Thursday, May 18, 2017

Brokering Peace Between India and Pakistan: Where Women Lead the Way!

By Chintan Girish Modi 

I am a bit sick of watching the same old men screaming and shouting on my television screen when discussions on India-Pakistan relations are aired after every flare-up between the subcontinental neighbours. Since 2012, when I first visited Pakistan and got involved in thinking seriously about peaceful relations between our countries, I have been hoping that some sensible TV channel would bring an all-women panel to share their perspectives and insights, or at least have more women on such panels instead of always bringing in some security analyst, former diplomat, or ex-army officer -- invariably men.

I am sure that discussions on the India-Pakistan conflict would be a lot more nuanced, intelligent and lively if they had some more women speaking up. Is this because men know nothing of peace, and women are born into the world as peacemakers? I have no such illusions. Arnab Goswami is not on Times Now any longer but his place has been taken by a woman who appears to be as virulent. However, it is true that some of the strongest advocates of peace that I know, or have met/read, are women. I have written about them earlier in an article titled 'Wash Off Each Molecule of Despair' for the Prajnya Peace Education Blog

I assume the ones I have mentioned are all cis-women, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I think they were assigned female at birth. I could be wrong because my psychic powers, if any, are quite limited. Therefore, I must apologize at the outset. Anyway, my point is that their biology has no bearing on how they inhabit the world. Their choice of peace over violent extremism is a result of careful thought.

In fact, Catia C. Confortini has written an excellent article titled 'Galtung, Violence, and Gender: The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance' for the July 2006 issue (Vol. 31, No.3) of the journal Peace and Change, wherein she examines quite critically such simplistic inferences. She points out that some feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, who were drawing on a 19th and early 20th century tradition of feminism, did propose that "women were, by nature, upbringing, and/or by virtue of being mothers andcaretakers, morally superior to and more peaceful than men." Apparently, other feminists were not as convinced about such claims.

Confortini writes, "In particular, Jean Bethke Elshtain argued that claims of women’s natural or cultural superiority in matters of peace and war only serve to reproduce, if inverted, a world based on gendered dichotomies and power hierarchies." It would be wrong to say that men have not been part of the India-Pakistan peace process. Some of the names that immediately come to mind are Praful Bidwai, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Jatin Desai, Raza Rumi, Harsh Kapoor, General Mahmud Durrani, Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, Mahesh Bhatt, Salman Ahmad, Anand Patwardhan, and Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Confortini goes on to say, "Ann Tickner observed that the association of femininity with peace lends support to an idealized masculinity that depends on constructing women as passive victims in need of protection. It also contributes to the claim that women are naïve in matters relating to international politics. An enriched, less militarized notion of citizenship cannot be built on such a weak foundation. These feminists found such associations disempowering for both women and peace."

It would be a terrible disservice to the wisdom, courage and compassion of peace-loving women if one thought of them as naïve. At least the ones I have interacted with have made well-informed choices, often at grave risk to their lives, health, relationships, and career prospects. It is only their passionate drive to create a more peaceful world that has kept them going on relentlessly despite all the naysayers.

The most concrete example is unfolding right in front of me. I am part of a small but strong private online group comprising Indians and Pakistanis, which has been working day and night on a peace resolution that has been endorsed by over 800 artists, filmmakers, musicians, historians, activists, educators, writers, students, former diplomats and former army and naval officers. The signatures were not collected through an impersonal online campaign but through the personal efforts of group members who got in touch with not only friends, family, colleagues but also with prominent citizens of great public repute in both countries and in the diaspora.

The resolution expresses concern over "the current rise in animosity and antagonism between India and Pakistan," and urges "both governments and their security establishments to take all steps possible towards improving relations." It records the loss of lives over the last 70 years, and the suffering of "ordinary people denied visas and those in the conflict zones, especially women and children as well as fishermen who get routinely rounded up and arrested for violating the maritime boundary."

The resolution emphasizes cultural exchanges, trade, people-to-people contact and visa-free travel between the two countries, as well as the creation of "an institutionalised framework to ensure that continuous and uninterrupted talks between India and Pakistan take place regularly, no matter what." It calls both sides to "renounce all forms of proxy wars, state-sponsored terrorism, human rights violations, cross-border terrorism, and subversive activities against each other, including through non-state actors or support of separatist movements in each other’s state."

Indians and Pakistanis who cherish the bonhomie that is born of personal interactions can sometimes forget that Kashmiris are suffering in the cross-fire, and that we need to speak up for them. Therefore, to me, the most important part of the resolution is that which asks both governments "to recognise that the Kashmir dispute, above all, concerns the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, and work to resolve it through uninterrupted dialogue between all parties concerned." 

While men in the group did help, the lead on this massive cross-border labour of love was taken almost entirely by some of the women in the group -- filmmaker and writer Beena Sarwar, peace activist Lalita Ramdas, poet and publisher Bina Sarkar Ellias, dancer Sheema Kermani, journalist Jyoti Malhotra, artist and educator Salima Hashmi, journalist Ammu Joseph, human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi, as well as journalist Marvi Sirmed. Special salaams to each one of them. I hope that someday I have the opportunity and the resources to do an extensive study of women's role in the peace process between India and Pakistan from 1947 until today. These are only a few of the many celebrated and unsung women who have contributed to keep things sane and hopeful in a scenario that looks bleaks more often than not.

Chintan Girish Modi is involved in learning, researching, teaching and writing about peace. He is also the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, and has worked with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. He can be reached at