Commencement Address May 2002

Sunday, May 26, 2002 - 12:00pm

Honored Guests, Faculty, Ladies and Gentlemen, and of course,
The Graduates of 2002:

Thank you very, very much. It's an enormous privilege to be here on this truly magnificent campus, in the company of such distinguished fellow honorary degree recipients, of course the faculty of such an exceptional institution, family and friends of the graduates of the Class of 2002. Thank you all.

Now I have to warn you at the outset that I have been given a great deal more time than my fellow recipients, so I will do my best, as was so well expressed earlier. I know that you have many, many things that you are looking forward to. I have looked forward to this day for a very long time. In fact, for six years, since I was first invited for the 1996 graduation. I was hoping to speak here last year as well, but at least for me it is a great joy and pleasure that it is you that I share this day with and your family and your friends. Each time it seems Middle East politics and related difficulties intervened and, while they have stopped, today is the day.

It was brought to my attention recently, that both events are still recorded on the Mt. Holyoke web site, making it look as if I were somehow entitled to two honorary degrees. I certainly wouldn't want to appear greedy still, one can never have too much of a good thing.

And Holyoke is certainly rich in good things. You have courses here I wish fervently had been available to me when I began my rather unusual career: Your Speaking, Arguing and Writing program would undoubtedly have helped diminish some of my agony over my early speeches and interviews; and your Center for Environmental Literacy could have provided excellent preparation for my extensive international work in the field of conservation.

My own university education, Princeton, did however, offer some uncommon experiences that helped prepare me surprisingly well. One was the pioneering challenge of membership in the first class of women to enter Princeton. Quite the opposite from the supportive environment you have enjoyed here, when I arrived the male to female ratio was more than 22 to 1 a situation which, as you might imagine, required the quick development of diplomacy and survival skills, and as it turned out excellent preparation for my work in more traditional societies in the Middle East.

Holyoke is rich, too, in a wealth of diversity of a kind that I had to travel far to experience 25 years ago: you have at least 75 countries represented on campus, as well as an International Guest Students program, nine active faith groups, Muslim Students Association, and a joint Kosher/Halal dining hall where Jewish and Muslim students can join together to observe their dietary laws a simple and inspiring, example of members of the Abrahamic faiths embracing what they have in common.

Holyoke is also rich in a long history of women's leadership. It is a place where you all can draw on the past to support your efforts to change the future. From your experience, here, and that of the distinguished Holyoke women who have gone before you into the wider world, you know that women can be leaders in any areas they choose.

Mt. Holyoke's position as a college dedicated to women's advancement in a region rich with history resonates especially with me, for I am a woman dedicated to progress in a region where the past and present are alive, and interact daily. If you think Mt. Holyoke is old at 165, imagine, in Jordan, with every step we take forward into the future, we are reminded that we are treading pathways marked out over millennia, from the founding of the first human cities 10,000 years ago, through the flowering of the three great Abrahamic faiths, through the crossroads of trade and tumult over centuries.

We do not let that slow our steps towards progress, especially where women are concerned  throughout history, the world over, women's feet have too often been hobbled and bound, literally and metaphorically but on such ancient paths we tread carefully.

True progress, while it solves problems, must grow out of history and tradition; it cannot be dictated by fiat. It must respect and work with the culture of those expected to embrace it; it cannot be externally imposed.

This has been a primary focus of my work, over the past 25 years combined with my efforts to bridge our cultures by addressing widespread misconceptions concerning Arabs and Muslims particularly women. Few westerners realize that in the 7th Century, Islam liberated attitudes towards women and granted them specific social, political and economic rights long before Western societies did, such as the equal right to education, to conduct business, to own and inherit property, and not to be coerced into a marriage, instead introducing a marriage contract, a kind of early pre-nuptial agreement, to assure the rights of the woman in particular.

According to the Quran, God or Allah said, "I waste not the labor of any that labors among you, be you male or female--the one of you is as the other." And, the Prophet Mohammad said, "All people are equal. They are as equal as the teeth on a comb."

Women the world over, including in the Muslim world, have had to struggle with the limitations placed upon them by less enlightened members of their societies. Islam fought against this from the beginning, and today, conservative, intolerant and restrictive interpretations of tradition and scripture clearly do not reflect the beliefs of the majority of Muslims nor the intentions of the Prophet himself.

But rather than dwell on the aberrant and oppressive beliefs of those who would twist the teachings of Islam --important as it is to correct the dangerous and false perceptions they have engendered -- I would like to focus on the inseparable issues of women, leadership, and peace in our time - vitally linked themes which I believe more accurately reflect the true message of Islam and the teachings and life of the Prophet Mohammed, a man who surrounded himself with strong women such as his first wife, once his employer, who later supported his mission . . . and his last wife who led troops into battle to defend the faith after his death. Even beyond the religious consideration, I think these are subjects of interest and crucial import to us all.

Unfortunately, since the first time I was invited here, circumstances have changed for all of us. In 1996, the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty was young, the Palestinian and Israeli governments were actively engaged in seeking peace, and hope and optimism were in the air. Graduates here in the U.S. were embarking on a path of unprecedented prosperity and promise.

Today, uncertainty reigns. And after the tragedy of September 11th, for many of you, it is an uncertainty darker and deeper than what seems like the simpler worries of only last year — worries about jobs, the economy and what to do after graduation.

This new dimension of anxiety and uncertainty for many Americans and others after September 11th is nothing new in many other parts of the world. Just as many friends and relatives of the World Trade Center victims remain in wretched suspense about the exact/ precise fate of their loved ones, the Women of Srebrenica in Bosnia have been waiting for almost seven years for news of theirs, since 8000 Muslim men and boys were marched away and never seen again.

Just as many Americans now face anxiety over terrorism, citizens in both Israel and the West Bank live in a constant state of alert for attacks, whether by belt bomb or tank, and women, children and men cannot walk freely in Afghanistan and in many other places in the world without fearing the very ground under their feet may explode from those insidious, deadly leftovers from yesterday's wars--- landmines.

While Americans may worry about anthrax and even smallpox attacks, mothers in Africa worry about protecting their children from a whole range of much more common diseases ranging from dysentery to AIDS.

Recent events have highlighted for some in the US, although perhaps not yet enough for others, that they share the problems of the rest of the world, whether they want to or not. The continuing terrorist threats have jolted many into the realization that there is no security in isolation. Now, rather than going on the offensive, it's time to assess the role of the US in the community of nations and cultures, to look together for positive ways to solve these problems, and to pursue peace.

And here at Holyoke, you know that women can lead that process.

In the long history of a world full of war, women have always at least been paid lip service as the guardians of peace. From Aristophanes, comedic heroine Lysistrata, head of a very effective women's peace network with a 'to put it delicately' rather novel negotiating style, to Emily Green Balch, who helped found the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, to another Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released once again from house arrest in Burma, women have acted as symbols in the intermittent human battle against militarism/military oppression.

However, far too often, women have been commended in public for their commitment to peace, just before the doors to the negotiating room slammed shut in their faces.

And when they did get a foot in the door, they needed exceptional courage and resolve to introduce reform. I recall a story of the first woman on the staff of a large institution, who inquired about a particularly unjust labor practice. "Madam," she was told, "we have done it that way for one hundred years." "Sir," she replied, "your hundred years are up!"

This kind of initiative can make vital and lasting contributions to the search for peace in our world. Tapping the unique talents of women peace builders can, I believe, ultimately end global conflict.

And we desperately need new perspectives, for women's sake, and for humanity's. Women are vital to the peace-building process, and peace is vital to the advancement of women.

Women know better than anyone else that peace is not merely the absence of hostilities, but must grow from a positive human security founded in equity, tolerance and understanding.

Women are often the most vulnerable victims during war, and the ones left to pick up the shattered pieces of their societies, as well as their own lives, when it is over. I have witnessed this throughout the Middle East, in the Balkans , and in Asia. I have seen it in the faces of the women of Srebrenica, struggling to carry on without their husbands, fathers and sons, and even without certain knowledge of what happened to them. I have seen it in the supposedly "temporary" Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, and elsewhere in our region, where women endeavor to make a life for their families and hang on, even half a century later, to the hope of returning to their homeland one day. And I have seen it in those striving to overcome the devastation landmines have wrought on their bodies and their lives in rural Jordan, in Lebanon, in Cambodia, and in Vietnam.

Women bear the brunt of war, but they have almost never been included in the process that launches or resolves conflict. And this is not only unjust, but also unwise.

On the most basic level, peace begins in the community, and women hold together the community. To exclude them undermines the very foundation of peace. For quite some time now, the glittering prize of the global marketplace has been held out as the incentive for peace building. But women on the ground in war zones know only too well how much cleaning up needs to be done before a society recovering from conflict can even begin to contemplate international commerce.

The two edges of the sword that most seriously threatens the world's women are violence and poverty. Conflict destroys infrastructure and diverts funds from development in areas women desperately need, increasing the poverty from which they already suffer disproportionately. And poverty is most often the underlying cause of conflict.

When given training, resources and opportunity, women will most often invest in their families. And as they become genuine economic players they also become active decision-makers in social and economic affairs, improving their own status and influence, as well as the overall quality of life and stability of their communities.

Through that increased sense of empowerment, and supported by training and practical skills for mediation and conflict resolution, these women in so many different areas - and I have seen this in Jordan- are personally taking the lead and responsibility for our larger quest for equity, understanding, and peace.

In this way, we are making progress at the community level. But it is time to incorporate women, their voices, opinions and ideas at the highest political levels. This process has begun, both through the example of highly visible women, and through an increasing feminization of politics, as women bring their issues to the forefront of national and global consciousness. Politicians the world over are beginning to realize that women vote. A record number of women are running for Governor in US States this year. Women's movements are gaining momentum, and visibility. Never before have so many women held so much power.

It is no accident that NGOs have emerged as a major force for world change as women's issues are coming to the center of the world stage. [Women have always been the foundation of the community. Now they are applying increased education and entrepreneurial skills to longstanding areas of concern, and their community activism is transforming civil society.] New networks are linking grass-roots women's organizations to the political process, to make women's voices heard in the corridors of power.

Those of you who attended the “Afghanistan and Beyond†Forum in the Gamble Auditorium in March, heard some of those voices, such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, and Women Waging Peace, groups that use networking, political influence, NGO and private sector partnerships and especially new technology to bring about change.

Women, for the best and the worst reasons, have extensive experience with reconciliation. Opposed to violence, whether by tradition, temperament, or training, they have always relied on creative strategies and an intuitive pragmatism to stop war.

They know that in the day-to-day effort to keep their households and their communities functioning, ideology is a luxury they don't have time for. They don't agree on everything, but they try to bridge their differences to share the resources and information needed to restructure their societies.

Women leaders from Israeli and Palestinian territories have formed such coalitions as the Jerusalem Link to forge a common language for peace in the Middle East. Similar examples abound from Azerbaijan to the Andes. True, alliances may be born out of necessity, but in the long run such joint ventures encourage the development of peace-oriented leadership.

After all, it is not only physical infrastructure that must be restored after decades of betrayal and violence. Trust must be carefully interwoven into the fabric of society, threading together the views and needs of the citizenry. Agreements among official leaders are not enough. Acceptance and reconciliation must begin in the streets of war-torn communities. Women working for peace often find the middle ground that eludes political leaders — that ground on which peace is built in the daily lives of the people.

Let me add this, even though I realize this is long, but for the grandfathers, fathers, brothers and sons in this audience, of course, I would never want to imply that it is only women who pursue peace. I have just come from a conference at McGill University in Montreal, celebrating the McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building. The program brings together graduate students from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, to work and study together for a Master's degree in Social Work-- practical skills needed to help the citizens in their conflict-scarred communities,--while also developing a professional and humanitarian network of mutual support , respect and understanding so crucial to our efforts to promote a culture of peace in our region.

Now, especially now, when peace seems more elusive than ever, it's time for all of us, governments, businesses, and private individuals alike, to commit ourselves to the bold and often dangerous work of peace-builders, especially women. Women have long enough been the symbols of peace ,the Goddess Pax, perched on a pediment above the Parliament Buildings of the world, often the first to be knocked down when the rockets flare.

Now it is time they took their rightful place as the makers of peace, in the negotiating and legislative chambers, using their all too intimate experience with war and their expertise in coalition-building to create a new world community. To the men, or anyone, who says we must continue as we always have, it is time to say, "Sir, your hundred, or thousand, or ten thousand years are up!"

You can and must add your voice to the many other women's voices around the world calling for peace, justice and tolerance. Thanks to the power of technology in the service of democratic principles, never before in human history have ordinary people had so much opportunity to do good.

Given the intense commercialism of Western culture, and the current anxiety about job prospects, it is easy to assume that college graduates are dyed-in-the-wool materialists, interested solely in personal gain and career advancement. But there is heartening evidence to the contrary. According to a UCLA study last year, more students are speaking out and acting against injustice, than any time since 1966. Most important, the survey also marks a record number of students volunteering their time, talents and effort to help others.

There are many examples of dedicated service among both current college students and alumni, who give not only of their funds but, more importantly, of themselves. And while some graduates make service their careers, others choose to contribute outside their work, all finding their own answers to the question of how best to put their values and privileges to work in the world.

With your energy, your education and your intelligence, you have so much more to offer not only to the world of work, but to the world at large. Those qualities are needed now more desperately than ever before.

I was impressed and heartened when I read about the Graduation Pledge that many of you have signed since February. I won't ask for a show of hands, or even try to do a mental tally of green ribbons, because such a pledge is a thoughtful, internal commitment. But I do congratulate you, any of you, who are trying to work out how to make a living while making a difference in the world.

In the face of uncertainty, the essence of humanity is hope. You, the new graduates of Mt. Holyoke College, the next generation of women leaders, can nurture that hope. And you can build a future for us all.

God bless you and many, many, many congratulations.