By Sameen Zehra
Marie-Joëlle Zahar is a Professor of Political Science, Director of the Research Network on Peace Operations, and Fellow at the Centre for International Research and Studies at the Université de Montréal. She previously served as a Senior Expert on Power Sharing and Process-Design on the Standby Team of Mediation Experts at the UN Department of Political Affairs and as a senior expert in the Office of the Special Envoy of the United Nations for Syria. She has been an ICAN Board Member since 2019, bringing with her an extensive range of academic and lived experience on conflict resolution, peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction, and their gendered dimensions.
Reflecting on the beginning of your career, what drew you into the work of militia politics, post-conflict power-sharing, and sustainable peace?
There’s this cartoon in French, Astérix and Obélix, where one of the two characters claims he didn’t really have a choice because he fell into a cauldron that gave him unique powers when he was a kid. It’s a little bit the same for me – minus the powers of course – I fell into it.
I grew up in Lebanon during the war. I experienced firsthand what it meant to deal with nonstate armed actors, from being stopped at checkpoints, to having to negotiate with them and stand up to the harassment they inflicted on civilians simply because they had the power and the guns. As a result, I became interested in understanding what contributed to conflict in Lebanon. When you engage with these issues in a Lebanese context, you’re inevitably drawn into the topic of power-sharing, an institutional framework which has largely contributed to the recurring crises in the country.
I was 27 when I left Lebanon to pursue my graduate studies in Canada. It was the early 1990s, and the war raging in Bosnia was being televised across our screens. I was struck by its similarities with the Lebanon war. That’s what launched me on a comparative career, looking at not only what happened in my native country but also in other countries that have experienced civil wars and studying attempts at rebuilding states and societies in the hopes of a better future for citizens.
When you moved to Canada, did you arrive on your own as a student or did your family move as well?
It was just me as a student. It was actually a decision born out of my frustration about the manner in which ‘peace’ was being rebuilt in Lebanon. Lebanese parliamentarians – who at the time had been elected 15 years earlier and had very low legitimacy– signed an agreement to end the war in 1990. While the agreement fiddled a bit with the Lebanese power sharing formula, it did not bring about major changes to the country’s sectarian politics. That agreement had a difficult early life. It was rejected by one of the main Lebanese actors at the time, interim Prime Minister Michel Aoun (Lebanon’s current president). As a result, Lebanon found itself with two governments, each claiming legitimacy for itself and denying it to the other. Then came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which turned the world’s focus on the Gulf. This opened the way for Syria to become the main guarantor of the agreement but Syria had been deeply involved in the war and it interpreted the agreement according to its own objectives and priorities. So implementation was deeply flawed and I felt that there was very little I or anyone could do to affect the course of events. Like many Lebanese civilians, I did not feel that our opinions and our expectations mattered much. I decided to go back to my studies, thinking that I needed to build a future for myself. Little did I know at the time that I was so passionate about what was going on, that it would become my lifelong work.
I decided to go back to my studies, thinking that I needed to build a future for myself. Little did I know at the time that I was so passionate about what was going on, that it would become my lifelong work.
How did your background as a Lebanese Canadian shape the way you viewed the world and this field of work?
On the one hand, having gone through a war helped me to have a much better understanding of how some of the war actors functioned. As a citizen living in a war-torn country, you interact with these groups on a daily basis – whether you want to, or agree with them, or not. They don’t just run checkpoints, they are also often the biggest, if not the sole, employers in certain areas of the country. They also have their own media and influence how you understand the conflict and your position within it. This was particularly the case in Lebanon, which is a very laissez-faire type of state where most of the services that citizens get are either private or connected to their religious communities. Armed actors began building their legitimacy the moment the war started and many of them ran the areas under their control like quasi-states. While they provided services and protection, they also resorted to extortion. The actual state became almost absent from our lives.
Living through these circumstances impacted the kinds of questions I was asking about nonstate armed actors. For example, I remember telling my PhD committee that I wanted to work on militia institutions, which was unheard of at the time. People usually think of institutions in relation to the state, but I said, “Wait a minute, just because they’re nonstate actors doesn’t mean they don’t have institutions and build rules, procedures, and organizational structures. Just think of the mafia.” My experience also helped me know what to expect when doing fieldwork in other countries, whether it was in Bosnia, Angola, Mozambique or Sudan.
On the other hand, as an academic, there’s always the danger that when you work on a topic to which you are closely connected, you begin to view every situation through the lens that you know best. This can result in bias. This is where my Canadian side comes in because Canada is where I was able to get some emotional distance from the war and its woes. It enabled me to realize that the Lebanese war and knowledge of war in general, may help define my career but not my life. Canada gave me the opportunity to make a choice about continuing to care about war but not be forced into accepting it as my destiny.
That said, the first-hand experience of war also makes one more empathetic to people’s experiences of war. Of course it can make you personally more vulnerable because you understand the hell people in other countries are going through. So it is difficult to simply be an academic. You want to do more. That’s how I began to move into the world of practice. I became interested in mediation, facilitation, and peacemaking from a practical perspective because I could not fully reconcile with the manner in which academics sometimes go into war zones to ‘extract’ information and manage to leave behind the people and the issues, upon their return home.
Canada gave me the opportunity to make a choice about continuing to care about war but not be forced into accepting it as my destiny.
Can you tell us more about how you entered the world of mediation as a Senior Expert on the Standby Team of Mediation Experts at the UNDPPA? How did you end up in that role and what did it involve?
I joined the standby team in 2013, but in the 15 years leading up to it, I had accumulated a wealth of experience by engaging regularly with practitioners and facilitating capacity building trainings with people in conflict zones. Like the workshops ICAN organizes, these kinds of activities brought together people from different sides of the conflict so they could share experiences and build ties that will help them when it’s time to “sit at the table”. I say that in quotes because I don’t think the imagery of the table always applies when you’re making peace. So, after 15 years of building up experience talking to conflict parties and helping them talk about difficult topics and with one another, I was approached by two colleagues on separate occasions to apply to join the Standby team.
I was initially surprised and flattered, but hesitant to apply. Even after my week of induction into the Standby team, I thought the role was not for me. Everyone around me seemed to have a wealth of direct experience with mediation and I felt that I did not. However, I ended up staying with the team for three years. I think that this highlights something that is sadly very frequent with women. We are socialized to not believe in ourselves and to not fully appreciate how much we can bring to the table. That was a turning point for me, to help women use their capacity and ability to participate in such meaningful processes and discussions.
While on the team, I was initially a Power-Sharing Expert and then eventually a Process Expert – but labels mean very little on the Standby team. You’re expected to be a ‘Jane of all trades’. I did some capacity building training for future UN and non-UN mediators; conducted a lot of analyses on the causes and consequences of, as well as the potential solutions to conflicts; and I facilitated discussions and supported UN mediation teams involved in various processes. All of these roles forced me out of my comfort zone and made me realize the value of both my training as an academic and my ability to connect with people because I understood where they were coming from.
We are socialized to not believe in ourselves and to not fully appreciate how much we can bring to the table. That was a turning point for me, to help women use their capacity and ability to participate in such meaningful processes and discussions.
Was the makeup of the team diverse or were you one of the few women a part of it?
During my first year on the team, there were three women and four men. It has always been more difficult for women to be on the team, in great part because of the nature of the work: you have to be available to pack and leave at short notice. Therefore, if you’re younger and have children, it becomes complicated to balance your life and your work.
I did however feel that another kind of diversity was missing and more problematic. Most of us were either Westerners or had a western background or education; there were no team members who came from the Global South – even those of us of Lebanese, Afghan, or Zimbabwean origin had lived in the West for a while. This has improved over the years, but it remains a challenge for the UN, which is supposed to represent the many diversities of the world, gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality and the list goes one.
Can you tell us what your experience was like as a woman in these mediation spaces?
It is very clear that women face challenges being acknowledged as experts. I realized very quickly that I would have to find a way of asserting myself without looking forceful or arrogant. I actually had to negotiate with the UN to put ‘PhD’ on my business cards to give me credibility among a number of my interlocutors.
Even within the UN, as a woman you’re sometimes unfortunately perceived as support staff. There were instances when I was advised to ‘convince’ senior UN officials of the value I would bring to their team. My male colleagues have never, to my knowledge, had to do this. This challenge also existed when I engaged with older men from very conservative societies or in spaces where I was a clear minority. For example, during the Mali peace negotiations, which took place in Algiers, I was among 10 or so women in a sea of hundreds of men. It becomes difficult to be seen and heard in these instances.
However, a number of things did work in my favor, such as my ability to speak Arabic – the language of local actors in a number of conflict zones – which gave me invaluable access and the ability to build trust with people. I was able to offset some of the challenges of being invisible.
Overall, it’s not just enough for a woman to be good at what she does, she has to be the best. And that’s frustrating, particularly when you have a less flamboyant personality. There are certainly places where if I didn’t find a way of being visible, I could just as well have not been there.
It is very clear that women face challenges being acknowledged as experts. I realized very quickly that I would have to find a way of asserting myself without looking forceful or arrogant.
Can you tell us more about the work you do at the Research Network on Peace Operations at the Université de Montréal?
I’ve been with the network for 11 years now. It is a part of a small number of university centers that aim to link theory and practice. It conducts standard academic activities, like conferences, as well as capacity building and trainings on the ground. Our most recent project that I’m particularly proud of is similar to the work that ICAN does. We supported 25 women activists from countries in the Sahel region in Africa to improve their understanding of the gendered dimensions of peace processes over the course of a year. They were able to express their perspectives on what was happening in their countries and network with each other, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
While, this type of work is not traditionally appreciated by universities, it will probably continue to have an impact long after the program ends. Some of the women I worked with have been appointed to positions of power and will likely use that knowledge to advance women’s inclusion and the consideration of gendered issues in their society’s politics. There are things that you do simply because you think that you have to, and you can.
In your experience, what has been the biggest challenge of doing gendered work?
A big challenge of gendered work is that it is often really siloed from other aspects of politics and development – both in and outside of academia. We need to address how to break down these divisions and help people realize why gendered work is actually a central, cross-cutting issue in the politics of pretty much every society.
Another major challenge, this one deeper and more difficult to tackle, has to do with the radical agenda that underpins feminist thought. Feminism is not simply about gendering peace agreements; it is about exposing and changing structural imbalances of power. This requires a fundamental ‘rethink’ of peace processes. One good example is power sharing. Today, this is the institutional formula thought most effective to convince armed actors to give up their weapons. While silencing the guns is important, there are dark sides to power sharing. First, it privileges the political and military actors of the conflict over other peace actors in the society. Second, it can lead to governmental paralysis because the decision-making rules of such systems are premised on consensus-building. This is what happened (and continues to happen) in Bosnia and Herzegovina where Serb, Croat and Bosniak politicians resort to a clause in their constitution which allows them to block policies that they deem not to be in the ‘national’ interest of their respective communities. More fundamentally, power sharing also gives various parties a sense of entitlement. They become reluctant to allow the political system to evolve even when its dysfunction is clear. This is what is currently happening in Lebanon where the political class seems incapable of agreeing on the formation of a new government, even as this is an essential step to allow Lebanon to negotiate an agreement out of its acute socioeconomic crisis with the IMF. As they bickered over ministerial portfolios and shares in the government for over a year during which half of the country’s population fell under the poverty line, Lebanese politicians seemingly forgot that power is assorted with responsibilities. As Sanam Naraghi Anderlini advocates, we must stop talking about power sharing and think instead in terms of responsibility sharing. However, dismantling a system of privileges is particularly difficult when those in charge of making it happen are the same persons who are benefiting from the system. This is a battle that must be waged both in the world of practice and in the hallways of academe since academics are partly responsible for extolling the virtues of power sharing. But in academia as elsewhere, critical thought remains siloed and is often criticized for explaining what is wrong but failing to suggest alternatives.
A big challenge of gendered work is that it is often really siloed from other aspects of politics and development – both in and outside of academia.
How did you become involved with ICAN as a board member?
At the very first gender training that I attended while on the UN Standby team, I met this amazing person called Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini. That was the beginning of a friendship and a kinship because every single time we were in the same spaces, we realized we had very similar perspectives. When Sanam invited me to join the board, I was deeply humbled because I think the world of the work that ICAN does. Being able to hopefully contribute as a board member is not just a pleasure, but a true joy. The work feels meaningful because it allows me to interact with kindred spirits – and I don’t just mean the other board members, but all members of the ICAN staff, and – of course – the amazing activists that the network supports.
I am almost at the end of my second year as a board member now, and the majority of that time has been spent in the pandemic. I’m hopeful there will come a time when we will be able to go back to the ground to advance what I consider to be one of the most important and transformative agendas. It’s a turning point in our societies and an uphill battle. But being part of it is a source of inspiration, strength, and determination.
What is your advice for women who are interested in becoming practitioners in the peacemaking, peacebuilding, or specifically WPS field?
First and foremost, I would say to women peacebuilders, believe in yourselves. This is a world in which a lot of people are going to try and make you doubt yourselves – including your ability, your usefulness, and your legitimacy to be in spaces.
I do not think there is one path to getting there in terms of training – whatever one does, women who want to become practitioners should be very mindful of what they choose to do and why they choose it. Don’t just do things because they’re fads. Think about what it is that is meaningful to you and the kind of profile you want to build. I would strongly advise women to go for “hard issue” areas that tend to be defined as an exclusive domain for men: security issues, power politics, and power sharing. The more women’s voices we have in those spaces, the better. If you’re interested in that, don’t hold back, just do it.