The Middle East is burning. Again. It has been since antiquity, perhaps, as a disputed landmass that has the misfortune to be constantly overrun by marauding armies with ‘divine’ inspiration fuelling their military strategies. But the embers have definitely been stoked of late.
Everyone’s favourite armed struggle — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — dominated the headlines after Operation Protective Edge kicked into high gear, but the Islamic State’s campaign of terror against Iraq’s religious minorities is making quite a splash, and the death toll in Syria has long passed 100,000 people. Elsewhere, Libya and Lebanon teetering on the edge of chaos, and Iran’s nuclear negotiations are dragging on with no real breakthroughs in sight. In short, it’s a mess.
There are no easy answers in the Middle East. Nevertheless, talking heads have no shortage of opinions on how to ‘fix’ the region, with some propositions more viable and less vitriolic than others. And yet there’s one suggestion that is so simple that it is often completely overlooked, one recommendation so elegantly unassuming that it is often preemptively disregarded: just add women.
This sounds like an oversimplified sound bite, something that can be briefly considered and then easily dismissed as a gimmicky generalisation. But before discounting this proposal as mere pandering, look at the statistics: every leader in the Middle East is male — this is as true of Israel as it is of its Arab and Muslim neighbours. Every foreign minister in the Middle East is male. The vast majority of external actors hoping to influence events in the region are men: the president of the United States is male, as is his Secretary of State. The president-elect of the European Union is male, as is the secretary general of the Arab League. The secretary general of the United Nations is male, as is the director general of the International Committee for the Red Cross. There are some notable exceptions to this parade of men, including Angela Merkel, various Latin American heads of state, and a few high-ranking US and European diplomats. But they represent scattered raindrops in an ocean of XY chromosomes.
There is a precedent for women to play a principal role in paving the way for peace: prominent historical examples can be found in Northern Ireland, Liberia and Argentina. But even more than grassroots movements, there’s an international legal basis for women to have greater involvement in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 calls for women to have an ‘increased participation in peace processes’ and urges member states to ‘ensure increased representation of women in national, regional and international mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict’. This landmark resolution was passed nearly 14 years ago; implementation has clearly been found wanting.
Of course, religion plays a part in the marginalisation of women, but that’s mostly a lazy pretext to avoid making difficult decisions. Security Council resolutions are binding on all UN member states. Thus, leaders have a convenient shield to hide behind should they need political cover for their decision to promote more women into the peacemaking ranks — and yet, females largely languish on the side lines.
Because no one has previously tried the en masse empowerment of women in peace talks, it’s impossible to know how successful it would be—if women would face the same roadblocks to reconciliation that men constantly encounter. But they could hardly do worse. The only thing that is certain is that none of the middle-aged men currently holding positions of power in the Middle East has had a new idea in at least 10 years. The region is literally screaming for fresh inspiration, and yet societal mores, culture and history are conspiring to keep half the population from approaching the negotiating table. This is a shameful waste of resources.
As ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas grind on in Egypt, and the world looks for somebody — anybody — to do something about Syria, the infusion of a novel perspective may be very welcome indeed. Just add women.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2014.
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