New Age Islam News Bureau
8 Dec 2018
Muslim Congresswoman-Elect, Rashida Harbi Tlaib
• Malala Yousafzai Receives Harvard Award for Girls Education Activism
• Egypt's Silent Epidemic of Kidnapped Christian Girls
• Women to Have 50% Representation in UAE Federal National Council
• Pakistan: ‘School Curriculum Should Include Chapter on Child Abuse Prevention’
• I Don’t Just Stand For Women, But For Human Rights Above All: Souad Massi
• 'Afghan Women's Engagement in Decision-Making Processes Remains Symbolic'
• Women’s Network Builds Bridges amid Nigeria’s Violence, Muslim and Christian Mistrust
Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau
Muslim Congresswoman-Elect, Rashida Tlaib, Says Trump Is 'Racist'
By Umar Farooq
U.S. President Donald Trump is racist, according to congresswoman-elect Rashida Tlaib.
"Look, I truly believe he is racist, and that's probably controversial, he is," Tlaib told The Hill online news outlet in an interview Thursday.
"It's in his policies, it's in his words, and the fact of the matter is that he's still our president," she said. "But it doesn't matter, I'm going to hold him accountable.”
Tlaib, along with Minnesota's Ilhan Omar, will be sworn in next month as the first two Muslim-Americans females in Congress. Tlaib will also become the first female Palestinian-American in Congress.
Trump has been criticized for using racially charged rhetoric during his tenure in office.
A prominent congresswoman, Sheila Jackson-Lee, used Twitter to highlight Trump’s "dogwhistle racism" after he demeaned three black reporters.
Trump has also attacked NFL players, and went after NBA star Lebron James on Twitter, insulting his intelligence.
Tlaib said she does not know what is going on in Trump's head, and many people in Washington are confused about his comments on Twitter.
"There’s so much, even when I watch national media outlets, it’s baffling because we’re all guessing like what is in his mind, what do you think that tweet was about," Tlaib said.
Fifty-five percent of American voters believe race relations have soured under Trump, according to a survey in August.
Malala Yousafzai Receives Harvard Award for Girls Education Activism
December 8, 2018
WASHINGTON: Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai has been honoured by Harvard University for her global work promoting girls education.
Pakistani education activist and the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate received the 2018 Gleitsman Award on Thursday from the Centre for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School for her global movement to equip girls with 12 years of free, quality and safe education.
The 21-year-old was presented the award at a public ceremony held in Harvard Kennedy School.
Malala became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 when she was recognised for her global work supporting schooling for all children.
Malala made a brief speech followed by a discussion with the audience, moderated by Samantha Power former US ambassador to the United Nations, saying :"Right now, there are 130 million girls who do not have access to a quality education."
"We should all make it our challenge to challenge those critical views, all those religious beliefs, and all those cultures that deny us an education," Malala added.
She urged politicians to be more 'welcoming' and sympathetic to the plight of refugees, adding that the threat of climate change should remind people of the shared humanity of refugees and other at-risk groups.
"We need to look at it from the human eye and be more welcoming and consider themselves as our brothers and sisters," she added.
"And lets understand that we are living on this one Planet Earth, which is already in danger, which is already at a great risk because of climate change."
New York Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked malala what role men play in the 'liberation' of women.
"A very large amount of successful women, whether they are female CEOs of Fortune 500s, or female heads of state, one of the most common things that they talk about is that they all report a strong relationship with their fathers," noted Ocasio-Cortez.
Malala cited her own father''s evolution growing up in an environment in which women had almost no rights to becoming a wholehearted supporter of his daughter's work.
"He knew that it was unfair," she said.
"He knew that he had to change, so he challenged himself first and said, "I am not going to treat my daughter this way. I am going to send her to school. I am going to let her speak out."
Empowering women is not just giving something to women, but it also contributes to our economy, to everyone else, Malala said.
The Gleitzman Award, whose previous recipients include South African President Nelson Mandela and US Representative John R. Lewis, is presented biennially to an individual who has sparked positive social change and inspired others to do the same, according to the Kennedy School's website.
Malala, in an interview prior to the event, called it a great honour to be back at Harvard, five years after first visiting the University to receive the Harvard Foundation's Peter Gomes Humanitarian Award.
She urged students to devote more time and effort toward promoting girls' education.
Egypt's Silent Epidemic of Kidnapped Christian Girls
Egypt's Christian community faces dangers that most other Egyptians needn't fear. Threats of violence during church services, attacks on buses filled with innocent pilgrims and their children, and assaults on successful Christian businesses happen all too frequently.
But only occasionally do they appear in the Western media.
Meanwhile, mass kidnappings, such as the Boko Haram abductions in Nigeria, are widely reported. Even accounts of young Pakistani Christian girls' abductions have been published from time to time.
However, an ongoing nightmare in Egypt has gone virtually unnoticed for years. Victims fall silent. Authorities turn a blind eye and religiously-motivated kidnappings are extremely difficult to document.
But the truth is that Christian women in Egypt face an epidemic of kidnapping, rape, beatings and torture. Innumerable girls and women vanish forever, and even if they are somehow rescued, their stories are thought to be so shameful that they're hidden as dark family secrets. Meanwhile, doctors quietly repair internal damage and "restore virginity" to abused teenagers and twenty-somethings. Priests try to protect family reputations when the girls return.
Meanwhile, the devastated survivors will never be the same.
The attacks vary -- some happen randomly, when a vulnerable female is spotted walking alone on a sidewalk. Other are plotted by Islamist consortiums, who pay kidnappers as much $3,000 per girl. The assailants rape the victims, hold them in captivity, then demand that the terrified young women to convert to Islam -- often violently abusing them until they surrender.
These crimes are particularly common in villages outside Egypt's major cities, where radicalized thugs act with impunity, sometimes forming raging mobs and leaving behind a trail of blood, ashes and broken people.
World Watch Monitor, an international Christian publication, interviewed a man who had been once an abductor himself. He explained, "A group of kidnappers meets in a mosque to discuss potential victims. They keep a close eye on Christians' houses and monitor everything that's going on. On that basis, they weave a spider's web around [the girls]."
Once a victim is delivered to a radical Islamist organization, he explained, her price tag, payable to the kidnappers, is big money in a cash-strapped country like Egypt. The kidnappers are happy with their share of the loot. However, their radical Islamist handlers have a "higher" aim: to strengthen Islam and weaken Christianity.
The tactics vary. Some of the girls are flattered and romanced by their captors. A starry-eyed young woman falls in love and is delighted when her mysterious lover, who promises to convert to Christianity -- if she'll run away with him. All too often when she does, she is never heard from again.
Other young women are abducted off the street.
One Egyptian teenager -- we'll call her "Samia" -- grew up in a Coptic home. Her mother was devout; her father was violent when drunk.
Samia decided to run away, determined to leave her small village in Minya and find a new life in Alexandria. She reached her destination, but as she made her way along an unfamiliar city street, a car pulled over, two young men grasped her and dragged her into the back seat. A brutal foursome later took turns raping her while mocking the small cross tattooed on her wrist.
Samia courageously escaped and made her way home. By then, she had been badly beaten. The cross on her wrist had been burned off with acid -- and she was pregnant.
Her mother and sister managed to settle her in a convent; she returned home months later, after the nuns delivered the child, whom she never saw and her father never learned what had befallen her.
Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt in a landslide vote in May 2014. His victory was welcomed by many Egyptians, and after his acceptance speech, Sisi was endorsed by several religious and political leaders, including Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II.
I later asked Bishop Serapion, the Coptic bishop of Los Angeles, about the plight of Copts and other Christians in Egypt following Sisi's election. Were Copts faring better now, under Sisi's presidency?
Choosing his words carefully, he told me that there has been genuine progress at the top levels of government, but local authorities are still inclined to turn a blind eye to anti-Coptic persecution.
And so it goes. Especially defenseless are the women who are assaulted and taken captive, often in the name of Islam. Local authorities are the last to renounce their small-town power and prestige. And minorities -- Copts and other Christian communities -- continue to suffer.
Girls and women are abducted and abused. Businessmen are arrested while attempting to collect money owed by Muslims. Instead of fair payment, they are instead accused of having sexual relations with Muslim women or of other scandalous behavior and are jailed -- sometimes for years.
My friend and colleague Charmaine Hedding, founder of Shai Fund -- a small international humanitarian organization -- is presently in Egypt interviewing Christian women who have survived abduction and sexual abuse.
"We do what we can," she told me. "We're providing small donations and encouragement. But we also really want to make sure these vicious sexual abuses are made known in the West, where today's women are especially sensitized to such devastating experiences.
"Perhaps once Western women begin to understand what's really happening in Egypt, we'll see more help and concern for the traumatized victims of both religious and sexual abuse."
Women to Have 50% Representation in UAE Federal National Council
December 08, 2018
Under the directives of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the representation of Emirati women in the Federal National Council will be raised to 50% from the next session.
This move will consolidate the future orientations of the UAE and achieve full empowerment of Emirati women, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai has tweeted.
Pakistan: ‘School Curriculum Should Include Chapter on Child Abuse Prevention’
December 08, 2018
KARACHI: Sharing concerns over increasing incidents of child abuse, mental health professionals from across the country passed a resolution calling upon the government to introduce a life skills curriculum in schools, focusing on health, hygiene and emotional education to equip children better to resist and report abuse.
At a recent meeting held in Karachi, they also urged the government to effectively enforce the clauses on child pornography, child abuse and child seduction of Child Protection and Welfare Act.
The resolution was endorsed by Prof Emeritus S. Haroon Ahmed, head of the Pakistan Association of Mental Health (PAMH); Dr Asma Humayun, a consultant psychiatrist in Lahore; Dr Ambreen Ahmad of Rozan, an NGO working for child protection; Prof M. Iqbal Afridi, head of the psychiatry department of Jinnah Postgraduate and Medical Centre; Dr Uzma Ambareen, vice president of PAMH-Karachi; Dr Naim Siddiqui; Muniza Yaseen of Aahang, a Karachi-based NGO working on sexual and reproductive health and rights; Dr Ayesha Minhas; Dr Rubina Kidwai (member of SMHA); Prof Raza ur Rehman, former head of Civil Hospital Karachi’s psychiatry department and Dr Khalid Mufti of Horizon Welfare.
“Since 50 per cent of such acts (physical and sexual abuse, kidnapping, rape, murder etc.) are committed by trusted relatives, family friends and domestic staff, it becomes difficult to propose protective mechanisms. Having said that, it is extremely important that children are helped to become more aware and be actively educated about ways to protect themselves,” a statement released by the PAMH says.
It also calls for legislative and societal reforms along with sensitizing parents and teachers so they could effectively communicate with children in ways that encourage trust and openness and respond appropriately, if a child were to share an experience of being abused.
Referring to the Supreme Court’s suo motu notice of Zainab, a seven-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered early this year in Kasur, it also says that the tragedy still haunted health professionals.
The association highlights some stats on childhood abuse in Pakistan which is ranked 149th out of 174 countries by “End of Childhood Index”, it says.
“It is estimated that 12 children are abused every day and this is a fraction of unreported cases. Sahil, an NGO, reports 2, 332 child abuse cases in the first six months of this year in the country,” the statement says.
Life skills curriculum
The experts believed that children should be provided information about abuse, including sexual abuse, from an early age, keeping in view cultural and social sensitivities and religious values.
“Before making any change, the relevant syllabus must be widely circulated for consultation and consensus with different sections of society that must include current educational establishments in Pakistan, both private and public schools,” it says.
Suggesting how to create awareness on the subject, experts suggest that parents, teachers and young people should be educated about the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness and its efficient and appropriate management.
“Parents and teachers should be assisted to help children and adolescents for building life skills so that they can cope with everyday challenges of life in a constructive manner.
“Psychosocial support should also be provided in schools and community settings through training of mental health workers to enable them to detect and manage mental health disorders. Health activities should be promoted in schools,” they say.
Experts also suggested conducting awareness campaigns about healthy lifestyle in the media which, they said, should cover vulnerabilities, risk factors and identification of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect.
“The process to register such complaints at police stations should be simplified, ensuring confidentiality of the victim and his or her family members. The police should be trained on how to conduct interviews with victims and their families, in a sensitive way. The service for counseling, legal aid and children protection should be provided by the government.
“All provinces should have fully functional forensic laboratories with unified and standard protocols for different tests, including the DNA test. The culture of blaming the victim must be discouraged at all levels, including those of family, media and legal community,” they say.
They also underline media’s role and say that they should develop their own code of conduct for responsible and ethical reporting while commenting on those sensitive issues.
All TV channels should allocate time for public service messages on health promotion.
“It should be noted that the Australian prime minister offered national apology to child sexual abuse victims and their parents on the front lawn of the parliament last week. We in Pakistan, however, have failed our children.
“We expect our prime minister to feel and take notice of barbarous acts so prevalent in our midst and fulfill his promise to the children of Pakistan,” the statement concluded.
I Don’t Just Stand For Women, But For Human Rights Above All: Souad Massi
December 08, 2018
Shining in an elegant black dress, Souad Massi, one of the most successful female singer-songwriter, guitarist in the Arabic-speaking world, performed on Wednesday an orchestral selection of her best songs, conceptualised and organised by SAWT Music at the Marquee theatre at Cairo Festival City, betwixt an outstanding reception from her Egyptians fans.
The selection included a number of her songs such as ‘Mesk Elil,’ ‘Raoui’, and ‘Ya Kelbi,’ as well as three others from her new album.
Massi, who was forced to leave her homeland, Algeria, after receiving several anonymous death threats as the civil war broke out, said that she believes that singing, writing, and composing music, are acts of resistance and rebellion against what she faced in her early life and her society’s disapproval of her choice to become an artist.
“It (the resistance) is never-ending,” Massi told Daily News Egypt. “I am trying to resist through my lyrics and music. It began at home with my family and in my country, when I was trying to convince them of my desire to become an artist. Despite their rejection at the first, eventually they supported me.” Massi stated.
Massi was born in 1972, in the poor neighbourhood of Bab el Oued in Algeria. Her family comes from Kabylia, the home of the Berber people.
She studied music, and used to play the guitar during her childhood years. At an early age, Massi joined the Kabyle political rock band, Atakor, before heading to France.
In the thick of all difficulties she struggled with, in 1999 she found a chance to leave all the restriction over her career when she was invited to participate in the Femmes d’Algérie concert at the Cabaret Sauvage in France, her second home until now.
As a woman, Massi tolerated much to accomplish her dream. “Women in the Arab world face difficulties in choosing a profession such as being an artist, doctor, or an engineer,” Massi said.
She pointed out that Arab people or families are afraid of women becoming artists. “it’s difficult,” she noted, but Massi eventually succeeded in turning her dream into a reality.
Massi launched five albums, including Raoui, Deb, O Houria and Mesk Elil. She received considerable popularity not just in the Arab world, but also in Europe, due to her music and choice of remarkable lyrics.
Her praise among Egyptian fans was increased by her appearance in the movie The Eyes of a Theft (2014), in which she joined Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga and Jordanian-Palestinian director Najwa Najjar.
“I was very afraid at first,” Massi admitted, “I hesitated a lot before accepting the role, as I was afraid of the acting experience and standing before cameras.”
However, Massi said that she enjoyed her experience, and described it as a great one. “It was filmed in Nablus. It was the only way I could support the Palestinian cause.”
Massi, who tackled in her songs subjects such as freedom, struggles, and resistance, said that she does not just “stand for women, but for human rights above all.”
“I am trying to considerately discuss with people those rights and issues (in society) in my songs, and to convince them (to change) not by force.”
Massi sings in Algerian, French, English and classical Arabic. She said that she carefully chooses her lyrics, especially the poems she performs. In her 2015 album El Mutakallimun, The Masters of Words, she revived the phrases of a number of prominent Arab poets, including Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar, who spent most of his life in exile due to his critical poems of Arab leaders.
“We go through many things. We read a lot, so we get influenced by writers and poets, which helps me in writing lyrics,” Massi elaborated.
She added that she studied music in Algeria. “Additionally, I was lucky to have lived in France, and to have been surrounded by global artists who affected my character.”
During a two-hour live concert, Massi chose to perform her new Egyptian dialect song, named Salam, ‘goodbye’. “It was written by Nader Abdallah, and composed by Khaled Ezz,” Massi mentioned.
Additionally, she prepared extra new songs, including two poems, one for Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called I love you, and another for Baha’ Al-din Zuhair called My Lord.
The two songs, in addition to Salam, will be included in her new collection and album.
Massi said that there will be no new forthcoming cinema experience soon, yet she revealed that her sixth album will be launched in August next year.
'Afghan Women's Engagement in Decision-Making Processes Remains Symbolic'
7 December 2018
Samira Hamidi is an Afghan women’s rights activist focusing on women, peace and security as well as human rights and civil society. She has been the former director for Afghan Women’s Network.
In an interview to Tehran Times, Hamidi spoke about the Geneva conference on Afghanistan, peace negotiations with the Taliban, and why it's important to meaningfully engage women in key decision-making processes, including peace talks.
Following are the excerpts:
Last week's conference on Afghanistan in Geneva sought to measure progress made by the Afghan government in using billions of dollars in foreign aid since the last donors conference in 2016. How do you see the 'progress' in terms of reconstruction efforts and fight against corruption?
Since Brussels conference 2016, the government's efforts in addressing the reconstruction gaps and fighting corruption were highlighted as big achievements in the Geneva conference.
While there have been a number of development initiatives, there is little information available on how the menace of corruption is being combated.
The government has in the last year highlighted that some officials involved in corruption were caught up and prosecuted, however there is no proper monitoring and reporting to find out what happens to those arrested and how they are prosecuted. In most cases senior government officials, parliamentarians and senators intervene and support those who are found guilty.
Economically, the situation has worsened for normal citizens in the country. The exchange rate was 1 US$ to 47 Afghanis in 2016, and now it is 1 US$ to 75. With the jump in exchange, the prices have skyrocketed where the ordinary citizens are deprived of basic needs.
In a joint communiqué, the conference participants agreed that peace in Afghanistan must be based on a broad political consensus across the society. What is your take on this? And how can women be included in this process?
The peace process in 2010 started after 1600 Afghans from 34 provinces gathered at national peace consultative jirga and agreed on an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
The political consensus for the peace process is a very sensitive issue. While the Afghan government claims that it has consulted Afghans from a cross-section of society, the consultation has actually been limited to those groups that the presidential palace wanted.
In terms of women’s participation, while 370 women participated in national peace consultative jirga, women were included as members of high peace council (HPC) and provincial peace councils. There has been a huge gap in terms of their meaningful inclusion in discussions and decisions related to peace process, finding solutions and addressing the community’s needs.
Women are usually consulted by President for the women’s rights agenda. Women are not yet considered and respected as equal partners in key decision-making processes.
In order to include women, it is important to address it at different levels. In Geneva conference, three women were included with 9 men, as 12-member negotiation team for the talks. While this marked a big achievement for women advocacy, it is also important to push President and other actors to meaningfully engage women not only on women’s rights issues but on peace process, conflict resolution, conflict analysis and post-peace negotiation effort.
Recently, we have seen 'peace negotiations' with the Taliban facilitated by Moscow and Washington even as the insurgent group has upped the ante, carrying out attacks on civilians across the country. Do you think dialogue and violence can go together?
Afghanistan has entered a totally new phase of the peace process where the Taliban has showed willingness to speak to the United States and the government has come up with a roadmap to peace document and formed a negotiation team.
The current peace process in Afghanistan is at the pre-negotiation stage. At this stage despite the fact that both Afghan government and Taliban have shown interest in entering peace talks, the pre-conditions from both sides are dangerous and the reason for ongoing conflict.
Taliban by continuing their attacks, specifically on civilians, are trying to use their leverage of violence to force Afghan government to accept their pre-conditions.
Any pre-peace negotiation effort, either facilitated by a third party (here US) or held directly must conditionalize the ceasefire. Any effort without ceasefire will be in vain as the call of victims of conflict will be ignored and ordinary people will continue to pay the high price of their lives.
The war in Afghanistan has now stretched into its 18th year with no end in sight. Why has the US led coalition that invaded Afghanistan in 2001 failed in its mission to bring peace to the war-ravaged country?
There are many narratives regarding the failure of the US led coalition post 2001. Some of the major reasons would be, blocking the space for Taliban to participate in 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan, considering Taliban as an irrelevant insurgent group between 2001 and 2007 and not addressing the root causes of conflict at the national level.
At the international level, the US and other international actors shifted their priority very quickly from Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen and other conflicts. This enabled the Taliban to grow back from strength to strength, find internal influence, use opium for financial support and amass support among neighboring countries.
The US and other international actors also failed to support Afghan National Security Forces technically and equip them with the needed ammunition and equipment. After the 2014 withdrawal of international forces, which was a very irresponsible decision timed and choreographed wrongly, the Taliban used all their leverage to up the ante, using the weakness of the security forces.
Some of the attacks in last few years like the attack in Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Military Hospital, the army base in Balkh and Khost, the attack at Intercontinental Hotel or Serena Hotel, have shown that the Taliban are fully aware of the weak intelligence system, have influence and support from within the system.
All these attacks were never investigated. Despite huge number of human losses in each of these attacks, no one was held accountable or prosecuted.
Preparations are afoot for the presidential election next year, but the fear of fraud and violence looms large as was witnessed in 2014 elections and more recently in parliamentary elections. What needs to be done to address concerns regarding fraud and violence?
The independence of the Afghanistan Election Commission is one of the biggest challenges ahead of presidential election.
A couple of months back, an election commissioner resigned and spoke of the reason for his resignation, citing lack of independence and interference of President in the commission’s work. Since President Ghani is planning to run for the second time, he can definitely use the commission in his favor if drastic reforms are not immediately introduced in the commission.
Secondly, in the 2018 parliamentary election, the election commission failed to address the technical challenges in Kabul, which is the capital and where accessibility is not a major issue.
If the international community does not put pressure on the election commission for institutional changes, there can be massive fraud and irregularities in the presidential election next year.
The election commission members who fail to address these challenges should be immediately replaced with those with extensive knowledge in election matters and strong background on transparency and accountability.
What has been your personal experience as a women's rights activist in Afghanistan. Do you think women in Afghanistan have reclaimed their space in political and social sphere over the years?
Women in Afghanistan have reclaimed their space in a fair manner. It is good to witness presence of women in union cabinet, parliament, senate as well as different ministries, independent commissions and embassies.
It is also good to see a women representative in a body like High Peace Council. However, there is difference between representation and meaningful engagement.
While women have physical presence, their engagement at the national level, technical oversight as well as equal inclusion in national programs, discussion and decisions has remained symbolic.
Women recruitments have been mostly made based on favoritism and influence in the presidential palace, rather than merit, qualifications, experience and competence.
The recent appointment of three women in the peace negotiation team is encouraging, however, all the three women are holding key government positions — as an acting minister, a deputy minister and a member of parliament.
I wonder how they will be able to deliver in both the jobs. While it is same for men, but they can get away with their failings, unlike women. Those women who join the government mostly become silent. They stop advocacy efforts that the women outside the government are engaged in. This is another major reason where women are politically engaged but unfortunately also paralyzed to question the government in relation to its weaknesses and shortcomings.
Women have relatively found their social space. Presence of women in media, women’s movement, women NGOs as well as doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, government employees is encouraging. But Afghanistan is a diverse country where the living situation, the cultural and traditional practices vary from province to province.
While women's social presence is very strong in cities like Kabul, Balkh and Herat, it is also important to highlight that women are hardly found in public sphere in provinces like Khost, Kandahar and Kunar.
While Afghan government has legislations and polices in place, and is accountable to international treaties, there is a complete lack of political will at the provincial and district level. Women are not considered equal members of the society, they are not considered important to be consulted and they are not given any decision-making role.
Increasing insecurity, lack of implementation of law on ending violence against women, and continuous discrimination and harassment against women at work places and in society are also some of the problems that women in this country are facing.
Where do you see Afghanistan 10 years down the line?
With an accountable government that has a vision of peace, justice and inclusion, ensuring all citizens are safe and enjoying their most fundamental rights.
Women’s Network Builds Bridges amid Nigeria’s Violence, Muslim and Christian Mistrust
December 7, 2018
ABUJA, Nigeria (RNS) — When Fatima Isiaka, a religious Muslim teacher, asked the cab driver to drop her off at St. Kizito Catholic Church in Abuja, the driver thought she was lost.
“The cab man that took me to the church, a Muslim, was surprised to see me enter a church,” Isiaka said, recalling the summer 2014 meeting. “He told me, ‘This is a church!’ I said, “Yes, I know.’”
Isiaka was part of an innovative effort to bring Christian and Muslim women together in hopes of fostering religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network was started in 2011 by Sister Agatha Ogochukwu Chikelue, of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy congregation, and local Muslim businesswoman Maryam Dada Ibrahim.
Isiaka, an observant Muslim who wears a gray jilbab, a long head covering and robe, the traditional dress of some Nigerian Muslim women, is a respected Muslim leader in Abuja. Today, she serves as deputy director in the network’s Abuja branch.
She looks back fondly on her time at the St. Kizito Catholic Church.
“It was an amazing experience and I loved every bit of my stay there,” said Isiaka. “In fact, I found a place in the church where I performed ablution [ritual washing before Muslims’ prayer], to set up my mat and pray.”
Since the group began, the Women of Faith Peacebuilding Network’s activities have reached more than 10,000 Muslim and Christian women across the country through seminars, meditations, presentations by religious leaders and dialogue.
The peacebuilding network also offers vocational training in catering, bead making, fashion design and soap production to a smaller group of women who participate in the annual 21-day seminar.
“The empowerment [training] serves as bait to lure more women to the network so that they’ll learn peaceful coexistence,” said Isiaka. The Swiss Embassy provided seed money to get the vocational training started in 2014. Cardinal John Onaiyekan’s Foundation for Peace (COFP), an organization working for peace in northern Nigeria, has sponsored the vocational training in subsequent years.
Chikelue started thinking about how to build bridges between Christians and Muslims in 2008, as northern Nigeria disintegrated into violence. Nigeria’s population is evenly divided — about half of Nigerians are Muslim and about half are Christian. Northern Nigeria is majority Muslim, while southern Nigeria is majority Christian. Ensuring equal Christian and Muslim political representation at local, state and national levels is an especially sensitive subject.
Since 2009, Boko Haram, a group of extremist Muslims whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” has terrorized northeast Nigeria. The terror group murdered Christians and burned churches, hoping to clear the area of Christian influences and create an Islamic caliphate to rule under Sharia law.
The group has carried out attacks in other parts of Nigeria and targeted moderate Muslims as well. In 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 270 female students in Chibok, Nigeria, prompting the international social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
Chikelue knew that religious leaders would need to step up.
“We don’t want to use our religion as a barrier — rather, we want to use it as a stepping stone toward achieving common good,” she said. “The essence of an interfaith group is to break barriers, break the walls and build bridges.”
In Nigeria, some religious clerics forbid their members from even visiting a house of worship from the other religion. But Chikelue dismissed those notions, using the respect afforded to her as a Catholic sister to visit mosques and set up meetings with more moderate Islamic clerics to propose an interfaith network.
But Chikelue knew she couldn’t do it alone.
A parishioner recommended Chikelue contact Ibrahim, a respected leader in the Muslim community. Chikelue visited Ibrahim’s office, and within a few months, the two started planning the first meeting between Christian and Muslim women in Abuja. As the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, a growing city with a population of 2.5 million, is more diverse and integrated than other parts of the country. The city is about 40 percent Christian, and the Christian population is growing quickly.
Chikelue and Ibrahim recruited Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, and Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, the sultan of Sokoto and president-general of the National Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to act as patrons of the organization.
It took time, patience and weekly meetings after Sunday Mass to convince the first group of Christian women to sit down with Muslim women.
“That first meeting in 2011 was one of the best meetings we’ve had,” said Chikelue. “The Christian women changed their perceptions about Muslims even after just one dialogue together. Everybody went home happy.”
The women’s meetings include presentations by clerics and priests, explaining basic tenets of each religion or challenging the view of religious extremists who say Muslims and Christians should not interact with each other. Sometimes they discuss parts of their religions that overlap — for example, when Abraham plans to sacrifice Isaac, and how both religions interpret the story.
Participants also visit each other for holidays. In 2017, a group of Christian women prepared the evening meal at the mosque to break the fast during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Muslim women have joined for special church programs, especially the annual end-of-the-year interfaith party organized by Onaiyekan.
The decision to create a women’s peace network was made after careful deliberation about which group would be most effective for fostering peace. Women have a unique way of addressing conflicts, Chikelue explained. “In the family, women manage the home and are closer to their children, making it easy for them to preach peace,” she said. It can also be empowering for women, who are often marginalized, to suddenly have a leadership role in creating a more tolerant community. “We also want women to be aware of their role in peacebuilding,” Chikelue added.
In 2014, with a special grant from the Swiss embassy, Chikelue began offering vocational training for the women as an added incentive. In a region where the female adult literacy rate is 41 percent, women welcome free empowerment training on sewing, soap making and catering. Basic communication skills, personal hygiene and training on financial literacy and how to start small businesses are also part of the free empowerment program. The training programs also help the women meet people from other religions, getting to know the “other” as well as combating poverty and gender-based violence.
“When there’s peace at home, we can achieve peace in the society. That is why we empower women in order to stop gender-based violence between women and their husbands,” Chikelue said.
The women who participate in the peacebuilding network are expected to pass on the information to the children in their communities by making presentations in their elementary and secondary schools about religious tolerance and talking about their experiences working with women from other religions.
“There is also violence that doesn’t carry a gun,” explained Chikelue. “There are situations whereby parents don’t allow their children to have interaction with children of a different religion, or when they instigate them to go for war against a different religion.”
While the group has worked hard to break down barriers and build friendships between Muslims and Christians, Isiaka knows there is still much work to do.
Still, she is hopeful.
“We have been able to understand each other better and have also passed the message of religious tolerance to our children,” she said.
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