Leading Change: From Within, As Women – Aliya Harir


NOTE: This blog is based on CRSS Research Fellow Aliya Harir’s recent participation in an international workshop on Women, Peace, and Security held between February 6 and 10, 2017, in Bangkok, Thailand. The participants – eighteen women and one man – came from Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Philippines, representing non-government organisations, academia, and United Nations agencies.


What is it like to facilitate change processes for peace and security as a woman leader?  How can women be more effective advocates, activists, and leaders to advance change as enshrined in the United Nations Agenda on Women, Peace and Security 1325? These questions were up for discussion when we all got together at Bangkok. One of the objectives was also to develop creative solutions and mentor women mediators, negotiators and peace-builders from societies facing conflict.

The main themes of the highly interactive workshop led by the Institute of Inclusive Security (IIS) included exploring gender perspectives in peace-building, innovative advocacy tools to enhance and target messaging strategy, and unpacking leadership skills through public narratives.

Over the course of the five days, the female participants deeply reflected on how their personal experiences have motivated them for activism in their communities. Ms Radha Puodel from Nepal, for instance, recalled how at the age of nine, she overheard a man telling her pregnant mother that if she does not bear a male the child she will go to hell.

“Who will carry out her funeral rites and put the first fire on her dead body?” Radha, the youngest among four sisters, would worry. In 2009, when her mother died, Radha led the funeral rites, breaking through the religious and social norms deeply rooted in a society based on patriarchy. From then on, she embarked on a campaign to inspire other women in the community against the existing structural (material as well as ideological) inequalities and the widespread subordination of women.

Another moving story came from Ms Habiba Sarabi from Afghanistan; she belongs to Afghanistan’s ethnic group Hazara community, who are also shia Muslims. Both attributes had turned them into automatic targets for the radical Sunni Taliban militants. Despite that, Ms Sarabi became the first female provincial governor and also served at the Ministry for Women during former President Hamid Karzai’s government. A highly inspiring story. Indeed.

Following her flight to Pakistan along with her family during the Taliban regime, Ms. Sarabi started secretly teaching girls and women at refugee camps. Working with women in difficult hours immensely motivated her to work for women’s empowerment. Upon her return to Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban in early 2002, she was elected as the Minister for Women’s Affairs and, later, as the Advisor on Women’s Affairs – an unusual elevation of a female in a primarily male-dominated society. Ms. Sarabi now is one of the female deputies of High Peace Council, a forum that pursues peace and reconciliation with anti-government militants.

Such inspiring case-studies by other participants only underscored that inclusion of women in peace and security decision making is highly important. The workshop also discussed the concept of ‘public narrative’ through a framework proposed by Marshall Ganz from the Harvard University. Particularly referring to former US president Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, the trainer asked the participants to develop stories that intertwined the heart (motivation), the head (strategy), and the hands (actions). As learners, the participants had to deduce three aspects of leadership that his speech reflects (i) Story of Self: who he/she is – his/her values, experiences, and why is he/she called to lead? (ii) Story of Us: who we are – our values, experiences, and why do we get to do together? and (iii) Story of now: communicating a sense of urgency and a sense of hope in taking a desired action.

The only male participant, Ashar Rizky, an Indonesian, won appreciation for his work for female ex-migrant workers, widows, and for the women married at an early age. His mission is to underscore that men and women are all equal.

During a group activity, I worked with two Afghan women to find out what challenges women faced in peace-building in the local contexts? We were able to identify some common hurdles;

  • Peace is built in an exclusive way; not inclusive of all members of community – women from minority groups are traditionally excluded.
  • Peace-building is sometimes confined to either of two directions: top-down or bottom-up
  • Missing political will for including women in peace processes
  • Sustaining the peace-building efforts become critical over time
  • Women are gender-stereotyped when they work for peace

The purpose of this exercise was to ensure these young women learn and understand transformational leadership, nurture and strengthen skills as transformational leaders. Once back home, they could then eventually try to deploy these skills in their community as well as motivate others into leadership roles. Reflecting on leadership in practice, a female participant from Pakistan seemed to occupy a unique space among all others. Mosarrat Qadeem, in her career spanning more than 15 years, was able to negotiate with local leaders based on her deep understanding of local culture and religious texts, connected directly with women at grassroots, inspired them to  speak out, , while also challenging international policy makers to improve their interventions in her country.

Towards the end, a consensus emerged that only those who are at the core of the conflict and live it every day can understand it better than any body else. In societies such as Pakistan or Afghanistan, these are mostly women and thus they need to be at the center of solutions as well. It is important for them to be on the front line as leaders. It was a rewarding experience to work with women, who are dedicated to the cause of peace and conflict-resolution in their respective societies. We left the workshop with the hope to be able to translate our leanings into action in our own societies.




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