Boys, Boys, Boys

This week I was in Vienna, Austria for two large interfaith gatherings. The first was the inaugural Global Assembly of the King Abdulaziz International Center for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue (KAICIID), a two-day event that brought together nearly five hundred religious leaders from around the world. Immediately following that event was the ninth global gathering of Religions for Peace, attended by some six hundred religious actors.

I’m still processing the whole experience: the tension between substance and symbolism, the opulence of Saudi hospitality, the varied meanings of the term “dialogue,” Bellanwila Thero’s delusional presentation on the situation in Sri Lanka, all the wonderful new contacts I made and exciting work I learned about, what I discerned were current interfaith peacebuilding priorities. But there is one element of the gatherings that I hardly need time or distance to analyze: the marginalization of women’s voices and experiences.

In some ways, I’m used to it… and rather numb to it. The interfaith world at this level — the splashy international elite level — is a boy’s world. This is because international politics/diplomacy is male dominated, as is religious institutional authority. Bring those two realms together, and women are scarce. And so I’m accustomed to being a minority in the room at inter-religious peacebuilding fora. I’m accustomed to sitting in the audience listening to a panel of all men (or, what’s more common: all men and one woman) talk about the need to create just and equitable societies in which all people have a voice. I’m accustomed to religious peacebuilding events making only passing (if any) reference to advancing and securing women’s empowerment through peacebuilding, or strategies for addressing sexual violence against and trafficking of women in wartime. I’m accustomed to the litany of male religious leaders held up as saints in the religious peacebuilding field: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffer Khan, Maha Gosananda… rarely accompanied with mention of any of the women of faith who have risked their lives, sometimes given their lives, for the cause of justice and peace. I’m accustomed to all this, but after being subjected to four days in a row of this phenomenon, I became frustrated anew. Check out these photos I captured during the events:

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Two women, literally on the margins.

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The closing plenary: a panel of five men and one woman (that’s Shaun Casey speaking, the new head of religious engagement at the State Department and a lovely man).

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This panel had six male education ministers, one woman minister, and a male moderator (my friend and colleague Mohammed Abu-Nimer).

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An afternoon panel that featured two male keynote speeches and five presentations (one by a woman). Another woman moderated.

A quick scroll through photos on my blackberry revealed a couple more photos I’d taken recently of panels at interfaith events:

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This one is from the Coexist Prize award ceremony in New York City, 2012. All men. Ironically, a woman religious peacebuilder from Indonesia won this award.

And lest anyone think I’m attacking other organizations and not my own, here’s one from an event at USIP this year featuring all male religious leaders from Israel and Palestine, a male moderator, and a clergyman from Norway:

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At this USIP event, I raised my hand to ask the first question, which was: where are the women? After all, studies have shown that women bring different wartime experiences, perspectives, and insights to peace agendas that are crucial for building successful and sustainable peace – for identifying and transforming the root causes of violent conflict. All the women in the audience clapped in response to my question. To answer, one of the clergy pointed to his teenage daughter sitting in the front row and said she always accompanies him. She was carrying his briefcase. None of the women clapped in response to his answer.

This is a topic I’ve written on a lot. I am co-editing a book with Katherine Marshall that explores women’s religious peacebuilding.  Amongst other things, the book illustrates how involved women are in inter-faith activities at the national and community-level, and how marginalized they are from the well-funded and international level initiatives, and the consequences of this. But clearly the point needs to keep being made. So, inspired by my friend Erin Matson who created the blog White Guys Doing it By Themselves, I’m going to start posting photos to this blog as part of an ongoing feature to illustrate how invisible women tend to be in religious peacebuilding public events. These images will be under the tab: “Missing Women.” Look for it soon!  {update: the page is now up!}

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