SALZBURG, Austria (WOMENSENEWS)–Sitting among daffodils in the garden of a castle in the Austrian Alps, I study the bios and photographs of the 57 women with whom I will spend the next week. We have come from everywhere–Burundi, Nepal, Rwanda, Russia, Costa Rica, China and more–for the Salzburg Seminar’s meeting on women and political power. In the seminar’s 50 years of convening the world’s thinkers to forge solutions to global problems, this will be the first session devoted exclusively to women’s issues.
The older women are parliamentarians, commissioners, executives of women’s organizations. The younger ones–researchers, doctoral candidates, program officers–are poised for leadership. My own credentials seem modest: simply a middle-aged psychologist with a research background in gender and inter-ethnic relations.
A diverse group, we are charged with a shared mission: develop strategies to strengthen women’s participation in public life around the globe.
A picture of a face enshrouded in a black veil startles me. The woman is from Iran, a point on George Bush’s “axis of evil.” The intensity of her dark gaze reminds me that I may be the target of anti-American sentiments here. But I want those present to know that there are Americans who shudder at our nation’s conduct of foreign affairs.
Awash in Colored Robes and Saris
We gather for introductions in a seminar room awash with color: saris in shades of apricot and nectarine; African robes and headdresses of emerald green, pink, fuchsia, sunflower yellow.
“I am Naba from Iraq,” says a small woman in the second row. “I come to learn how Iraqi women can help rebuild our country.”
A lovely, olive-skinned woman wearing an Italian leather jacket and slim pants stuns me by saying, “I am Mariam from Iran.” The veiled woman on page seven!
I sit next to Naba. “We are afraid every minute,” she tells me. She and her husband–professors at the University of Baghdad–risk their lives driving back and forth to work. At night, they lie in bed listening for the sound of shell fire.
“With Saddam we lived in a large prison,” she says. “First, when the Americans came, we were happy. Now we wish we never saw them.”
Naba introduces me to her friend, Huda, from Jordan.
“I live in Amman,” says Huda. “But, truly, I am Palestinian. And journalist.” She sticks a cigarette into a holder, flicks her lighter, and draws deep.
Our time is filled with meetings. I am learning about the nearly total exclusion of women from Russian political power; the role of six courageous women in the Northern Ireland peace process; the reconciliation efforts of Rwandan women after the hundred-day slaughter; the distinction between true Islam and oppressive interpretations of sharia, or religious law.
Mariam, whose name has been changed to allow her to speak freely, tells me about Iranians’ struggle against oppression.
“The rules are always changing. You don’t know from day to day if you will get in trouble for something innocent. Mothers are frightened for their children.” Her daughter was detained overnight for attending a birthday party. But there is worse, she says. “Three years ago, the mullahs stabbed to death 100 artists and intellectuals, people of the greatest integrity.”
A Walk Around the Lake
On the third day, Naba, Huda and I walk around the castle lake.
“Saddam used to fool the world,” Naba says. The perfect host, he would indulge visitors to his palaces while starving and torturing his own people behind the scenes. “‘Such a generous man,” they all say. “It cannot be true that he buries people alive in dirt pits!'”
“Oh, yes, very nice man. He gave me a house,” says Huda, whose name has been changed to protect her work. “True! When he started the war in Iran, he told his boys, ‘Get every journalist in Amman a new house.’ But we did not write good things about Saddam. You cannot buy a journalist.”
Winded by her outburst, she says her son teases her about getting old. He’s 31, like mine.
“Mine, too!” says Naba, grabbing Huda and me and marching us along the path, a phalanx of mothers.
Huda declares, “Mothers will make peace, so sons will not die.”
The next night, we dance to Naba’s CDs in the castle’s underground bierstube. Six middle-aged women in a circle, swinging our hips and waving our arms, while Naba undulates in the center with the grace of one who has danced to these sensuous sounds since childhood.
She cups her hand over her upper lip and emits a high-pitched warble that rises above the music. On my third attempt to copy her, she leans close and warbles into my face. I’ve got it right.
When the song ends, she says, “We call that ‘helulah,’ our sound for something good. And you, do you know what I call you? ‘Habibti,’ dearest friend.”
Atar, a young Israeli jumps into the circle. At our meetings, she has described her efforts to unite Arab and Jewish women for peace.
Huda, the Palestinian living in Jordan, has kept her distance from Atar all week. Now she watches her and scoffs. She cannot forgive those who forced her family to flee Jerusalem when she was a child. Just last month, she says, the Israelis bulldozed the old homestead to make room for the wall that will separate Arabs from Jews.
But now, finishing her second glass of wine, she breaks into the circle and grabs Atar by the hand.
Leaving for Home
The last afternoon, Mariam shows me the veil she will tie around her face before boarding the plane to Tehran. Then Naba’s cab arrives.
“You will come to Baghdad,” she says, embracing me.
“Yes, habibti.” She grins at my use of the Arabic word she has taught me.
I leave Salzburg energized by the vitality, courage and resolve of the 50 women with whom I have spent the week. Together, we have devised strategies to expand women’s access to political power.
The day after I arrive home, Huda writes by e-mail that she has contacted Atar in Tel Aviv. “Maybe one day we will make real peace, telling our governments, ‘Stop practicing your disgusting attempts to maintain power on our blood.’ Bless you, dear.”
Bless us all, I think, marveling at this web we have created, delicate and tough as a spider’s. Someday Naba and I will sit in her living room in Baghdad, drinking tea and sharing pictures of our sons and their families. Insh’Allah, or as it’s said in English, God willing.
I continue to exchange e-mails with Naba and the others. We celebrate when there is a success (one of our colleagues elected to Parliament in Burundi) and commiserate over setbacks (a female journalist is imprisoned in Iran.)
Now, two years later, I am packing for a trip to Amman where I will meet with Jordanian women working against formidable odds to empower women in their country. Had it not been for my week in Salzburg, I might have let the opportunity pass. But Huda writes that her husband is preparing the water pipe for our reunion dinner. I will be there.
Penelope Bragonier is a developmental psychologist and freelance writer living in Boston. She has served as the executive director of three psychology-based organizations, including the Boston Institute for Psychotherapy and the Harvard-affiliated Center for Psychology and Social Change.
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