A Discussion with Scilla Elworthy, Director, Oxford Research Group

With: Scilla Elworthy

July 16, 2010

Background: This exchange between Scilla Elworthy and Katherine Marshall took place in July, 2010 and traces Elworthy's multifaceted work over the years on women and peace. She began decades ago, sparked by a report she was asked to compile for UNESCO reviewing its contribution to the 1980 UN Mid Decade Conference on Women. She highlights the many threads that link work at the most global level, for example on nuclear disarmament, with actions at the local level, where women play prominent and creative roles in working for peace. She urges a focus on making women's work more strategic. Her approach emphasizes understanding and dialogue, as she has worked to appreciate how people think about peace, as well as the pragmatic dimensions of the power they exercise and roles they play.

You have reflected and worked more than anyone else about this nexus of issues: how women and peace are linked and the role of faith. How did you become involved?

It started some 35 years ago, with a focus on weapons, militarism, and peacebuilding.

In 1979, UNESCO asked me to do a review, as UNESCO’s contribution to the 1980 UN Mid Decade Conference on Women, on the topic of women, peacebuilding, and international relations. I had not worked on the topic before and had therefore to find out about it. In doing so, I encountered outstanding women doing remarkable work. Elise Boulding and Betty Reardon, especially, led me to a wide range of work that was taking place, and we documented that work in our report.

The report itself highlighted eight case studies of women peacemakers working in conflict areas, including Northern Ireland, the United States, and the Philippines. The case studies were full of fascinating, powerful material, and they showed the effect women had had, what challenged them, and what had defeated them. It was eye-opening. That UNESCO project sparked my continuing interest. I had been working before on development issues, focused on Southern Africa, so this opened a new chapter in my life.

What had your career focused on up to that time?

I had been living and working in South Africa, working among other things on nutrition education, until 1975-76. We then moved back to Europe, and I worked for the Minority Rights Group, on human rights issues, setting up their office in Paris. With six African and Arab women, we wrote the first official report on female genital mutilation.

What sparked your interest in such issues from the start?

I was 13 years old, and remember distinctly watching the grainy pictures of the Hungarian revolt on black and white television. It was 1956, and Soviet tanks were moving in to Budapest, and I saw children my own age throwing themselves at the tanks. I went upstairs and was packing my suitcase to go to Budapest. When my mother asked where I was going, I started to cry. My mother’s advice was that I should calm down and, if I was serious about helping, she would help me to get the training I would need so that I could be useful. And she stuck to her word in helping me to follow that path.

When I was 16, I went to work in a holiday camp for survivors of Auschwitz, and during and after university (at Trinity College, Dublin) I began working with programs with refugees, in France and then Algeria after the Civil War. I eventually went to South Africa, intending to go from there to Australia. But I married there and ended up staying for ten years.

So the Budapest experience captivated you?

I was compelled more than captivated. It was like a rocket that was taking off, and in no way could I stop it.

What lessons did you take from your work for UNESCO and the 1980 Women’s Conference?

The stories of what women were doing were distinct, but the links among them were remarkable. I saw a worldwide spread of ideas and examples. What was happening in Northern Ireland was important there but it also linked to other places.

The work of women in northern Luzon, in the Philippines, was the story of a community that was desperate to stop the building of a dam that was creating havoc and conflict in the community, a dam that would have destroyed ancient irrigation systems. The community was convinced that the dam would destroy them also. The men had done everything they could, using political protests, the media, everything. But the construction was starting. Very much as in Liberia, the women decided they must do something and take it into their hands. They stood in front of the bulldozers and started to take off their clothes. In the Filipino context, that was profane and the men and the bulldozers stopped. It was an extraordinary feat of bravery that had the effect of calming the conflict, and eventually was successful in stopping the dam project.

The story in the United States centered on the work of Betty Reardon in the late 1970s, that included women surrounding the Pentagon as well as a focus on peace education. Their work informed the later movement of women at Greenham Common Peace Camp, where men and women joined together, holding hands to surround the 13-mile perimeter of the U.S. military base, standing against nuclear weapons.

As to my own path, I did not want personally to continue with UNESCO. I was not cut out to work in a large bureaucracy. We came back to the United Kingdom, with our young daughter, and settled in Oxford. I became involved in peace work and protests, including Greenham Common. But gradually I came to realize that such work, while it was good in raising consciousness, was having little real effect.

A turning point was the 1982 Second UN Conference on Disarmament in New York. It attracted an extraordinary demonstration. I was working at the time to lobby on behalf of NGOs at the United Nations. On one Sunday, there were a million people protesting in New York. The demonstrators filled Central Park from end to end, and side to side. The cops started the day hostile, and at the end they had peace badges on their ties. It was one of the most successful demonstrations of its kind, ever, and the New York Times devoted five pages to the events.

But the next day I went into the United Nations building and the continuing deliberations of the Conference, then in its third week. And there was no discernable effect whatsoever of the events outside.

I remember well, strap-hanging on a tram on Broadway, an idea came like a flash into my head. Demonstrations in the street were not reaching those making decisions about nuclear weapons. What we needed to do was to identify those who really were making the decisions—in weapons labs, in the military, departments of defense, intelligence strategists and weapons contractors—and look for an open dialogue, an informed discussion, with them.

So, back in Oxford, I set out to create a research group to do this. At first it was three of us around my kitchen table, and it became the Oxford Research Group. Its focus was to understand how decisions are made, from the earliest drawings of nuclear devices to the actual deployment.

It took four years before we produced our first book. It had a chapter on each country, with wiring diagrams on who was involved and how decisions were made, how groups were organized, from think tanks to political decision making.

The study was a shock to the system. We had used no classified material but had put together an account of how things worked that was closer to the truth than many who were in the system had themselves realized.

We then took what we had done as the basis for the next steps, and worked with serious peace groups. Each “adopted” two decision makers, one in their own country and one in another country. So, for example, a group of doctors took on the UK Chief of Military Staff and his counterpart in China. They worked to learn about the person from all angles, including their responsibilities, maneuvering space, background etc, and then opened correspondence with the person, with a view to a face-to-face meeting. This work went through the late 1980s, and took us to NATO, Moscow, Beijing and Washington. It also helped inform groups of women who were working for peace.

What were these women’s groups focusing on at the time?

We formed a group called NATO Alerts Network in 1985, as a result of concern over the deployment of short range nuclear missiles in Europe. It brought together women leaders and parliamentarians from East and West Europe. One was the Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament; the group was led by Margarita Papandreou, then first lady of Greece. We went with this group of about 30 impressive and experienced women to talk to our countries’ military representatives at NATO HQ in Brussels. It was a shock to NATO that informed women wanted to enter a dialogue with them on nuclear weapons. It was the first time anyone from Eastern Europe had crossed that threshold, let alone women who were not cleaners or secretaries. The Secretary General of NATO kept us waiting for 25 minutes, and then addressed us as “you young women who know nothing about war.”

We discovered on that visit that NATO had no hotline to the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, meaning that if a military exercise was misunderstood as a nuclear attack, there was no fast way to communicate. Communications were apparently by letter, hand delivered, or via the media. We raised this at the very top, and within a few weeks a hotline was installed.

Our hallmark and approach was to engage policy makers with informed, calm, and articulate women. We took our arguments everywhere, to Moscow, where we met Gorbachev, as well as to Beijing, and Geneva; we were less involved in the United States.

Where did this work lead?

We began to realize that the best way to affect the hearts and minds of the people we were engaging was to become knowledgeable and to approach dialogue with them as persons, listening with open hearts. The hardest thing of all is to realize that if you want to change someone else’s mind, you have to be prepared to have your own mind changed.

I also was working during this period towards my doctorate at Bradford University (in political science). My thesis also was focused on the processes of decision-making on nuclear weapons, and I conducted interviews with decision-makers in Britain and internationally, looking at what influenced them. This was the time of the end of the Cold War, and I was asking how they saw the new geopolitical scene. I mapped how they thought, using cognitive mapping, showing where their thinking originated, how they saw what was happening and, for example, their perceptions of where threats came from. It was a fascinating process for them, and it often changed their way of thinking, as individuals. It was also fascinating for me, giving me an insight into the psychology of how people thought, but also the spiritual dimensions.

Where did that spiritual dimension come into your work?

It was around this time that I became a Quaker, inspired by my mentors Adam Curle, the first Prof of Peace Studies at Bradford, and Elise Boulding. I would call myself a sort of Buddhist Quaker. Buddhism had always attracted me, and my work had been to a degree based on this kind of thinking, without being explicitly so. I would say the same of the Quaker focus. It was part of my effort to understand more deeply the motivations that drove people to be involved in the vast decisions that affect humanity so profoundly. Today I am less a practicing Quaker than I was. I do feel rooted in a deep feminine soul power.

Was the role of women a focus during this time?

As I went deeper, I began to get more and more interested in the roles of women. I wanted to understand more what were the differences in the way men and women saw security and peace, and what motivated them. The result was my book Power and Sex (1996). The title might more appropriately have been Power and Gender, but my publisher (and I also) found the word sex more intriguing.

The book went back into prehistory, looking at the Neolithic cultures and at how the Neolithic people saw the world, drawing on scholars like Riane Eisler and Merlin Stone. How had people seen the world for thousands of years? The artifacts of the time show the profound respect that these cultures had for the life giving power of the earth. These seem to have been balanced cultures, where men and women’s roles were largely equal. I then traced how this changed, with the growing dominance of males and the emergence of monotheistic religions. This gave me a new understanding of feminism—because I realized that what women were struggling for in the twentieth century had in fact existed in previous times—and this increased the possibility of recreating masculine and feminine roles that might offer a better way to live on the planet. I very much believe that this is true, that one of our main tasks as human beings is to balance the masculine and feminine within and around us. We need to work from a joint base of values that are grounded in respect for the earth.

I was doing this work at the same time as my work with the Oxford Research Group. When the book was published in early 1996, I wondered if it would detract from the hard earned position of respect that we had gradually built up in military circles. I cannot really answer that question (of how the perception of our work changed).

But the work has given me a different perspective. It has made me more relaxed about looking at roles of men and women, and I see a clearer path into the future. The idea is not that women can or should become fighter pilots. We need not fight to do what men have done. We can work from a basis of the profound power of the deep feminine.

How did this work lead to your quite different work with women and groups working at the grassroots level?

I came to a realization, as I kept my ear to the ground in the different countries where I was working, that there were extraordinary stories of what was happening in conflict areas. Women especially were charting a course that was different from traditional models, starting new initiatives to prevent or resolve violent conflict, and they were effective. As we looked at 50 or more local initiatives, it made me realize the power of local people to act effectively to prevent or resolve conflicts.

So from an exploration of ‘top down’ policy making—who did it and how—I moved to look at grass roots initiatives, working ‘from the bottom up’ and often with virtually no resources. I suppose the thread between the two is the absolute determination that drives people; when they work together it is a recipe for success.

In 1988, in the course of the work to map the nuclear decision making processes, we had published a book (The Nuclear Weapons World: Who Where and How?) containing some 650 biographies of the people involved, of which only five were women. This really made me think. This book also got us banned. The problem was that we were attempting to render the process accountable, so the public could see how the processes worked, and that it was all done by human beings, not a machine. This means that the processes are something we have created and thus something we can shape and alter.

That links to the work at the grass roots, which is very much about human beings, just as it is at the top.

How did you move from that to your work with the Elders?

In many ways it was this thread linking top and bottom that prepared me for the Elders challenge.

The original idea for the Elders came from Peter Gabriel. He brought it to his friend Richard Branson in 2003, and they took it to Nelson Mandela. He gave a general blessing and told them to go and make it work. Then the concept went through what they called the washing machine period: back and forth with no resolution. So towards the end of 2004, I got a call from Richard Branson asking if I would help develop the idea. We worked on it for two and a half years, reflecting on what the Elders could actually do and who should be the members of the Elders. We prepared some 300 biographies of potential Elders, which we refined down to some 32 and from that group eventually the final candidates were selected by Mandela. The effort was obviously to have a geographic and gender balance.

Where in your work for peace, looking now at the landscape, do you see the roles of women? What is distinctive? And how does that relate to another organization you have created, Peace Direct?

It is not just women who work for peace, evidently, and Peace Direct supports women and men. But the most efficient institutions, the most effective approaches, do seem to be led by women.

The origins of Peace Direct are in a sense quite revolutionary. It was born from an opposition to the old neocolonial ways of working, of ‘giving’ aid to the developing world. In that paradigm organizations based in “the West” send people to troubled parts of the world to help.

Peace Direct, instead, believes that local people know best in conflict situations. We work to identify those who are most effective and offer them encouragement, media focus (when that is important for their safety), and resources to support what people are doing at the local level.

What is most exciting is for Peace Direct to identify an organization ‘in embryo’, then support it to grow into a teenager and an adult, to a point when it can independently attract resources.

What are some examples?

Dekha Ibrahim is one, Ashima Kaul another. Dekha’s work began at a tiny scale and developed to a point that she was a pivotal figure in the period after the 2007 election. She was called on to help mobilize the rapid response teams that helped quell the worst forms of violence. We have worked with her for many years. The same is true for Ashima Kaul in her work with widows from both sides of the dispute in Kashmir.

Asha Haji Alma, from Somalia, is another wonderful example. In fact, she came to one of the early Elders meetings, in 2006, and she was able to convey what local women’s organizations can do. When five Somali tribes gathered in the 1990s for peace talks, there was not a single woman on any delegation. Asha went to the local clan leaders and when they were unreceptive to the idea of having women, decided to form a clan composed entirely of women. They took a place at the peace negotiations, and negotiated that women should have 12 percent of the seats in Parliament. That was obviously remarkable in an Islamic nation. Now, that is on hold because of the chaos, and Asha works through Save Somali Women and Children.

We have not focused very specifically on the roles that religion plays in these different dimensions of work for peace, but from what you have written, it is evident that the spiritual dimensions are an integral part of your approach and thinking. What are the issues that emerge, especially in thinking about women’s roles?

I see the issue as much more of a question of soul power, than of religion itself as the engine. The people that we work with are managing to integrate the masculine and feminine, in the way they relate to the cosmos. This in turn generates a positive energy because it is not a question of my religion versus yours, but of what we can do together to nurture the planet. That, indeed, is the topic of my most recent book, Soul Power, which starts with the famous Einstein quote, “No problem can be solved from the consciousness that created it,” and goes on to discuss how we develop the new consciousness that is needed for humanity to survive.

In understanding the peace work of women and men, I often have heard and seen how vital it is for them to be able to draw on a resource deep within us. I hesitate to give it a name, but it is our source of strength. It just so happens that many of the women I have come across who are working at the front lines of conflict, do have an ability to be in the present. That comes in part because they have faced and, in some cases, mastered their fear. And that often means that they have gone through their fear. It is humbling and deeply inspiring to find people who are using their inner strength to change what is happening to their people in positive, practical ways.

Aung San Suu Kyi said once that you must go through fear to be able to act and succeed. That gives you in essence the ability to be in the moment, not to be afraid in a crisis. That is why to me someone like her is such a role model. Once she was leading a group of thousands of students in the streets of Rangoon, protesting against the oppressive rule of the Burmese generals. The young students came round a corner to face a phalanx of military with automatic weapons. Aung San heard the safety catches click off. Because she could sense that the students were afraid, so she told them just to sit down. She herself walked on alone towards the guns, realizing that the young soldiers with their fingers on the triggers also were scared. She used the presence that her father, who was a general, had taught her. Walking forward, she was able to put her hand on the barrel of the first gun and, looking at the young man holding it, she gently lowered it.

That is the courage of someone who has mastered their inner turmoil. It moves me when I see it in a conflict situation like the one Aung San describes. It moves me also when I see it manifested if someone stands up in the grand surroundings of an annual general meeting of a weapons manufacturer to protest arms sales. You see it when people use non violence to bar the way of military forces moving to carry out an attack. This involves an incredible combination of political intelligence, psychological maturity and deep wisdom.

This is to my mind one of the pinnacles of spiritual achievement, and it calls forth a high level of spiritual training. It is a something that a woman like Pema Chodron (a Buddhist nun working in Nova Scotia) teaches and understands. You have to train yourself, as if for the Olympics, in qualities of concentration, courage, calmness and determination.

As you look to next steps, what is your counsel?

What is missing is an overall strategy for the building of peace worldwide. There are so many effective grassroots initiatives that do not get a fraction of the resources they merit; there are marvelous UN declarations that do not really deliver; there is excellent research coming out of university peace departments; there are even great initiatives on the part of governments, but all these are fragmented and do not work together as joint stakeholders in the building of peace.

It is stunning to realize the extent of investment in weaponry, when a tiny fraction of it could solve problems like water, education and health. We do not have a full understanding of what we as humans are doing to the planet and ourselves, by continuing to spend (for example) 1,885 times more on military efforts to deal with conflict, than we do on conflict prevention.

What interests me most is how those learning to work for peace from a basis of compassion and self knowledge can also understand how the political system works, so that we can access the real levers of change. What we need to do is to reach more effectively those who have the power of decision. It is less the politicians, who may not in fact have much power, but those who write the policy papers: the decision shapers.

What is the current focus of the Oxford Research Group?

Its focus today is particularly on the Middle East and Iran, using very much the same methodology that was the origin of our work: identifying the key people and developing dialogue with them, bringing them together with their opponents.

The link between the work we are doing today and the earlier work developed during the 1990s. We realized then that it was necessary to bring together the warhead designers, strategists, senior military officials, etc. with their critics. So during the 1990s we organized a series of meetings at a beautiful Quaker retreat center near Oxford. People came from many very different places: scientists from Los Alamos, military leaders from Russia, all kinds of people working in the nuclear weapons industry, activists from CND and Greenpeace, academics, and so on. We brought them together in a wonderful room, with no media present, in an environment that was safe enough that people could truly talk to each other and actually listen to those with whom they violently disagreed.

We also developed a tradition of what we called the ‘standing stones,’ four or five experienced meditators, who sat in a library beneath the meeting room, all day, silently meditating. And the atmosphere did not go unnoticed. As an example, a senior U.S. State Department State Department officer observed that there was something special about the meeting room, not just its ancient history (built in 1360) but something else that he felt in the strength ‘coming from below.’ He was astonished to learn about the Elders sitting below and holding the space. And he understood the purpose: making it possible for people to relate to each other as human beings.

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