Six years ago, Detta Regan had a vision to ride a cycle route in the Middle East. What started as merely a sportswoman’s challenge has since become a pacifist movement which today involves 500 women from 50 countries. In the last 5 years, 300 kilometers and 10 days of constant pedaling has created a path towards a “peace from the point of view of gender,” headed by those who suffer the most during war: the women.
By Cristina Ávile-Zesatti. Corresponsal de Paz Translated by: Katie Dedman
In 2004, Detta Regan decided to embark upon a unique bike journey. At 53 years of age, this woman from London decided that she wanted to ride across the plains of Jordan and Libya. A difficult task, although Detta did not do it alone, but in the company of 226 other female cyclists. They joined forces from more than 20 countries, and unlike their guide, some had never been on a bicycle in their life.
A journey: With your body as the only protection, you seek out the best paths, avoid or overcome obstacles in your path, make a big effort, put up with pain, always keeping moving...and while doing this, you try to enjoy the landscape that surrounds you and the people who appear in your path.
A group journey: Where the destination of one is the destination of many, and any individual setback delays the whole group; where solidarity and mutual aid are the keys for each step forward. Isn’t that a metaphor for life?
This was precisely the vision that Detta Regan, an ex-fire-fighter and ex-air traffic controller, had after a visit to Palestine, when she started a tireless search for a way to draw attention to “a different story:” a story of the possibilities for peace in the Middle East.
“I wanted people to feel inspired by this journey, so that the women who joined forces to do what seemed to be the impossible could then go back to their countries and tell people that coexistence is possible; I also wanted them to tell stories about the people from Syria, Jordan and Palestine, places where it seems that conflict has destroyed any other experiences of the people who live there.” says Detta during a telephone interview with Corresponsal de Paz.
We do what is forbidden
A poet once said, there are no paths, paths are made by walking. The idea that two hundred women from different backgrounds and beliefs would cycle 300 kilometers, crossing borders and frequently meeting the customs of the different countries which give women only minimum freedom, was absolutely groundbreaking.
Detta Regan was not just aware of this, it was exactly this point that kick-started her creation of “Follow the Women,” a non-profit organization that, despite bad omens, soon picked up support and backing.
“The idea was simple, although it seemed quite complicated,” admits Detta. “Women from all over the world travelling together, talking, living together, helping those with difficulties...forging mutual respect while on the trail. Some wear veils, in accordance with their beliefs, but the clothes we wear are comfortable and simple and suggest equality. After the days of hard graft, we dance and sing, share our stories...and see a different side of each other.”
5 years after the first trip, the number of participants and nationalities in Follow the Women has doubled, with more than 500 women from 50 different countries joining the “cyclists for peace.”
For the sixth trip, it is already a well-oiled machine: local sponsors and volunteers take care of the logistics, smooth over any border-crossing issues, and prepare the improvised dormitories for this “peace tour,” hotels here, university campuses or camping grounds there... and, of course, there is a party in every place.
The number of countries visited by “Follow the Woman” has also grown: in 2004 the peace trip lasted 8 days, and has now risen to 10, because the route has also grown. From Jordan, Libya and Syria, the group led by Detta Regan now ventures as far as Ramallah (in Palestine, 15 kilometers from Jerusalem.) and even as far as the Israeli Allenby Bridge, guarded by 3 control points which controls the entrance and exit of the people.
“I knew that the idea would work. I always knew it, although everyone told me it was dangerous, that we were women doing something prohibited, that they would throw stones at us, insult us, that we were running all kinds of risks and what happened? The people, the men, the authorities, the women and children all came out to welcome us with flowers and music, calling to us: “Thank you for coming, for making the world see us and see us in a different light.”
The path to peace...the woman’s way
Detta Regan gives off a contagious energy about her vision of peace. For her work with Follow the Women, she received the “International Women of Europe Award” in 2002, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize during the “1,000 women for the Nobel” initiative in 2005; her organization has now grown, and receives support from Queen Rania and Princess Basma Bint Talal of Jordan.
She is the daughter of a former British soldier, a veteran of the first Gulf War who, according to Detta, before he died asked Detta to work for peace: “My father was convinced that only women would be able to force change.”
Today, Regan is 57, nearly the same age as her compatriot Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was when she published “Three Guineas,” a 1,000-page essay on masculinity and war, which she wrote in response to a letter she received from a man who asked her a pointed question: “When has it ever happened before,” responded Woolf, “that a learned man asks a woman what, in her opinion, is the way to avoid a war?”
Certainly nowadays, Follow the Women is not the only women’s organization seeking their own way to bring an end to the conflicts, or to help victims of war and violence.
The Women in Black in Israel and Palestine, the Catholics and Protestants who make up the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the Association for Relatives of Disappeared People, the Women’s Peaceful Way in Colombia and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina are but few examples of gender-based initiatives which are nowadays creating their own routes to peace.
But in these initiatives, not only are the “souls of women” united in their reconciliatory actions, but also, and above all, a common cause for concern is that practically none of these movements has had its moment, or the opportunity to form a part of formal diplomatic efforts in the resolution of their respective conflicts that “they,” those mainly affected, want to resolve.
When will men ask a woman for her opinion on how to prevent wars?
It was just at the end of 2000 when the Security Council approved “Resolution 1325,” in which the United Nations recognized the importance of the growth of a female presence in the construction of peace. But it is not just this, since the document also accepts a widely-known story which explains this presence: historically, and up to the present time, women and children are collectively the most affected by violence, whether in situations of war and armed conflict or not.
In March 2009, Doctors without Borders released their report “Shattered Lives” which reported that, in the places where this organization has access alone, they treated almost 13 million victims of sexual violence in 2007, the majority of those, women and children, who had been attacked by those who were supposed to protect them: parents, relatives, neighbors, police and soldiers.
“This figure translates to 35 rapes per day, just in the 127 areas covered by Doctors without Borders, and each victim has a horrific story to tell (...) the damage cannot be completely repaired, some psychological trauma will remain for life,” the report explains.
And, despite the fact that sexual violence has been historically used as powerful, regular and efficient “weapon of war,” and it was not until 1998 when the International Criminal Court (ICC) established the Rome Statute and ruled that “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy and/or sterilizations, among other forms of sexual violence, would be prosecuted as was crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”
If war is masculine, then so is peace
The American writer Henry Miller once wrote: “if our change is directed towards a better reality, it will be a woman who will show us the way.”
Hints of this change are shyly pushing through following initiatives like Follow the Women, which has two parts idealism, but also a pragmatic realism whose effects cannot be immediately seen, but is slowly making its presence known. For Detta Regan, the true force of this “route of peace” is to empower women.
“Some of our cyclists have never been on a bike, and even fewer have tried to cross both physical and psychological borders. It is about showing them they can do things that seem impossible, and at the same time, show the world that links between people from “supposedly enemy countries” are not a utopia (...) we are all afraid, this is a normal feeling, but we cannot confront this fear as we have done up until now, going against other human beings.”
The team leader of this peculiar tour, which travels across various countries in the Middle East, recognizes that their efforts are not enough, not only in the number of territories that they visit, but above all in their influence on the “realpolitik,” the mainly masculine centre which makes the “heavy” decisions in the real world, and within the limits of an almost always unilateral diplomacy.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine which, after 60 years of confrontations, is the oldest of our recent history, experienced one of its worst escalations of violence since the Second Intifada (2000) between December 2008 and January 2009. Even the name of the Israeli offensive was brutal:
The operation, entitled “Cast Lead,” resulted in the deaths of some 1,400 Palestinians, a third of whom were children, following bombing raids using weapons prohibited by the Geneva Convention in populated areas. The UN Security Council, the same body that calls for more peace processes related to gender, did not issue and resolutions or condemnations.
“I know that this trip is not enough to convince those in power about the uselessness of war and the suffering that goes hand in hand with it, but I think we will have a multiplier effect through every woman who feels stronger, through every woman who has learned that it is possible to coexist, through every woman who can recognize that borders are drawings that have been forced upon us, and that peace is not only a wish but a conscious and daily action that requires effort.”
“Rhythm” in cycling language, is the number of pedal rotations per minute, and it seems that the women’s approach to peace still has time to improve its rhythm: Resolution 1325 has already been translated into 70 languages, but it is true that, in recent years, very few women have been present at “official” peace and reconciliation processes, while in places where violence continues (during wars or not) the views of gender still run into the same obstacles as before.
Follow the path: Follow the Women Detta Regan turns 58 in August 2009 and, the following October, the 6th tour, which is continuing to recruit women from all over the world, will take place.
The leader of this initiative talks to Corresponsal de Paz with the absolute conviction that female empowerment and the message of the possibility of living together and unity will get through in time, just by repetition and teaching....a strike by constant pedaling.
She was a fire-fighter and learnt to put out fires. After this, she was an air traffic controller and learnt to handle several problems at once. For many years she worked as a youth worker and from the children she gained an unfailing energy. Today she knows what they call “the loneliness of the long distance runner,” whose tenacity to get there faster and farther, had to first learn to do little and slowly.”
Detta has proposed a new goal for the next peace journey. Next time she wants to reach the very heart of the conflict.
“I want to go to the Gaza Strip; I’m trying to raise some money. I want to go there, on my bike, with my body as the only protection and deliver the money that I can raise to hospitals and shelters....everyone tells me that it could be dangerous, but this is my new vision for the trip. I follow my visions, and if I have to, I will go alone.”
So, let's “Follow the Women” this year, and find out whether they manage to reach the line that has been without peace for more than half a century: She won’t go alone, because her daughter and other cyclists have already said they will go with her. If they achieve this feat, a small group of women from all around the world will have finally managed to break the siege in the Middle East.
Women and equality: an X- ray of a long journey
It has been more than 30 years since the United Nations officially declared, in 1977, that 8th March was International Women’s Day, but today that name hardly serves as a yearly pretext to remember the figures that do not vary from year to year:
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the current economic crisis will affect women more than men, owing to the job insecurity afforded to women even before the financial collapse. The organization predicted that some 22 million women would join the global unemployment list.
Currently, 70% of people living in poverty are women. However, it is the women who work on 80% of the land, although only 1% owns their own land.
The pay gap between men and women still hovers between 30% and 40%, even in developed countries.
As is the case every year, the 2008-2009 report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women states that there have been very few advances for the equality of women throughout the world: they are still objects of systematic discrimination with regards to access to education, healthcare and profitable goods. As a consequence of this, they are the ones who suffer the most from hunger and poverty.
Organizations including Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, Doctors without Borders and Human Rights Watch, as well as the United Nations itself, are this year making a statement: that it is the women and children who suffer most during wars and armed conflicts.
The Coalition to Stop the use of Child Soldiers estimates that there are around 500,000 child soldiers around the world, a third of whom are girls, whose vulnerability is greater as they suffer violence and sexual exploitation.
Press releases collected by “Code Pink,” a pro-peace women’s organization, claim that a third of American women soldiers who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported rapes or other forms of sexual abuse by their male colleagues. Many of these women died in the trenches, murdered and raped by “friendly fire.”
A little more than a century after the first Nobel Peace Prizes were conferred, only 12 women have received this accolade. The initiative that brought together 1000 Women for the Nobel, to which Detta Regan belongs, did not receive an award, although this year, at least, the Nobel Prize was awarded to a woman.