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Alina Lebdeyva and the red carnation

A Blow for Peace

by Kalpana Sharma

The Hindu

Her weapon was a red carnation. Her enemy was war. And she struck a royal cheek three times to register her protest. A 16-year-old schoolgirl momentarily brought to the front pages of some newspapers the fact that there are people all over the world who are against the bombing of Afghanistan. Ms. Alina Lebedyeva is a student in std. 11 in Riga, capital of the Baltic state of Latvia. She said: “I did it because I am protesting British involvement in the bombing of Afghanistan and Latvia’s attempt to join North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.” And for her action of slapping Prince Charles three times with a red carnation, she faces a possible 15 years in jail.

Young Alina’s action has interesting symbolism. She used a flower, which could not do the object of her attack any harm. She is a woman. And she took a calculated risk in doing this. What motivated a young girl like her, one wonders? The police claim that she is a well-known political activist. But “well-known” already by the age of 16? Despite the culture of violence fed to them by the media, why are young people like Alina protesting against war and demanding peace?

You would not think this is happening if you scan the media, either here or in other countries. The news continues to be dominated by talk of war even if occasional opinion pieces reflect another point of view. But the fact that many ordinary people, young and old, are feeling apprehensive about the turn of events after September 11 is not being adequately reported.

It is true that many of the protests are relatively small. Not all of them are as dramatic as Alina’s “action”. Yet, the very fact that peace rallies are being held suggests a process of thinking that needs to be acknowledged. The demonstrations are a culmination of this process, of the realisation that a war cannot bring about peace, or end terrorism; that the repercussions of a policy of using violence are so grave that no country, no people, can remain untouched by it.

Even in the heart of American redneck country, Texas, the home state of the current incumbent in the White House, there are protests that are being planned. At the end of October, Texans United Against War was formed. They are now planning a week of protests in every major city in the state of Texas. They are also negotiating a “peace bridge” between the United States and Pakistan and are considering taking a delegation from the U.S. to Pakistan. Their three point programme is simple: “Oppose war, defend against racism, protect civil liberties”.

The Texans are only the latest on a long list of groups in the U.S. who have registered their opposition to war and urged restraint on the part of their Government. One of the earlier statements was made by the War Resisters’ League barely a week after September 11, when all such sentiments could easily have been misunderstood given the charged atmosphere in the country. Since then there have advertisements in newspapers signed by hundreds of people, and other forms of protests that have clearly revealed that there is no unanimity in the U.S. about its Government’s action. But once again it is the media that is refusing to recognise these protests and what they represent. The illusion of widespread support for the bombing is thus being reinforced.

All these groups in different parts of the world, from the U.S. to Japan, Australia, Britain, countries in Europe and even India and Pakistan, have called for a halt to the bombing specially during Ramzan. In Pakistan, thousands of people travelled to Rawalpindi at their own expense earlier this month to protest against the war. The Alliance for Peace and Justice called for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan. But it also raised slogans against terrorism, against religious fanaticism and religious terror and demanded a crackdown on armed bands and religious fanatics. This set them apart from the pro-Taliban groups that have been demonstrating in Pakistan and who are constantly in the news.

For the media, in general, these protests have been non-events. They are considered to be part of the same liberal-loony-left brigade who oppose war and globalisation and who support human rights and environmental protection. But the media is missing out on a story, on the fact that these protests are part of efforts by civil society groups to underwrite peace, regardless of whether there is war or relative peace. For instance, in the on-going conflict between Israel and Palestine, few people know that Women in Black, a group of women peace activists, have been demonstrating every single week for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Israeli and Palestinian women hold a silent vigil each week. But the very regularity of their protests makes them a “non-event” for the media.

As the weeks drag on into months, one gets an uncomfortable feeling that just as these voices for peace are being muffled or ignored, Afghan women will be forgotten as political negotiations attempt to forge a settlement in their country. Women are often used as an excuse to wage war. But apart from constantly being shown as victims of war, their ability to negotiate peace is hardly ever recognised.

Instead of discussing whether the future government in Afghanistan – if and when this war ends – will comprise followers of King Zahir Shah, or have representatives of the Northern Alliance and supposedly-moderate Taliban, Afghan women living outside the country’s borders with a strong commitment to peace, secularism and democracy should be involved. One cannot forget the voice of sanity that Ms. Hannan Ashrawi brought during the Middle East negotiations. Surely there are more than a few equivalents amongst Afghan women. Which government will have the courage to push for their inclusion and central role in forging a peaceful future for Afghanistan?