Interview by Rosa Bennathan

Margaret Owen is the octogenarian director of NGO Widows for Peace through Democracy. I went to her house in London where she fed me baklava while showing me photos of her grandchildren & of the impossibly tiny boat on which she had crossed the Iraqi border the week before. For a woman whose organisation has ‘Peace’ in the title she gets a surprising glint in her eye whilst describing attractive women wielding semi-automatic weapons, and speaks at such a pace that I can only include a harshly reduced version of her conversation here – which is a shame because what she has to say gives an intriguing glimpse into international relations and the status of widows across the world. 

RB: So, you’ve just come back from Rojava [a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria] – what did you learn?

MO: They’d really got a new way of promoting, guaranteeing and establishing gender equality in every aspect of life. The PYD– the main Kurdish political party in Syria –  have co-chairs, a man and a woman, in every single institution, organisation, association – whether it’s a hospital, medical, educational, military, police, councils, every single body is headed by a man and a woman. And that doesn’t mean that the woman chair only does women-things, she’s just a co-chair with the man. And I never saw anyone writing about Rojava, they were all writing about Syria and the opposition and al-Qaeda, but you never saw anyone really writing about what was happening within Rojava.

Turkey, which has got its own problems with its own Kurds, felt very threatened by the Syrian Kurds setting up their own sort of semi-autonomous region. So they closed the border and built a big wall, so the only way you could get in to that bit of Syria was through Iraq, and that was closed until last week – you had to have very special permission to get in, and that was arranged through the foreign affairs division of the Kurdish regional government, and so I got in – the only person on a sort of funny little tin boat that dragged me across the Tigris.

I visited and just saw that these amazing people – there’s no humanitarian aid going in – but they’re actually hosting something like 200,000 IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons], and 90% of these IDPs are women and children. For the women it’s terrible because there was a fatwa a few months ago in Syria that it was halal, ok, to rape infidels like Kurdish women. There are women who’ve watched their husbands being tortured and killed and been subject to gang rape – so they’re dealing with all these women who are traumatised from unbelievable violence, apart from the fact that they’ve also lost their homes, their villages, and they are now defending this frontier, with the armed bit of the PYD, which is the YPG, the People’s Protection Unit.

And these are amazing because the majority of them, these soldiers, are young women who’ve come straight from school. They’re 18 or 19, incredibly beautiful, committed, wonderful, and they’re trained in one month, in ideology – which is the ideology of their leader Abdullah Ocalan (who’s been in prison for thirteen years), who believes in freedom of belief, and freedom and liberty for everybody irrespective of gender, religion and ethnicity, and in military strategies. These women turn out to be the best with a gun, with the Kalashnikovs – they’re far better than the al-Qaeda people, who don’t care, I think, if they’re going to lose their lives because they’re going to have their thousand virgins.

They’re there to be martyrs, they’re not fighting the Assad regime, they’re not fighting for democracy, they’re not fighting for the revolution, they’re fighting for a caliphate – and so they’re quite careless both of their ammunition and their guns, and their lives. And so these young women are beating them – I mean, there are men as well, and they’re on the frontier. They’re not attacking, that’s what’s really important, they keep saying ‘we are defending, we’re not aggressive, we’re not attacking’.

My mission to go there was really to see what the women were doing, to see what help they needed, technical assistance and training and help so that they could really take part properly in the peace process and also to be sure to really alert the international community and to also try to tell everybody whether it’s Russia or the UK, the US, ‘Stop selling arms!’ I mean cut off Saudi Arabia for God’s sake, stop selling arms to these people either side, we’ve just got to stop the killing.

Anyway, that’s why I went there, and also because, as you know, I head an international organisation on widows and wives of the missing, particularly widowhood in the context of conflict and post-conflict, and of course 90% of the IDPs are women, and a very great many of them are widows. And so, the wives of the disappeared, and those who don’t know, are their husbands dead in Assad’s prisons, have they been tortured to death – where are they?

In many of the countries where we’re really seeing all these conflicts in Africa and South Asia there are a plurality of laws; you have modern law, but you have very strong customary law, traditional law and religious law, and within that sort of framework, widows are the most wretched of women – they carry stigma in widowhood. Even the words in the vernacular, for widow in South Asia or Africa, are ‘sorceress’, ‘witch’, ‘harlot’, ‘prostitute’ – they’re terrible, and they often are regarded as simply a chattel of the estate when their husbands die, even in peace. In these countries, they, whatever the law says about equality or the right to inherit, very often widows don’t earn anything, they’re kicked out of their homes, all their property is grabbed – they’ve got no right to anything, except to be inherited maybe by a husband’s brother or used as a domestic slave or sexual slave. And then when they’re refugees or IDPs, then where are they going to be resettled, what’s going to happen to them? Often they’re the very last people to be resettled because there’s such a stigma, so they’re also terribly vulnerable, and their children are, to trafficking, to sex slavery, – they have no homes, so they tend to sell their little girls or marry their little girls off. So all this widowhood stigma is actually increasing child marriage to much older men, and so you have child widowhood.

RB: Why the focus on widowhood, particularly? I think it’s interesting that you talk particularly about widows being treated as chattels – is there a risk of losing focus on what causes widows to be treated in that way, ie that women more generally are seen as chattels?

MO: No, I think you have to address widowhood – I’m going back to Iraq in two weeks’ time to a meeting in Bagdad, the Middle Eastern region is setting up a meeting on female heads of households and widowhood, and actually I’m fighting and saying, ‘Don’t do female heads of households’. I was fighting that battle twenty years ago: let’s look at widowhood, because female heads of households could include women who were heading households because their husbands were abroad and sending back money. It could be, a female headed household could have widows in it who are actually also a mother-in-law who treats badly her daughter-in-law. I think we really had to look at widows because it’s they whose lives, whatever the law says, tend to be determined by very discriminatory interpretations of religion, custom and tradition, and they have huge problems of actually accessing the justice system.

So we need to focus on widows, because it’s there, something peculiar about widows – what is it all about? Why are they so inauspicious? Why are they so evil? It’s something to do with sex. They have known sex. They have been married and they are no longer under the control of any man. They’re no longer, as women, controlled by their father, they’re no longer a married woman controlled by her husband, they’re these threating women, so they’ll often talk about widows are prostitutes or whores – there are incredible and terrible burial and mourning rites that lots of people aren’t aware of. I mean in Africa in many ethnic groups there are the most appalling mourning and burial rites, which involve, for example, exorcising the evil spirit of the death by having to have sex with all the men at the funeral in the husband’s family, walk down to the river naked and this whole ritual cleansing by sex to exorcise the evil spirit.

Nobody ever really wants to talk about this, it’s a taboo subject. There are only two countries in Africa, Ghana and Tanzania, but hardly anybody actually knows about it, that actually have an addition now to the penal code to say it’s a crime to coerce a widow into harmful and degrading mourning and burial rites – nobody has defined it and there’s never been a single case, but at least it got as far as that. So there is something very special about widows, and it must be to do with that. Sometimes they have to, you know, horrible things where they have to sit alone in a hut, they must drink the water that the corpse of their husband was washed in and if they get ill it means they murdered him. It’s something we’ve really got to deal with, violence against widows.

There was a wonderful woman who headed the United Nations fund for population activities and she undertook this study and said there is no culture, or no tradition that is justified in perpetrating violence against women, so it’s just absolutely wrong. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I mustn’t do that, that’s their culture’ – there will be traditionalists in all these countries who say, ‘Stop interfering with our traditions, and this is Western, about women’s rights, it’s Western about trying to eliminate violence against women’, that’s absolute rubbish, of course, but it’s very strong. When we were at the UN last March, where the priority theme was eliminating violence against women, we nearly didn’t get a document out of it, because there were about eleven countries that all linked up together, actually with the Vatican, trying to roll back the language of the Beijing platform on women’s reproductive rights, because that’s a violence against women, and they just didn’t want to talk about, for example, intimate partner violence or about marital rape.

So I hope I can go on, but I don’t know how long I can go on – because it is weird, you’re sitting in my kitchen in Shepherd’s Bush and this is the office, and everything that happens for Widows for Peace through Democracy happens in between making bread and marmalade and it has no core funding. I was 81, 82 in May, and I’m just longing to find other people, somebody who doesn’t know what they want to do after university, because anybody could start to do it, and then probably I’d have more time to do some fundraising, which I never have time to do because I’m doing all the advocacy.

In South Asia, 6 countries, I’ve now set up something, the first regional consortium, it’s called SANEWD – South Asian Network for Empowering Widows in Development – there’s six countries, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Afghanistan. We’re also very involved with William Hague’s initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict. He set that up with Angelina Jolie last year, and now I think 138 countries have signed up to that declaration on preventing sexual violence, so I’m always trying to push that with the foreign office and the ministry of defence and DIFID, about how this widowhood thing, and sexual violence, I mean it’s a hugely invisible – no woman wants to talk about sexual violence – but for widows it’s so painful, it’s so difficult. I’d been in Rwanda shortly after the genocide, where there were so many widows who were deliberately infected with HIV. When they were raped they said, ‘We’re not going to kill you, we’re going to give you a slow death, and these widows – some of them who are still alive, incredibly ill.

And you see all these conflicts, now, it’s so different isn’t it – it’s just huge numbers of civilian deaths, but in a lot of these conflicts which are sectarian, you separate the boys and men from the women and girls. You kill the men and boys and you rape the women and girls.

But my very best partner in Nepal – they’re coming both to my UN meeting in March, and they’re coming to the meeting in Iraq in two weeks’ time. They’ve actually done something incredible – they’ve got widows groups in every village and about 80% of all – they’ve covered all the districts, and it’s the widows themselves who come together and pick up the data. Because it isn’t just numbers, it’s their ages, their support systems, their coping strategies, you know – and it’s also what they want, what they’ve experienced, and they’re doing it like that, and the government is now so interested because they’ve done this mapping and profile –thousands and thousands of widows in Nepal, including the Maoists, both sides – so now the government is finally going to, when it comes up with the next census is going to have a whole thing about widowhood in the census, which is wonderful.

Wherever widowhood is a problem we want to see the setting up at the grassroots level, widows banding together and being able to access the training and resources which would enable them to articulate their demands, and to be able to inform and have a voice with their government so that they can influence policies.

There was a move about three years ago in Nepal; the parliament, because there were so many young widows from the long conflict between the Maoists, brought in a bill that said that they would pay 500 rupees to any man who would marry a widow. Well you can see how terrible that was, all these men coming forward to get money to marry a widow, the widow wasn’t getting the money, the men were being paid. It was an absolute outrage, that was really putting into legislation the idea that, yes a woman is a chattel and you can buy her. So we made a huge fuss here and we were on women’s hour with Jenni Murray and my partner in Nepal was talking from Kathmandu, and we made a big international fuss and they ditched it.

The widows don’t want to be remarried except of their free choice, they don’t want it. I remember once in India going to a conference in Bangalore, they were talking about this, said they didn’t want to marry again – no more forced sex, no more beatings. They were grieving because they were widows, because of the inauspiciousness and stigma of widowhood. They weren’t exactly grieving for these husbands who’d beaten them. And then in most of these countries there are no pensions.

So, what’s wonderful about our Nepal partner, they’ve got wonderful income-generating training for women; they’ve set up shelters, they’re training women in non-traditional things like mending mobile phones, bodyguards, you know mending bicycles, incredible. They’ve got a whole programme about training women and teaching them about the names in English of flowers and birds to help the female trekkers, and to go as guides, and all sorts of non-traditional things.

There are a lot of organisations that do welfare for widows and maybe provide bakeries, sewing machines, well that’s not it, that’s not enough – they’ve got to have their voice, so that they actually participate in decision making and participate politically, because they’re so important, and they shouldn’t be seen as victims. They should also be seen as key players in development, they’re working for their countries’ good, and they’re working for peace.

Also read
Margaret Owen fact-finding mission to Rojava
The Miracle of Rojava
87-year-old from West London joins hunger strike in protest against treament of Kurdish MP

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