May 2009

Mother’s Peace Day 
by Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss

“Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies, our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’”Julia Ward Howe

Though we’ve lost sight of its origins, Mother’s Day began as a cry for peace in the wake of war. In 1872 Julia Ward Howe–mother, abolitionist, poet, and suffragist–envisioned that for one day each year the women of the world would call for peace. She named it Mother’s Peace Day.

And this year, I want to honor the mothers of Afghanistan by calling for a renewed commitment to a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan that empowers women to participate on equal footing with men in the rebuilding of their nation.

When President Obama announced his plan to send an additional 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, I came down with a serious case of ambivalence. Just give the President’s plan a chance, I found myself thinking. Yet the striking parallels between the surge in Iraq (which candidate Obama vociferously opposed) and the proposed surge in Afghanistan prompted me to engage the issue more thoughtfully. Why, I wondered, was my knee-jerk reaction to entrust the healing of a war-torn nation to a military escalation?

My thoughts turned to a personal email I received from a Pakistani woman, who confessed: the Taliban are getting stronger in Northern areas of Pakistan and people are conscious that if they are not stopped, one day they will reach our capitol. Women across the country are terrified due to this incident in which the Taliban whipped a young veiled girl publicly in a Swat village. Children are shocked by watching this scene on TV and ask their parents, “Why are they beating her?” Yesterday our women’s prayer group prayed for this wave of Talibanization, for God to stop it.

The news has come in from Kandahar, Karachi, and Kabul about the resilience of girls and women in the face of fundamentalist violence. Teenage girls sprayed with acid defy terror daily in their perilous journey to school. More than 500 women rallied in Karachi to protest the flogging of a burka-clad teenager. And despite the heckling of angry men, 300 women marched two miles to the parliament building in Kabul to resist a new law that permits marital rape.

In spite of their courage, I seem to have lost mine. The Taliban’s terrible hatred of women tempts me to trust in the myth of redemptive violence. If ever there was a time when I wanted to solve a problem with military force, this is it. I imagine the terror of a nuclear armed Taliban and another generation of girls robbed of their right to quality education and health care, exposed to violence in every sphere of their lives. The absolute horror of misogyny disguised as religion compels even a peacemaker like me to proclaim that all options should remain on the table for dealing with such unjust violence.

But what is best for the girls and women of Afghanistan and Pakistan? What do they want for their future and, in their experience, what is the best pathway to a just peace that welcomes them to fully participate in public life?

In a recent poll, just 18% of Afghans support a troop increase. Afghan women surveyed through Women for Women International cite peace and security as their greatest priority. Their 2009 Afghanistan Report states, “If Afghan women can participate shoulder to shoulder with men in rebuilding their country, all of society will benefit. Before this can happen, though, women need access to the health, education, economic, civic, and security resources that are their rights as humans.”

Can military escalation achieve these goals? According to Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are “the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban.” And with those forces pushing insurgents into Pakistan, risking the further destabilization of a nuclear-armed state, military escalation could prove disastrous.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, argues that the “militarization of U.S. foreign policy” has not been constructive in achieving security. In fact, the RAND Corporation issued a report last year demonstrating that only 7% of terrorist groups were brought down by military force. Most terrorist group networks have dissolved into the political process or through intelligence resulting in criminal prosecution.

Highly militarized societies, however, almost always produce bad results for women. Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women claims, “Yes Afghanistan needs troops–but it needs troops of doctors, troops of teachers, troops of Peace Corps volunteers, and troops of farmers to go and replant the fruit orchards.” While nations like India have provided Afghanistan with doctors, the world has grown weary of the only American boots on the ground belonging to those in the military. Eleven aid agencies, including Oxfam, recently issued a report claiming that a military escalation will lead to increased civilian casualties, further eroding our credibility. Rather than military escalation, we needtargeted economic and strong diplomatic engagement to resolve this conflict.”

And so in memory of Julia Ward Howe’s audacious proclamation of Mother’s Peace Day and in honor of the Afghan women who so courageously resist fundamentalist violence, I lift my voice for peace this Mother’s Day. I hope you will join me. In the words of Julia, “Arise, all women who have hearts!”

Looking for a Mother’s Peace Day resource for use in the classroom or with a small group? Check out “Women and War: the Survival of Hope” from WAND’s Faith Seeking Peace curriculum and WAND’s action guide, “The Real Meaning of Mother’s Day.