The New Freedom fighters: Women and Nonviolent Resistance
In a remote corner of the world in a society that often restricts them in the name of tradition, women are leading the way to a better future. They are defending their human rights and communities, meeting gunfire with economic, social, and cultural empowerment. As a girl growing up, I heard the stories of the women who survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915, held our family together, and built a future for us in America. Arriving in Armenia in 2015, I learned that one hundred years later women there were still struggling against state-sponsored aggression. But, I saw in them a different kind of freedom fighter from the military heroes of the past. Women were fighting back with creative nonviolence. The resistance was built on activism, education, art and entrepreneurship, using the power of imagination instead of violent force.
In the villages and towns hardest hit by the shelling of petroleum powerhouse Azerbaijan, you will see signs of poverty, despair, and terror penetrating the most intimate spaces of daily life. Once robust factories are now empty shells, bullets are trapped in walls and bathrooms, and in one house, a huge bullet hole gapes over an empty crib. The people love their communities, but they too are trapped by the violence that obliterates their prospects for economic opportunities and peaceful development. But this is not the end, because people have not given up, and women are leading the fight to preserve their human rights and communities through nonviolent resistance.
Women have realized that they cannot shoot their way out of the conflict. Bullets will not win this war, but agribusiness may. In a country with a hugely important but struggling agriculture sector, women are using old traditions and modern innovations to produce wine, honey and cheese for export. “Winemaking is in our blood,” says one woman vintner. To many in this area, the environment is not only the resources that support them, but something that they love. Women activists led the fight to stop a giant Russian company from strip mining their mountains, promoting ecotourism as an alternative. Now they are taking the next steps, encouraging recycling, environmental protection, and infrastructure like maps and nature tours. Women have joined together to promote peace building through cultural exchanges, arts and education. “We want to develop a peace culture, learning to diffuse violence at all levels,” say the women of a local women’s center. Women who believe in the power of art to build and change their society are actively working through their own artistic practices, theater companies, art schools and exhibitions. They are bringing arts and cultural education to remote villages. “It’s not from selling petroleum or gold that a people develop. They need good music, art, literature, theater, all the things that make a culture rich,” says a politician and journalist turned theater teacher.
The technology sector continues to shortchange women elsewhere, but the women I met in Armenia and Artsakh believe tech is the future for them, and they see other women and girls actively seeking the skills that will enable them to work in the global economy. “There are many women in tech fields in my country, and I believe tech will push us forward,” says a startup director and university math student, thinking of her all-female math class and creative co-workers Women seek to educate the next generation with solid academic learning and skills, but also with tolerance and understanding for those trapped on the other side of the border in a war they too did not seek. “We teach our kids to love their enemy. Even though there is bombing, we want them to learn that it’s the government not the people who are behind the violence,” says a teacher from a village under fire. Here as everywhere, women still face gender stereotyping, and sometimes it seems maddeningly slow to change. Yet all the social workers in one NGOs regional office are women, and they work tirelessly towards transformation in society. “Our goal is to change old ways of thinking, to break old habits, to work towards the future.” Resistance takes many forms. And “...sometimes a woman must lead.”