24 February 2011

The Commission on the Status of Women:
A Whirlwind Exchange of Ideas and Meeting of the Minds

—Muna Killingback

At each annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), hundreds of women representing tens of organizations and networks converge at the United Nations in New York bringing with them their issues, their reports, their ideas, their passions. They have their differences for sure, but what we all agree on, the goal we all share is creating a world where women and men can live freely and equally and in peace.

Representing the World YWCA, I attended two meetings this week that reflected this passion. One, called “Bridging the Israel-Palestine Divide”, brought together a young Palestinian woman and a young Israeli woman who belong to an organization called One Voice (http://www.onevoicemovement.org/) that unites mostly young Palestinians and Israelis in promoting their common vision of and wish for the two-state peace solution. Rosa Helou of Palestine and Dana Sender of Israel both agreed that their organization “amplifies the voice of the moderate majority.” Their role in One Voice, Rosa said, was to tell their governments to work for an end to the conflict. She added that, “We are inspired by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Both focus on their own populations using vehicles such as town hall meetings, extensive social media, and sometimes publicity stunts to raise awareness about the need for a just and sustainable peace solution.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that women comprised sixty percent of members in the Palestinian section of One Voice and seventy percent of members in the Israeli section. This is not a coincidence, I believe. Feminist psychologists such as Jean Baker Miller, particularly in her groundbreaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women, have noted that women value and invest in relationships more than men do and perhaps this extends beyond the personal into the public and global sphere as well.

During the discussion, a very interesting question came from a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of the organizers, along with UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Ireland, which hosted the event. She asked Dana about how she felt about the obligatory military service Israelis have to undertake and said that her own niece in Israel had been a conscientious objector and had faced a trial for her beliefs. Dana, who had earlier said that she had already done her Israeli military service, responded that she was a patriot and would serve in the army again. I think in this case, a more feminist approach would serve to accelerate the goal of peace because all militarism is an extreme manifestation of patriarchy, the seeking of power over through force.

A UN Women representative also asked about if their work was affected by the fact that the peace process had not had any traction, noting that it not succeeded in getting Israel to stop building settlements in the Palestinian territories it occupied [a violation of the Geneva Convention]. Dana noted that the Israeli section felt it had strongly contributed to the recent creation of a two-state solution caucus in the Knesset and she said that they were working for the implementation of international law. Rosa commented that the shape of the two state solution was already basically known and that both sections of One Voice were working for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands.

At another meeting later that afternoon, a very stimulating panel entitled, “Created in God’s Image: Promoting Positive Masculinity from Hegemony to Partnership” discussed the specific idea of challenging patriarchy and its restricting gender roles. The panelists represented the World Student Christian Federation, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and the International Council for Reconciliation.

LWF feminist theologian Elaine Neuenfeldt observed that religion reproduces and maintains patriarchy and its structures, and worse, “gives the impression that it is sacred.” She said that since both women and men are created in God’s image they are equal. Because this “equality is shaped by divine wisdom, breaking down this relationship is sin.” She talked about seeking the Biblical and theological notion of justice and noted a paradox in the men aspiring for gender equity: “How can our partners live out this idea of justice while benefitting from this hierarchical [patriarchal] structure?” Partnership can only be achieved in a context of justice she affirmed. Noting that gay activists had pointed out that negative masculinities cannot be ascribed to the entire male population and asked, “How do we deal with non-positive masculinity? Men who are violent, perpetrators of violence?”

Patricia Ackerman of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Women Peacemakers Program (http://www.ifor.org/WPP/) talked about the success of gender trainings for men that promoted and enabled men to think about new ways of defining and thinking of themselves as men.

The second part of the program was devoted to small group brainstorming to define which concepts of masculinity need to be challenged and what approaches in the gender discussion initiated by women need to change. Finally, they asked how we can motivate women and men to engage in change?

In the spirit of the CSW, I, like every other participant, came away with new ideas, inspiration, and program designs and am looking forward to my next whirlwind day at the CSW.