Women in Black: Mourning for All Victims of War and Violence

It's a warm summer day at noon and I'm standing on a major highway in my town with five other women who are dressed in a black top, pants and veil, wearing sunglasses, and holding a sign that says: "Women in Black: Mourning all victims of war and violence." The wind blows such that my black veil comes undone and I have to flip the loose ends over my shoulder to secure it. Wearing a veil is strange for me, yet I proudly wear this one because I am wearing it as a call for peace.

Standing still in one place is hard work. Mostly, my arms get tired holding the 20x30-inch foam-board sign. So I shift its position: side to side, top and bottom, side and bottom, top and side. Wearing a solemn expression on my face is also difficult. It's not a natural public posture. So whenever someone honks a horn or waves approvingly at us our leader advises that we just nod in acknowledgement.

Sometimes my body feels antsy and I want to quit my place and leave. Then I think about our wounded and dying soldiers. I think about the Iraqis living in rubble without water or electricity and without safety from looters, insurgents, suicide bombers, or stray bullets-and getting killed or maimed. These thoughts help me overcome my own temporary discomfort and maintain my resolve to stay the entire hour for this week's demonstration-and to come back for next week's demonstration.

Spending an hour demonstrating on a street corner is a strange experience. After standing for about 20 minutes, I block out the swishing sound of cars moving across the pavement and then drift into a different zone, sometimes closing my eyes as if to keep the sights and sounds of the street out of mind. At this stage, standing with the Women in Black becomes a meditation. I don't hear angels or harps; instead I feel a deep solidarity with other women with me-as well as those all over the world who are against war and violence. It's not that taking a stand in the street stops the war. Rather, it's about being in a "zone" with other women where my "I" transforms to a "we" by demonstrating for the essential cause. This is a very powerful realization because just by "being there" we are among those calling for peace. If we were not there, how could others contemplate the cause of peace?

As we stand on the street corner we find that we do provoke a response from the drivers who pass us by in their cars. Many people honk their horns in approval. Some people just stare at us. Often the passengers mouth the words of our signs slowly, one word at a time. Children in the cars turn to their mothers asking who we are and what we're doing. A few people shake their heads at us or flip us their middle finger. One deeply upset semi-truck driver took both hands off the wheel and gave us an emphatic thumbs-down. Another man, dressed in a black business suit, stuck his tongue out at us as he passed. Then there are those who rev up their engines as they go by.

Women passers-by are a little different. One woman stopped to tell us that we were wasting our time protesting the war. "The real issue before us in the world today is to stop the killing through abortion. You should be standing in front of Planned Parenthood with me in protest," she said. Another woman tried to intimidate us by taking pictures of us as she wheeled her car around the corner. Still another shouted out her car window: "Why don't you go back to your own country." Apparently, she thought that we were Muslims because we wore black veils; she didn't notice that we were all Americans.

Standing with the Women in Black allows us to make a public statement that war and violence are simply no longer acceptable in our world where it's too easy to commit genocide with sophisticated and deadly weapons and where mostly civilians, not soldiers, are getting killed. However, until enough people believe this truth, the Women in Black will continue to mourn for war's victims. And mourning is a proper response because it forces the issue of war out into the open at a time when too many people don't want to think about war or its consequences of death, destruction, or the loss of billions of dollars that could be spent on programs at home and abroad that actually help people live better lives.

At various times in history, it is the women who mount a protest when they tire of an injustice. In 1848 American women held their first convention for suffrage and got organized. In 1917 Alice Paul stood at the White House gates demonstrating for suffrage and then endured jail and even abuse. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and helped to kick-start the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1980s Argentinean mothers and grandmothers took to the streets to demand that their government stop "disappearing" the men of their families. Today, among the peace activists in the world are the Women in Black, who began among Israelis and Palestinians demanding peace in the Middle East and spread among women in cities all over the world. They are among those calling for an end to war-all wars! Until that happens, the Women in Black will continue to mourn.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at KalamazooCollege in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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