmament and peace is possible through diplomacy, not war.

Thank you – gamsa-hamnida

Peace and happiness to you all – pyongwha-rul-derimnida.


To find out more about this major initiative undertaken by women peacemakers, watch this short video.

For a list of the thirty women peacemakers who have launched this project, click here.

Mairead Maguire was awarded the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her extraordinary actions to help end the deep ethnic/political conflict in her native Northern Ireland. She shares the award with Betty Williams. Mairead organized, together with Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown, massive peace demonstrations appealing for an end to the bloodshed and a nonviolent solution to the conflict. They co-founded the Peace People, a movement committed to building a just and peaceful society in Northern Ireland.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can find the original article by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, reconciliation and peacebuilding. The 50.50 project has an ever-growing collection of articles on the issues of inclusion and gender equality, and many wonderful ones dealing with gender, war and peace. We encourage you to join the conversation at . All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.


An Introduction to Our Topic: Truth and Reconciliation (2)

Reconciling with those who have wronged us asks a lot from us – to forgo retaliation, to acknowledge the “other” as a fellow human being motivated by similar, or at least understandable, emotions and interests, and perhaps to recognize our own responsibilities in contributing to the situation. Sometimes the wrongs are on such a huge scale that the possibility seems unimaginable. If we look, though, we can find many accounts of people not only acknowledging the other’s genuine apology, but offering their forgiveness in turn and in some cases showing a willingness to establish or rebuild a relationship. Peacebuilding truly is a human capacity.

For most of us, there are actions that are unforgivable – the personal loss is too great or the crimes committed are so massive that no individual can surely take that power onto themselves. Such was the dilemma expressed by Simon Wiesenthal, when as a concentration camp prisoner, he was suddenly brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wished to confess his sins and ask for a Jew’s forgiveness. The act seems profoundly selfish, but the lifelong doubt that Wiesenthal shared in his book, The Sunflower, as to whether he had done the right thing by walking out without saying a word, speaks volumes about the power of truth-telling and genuine remorse.

Forgiveness, as Martha Minow says, is necessarily an individual act. Official forgiveness indeed suggests public forgetting, and the old adage “forgive and forget” really should be replaced by “remember and forgive”. Victims who forgive do not forget the wrongs committed, nor should they be asked to, but victims frequently assert that the power of the event to continue causing pain is greatly lessened through the act of forgiving. Forgiveness is a complicated concept and is often done for very personal reasons that have nothing to do with the perpetrator, but genuine forgiveness can also be provoked spontaneously by an honest display of remorse, as happened to Eric Lomax, who had been tortured in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. After meeting the interpreter, who had been the source of his hatred and desires for vengeance for 50 years, he found that his anger simply disappeared, when seeing that his perpetrator’s grief was “far more acute than mine” (quoted in Lazare, 245). As Minow cautions, forgiveness though must never be demanded: “it must remain a choice by individuals; the power to forgive must be inextricable from the power to choose not to do so” (18).

It is important to not over-exaggerate the positive impact of the truth on the promotion of reconciliation. Speaking the truth can of course sometimes cause individual harm and fuel conflicts. Anthropologist Douglas Fry emphasizes that toleration, where a conflict “is simply ignored, and the relationship with the offending party is continued” has been a common response to conflict and is often used effectively to preserve peaceful relationships. Furthermore, studies conducted in the years following South Africa’s TRC have offered a more nuanced conclusion about its significance for individual victims. Many were truly helped by a chance to share their suffering with a wider community, but some found the telling of their story brought simply the re-living of a traumatizing experience; moreover, many perpetrators testified to their crimes to obtain amnesty, but offered no remorse, which often intensified the suffering of their victims who were in attendance.

However, speaking the personal truths of our lives, particularly when we are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position, has the power to transform relationships. This is revealed so poignantly by one of this newsletter’s contributors, Libby Hoffman, whose work with a community-focused reconciliation project in Sierra Leone, called Fambul Tok (Family Talk), offers incredible examples of the power of storytelling, while providing lessons to all of us about how international peacebuilding initiatives often fail precisely because they do next to nothing to rebuild broken human relationships torn apart by hatred, fear, and guilt.

In addition, we have a powerful article by award-winning author and University of Regina historian James Daschuk that reveals how our nation was built on the intentional destruction of our land’s original settlers. Montreal author Judith Kalman reflects on her experiences as a witness at what will likely be one of the last Nazi war crimes trials, and reveals the value of a country confronting its past. We end the collection with two inspiring contributions from Christina Ma and Dawson’s Ivan Freud: the first an account of a wonderful initiative at Simon Fraser University to foster reconciliation among students of diverse backgrounds; the second an invitation to consider how the world’s religions can foster peace. While diverse, each one of these pieces reveals the paths to a more peaceful world – one that arguably is attainable if we start bringing more openness, creativity and compassion to our thinking about the conflicts that too often plague our relationships.

Works cited

Fry, Douglas P. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Minow, Martha.. “Memory and Hate: Are There Lessons from Around the World?” Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law and Repair. Ed. Martha Minow. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 14-30.

Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower. New York: Schocken, 1998.

Pat Romano
Humanities, Dawson College

For recent comparative research on truth and reconciliation commissions, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, launched in the aftermath of South Africa’s TRC, is a wonderful source.

Clearing the Plains

In his recent award-winning book, Clearing the Plains, author and historian James Daschuk sheds light on a dark time in Canadian history and looks at the tremendous cost First Nations people paid for the realization of former Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s national dream. In this article, he reveals the origins of the continuing gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians in terms of health and economic well-being, starting with a look at his home province of Saskatchewan.


As Canadians, we think of ourselves as decent, even good people. We’re nice. We take care of each other, with universal medical care; we have even enshrined that into the most important institutions of our society. Saskatchewan, where the idea of medical care for all was born, is a province with an ethic of hard but honest work that, in a generation, turned sod homesteads into the breadbasket of the world. Perhaps the quintessential Canadian province in the way that it reflects our values as a nation.

Tommy Douglas, who mobilized the province during some of its darkest days, was voted the “greatest Canadian” ten years ago for epitomizing the values that we aspire to. From humble beginnings, we have achieved so much. Our historic positioning as an honest broker and our commitment to social justice has made our country the envy of the world, and has provided us with the ability to expect some of the highest measures of health, material well-being and life expectancy on the globe. As another politician once said, “a just society.”

There is only one thing. The prosperity and the expectations of the good life that flow from it aren’t available to everyone. Individual health outcomes will vary from person to person, but the ideal situation is to have as small a gap as possible between the rich and the poor with regard to health-care needs, life expectancy and so forth. If we all get sick and die at about the same stage of life, then the system, and society, is working at its most efficient and equitable.

Study after study has shown that Aboriginal communities are the poorest and most marginalized in Canadian society. Not surprisingly, they are the most vulnerable to disease, violence and preventable death. Because of our demographic makeup, the gap between the mainstream and our indigenous neighbours is a particular threat to Saskatchewan’s future. In the next 20 years, the proportion of Aboriginal people is expected to double to 30 per cent. In 40 years, half of the population could be First Nations or Métis. As the population balance shifts, the burden of unequal health and the cost of treatment will eventually bankrupt us – not to mention the snowball effect of human suffering.

We probably don’t like to think about it, but the differences between living conditions for those in the mainstream and Aboriginal people in the province are so striking, they could be living in different countries. In the yearly ranking of countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, Canada consistently ranks in the top 10. If the same measures, like housing, education and health, were applied to the First Nations population, they would be on par with Romania in the 72nd position.

In 2013, two-thirds of all First Nations children in Saskatchewan lived in poverty. Tuberculosis rates in First Nations communities are 31 times higher than the national average. Infant mortality is triple the Canadian average. More than a hundred Aboriginal communities across the country don’t have safe drinking water.

An average funding gap of $3,000 to $4,000 (and as high as $8,000) per student per year between the provincial school system and the federally funded schools on reserve means that many of the buildings are decayed and unsafe. Less than half of the kids who live on reserves finish high school.

More Aboriginal young people go to jail than graduate. A recent article in Maclean’s magazine called them “Second-Class Children” condemned from birth to a poorer, sicker and shorter life than the rest of us. As I write this, people from across the country are calling for an investigation into how almost 1,200 Aboriginal women and girls have gone missing or been killed. In Winnipeg, the families of the missing and the murdered have taken it upon themselves to drag the Red River for the remains of their loved ones.

So, how did we get into this absurd and terrible situation where members of one group can expect to lead a shorter, more violent and sicker life from the moment they are born?

This was the question I tried to answer with Clearing the Plains, the culmination of more than twenty years of research. I knew the story would be grim. Before Columbus, America wasn’t a disease-free paradise; some societies flourished while others floundered, occasionally in violent confrontations with their neighbours. The chain of events that was unleashed with the arrival of Europeans to the continent is hard to fathom. Without previous exposure to a number of Old World diseases, all were equally vulnerable.

In the case of smallpox, the most deadly, eight out of ten may have died in the span of three weeks. Survivors, so sick they could barely move, often succumbed to famine. In an instant, communities lost their elders, the keepers of knowledge and wisdom, the children, their mothers and fathers – a true catastrophe. Some communities buckled under the pressure and disappeared. Some joined together creating new identities.

There was one constant during the days of the epidemics. The bison, the staple food for millennia, provided a diet so dependable and so nutritious that the First Nations of the Plains have been described by anthropologists as the tallest people in the world in the nineteenth century

This was the situation when Canada acquired the West in 1869-1870. To open the land for our immigrant ancestors, the Crown negotiated treaties throughout the 1870s. The completed treaties, an exchange of commitments and responsibilities for both First Nations people and representatives of the Dominion of Canada, are the legal framework that prairie society was founded on. Without them, none who descended from the settlers would be here.

In opening the land for our ancestors, the Plains Cree, recognizing the herds would not be around forever, received a promise in the terms of Treaty 6 that, in a time of famine, Canada would provide humanitarian assistance.

No one foresaw what happened next. Within two years, the bison were gone for good. In the early months, members of the North West Mounted Police – the only real Canadian authority in the region – scrambled to find food while their physicians reported previously unseen hunger and sickness among the First Nations.

As desperation spread, Sir John A. Macdonald was elected on the platform of the National Policy and the promise to build a railway to the Pacific as quickly as possible. Overnight, the famine was turned into an opportunity to clear the land along the C.P.R. and the adjacent plains for the expected rush of settlers.

Instead of the promised food aid, rations were withheld until chiefs led their people to reserves hundreds of kilometers away from the tracks. Once there, government officials controlled every aspect of life, often relishing the daily humiliations inflicted on the people they were hired to serve. Food brought to the region for the hungry rotted in storehouses on reserves while Indian Department employees were praised for their parsimony. The region between Regina, Saskatchewan, and the Alberta and American borders, once some of finest bison range on the continent, was cleared of the people who had hunted there for centuries. A generation after the arrival of Canadian officials, reserve communities were so undermined by malnutrition and tuberculosis that physicians described them as doomed to extinction.

It wasn’t a biological accident that came with exposure to a new disease. Food was used as a weapon. The Prime Minister, who also served as the Minister of Indian Affairs in the years after the herds disappeared, spoke in the House of Commons of his plan to remove First Nations people from Assiniboia. He boasted in Parliament that the hungry were “kept on the verge of starvation to reduce the expense”, even demanding “proof of starvation” before food was distributed. On reserves, any suggestion of political dissent could be met by an order to withhold rations for entire communities for a week or more. Thousands died of malnutrition-related illnesses. Aboriginal people did not lose their health in the decade after they allowed our ancestors to establish the agrarian society that is so much a part of our identity. In thousands of cases, they had their health taken from them.

The settlers from Europe and elsewhere did not drive First Nations people from their land, subjugate them and impoverish them, setting the stage for more than a century of displacement, uncertainty and preventable early death. The government did it on their behalf. Those who came were enticed to the prairies with Canadian promises of “Free Lands for the Millions” and a “Farm for Every Man”, among others. By the time the region was flooded with immigrants, the Treaty population could not leave their reserves without the written authority of a government official, a prohibition on free movement that remained law until 1951. Residential schools institutionalized the marginalization, the violence and the sickness for a century.

In 2014, the gap in health is just as real as it was when Saskatchewan was being established as a farming society more than a century ago. As our immigrant ancestors took up free land and established a society that became the breadbasket of the world, it was the Aboriginal people who paid the price with their freedom, their health and even their lives. As citizens of Saskatchewan and Canada, maybe it is time to come to terms with the uncomfortable parts of our past so we can build a future of which we can all be proud.

James Daschuk graciously allowed Inspire Solutions to post this article, originally published in the University of Regina’s alumni magazine, Degrees (Fall/Winter 2014) . He is the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina. His book has received numerous awards, including The Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research: the Sir John A. Macdonald Prize.

The devastating legacy of Canada’s residential school system has also been well documented by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We recently invited Commissioner Marie Wilson to Dawson College. To watch her powerful talk, click here.

The Oskar Groening Trial: A Witness’ Impressions

On April 21, 2015, Oskar Groening, age 93, a German former SS-Unterscharführer who was stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, was put on trial for accessory to murder in 300,000 cases for his role in the tragic deaths of those interned at the camp during the Second World War. Groening’s trial may be the last great Nazi war crimes trial in history. On April 29, 2015, Judith Kalman testified at this trial on behalf of her half-sister Eva, who was gassed upon her arrival at Auschwitz. She was six years old.

These are her reflections on the experience:


When I first heard about this trial from my sister Elaine Kalman Naves, it was just before Christmas 2014. I had no idea what a gift it would turn out to be, but I did have a strong immediate reaction. I knew I should be there, even as an observer. It felt as if a unique opportunity had fallen from the sky, an eventuality I would never have dreamed of, and that I’d be a fool not to rise to whatever it may offer or require of me.

I didn’t meet Thomas Walther, lawyer for the co-plaintiffs and the force behind bringing this case to trial, until the end of January, just before my husband John and I were bound for a month in Florida. Because of this imminent departure, I couldn’t attend the gatherings of the co-plaintiffs from Toronto. Everything happened quickly. On my return, I spent a couple of weeks preparing my testimony. I had no sense, however, of what to expect beyond presenting this statement. I vaguely imagined a couple of dinners with the other co-plaintiffs; evening walks with John around Luenenburg; perhaps an evening or two in Hamburg after court had adjourned for the day. I worried somewhat about how I might feel surrounded by German people and the German language, having heard it mostly in American war movies as sharply barked commands. Nothing short of this trial would have induced me to visit Germany. I have not objected to my children’s visits to Berlin, but out of respect for my parents’ suffering at the hands of the country, and the senseless murders of their families, I would never have chosen to set foot on German soil.

Somehow, for me, Oskar Groening was the least important character in my experience of the trial in Luenenburg. He was the hook that reeled us all in. Groening, netted finally by the justice system, was the negative force that drew together our galaxy of lawyers, co-plaintiffs, justices, and press. But it was our interactions that held sway for me, the sound of our voices telling our stories, and the meaningful conversations between strangers who had little time or patience under the circumstances for small talk, that made this such a significant and seminal event. What impressions have I come away with? That Germany is a country seeking to change the culture that had produced the Nazis. It not only wishes to distance itself from that sinister period; it wants to fundamentally change the values, perceptions, and ways of coalescing as a society that led to it. I am grateful to have been included in this process, and made use of towards this constructive end. What I’ve gained is personally invaluable.

To quote my husband, proximity is the best antidote to prejudice. Every German person we met during the twelve-day stay—our lawyers, the security detail at the court, the judges and prosecutors, members of the German press, city officials, hotel and restaurant staff—made us feel welcome and cared for. Cared for and cared about. I think this was the point, that even if justice can’t be served at this late date; if justice could never have repaired the enormity of the crimes committed; at least justice—German justice—finally cares. Period. It cares to go through the exercise nonetheless, for the sake of the innocent dead, and the sake of the survivors, and the sake of the national soul which will not forget and continues to grapple with its history of perpetrating genocide. I have never felt more intensely listened to by those who wished to converse, and those who took notes, and those who pinned a microphone to my collar. This invitation to speak about the past, its legacy, its mark upon my psyche and its brutal stamp on the lives of my parents, released an unburdening that has left me more open to the world and freer in my engagement with it. It seems unlikely, at the age of sixty-one, to undergo so formative a change. Yet bringing this trial to court was itself an unlikely venture. Its benefits in my case surpassed all expectation.

 To read a transcript of Judith Kalman’s testimony at the trial, click here.

Judith Kalman graduated from the New School of Dawson College in 1974. She is the author of The County of Birches. Her writing has appeared in Grain, The Fiddlehead, Saturday Night, Descant, Prairie Fire, the anthology Celebrating Canadian Women, and the Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women. Judith’s work received the 1995 Tilden Canadian Literary Award and both the Gold Award and the President’s Medal at the National Magazine Awards in 1996. A story from The County of Birches was selected for the Journey Prize Anthology in 1997 and Judith received a Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the collection in 1998. The story “Flight” was broadcast on CBC Radio’s “Between the Covers” and the book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in the USA.

Inspire Solutions is honoured to include Judith Kalman’s reflections in our upcoming collection of Dawson College’s Reconciliation Stories, to be released in the fall.

Interweaving Peacebuilding and Film

International peacebuilding initiatives often fail to build the foundations needed for real and sustainable peace to emerge in post-conflict zones. Sierra Leonian human rights activist John Cukier recognized the need for a new approach in his country and joined up with Libby Hoffman, founder of a US peace organization, Catalyst for Peace, that is committed to supporting local community-based peace initiatives through an emphasis on storytelling. Together they founded Fambul Tok, which brings victims and perpetrators from the civil war in Sierra Leone together for the first time in village-level, tradition-based ceremonies of truth-telling and forgiveness. This has been documented in the award-winning film, Fambul Tok. In this entry from her blog, Libby discusses what happens when the film is screened to 60 ex-combatants in Sierra Leone.


There are occasional moments in this work when people, activities, resources, and timing all align, and there’s a powerful experience that grabs you in the pit of your stomach, leaving you feeling – This is what it is all for. Thursday, May 10, 2012 was one of those moments for me, with the workshop Fambul Tok held in Waterloo, just outside of Freetown (Sierra Leone), for a group of close to 60 ex-combatants. Powerful at many levels, it was a pinnacle coming together moment of the twin pillars of our commitment to the on-the-ground peacebuilding work of Fambul Tok, and to the ongoing storytelling through film around that work; the storytelling-AS-peacebuilding approach we have taken.

The week I arrived in Sierra Leone, Fambul Tok was just beginning a national campaign to prevent violence in the upcoming national election. They were kicking off their first official activities in Waterloo, the area just outside of Freetown with the largest concentration of ex-combatants from the war (over 9000). The events included football (soccer) matches, a carnival, and radio programs, all preaching nonviolence. Mohamed Savage was taking the lead as the Fambul Tok representative coordinating the work on the ground.

Yes, you read that right — Mohamed Savage. For those who have seen the feature-length film, Savage was one of the most notorious rebel commanders during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war. In the film, we first see Savage as an emotionless man denying all accusations against him, but in the last moments we watch Savage’s face transform on the screen. I was vividly aware of the moment Sara (Terry, Director/ Producer of the film) first called me after that interview took place, describing the extraordinary transformation she had just witnessed (and they had just captured on film, thanks to an alert crew!), and the stroke of inspiration that had led her to show Savage Naomi Joe’s poignant appeal to her brother to return home. (If you’re not familiar with this moment – watch the film!). In an epilogue to the film, Savage decides to return to the site of many of his atrocities, where he apologizes and is forgiven on behalf of the community (see below for link to the video of Savage’s apology and the community reaction). In the extraordinary continuation of his extraordinary journey from ex-combatant to peacemaker, Savage is now on the Fambul Tok staff.

The first events in Waterloo were a huge success and served as an opportunity to build bridges from the ex-combatants to other community members. Thrilled to be engaged in this way, there was a resounding call from many leaders of the ex-combatants for more, similar activities. With a new version of the film in hand (an educational version that includes Savage’s apology), John Caulker, the Sierra Leonian founder of Fambul Tok, thought the timing was right to have its first screening in Sierra Leone…for this very community of ex-combatants.

Together with Savage and other community and ex-combatant leaders, the vision grew from a simple screening and discussion to a daylong workshop for 40 leaders, drawing from each of the 10 sub-communities in Waterloo – the first official direct engagement of the ex-combatants in the Fambul Tok process (and Fambul Tok’s first official work in Sierra Leone’s Western Area, which includes Freetown and its immediate surroundings).

Savage was very keen to have his story shared with other ex-combatants. He was eager to use his story as a platform to urge others to refrain from violence going forward, and to encourage other ex-combatants to acknowledge their wrongdoing in the war and apologize to those they wronged. John and I had no idea how the film and Fambul Tok in general would be received by the group, and frankly we anticipated that there could be a lot of resistance – or at the very least, an unwillingness to engage with the ideas of nonviolence and reconciliation in any depth. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Anticipating 40, as the workshop began in Waterloo, eager ex-combatant leaders kept appearing at the Winikon Plaza door until we had over 60 gathered for the event. For the opening, John asked everyone to introduce themselves and say one thing they would like to learn that day. The responses set the tone for the day, illuminating the primal motivations drawing people to the meeting:

“I want to be a good somebody in the community.”
“I want to get the skills to live in peace with our communities.”
“I want to get some skills to tell other ex-combatants how to live in peace with their community.”
“I want to help prepare [ex-combatants] to be changed people.”
“I want to acquire the skills to help build the country and my community.”
“I want to become united so we can create a better image.”
“I sell drugs. I do it because I haven’t had another way to be constructively engaged. I am looking to learn things that will help be constructive, so I won’t sell drugs anymore.”
“During the past elections, no one engaged ex-combatants. Doing it this time sends the signal that we can be peaceful, nonviolent.”

These responses immediately dispelled any doubts we had about whether this group was interested in refraining from violence, and living in peace with each other and their community! After an initial discussion of the term “ex-combatant,” and the advantages and disadvantages that came from being saddled with that term as their collective identity, we settled in to watch the film.

In all honesty – my stomach was fluttering during the screening. Sitting next to Mohamed Savage, watching 60 other ex-combatants watch his story unfold, in the context of this great national story of communities and individuals courageously and graciously dealing with the horrible wounds of the war – it was hard not to be amazed that I was actually in this place, in this moment. With all of us together, watching Savage embrace the mission of reconciling with his community. Thinking back to that moment, and thinking back to the start of the program – could I ever have imagined it leading…here? To this? Never in a million years! I was very conscious of all the interweaving moments, interwoven lives and stories, that had led to just this moment – of all of the individuals, working to live their lives to their highest and best purpose. The Bigger Hand, indeed.

Many ex-combatants were sobbing during the screening. Several were so moved, they had to get up and leave, unable to continue watching. But the most extraordinary moment was after the screening when Mohamed Savage stood up to speak. With singular focus and an eloquence born from the obvious, raw honesty behind it, he urged his fellow ex-combatants to change their ways. He urged them all to acknowledge the wrong they had done during the war, and to apologize and reconcile – with themselves and with the communities they had wronged. He urged them to commit to never turn to violence again. He talked about the resistance they would face in that process – that their friends and acquaintances wouldn’t immediately accept that they had changed, and that they would have to be patient and persistent in going forward anyway. He spoke about how, in going back to apologize, he had done what he had done not only for himself, and for his community, — but for them, to be an example to them, and to help them to do the same thing.

John asked the group what they thought about the film and Savage’s story, and how many of them might want to follow Savage’s example and reconcile with the communities they had hurt. Every single person in the room raised their hand. Every. Single. Person.

Lively discussion group and smaller group conversations yielded more insights into the film’s impact on this audience. Several noted that it illuminated for them how “senseless and wicked” the war had been, and watching it caused them to regret strongly what they had done. Many said it was the first time they realized the pain they had caused others in the war. They also acknowledged that, in the reconciliation process they wanted to embark on, their first task would be to prepare “inwardly” to apologize – they knew it would take work for them to be honestly, emotionally ready to apologize. They wanted to embrace this work as their next task.

In contemplating the way forward, there was a clear recognition that many had fought in the war because they had been manipulated by politicians, or by others in senior positions. There was a clear and strong commitment going forward, above all, not to be manipulated by politicians. Rejecting the former slogan “A dae wit you” (I am with you) that had been repeated as emblematic of their loyalty to those above them, there was a strong and countervailing commitment to organize now for good, for self-improvement and community improvement.

To lay the framework for the new opportunity this group wanted to claim, they decided at the workshop that they no longer wanted their identity to be defined by events from the past, and especially by their actions in the war. They wanted to choose a new term to define their group identity – a term that expressed what they wanted to be in their communities going forward. A lively discussion ensued, and it was finally agreed – they would adopt the term “Peace Parents” to describe themselves from now on. There was a clear sense that they wanted to be leaders in bringing peace in their communities going forward, and they recognized that that wouldn’t be the work of a day. But rather, like parenting, it would take long term commitment and careful tending and nurturing, to help forward peace.

Together, they decided on the criteria for Peace Parents – including committing to no violence, and no violent communication; reconciling with your people; and being productively engaged in your communities and providing community service.

John summed up the day by saying how much he had learned – namely, that ex-combatants were not bad people. But simply people that needed another opportunity.

As extraordinary as the day was, I was aware at the time, and am even more aware now – that it was only a beginning. But it was a powerful beginning indeed. And an illustration of how transformative spaces can be created and supported. Strong, committed leadership, alert and committed and compelling storytelling, and an ongoing commitment to invite others into courageous, generative, unselfish action for the benefit of a larger community – this is a powerful mixture.

This text first appeared as part of Libby Hoffman’s ongoing blog on the work of Fambul Tok and her peace organization, Catalyst for Peace.  Libby Hoffman has been active in peacebuilding for over 25 years as a professor, trainer, facilitator, program director, consultant, and funder. A former professor of political science at Principia College, she left academia to focus on the direct practice of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. She developed Catalyst for Peace in 2003, which promotes an inside-out approach to peacemaking where external parties partner with local communities to create space for the local resources, knowledge, and capacities to be mobilized and manifested.


Watch Libby Hoffman’s Ted’s Talk, “Forgiving the Unforgivable” on how Fambul Tok is healing individuals and communities.

You can also watch videos on Savage’s return, the Waterloo workshop with ex-combatants and the role that Sierra Leonian women are playing as Peace Mothers on Fambul Tok‘s Vimeo site.


The original feature-length film, has been screened worldwide, winning numerous awards. A shorter classroom version is also available.

Best Documentary Film, Beloit International Film Festival, USA, 2013
Honorable Mention, International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture, 2013
Best Documentary Feature, SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival, 2013
Best Human Spirit Documentary, Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, 2012
Golden Lobster: Best Documentary, Portland Maine Film Festival, 2012
St. Clair Bourne (Best Documentary) Award, San Francisco Black Film Festival, 2012
Norman Vaughan Indomitable Spirit Award, Mountainfilm, 2012
Jury Special Prize, Portugal Underground Film Festival, 2012
Jury Grand Prize, Non Violence International Film Festival, 2012
Best Documentary, Queens World Film Festival, 2012
Best Documentary, Reynolda Film Festival, 2012
Best Feature, Show Me Justice Film Festival, 2012
Crystal Heart Award, Heartland Film Festival, 2011
Human Spirit Award, Nashville Film Festival, 2011
Honorable Mention Best Documentary, Nashville Film Festival, 2011
Best Documentary, Ft. Myers Film Festival, 2011
Best of Fest, Global Social Change Film Festival, 2011
Best Documentary, Audience Choice Award, FLICKERS: Rhode Island International Film Festival, 2011
SIGNIS Award, Zanzibar International Film Festival, 2011
Luxor African Film Festival, Egypt, 2014
Human DOC International Film Festival, Poland, 2013
Intimate Lens Ethnographic Film Festival, Italy, 2013

Though Our Eyes: Changing the Canadian Lens

Simon Fraser University is a leading expert in restorative justice, with its Center for Restorative Justice and student-run RJ Club. SFU student Christina Ma describes a powerful university event which brought together a diverse groups of students — residence student leaders, UBC students, post-graduate students, master students, Aboriginal students, Christians and Sikhs — to engage in a process of truth-telling and transformation.


In the Fall 2014, a group of diverse, collaborative students met to discuss past human rights abuses in Canada. Made up of SFU Residence student leaders, UBC students, post-graduate students, master students, Aboriginal students, Christians and Sikhs, the gathering consisted of peoples coming together for one sole purpose – reconciliation and dialogue. The three part workshop series, called Through Our Eyes, was hosted in partnership with Reconciliation Canada, the World Sikh Organization, Inspirit and the Restorative Justice Club at SFU. Its aim was to bring together students from all kinds of backgrounds and unite them in empathy and understanding to one another’s sufferings. It was arranged by Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning, who is an inspirational and caring leader. One of her key passions is to empower youth and give them an opportunity to share their story.

We began with an exercise highlighting the history of human rights abuses in Canada. As each of us stood by the timeline laid out of the floor, we were given time to reflect on the diversity of people represented in these sufferings. Whether it was the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru incident or the closing of the last Residential school in 1996, it seemed like each one of us could have been implicated in these incidents. We then opened the space by sitting in a circle and talking in turn. This traditional form of communication – the circle – is often so powerful in facilitating dialogue because each person is given a safe space of time to speak. Each voice is heard, no matter how quiet, and each view point is valued.

By creating a safe and confidential environment founded on active listening, we allowed ourselves to empathize with one another. We had the honour of hearing the story of an intergenerational survivor of the Residential School System – and when she shared her story, she opened the floor for others to share their story in the same honest and courageous way. People felt safe enough to speak about their past experiences of racial discrimination, bullying or any other type of pain. It was through open and honest conversations, where each person was given a platform to express their own story without holding back, that we facilitated reconciliation within ourselves and among others. There were no regular restrictions of political correctness and those of different faith backgrounds were able to express concepts of their walk in their faith with authenticity, boldness and open-mindedness.

The second part of our workshop series was the Facilitator Training, or the Reconciliation Leadership workshop. Here, students from the first Reconciliation Dialogue workshop were given the opportunity to deepen their understanding of reconciliation in leadership and put their skills into practice. Many of the students were Residence leaders on campus who took the training as part of their staff training credits. They expressed the value of the workshops, especially in facilitating conversations on sensitive topics such as human rights abuses. We explored the meaning behind values based leadership and expressed our own value systems in the group. We then interpreted ways in which we could stand by those values in real life experiences. Some values included respect and responsibility.

The third and final workshop in our series was a film and video workshop that sought to educate change makers on how to use new media to express their viewpoints. On a college budget, students were shown how to create make shift tripods out of everyday items and how to shoot and edit their own video that can be used as a platform for their voices to be heard. The result of the one day workshop was a short video summarizing the transformative effect of the Through Our Eyes workshops, and the power of open communication to promote understanding across cultures and backgrounds.

My experience in the three part workshop series was incredibly eye-opening. I learnt that when young adults are given an opportunity to engage in the exchange of ideas and empathy, powerful reconciliation happens on an interpersonal and individual level. Suffering is not hierarchical, but a deeply subjective experience. Whether trauma is induced by school bullying, or racial exclusion, no suffering is deemed less worthy than another human’s suffering. We created a safe, respectful environment among strangers who soon became friends, and each person was given the ability to express the roots of pain in their own lives. By listening to one another and valuing each person`s experience, we had a transformative effect on one another. Whether through sharing joy or pain, my own hope, as a Restorative Justice practitioner, is that we can learn to reconcile by considering the viewpoints of others. It is only then that we can think critically about ourselves and the world around us with the hope of creating a positive and resilient future. My lesson was exceeding simple and incredibly effective: when a few courageous youths are ready to engage in sensitive topics in a small SFU classroom – reconciliation begins.

Christina Ma is majoring in Economics and is currently the Executive Director of the RJ Club at Simon Fraser University. She wishes to extend a special thanks to Sukhvinder Vinning, Precious Ile, Kristen Tung and Brenda Morrison, the director of the Restorative Justice Centre at SFU, for their support.

You can watch the video documenting the transformative effect of the Through Our Eyes workshop; 
click here.

Be the Change You Wish to See in the World

Ivan Freud from Dawson’s Religion Department calls on us to think about the potential of religion to promote peace in both the socio-political sphere and within ourselves. With references to six religious perspectives, he shows us the peaceful values within the world’s religions, highlighting the necessity for collaboration among religious leaders and followers of the world’s diverse religious and spiritual traditions.


By looking at the past relationship of peace and religion we will gain a better understanding of the potential future relationship between peace and religion and the role that each one of us may play in that future.

Before addressing the relationship between peace and religion, it is important to recognize both the constructive and destructive effects of political, economic, and social conditions on religious thought and action. It is important to note that throughout history and in all world religions, religious actors have been forces of both peace and violence.

Allow me to tell you a story…

A young First Nations Brave is distraught and goes to see the Chief, the Elder of his tribe, and tells him: “Chief, I am concerned, worried, I’ve got two wolves inside of me fighting, one is kind, compassionate, understanding, empathetic and peaceful, the other is mean, angry, vengeful, jealous and violent and I am concerned as to which one will win! To which the Chief answers: “Whichever one you feed.”

In other words, according to this story, the choices we make contribute to either more or less peace in the world, the choice being ours, hence Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

In our consideration of what the relationship between peace and religion has been to date, let us first consider the relationship of religion to “outer peace”, peace in the socio-political sphere, then its relationship to “inner peace”, peace within the individual.

Outer Peace and Religion
In 2010, ten years after the first Millennium World Peace Summit of Spiritual and Religious Leaders was held at the United Nations, 6 religious scholars were invited to reflect on the background paper of the conference penned by David Little, entitled “Religion, World Order, and Peace.”

As an example of the past relationship between outer peace and religion, allow me to offer, though very briefly, the highlights of these 6 perspectives. Along with each insight, I’ll also ask you to consider which wolf would be fed by the insight provided.

African Religions
Wande Ambimbola, writing on behalf of African religions, underlines the need for the United Nations to participate directly in upholding human rights, minority rights, and the rights of indigenous peoples as outlined in such legal statutes as the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1993), as well as the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994). These are to be upheld in the face of “coercive manipulation” and “shameful and violent” attempts at conversion.

1. In other words, do people have a right to not be subjected to violent proselityzation? Which wolf would be fed by protecting, through legal, non-violent means, those who are most vulnerable?

Varun Soni writing from the perspective of Hinduism stresses the importance of engaging a “hermeneutics of peace,” an interpretative framework, that, if peace by peaceful means is considered a sacred priority, would be a basis for selecting, accentuating, and coordinating, texts, doctrines, and practices from different religious traditions.

2. Seeing as there are both peaceful and violent elements in all world religions and considering the context of their composition, which wolf would be fed by promoting the nonviolent, peace-supporting interpretations of religious texts, doctrines and practices?

James Heft, writing from the Christian perspective, emphasizes that while recognizing the damage done in the past, we can nonetheless remain hopeful given that “… the non-violent dispositions of Christianity… are exerting a growing influence on Church teaching” stressing the importance of paying attention to the place of forgiveness, accountability, reconciliation and restorative justice in post-conflict settings.

3. When considering the relationship of Christianity and peace, which wolf would be fed by focusing on the peace-enhancing teachings of Christianity’s founder rather than the atrocities committed in his name?

In discussing the relationship of Judaism to peace, Jeff Israel brings forth a subject of broad importance, namely the connection between religious, non-religious, and ethnic beliefs to national identity as an international problem that needs urgent attention as it underlies many of the festering tensions found in cases of ethno-religious and ethno-national conflicts around the world.

4. Which wolf would be fed by endorsing the establishment and recognition of “just states” in bringing about and maintaining peace?

Commenting from the perspective of Islam, Abdulaziz Sachedina suggests that the challenge of achieving a reasonable balance between heartfelt religious conviction and commitment to a public sphere governed by human rights and the rule of law would best be addressed by highlighting the universal notions of democracy, pluralism, and human rights within Islamic scriptures and tradition. This would, in turn, form the foundations for a belief in a “functional secularity” which, being informed, if only in part, by moral and metaphysical beliefs would attract the support of both the liberal and conservative wings of Islam.

5.Which wolf would be fed by demonstrating respect in accommodating religious perspectives on socio-political matters?

In addressing Buddhism’s contribution to world peace, Donald K. Swearer explores the work of 4 socially engaged Asian Buddhists, namely Thich Nhat Hanh, Sulak Sivaraksa, A.T. Ariyaratne, and Cheng Yen, in their efforts to promote environmental protection, poverty alleviation, economic development, and inclusive medical care for all.

6. Which wolf would be fed by not only encouraging but also actively participating in protecting the environment, alleviating poverty, promoting economic development and making inclusive medical care for all a reality?

In order to better understand how we may consider these six different past perspectives on outer peace and religion, allow me to tell you a second story, that of the “Six Blind People and the Thing in the Jungle”! Six blind people enter a jungle and come upon something unknown, the first, feeling it to be muscular and wriggling, says it is a snake; the second, feeling it to be hard and sharp, says it is a spear; the third, with her arms wrapped around it, calls it a tree; the fourth, sensing something moving in front of her and feeling a breeze on her face, says it is a fan; the fifth, arms wide and pushing with all of his might, says it is a wall; and the sixth, tying knots in it, says it is a rope. What they had come upon was an elephant! The elephant’s trunk was mistaken to be a snake, the tusk a spear, the leg a tree, the ear a fan, the side a wall, and the tail a rope.

The point of this story is to communicate the importance of stepping in the other’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective, listening and respecting one another’s views and in so doing coming to a more complete understanding of the whole!

This view is reflected in David Little’s conclusion to his overview of the six religious perspectives cited above: “It is hard to see how initiatives in the field of peace and development undertaken by religious and spiritual leaders can be fully effective or sustained without continuing interaction and cooperation with the work of international agencies such as the U.N.” According to the Spiritual and Religious leaders assembled,

Humanity stands at a critical juncture in history, one that calls for strong moral and spiritual leadership to help set a new direction for society. We, as religious and spiritual leaders, recognise our special responsibility for the well-being of the human family and peace on earth. [We] pledge our commitment to work together to promote the inner and outer conditions that foster peace and the nonviolent management and resolution of conflict. We appeal to the followers of all religious traditions and to the human community as a whole to cooperate in building peaceful societies, to seek mutual understanding through dialogue where there are differences, to refrain from violence, to practice compassion, and to uphold the dignity of all life.

7. Which wolf would be fed by the continued interaction and cooperation among religious and spiritual leaders with international agencies such as the U.N.?

Inner Peace and Religion
Having considered the relationship of “outer peace”, that of the socio-political sphere and religion, let us turn our attention, if only briefly, to the relationship between “inner peace”, peace within the individual, and religion.

Said simply, inner peace is cultivated through such practices as prayer and meditation. The idea being to turn inwards, thereby calming mind and body, and cultivating peace within, for, as Mark Twain said: “I’ve lived through a lot of horrible things in my life and some of them actually happened!” What Twain is saying is that we cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary suffering, compound our suffering, with our minds; as Abraham Maslow said: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, you see all problems as nails!”

Through practices such as meditation, we gain a greater objectivity in regards to our mind stuff, our monkey mind, and so become better able to manage our mind stuff thereby engendering a greater inner peace.

The importance of inner peace in promoting peace is intrinsically linked to the idea that although we may appear to be separate beings, in fact we are actually One!

This is the idea behind former prime-minister of India, Sarvanpalli Radhakrishnan’s statement to “love your neighbour as yourself; because you are your neighbour, it is illusion that has you believing that you are separate!”

This conception is well-explained by the Buddhist notion of Emptiness which stipulates that Life is empty of self-existence, svabhava… In other words, ‘no man is an island’ and ‘nothing exists in a vacuum’. The Buddhist definition of Emptiness states clearly that we are not separate but are rather inter-dependently co-arising.

A notion potentially echoed in Existential Philosophy when Jean-Paul Sartre offers: “The other is hell.” If we were to remove the category of otherness, if we dropped the notion of us vs. them in favour of only us would we then, not also do away with the notion of hell? Maybe?

Scientifically speaking, Albert Einstein offers his view that: “There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality.”

I remember being at a weekend workshop given by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he told us the story of “The Missed Nail” – holding a nail with the left hand, and hammering with the right, the right hand misses the nail and hammers the left thumb instead – does the left thumb damn the right hand for its mistake? No. What happens? Immediately, the right hand drops the hammer and hugs the left thumb.

For this reason, our inherent inter-connectivity, developing inner peace is seen as an essential component in developing peace in our world, on this our humble globe.

Before concluding, it is important to mention a third type of peace, one that embraces both the inner and outer dimensions, and that is Peace with the Earth – to see the Earth as Sacred – an idea elucidated by indigenous traditions, as well as Gaia and Goddess religions.

It is also the idea elucidated by the renowned Canadian Scientist and Environmentalist David Suzuki who urges each of us to pressure our representatives to make declarations recognizing a healthy environment as a fundamental human right, then to use these declarations in pressuring provincial governments to pass an environmental bill of rights, and finally to amend the Charter of Rights to recognise the fundamental human right to a healthy environment. If interested, do check out!

Speaking of David Suzuki, I remember attending a talk given by Mr. Suzuki at McGill a number of years back where he offered this insight: “The air in my lungs is the same air that is in your lungs and it is the same air that is in the lungs of all breathing creatures on this planet!” Through each and every breath, we are intimately connected to one another.

8. Which wolf, then, is fed by extending our empathy to embrace the entire world and all peoples?

Having considered the past relationships between religion and “inner peace”, “outer peace” and “Peace with the Earth”, we are left to consider Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” or, as understood through the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Peace in oneself, Peace in the world.”

A friend of mine told me a story many years back, he said that there are two kinds of people in the world, now I believe that there are as many kinds of people as there are people, but for the sake of the story, the first type of person is walking down the road of life and almost falls into a deep hole, he pulls back, thinks “Lucky Me!” and walks on. The second type of person is walking down the road of life, almost falls in the hole, thinks “Lucky Me!” AND recognizes that others may not be as fortunate as he, and so he plugs the hole and puts a sign saying: “Danger: There is a hole here!”

9. Which wolf is being fed by the second type of person? Which type of person do you want to be?
What then, might be our future?

Living in Montreal, where we have near free education, free medical services, water and food a plenty, an incredible mix of all the cultures of the world, and an unparalleled freedom of expression, offers us an incredible opportunity. As I tell my students, look around, your greatest resource is one another!

If we are genuinely committed to bringing about a lasting peace in our world, and accept Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to be the change we wish to see in the world, then the future relationship between peace and religion may well be in our hands; and so I leave you with the words of Margaret Mead and a few final questions:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And so,
If not now, then when?
If not here, then where?
If not us, then whom?

Selected Works Cited
Little, David. “’Religion, World Order and Peace’ – The Years Later.” Cross Currents 60. 3 (September 2010): 297-306.

Ivan Freud
Dawson College. Religion

For an inspiring movement to unite the world’s religions and each of us on a project to create a more peaceful world, have a look at the Charter for Compassion, initiated in 2008 by religious historian Karen Armstrong. Become a member, read some poignant stories on the power of compassion, and be the change you wish to see.

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An Introduction to Our Topic: Truth and Reconciliation

Our newsletter on truth and reconciliation captures the essence of peacemaking – the rebuilding of broken relationships, whether they be in our individual lives or between communities. Reconciliation can best be understood as a process; one that can happen quickly when someone who has wronged us offers a sincere apology.  However, it can take years and even span the generations, with many stops and starts along the way, in the case of political enemies. Our reasons for starting the process are varied and may be very practical for the absence of real efforts at reconciliation between conflicting groups can often mean continued violence.  As Nelson Mandela once remarked about the process of working with those who had caused tremendous suffering to South Africa’s black majority: ‘It was very repugnant to think that we could sit down with those people, but we had to subject our plan to our brains and to say, “without these enemies of ours, we can never bring about a peaceful transformation to this country”’ (Shriver 2003: 27).  

The relationship between truth and reconciliation is a complex one. Speaking dark truths – those forgotten through psychological processes, official denials or unwritten cultural rules – can foster resentment and reignite old conflicts.  But, as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard pointed out, “Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself” (quoted in Minow 2002: 16). Speaking of Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian genocide, a group of 150 distinguished scholars and writers wrote: “Denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators. Denial murders the dignity of survivors and seeks to destroy the remembrance of the crime” (Lazare: 69). While remembering the errors of history do not eliminate our potential to repeat them, forgetting them makes it far more likely we will.

The most important truths are not necessarily “the facts”; sometimes it is best to allow those on opposing sides to disagree over some of “the facts”.  What are needed to move beyond old grievances are the more personal truths of people’s lives. Listening to another’s pain can move us like nothing else, evoking our empathy but also our desires to redress wrongs. The Deputy Chair of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission sought a complex truth, one that “went from bare facts to knowledge (historically contexted truth) to acknowledgement of the human agency that makes history to accountability of all concerned for action in the future to heal and curb the evils of the past” (Schriver 2005:108).      

Truth and reconciliation commissions are often seen as a means to build these deeper understandings of serious violations of human rights; they allow victims to speak their own truths without interruption and cross-examination and encourage perpetrators to come clean.  However, truth and reconciliation commissions involve difficult compromises: standards of due process are compromised and the demand for punishment is replaced by a search for truth. For many this represents a denial of justice, one that should only be used if fair trials are not possible, but others see the potential for a different restorative form of justice where the focus is on healing the pain of the victims and obtaining a genuine acknowledgement of the crimes committed. While many perpetrators who came forward in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission did not express remorse for what they had done, the transformative impact of such truth-telling was evident.  After a colonel who headed the military force that carried out a massacre said:

We are sorry, the burden of the Bisho massacre will be on our soldiers for the rest of our lives. We cannot wish it away. It happened. But please, I ask the victims not to forget but to forgive us. To get the soldiers back into the community, to accept them fully, to try to understand also the pressure they were under. This is all I can do.”

The audience, which included many of the victims of the massacre and their relatives, sat in stunned silence and then burst into applause (Shriver 2005: 110).

While it is difficult to see the humanity in our enemies, it is even more difficult to see the potential for inhumanity in ourselves, but all of our histories – personal and collective – probably have their share of wrongdoing.  As International Law Professor Martha Minow wrote: “The fate of our fate is in our hands. Especially for those of us who feel we are bystanders in a world of atrocities, we have a challenge. We find a flawed, only partially remembered world; we can and must have a hand in what we come to remember so we can transform the future that awaits (2002: 29).

The articles in this collection are varied. Some examine the complexities of efforts at reconciliation, while underlining the necessity of our efforts; while others raise some difficult truths. Our newsletter next semester will continue along these lines. At present, we have a powerful response by Dawson’s Alexandra Law to the common argument that it is inappropriate for governments to apologize or offer compensation for harms committed long ago. Philosopher Trudy Govier, who has written extensively on the issues of forgiveness and reconciliation, offers us an excerpt from a larger work, which examines the current Rwandan government’s efforts to force its population to reconcile after its genocide. Finally, the article “Reconciling Red and White Poppies” tackles an issue that continues to divide many, suggesting that finding a common understanding is essential for any hope of ending war.  You will also find other useful materials that remind us that, despite its difficulties, deep conflicts can be repaired, and a link to a wonderful article by the former Chancellor and Dean of Harvard Medical School, Aaron Lazare, on the power of the simple act of apologizing.  


Works Cited

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Minow, Martha.. “Memory and Hate: Are There Lessons from Around the World?” Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law and Repair. Ed. Martha Minow. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 14-30.

Shriver, Donald W. “Where and When in Political Life is Justice Served by Forgiveness?” Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice after Civil Conflict. Ed. Nigel Biggar. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2003. 25-43.

Shriver, Donald W. Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College

On Human and Institutional Lifespans

In this essay, Alexandra Law examines the commonly-expressed view that it is inappropriate to offer apologies or compensation for wrongs of the past. She argues, with a focus on two dark periods in Canadian history, that we need to consider the notion of institutional responsibility.


In his book, The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King includes a chapter entitled “Forget about it,” which begins as follows:

“Today is a new day. Let’s enjoy it together. This is a great sentiment. I like it. Maybe it is time for Native people – such as me – to stop complaining about the past” (King 159)

King sounds a sharp note of irony in this passage, but many of us have heard or read similar statements made without a hint of jest. This calls for the opposite of truth and reconciliation, which is why it can lead to sorrow, anger or a renewed urgency among justice seekers.

Calls for redress for longstanding wrongs are sometimes met with opposition from those who see these demands as simply “complaining about the past,” as King puts it. From this perspective, a wrong may be worthy of acknowledgement and regret, but it is unrealistic to demand any concrete action in response, since the harm occurred so long ago. Several Canadian events come to mind, but here are two: the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, and the residential school system, designed to forcibly assimilate Aboriginal children, operating from the late 1800s until 1996. Each of these wrongs evokes its own uniquely painful memories, and exerts its own continuing effects today. One element they hold in common is the government-sponsored racism which made them possible. Another is that in each case, it took many years of struggle before the wrong was acknowledged publicly and redress, however imperfect, became available.

In June 1984, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was asked whether he would support compensation and an apology to the Japanese Canadians whose property and liberty were taken from them by the government over forty years earlier. Recall that the World War II internment was a devastating event. Families were forced to live in camps, business owners saw their property seized and enterprises shut down by the government, and Canadians of Japanese ancestry had their loyalty to the country questioned in a time of war, all without ever being charged with a crime (CBC). For many years, former internees and their allies had demanded that the government apologize, recognize that the internment was wrong, and offer compensation for their losses. However, in 1984 the Prime Minister stated, “I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we or these people in this House were not a party. We can regret that it happened…” (CBC). It took four more years for the government to offer an official apology and compensation.

I do not propose to analyse Pierre Trudeau’s worldview or motives when he made that statement. Instead, I would like to encourage us to think about how the notion of “institutional responsibility” (see e.g. Erskine) might help explain the distance which sometimes separates those who call for present-day justice for past acts, and those who suggest that everyone should “forget about it” and move on.

When Trudeau made his reply in the House of Commons in 1984, the Prime Minister explained that he, and his colleagues present, had nothing to do with the internment. Taken on its own, the statement seems perfectly reasonable. After all, Trudeau was not Prime Minister at the time, and it was not his decision to make. However, the purpose of demanding redress was not to put the blame for the internment directly on the politicians of the 1980s. Redress was demanded not from individual Members of Parliament, but from the government of Canada as an institution. The public acknowledgement became part of Canada’s history and identity, the compensation a necessary step toward reconciliation.

An institution can live for hundreds of years, while an individual human cannot. This means that an institution may inflict harm at one point in history, but those in power might not listen to the call for justice until enough time has passed for the dominant worldview of a society to change. By then, the individual decision-makers in that institution may have moved on and individual accountability may be difficult to obtain – but that does not mean that reconciliation is any less important.

Likewise, when the federal government officially apologized for the residential school system in 2008, the leaders of the political parties made statements in their roles as institutional actors. The late Jack Layton apologized in his role as leader of a federal political party, offering a description of the evil of this system which is worth citing at length:

Today we mark a very significant moment for Canada. It is the moment when we, as a Parliament, as a country, take responsibility for one of the most shameful periods in our history. It is the moment for us to finally apologize. It is the moment when we will start to build a shared future, a future based on equality and built on mutual respect and truth.

It was this Parliament that enacted, 151 years ago, the racist legislation that established the residential schools. This Parliament chose to treat First Nations, Métis and Inuit people as not equally human. It set out to kill the Indian in the child. That choice was horribly wrong. It led to incredible suffering. It denied First Nations, Métis and Inuit the basic freedom to choose how to live their lives. For those wrongs that we have committed, we are truly sorry…” (Parliament of Canada)

When Layton spoke these words – when he used the word ‘we’ – he was apologizing on behalf of an institution, not for anything that he personally had done.

Institutions can potentially live forever, while human beings have finite lives. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognized as much in its 2012 Interim Report, when it stated that “for a variety of reasons, including the advanced age of many of the former students, the Commissioners believe certain messages must be relayed to Canadians now” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 4). When truth and reconciliation are delayed, sometimes by generations, it can be a tragedy. Testimony can be lost, and the individual people responsible for terrible acts may escape judgment. Acknowledging responsibility on an institutional level does not make up for this. What it can do is recognize the continuing consequences of past injustice and perhaps, sometimes, offer a path toward truth and reconciliation.


Works Cited

Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2013). Print.

Parliament of Canada. Edited Hansard, 39th Parliament, 2nd Sessionm Number 110, Wednesday, June 11, 2008. Web. < >

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Interim Report” (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2012). Web.  <>

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Japanese Canadians: The struggle continues” CBC Digital Archives (video). Web.

Toni Erskine. “Assigning Responsibilities to Institutional Moral Agents: The Case of States and ‘Quasi-States’” in Toni Erskine (ed.) Can Institutions Have Responsibilities? Collective Moral Agency and International Relations (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003)

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Law Commission of Canada. “Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions, Executive Summary” Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 2000. Web. < >

Alfred L. Brophy. Reparations Pro & Con (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Joy Kogawa. Itsuka (New York: Anchor Books, 1994)

Alexandra Law

Humanities, Dawson College

Oppositional Identities and Offensive Speech

In this excerpt from a larger work, philosopher Trudy Govier examines whether if may be possible to overcome divisions by rejecting the labeling of others. She looks both at the main philosophical issues raised by treating others as a member of a category rather than a complete person, and at the coercive aspects of the post-genocide Rwandan government’s promotion of reconciliation. The larger article that looks at various more positive approaches for ending divisions can be found through a link at the bottom of the page.  


What are the solutions to the bitter and vicious conflicts founded on us/them thinking?   The answers are to be sought and found not in theory alone, for what will be promising will depend on circumstances of power, leadership, resources, and needs. Two responses are undesirable, given the assumption that one’s goal is to end or at least limit violent conflict. These are overcoming a division between two groups by constructing a situation in which they have a common enemy, and achieving a military victory over one group and repressing it so as to eliminate any expression of its ideology and history. About these approaches nothing will be said here.

One might seek to eliminate any discourse within which the problematic categories appeared.  This elimination of divisive ethnic categories is currently being attempted in Rwanda, where ‘divisionism’ is illegal and it counts as divisionist to speak of Rwandans as either Tutsi or Hutu. If we did not speak of Hutus and Tutsis, there would be no group ‘Hutu’ and no group ‘Tutsi.’ There would nevertheless be many individuals living in a part of Africa with the present geographic boundaries of the country we call ‘Rwanda.’ But people would not use these group categories in describing or identifying themselves, and thus, in a highly important political sense, there would be no Hutus and no Tutsis but only individuals.  The notion that social groups do not ‘really’ exist may be taken to mean that blacks, whites, Aboriginals, Hutus, Tutsis and the Chinese are not logically comparable to mountains and trees. The point seems to be the following: if we did not speak of material entities as ‘mountains’ and ‘trees’, they would exist notwithstanding. If we did not refer to Hutus, Tutsis, blacks, whites, and Aboriginals, many individual people would exist, notwithstanding. But these ethnically or racially defined social groups would not.[i]

One argument is that labeling is harmful because you diminish a person by seeing him or her only as representative of a certain category of people, rather than as a complete person. Labels blur over features of individuality and in so doing may separate people who are really compatible or lead to wrong decisions about individuals. Anthony Appiah said that concepts like ‘race’, ‘tribe,’ and ‘nation’ are illusory. But he offered no alternative to racial identification in the context of programs that might be needed to overcome oppression based on what people had regarded as racial categories. When we describe an individual, x, in terms of a category, C, the category has social meaning and carries with it assumptions that may create barriers for x. One might allege that labeling is incompatible with basic human respect which, on this account, involves recognizing that each individual is distinct from each other individual.  If we label x as ‘a C,’ we will interact with x as though he is a C and just a C, as though he is not an individual but is, rather, some kind of prototype of C-ness. 

On such an account, labeling is descriptively inaccurate and morally wrong. When a label attaches to a category of people who have been lower in a socio-economic hierarchy, disadvantaged individuals are labeled so as to signify their lower status in that hierarchy.  These people (‘blacks,’ ‘Aboriginals,’ and under Belgian colonialism, ‘Hutus’) then easily identify with each other, because they are treated in similar ways in the society in which they live. And as a result of social practice, they do come to share at least one attribute:  they are labeled in the same way. The social group is constructed by persons who employ the same categorical term to many different individuals. Their uses of the term to label individuals are real, and it is those uses that create the social group in question. Although groups are not real in the sense that they could exist as entities independently of social practices, they are real, given those practices. And that reality makes sense of the notion that their members can identify themselves as such and work against their own oppression.

When the social environment changes, there will no longer be any need or justification for its members to identify themselves as members of the same group. At that point, blacks will no longer be blacks, Aboriginals will no longer be Aboriginals, and so on. (One is tempted to recall here the withering away of the state at the Marxist end of history.)  People will no longer need to label each other or to make assumptions about each other’s lives based on labels.  Instead, they will be able to take philosophical non-essentialism literally in practical contexts, and base their judgments about each other on the experience, beliefs, needs, and interests of individuals as such.[ii]

Although there is much to admire in its moral presuppositions and concerns, this account cannot withstand scrutiny. The approach may be criticized as unworkable: it is a practical impossibility to acquire enough relevant knowledge about every individual person so as to interact with that person solely on the basis of his or her individual qualities. In its stress on knowing and responding to the person as a unique individual, and maintaining respect for persons in this strong sense, the account rules out far too much. The problem is that any descriptive predicate can be used to ‘construct’ a category, and through that category, a social group:  think of women, men, tall people, old people, young people, people living in rural Alberta, people living in suburbs, and so on. All people are describable by some descriptive predicates and as such potentially ‘categorized.’ Are we objectionably ‘labeling’ a person, and thereby committing moral and epistemic wrongs, if we say of him that he is a young man who lives in rural Alberta. If speaking in this way is going to count as wrong, morally and epistemically, then we will not be able to describe individuals by general predicates without committing wrongs. This implication is absurd and would restrict science and ordinary speech as well as social philosophy.   


Another tempting, though deeply flawed approach to oppositional identities is that of seeking to ban, not categorization as such, but those specific oppositional categories underlying a bitter conflict. A current example is the outlawing of ‘divisionism’ by the Kagame government in Rwanda. In media, education, and political discourse there are to be no more ethnic divisions, or regional divisions. After long years of conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, followed by the appalling genocide of 1994, a concerned observer could certainly understand why those governing a post-genocide state would wish to abolish ethnic categories. The categories Hutu/Tutsi are a paradigm of perniciously oppositional categories, one that supported a genocidal ideology rationalizing over 800,000 brutal killings.[iii] In the aftermath of that genocide, the Kagame government propagates an image of national unity and shared politics. Post-genocide Rwanda expresses norms of shared power, commitment to the rule of law, and as much freedom of expression as possible.  Rwanda’s Ambassador to the U.N. articulated these commitments, adding the comment that you cannot build a new country with old bricks (presumably old ethnic categories); you need new ones.[iv]

The idea of non-ethnicity in Rwanda is ‘We are all Banyarwanda’ (people of Rwanda). In post-genocide Rwanda, one is not allowed to mention ethnic identities, question the ethos of forgiveness and reconciliation, or point out that in its defeat of the genocidal Hutu interhamwe, the Tutsi RPF force killed some 25,000 – 45,000 people including many civilians. Community courts, the gacaca, function only to consider the anti-Tutsi genocide of 1994 and do not deal with allegations of violations by RPF or government forces. There is a law against ethnicism; authorized discourse does not allow ethnicity to exist.[v] A Tutsi member of Parliament, interviewed by journalist Constance Morrill, told her firmly, “We don’t have ethnic identities here.”  Who was slaughtered?  They were people “considered to be the Tutsi.” 

The Rwandan government aims to erase ethnicity, but still sometimes needs to appeal to ethnicity when seeking to establish its legitimacy and even when specifying its political goals. Interestingly, the underlying narrative about the genocide, from which the Kagame government gained its legitimacy and very considerable international support, is deeply dichotomous.  The very government seeking to legislate the end of ethnicity has depended on a dichotomous narrative within which ethnic identity plays a crucial role, to establish its own legitimacy. The foundational dichotomy in this narrative is between innocent Tutsi victims and guilty Hutu perpetrators.  This binary split is greatly over-simplified and omits to consider a number of highly relevant facts. There were some Tutsi perpetrators and the RPF, under Kagame, played a role in constructing the situation in which the 1994 genocide occurred.[vi] There were many Hutu victims; these were opponents of genocidal action attacked and killed for their opposition. There were also Hutu heroes, who sought to save Tutsis from the slaughter. There were Rwandans (the Twa) who were neither Tutsi nor Hutu, as well as many who (from inter-marriage) were both Hutu and Tutsi. These people were often compelled in the vicious struggle to identify as one ethnicity or the other. Commentators have mentioned an unwillingness in many quarters to criticize the Kagame government by acknowledging flaws that would disturb the founding dichotomous narrative and complicate the role of the innocent victim, supposed to be beyond criticism due to his terrible suffering. 

The categories ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ were constructed over more than a century of history, with horrifying results. The idea behind anti-‘divisionism’ legislation is that if one can construct identities and learn that differences and different identities exist, then, by parallel reasoning, one can deconstruct those identities and learn that they do not exist. Article 13 of the Rwandan constitution deals with “revisionism, denial, and trivialization” of the genocide, all of which are legally punishable offences.  Article 33 makes the propagation of ethnic, regional, and racial discrimination or any other form of divisionism punishable by law. According to a 2002 criminal law, divisionism is

The use of speech, written statement, or action that divides people, that is likely to spark conflict among people, or that causes an uprising which might degenerate into strife among people based on discrimination. (Rwanda 2002a Article 1)[vii]


Any person who makes public any speech, writing, pictures or images or any symbols over radio airwaves, television, in a meeting room or public place, with the aim of discriminating <against> people or sowing sectarianism <divisionism> is sentenced to between one year and five years of imprisonment and fined between 500,000 and two million Rwandan francs <U.S. $1000 to U.S.$ 4000>, or only one of these two sanctions.[viii]

Thus the very idea of ethnicity is to be dissolved. History is not taught in schools, because without the Hutu/Tutsi categories, based on constructed differences, Rwanda’s twentieth century history would have been impossible. In education camps for returning Rwandans, people are taught about the myths of difference, oppressors, oppressed, and ethnicity.[ix]  Clearly, vast amounts of censorship and self-censorship are required to not speak of any Hutu/Tutsi divisions in Rwanda.

The Kagame government of Rwanda has received praise in some quarters and clearly it has functioned in an extraordinarily difficult situation. But even some who admire what the Kagame government has accomplished in post-genocide Rwanda admit that Rwanda is far from an open society.[x] The ban on divisionism restricts discussion and debate in areas that have been crucially important in people’s personal and political lives. One obvious difficulty here lies in the fact that the government’s ‘national unity’ approach is incompatible with individual memories of events.[xi] People will think of what they have experienced as Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa; if they cannot speak of past events using these categories, they will not be able to express their thoughts and feelings. To ban reference to such key aspects of history and politics is, in effect, to render impossible discourse about key events of the twentieth century, affecting millions of individuals. The restrictions are enormous in their impact and accordingly require considerable surveillance, interference, and repression. The restrictions on expression are formulated in laws that are vague and open to abuse. Critics of the Kagame government run a high risk of being accused of divisionism, genocidal ideology, or inciting tribal hatred.

In an essay on censorship and propaganda in post-genocide Rwanda, Lars Waldorf chronicles a number of abuses, including harassment of independent journalists, political opponents, western commentators, and some humanitarian groups. Groups harassed include the BBC, the Voice of America, Reporters without Borders, and Care International. Waldorf concludes his discussion by saying that post-genocide Rwanda shows just how easy it is to abuse hate legislation in post-conflict societies.[xii] There is ample evidence that Rwandan laws against ‘divisionism’ are restricting political discourse, are vague and open to abuse, and have been exploited to limit political opposition.

The notion that one can abolish perniciously oppositional ethnic categories by legislation is clearly implausible in practical terms. While the Rwandan case is profoundly important and of great practical importance, we would not actually have to consider its empirical details to reach the conclusion that legally abolishing us/them categories will be an ineffective approach to overcoming deep conflict based on oppositional social identities. That point can be established on the basis of general considerations. Stipulate that in a given society people identify themselves either as As or as Bs, and that the As and the Bs have engaged in a vicious and destructive conflict.  Let us further stipulate that during this conflict and throughout their lives, individuals in that society have had experiences as As or as Bs.  Sometimes, as As and Bs, they have been in conflict; many have been subjected to discrimination and violent mistreatment on the basis that they were As or Bs. Let us now suppose that there is some kind of peace settlement between the As and Bs, the violent phases of the conflict have been brought to an end, and people are in an aftermath situation. The members of these groups wish to construct a peaceful society, bringing to an end the animosity between As and Bs.  Let us now suppose that some among them are writing a constitution for the new society. They wish to end social divisions and begin to think of themselves as citizens rather than as members of ethnic groups pitted against each other. What to do?

Can state authorities reasonably hope to legislate the A/B categories out of existence? Clearly the answer here is negative.  People will continue to think of themselves in terms of the ways in which they have been identified and have lived; they will recall and reflect on their past using the categories that did so much to shape it. As human beings, their meaningful lives are extended over time.  To make it illegal to talk so as to express their feelings and thoughts will render honest discourse impossible. It will require repression and intervention and be open to abuse. The results are bound to be counter-productive so far as building a new society is concerned.  It is reasonable and desirable to educate in terms of unity, inclusiveness, tolerance, and reconciliation. But given that human beings think and lead their lives using categories that emerge from their past experiences, it is not possible to eliminate discourse involving those categories by resorting to the coercive power of the law. Nor is it desirable to try. The goal of ending animosity is commendable but should be pursued by non-coercive means.

[i] These are my own

[ii]  Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House (Oxford:  Oxford University Press 1992); Langston Hughes, Something in Common and Other Stories (New York:  Hill and Wang 1963); and Erving Goffman, Stigma (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall 1963).

[iii] For an authoritative account of their construction, the locus classicus is Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers:  Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press 1998).  I summarize and comment on his arguments in Taking Wrongs Seriously:  Acknowledgment, Reconciliation, and the Pursuit of Sustainable Peace. (Amherst NY:  Humanity Books (Prometheus) 2006.)  Appendix Six.

[iv] Joseph Nsengimana, Rwandan Ambassador to the United Nations, Statement to the U.N. General Assembly, March 19, 2009.

[v] Constance Morrill, “Show Business and ‘Lawfare’ in Rwanda:  Twelve Years After the Genocide,” Dissent, Summer 2006.

[vi] The victim/perpetrator dichotomy is discussed in Govier, Taking Wrongs Seriously. Allegations that Kagame was responsible for the shooting down of a plane on April 6, 1994, resulting in the deaths of the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi, were made by a French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere in a report issued on November 17, 2006.  These are described in Robin Philpot, “Nobody can call it a ‘plane crash’ now,” Counterpunch, March 12/14, 2004. Kagame has denied all involvement.  It remains a mystery who was responsible for shooting down of the plane, which immediately preceded the beginning of the genocide.

[vii] Cited in Lars Waldorf, “Censorship and Propaganda in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” International Development Research Centre (Canada), Document 14. Accessed May 20, 2009 at

[viii] Cited in Waldorf, Op.Cit.

[ix] Rene Lemarchand, “The Politics of Memory in Post-Genocide Rwanda,”  University of
Florida. Accessed online, May 2009. See also Chi Mgbako, “Inganda Solidarity Camps:  Reconciliation and Political Indoctrination in Post-Genocide Rwanda.”  Harvard Human Rights Journal 18 (Spring 2005).

[x] Philip Gourevitch, A Reporter at Large, “The Life After,” New Yorker, May 4, 2009, page 37.

[xi] Mgako, Op.cit.

[xii] Waldorf, Op.Cit.


To read Trudy Govier’s complete article. “Opposed Identities: Exploring Some Alternatives”, click here.


Professor Govier has also graciously permitted Inspire Solutions to post another one of her thought-provoking articles, entitled “Invitational Forgiveness as a Peace Initiative: The Case of Suicide Bombing”; click here.


Trudy Govier is a Professor Emeriti from the Philosophy Department at the University of Lethbridge and is the author of a numerous books, including Forgiveness and Revenge (2002) and Taking Wrongs Seriously (2006). Her 2002 book, A Delicate Balance: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about Terrorism, is an ideal book to encourage college students to reflect on vulnerability, evil, revenge, power, justice, courage and hope, among others. 







Reconciling Red and White Poppies

Pat Romano reflects on some of the difficult truths of war through the lens of the conflict over red and white poppies. Both symbols arose out of the devastation of WWI, the world’s first industrial war. From the start, many perceived the white poppy as offensive to the soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice; the white poppy, however, raises some important questions that can be easily silenced by the more ambivalent message of the red poppy.


Over the past few years at Dawson College white poppies have appeared alongside red poppies in early November as a way to remember war. This has not been without conflict. When some students last year began to organize a ceremony on Remembrance Day and invited some war veterans, they were told by the legion that they would not be involved if white poppies were present. Some at Dawson have also seen the distribution of both poppies in the Atrium as at times seeming more like a competition for followers. Meanwhile, many of us find we have a difficult decision to make: wear a red poppy, a white one, both or avoid the decision altogether by wearing none?

These symbols, one far better known, but both introduced after the First World War, can raise powerful emotions and often become a source of conflict – a conflict that is really rooted in competing world views about how we should remember war — what should be acknowledged and what is best forgotten. This tension between the poppies is not new, as, while the white poppy was originally intended by its creators to complement the red poppy, it has long been rejected by official veteran’s associations as both unnecessary and a means to politicize a solemn day to honour those who have fought in war (Iles 2008). Of course, politics always intrudes into our public efforts to remember war.

Both of these symbols emerged out of the world’s first industrial war, WWI, where the massive losses of life seemed to demand new public rituals of remembrance. The sheer folly of WWI is incomprehensible. On the very first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, in just 24 hours, 20,000 British soldiers were killed and a further 40,000 wounded. More than 35% of all German men who were between the ages of 19 and 22 when the war began and one half of all French men aged 20-32 at the war’s outbreak were dead when it was over. Thirty-nine percent of Canadian men sent overseas were killed or injured. In all, an estimated 9 million soldiers died and 21 million men injured, most for a few miles of land (Hochschild 2011). And, of course, beyond these numbers, were the many more who endured their own private struggles with their memories. Civilians did not come under direct fire the way they did in the Second World War and all subsequent ones, becoming the largest casualties in modern warfare. However, the brutal logic of killing innocents in a situation where victory demanded the full mobilization of society was revealed by the British blockade of Germany which caused the death of perhaps as many as 750,000 civilians from starvation and disease.

The red poppy has become a lasting and universally-recognized symbol for military casualties – the men and women in the armed forces who have lost their lives, limbs or sanity. The symbol though was not immediately accepted. Many saw it as a rather inappropriate symbol for war remembrance as poppies, given their medicinal and narcotic properties, had long been associated with sleep and oblivion – thus forgetting rather than remembering (although perhaps there is something inadvertently appropriate here as there are many truths about war that we tend to forget). While red poppies were growing widely in the French and Belgium battlefields of WWI, they were hardly the only flower to bloom. Indeed, it was Canadian John McCrae’s poem “In Flander’s Fields” that entrenched the red poppy into popular consciousness (Iles 2008).

In Flander’s fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

The scarlet poppy carries much symbolism — the blood of dead soldiers, the possibility of regeneration (a very problematic suggestion as the dead are not reborn and even nature itself has limited regenerative powers). The scattering of petals is also a powerful means in rituals to symbolize the loss of so many individual lives (Iles 2008). The poppy’s ultimate meaning though is far from clear and it can mean different things to different people. Perhaps its popularity is in fact due to the ambivalence of the symbol. For some it is a reminder of the terrible cost of war and our hope for peace; for other’s heroic sacrifice and a patriotic reminder of a citizen’s duty.

Our past wars can be used to remind us of war’s horrors or to legitimize war and sometimes promote the next one. This is a truth that should not be forgotten and is the message carried by the far clearer symbol of the white poppy. Initially produced by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, whose members included many women who had lost husbands, sons and brothers in the First World War, it offers a strong rejection of war. The white poppy, introduced in 1933 after a very real effort at disarmament ended in failure, leaving Guild members convinced that the major powers of the day were not interested in ending war, was intended to remind us of all of war’s victims and serve as a complement to the red poppy’s focus on military losses. From its initial introduction, however, the official representatives of veterans were united in their opposition; the white poppy was unnecessary and dishonoured those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The desire to honour our soldiers is a legitimate one as we, civilians, have a responsibility for those we send to kill and die on our behalf, but it also carries risks – ones raised by our government’s increased promotion of the symbol since the “war on terror”– on our currency, highway signs, and special license plates for veterans, for example. And, one made clear in the famous poem that made the poppy a symbol of war remembrance.

McCrae’s poem, written during the second battle of Ypres where the Germans used poison gas for the first time, begins as a powerful expression of loss:

In Flander’s fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago.
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flander’s fields.

But then its focus shifts.

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flander’s fields.

McCrae’s poem ends with a disturbing call to arms that suggests that ending the war before victory is achieved will dishonour those who have died. It is an attempt to find meaning in the midst of incredible human loss (Holmes 2005). To consider that these men died for nothing is impossible for McCrae and for many of us, certainly for a great many of us who have lost people we loved to war. But, consider Adam Hochschild’s characterization of the British public during WWI:

The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made – and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all. (228)

On the German side, where the trauma of WWI was so much greater given that they had no victory to soothe them, a veteran merely four years after the war expressed his rage: “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain….No, we do not pardon, we demand – vengeance!” (xv) His name was Adolf Hitler. It has been argued that, while democratic societies may find it more difficult to start wars as they need to obtain popular support, they find it harder to end them as they need to justify the losses – and justification requires a victory, even if this quest means prolonging a losing war.

Consider that by 1916 on the British front, high casualties in endless failed assaults came to be seen as a sign of success: the Commander of the British forces, Douglas Haig, defined the failed Somme offensive as a success not because of the slivers of territory seized but because the huge loss of British lives must, he concluded with no evidence, mean an equivalent or even greater loss of German lives. This perverse logic led him to sometimes fly into a rage if he felt that British losses were too low! Haig’s conviction was bolstered by his refusal to face the truth: he refused to go to the front and see the carnage for himself. As he wrote in his diary, he “felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty stations because these visits made him physically ill” (209-210).

So we must ask: What if the cause is not great? What if the soldiers are dying for nothing? What if military victory is impossible? These possibilities are hard to accept. Many soldiers themselves do become disillusioned with their leaders’ depictions of the causes at stake and often the civilians’ lack of understanding about the reality of war. In his profound personal reflection of war, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, J. Glenn Gray noted that “a civilian far removed from the battle area is nearly certain to be more bloodthirsty than the front-line soldier whose hatred has to be…answer(ed) with action” (1959: 135). For most soldiers, what gets them to keep going on, despite the traumatizing horrors of the battlefield, is the thought of the guy next to them. As revealed in memoir after memoir, it’s the comradeship between soldiers that makes war bearable, and provides the emotional force that ensures that most men keep fighting regardless of whether they believe any more in the war’s larger purpose.

Moreover, the desire to honour the loss of loved ones can be easily manipulated by those seeking to raise support for war. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is Mrs. Aletta Sullivan – a five gold star mother, who lost all her sons in a single act of WWII, the torpedoing of the USS Juneau in 1942. Mrs. Sullivan responded to her inconceivable loss by becoming the US government’s public symbol of patriotic motherhood, joining the US war effort, travelling the country, raising money and calling on other mothers to make a similar sacrifice (Elshtain 1987: 191). We might ask how, knowing what she knew, she could have done this? But, we could also ask how she could not.

The images of military heroes and honourable sacrifice – so often symbolically connected to the red poppy – serve to silence our doubts about war. Heroes die bravely and with justice on their side; the very meaning of the word sacrifice implies that one gives up something precious for something more important; and honouring the soldiers can all too often demand that we never question these ideas. So, how can we reconcile the human need to find meaning in great loss in a way that does not encourage the heroic ideas of martial sacrifice? How can we reconcile the honouring the soldier message of the red poppy with the more critical message of the white poppy, which serves to ask the questions that we need to ask about war?

Perhaps we need to remember that there are many soldiers’ stories and not all are given attention at our Remembrance Day ceremonies.

• Consider the brilliant WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry contained none of the ambivalence of McCrae’s, but rather spoke off the inhumane reality of war in the industrial age. There was in his view no heroism or honour in the mass death of WWI, simply the thoughtless slaughter of men. Sassoon risked court-martial and execution by publishing A Soldier’s Statement in 1917, where he declared his commitment to stop fighting.
• Consider the tens of thousands of men who participated in the Christmas truce of 1914 or the numerous others who return to meet years later their old enemies in an attempt to come to terms with their guilt over what they did during the war. These stories remind us of an important truth — the enemy is just as human as we are – and call on us to think more about what we ask soldiers to do.
• Consider the bravery of three American helicopter crewmen, who in 1968, turned their guns on their fellow soldiers to end the slaughter of innocent villagers at My Lai during the Vietnam War or J.Glenn Gray’s warning to us that, while a great many soldiers dislike killing, many in fact come to recognize that they in fact do (52). Both serve as reminders to us of the dangerous fury of war once unleashed.
• Finally, consider the courage of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who had a public breakdown after leading the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda that was prevented from interfering in the genocide. He reminds us of our responsibilities to protect the civilian victims of war.

For many soldiers who return home carrying the trauma of what they have seen and what they have done, the only possible meaning to be drawn from war is that it reminds us once again that we need to work harder at creating the conditions of peace. This is the fundamental message of the white poppy. This message is not invisible in the symbol of the red poppy, but it can be all too easily silenced.

Works Cited

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Women and War. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Gray, J, Glenn. The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. New York: Harper and Row: 1959.

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Boston: Mariner Books, 2011.

Holmes, Nancy. “In Flanders Fields” – Canada’s Official Poem: Breaking Faith. Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en literature canadienne. (Jan 2005). Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

Iles, Jennifer. “In Remembrance: The Flanders Poppy” Mortality 13.3 (2008):201-221.

Pat Romano
Humanities, Dawson College

Teaching about Truth and Reconciliation

There are so many wonderful materials to encourage our students to reflect on the real human potential for rebuilding relationships broken by violence while not understating the enormous difficulties involved. Here we focus on resources that encourage us to think about forgiveness and reconciliation through the personal lives of those on both sides of violence.

The One Million Viewers Campaign: Beyond Right and Wrong

In February 2014, filmmaker Lekha Singh launched the One Million Viewers campaign — an online campaign to promote the viewership of award-winning film, Beyond Right and Wrong. The film presents the stories of people who have experienced loss and the stories of people who have caused that loss. From the Rwandan Genocide to the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, people from different sides of the violence tell their stories—their anger or remorse, their pain, their paths to recovery. The trauma of violence, the value of truth, the complexities of forgiveness and the potential of reconciliation are all examined in this powerful film.

The film can be viewed free on-line at and, with every viewing, 50 cents is automatically given to a charity of your choice. This would make a great classroom project, and you can ask your students to leave comments on this website by clicking here.

The Empathy Library

This site is a digital treasure house of inspiring books and films. Join the library and help build the collection. From their current top ten list, you will find the following wonderful videos that encourage us to step out of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of others – a necessary step for reconciliation. The first is a wonderful animated film based on a talk by philosopher and author Roman Krznaric, who calls for a new culture of outrospection to replace the culture of introspection that dominated in the 20th century. The second is a short appeal by Save the Children that powerfully places a British child into the life of a child caught up in the chaos of war.

“My Father is a Terrorist”

In this powerful Ted’s Talk, Zak Ebrahim talks of growing up in a family environment which promoted hatred and extremism and the life experiences which led him to take a different path. His experiences of being bullied gave him a sense of what it was to be a victim of violence, while his world view shifted as he began to encounter the people he had been taught to hate.


The film, Coexist, asks the following question: when hate persists, how will you coexist? The film tells the stories of several survivors of the Rwandan genocide who are trying to move on with their lives while having to live side by side with the perpetrators who have returned to their villages. The filmmakers have created many teaching resources as part of their Upstander Project, which aims to foster larger thinking about the problem of “othering” and the  need to build inclusive school cultures.

Talking about the Ideas

Claire Elliott from the Dawson Library has come up with some ideas to launch a classroom discussion on the concepts of truth and reconciliation.



noun: truth

  1.  the quality or state of being true.

“he had to accept the truth of her accusation”

  • that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.
  • a fact or belief that is accepted as true.

Consider this statement:

“What is truth? Truth doesn’t really exist. Who is going to judge whether my experience of an incident is more valid than yours? No one can be trusted to be the judge of that.” (Tracey Emin)

Have you ever been in a conflict like the one suggested above? What was the “truth” of the situation? What were the “facts”? Would your ‘opponent’ accept, or dispute, your version of events? If so, how do you account for this difference in perception? Can you think of a situation where the facts were not consistent with the truth?





noun: reconciliation; plural noun: reconciliations

  1. the restoration of friendly relations.
  2. the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.

Think of a conflict you have experienced… Were you able to “reconcile” your views or feelings? If so, were you satisfied with the outcome? Was it “friendly” or only “compatible”? We’d love to hear your thoughts or stories of “reconciliation”: Is it possible? Why is it important? How do we do it? Where do we start?




Making Peace through Apology

Apologies can be a simple human act, but one that has the potential to transform relationships in our individual lives but also between political communities. Good apologies meet some of our most basic psychological needs; they can erase humiliations, ease our guilt, remove our desires for revenge and rebuild trust. The very fact that many of us find it difficult to apologize is an indication of its potential power. In this short article, psychiatrist Aaron Lazare explains why apologies can play a major role in promoting a more peaceful world.


Aaron Lazare is a leading authority on the psychology of shame and humiliation. For many years, he was a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and from 1991-2007 served as chancellor and dean of the school. His most recent book is On Apology (2004), a book filled with wonderful examples of apologies — between individuals and on behalf of nations — that serve to reveal the power of this simple human interaction.


Click here to read the entire article 

You can also find online another article “Go Ahead, Say You’re Sorry” by Aaron Lazare that is ideal for student discussion. You can find it posted on Psychology Today’s site.


Some assignment ideas:

  • The topic of apologies raises some interesting discussion questions:

What makes a good apology?

What psychological needs are met when you receive a satisfying apology? Have students think of an apology that they have received.

Why is it difficult to apologize meaningfully to someone we have injured?


  • Students could also assess the value of an apology that appeared in the news recently, considering the motives behind it and its effectiveness. You can find some examples of recent apologies in On Apology or on the website.


  • Psychologist Floyd Webster Rudmin from the University of Tromsø in Norway has called for non-state actors to engage in an apologies project for actions that their country or ethnic group have committed against another identifiable group; for educators, he suggests that we ask our students to research such an event and then conceive of a way to express apology for the harm done. As he writes:

 The list of transgressions is immense and without end, and probably no nation or people is without a reason to apologize….An apology seems like a win-win situation. Those who apologize come to understand the reality of their national history that is often sanitized from history books. An apology is verbal and thus does not require huge resources. Individual activists and small groups can successfully apologize. If an apology is strongly opposed, then the opponents must enter into a debate about history, and must reveal motives, both past motives and current motives. An apology is a human bond, since it entails sympathy with someone else, who before the apology was treated as non-existent, with non-existent suffering.