Bringing Women to the Peace Table


Are women finally taking the initiative to create coexistence – and what will it look like?

by Edyta V. Materka

It is January 15, 2008, and I am writing from Istanbul. The crescents of the night sky and the red flag presiding over modern-day Turkey bring a sense of metaphysical belonging to this center of coexisting histories, civilizations, and cultures. At least that is what I have been told to believe. I am sitting here alone on a warm-lit terrace at the top of the hostel where I’m staying; the other young women from the Middle East Coexistence House (MECH) have returned to the United States.

Earlier today, I walked by the high walls protecting the 600-year-old Topkapi Palace—the official residence of Ottoman Sultans and 4,000 denizens. In the interior of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum rests the Kadesh Treaty of 1269 BC (advertised as one of the oldest peace treaties ever written in recorded history), signed between the Hittites and the Egyptians. This treaty—a national symbol of tolerance and coexistence—stands in stark contrast to what I, as a woman from Poland (a conservative, religious country), observed on the non-tourist streets of Istanbul. I saw male-dominated streets, all-male coffee shops, male-staffed restaurants, and a strange void of single women.

Two ears and one mouth?

This was certainly interesting to me given that, only a week before, a representative of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (Slogan: “Towards Universal Peace“), which is also honorarily led by Fethullah Gulen, “joked” to the members of MECH that it is “fortunate” that women have “two ears and only one mouth.” It was not such a funny joke for us, some of the most motivated, intelligent, and talented undergraduate women in the United States.
I fired back at this representative and asked him what the foundation is doing to subvert institutions that are inhibiting women’s access to public dialogue, and what it is doing to incorporate women into the interreligious dialogue. Flustered, he sardonically responded that, when I get the chance, I should gather some research to see who in the family unit owns land contracts and who has more money in the bank and then return to him and tell him whether or not women deserve a voice in the dialogue process. Can peace, tolerance, and coexistence be successful without the input of women, the majority minority? How can we achieve coexistence and peace if no one is listening to those who have been silenced?

Back at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, Tuly, our tour guide, repeatedly urged the MECH women to take a group photograph with the Kadesh Treaty. It was to be a symbolic gesture to bridge the historical path of coexistence from “then” to “now.” I felt my feminist gut jolt with resistance and knew that my facial expression had changed from indifference to anger. Why should I and my fellow female peers—from Iran, Ukraine, Hungary, the United States, Palestine, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and India—associate ourselves with a treaty written by men and for men in a militaristic, patriarchal society 2,000 years before women were even considered citizens of that country (after being granted suffrage in 1926 AD)? Women had not been given access to political participation or any peacekeeping initiatives even though they were usually the unarmed victims of rape and death in war! Why is a political treaty written by men more applauded than the day-to-day (apolitical) lifestyles of coexistence that had historically developed between concubines, wives, slaves, eunuchs, and others within the private spheres of their master’s homes?

I did not pose for the photo.

A seat at the table

How history is constructed has been and remains to be deeply impacted by who exactly is telling the stories–men or women. MECH has challenged me to question every peace initiative, treaty, and politician about the methods used. I look at whether politicians are incorporating as many voices as possible into a decision that will affect those who usually do not have access to the roundtable talks. Moreover, I have begun to ask myself a crucial question: given that women have been overly excluded from peace talks, are we, the women of MECH, engaged in a historical moment during which women are taking an initiative at creating coexistence?

How can we redefine the way “historical” moments are recorded and how can we better spread a nonreligious answer to establishing women’s role in leading and defining dialogue? Lastly, I found myself wondering how effective MECH’s woman-friendly format of coexistence is. Is living together a more successful means than exchanging treaties or using economic persuasion to convert the less well off?

Every day, more questions.

About the Author

Edyta V. Materka
Born in Poland, Edyta V. Materka moved to the United States with her family in 1993. Now 21, she is currently a prospective BA recipient in women’s and gender studies, political science and Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University. Edyta is also a grammatical and technical editor for Global Scholarly Publications in New York City, and has presented her work on land-right disputes at several international conferences in Amsterdam, China, and San Francisco. She hopes to become a land-rights activist, lawyer, nomad, and writer in developing countries.

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