The power of silent witness
Saturday afternoon and the shoppers on Edinburgh’s Princes Street are going about their business as normal, weaving past the Greenpeace fundraisers, Save the Whalers and Big Issue sellers. The crescendo of anger from a pro-Palestinian demonstration marching past turns few heads.
One goup of protesters, however, stops shoppers in their tracks. Thirteen ghostly women stand stock still, dressed head to toe in black and silent. The sight leaves shoppers visibly unnerved.
The same protest happens every weekend in New York, Belgrade, Jerusalem; wherever Women in Black gather to bear witness to war and mourn the victims on all sides.
Last week their peaceful form of protest, which has succeeded in scaring former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, moved centre stage, when a delegation of peace campaigners were shot at in the West Bank during a vigil, commanding an international audience to ask who these women are and why they do this.
Many of the women involved in the groups are middle-aged, some are grandmothers. Most have never been politically engaged before and yet Women in Black has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and hailed as "one of the most remarkable forces in British politics".
According to the Edinburgh orgniser Jane Lewis, women who have never protested before are looking for a way to voice their feelings about violence, especially since 11 September. Many, she thinks, felt a horror at the terrorist attacks in New York but were equally uncomfortable with the war on Afghanistan. For those women, the movement provides a focus without - as one member puts it - "having to stand up, be political and shout dogma".
"We’re here to prick consciences," says Lewis, "to help people think there are other ways. It feels like a chance to reflect; it’s very powerful, standing there, not being led into an angry response."
A crucial difference, she says, is that most political action focuses on the rights and wrongs of one side, harnessing nothing but blame and anger. "A lot of the action around Palestine, for instance, glosses over the violence the Palestinians are causing too,"she says. "It’s important to look at all angles."
Rachel Amey, who took part in Saturday’s vigil in Edinburgh, holding a placard proclaiming "Justice Through Peace", had always been put off demonstrations until she came across Women in Black. "Most protests seem to involve anger," she explains. "This is much more peaceful, thoughtful."
Likewise, 65-year-old retired publishing consultant, Irene Fekte, whose placard reads "Terror is no antidote to Terror". She would never have dreamed of taking part in a demonstration before. But following the terrorist attacks in New York and the firebombing of an Edinburgh mosque, she felt she had to do something. The women’s solemn demeanour and their silent protest, she believes, forces people to stop and think about the real consequences of war.
Women in Black emerged in 1988 when 15 Israeli women stood in silence on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, carrying placards calling for an end to their country’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the women did nothing more than stage a vigil dressed in black, they provoked a powerful reaction: Israeli motorists spat on them and accused them of "mourning the Palestinian enemy". The women were undeterred, and continued their weekly vigils, joined by Palestinian women. Soon 40 Women in Black groups had sprung up across Israel and the West Bank.
As the movement has grown, its focus has shifted on to other conflicts. In the early 1990s women in the former republic of Yugoslavia held weekly vigils in Belgrade to protest at the Serbian regime. New Yorkers gather every week outside Central Library. Women in London gathered under the statue of Edith Cavell near Trafalgar Square protesting against the Gulf War and, since 11 September, terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. Cavell’s statue carries the words she wrote in 1915: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness of anyone."
Women in Black has no manifesto, figurehead or constitution, but a sign of the movement’s growing influence came in June last year when it was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In March, 2001, the Belgrade branch, which had been highlighting the systematic rape of women in the former Yugoslavia, was awarded the Millennium Peace Prize for Women from the United Nations’ Development Fund for Women. The women’s vigils have unsettled world leaders of all hues. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic branded them "dangerous allies of America", while in the US they have been labelled potential terrorists by the FBI and threatened with a Grand Jury investigation.
When Israeli tanks thunder into Nablus on the West Bank as they did last week, the reverberations can be felt in Dundee. This is no longer as far-fetched as it might have been 20 years ago when then Councillor (and now Glasgow MP) George Galloway twinned the two towns. Last year two women, Hayat Hewitt and Andree Ryan, organised Scotland’s first Women in Black vigil in Dundee. It sparked a debate in the city on the situation in the Middle East. Between them, the two women are in an ideal position to see the suffering on both sides.
Hewitt is originally from Lebanon but she came to Scotland 22 years ago to marry a Scot. Last year she visited Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus, witnessing at first hand the humiliation suffered by Palestinian people. Even before the recent wave of atrocities, she says, their lives were characterised by a system of apartheid. One day, a car she was travelling in was held at gunpoint for almost an hour. She was terrified but her fear soon turned to rage at the injustice. "The rage was so great, I could see myself as a suicide bomber," she says. "The anger inside at the injustice is uncontrollable."
Andree Ryan is a Jew whose parents lived until their deaths in Haifa in Israel. Haifa was the scene of a recent suicide bombing which killed 16 Israelis and injured 30. Proportionately, this would be like 160 people being killed in Glasgow. Or like sitting in the café of Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, where we meet, expecting the next young man through the door to blow himself up.
Ryan was there two weeks ago to empty her parents’ apartment and saw for herself what the wave of Palestinian terror is doing to the psyche of ordinary Israelis. "I was terrified," she says. "The towns are dead, people are too scared to go out. Most people are saying: ‘Let us get out of Palestine and have peace.’" People have become paranoid, she says. "When I got on the plane to come home, there was a woman writhing in pain. Part of me wanted to help her but part of me thought: ‘Perhaps she’s swallowed a bomb.’"
Like increasing numbers of Women in Black, the two are no longer content to stand quietly by. Last summer a number of these "Hell’s Grannies" moved into the front line in the West Bank, joining demonstrations, staying in the homes of threatened Palestinians, turning themselves into human shields between the Israeli army and its targets. They stood at army checkpoints, photographing soldiers as they stopped people trying to leave or enter their communities and recording the names of those they arrested. The women witnessed the torture of Palestinian prisoners in police custody which otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
According to environmental campaigner George Monbiot, Women in Black are taking on the role that should by carried out by international peacekeepers. "These volunteer peacekeepers are seeking to do precisely what foreign governments have promised but failed to do: to monitor and contest abuses of human rights, to defuse violence and to challenge Israel’s ethnic cleansing programme. Their actions put us all to shame. They are my heroes."
In Monbiot’s view, the presence of the women as "human shields" may have explained Ariel Sharon’s uncharacteristic restraint at that time. More recent events, however, have shown that the Israeli forces are no longer prepared to take into consideration the presence of Western peace activists. Last week, 40 activists in the International Solidarity Movement, an organisation with strong links to Women in Black and led by Glaswegian technology consultant Kunle Ibidun, were fired on by Israeli soldiers. One of them, Kate Edwards, a community worker from Manchester, said "I never thought for a moment that they would fire live ammunition at us. Then I heard several more bangs and I realised I had been hit in the stomach." Edwards later received emergency surgery to remove bullet fragments which had caused severe internal injuries.
For the Scottish Women in Black who plan to take a delegation to Palestine later this year, they may need to be prepared to die for the right to "bear witness". And after last week’s horrific events, there are fears that Women in Black may be losing their value as deterrents.
For Jane Lewis, the international situation can at times be overpowering. "A dozen women standing still for an hour every week in Edinburgh is very little compared to the international war machine. But to me, it is important to do what we can. I have to stand up and do something, say: ‘I don’t like what’s going on, this is the real human cost. There are alternatives." It would be easy to feel overwhelmed but we encourage people to feel they are not powerless. It’s about making people stop and think.’"
As the chanting peace marchers made their way down Princes Street on Saturday morning, bystanders were arguably more taken with the antics of the police horses rearing alarmingly at the front than the anti-Sharon sentiments being bellowed through loudspeakers.
Outside Register House, though, many shoppers stopped to reflect on the message of Women in Black. Some appeared to be profoundly affected by the silent vigil . As one young man said: "It takes a lot to stop you in your tracks. This did."