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FEATURE | summer 2006

The Peacemongers
Can these Nobel laureates help stop a war?

Chinese garment workers
Four of the Nobelists for peace:(left to right) Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum. Photo: Michael Collopy

There is perhaps nothing more stereotypically masculine than war.

It’s not that there haven’t been women inclined to make war, but this need to hit, to thrust, to dominate, to claim supremacy is downright boyish. And there has perhaps been no U.S. presidential administration more unrelentingly macho than this one.

In the midst of this dangerous game of nuclear one-upsmanship, five women—joined by women’s and peace groups from around the world—hope to do nothing less than change the course of history. And why not? These five—all Nobel Peace Prize winners—are not strangers to that goal.

In the 105-year history of the Nobel Peace Prize, only 12 women have ever won the honor. Seven are still alive, and five of them have formed the Nobel Women’s Initiative: Jody Williams from the U.S., Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Betty Williams from Northern Ireland, Wangari Maathai from Kenya and Rigoberta Menchú Tum from Guatemala. (Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Burma, and Mairead Corrigan of Northern Ireland is not active with the other laureates.) Together they represent a large portion of the globe: North America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Central America. Their long-term goal is to help change the status of women world-wide, but in the short term they have focused on stopping the U.S. from going to war with Iran.

“What we are calling for is quite simple: a nonviolent resolution of the standoff between the U.S. and Iran,” says Jody Williams, on the phone from her Virginia home. “We do not want to see another Iraq and more disruption in the volatile and fragile Middle East. We do not want to see more suffering among women and children in another Middle Eastern country. No more military action. We all for a negotiated resolution of the standoff.”

After forming the Nobel Women’s Initiative in April, Williams and her colleagues immediately called for a meeting of American and Iranian NGO leaders—all women—in Vienna. Held in early June, the meeting set forth a plan for the NGO leaders to take back home: a strategy for building international pressure to help convince the U.S. and Iranian governments that negotiations and compromise are better alternatives to war.

While few would sanction Iran as a nuclear power, the fury the Bush administration is trying to build up as a prelude to war seems as disingenuous as the lead-up to the war in Iraq. After all, experts say, there is certainly time to give negotiations a chance, as Iran won’t be able to build a nuclear weapon for at least five to 10 years.

Amid reports that the Bush administration was considering using nuclear “bunker-busting” bombs against Iranian nuclear facilities, the NGO leaders in Vienna met with International Atomic Energy Agency officials to encourage greater dialogue, press them to stand firm on the inspection process and strengthen their efforts to avert war. The use of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear usage might, of course, cause just the kind of disaster the Bush administration says it wants to avoid, especially when you realize that, according to Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a “bunker-busting” bomb of the sort that the Pentagon has reportedly considered would have nearly 100 times the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

It’s easy to imagine the other obvious consequences that a U.S. war against Iran would bring, beyond the devastation of nuclear destruction and fallout: innocent civilians killed. An increase in terrorism against U.S. targets around the world. Further erosion of the U.S.’s already devalued international reputation, particularly in Islamic countries. But what rarely gets mentioned is how war— even the current threat of war—creates an environment that allows a further erosion of women’s rights and human rights in a place where both are already under attack.

“Every time President Bush waves the threat of war at Iran, it increases the oppression of [people there] by that government,” says Jody Williams. “It gives the Iranian president the excuse to crush dissent: ‘If you criticize me, you’re supporting warmonger Bush.’”

Although there is currently a vibrant feminist movement in Iran, war with the United States and a strengthening of the fundamentalist regime could have serious repercussions for women and young girls in the country, who are already accorded only half the legal worth of a man. “One of the more predictable outcomes of the United States attacking Iran is that the fundamentalists there would be stronger and would be united, and the position of women and young girls would get much worse,” says Dr. Homa Mahmoudi, an Iranian psychologist living in the United States who represented the Feminist Majority Foundation in Vienna. “The fear is, the bombing would make the Islamic republic more popular and stronger.”

American public opinion is overwhelmingly against using unilateral military action against Iran (see Ms. poll), and protestors both in the U.S. and Iran have begun to make their voices heard. On May 18, tens of thousands of petitions asking the U.S. not to take military action against Iran were delivered to the White House and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s house. In Iran, according to Tehran media, thousands of university students have demonstrated. Witnesses heard students chanting, “We don’t want nuclear energy” and “Forget Palestine—think of us.” Reportedly, those demonstrations were quelled by 500 armed Iranian police, and 25 students were wounded.

Despite the dangers of open dissent, one of the key strategies of the Nobel Women’s Initiative will be to get women—and men—to speak out publicly against war. Shirin Ebadi, when asked during her recent U.S. book tour whether she thinks the Iranian regime would actually pay attention to women demonstrators in their country, was emphatic: “If women act seriously, they will listen. The same is true in the United States. If the women act seriously, the president has to listen.

“I’ll give you an example from Iran,” she continued. “After the revolution, the laws of custody were changed against women’s interests. After a divorce, boys were given to the father after age 2, and girls after age 7. Women opposed it, but the government response was that this is Islamic law and can’t be changed.

“But women’s opposition grew, gradually. When I went back to Iran after winning the Nobel Prize, approximately a million people came to welcome me at the airport. Most were women. The reason they came to the airport and greeted me was to tell the government they were unhappy with their situation. When the government heard the angry voices of women they amended the law of custody. And the law, which was declared Islamic and could never change, was changed very easily. Therefore, what counts is that women insist on what they want.”

In the U.S., Congress could stop Bush from bombing Iran if only it would use the power granted it in the Constitution. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has introduced a resolution (H. Con. Res. 391) expressing “the sense of Congress that the president should not initiate military action against Iran with respect to its nuclear program without first obtaining authorization from Congress.” Currently there are 37 cosponsors.

Of course, the heated debate about Iran’s right to have nuclear technology is most ironic when one considers the origins of that country’s program. Back in 1976, it was none other than a young White House chief of staff named Dick Cheney who, long with his colleague Donald Rumsfeld (then and now secretary of defense), helped persuade their boss, President Gerald Ford, to approve a multibillion-dollar deal for the U.S. to build nuclear reprocessing facilities in Iran, from which U.S. corporations such as Westinghouse also stood to profit. At that time, Ford’s strategy paper on the never-completed deal said that the facilities were necessary because the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.”

“My worst fear is being alive in the moment of recognition that nuclear bombs are falling and asking myself if I’ve done everything I can do to prevent it,” says Vienna delegate Mary Olson, director of the Southeast Office of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

“I hope others are asking themselves that question. If we don’t prevent their use, we will be in the position of asking ourselves, ‘Did we do everything we can do?’”

And that’s the idea behind the Nobel Women’s Initiative: organize women’s groups, peace groups and others now, making it more difficult to carry out military action later.

“Raise your voice in as many ways as you can,” advises Jody Williams. “If you oppose this policy, don’t be silent about it. The silent majority is abdicating its power and giving it to Bush whenever he wants. I believe that if you really want to change the world, you can. You must be clear and very conscious of the actions you decide to take to bring about the change you seek. It isn’t magical and it isn’t mystical—if you want to live in a better world, you have to decide to act to create that world.”

Linda Burstyn is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She was awarded an Emmy for her work on ABC News’ Nightline.