Women in peace & security: Women of faith in peacebuilding

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Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/conflict-insight 


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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11 Responses

  1. 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 peacebuilding 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 a 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 a male can experience. Please do not get me wrong, as I do not want to put a 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 peacebuilding. 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 in line 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

  2. 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. http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/how%20we%20work/unsystemcoordination/data/secretariat/projections/un-secretariat.pdf?vs=3447

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 https://www.sbs.com.au/news/swedish-girl-nominated-for-nobel-prize. It would be interesting to hear your comments during the upcoming roundtable discussion.

  8. Dear Reah,

    The role of religion fading day by day but still it has significant influences in the society. The entire global population is divided with the thin screen of religion and all major conflicts in the world are between believers of different religions. The intra and inter conflict between family, community, and country are dominated by men and the dispute resolution also vested to them. The religion and social rule have given supremacy of man over woman. These social and religious laws empowered the man to become autocrats in society. The social system has some Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Sulha is a mediation of dispute in the Arab region for a long time. Sulha of the Middle East and Shalish of South Asia is very much identical method. The role of culture is crucial in fostering mutual understanding in conflict resolution. Both the process is not the replacement of civil and criminal law of the countries.

    In dispute resolution Sulha, usually, one of the parties in dispute take the dispute to one or more highly respected, influential people in the society and request them to intervene in the disputing issue. The Jaha consist of one or more persons being the most respected members of the community but women are not permitted to serve on it. These interveners are collectively known as Jaha of mediator or Shalishder. Jaha uses to inquire about the consent of both the parties in dispute and ask for a written document that authorizes the Jaha and committing to abide by the Jaha’s decision. In the judicial system of the Middle East, the judicial system, if a conflict involves family matters, it may be adjudicated between the individual disputants in a religious court. If a conflict involves a criminal offense, the matter will be adjudicated in criminal court (a Sharia court). In both situations, the conflict is likely to provoke a dispute between the clans to which the victim and offender belong to. The Sulha process will address the clan level dispute.

    The Shalish is a voluntary method depending upon acceptance of mediation (Shalish) and mediators (Shalishder) in South Asia including Bangladesh. Shalish is using to address the dispute between two individual or two families and communities. Shalish uses to address some civil and small criminal offenses. Shalish is of two types. One is non-binding compromise meeting and another is arbitration type with an understanding of acceptance of judgement by both the parties. Shalishders sit for mediation or arbitration with the full consent of both the disputed parties accepting them as Shalishder (Judge or mediator) and unconditional promise to accept their judgement. The enforcement of the verdict of the second category of Shalish is social enforcement and earlier one is a mutual agreement. Historically, mediators are village elders, religious leaders, elected representatives or other influential community members but not a woman. There is a norm that even woman witness is not accepted unless allegation proved beyond reasonable doubt. In rural Bangladesh, traditional forms of community justice i. e. Shalish, in a very special situation, women rarely even attend their own hearings, not to talk about becoming a mediator in the Shalish. They are represented by a male member of her family in the proceedings.

    The situation has started changing in the recent time and in some cases, women participation in community dispute resolution tends to be restricted only to ‘women’s issues’, which excludes issue such as land and property disputes and small offenses. A major reform is going on with the longtime persuasion in NGO to accept NGO- sponsored Shalish sits with woman Shalishder. A recent study by one NGO in poorest areas of the country suggests women’s participation as leaders in Shalish has been increased, although society has doubt whether women have enough knowledge and quality to deliver any concluding judgement. In-depth interviews with women leaders at the community level in some rural area suggest their ability to participate depends on their family dynamics, political connections, and household economy, education and NGO networks.

    Shalish is now supported by law of the land. Bangladesh government brought the system under the legal framework of local government. The law incorporated the provision of ‘village court’ having mandatory women mediator or judge in case of involvement of women or minor as defendant or complainer. The Sulha process is an informal conflict resolution mechanism in the Middle East. Many different kinds of disputes can be resolved through Sulha dispute resolution, including business, financial and consumer-seller, although many disputes arise out of acts of violence, including murder. Shalish in Bangladesh can deal with minor criminal offenses but not serious offenses like murder. The Sulha practice and process embodies “ideals of cooperation, negotiation, honor and compromise” highlighting interpersonal conflict management strategies that impact the larger community through “indigenous sociopolitical interaction”. It is a conflict management and reconciliation process that is employed to resolve an extensive range of disputes often times dealing with inter and intra-familial conflicts such as divorce and murder.

    The United Nations has organized peacekeeping forces to maintain peace in a certain area with political and social unrest. A woman member of UN peace force can enter inside the house of conservative societies. Some unique tactical skills female military bring to this field include the screening of female civilians and conducting of house searches in areas where it is not culturally appropriate for men to enter private spaces. Local populations in host countries often feel more comfortable liaising and sharing information with military troops that include women alongside men. By obtaining better information, we are able to better protect these communities. Only women member should be deployed in a conservative country like Afghanistan. Access to the local population becomes particularly relevant when considering the current nature of conflicts in which UN peacekeepers find themselves. UN has set an example by introducing women peace-keepers and now rapidly increasing the number of senior female civilian personnel in peace support operations in all relevant Headquarters departments, including the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), and in the field. Women peacekeepers act as role models in the local environment, inspiring women and girls in often male-dominated societies to push for their own rights and for participation in peace processes.

    The ADR like Sulha or Shalish may be introduced in any categories of disputes and conflict resolution including the conflict between Arab/Israel and Kashmir issues.

  9. Dear Rhea,

    A very interesting article and I have learned new aspects on Women’s role in the society you have researched on. M. Siddiqui also enlightened other practices in his country and I am sure the Family Group Conferencing that is practiced in Australia involves a lot the women of the family members that are very important in the stability of the Young person’s life and future.

    I am sure its big news about what has happened in the Christchurch mosque massacre by a young 28 Australian man. Less than 15minutes after his face was flashed over the news in Australia, his mother and sister contacted the media to identify themselves as his family members. She didn’t have to do this immediately, but that sense of responsibility as part of the Community, the society, irrespective of belief and race, prompted the mother to contact the authorities. The sister, as well as mother, were subjected to so much interrogation and even their own homes were invaded for a thorough investigation. However, they both believed that the role of family members, especially the women in his life had to speak up and clarify many questions unanswered by the terrorist, himself.

    Your article made reflecting on several different societies around the world and the different cultures as to how Women play an important role in Peace, Security, and inter-faith co-existence. I am looking forward to the Round Table Forum we are going to have to explore more about your research.

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