Ezabir’s peacebuilding story begins in the 1990s. She began volunteering with NGOs supporting the mental health of those affected by the conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. Eventually she left the security of a high-level government position to pursue her mental health work full time.
Since these early days, Ezabir has travelled the length and breadth of Indian-administered Kashmir, listening to the stories of women in the most unreached parts of the region. For the first time, women there were asked what they would like to do to change their lives, change things around them or make things better. She has worked with scholars and religious leaders on securing the position and rights of numerous women who have lost husbands due to disappearances.
Ezabir has spent the majority of her peacebuilding career ensuring women are heard, have somewhere to turn to and someone to listen. “There are only two reasons why people become voiceless: either you are silenced deliberately or you are preferably unheard.”
The conflict in Kashmir has had a disproportionate effect on women in the region. Cases of domestic violence, rape and molestation have been overshadowed by the conflict, leaving them with nowhere to turn. “Nobody thought it was important to talk about it. They were thought about as things that could be dealt with later. It was more important to focus on this main issue about the conflict that is going on. With this kind of attitude, the women were again getting pushed into the background”, Ezabir says.
Effective peacebuilding often requires creative approaches to bridging the divides between people with traumatic experiences or entrenched views. Ezabir’s latest project takes this concept literally. She has been using art and creative writing to help women express their feelings, emotions and reactions to the consequences of conflict. Through drawing, writing short stories or crafting poetry, women in her workshops have been able to connect with others by sharing these narratives and reinforcing the idea that aspirations for peace are universal. Ezabir explains:
“The workshops help us to hear, and also to understand the other. We’re bringing women together from different areas, different religions, different political ideologies, who maybe perceive very different end goals for the conflict. It was quite challenging. I had to find very creative ways of bringing them together so that they don’t start judging and blaming each other - it opens up a sphere of space for them which is really safe, and allows them to share what they want.”
Ezabir explains that within these circles there has been a big impact. The changes she sees lie within the members because they are receptive. The ideas and views might be very different, but they’ve learned to listen to each other respectfully. She believes this is a huge step in fostering reconciliation, in building understanding:
“These women started writing, drawing, writing poetry, writing special couplets to celebrate their experiences, their solidarity and a common desire for peace. They also sent messages of love for the women of other regions. They expressed friendship and a desire for peace not just for themselves but for others.”
These stories help the women to understand the role they play in maintaining the social, economic, cultural health of communities. “They are the carriers of these cultural and traditional heritages. It’s up to them what they would like to carry forward, what they would like to hand over to the younger generation. What kind of stories would they like to tell them? Would they like to tell them stories of pain and suffering or would they like to tell them stories of resilience and peacebuilding? These are the kinds of things that we deal with every day.”
It is these stories that help to create long-term peace over generations, not just among those directly affected by conflict at the time. These are the stories from which future generations can learn.
In Ezabir’s case, sometimes the art of peacebuilding lies in art itself.
Photo: Women taking part in art-based peacebuilding workshops in Jammu. (c) Ezabir Ali