A return to humanity and values that respect all human lives equally can only be achieved if men and women work together, the Women in the World conference in Delhi was told on Friday.
Speaking with Catch News Editor Shoma Chaudhury on a panel about women and women and terrorism, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili, co-founder of Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls campaign, issued an impassioned plea for unity between the sexes, arguing that cross-cultural dialogue – not bombs – will help counter growing violence.
Dr. Ezewesili, a former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa Division, said rising materialism in both the West and the developing world has exacerbated inequality, nurturing an environment where “indoctrination” of disgruntled youth can flourish.
“In other cases, young privileged people have found a romantic role in extremism … bombs can break networks, but with Boko Haram we took a different route and created a cross-cultural conversation,” she said.
“We brought together the Catholic Arch Bishop of Abuja with the Chief Imam and together they demanded a return of the girls. Those two voices both said it was wrong for young women to be abducted, children and women violated. They asked everyone to join them in saying that education is not an abomination … which is what Boko Haram believe.”
Dr. Ezewesili conceded that some people may have seen this as too little, too late, but argued that even if one child abandons the jihadi lane and moves toward a path of embracing humanity, we are all one step closer to the “world we want.”
Shoma Chaudhury recounted the story of one young woman who survived the Boko Haram kidnapping and insisted that the boys who wreaked the violence should be “educated not punished”. However, Dr. Ezekwesili was quick to state that too many communities have “looked away and allowed bad behavior for too long.”
“We must all find our voice and speak out against bad behavior,” she urged. “A friend of mine said indifference is the opposite of love, not hate. We can’t afford to live silently in our mansions. We cannot buy insurance against danger in today’s world.”
Zainab Salbi, founder and host of the Nida’a Show and Women in the World Editor-at-Large, recounted witnessing child cruelty when she was a young girl and her father was working as a pilot for Saddam Hussein. One of Saddam’s daughters, aged just eight, insisted on ordering her guards to throw Salbi’s little brother into the mud. Salbi described her torment as her distressed sibling sought help and fear prevented any adult from intervening.
This small, symbolic vignette, she said, was applicable to the bigger picture today, as many women – and men – have tried to stand up against repressive, cruel regimes in the Middle East but have suffered violence or been killed as a result.
“There is too much fear in the Arab world, where many women did rise up: we have crossed that line of fear, demonstrated and demanded freedom and many of these women have demonstrated inside their homes. These are the same women who have been attacked, kidnapped, tortured in a culture where women were not to be touched. One Libyan woman was assassinated in her own home for advocating the vote in a statement on Facebook. That was only a year ago.”
Salbi argued that many Muslims find it very difficult to politicize their religion, preferring to stand up and speak out on broader values rather than religious doctrine.
“We need to take the offense not the defense all the time. Women are leading that and we must do that more…we must stand up like I wanted to do for my brother.”
Lilianne Fan, International Director and Co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation,described a massacre that unfolded in Central Myanmar in 2013 when tens of Muslim children were attacked and killed by Buddhist children and adults. She said in Myanmar, Muslim citizens — who represent between 8-12 percent of the population – retain their national status but also face persecution.
Despite that, many women there are risking their lives working underground with displaced communities, attempting to build bridges and fresh dialogue between warring groups, she said. But it is taking “some very strong efforts” to prevent extremism.