My Response to “Responding to ISIS”

November 12, 2014

Olivia Knott

As I sat in my chair looking over the agenda for the Oct. 27 conference, “Responding to ISIS: Violence Against Women and Girls,” a woman asked why I was there. I began listing off the reasons: I’ve taken a couple classes on the Middle East, I want to be better informed, I’m interested in women’s issues, I want to cover this conference for Iris magazine… As I sat there rambling on about my reasons for attendance, she simply responded, “Well I’m glad you’re here. This has become the issue of your generation. We need you to think of creative solutions.” Solutions. Where does one even begin to think of solutions for a militant group committing crimes in the name of religion? To quote Bill Frelick (Director, Refugee Program, Human Rights Watch), a conference panelist: “What do you do when a perpetrator knows no shame? [...] When they are proud of their abuses?” The conference was split into two sections: In the morning, it was comprised of a series of panels, "Overview of Current Crisis from the Field” and “U.S. Government Policy Goals and Responses.” In the afternoon, six small groups comprised of about 10 people focused on individual issues, such as legal responses and mental health, which fell under the larger question of responding to ISIS violence. In a class I’m currently taking, Women and Social Media in the Middle East and South Asia, we’ve studied the way in which Western media covers issues pertaining to women of these areas. This class has given me a new awareness to their representation, so when entering the conference, I was interested to see if it would follow the common narrative of victimization-a story of how the West would save the women of the Middle East. The conference, co-sponsored by AMAR U.S., Presidential Precinct, Morven and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women's Center, opened with remarks from the Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, the founder of the AMAR U.S. foundation, which focuses on providing health and education services to Iraq and Lebanon. The Baroness framed the ISIS crisis from a thought provoking angle- as an assault against the family. She asserted that “family is the basic foundation of society” and “if you destroy the family unity, you destroy the culture.” Most importantly, the mother acts as the heart of the family unit, making our attention to women of the affected region crucial. Equipped with the background knowledge gained from my class, I struggled with the initial presentation made by Baroness Nicholson, at one point asking us to look at an image of a survivor, calling her a “poor old lady.” Such emphasis on the women’s victimhood distracts from the extensive work that she and AMAR have done in regards to women’s empowerment. Yet, I was satisfied by further endeavors into the complexity of the situation in the region made by the panelists. In the first panel, Mrs. Behar Ali Aziz (STOP-GBV*, Project Manager for the Kurdistan Regional Government, AMAR), noted that often, the issue of gender-based violence becomes ignored when top priority in responding to ISIS violence is focused on the protection of local and international institutions.

However, understanding gender-based violence is integral to combatting ISIS. Kathleen Kuehnast (Director of Gender and Peacebuilding Center, US Institute of Peace) asked us to “broaden our gendered lens” in our discourse on women. She asked us to look at the role of men and the meaning of masculinity of the Middle East, especially within ISIS, a perception of “manhood that uses or abuses religion” to justify violence against women. She asserted the importance of intervention early in the lives of young men to ensure that they are not indoctrinated into such a misunderstanding of masculinity. Most importantly, the panelists discussed the critical importance of Muslim scholars in helping the U.S. and Europe to understand the nuances of Islam and its message of equality, so that we may support the voices of the Muslim world, rather than fall into the destructive pattern of “us vs. them” sectarianism. This is integral to empowering the women of the Middle East so that they may fight against ISIS without being denounced as Western tools. The second panel focused on the creation of stability as the ultimate long-term strategy of fighting ISIS. ISIS’ violence is targeted at ripping apart communities, thus the commitment to rebuilding them is an integral counter-strategy. I found especially noteworthy, the importance of de-stigmatizing the shame associated with sexual assault, which has ostracized women from their conservative communities.

Youth was continually addressed as perhaps the most important way of contributing to stability of the region, especially through documenting these internationally displaced persons (IDPs) so that they may receive aid. The importance of education was also stressed, noting that ensuring the accessibility of schools to educate children will lessen the chances that they will fall pray to the temptations of joining in the violence. I decided to join the small group focused on Livelihood and Economic Empowerment to Affected Women. In this group, we extensively discussed the importance of infrastructure, such as permanent housing, beyond immediate need aid, so that women affected and displaced by ISIS violence may continue to ensure their own survival in the long term.

My group leader, Assistant Professor of Politics, Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, said it best when he declared, “The problem is that there are too many problems.” The most important solution I took away from my group was the necessity to shake from our minds this image of the woman affected by violence as a passive victim: We must reshape our question from “how can we help her?” to “how can we help her better help herself?” Immediate aid is of the upmost importance, yet “capacity building,” as it was voiced during the conference, should also continually be part of our dialogue of aid- how can we give these women the tools they need to exercise the agency they all inherently possess to act as peace builders? These tools can range from the tangible to endeavoring to change the ideological factors that contribute to violence against women. Covering such complex issues in the span of only one day made discussing solutions in realistic terms a difficult task (However, there will be a follow-up conference this spring to go deeper into the issues raised during this one. The conference will result in a document with recommendations that will be sent to the White House). Implementation of some of the suggestions would be difficult in countries that have experienced years of government instability and corruption beyond the recent outburst of ISIS violence. Yet, raising awareness, starting discussion and re-thinking our understanding of women affected by this violence is necessary if our generation wants to defeat this militant force. Confused about ISIS and its effect on the Middle East? I know I was until I attended this conference. To learn more, visit:

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