Critical Currents: Hidden voices and different options

Looking through the gender lens offers fresh perspectives and conjures up intriguing policy alternatives.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
International women's day is being marked this year in the shadow of war and the concomitant drowning of feminist voices. As the number of casualties rises at a terrifying pace, those most directly affected are scarcely heard in decision-making circles. Even though Israeli and Palestinian women - in all their diversity - are very much part of their respective societies, they offer different insights, experiences, concerns and emphases than their male counterparts. The incorporation of these gendered perspectives may help to achieve a lull in the fighting and enhance the prospects for constructive resolution. The adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000 provides a bold framework for the inclusion of women in peace building, peace making and peacekeeping. It has been ratified by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel (which is the first country to legislate its key provisions). In this extremely explosive period, looking through the gender lens offers fresh perspectives and conjures up intriguing policy alternatives outside the conventional box. All assessments of the present situation highlight the fact that this round of the Arab-Israeli conflict is being conducted on the backs of civilians. Although propelled by sharply different motives and carried out by vastly divergent and unequal means, Hamas-inspired rocket attacks and Israel's sustained incursions into the sealed Gaza Strip disrupt daily life in Sderot and Khan Yunis, in Ashkelon and Nablus. There can be no semblance of normality in these conditions: People cannot get to work, children miss school, medical services are stretched beyond capacity and human dignity is stripped. Israelis are now experiencing the discombobulating shocks that have been the lot of Palestinians for too long. FEMINIST analysis acknowledges this suffering, while pointing to its main victims - the aged, the young and women. This is why it also underscores the obligation of all parties, in line with international law, to protect civilians and to desist from actions that may imperil their existence. The introduction of monitors charged with verifying compliance may provide the necessary safeguards. These are, indeed, exceedingly emotional times: The range accompanying this round of warfare is especially pronounced. Too many live with fear, trauma and trepidation. The numbing pain of parents who have lost children is as heartrending in Arabic as it is in Hebrew. Grief, anger, despair and frustration intermingle, conveyed electronically to homes throughout the Middle East and beyond. Women are not embarrassed by their feelings, and have little difficulty in putting them into words. They are, however, much more reluctant to use these sentiments to determine policy. Many Israelis and Palestinians are currently on a collision course of revenge and retribution. From a gender perspective, allowing this vicious spiral to take over is in itself a form of defeat. It clouds judgment and further exacerbates extremism. Voices of moderation are submerged by a rising nationalist chorus on both sides. Every Israeli bombing increases support for Hamas; every Kassam launch generates calls for more military action. Women nevertheless vigorously resist the tendency to succumb to this growing brutality. THE IMMEDIATE objective today, most concur, is to break the mounting rhythm of attack and response. Yet the three main policy options being considered by Israeli policy-makers are almost exclusively military in nature. The first is to sustain the status quo in the hope that persistent pressure will lead in due course to a civilian uprising against militant Islamic hegemony. This thinking is as fallacious today as it was in the past. The second is to step up land and air attacks - as in the past week - in order to substantially weaken the extremist infrastructure. Such a policy plays into Hamas hands, increasing its popularity locally and arousing sympathy internationally. The third, and by far the most threatening, is to embark on a full-scale invasion which will exact an enormous human price and probably prove ineffective. From a female vantage point, these scenarios are totally unacceptable. Women, much more than men, recognize that there is no military solution to the conflict; trying to stop the violence by military means will only contribute to its escalation. Before any further action is taken, a moratorium devoted to a thorough reassessment is needed. An unconditional cease-fire under international supervision (either declared unilaterally or reached by agreement) is therefore an essential first step toward stabilization. During this hiatus, every effort must be made to renew negotiations with as broad a Palestinian coalition as possible, with a view to achieving a permanent-status settlement within the next few months. Successful talks leading to the realization of a two-state solution are the only way to truly defeat Hamas and undermine its destructive worldview. They are also critical to the attainment of veritable human security. These alternative women's voices, much like those of many other groups silenced in the current militaristic climate, are all too easily relegated to the private arena. The cost of their dismissal is great: their exclusion narrows options, circumscribes creativity and constricts opportunities immeasurably. Societies that promote gender equality and insist on the significant representation of women in decision-making positions are more likely to avert wars, reduce the recurrence of violence and nourish open societies. Given the present deterioration, nothing more can be lost and much can be gained by actively involving women in the process. A more inclusive approach may supply new ingredients and instill some hope for the future. This is, indeed, a bleak international women's day. But if it provides a chance to air female perspectives, and if some of these voices are heard, then, perhaps, it may yet augur a better tomorrow.