“We want all the barriers down,” declared Nobel peace prize winner Mairead Maguire yesterday, opening the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Women’s Initiative gathering in Dusseldorf, Germany. She was, incidentally, joking, referring to the fact that – due to variations in height and levels of jet leg – some of the five Nobel peace prize winners at the summit would be standing to deliver their opening address, while others would be sitting. But as the laureates spoke, the room moved from laugher to respectful silence as each laid out her vision for what a world without barriers to feminist solidarity might look like.
The laureates have gathered from across the globe – Guatemala, Ireland, USA, Iran and Yemen – and they have assembled an international team of activists here to plan the future of the global feminist resistance.
Tawakkol Karman, who won the peace prize in 2011 for her work fighting for democracy in Yemen, explains why they have chosen Germany as the site for this year’s meeting. “Germany is ruled by a strong woman. She has a lot of commitment and promise for refugees. We wanted to go to Germany to give support for her policies on supporting and hosting refugees.” Yet disappointingly, as Karman goes on to explain, in a Europe of closing borders, the culture of welcome the Nobel laureates sought to celebrate has not been extended to its own delegation.
All four other participants to the conference from Yemen have been denied visas, as were three other participants from Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. ”Why?” Tawakkol asked. “There is no good reason.”
All of those denied visas are high profile human rights activists in their home countries. Among them is Aswan Mohammed from Women Journalists Without Chains and Misk Al-Junai, a TV producer who works with Karman’s own foundation. “Perhaps”, Karman opined, “Europe is imposing its own unwritten travel ban? Perhaps Trump just announced it, and other countries didn’t?”
Iranian Nobel peace prize laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was similarly indignant: “there are countries that are in crisis and at war, and the people are suffering in these countries, their lives are at risk and they are hungry. Some Western countries, instead of helping these people are making limitations for them. It’s time for Europe, and for us who are gathered here, to help these people in war-torn areas; not to build walls and to not even permit them to participate in a simple peace seminar. This is not good behaviour with countries that are at war. And we protest this.”
The true cost of erecting such barriers at borders – and the fundamental need to protest them – is also stressed by American Nobel peace prize laureate Jody Williams. She speaks of the work of Northern Americans assisting Muslim families to reunite following the fallout from Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ earlier this year. “In such resistance,” she stresses, “we’re rediscovering what citizenship is.” For the fifty plus activist women in the room here in Germany, it’s clear that citizenship is a duty – and it’s one that transcends barriers and borders.
Citizenship without borders
It is her citizen duty, Shirin explains to me, that leads her to approach Majed Sharbajy, a Syrian activist in exile who is currently working in Lebanon near the Syrian border. Breaching the rules of the ‘ice breaker exercise’ carefully crafted by the conference organisers, Shirin makes Majed’s acquaintance by looking her directly in the eyes with a piercing sincerity, and saying the words “I’m sorry.”
Majed has just recounted to a small group of us how she was detained by the Assad regime for seven months. Her husband was also detained, and murdered. She has been temporarily separated from her children – aged 4, 11 and 3 – who have sought sanctuary in Sweden with their grandmother. Her work is simply too dangerous and puts them at risk. But her work is also too important to leave.
In prison, Majed educated other women detainees. Now in exile in Lebanon, the activists have four training centres for Syrian women to give them skills to enter the labour market and participate in society. In her experience, 60% of women Syrian refugees have lost their male partners and must support themselves.
“The Syrian regime is the biggest dictatorship of all the regimes,” Majed explains to a small group of us who are leaning in intently, to listen. “They don’t just torture people, really, they take pleasure in it.”
It’s at this point that Shirin apologises.
“As an Iranian, I’m sorry,” she says. “My government has trained Syrians how to torture people.”
A respectful silence momentarily reigns while each of us takes in these words and crafts our own apologies, weighing the responsibility. Letting it sink in. Then the discussion continues. Time is short and information must be gathered and shared.
Syria is strategically important to Iran: “they need it to get arms to Hezbollah” explains Ebadi – arms, it has been pointed out several times already, that travel more easily across borders than people.
Women from Guatemala, Germany, UK and Lebanon hastily scribble on notepads, desperate to listen, and to record every word so that they might take it back to their communities, like smuggled goods. Because the international community has been clear – we are not meant to be here, meeting like this.
Majed reflects that she once met Michelle Obama and gave her a letter to pass on to her husband. “It was all there,” she explains. “I told him, ‘you know what is happening. And now history will judge you. You can be remembered as a man of peace, or you can be remembered as a man of war.’” But the USA has its interests. “No”, she tells us, “he never replied.” It is up to women like this, and gatherings like, this to share the truth.
An interlude. Majed has given us a huge duty: to ‘be our voice’. For, she explains, “the media is mediating everything. Everyone is focusing on ISIS, eyes are off the regime.” Children are drowning, they are choking to death on the fumes of illegal weapons. No one is stopping this. Treaties must be redrafted and implemented. “We cannot fall into negative history where history repeats itself,” Tawakkol reminded us in her opening speech. “Behind every great revolution there are bold women, courageous women. We need to be leaders of change. We need development, rule of law, democracy. We need to fight extremism, corruption, hatred, racism and war."
Taking down barriers means taking back power from the states that claim to represent us. “Turkey, Iran and Russia are meeting for peace negotiations on Syria and there isn’t a single person from Syria,” Majed warns our smaller group. “The media keep saying that it’s a civil war, but it’s a war between other countries in Syria”. Shirin gives a knowing nod: “a proxy war”.
The beginning of justice?
The act of apologising in itself will not start a revolution but it is, to me, the core of the feminist resistance that this conference seeks to strengthen. It is the beginning of justice. It says: I am a human, and I see you as a human. I see your injustice and your pain and I accept responsibility as a global citizen and I will use my power to try and help you. It is the antithesis to impunity. It is opposite to the Guatemalan courts that, until women seized justice and won, as Nobel peace laureate Rigoberta Menchù Tum explained in her speech, “never gave victims the chance to tell the true story.”
It’s up to us to reclaim citizenship, with barriers down, Shirin reminds us. Because “governments don’t like peace. The arms manufacturers of the UK, Europe and the US have to sell their arms. It’s us, the people, who have to resist our governments. This is my duty as an Iranian, to tell the government of Iran not to help Bashir Al Assad and to stay away from Syria. It’s your duty as European citizens to tell the EU, to protest at the fact they refrain from issuing visas. It’s the duty of people of the UK to tell them to stop selling arms so that they can throw them on innocent people.”
I look around at the women I am with. It’s the first night and the sixth edition of the Nobel Women’s Initiative biennial gatherings and 50.50 has been here from the start. Many of the women have become close friends, ‘sisters’ across borders. As they steal off to bed, tired from their travels (and for some, long interrogations at the border) I notice that some are wearing jewelry, brought in luggage across continents as gifts to one another. Like arms and capital, gifts and words fly across the same continents as the women meet, plot and share information in the global feminist resistance.
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 at the University of Oxford. Follow her on twitter @JenniferAllsopp. This post first appeared on 50:50 at OpenDemocracy.