Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood. — Gloria Steinem
A radical, a crazed lunatic, unpatriotic, a communist. . . perhaps even a sorceress.
Strong women speaking truth to power have always received some form of derogatory press. By the time either the media or more conservative, political zealots are through, an outspoken intelligent woman can be portrayed as the next Medusa.
Medea Benjamin is no exception to the rule. Brushing past the slurs, an intelligent observer quickly concludes that Medea is no ordinary woman. With a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University and another in economics from the The New School, Medea has worked as an economist and nutritionist in Latin America and Africa for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health organization, the Swedish International Development Agency and the Institute for Food and Development Policy. Medea is also co-founder of the San Francisco-based human rights organization, Global Exchange, as well as co-founder of CODEPINK Women for Peace.
So what turned “a nice Jewish girl” from Long Island into a political activist?
“Now that goes back some,” Medea remarks. “Actually, I think it all began for me in high school. I remember when my sister’s boyfriend was sent to Vietnam and mailed home a souvenir of an ear of a Vietcong. I was so disgusted by it that it set me on a path of trying to understand why some people considered others lesser human beings. I wondered how we could reverse that. Also, there were real inequalities in the high school that I went to which resulted in race riots. So here I was in a supposedly quiet, suburban Long Island neighborhood that was suddenly racked in the sixties by race relations and war. That kind of thing certainly leaves a mark on you, especially if it happens earlier in life as it did in my case, when you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do and become, and how you want to live your life. All of it urged me down a path of trying to get people to like each other more.”
Helping people to like each other can sometimes be a monumental task. Intolerance, abuse, greed, political gain . . . War is often the sad result of their erosive wear. CODEPINK Women for Peace is dedicated to turning the tide -– from funding war and aggression toward looking for new avenues for our resources such as green jobs and better healthcare. They are resolved to helping support policies based on diplomacy and compassion rather than those rooted in fear and suppression. From stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preventing new aggressions from arising, CODEPINK seeks to activate, amplify and inspire a community of peacemakers through creative campaigns and a commitment to non-violence.
Oftentimes when we hear of such monumental endeavors, we tend to envision some huge campaign behind them. Not always the case. CODEPINK, Medea explains, started when a group of women concerned about the environment got together for a retreat that was organized by a group called Bioneers. “We sat around for several days talking about ways we could address the environmental crisis. During our breaks, we also talked about 9/11 and the US response—the bombing of Afghanistan. We discussed the pending war in Iraq and the color coded alert system that Bush had just declared. It was so odd and nobody knew what to do. We were laughing about it and saying ‘okay if it gets to orange is that when we get out the plastic tarps? When do we use the tape? Do we put it around ourselves or the terrorists?’ So initially, we had some good laughs about the whole thing. But of course, we also realized how serious it was. We could see there was all this negative male energy out there — Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and also George Bush. We felt we needed to inject some rational, loving female energy into the situation. So we put the group together, initially thinking we’d call it Code Hot Pink until we found that the URL was taken by a porn group,” Medea conveys, laughing. “So we dropped the “hot”, which was very disappointing to some of us, and we went with the name CODEPINK. The idea was to turn the color pink on its head from being this nice, feminine, sweet color to one that was very energetic, bold, and determined.”
That bold determination has created initiatives like Women Say No to War, inspiring women around the world to become active participants in peacemaking and social change. “We wanted to mobilize women in this country, but we also found in the process that women from other countries were contacting us and saying it’s time we all work together across borders. So Women Say No To War is our attempt to take on issues that we can work on with other women. Some are joint projects like supporting refugees from Iraq who are now living in countries all over the world, but particularly in Syria and Jordan. We’re also helping to promote women’s voices in Afghanistan who are speaking out against the war, as well as working on smaller scale projects run by women that we feel are helpful in building community.”
CODEPINK has actively supported women of the Middle East when they have risen up to oppose injustice. “In Afghanistan, when the Karzai government was passing a law in order to get more votes from the Shia community, the president, Hamid Karzai, agreed to a law that basically instituted marital rape. Some of the women in Afghanistan rose up to oppose it under very difficult conditions, and we were there to support them and to echo their desire to get rid of the law. Our efforts were successful to a large extent. Then there’s Iran. We have looked toward people like the Nobel Peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, for guidance with regard to good campaigns to support. We have also taken groups to Iran, Afghanistan, and to Iraq—obviously places that are oftentimes dangerous and difficult for Americans. That’s because we feel it’s important for us to meet directly with women from different countries so we can learn from them and have a deeper understanding of how we can best support their efforts.”
Women-induced peace initiatives are creating imprints in other Middle Eastern arenas. CODEPINK, as Medea explains, is one of several groups which are taking on the gritty task of demanding humanitarian relief for the Palestinians virtually imprisoned in Gaza. “CODEPINK became very involved in Israel/Palestine after the Israeli invasion of Gaza that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead. We felt particularly concerned that US tax dollars and our military hardware was used in the attack. CODEPINK has also taken many delegations to Gaza in the last two years. It’s hard to get in which is why many other groups don’t try. We had a beautiful delegation of almost 100 people, including Alice Walker, that went in on International Women’s Day in 2009.”
Medea also stresses the need for us to remember what’s actually happening in Gaza. “There’s a population of nearly 1.5 million people who are living in what’s equivalent to an open air prison. They aren’t allowed the freedom to go in and out of the area, really only surviving thanks to the United Nations and other charitable organizations,” Medea states. “So we’ve been trying to push the Israeli government to lift the siege. Along the way, we’ve made great connections with the women inside Gaza and have been encouraging them as much as possible, both politically and practically. We support projects like women’s crafts, for instance, so they can make a living. That’s what we do — back concrete projects as well as longer-term policy goals.”
Yet real change in policy will never manifest while human beings are being held in bondage and humanitarian aid denied as the international community stands by, allowing it to occur without repercussions. The Humanitarian Flotilla situation is no exception. What have we really seen in the Obama administration that leans toward condemning such actions, especially with regard to the Israeli government?
“We haven’t seen much change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration in terms of policies toward Israel,” Medea asserts plainly. “They’ve been somewhat firmer on the issues of settlements but continue to really turn a blind eye to Israeli violations of human rights.”
The U.S. government has been complicit in arming Israel and enabling its human rights abuses, including the ongoing siege of Gaza that has kept 1.5. million people living in the world’s largest open-air prison. In July 2008, the United States signed a contract worth $1.9 billion to transfer the latest-generation of naval combat vessels to Israel at U.S. taxpayer expense. Currently, Congress is in the process of appropriating a record $3.2 billion in military aid to Israel this budget year. This aid must be stopped. CODEPINK – May 31, 2010
Medea gives her assessment as to why the U.S. government continues to support Israel in such a biased way. “If you look at who controls policy, it’s really the lobby group AIPAC –- American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It’s really strong and well organized. On one level, you have to be in awe of their ability to influence policy. They even draft legislation and get it passed before we’ve even heard of it. It’s quite remarkable,” Medea states. “Along with the NRA and AARP, AIPAC is one of the strongest lobbies we have in the U.S. It gives tremendous amounts of money to the Democratic and Republican parties so it has a very fierce stranglehold on policy, always showing unconditional support for Israel. We’re actually mobilizing now to try to directly expose AIPAC and how it’s policies control American interests. When AIPAC holds its annual meeting this coming March in Washington, D.C., CODEPINK will have a counter gathering there at the same time in order to discuss what we consider a more even-handed policy.”
No doubt, confronting organizations such as AIPAC by shedding light on hard-nosed and unfair tactics are becoming more and more necessary. It’s also become obvious, as well as essential, that women’s voices are heard in any serious attempt to attain peaceful resolution.
“Oftentimes women and children are the number one victims of war, and they are usually excluded when it comes to trying to find peace,” Medea remarks. “Take the example of Afghanistan where women’s oppression is used as a justification for U.S. military intervention, and yet when it comes to trying to develop a process of reconciliation, women in Afghanistan have had to struggle hard even to have a place at the table. CODEPINK has been working with the women there to push for them to gain that seat. It’s not easy because whether it’s the Taliban or the Karzai government or whatever, no one wants to include women in peace talks. So since most of the time women are not at the table, then the process often doesn’t take into account women’s needs. Using Afghanistan again as an example, any peace process has to include a guarantee that girls will be able to go to school under a negotiated peace settlement. For women, that issue is high up on their list. Yet if they’re not at the table, who’s going to voice those kinds of demands. That’s why CODEPINK is helping to support them in having more of a say. That’s why the United Nations passed Resolution 1325 which states that women must be part of any peacemaking process.”
Although women’s roles are emphasized, CODEPINK is not exclusively an organization of women. Medea talks about men’s response to the organization’s mission.
“The support we get from men, depends on what part of the world we’re in. Unfortunately, there are still many areas where women are treated more like property than like human beings. There’s still so much work to do to guarantee women’s rights. Actually, we have a lot of men that work in CODEPINK that are our allies, our colleagues. They’re some of our best activists. So even though we’re a women-initiated group, we have never been exclusively made up of women. We feel that this gives us a unique kind of position. We have the women’s perspective that’s front and center because it’s run by women, and yet we get the best of both worlds because we have a lot of good male ideas and energy behind our initiatives.”
And some of those endeavors can take on a life of their own. People from all over the world converging in Egypt in order to cross the border into Israel to help the people of Gaza . . . Sounds like a stupendous feat meant more for a movie screen, yet a real life attempt was made during the Gaza Freedom March on December 31, 2009. What happened during that initiative and what was CODEPINK’s objective?
“We had been taking delegations into Gaza through Egypt on smaller levels — about 100 people each time,” Medea explains. “The Gaza Freedom March was an attempt to scale that up. We thought that meant we might get something like 300 people joining, but it turned out that 1,300 people signed up from around the world.”
Egypt is the route that the delegations have been taking to get into Gaza because the Israelis won’t let them in if they make the attempt within Israel. This particular time the additional people joining the march was a surprise for Egyptian officials. “The event became massive, and that really scared the Egyptian government,” Medea states. “They had been allowing us in with these smaller delegations, but since this one was so big, the government clamped down and said that they would not allow us into Gaza, and they would not allow us to be meeting in Cairo where everybody was converging.”
The official Egyptian government explanation was that seven or more people gathering would be considered illegal. “So imagine,” Medea adds, “here we were in charge of 1,300 people from all over the world, and we’re told we can’t meet. So it ended up that we had a lot of demonstrations in the streets of Cairo that really shocked and rocked the government there. Because we were coming from so many different countries, officials were too embarrassed to really crack down on us the way they would have if we were Egyptians. As it turned out, they eventually allowed 100 people out of the 1,300 to go into Gaza with humanitarian aid.”
And what about the possibility of holding another Gaza Freedom March? “What we’re doing now is going back to smaller delegations,” Medea conveys, “more manageable ones. In fact, the next delegation we’re taking will consist of about ten people. In terms of doing something massive, we would prefer doing that in Washington D.C. where we can try to influence the politics of our government and where we have more control over our ability to meet.”
In the midst of her reflections on the Gaza situation, Medea reveals that it’s difficult to perceive how a resolution will come about. “It’s so hard to see, with the one-sided nature of U.S. policy, how we’re ever going to move in a direction that will give peace to the people who are living there now,” Medea remarks. “I still tend to feel very despairing about the future of that tiny strip of land.”
Medea also recognizes the need to be lighthearted from time to time to alleviate the gravity. “We did a little parody of the peace talks in front of the White House the other day [Peace Charade 2010]. I play Hillary Clinton. We try to have some fun with this stuff so we don’t get too despairing. Doing protest after protest all the time — it can become overwhelming.”
As the world watches the Israeli/Palestinian dilemma, many of us wonder what is happening among the women of Israel—Jewish and Islamic—with regard to their own ventures toward peace. Are more peace groups forming and are some of them working directly with CODEPINK?
“There are a number of wonderful women’s groups,” Medea offers. “There’s one called Coalition of Women for Peace that consists of both Jewish and Arab women. These women have learned over the years how to work really well together. They hosted one of our delegations that went to Israel. At one of the separation walls, we did a very creative protest that consisted of Arab, Jewish, Israeli and American women, calling for the removal of these walls. We basically forced the Israeli military to let us go through one of the checkpoints which had been closed so that we could meet and embrace. It was a very beautiful moment. In general, when protests are led by women, it’s almost guaranteed that it will be peaceful. That really challenges the Israelis in their response, making it harder for them to react with violence.”
Still, the occupation is affecting women and children on both sides, Israeli as well as Palestinian. “The other day, there was an attack on Israeli settlers that led to the death of four people, including a pregnant woman, and Hamas took credit for it. Credit . . . what a horrible term. It’s awful when you see civilians being killed no matter who they are, and in this case, a pregnant women was murdered. It’s very painful. There’s been worldwide condemnation of that attack, and rightly so. But what I have also seen are daily attacks of women and children in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and in Gaza. As a Jewish American woman, I feel that I have to speak out against those incidences because my government, the Israeli government, and the media tend to belittle the lives of the Palestinians. When a pregnant woman dies at a checkpoint because she was not allowed through to get to the hospital in time, that does not become worldwide news. When a woman in Gaza is killed by an Israeli bomb, that does not become worldwide news. So I feel that we have to speak out against all violence against civilians.”
There are other ways in which the Israeli occupation, especially the siege, has taken its toll. “In Gaza, where the economy is disastrous, there’s about a fifty percent unemployment rate. So just trying to put food on the table is very difficult for women. Men are feeling impotent because they don’t have jobs and because they don’t feel they’re fulfilling their obligations toward their families. So you also see a rise in domestic violence. All of this, unfortunately, relates back to the lack of basic freedoms.”
Yet, no matter how often women around the world hear about the situation in Gaza as well as in other conflict zones, it is becoming more imperative that we not only feel the outrage and compassion and desire change, but we actually become forces of that change—basically being less abstract and more concrete. In short, taking it out of our heads and onto the street.
Medea addresses the concept. “One of the most exciting things for me about CODEPINK has been empowering so many women around the country and around the world to become active because we tend to complain a lot and oftentimes on the computer—writing to each other, bemoaning the state of the world and not getting out to really make change. It’s too easy to be an armchair peacemaker. So we’ve got to get people off their couches and away from their computers and out into the world, be that into the streets or into the halls of congress or into their local shelters helping poor women, wherever that is. We have to be actively engaged in changing this world. Actually, it’s the best possible antidote to depression. It’s very easy to get depressed when you watch the news or you sit around and exchange e-mails about how bad things are going, but it’s very inspiring and refreshing when you get out in the world and try to make change, mostly because you’re surrounded by other women—and men—who are doers rather than talkers. And that is very inspiring.”
Seems like CODEPINK is appealing to the deeper qualities of women as a whole. There’s a spiritual element to how women are being addressed:
We call on women around the world to rise up and oppose the war in Iraq. We call on mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters, on workers, students, teachers, healers, artists, writers, singers, poets, and every ordinary outraged woman willing to be outrageous for peace. Women have been the guardians of life-not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men, but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because of our responsibility to the next generation, because of our own love for our families and communities and this country that we are a part of, we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children, and the driving desire of that child for life. — Starhawk
CODEPINK calls women to break free from learned roles and become more of what many consider to be spiritual activists. It seems to be a revolutionary call in its most positive sense.
“It’s a call that really involves all aspects of our lives,” Medea relates. “How can we be nurturing in our homes and out in the world, how can we be compassionate in our communities and build a government that reflects that compassion? How can we find beauty in our daily lives and bring more beauty to the larger world? So it’s a very holistic kind of call that really looks toward an era of cooperation and negotiation over the use of force, as well as having that sense of cooperative involvement prevail in everything from our homes and families to our government policies and the way we live and work with each other in the broader world.”
Yet, in order to create an era of national and international responsibility, we cannot avoid asking ourselves a simple question: How are the actions of our government affecting us as people? If we allow leaders to actively support, especially financially and militarily, nations that are consistently involved in human rights violations, we are basically signing our name to their agenda. In essence, we are condoning their actions by not speaking up to refute them and demanding change.
But is the tide finally turning in our own country? Are men and women in the U.S. getting the message?
“Yes and no,” Medea states. “I think that there was tremendous energy that people put into overcoming the Bush years and bringing in a new era. We pinned a lot of hopes on Barak Obama and then felt that after that huge rush of energy to get him elected that we did our job and we could go home and relax. That was a huge mistake because, unfortunately, there is no relaxing. This work is a constant. It requires constant involvement and vigilance, and I don’t say that in a negative, exhausting kind of sense. I say that in a positive, energizing sense. We need to remember that when we let down our guard, the forces of violence never lets down theirs, and we can find ourselves back where we were before.”
It appears that people may have become a little too complacent since the election of Barak Obama, too willing to allow the policies to emanate from Washington instead of from the grassroots? “The energy we used to get rid of the Bush administration should have then been turned into positive energy to force the Obama administration to be the government that we hoped we had elected,” Medea asserts. “Instead, it went from how do we push against something we don’t like, i.e. the Bush administration, to just feeling like the Messiah had come and he’ll take care of it. Let this powerful, wonderful man, Obama, just do his thing and we’ll be okay. I think that, particularly for women, we should have known better, and we should have not let down our guard. Actually, it’s been very difficult for CODEPINK to organize since Obama has come into power. We still want to end the wars and bring our troops home. We still want to close the foreign military bases that we have–over 800 bases around the world–and invest that money in green energy, good jobs and education. We still want to have our government support basic human rights and close down Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus. There’s all kinds of things that we still have left to do, and yet we haven’t found the same energy among our supporters that we had during the Bush years.”
Whether we hear it through the media or during town hall discussions, people have expressed a sense of deflation.
“They certainly feel let down,” Medea concurs. “First they were elated. ‘Okay, let’s let Obama do it for us.’ And then when he didn’t do what we wanted, whether that was ending the wars or bringing in new policies that we desired on everything from jobs to the environment to immigration, we got disappointed and depressed. That’s not good for us as individuals and it’s not good for making the changes we want to see. That’s why CODEPINK is constantly out there trying to revive people’s sense of being active, engaged, and involved. Presently, we’re part of a big mobilization [One Nation: Working Together to Fund Jobs, Not War] that’s taking place on October 2nd in Washington, D.C. It’s being organized by civil rights groups and unions, and we’re bringing the peace message into that mix. It will definitely be bigger than Glen Beck’s and certainly not as white,” Medea adds. “The point is rather than just complaining about Glen Beck, we had to ask ourselves: How do we mobilize forces for what we believe in?”
Perhaps part of the answer lies within a simpler framework—how men and women can become more pink.
That may sound a bit too simple, maybe even frivolous. After all, when one thinks pink one does not normally think strong or unwavering. Perhaps, as CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin concludes, the color pink has taken on a special meaning and force.
“Wearing some pink helps,” Medea says. “We had a lot of people who hated pink when we started who have now come to really love it, including me. I was not a pink person at all. I’ve learned a lot from the whole pink thing. It sort of brightens up my outlook a little more. People’s responses are certainly a lot more positive. Sometimes doing and saying something dressed in black tends to put out a little more of a dire, negative energy than if you’re conveying the same message dressed in pink. The color can be very disarming. It can disarm the police, it can pacify your adversaries, and it can make people want to join you because it’s more inviting and positive. So I would say in general, while we’re working on these issues of life and death, rape and violence, and so many other negative and heartbreaking conditions in the world, adding a little pink can bring some joy into our work.”
That may be worth contemplating. After all, pink is the color of universal love . . . the color of approachability, harmony and inner peace. The color pink is connected with the heart, our source of compassion and human decency. It’s even been known to neutralize violent behavior—definitely a desirable result.
Maybe we do need a color-coded, wake-up call: The heart of humanity is blocked, causing fear, anger, and hatred. In short, it’s causing war.
So pink may be the warning color we require, detangling us from the knots of domination and greed that have enabled us to squander human life. Perhaps what we really need is to be saved from our own ignorance.
Now that’s a CODEPINK alert.
Photo credits: Introductory photo — Julie Brashares. Medea at the podium — Rae Abileah. All other photos — by permission.