Women in Black

by Carolyn Pogue

I first learned about Women in Black by watching a CBC documentary. The Intifada had been raging since 1987, four years. I was amazed to discover that there was a strong peace movement in Israel. It is usually violence that makes the news.

Jerusalem, May 1992. I stand in awe and watch the Women in Black gather in French Square. The Intifada keeps tensions high here. Teenaged boys throwing rocks at Israeli army tanks flash regularly across the world’s television screens. Now I am in this unholy Holy Land. I watch the women gather from all points around the traffic circle in downtown Jerusalem. They are quiet, determined. They are dressed in black. They pick up black, hand-shaped signs written in Arabic, Hebrew or English. The signs read simply, “End the Occupation.”

The women fan out to stand in an outward-facing circle. An older man, a plumber, comes along the sidewalk. He offers each woman a drink of water and a red rose. “It’s all I can do,” he says.

Across the street, there’s an angry counter demonstration. People hold pictures of the dead and wounded. “This is Arab peace!” one cries. “Wasn’t one Holocaust enough for you?” shouts another. The Women in Black answer with silence. Later, Michal Schwartz, a journalist and mother says, “As long as the Occupation exists, it negatively affects Jews, too. The military mindset encourages racism and chauvinism. We have changed from being orange growers to being mini Americans.”Back in Canada I cherish the encounter in my heart. To stand publicly in silence is a powerful act. When I feel discouraged about war, violence, war toys, I remember, and feel encouraged. The Women in Black movement stays alive throughout Israel, and eventually sneaks out into Europe. Other women, sickened by all forms of violence, trade their colours for black, their words for silence and form groups of their own. In 1995, the movement makes its way to the Beijing Women’s Conference.

Terry Wolfwood of Victoria, British Columbia is an artist and activist who attended. “When I went to the Beijing UN Forum on the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) peace train, I met women from Israel and Palestine who were part of Women in Black. I learned that there were Women in Black groups in Yugoslavia, Kashmir and other places. “Women in Black hosted a vigil in Beijing. The power of the silence of thousands of women with banners and placards from around the world was palpable and overwhelming. I resolved to bring Women in Black home to Victoria.” “Here,” Terry says, “as we stand in silence, one of us stays on the sidewalk passing out leaflets written for each event. We take the issue of violence seriously and broadly. We have covered issues from the 1989 Montreal Massacre, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Palestine. We also cover the spectrum of violence at home, such as domestic violence. “If people are hostile (rarely) we do not argue with them. We are much photographed. People stop to thank us and have begun to expect us.”

Jerusalem, January 2003
. I am waiting with friends at the Moment Café just down the street from French Square. It is strange to return to Jerusalem during another Intifada. This restaurant was hit by a suicide bomber in March. It is now guarded by a young man with a gun. He’s from Toronto – says he’s hoping to go to Seneca College next year. We sit with coffee in the innocent sunshine.

There are lots of people around. An army truck is parked across the street. The atmosphere is nonchalant, like any city – Calgary, London, Delhi – but I feel anxious. I keep thinking about the kids who died here. Where were they sitting? Who were their parents? What did the bomber do, just walk in and blow up or did he order coffee first, then pull a wire or something? I try to imagine it all. And then I try not to imagine it at all. To my left is a white poodle wearing a turtle neck sweater. Red. The army truck drives slowly down the street. It is time. We walk to French Square.

French Square looks just the same as it did in 1992. The women come from all directions, and pick up black, hand-shaped signs written in Arabic, Hebrew or English. “End the Occupation,” the signs read. Still read. This time, some men join them. Across the street the counter demonstrators take their place, too. I walk directly to the oldest grandmothers I can see. These women survived the Holocaust: they know things. Anna is 94; Aviva is 81 years old. They use their placards to shield their eyes from the bright sun as they talk. “It is important to know that there are women with different points of view here,” Aviva says. “We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree that the Occupation leads to more violence.” I feel blessed to stand in their presence.

When the hour ends, I find Gila Svirsky and give her a gift from a Project Ploughshares friend in Calgary. It is a button reading, “War is Menstruation Envy.” She laughs and pins it on her shirt, then we walk back to the Moment Café. She is filled with energy, intense determination. “My parents lost their families in the Holocaust,” she says, “and I am a Zionist, but some are taking the dream and perverting it. The ideal is being sent to the sewers.” She sips her cola hurriedly. “I’ve always been an activist, but when this Intifada started, I gave up my income. If I don’t work for peace most of my day now, I cannot stand it.” As I listen to her, I find I am holding my breath. Being here is like being on a teeter-totter. Last week a suicide bomber hit a Tel Aviv bus station hours after I walked past. Yet this morning our spirits lifted when we visited the Middle East Non-violence and Democracy offices where young people creatively spread Gandhi’s message of nonviolence.

Gila says, “I feel hopeful because tyranny has never outlasted the people’s demand for liberation. Beyond that, Israelis are fed up with Occupation. Seventy per cent would be willing to give up all or most of the settlements after terrorism ends.”
I let out my breath as Gila says calmly, “The women made peace 15 years ago. We signed agreements. We are allies for peace. You can and should be both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. The conflict is between people who make war, and people who make peace.” I have been waiting for a long time to hear this, but hadn’t known it.

Author and activist Starhawk once wrote, “When we stand for peace as women, it is not to make a case for our special victim-hood, but to represent a different vision of strength.” These words connect deeply with what I have been learning from the teachings of Cree Elders, like Lorraine Sinclair of Edmonton. We need to find balance again.

We need women to be strong so that men can be strong in ways that are healthy. Yin yang.
Calgary, February 2003. I wake in the nights staring into darkness, seeing the faces of children growing up in a violent world in Israel, Palestine, Canada, everywhere. I hear Bush’s words of war and terror. It is time for another Women in Black group.

I phone my friend Ronnie Joy Leah, a professor and dancer, and ask “Is it time?” She says, “Yes.” We send out the invitation and meet two days later. We are six who want an end to violence and bullying. We all like the idea of standing still and quiet in the storm, of providing a visual symbol of peace. We want simplicity; we’ll stand the second and fourth Fridays of every month at noon at the Famous Five statues in Olympic Plaza. We want those world-changing women behind us. We agree we want positive messages on our signs: “Imagine a Kinder World”, “Children Deserve a World without Violence”. On Valentine’s Day 2003 we gather in the circle with Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir and Louise McKinney. The temperature is below zero, but I don’t feel cold. The media await us, curious to know why women would dress in black and stand silently when everyone else is talking more and louder. Thirty-six women come the first day.

Today there are 185 Women in Black groups worldwide; nine are in Canada, two in Alberta. We join others who want to build a better world: The Raging Grannies, Project Ploughshares, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Faith and the Common Good. We are one more patch in the quilt of peace being stitched with love to warm the world. Our texture is soft; our colour is black.

“Women in Black is part of an awakening here and around the world,” Marylene Schultz said at the vigil in Jerusalem. “As long as some are saying no to violence, there is hope.”



In Calgary: phone 228-1791 or 670-0883 or visit: http://members.shaw.ca/cpogue
In Edmonton: email bsykes@shaw.ca or visit www.arts.ualberta.ca/peace/wibwebsite

Carolyn Pogue is the author of 6 books including, Stories for a New Day: Peace Fables.

NOTE: This story on Women in Black is reproduced with permission of the author and the original publisher: Synchronicity. The Magazine, Doreen Nystrom, Editor, P.O. Box 63118, RPO West Hillhurst
Calgary, AB  T2N 4S5. 403-270-9544 editor@synchronicitymagazine.ca (Feb.-March, 2004 issue.)

For more information on Women in Black, click on Current Events and Actions (left side menu of the main page).

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