The international conference “Empowering Women in Conflict: Ecumenical Engagement for Peace and Justice” held at the UCU and organized by the UNWLA Center for Women’s Studies at UCU, in cooperation with the European Society of Women in Theological Research came to an end. It was the 11th Central and Eastern European conference organized by the Ukrainian section of the society, while the first event took place in Prague 20 years ago.
The participants spent four days to share their personal testimonies, to discuss the role of women in important sociopolitical processes, to talk over the significance of religious and spiritual resources in times of conflict, and also to analyze religious and spiritual practices women use to respond to times of (post)conflicts.
The conference brought together some 70 participants and presenters from various European countries, such as Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Greece.
Speakers also included Ukrainian scholars who presented to the participants the experience of Ukrainian women during the two world wars, during the totalitarian period in Ukraine, and also in the current military conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Women Are the First Target during the War
Many cultures treat a woman as the matrix of social identity who needs to be defended and for whom revenge needs to be sought. Two lines can be traced in relation to women – glorification and subjection to men. Integrity and innocence are expected from women, but during the war women are associated with the country of the enemy. So during the war, they become the first target, according to Dr. Nadja Furlan Stante from Slovenia, professor of theology, research fellow at the Science and Research Center of the University of Primorska.
“When there is pressure on society, the first card to be put down is woman’s virtue. During the First World War in France, women who were raped by the occupying forces suffered stigmatization,” she recounts. “And those who spoke with American soldiers were beaten. Women’s typical roles as house-keepers and mothers play a negative role in the context of war. In this case, they become a particular treasure of a certain culture,” the speaker admitted.
During the military conflict among countries of the former Yugoslavia, countless rapes, as a strategy of war, were documented. For the majority of women of Bosnia and Herzegovina, religion was a way to heal wounds, a way to receive healing. However, not all representatives of religious communities were prepared to receive the “stained.” In Islam, the most that they did was to declare these women as “heroines” but there were very few people who accepted and embraced them.
Women’s Cultural Roles Changed
The churches responded to the challenge by substituting the widespread concept of a “just war” for the concept of “just peace,” noted Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary for Public Witness and Diakonia of the World Council of Churches, who talked about the role of women in building peace in South Sudan. In 2013, the Council of Churches made an ecumenical appeal to work for peace in this African nation.
South Sudanian women themselves responded to this initiative and, in the conditions of harsh war and danger to their own lives, they are working to reconcile the sides in the conflict. War changed the cultural roles of women who were not only forced to take weapons in their hands and defend themselves, but to be initiators of the reconciliation of society.
The National Women’s Programme of the South Sudan Council of Churches are respected of all warring sides and lay the foundation for sustainable peace. Women organize monthly national prayers for peacebuilding.
Women from opposing sides of the war and from different denominations are brought together on the prayers. This is crucial because the war that started in 2013 is perceived as dividing the churches on ethnic lines.
They found the project is named as Thursdays in Black, the motto of which is the world without rape and violence. On this day women dressed in black clothes for the sign of support of women, men, girls and boys who showed resilience in the circumstances of violence and rape. Often black has been used with negative racial connotations. In this campaign Black is used as a color of resistance and resilience.
Why Are Victims Silent?
The presenters from Croatia, Dr. Jadranka Rebeka Anic, vice-president of the Croatian Section of ESWTR, and Dr. Ana Marija Raffai, representative of the Croatian Section of ESWTR, spoke about war crimes against women during the civil war in countries of the former Yugoslavia that occurred on governmental, social, and also on individual levels. According to official statistics, from 1991 to 1995, some 20 to 30 thousand people were raped, as a rule, women aged 7 to 80 years old. The victims of rape were silent, and the government system did nothing to end this silence. After the first complaints, the first sentences were passed. Already in 1991, an international court was established to deal with the cases of the former Yugoslavia. However, during the revising of the law on the defense of the rights of victims of rape, the prosecutor’s office was not even able to state the number of those who suffered.
In February 1993, the first mentions of the rape of women during the war showed in the Croatian mass-media. That year, an international conference was held in solidarity with these women, but already in 1994 the media had nothing about it. Citizens did not show much interest in the victims of war. Even more so, on the personal level, the victims of violence in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the most part refugees from Catholic and Muslim families, expressed the biased attitude of their relatives who considered rape as a source of shame.
“There are three reasons why victims are silent – the pressure from their own family, disillusionment in their country, and the feeling of the absence of protection. Women feel their isolation. The theme was made known among the citizens thanks to the collection ‘Sunchitsa’ published in 2011. On the basis of stories from this collection, a documentary film was made about 16 witnesses of rape. In this way the victims worked through their experiences, some of them even with the rapists,” explained the experts.
Personal Narrative as a Key to Reconciliation
In order to overcome violence, it is worth creating alternative images of power, leadership, and order, according to Dr. Dzintra Ilisko, Center of Sustainable Education, Daugvpils University, Latvia. “Very often women are excluded from the format of high-level politics. We can inspire one another to become powerful players in the battle for justice. I value the efforts of Ukrainians to create various civic organizations. However, in general we as women are not well represented in efforts to build peace in the world. Many religious communities prioritize male leadership and exclude women from peace-making efforts and interreligious dialogue,” admitted the speaker.
In her opinion, it is necessary to overcome religious xenophobia, for religious circles need women who can preach to all humanity. “It’s necessary to focus on dialogue, but another important point is the exchange of personal stories from various contexts. By building support networks women create a new story. Personal narrative has great significance in working for reconciliation on the civic level,” emphasized Dr. Ilisko.
Women Can Also be a Voice for the Voiceless
There can be no peace-making without an understanding of the role of women and their influence in resolving conflicts. Since women ususally share perspectives and experiences which they carry through common situations of anxiety and conflict, says Dr. Ekaterini Tsalampouni, Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Theology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. In her report, she showed how the role of women is depicted in a biblical context, in particular in the Gospel of Luke. As a rule, significantly less is said about the peace-making role of women than about the influence of men. However, according to the speaker, it is not important how often women are mentioned in the Holy Scriptures but how significant and decisive their actions are.
“Luke’s attitude to women is not a straightforward declaration of equality,” the speaker emphasizes. “His way of describing women is ambiguous. Regardless of their anonymity, they are connected with the theme of forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation. Women know how to ask for forgiveness, like the widow in the parable of the unjust judge. They are the ones who proclaim the Good News. As in the biblical context, so also in our days, women have great peace-making potential. Jesus showed that his disciples can be a voice for the voiceless. Women can create new strategies for opposing conflicts,” Ekaterini notes.
Women Who Stand in Defense of Their People before the Threat of Violent Occupation
The biblical stories of Deborah, Judith, and Jael present the image of a woman as a defender who smartly, bravely, and wisely changes the course of events and turns evil away from her people. Dr. Halyna Teslyuk, Senior Lecturer in Old Testament at UCU and coordinator of the UNWLA Women’s Studies Center at UCU, spoke about biblical heroines, projecting them into the modern situation. In her talk, she drew attention to three female figures of the Old Testament, who in conditions of crisis decide to interfere in the course of the history of their people and save them from external violence or military occupation.
These heroines, on the one hand, counter the traditional role of a man as a protector, and the biblical author himself emphasizes this, whether in the Book of Judges or in the Book of Judith. On the other hand, they teach that society can and should accept an active and effective role of women in the defense of their people. The Ukrainian context today with an ambiguous, often sterotypical attitude towards women as participants in military actions in Eastern Ukraine, helps in reading the ancient biblical narratives, bearing in mind and comparing the cultural matrix and conditions of today. This also demonstrates that overcoming certain stereotypes can serve as one of the steps in overcoming conflict.
Four Levels of Activism of Ukrainian Women During the War in Eastern Ukraine
Prof. Dr. Heleen Zorgdrager of the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam analyzed various types of social activity of Ukrainian women during the war in eastern Ukraine with the example of successful projects.
First of all, the activism of mothers who create respective organizations to support or resist war, though the anti-war rhetoric of recent times has changed to criticism of insufficient defense of human rights. Secondly, there is patriotic civic activism through participation in various media and civic projects; for example, the project of Ukrainian military chaplain Olesia Dolyna “Heart of a Dove.” This is a photo session of female ATO soldiers. Thirdly, there is activism in the promotion of the idea of dialogue and reconciliation; for example, the project “Dialogue in Action.” Civic and religious activists support training in non-violent communication. Churches have a key role of leadership and facilitation. Moreover, there is ecumenical activity, when women through their peace-making activities make religion a public thing.
Inspiring Women to Dialogue
Ecumenical dialogue in the 21st century is hardly imaginable without the role of women. They pray for peace and justice. They declare public statements. They engage in civic actions and participate in organizations that defend human rights. Women need to be inspired to such activity, emphasizes Russian dissident, professor, and guest lecturer at UCU, Dr. Elena Volkova.
She expressed her sorrow that the Russian dictatorship feeds itself with Soviet and repressive practices through the theater of gender equality. “They have pulled out the tradition of the puppet theater of women’s organizations which work as an imitation of social and religious activism. The Church and the Kremlin pull the strings of these puppets, hiding their control. Some Russian women today suppose they can go and fight against Ukrainians. This is the banality of evil. They do not express moral indignation or shock that their men are dying in the actions in Donbas. Losing a husband or a son, they are silent. They do not raise up their voices against the war,” emphasizes Dr. Volkova.
The last day of the conference was dedicated to the stories of Ukrainian women during the totalitarian soviet period. In her talk “Christian Faith and Religious Practices as Empowering Experiences among Ukrainian Women Political Prisoners in the Gulag” Dr. Oksana Kis argued that spiritual practices such as individual and group prayers, improvised divine services, celebrations of major Christin holidays served as non-violent resistance to the Gulag dehumanizing politics as well as emancipating experience. These practices helped women prisoners to preserve personal dignity in the context disrespect and violence. Dr. Svitlana Hurkina presented on Women’s Role in the Greco (Greek) Catholic Church during Its Catacomb Period (1946-1989) and showed, using the information from the oral stories, that women were active in preserving liturgical and teaching life of the church, yet they do not talk about that and this part of the church history still needs to be analyzed.
Conference participants are already planning their next meetings to encourage women to dialogue, to find solutions, and to share their stories, since discussing trauma and experience empowers to act, and to act together.