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Interview with Afeefa Syeed, Senior Advisor at USAID

July 18, 2010 by  


A Discussion with Afeefa Syeed, Senior Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development Middle East and Asia Bureaus

Background: This discussion between Afeefa Syeed and Katherine Marshall was in preparation for the USIP/Berkley Center/WFDD review of women, religion, and peace. The discussion focuses on Afeefa’s pioneering role within USAID and her rich experience there. She highlights the importance of listening to what communities want and driving programs from that perspective. Across many regions she has seen women as natural peacemakers, from family to community to regional levels, sought out in conflicts because of their skills and approach. She highlights the active roles of youth, many now rediscovering non-violence, and connecting across regions through new technologies both to learn and to build alliances.

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Interview Conducted on July 2, 2010

Bio: Afeefa Syeed is Senior Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development Middle East and Asia Bureaus, where she designs and implements initiatives and training on emerging programs, including engaging traditional and religious leaders and institutions, radicalization, and madrassah enhancement. She works with Washington based and mission staff to define best practices, highlight success stories, develop tools, and frame country strategies to bring expertise in engaging with the cultural contexts. Afeefa is a cultural anthropologist with a focus on grassroots development, with special interest in youth and women. She has worked for over 15 years with various international and grassroots NGOs and US and international development agencies, public and private. She designed and managed a model school whose core curriculum is peace education and civic engagement. She is a member of various interfaith, social service and political action organizations in the US.

What is your source of inspiration for the work you do? Can you reflect on what motivates you, both in the past along the path and today?

For me, much of what I have been doing through my life, regardless of job or position, comes as part of my identity, and that encompasses faith. My faith is very much embedded in a cross-faith understanding of justice. It is a way of life, the idea that faith itself grounds us in what we must or should do, as humanity. It is not religion itself, but a sense of connectivity that has shaped my experience.

This understanding and faith was shaped by my experience growing up, as a child of immigrant parents, by what my parents taught me and modeled, and what I have learned of my story and ancestral heritage along the way. They all conveyed an idea of spirituality that was an active spirituality. This was very much grounded in the inclusive practice of Sufism, and that in turn was part of the experience of my forefathers had as they migrated across Arabia, Cental Asia and then to Kashmir, where I was born and then imbibed through growing up in the multi fabric-ed American society It was a seamless part of the way I was raised. This spirituality is so multifaceted and grounded in my life experience that it is hard to say what dimension moves or motivates me. But it is integrated in a progression of how I understand, and have understood events and my surroundings at different levels as I have grown older. This spirituality is not just a force in itself but a connection to others, including to people from other faiths, or people of no faiths, as many people have experienced this applicability of spiritual approaches in their lives.

How has this shaped your understanding of what it takes to build peace?

In this context, my understanding of what peace building is about is a completely integral part of spirituality, and it is a spirituality that is a cornerstone of everything, and that moves us to action.

What grounds me in my focus on social justice or peace are above all the stories that I heard from a very young age, many coming from Islamic traditions, and then resonating in my American identity as well. Their message is that when you witness injustice, or something that does not serve humanity, you are called to take action. One story is about the Prophet Muhammad (s), who said, when you see injustice, you should do something with your hands- take action; if for some reason you can’t do it with your hands, do it with your tongue- speak out against the injustice and share with others. And if you can’t do with your tongue, if you cannot speak, do it within your heart or mind – feel bad about the injustice, do not settle for accepting it even in your heart, and seek guidance in approaching it. Here is where there is some sort of natural connection, a spirituality that is part of consciousness. Connection leads to action, whether it is for justice or peace. That is the least you can do, to be connected in consciousness, and it is an obligation. And this was easily reflected in all the great peacemakers I have studied and met from all corners of the world.

That is the mentality I grew up with, a life consciousness that has helped in shaping where and how I can act and what I should do. It has helped me to understand, as I have matured, that you have to choose your battles and helped determine what makes sense to do in a given situation. When I was much younger, I was much more vocal and out there, present at protests, ready to demonstrate, and prone to frustration. Now I have given much more thought to how to create change, and focus on how to establish the patterns and approaches that will not only bring change but also sustainable change, not just for a single group of people but for the community more broadly. I focus far more on how we change and on what it takes to have a lasting impact. That is also a factor in how I think about peace building: our approach needs to be integrated, very much focused on the long term, and accessible.

What has anthropology brought to your focus?

Working as a cultural anthropologist has led me to look deeply at the issues of self determination in communities. There is a tendency for those of us who work in international development, to come with set views about what communities want and need. But what we need to do is to understand how communities themselves prioritize what they want and need and how they identify themselves. It is not about how others see them but about how they themselves know who they are. That is what speaks to me.

And I also believe that we need to look much harder for the things that are happening that are right, especially looking at people of faith. What is working already? We can highlight and elevate it and bring that into our consciousness. Then we will not go into communities as if they are a blank slate, a community that we can make better by our standards. What we can do to help needs to be shaped by how they see that slate and what they have already written on it.

What led you to USAID (you joined in October 2008)?

It has been an interesting journey, as I have spent most of my career outside government, and the establishment. Most of my work and engagement in the past has been at the grass roots level.

My position, working on culture and development, was created as an experiment. It was the result of an important and encouraging process of change that has taken place within USAID over some time. People, above all those in the field, who are doing community based work, especially, are increasingly aware of where there are gaps in knowledge and know that they need a greater understanding to engage more effectively. So over the last few years, more and more folks in the field have asked for help, pressing for support because of the need to understand better the context of development work, including religion. They are aware that the social dynamics we are working in have changed so much, and are changing at an ever faster pace, because cultures are not static. This plea for help and awareness of a need to understand better was heard back here in Washington.

That was the backdrop for the position, but the scope of work and understanding of responsibilities is being shaped over time because no one was sure of what the needs and gaps were. But they did appreciate the concerns and call for more expertise. What is important is that it was not something top down, but responding to an initiative from the field , reflecting a global sense that there was a need for more expertise and better tools.

How does this involve religion per se?

My prior work on anthropology and culture has involved working with communities to explore issues of identity and has included building curricula, for training and education. Developing these models necessarily engages different parts of the community, exploring how communities understand themselves. That work brought religious leaders and actors into the picture.

One area of work was development of peace education curricula from an Islamic and multifaith perspective. That means the basic tenets of Islam, but also a broader spiritual perspective as part of how peace is understood and taught. I brought that experience and perspective from this previous work, and found that it resonated within USAID staff, especially in the field. That was because it was not academic exercise but practical application. The approach we advocate is to ask what kinds of models and ideas can be brought in, that resonate not just with the communities we are working with, but with USAID staff and US government officials. Some of them have been trained in some parts of this kind of thinking, but they have not been exposed to the practical tools that are needed to carry it into practice. So the focus is on the ways of engaging: the practical tools.

Part of the issue is the training and orientation of many USAID staff today. USAID used to have a large group of former Peace Corps volunteers. They had lived in communities for long periods. They understood well that culture is not just something nice to know about, but something concrete for the community, that shapes daily life and decisions. Today there are far fewer Peace Corps veterans, though there are some. Many practitioners in development today have been trained in project management, budgeting and evaluation. These are, of course, fundamental, but it means that the people involved have been less exposed to the ideas and concepts of culture, faith, and spirituality, as something that is fundamental to people’s understanding, how they see themselves. There are some gaping holes in understanding as a result.

The experience of working in USAID and developing this position has been interesting. The core conclusion is that many in the Agency and in the US government more broadly are interested and engaged in learning and being responsive. And much has been done to engage religious and community leaders in development, but not necessarily in a consistent manner and that is well documented. Some of the work we have been doing at USAID to create more consistency and understanding can be seen replicable models based on experiences and best practices collected.

And with the new Obama administration, there are new openings and new engagement, with a much sharpened interest in what is happing at the grass roots. It makes it even more meanrinful, and there are substantial opportunities to make a difference.

What about the issues of how women, religion and peace are linked?

I have always been involved in peace building, in my previous work and in my present position, but also in my personality and personal goals. So these issues, linked together, are a natural fit. Perhaps it is saying too much to say that women are instinctively or universally peace builders, but my experience is that many women, in many different parts of the world, see working for peace as their obligation. When they see something unjust, they want and need to do something about it. Women do it on a regular basis; it is part of being a member of a family. Women are the ones many go to for reconciliation and counsel, when they are in trouble. Even if they do not seek to have those roles, or be seen to hold them, in fact women are seen by their communities in that light, because they have that capacity and ability.

It is hard to make the claim or distinction that women are in some way better at peace making or conflict resolution, but the practical evidence is that women are more involved in this work and are often put into those positions.

I have had many interesting conversations, in villages, at the most basic levels, and in ministries, at senior levels of governments, about these issues. Women at all these levels talk about peace building not as a choice or an option. It is something that they are drawn to, and the way they talk about it and go about it is rather distinctive. It is risky to talk about the maternal or feminine approach, but many say that those are qualities that women bring. There is a sense of connectivity and spirituality that leads them to it.

And it is interesting also that women are considered spiritual leaders in many communities, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and other, even when they have no formal roles. I have heard women say confidently, and without any trace of arrogance, that their connection to the Creator is stronger. Some women even refer to their menstrual cycles as a sign of the gifts of God and their connection. They feel that their connectivity translates into action. Some of these conversations have come from places where the outside world would only see women as “oppressed by religion”.

How do you see this play out in practice?

In the many examples that I have seen of women in these peace making roles, in what they are doing, one interesting thing is that they often hold no formal positions of power. They are not ordained religious leaders or recognized in any formal way. And often they are not seeking positions of power. But they are nonetheless given authority, by their communities and families. Even though, in a Muslim community for example, women are not leading prayers, they are often the arbitrators and counselors. They bring a spiritual connection.

Another important trend is the various movements for reform within religious traditions themselves. These entail looking at the traditions, including the texts, that define women’s roles with a view to redefining what is taught and accepted about women’s roles, for example in the context of Islam. So the pressures for change are coming not just from outside, but also from inside. This involves women reasserting their identity, drawing on the texts themselves, and highlighting the need for women to have more influence. This can push the participation of women in new ways and in a new light.

What examples of this have struck you?

In Egypt, just recently, there is scholarship from within political organizations that are ideologically based that demonstrated some serious thinking and documentation about the position of women within these movements. They are considering their political roles but also their spiritual roles, in parallel with similar discussions in other reformist movements. It is a very dynamic conversation, and it is propelled at least in part by on the ground examples of women actually getting something done.

Another contemporary and very interesting example is the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. In a recent documentary about her, facets of her approach and style brought out dramatically some differences between men and women in leadership positions. This involves but goes beyond the discourse about how religion shapes these roles. One scene shows an arbitration process involving ex soldiers, who are demanding their pay and other benefits. The way the President approached the conversation and the protest made it very clear that this was a woman centered way of connecting. Just as one example, the ex soldiers addressed her as mother and she holding them accountable for their past deeds. What is important is that this is documented in the film, so the approach and framework are clear and available.

One example that I am personally inspired by is that of Governor Sarabi in the Bamyan Province in Afghanistan. She is a well respected leader and has worked tirelessly for development that is relevant and meaningful to her people. When I ask her what motivates her, she points to her sense of obligation to her constituents as an “amana” or trust that she must keep and is accountable for in front of God. She is revered by the religious leaders in her province who not only support her as an elected leader, but engage with her as an equal on issues of how religious tenets are part of the solution. Governor Sarabi has worked with religious leaders, as well as informal spiritual counselors who are women to address the issue of suicide bombing and how it is against the Islamic faith: the result has been a more progressive, developed and secure province in the middle of a war torn country.

The examples we collect and identify need to make clear that this is not just the end game however; it is the process that is undertaken.

What do you think this symposium should focus on?

In this meeting and others like it, we need to be much more serious about documenting and creating a body of information about what happens and how. The idea is not just to demonstrate that women are better at peacemaking, but to highlight what they do and how, so that we can share that knowledge.

Where should we look for the “invisible” women religious peacemakers?

I met many women spiritual leaders on my travels, now and before I joined USAID. Many of these were in Central and South Asia. I was looking for these leaders, and exploring what makes them who they are. These women are tremendously grounded in their spirituality, but they do not make a show and they are rarely if ever on the radar. Many do not wish to be and are not trying to gain attention.

I was recently engaged in a program in India, where there is an aggressive program that aims to learn from the experience of women’s political participation at the local level. It is linked to the new reservation measures that are increasing women’s roles in local governments. Through talking to the ministry in charge, we explored the differences they are seeing now that there are many more women. They have started to document the differences, as women become more involved in the political process as elected officials. The preliminary evidence is that with more women there is greater service delivery, less corruption, and more interaction between men and women in many sectors of community life. These types of results seem to be linked to increasing women’s participation. But we also need to ask the hard questions, and not sugar coat the responses. Is it true, for example, that women candidates and women’s campaigns are less corrupt? So far that has not been looked into, and we should recognize that women may be just as corrupt as men.

These women do have lessons to share, and there is some urgency in learning those lessons.

What about the policy implications of these roles and the work of these spiritual women?

The main policy lesson is that what we do has to be based on reality. As an example, there is much concern about things that are seen as women’s issues, like suppression, empowerment, and women’s responses to events. People see the problems and then try to design programs to address them. But what is needed is constantly to look at the issues from the women’s perspective. Empowerment is not necessarily what they are striving for, and in many settings power can be negative or can carry a negative connotation. What we need to ask, with them, is what it is that they are lacking within their community and how does their tradition address this? Can we help identify gaps and then move from there? Working for some outside notion of “empowerment” can be doing a disservice, and it can create more conflict. So we should ask what the women are engaged in, then work with it and with them and help them to take it to a new level IF that is what their goal is. It is about listening and learning. And the process itself, if it is well designed and managed, can have positive effects.

What about the work that Muslim women are doing from within the faith? Where is that most significant?

It is happening in many places, including in this country (the United States). There is excellent scholarship in different settings, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. There, there are remarkable instances of women asserting their religious rights over cultural rights, and forcing responses from the Saudi ministry. A recent official statement that the prohibition on women driving cars is not a religious injunction, but a cultural practice is important. It asserts women’s access to rights in new ways. In the past, it was taken for granted that the restrictions were grounded in religion, and the women’s analysis has obliged the officials to admit it was not religious. This kind of exchange is happening globally.

Another interesting example is what is happening in Morocco. There is a program for the mourchidates, training women as religious or spiritual leaders and counselors. The King has given his support to the program. In addition to their religious duties, the women are trained in counseling skills. They are working in prisons and counseling youth, and there is evidence that the prison recidivism rates have declined and young people are less drawn to radicalism. The women give them a place and connection they did not have before. How far is this replicable? That is the present issue. It has come as part of efforts to create an enabling environment for women, which made it happen. The implications and potential are fantastic, as people look at service potential beyond the traditional religious duties.

In Pakistan, there are madrassas that are run by and for women. Many of these have been considered more radicalized, in large part because they have been more insulated and secluded, and less in contact with the outside world. We have seen peace education programs in boys madrassas, teaching conflict resolution from an Islamic perspective, such as those conducted by the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD). The girls are demanding that training as well. It is significant that even though the institutions, teachers, and students are so isolated, they were at the forefront in seeking this kind of approach and responding to its messages. Even so called radicalized and extremist groups and individuals may respond when they are engaged with a very different reality or construct, rather than what has been construed in the past.

How engaged have you been with Kashmir?

I’ve not been back a lot. But from what I am engaged in, it is a very interesting time. Young people there are enthused about doing something that will have an effect. They have lived their whole lives in a depressing environment, with little hope: rates of depression among Kashmiri youth are among the highest in the region, and their sense of trust and connection has been seriously shaken. What is enlightening is what happens as these young people are tied to other youth, in Central Asia and Egypt, for example. As they put it, they are looking for something different than the “usual blah blah blah”, Many are setting up efforts to promote dialogue, entrepreneurship – both business and social, and networks that connect writers, artists and peace activists both in Kashmir and their diaspora brothers and sisters.

And in this process many have rediscovered nonviolence. Young people have in an organic way rediscovered Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as their own religious roots in peace advocacy. Just recently, indeed while we were in Egypt, there was a stir about a blogger who was killed. Young people organized a protest, a sort of flash mob through Facebook. They dressed in black and stood quietly in a line in front of the police and read scripture. It was non confrontational, and it had some impact; it was picked up in press. Similar things are happening in Kashmir, as youth are looking at non violence as a tool. They had rejected Gandhi as tied to India in the past but have rediscovered his teachings through reading and contact with other groups. In doing so they are restyling their organization using these models. They are hungry for this kind of inspiration, and many say that nonviolence has not been tried seriously in the past. And this includes girls, who are reaching out the most because they feel most separated.

With the new means of connectivity that are now accessible to more and more young people, they are using them to connect in very dynamic ways, looking for new ways and asking new questions. We saw some of this in Kashmir, which had a range of activities after the Gaza flotilla incident. One Kashmiri girl who visited the wall in Gaza wrote in graffiti “Kashmiris stand with Palestine” and this was promoted through Facebook. The allegiances and connections created go beyond geography. These are the ways of the present and the future.

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