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Dr. Rosa Rai Djalal, President of the Muslim Women’s Association, on the Role of Muslim Women in Peacebuilding

Capitol Hill Forum
March 20, 2013
Washington, D.C., United States
Theme: "Engaging Diverse Voices for the Common Good"

Dr. Rosa Raj Djalal, President of the Muslim Women's Association

 

I would like to thank (organizers of the event) for their gracious invitation. I thank the United States Congress for hosting us here today, and I commend the Muslim Women’s Association of Washington D.C. for their continued support and friendship.
My family has been in Washington DC for close to three years now, and I continue to be deeply touched by the warm and open friendship that has been extended to me by American and international friends. And I am truly honored to be part of the extraordinary women in the Muslim Women’s Association, which I represent here today.

I am honored to be part of this distinguished panel, but I also feel very blessed to be part of this panel to discuss such an important and timely topic.

I believe that Muslim women can and should play a significant role in ensuring peace in their communities and countries around the world. First and perhaps most importantly, if women are not involved in the peace process, peace is unlikely to be sustainable. Moreover, I strongly believe that women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have unique a perspective that allow them to be catalysts for peace and nation-building.   

In many ways and in many parts of the world, Muslim women already play a pivotal role in defending and promoting peace in their communities and countries.   

Recognition for the role of both Muslim and non-Muslim women in ensuring peace, justice and prosperity around the world has been growing. For example, during the first 50 years of its existence, only 11 Noble Prizes, including 3 Nobel Peace Prices, were awarded to women. Thankfully, however, since that time 32 women have been awarded Nobel Peace Prizes, including 12 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. Moreover, in 2000 the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1325, a landmark resolution on women, peace and security that reaffirms the “important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building… and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.”   

Recognition of Muslim women's contribution to peace has also grown in recent years. In 2003, for example, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Shirin Ebadi, the first time that a Muslim woman was chosen as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. A former judge and lawyer from Iran, Dr. Ebadi was recognized for her efforts to promote human rights, in particular, the rights of women, children, and political prisoners in Iran. In her Nobel Lecture as well as throughout her career Dr. Ebedi has striven to show that Islam, women’s rights and social justice are compatible.   

Muslim women are also increasingly involved in grassroots peace-building efforts. In Liberia, for instance a social worker named Leymah Gbowee brought Christian and Muslim women together to form the Women for Liberia Mass Action for Peace. This grassroots peace movement, comprised of both Christian and Muslim women, ultimately played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s 14-year civil war; paving the way for the country’s peaceful transition to democracy as well as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s election as President of Liberia and Africa’s first ever female head of state.   

In 2011, in addition to Mrs. Gbowee and President Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Tawakkol Karman, a 32-year old mother of three from Yemen, for defending and promoting human rights in her country. Moreover, women were on the front lines of democratic movements in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.   

In her Nobel Lecture, Tawakkol Karman expressed her gratitude to the “great number of Arab women, without whose hard struggles,” she said, “and quest to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men I wouldn’t be here.”
So there are in fact quite a few famous examples of Muslim women who have been recognized for their contribution peace, justice and prosperity in their communities and countries around the world.   

It remains a fact, however, that far too many Muslim and non-Muslim women are still marginalized from the peace-building process.   

Shirin Ebadi and Tawakkol Karman are extraordinary women, and I have no doubt that they would have excelled on their own in any context. However, I also have no doubt that countless other Muslim women have the ability to play a pivotal role in ensuring peace, justice and prosperity in their communities and countries around the world. Therefore, the question that we must address is how we can empower and increase opportunities for more Muslim women to take part in the peace-building process.
In this respect, I strongly believe in the power of education, and the multiplier effect of education for women. 

A great part of the marginalization of Muslim women can be traced to a lack of education. Millions of Muslim women were locked in poverty and were left behind in the progress that was achieved by others. Education is therefore critical in the empowerment of Muslim women. To the weak, the poor and the voiceless, education is a tremendous liberating force.

We have consistently seen that when girls and women have the opportunity to empower themselves through education it does not only benefit them, but it leads to a multiplier effect that benefits their families as well as their larger communities. Or as Daw Aung San Suu Kyee, once said “The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.” 

The education of women and girls is also important in the fight against terrorism. The role that Muslim women play in fighting radicalism and terrorism is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, Muslims believe that heaven is found at the soles of a mother’s feet. Thus, in the family, an educated and loving mother can be the most effective antidote for children who are at risk of joining terrorism.

There are ample empirical cases where if a family is torn between a kind mother who teaches her children peace and respect for life, and an extremist father who preaches hatred and violence, the child is likely to follow the mother’s path. This is why women play a critical role in the future of the world, and also why empowering Muslim women through education is so important. There can be no peace in the world without good loving mothers.

In addition to education, one of the most effective ways to empower Muslim women to take part in the peace-building process is through DEMOCRACY. This is the most effective structural fix because in a democracy where universal suffrage applies – as every politician know well - every vote counts, and about half of those votes come from women. This naturally changes the political dynamics, and changes the political significance of women in Islamic societies. 

This is one of the most important reasons why Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan, have elected women as their President and Prime Minister, and why women in other Muslim-majority countries – from Malaysia, to Nigeria, to Kyrgyzstan- have been appointed into Cabinet, become Director Generals, CEOs and Ambassadors. 

This is also why it was so important that women were on the frontline of democratic movements in the in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Democracy inevitably allows women to assume more policy-making positions and also empower more women to become greater stakeholders in the peace-building process. I strongly believe that when you bring more women to the table you will get a fresh and wholly different narrative. The participation of women and their unique perspectives on peace will in turn lead to a more enduring peace in communities and countries around the world.   

Another powerful way that Muslim women can be empowered is through ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY. There are many ways to increase economic opportunity, but one of the most relevant and powerful is: micro-finance. In countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, microfinance has transformed not only women borrowers, but also families and communities. Over half a million enterprises in Indonesia are headed by women, and microfinance is a crucial means of starting and expanding these small and medium enterprises. Most of these loans are in the range of $50 to $200, which sounds insignificant to us here, but means a world of opportunity to women mired in poverty. 

On another level, it is also time that Muslim women worldwide catch on with a global trend that is making waves everywhere: entrepreneurship. I passionately believe in this because I count myself as a Muslim woman entrepreneur, having built my own a dental clinique in Jakarta.   

To embrace entrepreneurship, Muslim women need to change their mindset from job seeker to job creator. Entrepreneurship WILL be a key driver of change in the 21st century, and it is critical that women – including Muslim women – do not miss this window of opportunity. 

Social reform will also key to empowering Muslim Women to take a more significant role in the peace-building process. This means changing the societal mindset towards women, and removing the psychological barriers and roadblocks to women’s role in Islamic societies. This, I am sure we can agree, is a global challenge – not just in the Islamic world. In Muslim as well as non-Muslim societies, there must greater acceptance of the notion that women are equal stake-holders in society, and neither democracy nor development can progress without the participation of women.

This process of rebalancing of course takes time and will not be easy. However it proceeds, it should be based on the understanding that women do not want to become men, but they simply want the same opportunity as enjoyed by men. Indeed, it is the balance between the masculine and the feminine - the ying and yang - that will make ours a better and stronger world.
And finally, one of the best means for Muslim women to increase their role in the peacebuilding process is to claim a VOICE ON THEIR OWN.

There is no shortage of social media tools to help them achieve this goal: from Facebook to Twitter. With social media, a person is no longer just an ID number; he or she is an opinion, a hub, a voice. The impact of this sudden connectivity to human civilization is enormous. In exercising our collective voice, Muslim women should help push back the stereotypes that exist about Islam and increase their role as stakeholders in the peace-building process.

In summary, through education, economic opportunity, democracy and social change, Muslim women around the world can be empowered to assert a more significant role in the peace-building process. And it is vital for everyone – male and female; Muslim and non-Muslim - that Muslim women can capitalize on these trends and opportunities, because it is unlikely that peace in many communities and countries around the world will be sustainable unless women are significant stakeholders in the peace process.

I am often asked what the West should understand about the Islamic world. It cannot be answered with a single answer, but I think they must understand that Muslims are worried about the growing trends of Islamophobia. This creates dangerous polarization, which benefits no one. I do not believe this permanent; I believe it is reversible. But muslims can not push this fact alone, we need an interfaith and cross-sectoral efforts to cure this problem. 

Overall, I am quite hopeful therefore, that through panels such as the one we are having here today, that we are moving in the right direction and empowering Muslim women around the world to take their rightful and crucial roles in building lasting peace.

I thank you.