You have a rare experience in building networks of women to address many critical issues. Most reflections on religion and peace tend to concentrate on men and men’s roles. What women are doing is rarely seen, and their agendas and strengths are seldom at the forefront. How did you begin to work in this field?
Let me say at the outset that the subject of women, religion, and peacemaking is one I have focused on for many years. Indeed, I am working on a book, which I began some time ago (in 2002). Only have parts of it are complete, for obvious reasons (our work is too intense).
I was born in Egypt, studied at the American University in Cairo, and began my career working in Egypt, then more regionally on Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. I first became interested in the issues that have been my lifelong professional passion, democracy, human rights, and gender, through activism in my university days. Also, it emerged from family experience as members of my own family were in different places on the political spectrum and keenly interested in politics and justice.
All of this is part of life in the Middle East. You don’t really become politicized by a certain event; you grow up politicized. The trend towards politicization was all around us and is still there today. No single event triggered my awareness. It was normal, the blood running through your veins, part of your average conversation around the dinner table, and we have plenty of those, because we’re always convening around meals. Any conversation touches on the political context and what’s going on. When you live in a context where one cousin and a best friend and the brother of the neighbors and many people are being incarcerated for no obvious reason apart from the fact that they look suspicious, it becomes part of what you want to know and understand.
My area of study and research as an adult began with the human rights domain and later moved on to the broader area of democracy, electoral systems, and development (my mother termed these “the safer domains of life). I was very much focused on the Arab world, where I grew up and which was what I knew. I was trying to grapple with what I had studied and what I had lived through, as I worked to find out what I wanted to be as a professional. My geographic area of interest gradually widened, initially to South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana and then beyond.
Even after I was no longer living in the Middle East since 1996, I continued to work in a number of countries there. When did you start to focus on religion?
My early studies and work brought me very much within the sphere and domain of religious groups, particularly Islamic ones, but my perceptions and understanding started from my family and my university experience. So my interest, and the reason that I became involved in these topics, stem from a very personal and professional place.
The 1980’s was a very intense period for the Arab world in terms of the growth of religious politics. There was a strong politicization of religion throughout the Arab region and the Middle East in general. Thinking back, I realize that while we only focused on the Islamic political domain, plenty was going on within the Christian communities also across the region, though frankly that has not been well studied. Particularly in the West we tend to see only the Islamic vantage point, but the religious politics overall was very intense; it was Islamic, and Christian, and Jewish.
Exploring this field of human rights was far from easy and my interest in the links to religion was even more difficult. The religious groups were, putting it mildly, not the most accepted by the governments. A lot of my work involved coming sitting through many discussions in meetings of men, and of men and women, and of women. I listened to many debates and discussions, and many tried to get me to “see their point of view." What were the gender aspects of growing up? Did you feel limited by religion?
In my Ph.D. thesis (which I published in 1998), I compare and juxtapose my life with those of two of my female cousins. I try to show how, despite our very different backgrounds and orientations, we are still in the same family. We grew up seeing ourselves as sisters more than anything else. But we came very differently to a social and political consciousness, and awareness of our womanhood, of the very gendered sphere in which we lived. In most situations, I found a strange divide between talking politics and doing politics. There is an obvious line between where men and women go.
But then, through my human rights work, I stumbled upon the Islamic organizations themselves, and the different groups within the sphere of political Islam. There, I realized, the gender dividing line was not necessarily that clear at all times. In fact it is far less clear in these groups what women should or should not do. In the secular world, that dividing line seemed a lot clearer. That was a fascinating discovery, because we had assumed that within the world of religion, the demarcations of gender roles would be much sharper and much more determined than in the secular context. I came to appreciate that because of the political contingencies, the religious groups did not have the luxury of saying that women can do this and really should not be doing that. It is a situation of all hands on deck. There is a mental, social, economic, and political transformation and a revolution to undertake; we don’t have time to waste. It is the same logic that you heard and saw in other liberation movements, but this time it was being employed, lo and behold, by the religious political groups.
That was a very important lesson and learning curve for me. It made me attempt to approach the roles of religion in a more nuanced way & somewhere between being secular and religious. I came to appreciate religion as a very important segment of our lives, and to appreciate that we should not see religion only as a political motor or with the lens of stereotypes.
When I approached these groups, to them I was a very secular person. I wasn’t dressed in the Islamic fashion; I didn’t see religion as the quintessence of politics. I saw it as an important driver for our personhood, but not necessarily for the political domain. I have always considered myself a religious person, but to these groups, I was a secular outsider. I eventually came to be accepted as the observer, and the human rights activist. So another lesson from these contacts early in my career was the difference between self-perception and the perceptions of others. I realized that I too had come with my own preconceptions; I came to realize that if you’re involved in a religious group, you are not necessarily going to be segregated. I thought there were very clear places where women could not go. But I learned that it depends on the group’s agenda. If it’s a political agenda, if the agenda is political revolution liberation, the gender dimension matters less, because it’s all hands on deck. How did you come upon WCRP?
After I left the Middle East, I first went to The Netherlands, to continue my graduate studies. I found an activist environment there, and I continued to be involved in working on democracy and human rights issues. I then moved to Sweden, where I worked exclusively on democracy and electoral issues, in a largely secular environment that did not allow for work on culture and religion. I then went on to teach and coordinate a Masters Programme on Ethnic Conflict in Belfast, in Northern Ireland (1998-2000). In many ways it was a home away from home, because the fascinating issues that were discussed resonated very much with me as an Arab.
After about two years in this fascinating and dynamic environment, I realized that I did not want to be teaching only. I missed the actual work & working 24 hours a day on cases and situations and peoples’ lives. I suddenly found myself in a very academic context, torn between a university which was very English-dominated, in a country which was struggling to find its own voiceNorthern Ireland. The experience taught me that I did not want to end up just yet as a professor. I needed to continue “active engagement." I was restless, even a bit impatient, constantly saying that with so many different aspects of me, by doing only one thing I felt I was missing out on the rest of me. My husband, who was also serving as the career advisor for students in the university, came across an advertisement by WCRP. The advertisement was very cleverly crafted and spoke directly to who I am. It appeared to require simultaneous knowledge of gender and religion and international relations and politics. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I applied and was selected. That’s how I came to WCRP. So you moved to New York?
I came straight to New York. I had always wanted to come to New York. Before then, I had felt like a stranger in the places I lived & even my own country. I came once to New York in 1992 for a conference on Women and the Arab World at Columbia University. I remember feeling incredibly at home. When the WCRP opportunity came up, the fact that it was in New York was a strong source of excitement for me. I thought, “I wonder if it would still continue to feel like being at home?” It meant a lot to me at that point in my career and in my personal life. I mainly wanted a place where the conflicts were not always both inside and outside. I could live with conflicts around me, but I needed a place to call home. How did WCRP venture into the area of women and religion? Was it in response to outside pressures? Who do you see as the real inspiration there?
The inspiration came from an amazing woman, Dr. Constance Buchanan, who headed the Culture section at the Ford Foundation at the time. It was Constance who said to Bill Vendley (Secretary General of WCRP), “You’re doing plenty of excellent work with men. Why are you not venturing into the domain of women? Where are the women?” Constance made it clear that if he came up with an interesting program, the Ford Foundation would fund it. That’s how WCRP’s women’s program emerged.
Then WCRP then began to look for someone to run the program, because they were not at all sure what to do. WCRP saw it generally as something around women and religion; it was initially called “Women Religious." One reason, I think, that they appreciated me out of the pool of candidates was that they were looking for a Muslim person. WCRP staff was at the time, relatively, Christian-dominated. They were looking for a Muslim staff at their headquarters for the sake of diversity and I think Bill figured that a good fit would be in the emerging women’s program. That’s purely my interpretation; the official version is they were looking for a Muslim to be part of the staff. They received money from the Ford Foundation to do a women’s program, and I walked into their life. So you were starting from scratch with the program, basically.
I was starting from absolutely nothing. There was no vision and no knowledge of what to do with the women’s program. The attitude was, “How can we best invest in multireligious work with this money?” I remember taking Bill aside at one point and saying, “You see, it’s not such a bad thing to invest in women. It can get you places.” He smiled at me and said, “I always believed that.” WCRP was a wonderful experience in every way. I still see them very much as my larger family in the United States.
Obviously, I came to WCRP because I believed in the importance of investing in women. I have distinct memories of the many women of faith I’ve met in these different movements, in the Arab region and Africa. They have had a powerful impact on me. They are incredibly strong and capable and wonderful and amazing.
Yet, somehow, too many of them appeared to be content with a certain status quo. Even though they were leaders in their own right, the status quo was insistent that they had to be in the background; no matter how accomplished they were, the status quo demanded that these women not be recognized and supported in the same way as their male counterparts. But they were carrying many religious movements on their own shoulders. I sincerely believe many religious movements would not exist without these women. However, there was this status quo idea that, “No, it’s okay; our job is to nurture and support, but from behind the scenes.”
I respected their thinking, but I thought from the start that there had to be some way of recognizing that remarkable potential, giving and shaping power. I referred to them, as they did sometimes, as the political mothers. When I came to WCRP, I saw the opportunity to show and to build a movement around, for, and with these women of faith.
What better way to do that than to use the classic networking tool and the opportunity of WCRP’s global network? First we had to identify the women and then bring them together so they could get to know one another and see one another, across religions and across regions. Those I had worked with for all those years had never really had the opportunity to do that; at most they would meet within their own religious community in their own countries. We had a phenomenal, powerful opportunity to learn from each other across so many different divides, and realize that there was a vision that united them, and a shared mission, regardless of their religions. We launched the global Women of Faith network, with the Ford Foundation’s support, and at the Ford Foundation, in fact. I remember feeling after the launch that I could die now; as I had somehow done something that I had wanted to do. When was the formal launch?
It was in 2001. Shortly thereafter, September 11th happened. It seemed then that perhaps the Women of Faith now had an even bigger mission. What took you from WCRP to UNDP?
My very Arab and very nationalist family worried that I seemed so incredibly comfortable after four years in New York. They felt that I was moving too far away from my home region and that set up a pull within me. I had only been gone for about six years and was still very much involved in the Arab world. I began to work with Bill Vendley as his special advisor on the Arab world. We had traveled through Iraq after the invasion and we spent many hours there with religious leaders. So I did not feel as if I was estranged from the region in any way, shape or form. But I was aware that my parents and especially my father, were disappointed that I was not serving the region more directly. He wanted me to be closer’ to the family and to try to do something more directly in the region.
The compromise came in the form of an offer from UNDP to lead their newly created unit, which was to work on the Arab Human Development Report. They had just launched the first Arab Human Development Report in 2002; it had incredible resonance in the region. By the beginning of 2004, the Arab Bureau had set up a special unit for this report. I would be serving the Arab region, but still based in New York. I would be in the region practically every other month. And I would be working on something “safe." So I took that job in hopes of serving the region that had nurtured me and taught me so much, and at the same time, to do it from a perspective where I was also serving another dimension, which is the UN system.
At UNDP, I spent three years working on the Arab Human Development Report, supporting education and information and communication technology and women’s projects in the region. It was gratifying, but I missed terribly working on faith and religion. I was not allowed to address those topics there, as faith-based involvement was not part of UNDP’s mandate. In fact, it was strongly discouraged at every level because it was not seen as a part of what we called our practice areas, i.e. the Millennium Development Goals, which is really the mandate of the organization. UNDP’s perception at that time, was that there was no value added for the UN to engage with/about religion. Who was leading UNDP at the time?
It was Mark Malloch Brown, then Kemal Dervis. Both came from a very secular background. Although the Arab Human Development Reports were making it very clear that we had to consider the role of religion, the general trend in UNDP was not yet conducive towards that. So you moved to UNFPA?
Then in walks Thoraya (Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA) into my life. I had the privilege of introducing Thoraya to WCRP’s work; I was heading the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN at that time, but before that, the Committee nominated her for it’s Award and because it was clear she was doing some amazing work on religion and culture from within the UN context. I did not appreciate how phenomenal her leadership was until I joined the UN myself, and realized, “My God, this woman is doing the undoable in this system.”
She informed me that UNFPA would be advertising their culture post, so I kept checking their website diligently. My predecessor was a fantastic woman, Maysoon Melek, who had been like dynamite inside a mountain there. I did not think UNFPA would see me as a viable candidate, but I applied anyway, even though my position at UNDP was rather more senior. When I left WRCP to join UNDP, I felt I had left behind a good chunk of who I am and who I want to continue to be. So the title and level were unimportant, it was about finding a “purpose in living.” At UNDP, nobody encouraged me to apply for the post and move to UNFPA; many questioned: “Why would you go to UNFPA? Why would you want to be doing this kind of work when you have us?” But I knew I had made the right choice the first day I was at UNFPA.
Talking to UNFPA staff and hearing about Thoraya’s vision, I came to realize that she was one of the most incredible articulators of what is in my heart. She has power as an Undersecretary General of the United Nations. There was an Under Secretary General who understood religion, who believes that religion is an integral part of culture, is what is going to make the world change. That was firmly and fundamentally my belief, too. I took what I saw as an extraordinary opportunity.
Sure enough, it’s been an incredible journey. It’s been over three years since I joined UNFPA and it has been fulfilling on so many levels, and incredibly challenging on a number of others. It is a real privilege to serve with Thoraya. I don’t know how many of us can claim in our lifetime that we have worked with someone whom we can look up to and have tremendous admiration for and truly love, not only because of who they are, but because of how they think. Thoraya is one of those people. Can you tell me about the book you are writing on this topic?
This has been a long term project. The book is currently divided into three sections. One is the conceptual discussion around peace and conflict in general; it’s the sum of my work in the Belfast days, and a critique from a religion and a gender perspective. It is a critique on existing theories of peace and conflict. I reflect the work of Scott Appleby and Mohammed Abu-Nimr and others, looking at the role of religion in a less antagonistic way than has been the tradition, and much more in light of its peace-building potential.
Part Two is case studies. I look at a number of different case studies from Israel, Palestine, and Northern Ireland. I look at Liberia, South Africa, and Colombia. I take a couple of cases from each region and I look at what, if any, the implications of religion are. And in many instances, I go a bit out on a limb, because in many of these contexts, except in the Middle East, where it’s overly religious, religion has not necessarily been shown to be a factor. So I go out on a limb by looking at where religion had a role to play& if not necessarily directly in the conflict, then in the broader social context that underlies what happened in the society.
The third part, which I have yet to complete, brings all these ideas together. Can we propose a new theory, or theories, on women, religion and conflict? What myths are we breaking down by putting forward these new theories, in terms of the roles of women and religion? I would like to think that we’re coming up with a new paradigm. What are areas where the current project should focus? Cases or stories, for example?
I agree that the personal stories are absolutely critical, and will make a difference in the way that we understand the challenge.
There has been a gap, not only in research and knowledge, but in terms of our own responsibility as researchers, in trying to understand the women who themselves fight. The ones who are the guerillas; the ones who are the strategists and the planners; and the ones who blow themselves up. This field needs to be much more responsibly looked at. What do I mean by responsibly? I, and we, in terms of the general women’s movement, are finding it very difficult to deal with these women and with the notion of what they do and what they bring to the table if they ever get to it. Unless we crack this and understand and appreciate it, we’re going to be doing the same old mythologizing of women as the answer. It keeps us in a rut, because we’re not moving beyond that. We’re seeing women as the alternative, the other, the potential peacemakers. Even if we don’t say it, that is the subliminal message we’re trying hard to come up with. It’s been part of my battle with this new paradigm, because it really means accepting and coming out publicly to say, “We’ve got huge responsibilities in peacemaking & as women. But we also are part of conflict itself.”
This opens up new questions. What does it imply for socialization processes; for politics; for peacemaking? I think it implies a fundamental shift in how we understand ourselves as women, and how we see the men in our society, what we cause in them, and what kind of societies we should be. That point needs to be looked at responsibly, even though it’s very painful.
By doing so you’re putting yourself in front of the firing squad, because there are very few women and there are some men, as well, who don’t want this to be articulated. Are you talking about women’s anger and sense of justice?
Yes, that was very well put. This is purely a very personal belief & but it is this fear of women’s anger, in my opinion, that underlies all religions and religious traditions. The interpretations of religions that are so focused on controlling women have plenty to do with this fear of women’s anger. We are venturing into a terrain that is psychologically, socially, politically, and personally incredibly difficult. And that’s why we don’t go there. But if we don’t go there, we are simply regurgitating the same old thing. Jacqui Ogega (who now heads the Women’s network of Religions for Peace), says you gave her her start there.
I hired Jackie to manage the Africa part of the Women of Faith networks that I set up. We were establishing a worldwide network, and I needed someone in the Africa context, together with Latin America. In Latin America, we had Elias Szczytnicki and in Africa, Jackie. It was just too much for one person sitting in New York at headquarters to manage. I am incredibly proud of what Jackie has done. She is a fantastic reflection on Religions for Peace and I was thrilled that they selected her for my former post in New York.