Thirty women from 14 Middle Eastern nations gathered to respond to the question, "What can women do to solve the conflict in the Middle East?"
Difficulties to Overcome
"Women, by nature seek non-violent solutions to conflicts so that their loved ones will not have to suffer. This nature is what we want for the leaders to have in order to stop violence during this time of conflict, where thousands of lives are being lost in the Middle East." H.E. Inam Al-Mufti, former Minister of Social Development of Jordan and chair of the conference, greeted the participants in this way at the Opening Session. That remark was also a response to the question posed by Prof. Lan Young Moon Park, President of WFWP International: "What can we do? What can women do at this time to resolve the terrible conflict and suffering in the Middle East?"
There was concern about holding a conference at a time when tension was at a peak, with suicide bombings and armed conflict escalating between the Israelis and Palestinians, with the peace process itself in crisis. However, the 30 women from 14 Middle Eastern countries saw the significance of holding the conference during this time, and gathered at the Capsis Beach Hotel on the island of Crete, Greece. About half of the women were attending this annual conference for the first time. In addition to the participants, there were 32 observers from Japan.
Women as Peace Makers
The main theme of the conference was the "Women's Role in Building World Peace through Non-Violence." At the Welcoming Banquet on the evening of May 7, Dr. Zoe Bennett, co-chair representing WFWP Greece, welcomed the group by stating, "Let's start to build peace, beginning with this conference." The participants then introduced themselves, and alumni enjoyed the reunion with friends from previous conferences.
The morning of May 8 was bright and clear. Small fishing boats floated among the peaceful waves of the Aegean Sea. After breakfast, the participants met at the conference hall, a bit tense at first. At the Opening Session, chair Mme. Al-Mufti indicated the direction for discussions, stating, "We women should be peace makers."
The five main guidelines for dialog that she mentioned were:
- Accurate expression of feelings
- Creative conflict resolution.
She explained that we should cooperate to resolve issues, communicate clearly, serve others, and respect diversity. These elements become the factors for creating peace. Our children must be taught these skills. Those who could not learn and practice them often became victims of conflict. The world, which shares a common destiny, needs a new vision that can realize higher levels of cooperation.
Importance of Education for Women
In the First Session on "Women's Role in Shaping Civil Society," Dr. Naima Al-Shayji, Union of Kuwait Women Associations, served as moderator. Ms. Oya Talat, a Turkish Cyprian chemist from North Cyprus presented her paper, intro-ducing the current state of the divided Cyprus. She stressed that the status of women in Cyprus is still low; however, without the active participation of wo-men, an ideal society and strong families cannot be formed.
Next, Ms. Grace Moubarak, a lawyer from Lebanon, pointed out that women filled only 2% of the seats in the parliaments in Arabic nations, in general, and the status of women in society and politics is weak. She quoted the former UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali, who main-tained that without pro-moting the status of women, there is no reform or pros-perity. She stressed that education for women is vital, particularly the education of child-ren in the home, which is the first school.
Dr. Wafa Al-Mobaireek, from Saudi Arabia, noted that she faced a strong bias against Muslims when going overseas. She criticized the western media for exaggerating a negative image of Islam. Chair Al-Mufti stated that the UN is powerless in the resolution of conflicts, and that women should continue to cry for peace until the governments in the world are influenced.
Issues Surrounding Women
After a coffee break, the Second Session continued on the theme of "Equality, Respect, and Non-Violence in the Home and Society." The first speaker was Dr. Asya Al-Lamky, Assistant Dean for Research and Post Graduate Studies, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She introduced an awareness survey of working women in Oman. According to her, the status of women has advanced since 1997, when many women attained political posts. However, many women are struggling to balance the family and the work place.
Dr. Soad Fateem, educator from Egypt, presented a paper stressing the importance of fostering in children tolerance and acceptance that transcends race. Ms. Mirjana Abourahal from Lebanon referred to the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and stated that peace comes from God, and is not realized without love. She reminded us that women in the Middle East do have a dream for true peace.
In the following discussion, some participants raised the point that the definitions of discrimination against women are different between the Arab world and the West. Dr. Al-Lamky mentioned that society has a tendency to undervalue the contribution made by women. Chair Al-Mufti pointed out that the 75% of Jordan's women have jobs in order to support their families. Ms. Shelagh Shalev, President of the Jerusalem District Liberal Women's Federation, Israel, suspected that women themselves may be the ones who discriminate against women the most, to which many agreed.
Action for Peace
The Third Session was on the "Various Causes of Violence and Women's Response." Mrs. Laila Barakat of Egypt emphasized in her speech that conflict resolution should be implemented in a peaceful way. She stressed the importance of dialogue between civilizations instead of conflict, and called for women's action in order to bring about peace in the Middle East. Dr. Maria Hadjipavlou, lecturer at the University of Cyprus, proposed that the peace-loving culture of women must be expanded in order to eliminate the violence that has taken the lives of over 13 million lives of women and children in the last 87 years.
In the following discussion, Ms. Roya Bozorgpour from Iran commented that those who profited the most from military expansion were the arms industries. Dr. Soad Fateem suggested not to use the term "enemy" from now on, that reform of our choice of words was also necessary in order to realize world peace. Dr. Dalia Steiner, President of WFWP Israel, editor and senior producer at Israel's Channel One, emphasized that the time has come for this Conference to take concrete action for conflict resolution. Many other participants agreed when Ms. Oya Talat from Northern Cyprus also proposed to start a specific project for peace.
The Crete Declaration
Dr. Dalia Steiner from Israel stated in her presentation that conflict is the result of man separating from God. Conflict between mind and body of an individual is expanded into the family, society and nation. She introduced a plan to construct a "House of Peace," a project to resolve conflict and realize peace. Dr. Amal Al-Zayani from Bahrain, then spoke on the backgrounds and types of conflicts.
Many expressed they felt a similar desire to take some kind of action. One of the three participants from Israel, Ms. Samira Rohana, a Israeli with Arab roots, explained about the discrimination in Israel against citizens like her.
Ms. Carolyn Handschin, WFWP's UN liaison in Geneva and moderator of the session, suggested formulating a declaration and action plan, summarizing the participants' views and the role of women in relation to peace in the Middle East, to which all agreed wholeheartedly.
After the long day, the group enjoyed dinner at a restaurant with a beautiful view of the seaside. Miss Sue Nigoghossian, emcee from UAE welcomed the Japanese observers warmly with her newly-learned, "Yokoso (welcome)!" which drew a merry laugh. Mrs. Mirjana Abourahal from Lebanon initiated a dance and soon, everyone joined in on the floor. The women forgot the time and enjoyed the beautiful evening on the Island of Crete.
An End to Conflict
In the Fifth and Sixth Sessions of Day Three, participants divided into three groups and studied themes such as "leadership and responsibility," "ideal family relations," and "foundations for a peaceful society." Each group reported a summary of its discussion. Many expressed, for instance, that "leaders should have a spirit of service," and "leaders should bear responsibility for consequences."
The Seventh Session continued in the afternoon. Ms. Rana Taha, who works for the UN Institute of Disarmament Research in Geneva, introduced her grass-roots project called "People to People." She recommended that Israelis and Palestinians nurture trust through dialogue. As she described the situation of the Palestinians with tears, many were touched deeply.
In the discussion, Dr. Maria Hadjipavlou from Cyprus evaluated Ms. Taha's project highly and stressed the importance of grass-roots movements. Others stated that it was not enough to look only to the future to resolve the Palestinian problem, and that it was necessary to go back to the year 1948, when Israel established its nation, which reminded everyone of how complex the issue was.
In the Closing Session, Ms. Carolyn Handschin gave a summary of the conference pointing out that the peace-loving nature of women must be utilized to bring peace in the Middle East; and that peace begins with the individual and the family. Chair Al-Mufti said she felt the strong desire of the conference participants, to want to truly do something for peace.
Because a revision of part of the draft "Crete Declaration" was proposed, the drafting session continued after dinner and was completed with everyone's consensus very late that day. Following the heated discussions and the forming of new friendships during the three-day con-ference, the women parted, appreciating the support of WFWP Japan for the conference, and knowing a great task was ahead for them.