A trip around the world to be inspired by women of peace

This article by Hadeel al Shalchi appeared in The National.

    Guatemala is very far away if you live in Egypt. So far, that one probably would never think of traveling there - until, perhaps, one is invited to a conference as I was a couple of weeks ago by an organization called the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

    The initiative is a group seeking to promote peace and justice. It was founded by Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Mairead Maguire, who have each been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

    According to these women, they wanted to use the honour and visibility of the Nobel Prize to promote the work of women activists, researchers and organisations around the world.

    Every two years they hold a conference at which women from different walks of life are invited to join a discussion on how to amplify this work and to reconnect with women about what they are hoping to achieve. This year Rigoberta Menchu Tum hosted the meeting in the idyllic town of Antigua, Guatemala.

    I was happily surprised to see the invitation in my e-mail inbox this year, and jumped at the chance to visit this country and to meet the women behind the initiative – women who have made headlines with their bravery and strength.

    The trip to Guatemala from Cairo is a traumatic one - 11 hours to New York; a day’s layover, then another stopover in Miami and then finally Guatemala City. But it’s really worth it when you hit the cobble stones of Antigua, and the colourful walls and gates of homes and shops. I’ve heard that Antigua isn’t where you go to find the “real” Guatemala, but I was still happy to be there. The hotel we stayed in was a converted monastery - so beautiful that anyone would want to take up holy orders. With fountains, and hanging gardens, and red parrots in the trees, it was sometimes too beautiful to be indoors for the conference.

    I shared a room with the director of the Israeli Bat Shalom organization, which is a national feminist grass-roots group of Jewish and Palestinian women working together for peace in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We spent the rest of the evening sharing stories about our work, cities and backgrounds.

    Once the conference started, I was star struck by being so close to all these Nobel laureates. Shirin Ebadi particularly made me quiver with awe when she spoke about the struggle of women for equality in her home, Iran, and how she refused to be thrown out of her country so she could try to change it from within peacefully.

    Jody Williams, who won the prize in 1997 for her work in eradicating land mines, spoke about the danger of “othering” - seeing those who are different as “the other”, which makes it easier to be afraid and avoid talking. Mairead Maguire won the prize in 1976 for her work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. She has a soft and smiley demeanour and yet surprised me with her strong voice and speech about non-violence and her experience while crossing into Gaza this year.

    And of course, the women in attendance were 120 of the brightest, strongest, and most inspiring people I’ve ever met.

    Hailing from all parts of the world – Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Italy, Canada, the U.S. and the Palestinian territories just to name a few - the women broke up into panels to discuss challenges women faced in their work with the media, with their governments, and with attitudes towards women’s abilities that still plagued their work.

    The aim of the discussions was to find a new way to define democracy, one that didn’t end with elections or the vote, and one that worked for women.

    It wasn’t all heavy duty discussion of course. Three meals a day and fun receptions at each day’s end brought us closer to the Nobel laureates, giving us a chance to engage them in conversation and pick their brains about their work and what they thought was still needed to make women’s voices be heard.

    We were also able to see the fun side of these awe-inspiring women, talking about things like manicures, clothing and shopping. We were able to compare notes on the countries we’ve traveled to, talk about women we had met there and in the places we live - and, most importantly - realize that these laureates are just regular women who have the courage and strength to put their beliefs into action, and make change possible.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.

In my experience, women make peace for different reasons than men do. These Nobel Peace Prize laureates are the subject of my theatre piece, PeaceWomen. My vision is to bring this work to colleges and universities all over the world, and to assist all women in bringing peace to their small corners of the world.

Visit www.susancorso.com for spiritual nourishment.

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