May 04, 2006

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Understanding women's role in peace and war

What women wear, who women marry, how they spend their time and the ways they live their sexual and reproductive lives come under greater scrutiny when societies are under stress.

In 2005, there was a public debate about the status of faith-based arbitration in the Ontario court system.

Initiated by a review of family law and faith-based arbitration, written by Marion Boyd, former Ontario attorney general, and commissioned by the minister of women's affairs and the attorney general's office, the debate focused on the pitfalls and possibilities of instituting legal recognition for tribunals based on Islamic legal principles.

The debate raised the issue of both the limits and avenues for multicultural liberal democracies such as Canada to accommodate the particularities of minority communities. Though the implementation of Islamic law varies depending on the historical, geographical and national contexts, concerns were expressed about the status of women under Islamic legal principles and the possibility that Muslim women living in Ontario might be denied the protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights legislation that are part of Canadian human rights law.

Though Boyd's report argued that establishing Islamic law tribunals would not undermine women's equality rights and that, in many ways, the Canadian system is already equipped to accommodate faith-based arbitration, the premier of Ontario made a decision against instituting the tribunals. The No campaign rejoiced and seemingly, the issue has been put to rest.

The Ontario debate about faith-based arbitration and the place of Islam and Muslims in multicultural societies is one among many taking place in many countries since 2001. Sweeping changes in immigration law, justice systems and military policy have been implemented here and elsewhere and many of them have targeted Muslims as particularly problematic populations.

The changes are massive, complex and staggering. Establishing a clear sense of the implications is daunting. For many minority populations, not just Muslims or people perceived to be Muslim, the experience since 2001 is one of growing insecurity and fear as the tone of much of the legislation shrinks the possibilities of comfortable belonging.

We are in the midst of a vast realignment of states, nations, minority communities, secularism and religious freedoms. Populations of all types are called upon to assert their allegiances, loyalties and claims to belong. Muslim and non-Muslim populations alike are called upon to pledge their allegiance while abstaining from criticisms of government policies, racial profiling, plans for increased militarism, support for the use of torture and increased surveillance and border control. While laws here and elsewhere continue to target Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim, it becomes even more crucial that we consider very carefully the assumptions we make as we enter the debates about multicultural accommodation and democratic freedoms.

Resonant throughout the many debates about the place of Muslims in liberal democracies is the paucity of mutual understanding between minority and dominant populations and the easy reliance on assumptions that deny the complexity of peoples' relationship to their faith, culture and identity. The debates tend to rely on polarized and caricatured terms, posing secularism as the panacea from fanaticism, free speech as the counter to censorship, and our way of life as the escape from oppression. However, most people live between these polar extremes in much more complexity and with many more contradictions and ambivalences about what are profoundly personal questions of human existence.

Women's relationship to their communities and societies is particularly conflicted as women are compelled to negotiate their commitments to contradictory demands. As a way of understanding the complex alignments of gender, race, nation and community, we might consider the ways that women's roles become of central concern to societies in times of crisis. Women's function in the family as reproducers of future generations, as nurturers and care givers and as those primarily responsible for communicating cultural knowledge is seen to be crucial to protecting societies and ensuring their survivability.

What women wear, who women marry or if they marry at all, how they maintain their bodies, how they spend their time and the ways they live their sexual and reproductive lives come under greater scrutiny when societies are under stress. Women's status and roles in the family, community and nation become flashpoints for making solid claims to identity and belonging. Finally, the role of women in war raises even more daunting challenges. Mothers are targeted by military recruiters as those who can influence their children to join the military.

Women are valued as soldiers' wives who often sacrifice their education, employment and community life to live on bases, to move frequently and to be without their partners for long periods of time. Demographic anxieties about populating the military in the future mean that women's reproductive choices become more restricted. War depends on dividing people into enemies and allies and women are also implicated, as soldiers themselves, as property to be protected, as victims to be saved and as the reason men and militaries fight.

At the same time, women themselves are shaped by relationships to family and community and they derive their sense of self, identity, place and aspirations from these social relationships. The idea of women wanting to belong to those places and institutions that are meaningful to them has to be honoured somehow, as expressions of the dreams and desires of authentic human beings.

We get stuck on one side or the other of political debates in what seem like intractable positions, and in the meantime, a whole range of peaceful possibilities go unnoticed. Understanding women's roles and status related to communities and nations in peace and in war cuts through the polarized debates between religion and secularism to reveal women's complex experiences, which are much more than simply oppression and much less than outright violence. It is there, where women are, that we will find peaceful solutions to the question of how we live together in the country and on the planet.

In the context of the war on terror, as the Canadian government moves us closer to more militarism and the prospect of increasingly violent scenarios, the quest for mutual understanding is crucial and urgent. In an effort to promote public discussions about these complicated relationships, SFU's department of women's studies, in collaboration with Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality/Equity (RACE), is sponsoring a symposium called Gender, Race, Islam and the War on Terror from May 11-13 in Vancouver. On May 11 from 5 p.m.-9 p.m., a panel presentation at Heritage Hall at 3102 Main St., with speakers Asma Barlas, author of Islam, Muslims, and the U.S.: Essays on Religion and Politics and Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an, and Nighat Said Khan, dean of the institute of women's studies in Lahore, Pakistan, will address how these issues are negotiated in the U.S. and Pakistan.

On May 13 from 5 p.m. -7 p.m. at the Vancouver Public Library, a panel presentation with speakers Amina Jamal, Zool Suleman, Sunera Thobani and Rosalie Gould will continue the discussion with specific reference to Canada, Pakistan and Nigeria. These panels sandwich a two-day workshop with invited speakers and participants from across Canada and elsewhere who will develop strategies and responses to meet the coming challenges of negotiating the relationship between minority populations in multicultural liberal democracies in this new context of the war on terror. The panel discussions are free and open to the public.

For further information see:

Liz Philipose is the Ruth Wynn Woodward professor in women's studies at SFU for 2005-2006. Her permanent position is assistant professor in women's studies at California State University Long Beach.

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