By Amy S. Choi
Culture is not always worth preserving.
This sentiment was echoed throughout the panels and workshops at “Breaking Barriers: What it will take to achieve security, justice and peace,” a recent conference at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.
The three-day conference drew 150 delegates, mostly women, from nearly 50 countries to discuss working solutions for developing sustainable peace.
Many transitional justice systems and peace mediations, particularly those led by international commissions and the United Nations, seek to be culturally sensitive and incorporate traditional justice methods and negotiating techniques in post-conflict zones.
But, often, traditional approaches systemically ignore the rights of women. The international standards aren’t much better — more than a decade after the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, less than 8 percent of the negotiators of peace treaties are women, according to Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. State Department.
Meanwhile, more than half of peace agreements fail within five years.
“Women’s voices are just as vital in matters of international peace and security as men’s,” Verveer said in a video address to the conference.
The solution, agreed women from Sri Lanka to Iran, is to work on a culture shift while building peace.
“We need to look at how culture has been used to marginalize women and other groups,” said Korto Williams, country representative for ActionAid Liberia during the working session Transitional Justice Working for Women. “Gender identity is ever present. We need to evaluate whether, in some way, you are denying women immediately their right to participate and their right to justice by respecting traditional systems. We need to be careful in saying that maintaining culture is important.”
Transforming culture is both procedural and political. While including women in the peace process is part of it, a large part of culture change is addressing the increasing levels of fundamentalism, whether religious, social, or political, in many parts of the world.
“Fundamentalism is not something that happens in the Middle East or in the developing world,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, and moderator of the Peacebuilding panel.
“The characteristics of fundamentalism – fear of rapid change, modernity, an individual’s place in society, science, evolution, and all of the ramifications of those new discoveries and new sets of ideas, are everywhere. It’s the same thing in the Tea Party movement [as in the Arab world]. Religion is not a threat. Fundamentalism is a threat,” she said.
In order to counter fundamentalism, she said, “We have to be able to look at culture fully. One aspect of culture is aesthetics, which everyone loves and which is what distinguishes one place from another, such as dress, cuisine, celebrations, music, literature, how we conduct our daily lives. The other aspect is that our culture is the prism by which we evaluate and understand our environment. That is something that without the change of which we cannot have human rights, peace, and women’s rights.”
Changing culture, in fact, has been at the core of human rights progress throughout history. Today, changing culture and engaging women in building peace is key to the work being done by human rights activists in the Arab world, said Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action in Lebanon, who spoke on the panel.
“We need to understand that women are invisible in the public sphere,” said Abou-Habib. “We need to make women visible. They are slowly realizing that they have a right to have rights. They have a right to participate. We need to recognize what we’re up against is patriarchy. It’s not Arab-specific. What we are dealing with is patriarchy that manifests itself through different powerful components – religion and its institution, military and its institution, and money, and its petrol dollars.”
Though optimistic, she acknowledged that the work in changing culture is slow and arduous.
“I refuse to call what is happening in the Arab world a ‘Spring’ of any sort,” Abou-Habib said. “If we agree that the key fundamental problem is patriarchy and the way it is played out within different institutions and if we agree that women’s struggles have been instrumental in bringing change and therefore they have more right to be at the table in leadership positions in the new democratic entities, then, in the new scene we are seeing now, patriarchy is even stronger."
--Amy S. Choi is a freelance writer and editor who recently contributed to an upcoming book on global business and culture.