Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections on Writing and Peace Activism by the Activists

By Katherine Conway

The written word remains an important method to influence people, break down barriers, and enact change. Writing, like any form of communication, carries the ability to bring peace or cause destructive divides. It is the chosen medium for three young peace activists: Atiaf from Yemen, Elaheh from Iran, and Lylin from the Philippines. In honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th, I exchanged messages with these three women on why they write, the impact of their writing, and the role that writing has in bringing peace to women and girls.

Elaheh is an activist and writer from Iran. She teaches children English, besides also writing poignant pieces in pursuit of her activism for women’s rights and LGBT rights. In her own words, “Change doesn't have to be through arguments and conversations. Most of the time we affect people's lives by giving them the words and they have time to think it through. They can smile and agree. They can laugh and disagree or they can postpone the thought to sometime later.”

Atiaf is a Yemeni activist and writer. Her blog has carried the voice of Yemeni people and has shared stories from the country with the wider world. She describes herself in her own words, “As a person who has lived in many countries, and refuses to be places in one "boxed" categorization, I always feel that I am a bridge to different cultures, and through writing about Yemen I try to  build that bridge between Yemenis and others.”

Lylin is a writer and activist from the Philippines who has published in Deltawomen and World Pulse. Of her experience as a writer she notes, “writing has given me the opportunity to appreciate people and cultures and the edge to be ‘heard through the pen’.”

On Writing and Activism

I began the written conversation by asking the girls why they write and why writing is their chosen means of activism. I believe that behind those who share stories is a story, a motivation to be heard. As the exchange of ideas continued, the girls wove personal stories in with the change they want to see in their societies. Their passion and personalities jumped off the page as a kind of light. Elaheh wrote, “Words are magic, sharper than any sword. Choosing the words for the right impact is a big challenge and I live for challenge.” Commenting on her role as an activist in Iran, she believes that by writing she can give people “the words” and they then have time to think through the argument and perhaps, change their beliefs. At the same time, Atiaf shared the personal beginnings of her writing, “I started writing because something happened to me when I was younger that I couldn’t tell anyone. So, I told the pink and purple pages of my diary. It was my secret-keeper.” Now, as an activist in Yemen, her writing shares secrets as a tool to bring attention to the untold stories of the revolution:

When the revolution began in Yemen, I noticed that very few media outlets wrote about the Yemeni revolution (except when there was blood or attacks by security).  No one wrote about the ongoing activities at the square: the dance, the music, the debates, the political discussions, the unexpected friendships, the love stories, the weddings etc.  There was so much happening, which was not getting any coverage, and so I decided to dedicate my blog to cover the day to day happening of the revolution.  Sometimes I was documenting events, sometimes documenting violations, other times I wrote political assessment, and other times, wrote about my own feelings and reflections of what was going on.

Similar to the others, Lylin began writing as a way to engage with causes she cares about. She began to interact and connect with people through her blog, which began a way to share empathy and emotions. “We found ourselves sharing and exchanging ideas and beliefs from everywhere. Distance was not an obstacle.” For Lylin, writing is the fastest and simplest way for her to express herself and to reach people all over the world.

Atiaf, Elaheh, and Lylin wrote about writing as a way to connect people and to share stories. As Atiaf noted, “When we share personal stories, we realize that as human beings we have many commonalities, no matter the race, citizenship, religion, or gender. Our stories connect us on a deeper level.” Lylin added that “when people write about their experiences, convictions, and beliefs, I could see that writing can get people to respond and act.”

Writing for Impact

Writing is a way to incite and sustain peace and spread ideas, but how do we gage the impact it has? Understanding the impact may help peace activists and peace-builders harness its energy. I posed this question to Lylin, Ataif, and Elaheh, who each write about challenging topics, often in difficult environments.

Lylin notes that writing is a way to influence change. It is a way to “remind those who have power and influence to make things happen.” She believes that one result of writing has been influence the opinions of world leaders to support and fund the fight against poverty and to keep issues, such as the reintegration of child soldiers at the top of the agenda. If people were not committed and passionate these changes may not be happening. Additionally, Atiaf noted that it is “difficult to judge the impact of one’s own writing.” She shared one experience that gives her hope that writing can incite people to act and view Yemen through a more nuanced lens:

I wrote what seemed to be a controversial blog post about a marginalized group in Yemeni society, this post enabled a rich discussion on twitter about a subject that few people discuss: discrimination against a group in society called the "marginalized community", some refer to them as Akhdam "servants".  The post not only lead to discussions, but to meetings, and eventually, an introduction of some members of the marginalized community with other Yemenis who believed there was no discrimination and that "those people" deserve it because they are "lazy" to work.  It was a fruitful discussion and many preconceived ideas were shattered.

Through writing, Elaheh seeks social change in Iran. Writing became a way of objecting laws. She writes that “the evolution of my writing style has been the narration of my life – it has documented the social and political status of my country.” She believes writing brings peace through influencing ideas, about which she shared a powerful story:

The biggest impact of my writing has been on my family and friends and people I know. I once wrote a short story about LGBT rights in Iran and published it in an American literary magazine. I didn't even tell my family about it but then my dad bought the magazine and read it. A year after the publishing date he told me that although the story had been very hauntingly dark and politically hopeless, he knew there was something lying there in between the lines called love. And that love was not a kind of love we see on TV every day. It was love between two men and it felt right.

Elaheh knows that the path to change may be long, but she notes “I want to make things better and it may not be flawless, but I still want to happen.”

Writing as a way to eliminate violence

On November 25th, the spotlight focuses on violence against women and girls. I asked Ataif, Elaheh, and Lylin what role writing can have in building momentum around the issue, creating safe spaces for women, and building more peaceful communities. In what seems like unison in my inbox, the girls wrote about the role that writing plays in creating awareness, in reaching people, and as Lylin noted, “it opens an avenue of ideas and broader perspective that can serve as a catalyst for people to take action.” She hopes that writing additionally becomes a way for victims to become more aware – that they are not alone – and can fight for their rights. “They [women] can speak out and shout for justice.” For Lylin, writing has an impact, which she illustrated through a story:

I have seen the impact that writing has created with the increasing presence of women's support groups that serve as a safe haven for abused women where they can find the support they need. They are reintegrated back into society so they can build a new life for themselves away from an abusive environment. More importantly, it makes them realize that after all the tragedies, there is still hope for a better future than tolerating a life of abuse. They have come a long way from being the submissive and quiet victims of violence. And all these have become possible and achievable because writing about them has created a rippling effect of awareness on people.

Elaheh writes about her method of inciting change, one step at a time. Writing is an important step in this process:

All societies have forms of gender violence that are proscribed by law and others which are more tolerated and even encouraged by local customs and norms.  Early Marriage and Forced Marriage are two harmful traditional practices that keep my mind at war. The very fact that we build mental walls for ourselves and never dare to think differently about prejudices and traditional beliefs is also something I want to keep writing about until I don't feel it anywhere around me (or inside me).
 Such awful things happen to women and girls every day and we don't even report them or record them because we simply do not acknowledge them! We don't know our rights and we never see the violence- we need to read about it, we need to write about it and we need to think about it. 

Atiaf, Elaheh, and Lylin are hopeful that writing will play a significant role in bringing peace and security into the lives of more women. Lylin notes, “There is still a long was to go in eliminating violence. . . but with the magic of the pen coupled with the wide range online media can reach, more people have become aware that something has to be done to curb the abuse of women.” Her voice is echoed by Elaheh:

Writing about the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women can be the best way to inject the idea of building a more peaceful world for women (and men) into this world. Everyone deserves to be happy- everyone deserves safety and peace.  If the world is a better place for women, it will undoubtedly be a safer place for children and men. 

Today, we are grateful for the women activists whose writing builds for us all an image of the future that does not include violence against women and girls.