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 . 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