Guest Post by Emine Çolak on Building a United Women’s Party
Earlier this week, we posted a blog entitled “The Noise of Populism and Changing the Tone Towards Feminism and Peace” written by our Secretary General, Madeleine Rees, after she had attended the UK Women’s Equality Party’s 2nd Annual Congress at the beginning of this month. Emine Çolak, a civil rights activist and lawyer in Cyprus similarly attended the Congress and was invited to participate in an event on the how women behave in peace-building and negotiation processes. Read on to hear how she came to be at the Congress and her thoughts on building a party to unite women irrespective of their political categorisations.
Women in Cyprus are clearly present in civil society and economic activity on the island. But as is often the case, they have not achieved the same degree of visibility or participation either in peacemaking efforts on our long divided island or in politics in general. In trying to seek improvement in this area, an event was held in July 2018 in Nicosia with women from both sides as well as international experts. One of the powerful women facilitating our work was Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It was her suggestion that I speak at the Women’s Equality Party 2nd Annual Congress on 8th September 2018 in Kettering. She argued on behalf of the WILPF that they wanted “to build a movement that feeds off each other’s expertise and experiences of conflict, of politics, of feminism and the need to continue to inspire reassure each other that we are not alone”.
The suggestion appealed to me immediately because, for me, it was as much about sharing thoughts on a topic assigned to me as experiencing a feminist/women’s party in action, especially at a time when here in Cyprus we are discussing more and more what would be the best way to achieve more impact in politics as women.
Thus, happily armed with my invitation to participate in the Congress and having flown from Cyprus to do so, I board the train at King’s Cross. I immediately notice many others around me who look like we could all be going to the same event. What is the “look”? People, mostly women, “looking like” they know exactly where they want to go and ready to take on whatever is necessary to get there. Yes, I would say that this is the literal and the figurative summary of my perception of the attendees as I observed them at the Conference centre and especially the packed hall, listening intensely to the powerful opening speech of the party leader Sophie Walker.
My invitation was to participate in an event entitled “No Woman’s Land“, a discussion focused on the role, and painful lack thereof, in peace-building and negotiation processes, looking at how women behave in such roles and the missed benefit of their greater participation. My co-discussant, Natalie Reynolds, is a new acquaintance I am happy to have acquired with her vast experience in negotiation techniques in all fields and special interest in women’s empowerment in particular. My own contribution was based on the decades spent as a woman, a lawyer, a civil rights activist in my land of origin, always working for the desired conclusion to the unresolved, endless political “Cyprus Problem”. Ours is a complicated problem in which for over 40 years at least, there is no war as such, but there is no final negotiated peace settlement either. This leaves the inhabitants of what is otherwise a spectacular island made up mostly (but not exclusively) of Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots in a limbo that has different undesired consequences for each. The Greek Cypriots in the areas controlled by the Republic of Cyprus in the southern part are unhappy over the loss of control over the northern part where many have left uncompensated homes and property after the war in 1974. The Turkish Cypriots in the northern part have a state called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), not recognised by any country other than Turkey on whom they depend politically, economically and militarily. They are unhappy over the conditions that mean they are neither recognised as an entity nor part of the internationally recognised EU member Republic of Cyprus and also over their dependency of Turkey.
Our discussion went very well and afterwards, I was fortunate enough to hold a private meeting with co-founder Catherine Mayer and head of campaigns Cath Smith. The discussion was like swimming deep in very familiar waters. How do you convert civil activism and commitment to issues of gender equality and women empowerment into political clout. The obvious answer is “a political party”. But of course it is not that simple, mostly because women are often discouraged and even repelled by the whole male dominated political system and the often ego-fuelled bulldozing to become a “successful politician”. This suffocates the real purpose which, in my opinion, is to achieve “political success” on important issues that will remedy social ills.
Not surprisingly, as I listened to the experience of forming the Women’s Equality Party I could hear pretty much the same challenges faced by women in Cyprus, on both sides of the divide, and across the divide. Issues such as the dilemma of using “women” in the party name which, some will argue, contradicts your principles of diversity and inclusivity as feminists; the discussion of inequality faced by women being largely a part of class inequality – not to mention the accusation that women activists/party leaders are of a “middle-class white” background who are not the ones bearing the worst of the consequences of inequality. How do you form a party that is based on a focus and purpose that unites women, and others, irrespective of where they are placed under traditionally defined political ideologies, such as the left and the right.
These are just some of the questions I have brought back to Cyprus to discuss and share with the women network here. I have also brought back Cathrine Meyer’s book (signed, thank you very much!) “Attack of the Fifty Foot Women”. This is a source that I find extremely valuable because it reveals that it’s not so much about obsessing about “questions and answers” about exactly how it should be done, but about working your way through all the often contradictory arguments to find a path, to the best of your ability, and true to your basic principles, to reach the goals you have set.
In other words: to be clear on exactly where you want to go and being ready to take on whatever is necessary to get there….