Women Fight Back

In Combatting Terrorism, Dialogue and ‘Telling Stories’ Can be Tools for Peacekeeping

News | Ranya Nehmeh, Nayeli Urquiza | May 2007

Conference Panelists and Translators (Photo: Xenia Hauser)

Without knowing it, the lives of Phyllis Rodriguez, in New York, and Aicha El Wafi, in Paris, intertwined at 08:45, on Sept. 11, 2001. But it was not terror and death which brought them together. It was something even deeper: their love for their respective sons.

Theirs is the story about two radically different lives: Rodriguez is a teacher, an artist and activist from New Jersey, whose son died in the World Trade Center. Aicha El-Wafi is the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker" of the 9/11 attacks. Zacarias Moussaoui has been sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty on charges of conspiracy. Living or dead, both sons are irredeemably lost.

"I felt for her as a mother," Rodriguez told New York’s Village Voice last Fall about her first glimpse of El-Wafi shortly after the attacks in a newspaper photo, taken as US prosecutors sought the death penalty for Mossaoui. They met for the first time in October 2002, through an organisation called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, beginning a friendship both say has become central to their lives.

Rodriguez and El-Wafi came together again in Vienna on Apr. 22 as part of a panel of journalists, activists and victims of terror at the Theater in der Josefstadt, to explain how terrorism turned their lives upside down.

The conference, titled Women Against Terror, organised by the Vienna-based non-governmental organisation Women Without Borders, set out to portray the varied experiences of women dealing with terrorism.

That first meeting was transformative. "I didn’t know if he was guilty or not" said Rodriguez, "but I didn’t want anybody to be killed in my or my son’s name." El-Wafi didn’t know if her son was guilty either, but she felt Moussaoui, 37, had become the government’s scapegoat and was now, in effect, "buried alive."

Moussaoui’s case has been filled with ambiguities and mixed messages. He pled guilty and said during the trial that he kept what he knew about the attacks from the police back in August 2001, when he was arrested due to his visa status. He had also raised suspicions at a Minnesota flying school where he was taking lessons.

The mothers have remained friends throughout the uncertain outcome of Mossaoui’s trial, determined to speak out against terror in all its forms. For Rodriguez, it came first with the attacks and afterwards in the climate of fear that stifled dissent.

For El-Wafi, it came in the form of an abusive marriage at 14 in Morocco, in the repeated racism that her son suffered as a French citizen of Moroccan descent. She knew how he felt and was frightened when he embraced extremism as he turned 23.

Their friendship demonstrates the power of dialogue to bridge conflicts, counteracting terrorism by overcoming the borders of pain and distrust. Rodriguez has been promoting dialogue through the Forgiveness Project, while El-Wafi told her story in I Speak Out Aloud.

"Telling stories is such a powerful tool for peacekeeping," said Rodriguez. For her, dialogue and humane ways to talk about terror should be stressed in the media and among people.

El-Wafi speaks out frequently, calling for peace within the borders of France. She says young people today have to learn to "respect each other and their differences" in order to avoid acts that lead to extremism.

"And young Muslim girls should not accept forced marriage as this is also a form of terror," she said, visibly moved.

Terror, whether car bombs, shootings, domestic violence, psychological intimidation or other acts of terrorism, can "hold us back individually and collectively," said Alfred Gusenbauer, chancellor of Austria and opening speaker at the Josefstadt.

Dr. Edit Schlaffer, organiser and director of Women Without Borders described women as "agents of change" whose communication and listening skills enable dialogue, solving problems through "soft power."

For Schlaffer, the oft-cited "clash of civilizations" is more about a "clash of emotions." The West is nourishing a culture of fear, she said, with Arabs and Muslims trapped in a culture of humiliation, while Asia has a ‘culture of hope.’

Terrorism is an old problem, traceable to small religious sects during the Roman Empire through the late 19th Century anarchists, the Jewish Irgun’s faction in the 1950’s  or the PLO in the 1970’s, among others.

However, the frequency of terrorist attacks and the death toll has risen over the last decade. According to a 2005 U.S government study, the number of serious international terrorist incidents more than tripled in 2004, including incidents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, the seizure of a school in Beslan, Russia, by Chechen militants and the Madrid train bombings, and others.

"Conflict is inevitable," said moderator Anita Pratap, former CNN correspondent from the conflict regions of Central Asia. "And women all over the globe are caught up in terror, some of it at home."

Panelist Rania Al-Baz was a TV anchor for a Saudi news network, when her husband beat her to the point of breaking 30 bones of her face. Now surgically reconstructed, her face is a testimony to her courage to carry on, heading protests that have led to a Saudi royal decree to protect women from domestic violence.

Others like Hiba Othman, grew up in a climate of fear.

After spending most of her youth listening to the sounds of gun-fire during the Lebanese civil war, the  Mathematics professor and  UN Representative for the World Safety Organisation (WSO), lived in a world where "time has no meaning other than that of survival, just waiting for one day to pass and then the next."

But even more disturbing, was her account of being kidnapped as a child and the callous response of her father, a nationalist general.

"I have three daughters," he said, to the ransom demand, "but only one country."

Out of this, she has become an activist for reconciliation and peace, and in particular that "education should start within the family and spread outside."

Lebanese journalist Zeinab Al-Saffar was perhaps the hardest to place.

"I am Hezbollah and proud of it," said Al-Saffar introducing herself to the public. Anchor for Al-Manar TV, the media arm of Hezbollah, Al-Saffar described herself as "the female face of Lebanese resistance." Hezbollah gives her a "line of thought – an ideology, which keeps us strong – a belief," she said.

This belief has been strengthened by struggle. During the July 2006 Lebanese war, her home and office in Lebanon were both destroyed, and she narrowly escaped death while reporting under fire.

The building of Al-Manar TV collapsed, in fact, only ten minutes after she got out.

"Not being allowed to voice [one’s beliefs through] the media is also a form of terror," Al-Saffar said.


Other articles from this issue