Women Without Borders is an international organization that works to research, advocate, and lobby globally for women. Last month they co-sponsored an evening at The Paley Center for Media, featuring a panel examining the role of women as peacemakers. Specifically addressed was the question, “Can Mothers Stop Terrorism.” Edit Schlaffer facilitated the discussion.
Schlaffer founded Women Without Borders in 2002, with the mission of evolving a new way to heal grief and suffering on both sides of a conflict. Her belief was that women needed a way “to speak and develop reconciliation.” When initiated, the emphasis was on specific hotspots. However, Schlaffer realized after 9/11 that there was a “worldwide need” to make the whole international community safe. Stating that women hold up the fabric of society, Schlaffer stressed, “We have to recognize women as a key security block.”
Noting that problems extend beyond major recognized disputes, Schlaffer said, “It’s all over the place. We have to find common solutions.” She outlined the Women Without Borders formula: “We go to volatile places and try to create counter-narratives.” Currently involved in on the ground action in Yemen, Schlaffer reported that she was amazed by the vibrancy of their female civil society. Employing a methodology of asking women what they need, and then acting to empower them as change makers, Women Without Borders encourages women to adopt the role of advocates in their communities. This message had been translated into the tagline, “Include, Involve, Invest.”
A documentary short, Journey Through Darkness directed by Zia Trench, was screened. It profiled three women whose lives had been touched by terrorism. It was an introduction to SAVE—Sisters Against Violent Extremism—a counterterrorism platform founded in 2008 that strives to connect women to build a world “without violent extremism.” Participants are garnered from the ranks of peace and security experts, policy makers, and those who have survived terrorist attacks. Regional SAVE chapters have been established in India, Northern Ireland, Yemen, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom, with plans being made to get addition sites up and running.
In 2008, the first SAVE conference was held in Vienna. As a result, a ten-point set of principles was drawn up, underscoring a call to action based on the premise of non-violence and co-existence. Included were generating “awareness for not stigmatizing the families of extremists/terrorists” and issuing a declaration to support “the younger generation with non-violent alternative in their search for a better life.” These two positions support women who have lived through terrorism. Growing from this premise was the Mothers for Change! research project, which was developed to give women the tools to recognize and challenge extremist ideology within their families and societies.
Schlaffer said, “Sustainability comes from local mothers. However, women may not be aware of their power. They need to learn how to harness that.” She said that if mothers suspect that their children have been solicited for extreme ideology, instead of hiding or ignoring the problem, they “must deal with it—as change comes from the mother.” Hot lines have been set up to call if they need help or have questions.
The work of Women Without Borders is based on case studies and a collection of information. Schlaffer pointed out, “There is no rush to short sighted action. When bringing together women from opposite sides of an issue, the goal is to explore the potential for change in civil society—that can expand to higher levels.” Most importantly Schlaffer added, “The people have to buy into it.”
Present to discuss her experiences was Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, imprisoned for life after he was convicted of conspiring with the 9/11 hijackers. She is a woman who evokes strong empathy as she narrates her personal background, which included a forced marriage at age fourteen. El-Wafi stayed with her husband for eleven years, despite being subjected to domestic violence. When she left the relationship, she had the responsibility of caring for four children. Working ten hour days as a seamstress, she simultaneously took courses to perfect her French.” She tried to give everything she never had to her children, because as she said, “Marrying at fourteen destroyed me.”
Speaking through an interpreter, el-Wafi described raising her son in France. When asked if she had seen any signs of him becoming radicalized she responded, “I never saw it. He was a very nice boy. When my son was home, we had friends of all religions.”
El-Wafi referenced other factors that she believed had impacted her son’s psyche and personal path. In addition to the lack of a father’s presence in his life, el-Wafi described the persistent racism her son encountered in his French birth country. Although her son was treated with ethnic discrimination while studying for his baccalauréat, he achieved his degrees. It was Sheik Abdullah el-Faisal that el-Wafi accused of destroying her son—“and other families.”
Schlaffer pointed out, “We need to send a strong message to mothers that they are not alone.” Widening the reference, she underscored creating “a safe space for women to be heard.” As part of the Women Without Borders program, el-Wachi speaks frequently, representing her story to audiences worldwide. She said to those present, “You have to know the other person—or there is fear. We are all human beings. To live together, there has to be tolerance and respect.”
Toward the end of the evening, Schlaffer, summarized the goals of Women Without Borders commenting, “We look for the strong voices of women.”
In Aicha el-Wafi, they have found one.