Q: What is your role at Peace X Peace ? What do you do on a day to day basis ? Also, tell us a bit about yourself ( personal background, education, where you are from etc..)
Yasmina : I direct the Connection Point Initiative, which creates platforms for dialogue between women from Arab, Muslim and Western communities around the world. We feature articles and interviews with a focus on the perspectives and contributions of Arab and Muslim women to society worldwide; provide an array of multimedia resources; host facilitated web-based dialogues as a platform for cross-cultural and interfaith discussion; and sponsor in-person dialogues. The goals of this initiative are to 1) To break down stereotypes and foster positive relationships based on mutual respect and understanding between predominantly Arab, Muslim and Western communities worldwide, 2) build cross-cultural communication skills among women, and 3) encourage and expand an increase in women’s capacity to lead peacebuilding efforts between these communities at local and international levels.
As for my personal background and education – I am Moroccan-American, and grew up in several countries (Saudi, UAE, Morocco, US, and Qatar). I went to the University of Virginia for my Bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and George Mason University for my Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Q: Why focus on women as change agents? What is your “theory of change”?
Yasmina: Women’s perspectives and contributions have been historically undervalued, and their potential sidelined. Women are often disregarded in formal decision making processes that lead to major conflicts (despite the fact that women and children are the greatest casualties of conflict), and are systematically excluded from formal ‘peace processes.’
We focus on women because they are a largely untapped resource. We believe that women, by asserting their distinctive experiences and recognizing their vital role in building sustainable peace, can play a role in building a global culture and community of peace, by building trust and respect across cultural, religious and other divides.
In terms of theories of change – we are working on several levels. We work to transform individual consciousness, attitudes, and behaviors to orient toward advocating for peace. We support positive relationships and connections between people from different backgrounds in order to break down stereotypes and misunderstanding. In order for peacebuilding occur, we have to build trust and cohesion among groups of people, and that means working on relationships. We support the notion of grassroots mobilization and action directly impacting political decisions. In other words, with highly functioning civil societies that are oriented toward peace, we can compel leaders at the international level to make decisions that support the demands of the grassroots.
When it comes to building cultures of peace, we are talking about a total transformation of our values – a reorientation of those values so that they reject violent conflict, and instead work for dialogue processes that uncover and address the root causes of conflict, with an end result of peace benefiting all, rather than a ‘winner takes all’ mentality. We say that person by person, and peace by peace, we will get closer to a global tipping point, where peace is the new norm. We have identified eight requirements as necessary Pillars of Peace: conflict transformation, cross-cultural understanding, economic empowerment, education, environmental sustainability, health and well-being, interfaith dialogue, and justice and good governance. Circle Principles also guide our work.
Q: What in your opinion are the biggest obstacles to peace? What is your experience of dealing with people you don’t agree / talk to?
Yasmina: That’s a big question! I think one of the biggest obstacles to peace is the tendency of parties in conflict to engage in talks at the level of positions, without ever uncovering underlying issues, values, perceptions that lead to those positions. A position is a conclusion – for example, “Muslims hate us for our freedom” or “Americans hate Muslims.” Both of those statements are positions. Often, discussions about contentious issues tend to remain at the level of positions. We encourage those who state such positions to reflect on what led to those positions – what are the assumptions behind them? What experiences are your perceptions based on? And, how might your perceptions impact your experiences and the way you interact with others? What are the larger implications of holding such perceptions?
In some cases, there is a basic unwillingness to listen to or consider the interests and needs of the ‘other.’ This obstacle in many cases is reinforced by unequal power dynamics between conflicting parties. Encouraging self-reflection throughout any process, whether it’s a training, dialogue, mediation, or any other facet of a ‘peace process,’ is an integral component of helping parties to recognize existing power relations, and to trust and empathize with one another. Empathy and trust are necessary conditions for parties to work together to uncover and address root causes of conflict, and moving toward peace. As peacebuilders it is our job to create spaces to make that happen.
Q: What is your strategy for dealing with stereotyping? This is what economists would call a “wicked problem,” isn’t it?
Yasmina : Stereotyping is a major issue – much of our work deals with breaking down pervasive and false stereotypes. I also think stereotyping is a lucrative industry. Those who work (knowingly or unknowingly) to promote conflict, and the interests of the elite at the expense of those with less power and fewer resources, are often using stereotypes as a part of their strategy to achieve those interests. Stereotypes when used as propaganda – when used to create and then capitalize on fear in order to gain public support for particular political agendas―are a “wicked problem.” Stereotypes standing alone, outside the context of their manipulated use at a systemic level, are much easier to break down, especially at the person-to-person level.
Bring two people who have stereotypes about one another together, create a space that allows them to engage in dialogue and engage directly with one another, and stereotypes will inevitably be challenged. The more we can get people to learn how to communicate, and more importantly the more we can provide opportunities and spaces in which people can communicate with one another across cultural, religious, political, and other divides, the more easily we can break down stereotypes, and build understanding.
Eradicating all stereotypes is unrealistic, but helping people reach some level of awareness about the stereotypes they hold, and encouraging people to constantly reflect on and question their assumptions and perceptions, can help us live in a society that does not allow its leaders or members to make decisions based on false stereotypes – in a society that does not allow its leaders or members to capitalize on false stereotypes to further their agendas at the expense of minority communities that will suffer structural and direct violence as a direct result of the perpetuation of those false stereotypes.
What is your personal vision for women in the region? How do you think women in MENA/ South Asia can come into their own? Considering patriarchy is still the norm and this is not likely to change anytime soon.
I would answer that question the same way I would answer it about women in the West. Women from both regions live in deeply patriarchal societies, and suffer widespread oppression in different forms and in different cultural contexts. I think the process of change has to start with women recognizing their own power and capacity to participate as active members of civil society in the public arena, if they so choose, and then organizing to make their voices heard and to demand recognition of their contributions to society.
Contrary to popular media depictions, Arab and Muslim women have a long history as leaders of social change and advancement in every field. The process of transforming patriarchy and achieving gender equity will not happen overnight in any context, not in the Middle East and South Asia, and not in the United States or Europe. As far as I can see, women in the region are continuing the work they have always carried out on behalf of their families and communities. I actually feel that one of the challenges to women achieving equality in the region is a lack of recognition by mainstream media outlets of the progress they have made and continue to make – it is a travesty that Arab and Muslim women are continually depicted as silent submissive beings, sitting back and watching helplessly as patriarchal structures control their existence. Here are just a few of the many, many, many examples of their work, which should really be commended and highlighted and reported on by mainstream media outlets:
Femin Ijtihad – Femin Ijtihad: Islamic Perspectives on Women’s Rights
Azizah Magazine – American Muslim Women: Diverse, Accomplished, Powerful
Project Sakinah – Stop Domestic Violence: Wake Up, Speak Up, Team Up
ABAAD Resource Center for Gender Equality – Freedom from Patriarchy in Lebanon, and Partnering with Men to Stop Violence Against Women
Muslim Feminists – Muslim Feminists on the Internet
Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) – Arab Americans: Networking, Volunteering, Empowering
LB o J’zazz – Made in Kuwait: Beads That Unify
Muslim Public Service Network – I Serve the Public (And I’m a Muslim Woman)
Peaceful Families Project – Muslim Americans Stand Up against Domestic Violence
Q: How do you deal with Islamophobes/ those who directly and indirectly impact your work (women like Pamela Geller, Ann Coulter et al).
Yasmina: Women like Pamela Geller and Ann Coulter misuse their power to promote and spread messages of hatred and intolerance – I call what they do ‘hate activism.’ Their ‘work’ directly contrasts with the messages of peace and love that we are building and spreading at the grassroots level. Despite the setbacks that such figures pose through their contribution to the miseducation of large numbers of Americans about Arab and Muslim communities and cultures, I am confident that a message of peace and cultural and religious tolerance will ultimately prevail over a message of hatred.
That is why we are so committed to working at the grassroots level primarily, because it is at that level that individual, group, and ultimately cultural transformation takes place. We want women to take the lead in creating peaceful societies that would not dream of entertaining and or providing platforms for such ridiculous notions as those fabricated by Pamela Geller et. al. to reach, influence, and miseducate huge audiences (as they do currently).
Q: Do you also do advocacy work?
Yasmina: Yes! We support legislation that advances the rights of women, UN conventions and resolutions, and we engage with UN commissions and agencies including UN Women and the Commission on the Status of Women. We are a part of the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security which was instrumental in the development of the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2012 and the US National Action Plan for 1325 implementation. More details about our work in advocacy, training, as well as a list of recent letters and statements we have signed on to are available on our website’s advocacy and training page.