On Wednesday, October 10, an unlikely trio of women gathered in the Multifaith Center. Wellesley alumna Anisa Mehdi ’78, a former broadcast journalist, brought two activists living in the area to speak about how they have worked to create peace and preserve connections in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conflict has been a topic of contention on campus over the past several years — in March 2017, a film titled “Some of my best friends are Zionists” had its on-campus posters vandalized, while last year, a coalition of students from all religious backgrounds protested a student’s attempt to bring Amanda Berman, a woman who described herself as a “Zionist feminist” to campus, and ultimately had the event canceled.
However, Mehdi says that women’s leadership can be used to bridge these divides, and she wanted to bring some women leaders in the Middle East to Wellesley to show students exactly how to do that.
“As a [Wellesley] alum, I’m keenly attuned to powerful women around the world and the contributions they’re making,” said Mehdi. “I met each of these women separately, years apart, but immediately recognized a level of passion, intelligence, and daring that reminded me so much of my classmates and other people I knew from Wellesley.” The two women she spoke of are Stephanie Saldaña, a fellow of the Abraham Path Initiative and cultural heritage preservation specialist who works to preserve the narratives of refugees, and Huda Abu Arquob, the leading supporter of the grassroots Palestinian-Israeli peace movement Women Wage Peace and an on-the-ground regional director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace.
Mehdi said that she brought these women to Wellesley to serve as inspirations for the students here to be “models of how we can take our passion and our intelligence and our courage and put it to work in the world.” However, when she brought them to Wellesley, she “wasn’t exactly sure what direction the conversation would go.” The students who gathered an eclectic group, though mostly Muslim and Jewish asked about the women’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how they might be able to be advocates for the rights of Palestinian refugees here on campus.
Mehdi had been traveling with the other two women to share stories of how they work towards peace in oppressed places such as Palestine and the vital role all three leaders believe women must have in the resolution of the conflict. As such, Mehdi felt she had to bring the other two leaders here.
Abu Arquob, who spoke first, quickly debunked ideas the stereotype of Islam as anti-feminist, and said that her Muslim faith helps ground her in her activism. She presented herself as an advocate for feminist Islam “I trust the text, and I read it from a place of liberation,” she said. “We spend a lot of time, through our lives, thinking that power lies within the people that have money, or have status, or have guns,” said Abu Arquob. “And so, everything around us is defined by that concept of power, but I want to challenge that, especially with women. And I hate to use the word empowerment. Women don’t need empowerment, they are powerful already.”
Instead, she said, we need to stop conceptualizing power as a male thing, as an idea of domination-over. “We need to lead in a feminist way, not like Hillary Clinton … we should stop thinking power is about taking over,” she said, and suggested that instead, we must learn to wield power in a more collaborative, feminist manner. She is confident that power for women is the way to peace in the Middle East, and that the women’s movement is what will eventually bring that peace. “I am sure that, at some point, we will hijack any negotiations!” she said. She referenced the Liberian women’s movement as an example.
Along the theme of the Liberian women’s movement a movement entirely by women that brought peace among warring factions in Liberia both Abu Arquob and Saldaña spoke of the unique role they believe women can have in war zones and in creating peace processes. In Saldaña’s work with refugees, she has seen the power that women can have to keep communities together.
“People have this incredible source of power and can save families, and communities, not through the ways that we conventionally think of power, but by being able to center people,” she explained. “Women are incredible in that because, for example, when you leave a country you lose everything. But a woman one of the things you can bring with you, are recipes. But a woman who, in Iraq and Syria traditionally hold that role, they have the ability to re-make home wherever they go, whether it’s in a refugee camp, whether it’s in a half-made building … you have these women who are able to somehow reconstruct in these tiny details a taste that home is not gone. Home is still here.”
Abu Arquob and Saldaña both showed how their lessons about dialogue and conflict resolution could be transferred to an environment like Wellesley. Abu Arquob, in particular, often talks with Israeli leaders who don’t even believe in the existence of Palestine. “I work in Israel and Palestine,” she said. “I meet with Israelis who refuse the mere existence of my people, and me as a person.” Although those people might like her personally, she said they often don’t want her people to thrive, or even exist at all. “When you go to speak to a religious figure from a Jewish Orthodox community who thinks that peace means no Palestinians, and you engage in a conversation, and I don’t do much, I just sit opposite to that person.” She said that listening to people, and asking them questions about their own beliefs can lead them to change those beliefs. “I give them examples of how the Palestinians don’t look at the story as the Jewish people coming back to the land, we see them as colonizers. And they get to listen. And they always tell me that it was because I was so forward with them.”
Her forthrightness inspired continuing dialogues at Wellesley, too. After the initial conversation, a group of students met with the three leaders for lunch the next day, and even after they had left, the Jewish and Muslim chaplains, along with some students, came together to discuss what they had learned. “They see that I’m honest, and I don’t shy away from difficult questions. I’m in a place where I’m fearful for our children and your children, growing up knowing that we want to kill each other and we hate each other.”
These dialogues, Mehdi hopes, are part of a trend of greater student engagement at Wellesley around these issues. “I think what the students came away with was a sense of, it’s okay to be who you are and bring what you know is right forward. That it will be difficult, and there are stumbling blocks, but they’re not alone,” she said. “Don’t bring anger or hatred into the space, even if its a tense space. You need to bring your best qualities forward. Patience, and appreciation, and love.”
In the upcoming years, she hopes to bring groups from the Wellesley Alumnae Association on the Abraham Path trips to Palestine, to continue Wellesley’s engagement with this part of the world beyond the campus. By spreading a more positive, complex narrative of the Middle East, Mehdi hopes to change the world. “Even when you feel that you’re not getting it done because you’re not in action, you’re not in location you’re not in the thick of it … just by telling the story of the people you intend to impact, or the people who impacted you, you are keeping their struggles and their aspirations alive,” she said.