'Women are at the Forefront of the Fight against Extremism'

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini with Chancellor Jacquie Moloney
2016 Greeley Peace Scholar Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini listens at a luncheon with Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney.

By Katharine Webster

For more than 20 years, Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini has been trying to get the international community to listen to the voices of women and other peacemakers in conflict-riven countries.

“Women have been at the forefront of the fight against extremism for decades,” the 2016 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies said.

That’s because extremists and repressive regimes trying to seize or maintain power often target women from the start – and because women emerge as leaders of civil society when men are forced to take up arms, Naraghi-Anderlini said. Extremists try to co-opt women to spread their message because women are influential in their families and communities. They try to erase a community’s ethnic identity through rape. And they attack or kill women who speak out against them.

Assaults on women serve as an early warning that civil society is under attack, whether by government repression or ethnic or religious extremists, Naraghi-Anderlini said. Yet when women protest, the international community is inclined to dismiss their concerns by saying, “That’s their culture.”

“When it’s violence against women, the tendency is to say, ‘That’s not a big international security issue.’ And yet it’s those exact same forces that have become, 10 years later, what we now call extremism and terrorism,” she said.

Naraghi-Anderlini, co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), is spending three weeks meeting with students, faculty, religious and community leaders as the seventh Greeley Peace Scholar at UMass Lowell. She was the keynote speaker at the annual Day Without Violence, where she told students from the university and Greater Lowell Technical High School that “We have a lot to apologize for, for the kind of world we’re leaving you.”

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini speaks at the Day Without Violence
Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini addresses students, faculty and staff at the annual Day Without Violence.

Born in Iran, Naraghi-Anderlini was 11 years old when she left the country on a 10-day vacation with a suitcase full of homework. Her school had closed because of massive protests that quickly culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the U.S.-backed ruler, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. Her family remained in England for seven years, unable to return to Iran or reunite with her father, who’d stayed behind. That experience inspired her activism.

“I was driven by questions like, ‘How do you stop a war? Is peace possible?’” she said.

In 2000, Naraghi-Anderlini helped draft and secure passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 after visiting conflict zones and asking women leaders what they wanted. Resolution 1325 calls on governments to protect women and girls from gender-based violence during armed conflicts and stresses the importance of including women in all efforts to prevent conflict, negotiate peace and rebuild societies after war.

“The vast majority of people go on living their lives peacefully in the midst of war, even in refugee camps, even when they’re internally displaced. What I’m interested in is thinking about how we give those people a voice, because they are living peacefully and practicing peace in the worst conditions, and yet often they don’t have a say in how the future is shaped,” she said.

That’s because historically, the international community has viewed peacemaking as getting military and political leaders to negotiate a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement, she said. That might have worked in the past, but not in today’s more widespread societal conflicts, like those in Sudan, Syria and Burundi.

More than half of such traditional deals fall apart within five years, while research shows that when women peacemakers and other civilians are included in peace negotiations, a deal is much more likely to last, she said. Yet the United Nations still puts far more money toward ending armed conflict than toward efforts to prevent it.

“The U.N. gives $40 million to curtail conflicts, compared to $7 billion to clean them up,” she said. “We’re putting vast resources into a minority of fighters instead of into the people doing positive work.”

Students and faculty had plenty of questions for her. One came from Jonathan Ross, a senior political science and history major who is vice president of the (https://umasslowellclubs.collegiatelink.net/organization/international-relations-club) International Relations Club, as well as a veteran who served two tours in Iraq as a military police officer. He said he found himself standing on a street corner in Baghdad one day wondering, “What are we doing here?”

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini with members of the International Relations Club
Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini talks with student and veteran Jonathan Ross, right, and other members of the International Relations Club.

“What do you think about the cultural divide, the push for democracy in places where that’s a big cultural clash?” he asked Naraghi-Anderlini.

She warned against letting cultural differences in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan divert attention from big issues – like who’s at the peace table. She also cautioned against equating democracy with elections, which can simply be another way for warring groups to consolidate their power: “Elections become just another way for tribes to fight with each other.”

For real democracy, a country needs a critical mass of people who have a democratic mindset and can talk to each other across political differences. But the U.S. and the international community aren’t engaging with those people in Iraq and elsewhere because it’s more complicated, she said. She urged people to tell their elected officials to spend less money on the military and more on education and social infrastructure, both here and abroad – and not to be cowed by lobbyists and politicians who claim such issues are too complex for ordinary citizens.

“They’re not,” she said.