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USIP’s Maria Jessop and Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana discuss the power of dialogue to bridge divides and the role of women peacemakers in Iraq in the context of a workshop for the women of USIP’s Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF) they conducted in May 2011.

June 27, 2011

The ultimate U.S. policy goal of a stable Iraq is dependent in no small measure on the full and equal participation of women in rebuilding and governing the country from the grassroots to the national level. While Iraqi women have achieved greater representation in government since 2003 and have been actively working at the grassroots level to help rebuild their country, they face continuing threats to personal security, marginalization and internal division fueled by political and social forces.

USIP has been fostering dialogue among Iraqi women leaders in order to overcome these challenges and foster greater cooperation in advancing the security and status of women. USIP’s Maria Jessop and Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana discuss the power of dialogue to bridge divides and the role of women peacemakers in Iraq in the context of a workshop for the women of USIP’s Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF) they conducted in May 2011.

Why was it necessary to have a workshop on dialogue facilitation for women only?

Jessop: Women everywhere, including Iraq, face particular challenges as peacemakers. In Iraq, these often have to do with gaining entry and acceptance as a third party in a society that is very male dominated. Women in some communities in Iraq who step outside of the role that traditional customs and norms dictate can face ostracism and even death. The ostracism can in some cases come from other women who are fearful to associate with a woman who is challenging the status quo. A “women’s only” workshop can provide a safe space in which to dialogue about these challenges and learn how to overcome them

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How do identity differences among women in Iraq impact their ability to work together and how can dialogue help?

Jessop: The divides can exist along sectarian and religious lines as well as along liberal/secular vs. conservative/religious lines. Several political parties in Iraq are organized around ethnic or sectarian identities, so when women enter into politics any solidarity they might have felt with women as a whole can be undermined by political pressure. At all levels of society, stereotypes and prejudice exacerbated by lack of meaningful contact between different identity groups can keep women from working together. Dialogue facilitates a meaningful encounter that can help people to transcend their differences and recognize their common humanity and purpose.

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Can you give an example of how dialogue can bridge these differences?

Jessop: In our workshop, we demonstrated how a well-structured facilitated dialogue can help bridge identity-based differences on a controversial topic such as religious education in schools. In our group, there was a mix of Sunni and Shia, secular and religious women, as well as three Christian participants. After first building relationships and trust through sharing fond memories of their school days , we proceeded to explore both positive and negative experiences around religious education in school. Through the sharing of these personal stories, participants were sensitized to the impact (both positive and negative) that religious education had on women with identities different from their own. It was an eye-opening experience for them.

One who wondered at the outset why we would dialogue about this issue; i.e.,” there’s nothing wrong with religious education,” was deeply moved to learn that others in the group had suffered because of religious intolerance, in some cases as a result of educational policy. She said: “I had no idea this was happening in my country. It’s so painful for me to hear …”

An example of how dialogue cannot only bridge differences in a group but also lead them to action occurred at the end of our workshop. After experiencing a powerful dialogue on the topic of domestic violence, the women unanimously and spontaneously committed themselves to conducting dialogues on this topic in their communities. While toughening laws is important to improving women’s security, it is not enough. There must also be efforts to break the silence and change attitudes towards the problem of domestic violence. Well-facilitated community-level dialogues have the power to do that.

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How can women peacemakers make a difference in Iraq?

Kadayifci-Orellana: There are many ways in which women peacemakers can make a difference in Iraq because although women are often excluded from key decision-making positions, women play a variety of unique roles in Iraqi society. Women form almost 55 percent of Iraqi society and share many common interests, challenges and concerns. Therefore they can often identify with women from different perspectives and possibly transcend ethnic, religious and ideological divisions more easily.

As such they not only have the potential to set a powerful example for the community but can also play an active role in contributing to informal and formal peace processes and serve as a critical partner in U.S. and international efforts to stabilize the country. Cultural and social norms provide women with a certain level of respect and women can enter certain spaces that would be hard for men to enter. As mothers and sisters women also have access to children and youth and often have a powerful influence over them. By becoming more politically active, working together and organizing at the grassroots levels they can incorporate women’s voices, experiences, and perspectives into the peace negotiations and agreements as well as regional and national policies on all aspects of society.

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How can organizations working in Iraq help ensure women are treated as equal partners in rebuilding Iraq?

Kadayifci-Orellana: First of all it is really important to recognize that Iraqi women are not victims but they are powerful agents of change in Iraqi society. They have significant experience and knowledge that can be extremely valuable to learn from. They have a very good understanding of the social, cultural, political and historical context of Iraq that can be a valuable resource. Second, it is important to recognize that women in Iraq have diverse perspective and interests and it is not possible to generalize them. Recognizing and respecting these different perspectives and being inclusive of them is critical. Understanding social and cultural dynamics such as “honor,” “respect,” “shame,” among others, and how they impact gender dynamics is essential in enabling women to be a resource to overcome challenges related to identity dynamics. Finally, engaging men in this process and providing a platform for a dialogue between men and women from different perspectives can also help ensure women are treated as equal partners in reconstruction of Iraq.

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