I am so glad I went to the breakfast for “WOMEN, WAR & PEACE”, a series to be aired on five consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 11th on PBS. Check-in was 7AM, which is usually when I go to bed, so I just stayed up all night. I couldn’t take any chances because the UN was in session and EVERYONE was in town, so the security made any sort of travel to that area problematic. Because the breakfast was at The Four Seasons restaurant, we were definitely in the area.
Of course, as is the norm in NYC, if you give yourself enough time, you have no problems and arrive painfully early. The streets and subways were overflowing with security, but no one was zoning in on me for a pat-down or bag check. I stood with all the photographers against the building next door, checking my cell to waste time. When I finally entered the restaurant, I was behind a perfectly Uptown-groomed woman. She was willowy, her streaked hair was tucked into a French twist and she was in that sleek Uptown uniform of slightly-flared black slacks, a black top and a massive tomato red shawl wrapped around her like a cocoon. I have always admired the women who can carry that look off; whenever I try throwing a shawl or pashmina around me, some odd end always hangs wrong or one side slips down. I am an utter failure at this. I’ll just remain Downtown, with my leather and jean jackets, thank you very much.
When we both arrived at the main floor, I realized the woman was Gloria Steinem! She was one of the breakfast’s hosts. She quickly went off to speak to some people, but after I was seated, she came into the Pool Room and sat down at her table, all by her lonesome. I wanted to go over to her and tell her how much my husband and I loved the recent HBO documentary about her, “Gloria: In Her Own Words”, emphasizing that it was my HUSBAND who found it and watched it a second time with me (I thought she’d appreciate THAT), but I saw that she was busy with her cell, so I didn’t want to intrude.
The room quickly filled up. Except for the tables for the hosts, the rest were open seating, so the table I was at was filled with every sort, from bankers to media types. It was smart of them to feed us immediately because, once the breakfast kicked in, we were all having a great time and chatting away with each other. Of course, calling a breakfast at The Four Seasons “breakfast” does not really describe the experience. Sure, it seems conventional on paper- coffee, juices, rolls, yogurt and berries and scrambled eggs with either bacon or fruit – but, come on…this is The Four Seasons! I have never tasted grapefruit juice or berries so sweet, the eggs were soft and luscious with TRUFFLE SHAVINGS on top, the bacon was exactly the way you’ve always wanted it and, though all of the women avoided the rolls, the one man at the table continued to devour the breadbasket from the moment he sat down until the final applause. I envied his guts…if not his gut…
I later thought about the luxuriousness of this feast when the big hit of the morning, African peace activist Leymah Gbowee, remarked how she was amazed that New Yorkers would not only attend a function so early in the morning, but would actually be alert. She said that in Africa, if anyone actually got up in time, they would, instead, sit around grumbling. Something tells me that if, in Africa, there would be the promise of such treats, and there might be quite the turnout and plenty of sudden good moods.
After the meal, the speakers spoke, each eloquent, each interesting, each passionate. We were told that Norway is in the forefront of worldwide women’s issues and that their way of dealing with the horror of this past summer’s massacre was exactly along the lines of how women naturally deal with such situations: Healing and bringing everyone together to move forward, rather than wallowing in revenge-driven blood lust. The Norwegian speaker pointed out that women are the agents of change and care-givers and that, whereas 99% of wars are started by men, 75% of the casualties are women and children. This number exceeds the number of soldiers adversely affected.
The speakers who followed, including esteemed broadcast journalist and author Lynn Sherr, UN Women Deputy Director and Assistant Secretary- General Lakshmi Puri, and actress/activist Geena Davis (The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media), kept repeating these numbers. They also agreed that women must be part of any peace process and are now demanding seats at the table in war-torn countries. “Unless women are at the table, there will be no peace whatsoever,” declared Sherr. Puri agreed that women are essential to peace building efforts, adding, "Make sure that when we build back after a conflict, we build better for women. War would never have happened in Bosnia if women were in charge.”
Another point constantly made was that, even though rape is used as a weapon of war to try to control women, “…women must no longer be seen as victims, but as leaders and essential to post-conflict peace being sustained.”
Though war is most likely seen through images of soldiers and the mechanics of fighting, women matter if we ultimately want to have peace and security. "Why women matter is because of who they are.” Said Puri. “These conflicts have a feminine face.” It is that face that has to make life go on during the disputes and keeps the young, elderly and fragile safe. “Women are forcibly co-opted as soldiers to protect communities, though it is against their nature.” She insists.
And then Leymah Gbowee spoke. She was amazing. She IS amazing. Very much a centerpiece of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, which is part of the series, she was part of the group of women in Liberia who went against Charles Taylor, forced the peace process to move forward and helped to bring to power the first female head of state there. She was introduced as “one of the wise women of this effort.” She gave an impassioned speech, focused on her contention that “women are NOT victims.” She gave harrowing examples, like how one woman was raped by soldiers who made her sons hold her legs open, then wiped themselves with her sweater and made her put the sweater on. This woman refused to let that ruin her or make her feel shame in front of her boys. She carried on PROUDLY as their mother and raised them to be educated and good men. Gbowee also spoke of women walking for days with their children and, if there was a small amount of rice, they would take off their headscarves, tie them around their stomachs in order to not feel hunger and, instead, give the rice to the children. Gbowee even illustrated this with her own head wrap. “My joy for this series is in dispelling the myth: Women are survivors and fighters, not victims. These are the stories of revolutionaries!”
At this point the entire room stood up and burst into a sustained hearty applause. I can honestly say I was glad I had stayed up until that ungodly hour to have heard these speakers and to have seen snippets from the documentary. I will most definitely check “Women, War & Peace” out, as should you.