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Women in Peace & Security: Women of faith in peacebuilding


Women have a dual experience in their roles as advocates for peace, particularly women of faith. The irony is that while they are more immersed in the community and thus have the power to exert more influence, they are invisible and excluded from most peace processes. The realm of religion, like most other fields, have been traditionally lead by men. In this article, we examine the role of women in religious peacebuilding, as well as the role of women faith leaders in peacebuilding. We will take a closer examination of the role that women play in alternative dispute resolution methods, such as the Sulha method in Arab tradition, practiced in Lebanon and Northern Israel.


Even today, most religious leadership positions, both formal and informal, are held and led by men. Therefore, the study of linkages between religion and peacebuilding, as well as the study of peace processes, have tended to focus on men’s roles and perspective. Even if the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 acknowledges the critical role that women play in peace and security, women still constitute only 2% of mediators, 8% of negotiators, and 5% of witnesses and signatories in all major peace process [1]. Women’s participation in peacebuilding remains under-supported, and so does women’s engagement in religious peacebuilding. Their perspective, interests, and unique position to leverage personal relations have been largely left out of the purview of traditional religious peace initiatives. In fact, religious peacebuilders who are women face a double marginalization- both as women and as women faith leaders in the religious realm.

Most discussions around the role of religious women as peacebuilders have revolved around their soft power- their role in healing, reconciliation and nurturing religious teachings in children. However, such generalizations can trap women in the ‘soft power paraphernalia’. When in fact, peacebuilding work done at the grassroots by women do not really differ from those of men.

For a deeper study of women’s role in religious peacebuilding through informal structures, I have chosen to examine the religious tradition of Sulha, a method of conflict resolution.

Sulha tradition of religious peacebuilding

Leadership roles in most religious traditions are dominated by men. Even if women do not enter the field of religious peacemaking with the intention to focus on gender dynamics, for example women Rabbis or Ministers, they are very quickly confronted with the hard truth and how women faith leader’s voices were easily marginalized. The Sulha tradition, similarly, rests on patriarchal norms and strictly employs male performers- both the mediators as well as disputants are represented by an all-male cast.

Sulha, literally meaning reconciliation in Arabic, is a traditional, communal conflict resolution method practiced in many regions of the Middle East and Arab world. While it is predominantly known to be practiced within Muslim culture, the Sulha process has also been practiced by the Druze and Christians in the Levant region. It contains mixed methods from Western Alternative Dispute Resolution approaches like mediation and arbitration and encompasses other conflict management techniques such as venting, confidentiality, and neutrality. The Sulha Committee, known as Jaha, comprises anywhere between 1 upto 20 members, and are formed mostly of religious leaders such as Imams, figures of authority, and other community members.

In the Sulha process, women do not have formal access to the peace process except through their male relatives. Women are not allowed to be a part of the Jaha membership, testify in front of the Jaha, or participate in the Jaha meetings. While women do not formally participate in the process, their lives are surely impacted by it. They are sometimes exiled from the conflict region to reduce tension between families, resulting in dislocation, or their sons and husbands become potential targets for revenge killing, etc.

What role do women play?

It is important to acknowledge the multiple roles women in play in conflict situations. Women are, ofcourse, a vulnerable population that are disproportionately affected by conflict- physically, socially, economically, and politically. Beyond their victimization, religious women can also play a role that drives peace and security in another direction – they can legitimize acts of violence in the name of religion, glorifying martyrdom, acting as spies or agents, or directly take up arms themselves.

At the same time, peace is not simply achieved through negotiations and formal processes. Peace is constantly built within communities and social fabric- a process more evasive to the naked eye, thus, rendering the role of women nearly invisible.

From an outsider’s view, women are completely excluded from the Sulha peace process. On closer examination, there are informal ways in which women play a role in different stages of the Sulha process. At the Sulha Committee formation stage, women play a central role in deciding the membership of the Jaha. Without the women folk’s tacit consent, expressed through their male family members, the Jaha will not be able to begin its operations. Although formally excluded from the process, women can convince their male relatives to exclude certain members from the Sulha Committee that deliberates on the conflict. In some cases, women and Jaha members also communicate informally at different stages of the reconciliation process.

Women also make a significant contribution to drafting the main Sulha agreement. When the Jaha comes up with a solution, the women can accept or reject clauses in the agreement, although once again conveyed through the menfolk. But the final agreement usually has the approval of the women of the aggrieved party. More importantly, in the post-Sulha reconciliation stage, it is the women who use their social networks to initiate a healing process in the community and between the conflicting parties, whether through small meetings between the women from the disputant families or bringing their children of the two households to play together. These social interactions gradually expand to larger meetings, feasts and celebrations, which are largely organized by the womenfolk.


The issue with considering formal peace negotiations is that they are not the only indicators of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding happens in the informal spaces society- in the community and at home. But in informal structures, the problem is that women are excluded altogether and have to push to create a space for themselves. The risk is that their contributions remain invisible altogether.

While conducting research on this topic, it seemed to me that all articles had an undertone of ‘women are formally excluded, but….they can exert influence in other ways’. This ambiguous spin on patriarchal traditions and structures seems dubious to me. If we are looking for women to influence peace processes, why not incorporate women into the formal structures instead of through the backdoor? Ofcourse, we cannot decide this for the women as we are not embedded in their culture. While acknowledging that any changes to traditions must be incremental as to not disturb or destabilize the system, we must allow for women to decide how they want to exercise their voice and in what manner they wish to execute their influence. If women’s contributions and opinions are being taken into account through their influence in the family and their male relatives, it would serve better to have a direct channel for communication and allow the women to speak for themselves.

So what can be done to bring visibility to their role and change the soft power narrative? Peacebuilding at every level must be done strategically, with a motive to transform every soft power act to real social and political change. Instead of limiting women’s role to the grassroots level and leveraging of personal relationships to influence peace processes, we must bring them to the policy table where their voice can be documented and heard directly.


  • Pely, Doron. Women in Sulha – excluded yet influential: Examining women’s formal and informal role in traditional dispute resolution, within the patriarchal culture of Northern Israel’s Arab community. International Journal of Conflict Management Vol. 22 No. 1, 2011 pp. 89-104 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1044-4068
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8 Comments on Women in Peace & Security: Women of faith in peacebuilding

Dear Rhea,

thank you for your time and insights.

I guess everybody will agree on your point of view, namely that there is a massive imbalance between women and men in the formal peace building processes. The first question that came to my mind was: Where did all this male driven leadership make us end? It is easy to do research on the constantly increasing number of conflicts worldwide. What means to me, that we need a change, better today than tomorrow.

Basically, I believe it is mainly a matter of decision making power that male ‘leaders’ enjoy pretty much. So, who of them would voluntarily reject such a formal position? Well, possibly only someone who truly supports the beneficial development of society. In the meanwhile, we can witness that the number of conflicts does not decrease at all. This circumstance is still ignored and does not make responsible authorities reflect and initiate a prospective change. Doesn’t this sound familiar somehow? Isn’t it the same with non-health supporting decisions being made by our mainly male politicians? More often than not, the financial turnover is more important than negative health influences within society such as addiction caused by computer games. And once again – no change is initiated by our mainly male CEOs and politicians.

And now we come to the very interesting part, which just came to my mind. I think the only possible change that can immediately be started is on the grassroots level, where mainly all revolutions started. Talking about the grassroots level, I would say it is the first-level education where the seed for a future change can easily and most effectively be planted. Traditionally, this education is executed by mothers and the inner circle of a family.

But nowadays, we do have lots of role changes within families. Mothers work full-time, fathers focus on the household and work part-time. In this case, the first educational task shall switch from the mother to the father. As far as I know, there were no abnormalities noted by children who received their first education by their father. Such ‘advanced’ families perfectly demonstrate that role changes can be realized. What works for the best within a family, shall work for the best within a country.

I believe that there is still one very important point missing in order to get this change done. Namely, that most of our politicians and decision makers are still not personally responsible for their actions in office. Basically, when something goes wrong – they simply retire. As far as we generalize the personal responsibility for politicians, they might want to offer positions to people with better qualifications and prevent such personal calamity. Coming back to the very start of my comment, I believe that women in leading positions may work more effectively in peace processes and similar responsible offices. To me, this is due to their insights and experiences they gain by their motherhood. It is undeniable that this phenomenon of nature gives birth to a more responsible and caring nature than male can experience. Please do not get me wrong, as I do not want to put an value on a mother’s or father’s ability to love and to care – but it is just the point that it has to be different due to the nature of each sex.

Final note: I believe, we specifically need this concrete difference for the effective execution of high impact tasks in politics and peace building. It is our common future on this planet that requires this change – as previously said – better today than tomorrow. Even though, this process has to be inline with the social-cultural ability to realize such a change and / or to adopt such an impulse in a compatible way.

Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

Thank you for the article, I appreciate learning about the Sulha peace process.

I certainly agree that, in general, there is a lack of strong women’s participation or women leadership in the formal peacebuilding and negotiation processes. In fact, it has been a challenge in finding more women play a leadership role in major organizations in North America, a place where most of us would think equal opportunities and gender equality to be more prevalent. But even here, in this part of the world where most of us get to enjoy the freedom of speech, cultural diversity, religious freedom, and among other privileges we get to enjoy, there are societal biases against women to be in a power position. Perhaps there is the notion that women are incapable of handling complex multilateral negotiations, unable to be involved in making difficult decisions such as deterring aggressors, building coalitions, threatening or warning through the control of force in the event of violence crisis, domestic or international security threats. Maybe there is the notion that women lack the ability to understand the complexity of the political, social, economic and environmental repercussions to be in charge of leading a formal peacebuilding process. Or was it all psychological – that societies see women lacking the capacity to negotiate in a room full of men, especially men from powerful states or men in powerful positions? Or there were too many times that women lack the ability to do the jobs that male leaders have been doing?

The United Nations General Assembly has acknowledged the issues and made attempts to promote female leadership, but data compiled by UN Women in 2014 indicated that women made up only 26.2 percent of staff at D-2 (Director); 21.3 percent at Assistant Secretary-General (ASG); and 28.6 percent at Under Secretary-General (USG) level.1

If we have a magic wand and were given the opportunity to ask all these men (those at the United Nations General Assembly, those at the table of the Head of States, or those at the table in their religious organizations) the questions why we don’t see women leading or even be at the same table as men in the formal negotiation and peacebuilding effort, what would their answers be? Will they all be because of cultural or religious influences? What will it take for these powerful organizations and states to transform their structures more progressively to ensure female leaderships at the table?

1Trends and Projections for Gender Parity: UN Secretariat.

Yes, I do agree that – Instead of limiting women’s role to the grassroots level and leveraging of personal relationships to influence peace processes, we must bring them to the policy table where their voice can be documented and heard directly. One of the serious hindrance to bring women to forefront is the existing high level of corruption and nepotism in religious and political party process ; and women in general are unable to handle corruption, violence and nepotism, as men do, and thereby they cannot get into power politics and community leadership , as easy, is my observation. As peace-builders, what women can do best is to support or develop alternative political structure and religious practice which promotes non-violence and corruption , and develop a power structure based on the same , and to contest elections where Democracy exists , and to come forefront in LEADERSHIP.

    Thank you for your research in this area and your writing. There are several issues to be explored relating to empowering women in different fields, religion being only one. Your review focuses on one religious avenue. One needs to explore other religions but also must look at civil society and our international communities. Mediators Beyond Borders International will be holding a workshop prior to this Roundtable to discuss the work that women are doing in peacebuilding in the area of mediation and other conflict resolution methods. I will be taking part in the workshop and will share information with members of WMO. THANK YOU FOR YOUR ARTICLE.

Dear Colleagues, I think that we all agree that thee influence of women in politics, religious structures, and peacemaking has usually been indirect or informal, through relatives, husbands and lovers. This will, no doubt continue. In some cases when there is a breakthrough by women, their role is overtaken by men. An example is what in Japan is called “new emerging religions”. At the end of the Second World War, Shintoism and Buddhism, whose leaders had promoted the war, were discredited because Japan lost the war. There then grew up a good number of religious movements, heavily influenced by Shitoism and Buddhism but nevertheless considereing themselves separate. Nearly all were founded by women, who had visions or other signs of divine favor. However once the religious movements were well established, men took over the day-to-day administration. We are in a realtime test, and we have to see what role we can play to strengthen the role of women. There is currently a number of negotiations underway to end or to limit the armed conflicts in Afghanistan through negotiations with the Taliban. The uncontested control of parts of Afghanistan by the Taliban, or the possible influence of the Taliban within the central government has raised fear among many Afghan women, given the previous effort of the Taliban to limit the role of women. Some women in Afghanistan are organizing to face this possible return of influence of the Taliban. Are we able to help the Afghan women and in what ways? I post separately an article where I develop some of the areas of peacemaking where I see a possibility for an increased role of women.

Thank you for your research in this area and your writing. There are several issues to be explored relating to empowering women in different fields, religion being only one. Your review focuses on one religious avenue. One needs to explore other religions but also must look at civil society and our international communities. Mediators Beyond Borders International will be holding a workshop prior to this Roundtable to discuss the work that women are doing in peacebuilding in the area of mediation and other conflict resolution methods. I will be taking part in the workshop and will share information with members of WMO. THANK YOU FOR YOUR ARTICLE.

The culture for Middle East and Arab countries, women could not have same status as men. Male would not respect the opinion of female as the decision making is the role for male.
In the case of Sulha, there already a big change at least opinion for female can be submitted through her male partner.

The first changing need to be made is to change the mind set of male. It is through education and the unfair between male and female is from the culture. People need to learn that all the gender is the same and have equal opportunity. The unfair situation could not be changed even by legislation. Yes, women could sit is the committee of Sulha under the law. But will their opinion be respected? Men could ignore what women suggested on the discussion if their mind set is not change to admit men and women is born to be equal.

Thanks for your article.
I have some comments and observations. Firstly, one cannot deny that most religions are misogynistic and most religions are the inherent causes of most global conflicts. The more religions that intersect geographically the more conflict. One only has to look at the Middle East as an example. I have lived most of my life in Western culture and the for the past 10 years in Eastern culture and my observation has been that it is less misogynistic from West to East. One cannot imagine a woman taking the role of the Pope, however, women have held high positions in Eastern religions. That does connote that Eastern religions are not prone to misogyny.

The Dalai Lama once stated that if a female was appointed Dalai Lama in the future, she would need to be attractive. His Holiness made the comments during an interview with BBC reporter Clive Myrie on a nine-day tour of London. Laughing, Mr Myrie asked: “So you can only have a female Dalai Lama if they’re attractive? Is that what you’re saying?” The Dalai Lama responded that if they weren’t attractive they were “not much use.” “You’re joking? I’m assuming,” Mr Myrie said, with more laughter. “No,” the Dalai Lama said. “True!”

I personally do think religion or peacemaking through political discourse or international laws will empower women as peacemakers. There is a new reality that is affecting the empowerment of women and that is the power of social network. One recent example is the newly elected US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In just a few months she has a bigger Twitter following than NBC News, The Washington Post, Reuters News and more than half of the global news outlets. Another female peacemaker is Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, a climate activist has been nominated for the Noble Prize It would be interesting to hear your comments during the upcoming roundtable discussion.

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