WomenPower and Peacemaking

Feb 14, 2011

Many pairs of feet of all shapes and colours and sizes are at work in the hot mid-morning Thai sun.  The mud sucks and sinks with every step and stomp.  The owners of the feet – dancing, circling in what feels like ancient ritual – are mostly ‘Burmese’, young women, Karen, Kachin and Shan, who live in precarious camps in the forests about 20 kilometres from the Thai border.  Some of the feet are Thai, some of them belonging to women who run the Women’s Centre for Peace and Human Rights whose extension will be constructed from the bricks soon to be formed out of the mud oozing between our toes.  Some belong to young boys and girls of the neighbourhood joining in the fun.  A couple of them are Canadian: mine.

At the base of a large pile of dirt, a shallow pool has been excavated and edged.  A bucket brigade has formed from the edge of the rice paddy canal to fill the pool.  The young women, straw-hatted against the sun, expertly wield hoes, bringing the dirt into the water for rhythmic mixing and smoothing.  Beside the dirt pile stands an equally large pile of rice straw, which is then dumped by buckets-full into the smooth mud for more stomping and stirring.

The mud-and-straw mixture is then shovelled by hand into the buckets to be dumped into moulds that together look rather like an inert ladder that is too skinny, its rungs too far apart for safe climbing.  Once the five forms are filled, the ‘ladder’ is lifted carefully from the ground at both ends.  The best bricks will, from the start, hold their shape, the ratio of water-to-dirt-to-straw just right.  Gradually the yard is covered with rows upon rows of drying bricks.  Yesterday’s bricks are loaded, to be wheeled down the lane to the building site.

Ouyporn, whose friendship, energy, wisdom and teaching draws these women, including me, to this place, gathers some of the women for meditation.  On three wooden tiers many smaller Buddhas are arranged like courtiers to the trio of large, golden-draped Buddhas that dominate the upper tier.  The drippings of candles, stones, beads and little drinking glass containers of flowers give mute evidence of household devotion.  Two large bouquets of flowers on the bottom tier book-end what appear to be a ceramic Madonna and Child and Hindu images of Shiva.

This never-colonised country has held onto itself like few others.  Here in the north, not far from the borders of Burma and Laos, the land of the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, cacophonous signs of the globalising monoculture that characterises so much of our planet are rare.  There is a permission here for silence, for long speechless moments punctuated by the occasional passing motor scooter, the cawing of crows in the tamarind tree or the  PA-amplified plaintive prayers of saffron-robed monks offered for the newly deceased.

I join the women, off to the side a bit.  I assume a lotus position and open my hands on my knees in a gesture that feels like church to me.  The chanting, drawn from a book of chants prepared by internationally known teacher and Ouyporn’s own mentor, Thich Nhat Hanh, gives way to the silence.  I settle into a calm place, aware of a strange sense of being at once both detached and thoroughly engaged.  My breath empties me and then fills me in ceaseless rhythm, attuning to, listening for the heartbeat of God.

Two weeks earlier, I had arrived in this remarkable country to participate in a training and consultation sponsored by the Women’s Peacemaking Programme of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.  The event took place in Chiang Mai and was brilliantly entitled:  ‘Asking the Right Questions:  Non-violence Training and Gender’.

We were from Flores and Aceh in Indonesia, Lausanne and Skopje, Bujumbura and Lima, Belgrade and Freetown, Colombo and Oakland, Hyderabad, Toronto and Montréal, Quezon City and Phnom Penh, Wellington and Nairobi, Kosovo, Australia and Thailand.  We were a panoply of colours, nations and costumes.  We were all trainers in non-violence.  We all had some things to say about gender. To this well of women we all came to draw – and to give.

We showed-and-told, sharing training tools, role plays and cultural symbols; we stayed up late, weeping and laughing out our stories, exotic and common.  We talked about what it feels like to live in a world ‘listing badly to the side of maleness’, to be subsumed under maleness in our language, ruled by the masculine principles of power-over, hierarchy and domination; about bodies mutilated, abused, violated, the locus of a society’s shame.  We raged at our experiences of second-best, not-good-enough, your gender not right, your voice not right, your clothes not right; at doors and villages and corporate boards that would not open to us because we needed a patron, a prior relationship, a male-decided and –blessed way in.  We pondered our power; marvelled at anger and its power to effect good – and evil.  We shared our stories of how we are changing the world in those little places where we are.  How we were taught one thing and are doing another.  How we ignore the NOs that say you can’t do that    get back in your place    you can’t go there    you can’t say that    no one will listen even if you do.  You’re a woman, after all.

In talking circles, we deplored an anthropocentric worldview that sees creation in instrumental terms alone; an androcentric worldview that universalises male experience as norm.  We know we see the world differently and we want that view honoured for the very sake of humanity.  We know we think and feel differently about things and we want those thoughts and feelings to shape the decision-making of governments and families, corporations and schools, churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.  We know our bodies are different and we want them honoured and valued.

We pondered the feminisation of poverty, the trafficking of women and girl children, the unpaid work of wives, sisters, mothers, daughters; the disproportionate burden borne by women of war, displacement and cuts to social programmes; the peculiar impact of rape and torture in societies built on male honour and female shame; the exclusion of women and women’s voices from tables of mediation and fruitless searches for peace; the presence of women within the ranks of emboldened patriarchy.

Though we did not have scheduled times of worship, we opened up spaces for ritual that acknowledged our contingency on one another and on an Other beyond, within, beside.  We spoke of eco-feminism and spirituality, a spirituality that empowers, that pleads, that frees, that nurtures, that integrates; we spoke of the culture-challenging conduct of the Buddha and the Christ.  And, surrounded by the glorious exotica of the Y garden, I spent each early morning settled in with the words of Joan Chittester.  Embers fanned into flames.

All the seats were booked, so the one man who was to accompany us must stay behind.  And so we go.  Feraz, Henna, Betz and I.  To Mindanao.  For conflict zone non-violence training with representatives of the ‘tri-peoples’ – indigenous tribals, Moros (Muslims) and Christian settlers.

We have already spent several days together in intensive trainings with 25 of the staff and leaders of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches and their Development Ministries (DM) programme.  We began with staff orientation.  They are all here.  How good to see them.  I begin by asking them to tell me one thing that has happened to them since we were together last.  I hear about everything from a new set of teeth to anti-mining and political activities.  Several talk about the training that they have been doing since last year; mediation between church families or church committees caught up in conflict; work with co-operatives and communities.  It is so affirming – and a rare thing that this kind of multiplication of the trainings happens so readily, so quickly.  I then ask them to tell me about what they recall from last year and what they found really worked well.  I also asked them for any advice they might have for me.  And lastly, I wanted to ask who would be willing to help out in what ways, from role plays to writing things up on flip chart paper as well as just being catalysts in the right places at the right time, being noticers of anything going either right or wrong.

Days later as the training is coming to an end, Feraz Legita, the Director of Development Ministries, volunteers to display to the group what she has drawn and written on her ‘Journey to Peacemaking’ map.  Her ‘road’ begins in a jointly-sponsored BPFNA-Asian Baptist Fellowship consultation and training in Chiang Mai in November of 1996.  Her ‘vehicle’ is DM, pictured as a little Isuzu with CPBC-DM on the side.  She talks of how Glenda Fontenot, then president of the BPFNA, persuaded her to put her name forward as part of the (all-male) board slate of the nascent Asian Baptist Peace Network. Reluctantly she did so.  She is elected.  Her journey begins in earnest, taking her through the formation of a Convention Peace and Mediation Committee, through membership in the Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Committee of the BWA, co-ordination of peacemaking themes in the Assemblies and Kasapulanans (Associations) of CPBC, trainings, mediations and leadership in the BPFNA-DM Peacemaking Partnership Programme.  At the top right of the page, the road continues over the horizon, ‘reaching out to CPBC churches to be a force for PEACEMAKING’.  I am not alone in my tears.

For three hundred years, the indigenous peoples of the island of Mindanao successfully resisted Spanish conquest and colonisation; they also resisted U.S. domination.  When independent Philippine governments initiated colonisation efforts meant to both exert control on the recalcitrants and defuse land pressures in the northern islands, displaced and impoverished Moros and tribals took up arms against the Christian settlers.  In 2003, the purportedly MILF bombing of the Davao City airport – which resulted in a cancellation of our planned training on Mindanao – was later shown to be the work of the Philippine Army.  In the months and years since 11 September 2001, the Philippine government has successfully wooed U.S. support for its efforts in the ‘second front in the war on terror’, with U.S. military personnel currently operating illegally on Philippine soil.  Despite the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in 1990 and the signing of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act in 1997, the island’s aboriginal residents continue to lose their ancestral land and their living to corporate and political land grabs.

The Mindanao training is to take place in a Manobo re-location site on fiery Mount Apo.  The journey takes us from General Santos through the lands of the T’boli people and through the fields, villages and towns of Kidapawan, which bore the brunt of last year’s bombardments and displacements.  We make our way up the mountain side on steep and winding roads provided for the workers and managers of the Philippine National Oil Company.  The PNOC has expropriated the traditional lands of the Manobo, lands that burst and heave with lava-heated springs, now providing geothermal electricity.  Deprived of their traditional forms of income-generation, they are hard-pressed to afford the hardware that will turn the free electricity and free water they got in the exchange with PNOC into useable commodities.

The training begins to look like an accident waiting to happen.  It was to begin at 1:00 in the afternoon, but participants do not begin to arrive in any substantial numbers until after 5:00.  As we have made our way through the countryside, the numbers of participants have swollen as the curious and the peace-seekers hear of the plan and join our little caravan.  The location for the training is a tiny wall-less church.  Ceiling light fixtures hold no bulbs and wiring hangs impotently between the rafters.  Dark is falling rapidly.  Training tools and games that require a seat per person need to be adapted to a crowded circle on half a dozen benches.  Mandated and encouraged by their sultan to come, the Muslims collect in one corner.  They are greatly out-numbered by the Christian settlers.  T’bolis and Manobos, Cebuanos, Ilocanos and Ilonggos are being asked by the foreigner to communicate in English, their third or fifth or seventh language.  The rain begins to batter on the tin roof above, elevating conversation, introductions and training instructions to shouting.  With a flashlight, I read from the Peace Primer, welcoming the Bangsamoro, the tribals, the Christians, in Arabic and English, with biblical, qur’anic and traditional words of peace.

Somehow in the days that follow, something good by grace emerges.  In the course of a provocative role play with an orange, ludically played to the hilt by my DM colleague, Betz, a role play about possession and ownership, needs and wants, suffering and desire, compromise and commitment, some of the people assembled see played out the seizure and exploitation of their lands by others.  They talk about conflict and violence; about justice, peace, mercy; about development and a living-together that is sustainable.  As we finish our time together, some are asked to form a line.  They are short and tall, young and old, brown and pale, male and female, Bangsamoro, Christian Ilocano, T’boli, Manobo.  I move down the line, touching their shoulders one by one by one, right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder, left shoulder:  ‘Shoulder to shoulder to shoulder to shoulder,’ I say.  The murmurs begin; they say it before I do.  Balikatan.  Balikatan!  The emotion in the room is high as we reclaim their own word, one that has been expropriated by their government to name the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ U.S.-Philippine military exercises under the Mutual Defence Treaty.  No.  This.  This is Balikatan.

In Davoa City, before leaving for Iloilo City, we four women, mothers, sisters, colleagues, friends, unpack and reflect on what has happened.   In the midst of a table laden with savoury dishes of food, sits the woman carving that has accompanied us as icon on this journey, that has served as metaphor for all we have done and hoped for.  She is bent over, on her knees, praying, weeping – and expectant.  With her, we have prayed, knelt, wept, grieved losses, violences, squandered moments and ceded power.  With her, violators and violated, wounders and wounded have together dared to dream that something new gestated within, that hope and new life and peace and a new day was within, just waiting to be born.  Though birth does not come without pain and struggle and stretching beyond what we thought possible, birth does come.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention