Speech delivered at Economic and Social Council Chamber, United Nations on October 27th, 2014

I want to thank the government of the United Arab Emirates for taking this important initiative to have debate and discussion on one of the most pressing issues of our times.

I have been invited in my capacity as lead author of the Secretary General’s Global Study on Women Peace and Security mandated by the SC resolution 2122. Most of the final report of the study will deal with the implementation of the historic and pioneering Security Council resolution 1325 on women peace and security and its development over the last fifteen years.  It will also attempt to measure whether things have actually changed on the ground. In addition the report will also go beyond looking at only technical issues of implementation and look at emerging issues. A great deal has happened in the world of women, peace and security since 2000. Today we are confronted with issues such as the rise of violent extremism- including religious extremism, the subject we are discussing today. As a result, all of us involved in the Global study have decided to work toward a comprehensive report involving extensive consultations with member states, UN bodies and civil society at the international, regional and national levels.

Let me say at the outset, I am no longer with the UN, I have been hired as an independent expert and my views on the topic before us are preliminary, and do not reflect the official position of UN women

With regard to the issue at hand- the Role of Women in Countering Violent Extremism – as part of my work as the lead author, I have been reading a great deal of material on this theme and I see a dominant narrative emerging in security studies conducted by major western think tanks.. There are three parts to this dominant narrative

  1. Firstly, the narrative contained in this literature confines violent extremism to religious extremism and the religious extremism discussed focuses almost exclusively on Islamic Extremism
  2. Secondly the literature points to a clear linkage between Islamic extremism and terrorism and the need for an international strategy of counter terrorism to deal with this threat
  3. Thirdly the narrative has an important role for women as recently articulated by the editor of foreign policy- The argument goes something like this- it is clear from the research and statistics that Islamic societies where women’s rights are respected to a great degree seem to be insulated from religious extremism. Therefore any counter terrorism strategy to deal with Islamic Religious Extremism should include the propagation and implementation of women’s rights

I would just like to begin my remarks with some comments on this narrative since it is becoming quite pervasive in academic literature in the area of security studies as well as the media, especially in the western world.

  1. The first point I would like to make is that not all violent extremism is religious- my country Sri Lanka had three decades of civil war with an extremist nationalist group with no religious ideology. Nationalist extremism, as we saw in World War II, is often as bad if not worse than religious extremism and we should be aware of this at home and abroad, whether we are in the North or the South.
  2. Secondly, I would also like to add that not all religious extremism is Islamic. There are armed Christian militias all over the world. In South Asia, Hindu and Buddhist extremists engage in organized riots, thuggery and intimidation. I have been to Palestine and witnessed first hand not only the violence of Palestinian extremists but also Jewish settler extremists. This is an important point to recognize. All religions have extremists and all extremists have a potential for violence. Therefore to confront the extremism of others we must use all the means available in a democratic society to control the extremism within our own countries- because in a globalised world extremists feed off each other. You burn a Koran in Florida and you will have a riot in Cairo, you burn a mosque in Rangoon, and someone will attack a Buddhist site in Bihar. Governments, especially democratic ones, should not pander to religious extremists even if they form part of their electoral base. We must also recognize that all religious extremism in different degrees deny women rights and deny them an equal place in society.
  3. It is true that some forms of religious extremism and the consequent violence are more grotesque than others, for example, ISIS and Boko Haram. The more grotesque the extremism, the more heinous the crimes they commit against women- abduction, sexual slavery, forced marriage, and terrible cruelty. Regardless of the root causes or arguments about geopolitics, nothing justifies what they do. They just cannot be tolerated. Therefore the second part of the narrative that such horrific violence clearly calls for an international effort to combat such extremism that may include the use of force cannot really be contested, especially if we are to save the lives and dignity of many women. However we must ensure any such counter terrorism response follows the rules of war, is proportionate in its application and makes the protection of civilians an essential part of its efforts.
  4. My concern however is with the third part of this narrative that seems to state that any strategy to combat religious extremism should include the propagation and the implementation of women’s rights. The moment one uses terms like terrorism and counter terrorism, it is implied that there will be a strong military response- therefore the question arises- who will define and control the implementation of this “women’s rights” part of the strategy. If it is going to be military organizations such as NATO and the Pentagon- I can only say with all my experiences in travelling in Afghanistan, Iraq Somalia, and throughout South Asia- this will be an unmitigated disaster. It will endanger all the women and women’s organizations on the ground. Besides, the instrumental use of women to achieve military targets is really quite unconscionable regardless of actual intentions.
  5. Counter terrorism strategies that want to improve women’s rights at home or abroad must use their capacity only to create a secure, enabling environment so that women’s groups and civil society in those countries can define their priorities, push for their rights and do their work- perhaps with the assistance of the international community and international actors. The local women’s groups must be in the lead especially since local conditions greatly differ.  During the discussions that may follow I can give you examples from Afghanistan to explain why I am convinced of this. Local knowledge is crucial in the negotiations and political maneuvering that must take place to ensure a women’s rights agenda that is sustainable and long term. Militarzing and securitizing women’s rights will be challenged and resisted by women’s rights activists from all over the world.

Women and Their Role in Violent Extremism- let me say a few words

  1. Women play two kinds of roles when it comes to violent extremism- they can be enablers or they can fight against fundamentalists and extremists.
  2. Today the papers are filled with stories of teenage girls running away from home to join groups like ISIS/L. Some of these girls are clearly unwell and not very balanced with severe psycho-social problems. Yet a great number are just misguided idealists as generations have been before them. Imagine you are a young, marginalized, Somalian girl living in a poor part of Minnesota and you suddenly go to this website and they speak of this heavenly Islamic Sultanate full of people who look like you- and they tell you that that you will be at the centre of this great revolution- if you have a weak identity or personality and are not particularly well read or experienced in the world, you will be attracted. More research has to be done as to the manner in which groups like ISIS/L carry out this seduction but it does happen and we have to find a way to confront this. We must also recognize that in many countries these extremists groups provide important social services in poor and remote areas that the government is unable to provide.
  3. The recruitment of girls and boys to be fighters may be done by intimidation or by seduction but there are also external reasons. Again it is important to turn the searchlight inward- I am referring to all international military forces and development actors- I have been to countless war zones and spoken to women and young people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia- Believe me- shock and awe does not work. The arrogant swagger of the outsider in someone else’s country, the speeding land cruisers, the hedonistic parties that are then uploaded on YouTube- in addition to the so-called collateral damage killings, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, – these are the videos that are shown over and over again and remain the greatest source of recruitment.
  4. A senior military commander in the region once told me that the people in the Middle East only understand one language- the language of power and punishment. Many people in the counter terrorism field in other countries also believe this. And, How wrong they are. Having met so many people, I can say quite clearly for young boys and girls in these war zones- there is a seething rage and a deep sense of humiliation, real or perceived, that they keep within themselves, ready to explode at any time. Even in other societies many children of my very liberated Muslim feminist friends, children who are now doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers don the veil as what they call a “mark of resistance”. Unless one understands this root cause in a perceived sense of humiliation, one will never overcome this problem. Muslim writers, artists and playwrights in the west have been writing about this in recent years- there is one such play now on Broadway called Disgraced that won the Pulitzer prize recently.
  5. To overcome this sense of humiliation- we cannot rely on military force -we need, as Abdullah An’ Aim has repeatedly said- inter cultural and cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. Dialogue must take place among cultures and within cultures constantly, using every medium possible even while force is being used. However these interactions must also be carefully thought through to ensure that prejudices are not reinforced. Women must be a central part of these dialogues. They are the ones who traditionally build bridges because peace is in their greatest interest.

But there is hope

Recently we have all been obsessed with militaries, getting women into militaries, getting women into the hierarchies of militaries, training militaries…coming from a family where my parents and grand parents were strong followers of Mahatma Gandhi, this phase has been rather difficult for me, though I realize that most of it is necessary. But it does have its limits

There was a time from the 1920s right up to when Security Council Resolution 1325 was passed in 2000 when there was a global women’s’ peace movement. In fact women first united on the international stage in the 1920s to fight for peace. Ever since then we have had strong movements both nationally and internationally. In fact more than any other item on the international agenda, women’s rights has been driven by these civil society groups. –

With regard to women for peace and justice- we saw the Liberian experience recently, with Liberian women winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But we should not forget the past- We cannot forget the Mothers of the Plaza in Argentina, Women in Black in the Balkans, the 5th Clan in Somalia, the women’s peace movement in Northern Ireland and even in my own country the women for peace movement in the 1980s, the only movement to cross the ethnic divide. In the Muslim world Karima Bennoune’s new book “Your Fatwa Does not Apply Here” describes all the women’s movements in Islamic countries that have fought against fundamentalism and for peace- in Algeria, – the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women filling bomb craters with flowers, Pakistani women in the 1980s successfully challenging Zia Al Huq’s fundamentalist laws, Nawal El Sadaawi in Egypt, The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq as well as our speaker, among others. But no one hears about them too much these days- even though the future surely must lie in enabling and strengthening them- without of course delegitimizing their cause.

We must not forget that it is movements like these from all over the world who first came on to the world stage in the 1920s and who in the 1990s pushed for a strong International Criminal Court and who stood shoulder to shoulder to negotiate 1325. That is why even today this resolution has global ownership and vibrant international support.  Today, however, the voices of these women from the field who networked to form these grand movements are quiet and many told Karima that they feel very isolated. Instead individual celebrities and Hollywood actors have taken their place in a media obsessed world. The UN on the other hand is steeped in technical but important work, measuring indicators, implementing projects but often overwhelmed by the problems we must confront.

The type of extremism we are facing today across the globe calls for the revival of the global women’s peace movement. I am so glad that WILF- the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the first woman’s group to organize internationally and around the theme of peace, has decided to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year in grand style. These movements which stood so firm against war and fought for justice in many societies must be revived at the community level, at the national level, at the international level to fight extremism, to shame perpetrators, to provide solidarity to affected communities and to say no to violence.

We must counter the parochial, internecine spirit that is tearing all of us a part with a new internationalist vision that can appeal to young people and draw them away from the narrow sectarian worldview that is provided by extremists on their terrifying social media sites. That is the only way. The answer to what we are facing is not more media sensation or rational technical strategies – the answer to this is ultimately the political- the mobilization of women globally to fight for peace and equality- something they have done many times before and that has animated women’s movements for decades. These women may have not always succeeded- in fact in most cases they did not- but their voices and their tactics limited the inhumanness and insanity of war and provided a humanistic, idealistic vision which inspired young people and helped heal the society.

To mobilize such a call for peace which is also anti-extremist, we have to find common cause with women all over the world, and not only in certain parts, and we must make women’s civil society and not governments take the lead. International actors may enable these groups but the groups must be autonomous and united among themselves. Most importantly young people should be encouraged to lead them. In all my visits to countries as well as refugee camps, whether in Somalia, Afghanistan or the Congo, I found that young girls were so thirsty for education. The one great Millennial Development goal achievement of the decade has been girl’s education.  I met a girl named Aisha in Afghanistan, her house had been bombed by aerial bombardment and the Taliban had attacked her school. Yet she was firm willed and determined. She was going to school and she was going to be a teacher. She was not afraid of anyone. There are thousands of Malalas and Aishas out there. They are our future. They will take us forward. Our duty is to only enable them. We must bring back woman as the peacemaker.

Finally to end on a very optimistic note, I would like to quote from one of Karima Bennoune’s fearless colleagues in Algeria of the 1990s, when they were demonstrating for peace and against extremism in the streets not knowing whether they will be killed tomorrow:

“The Fundamentalists”, she said, “are condemned to disappear because they oppose not only HOPE but also LOVE.”

Thank you.