Photo: Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Fuuse

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini on peacework

Born in Iran, but exiled to the UK at the age of 11, Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini has been a leading international advocate and peace strategist for 20 years. Her leadership in the formation of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), and the launch of the Global Solutions Exchange (GSX) at the United Nations General Assembly was recognised as one of the standout good news stories of 2016 by the World Economic Forum. She is the author of Women Building Peace: What They Do, Why It Matters based on primary research in 15 war zones.

She is the co-Founder and Executive Director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), where she supports civil society activism through promoting women’s rights, peace and human security. She was the first senior gender and inclusion advisor on the UN’s Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisors. She was also among the co-founders of the US Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security in 2010. In 2000, she was among the civil society drafters of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

She speaks to Aya Nader about her life, her work and her vision for ICAN.

What drew you to the peace and security field?

I was a refugee at the age of 11 due to the Iranian revolution. I realised that when there’s a crisis within a country, it’s never a one-off event. It has had a generational impact in many aspects of my life and that of those around me. As a child, I did not see my father for seven years. I was brought up by women. My family was, and is, scattered around the world. Every decade we feel the impact in a different way. But in my 20s, I thought – I just don’t want anybody else to go through what I did. That is what thrust me into this field.

Not surprisingly, I was also always drawn to the question of how a country goes from being an authoritarian, closed, or dictatorial space towards becoming a more open democratic space – without going through violent conflict. I was inspired by South Africa: by their ability to forgive, reconcile and avoid a descent into violence. I thought, if they can do it then why not others?

Can you tell me the stories that touched you?

In my line of work, the stories I hear and the people I meet are a continuous source of inspiration. Two stories have stayed with me from my earliest years of work. In 1998 in London I helped organize the first conference of 50 women from war zones worldwide. It was just four years after the Rwandan genocide when 800,000 people were killed in three months. In London, I met a Rwandan woman. She had the saddest eyes I have ever seen. She stood up on the stage and spoke about the need for peace and reconciliation; to move forward and save the next generation. I discovered later that she had lost 100 relatives in the genocide. Yet she spoke of forgiveness and moving forward. I wondered what I would have felt and done in her place. I can’t bear to even imagine that happening to just one member of my family, let alone so many. I realised that people like her exist, and they are extraordinary. I wanted to work to amplify voices like hers. That’s my touchstone.

I also met Thandi Modise in 1998. She’s South African. She spent time in jail during apartheid, but afterwards became a Member of Parliament, and chaired the defence committee. She told me her story of taking on military and defence interests during the transition years after apartheid in the 1990s. They were determining their approach and priorities to develop a new national security policy. Rather than assuming it meant more military power and money for tanks and weapons, she asked a simple but profound question: ‘What does security entail and mean for most South Africans?’ They put the weapons budget on hold. They spent time talking to ordinary people across the country, in cities, towns, and villages, asking them what security meant. The public’s response was obvious – but also transformative.

They said security meant clean water, lights on the streets, eradicating poverty, preventing HIV/AIDS. The government then had to frame its national security policy around issues of human security, rather than traditional defence. It meant the arms industry had to take a step back. The budget had to be reallocated to these newly-defined security interests and the policies they shaped. Imagine if every country was able to democratise the discourse on security, and enable the public to participate in it!

What is the international community’s role in addressing violence?

Violence has been the greatest challenge since the end of the Cold War, into the 21st century. We have an international peace architecture that was designed to stop inter-state wars. It’s premised on the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a member state and respect for the sovereignty of the state. So in principle, the international community is hampered when it comes to preventing violence and warfare within countries, even when there’s plenty of warning. Of course, the system has had to evolve. If we want to stop wars, then we have to recognise that warring parties include non-state actors, and that they are part of the problem and have to be at the negotiations table.

In the wars of the 21st century, we also need to recognise non-state un-armed actors – i.e. ordinary people, people who organize to struggle for change peacefully or to provide relief in conflict situations. When the state recedes or becomes predatory towards its own citizens, civil society emerges to provide services, creating a new social fabric. They have as much of a right to be at the peace table as violent actors do. They deserve our respect and protection because they do their work without bearing arms or threatening people with violence. When the international community, including the media, only pays attention to armed groups, then this implicitly rewards violence.

This is particularly pertinent to women. In my experience of working globally for over 20 years, I have constantly met women who have been amongst the first to organise against violence. Women are the frontline humanitarians, mediators and ceasefire monitors. They are peace actors: but they are excluded from peace talks.

I helped lead the campaign in mobilising support and advocating for the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women’s peace and security to raise the profile of women peacemakers. This recognises the power of women as peacemakers – not just politicians or members of armed groups. Ordinary women with extraordinary courage and patriotism should have influence, and seats at the tables where peace, security and rights are determined.

Where does the problem of extremism come in?

Extremism and violent extremism are another iteration of the changing nature of war in our times. When 9/11 happened, there were around 5000 Al-Qaeda supporters. Now there are hundreds and thousands of extremists, and more different types of groups like Al-Qaeda. We cannot discount the effects of the Iraq war and of the heavily militarised Western foreign policy. We have also been extreme in our policies. Over 120 countries have been affected by 9/11, in one way or another. Groups have sprung up which are locally rooted, but globally connected. Some have their roots in Wahabi and Salafi teachings and have a warped ideology that condones violence. We are witnessing the emergence of other forms of extremism rooted in Hinduism, Christianity, even Buddhism – and of course ethno-nationalist movements such as white supremacism. Extremism breeds extremism, and most people are stuck in between.

Why do women matter in the discussions on extremism?

For many years, in their own countries, and at the UN, women have been warning against the rise of extremist ideologies and movements which push back against women’s rights. The problem is that violence and oppression of women is perceived as cultural. It is not taken seriously as a matter of security, which it should be. This is worsened by the fact that the international community gets excited about five women who become jihadists, while ignoring 500 that might be active against extremism, and were often the first to resist it. Women’s activism is undermined, taken for granted, or erased. And because this work takes place at local levels, it is not well documented. Women are probably some of the best sources for feedback on policy. They can tell whether international policies have been effective or harmful. The world needs to listen to them for that simple reason.

What does the Global Solutions Exchange do?

The Global Solutions Exchange is a platform for ongoing dialogue between civil society and governments. Our goal is to ensure in-depth and serious exchange of ideas and solutions to address extremism. At the launch our partners were on stage at the UN with the Norwegian Prime Minister, speaking to an audience of senior government officials and others. On one level there is an important symbolism to civil society sharing a space with governments at the UN as equals. We are bringing the ‘we the peoples’ line of the UN Charter back to life.

There are important strategic aspects too. Extremists have been good at tapping into people’s mistrust of the state. Our partners from the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) have spoken about their solutions. ‘Preventing and countering extremism’ strategies articulate what we are against; this framing is not conveying what values and vision we can offer. From Nigeria to Pakistan and Iraq, WASL members have demonstrated the importance of trusted local voices and the access they have to their communities. No international strategies can work without civil society participation. This is the challenge of our times: you need diversity to make peace, rights and pluralism a lived reality.

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini with colleagues and friends

How did the idea for ICAN strike you?

It was a process. In 2004 I opted to do consulting for the UN and other institutions so I could work from home and be with my twin daughters. But I also had a job offer from a great organisation. I wondered, do I continue my consulting which allowed me to do creative work or do I take the chance to lead and advocate for change?

I met my colleague Sussan Tahmasebi at a conference around the same time. She was working on women’s rights and empowerment issues in Iran. Her passion and our shared ethics around working with local organisations and national partners brought us together. We knew from experience that in the Middle East, women’s rights cannot be separated from their involvement in peace and security. In the ideologies of extremist religious or nationalist movements, women are very clearly targeted: expected to have a circumscribed role and limited rights in public and private life. So there is a nexus between the fight for women’s rights, and the struggle to ensure women’s voices are heard within peace and security discourse. They are integral to each other.

We envisioned ICAN as a bridge. Perhaps because both Sussan and I are inherently bridges in a sense, due to our multi-cultural backgrounds. There are challenges that come with being multi-cultural but there is tremendous creative potential too; we are conditioned to think outside the box. I used to take this for granted, but I have come to realise that this provides an important perspective. The privilege of having this worldview comes with the responsibility of drawing on it in order to foster greater understanding and peace.

ICAN bridges divides. We connect women, peace and rights practitioners across countries and regions to break their isolation and ensure they value and learn from each other’s experiences and expertise. We connect them to the policy-making community so they can communicate directly and inform and improve policy making and programming. Our greatest asset is trust – relationships based in trust with our partners, with the policy and academic community and increasingly with the media. We invest in trust – and we see the returns. Each year, we have expanded to different countries and different regions.

Have you faced any hardships with ICAN?

We have to raise funds each and every year. We never know where we will be, financially. We work with partners based in countries and regions facing terrible hardships. We share in their pain, but we also recognise that our job is to show solidarity and point towards the light when they are facing the darkness. We have friends and colleagues everywhere, so with every bomb that goes off we worry. But their resilience and hope are inspirational.

This is extraordinary work, despite all the hardships. How many people can determine the course of their work? When we decide to tackle an issue, we are often breaking new ground. For instance, we have delved into the connections between macroeconomic policies – particularly neoliberalism – and the rise of extremism, through a gendered lens, of course! It’s been fascinating to listen as our partners engage directly with world renowned economists, such as Professor Radhika Balakrishnan at Rutgers University, and hash out the issues.

How has ICAN developed and how do you envision its future?

In the early days, the ICAN headquarters was just an armchair in my dining room. We’ve expanded to having a small office and an amazing and growing global network. I would like ICAN to be recognized for excellence across all our areas of work; to maintain a humane, caring and respectful relationship founded on trust with whomever we collaborate, from local partners to international NGOs and governments; and to see our unity and sense of common purpose and cause amplified. I truly believe that the majority of people in the world are decent and caring. If we could harness that power then we could bring peace and security to everyone.

We need to renovate and improve the peace architecture. We have to build it domestically so that we can value our age of extreme pluralism whilst strengthening our sense of social cohesion, nationally and globally. We need to be audacious in our imagination. If you think about it, wars and violence are man or human-made. They arise out of individual decisions that individuals make. Surely in the 21st century we can – and must – unmake them.