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17. February 2012

Esther and Khadija - Xenia © Frauen ohne Grenzen

Esther Ibanga and Khadija Hawaja, Nigeria

Two Nigerian Mothers Find Common Ground

Written by Edit Schlaffer and featured by Womenetics

This article was initially published on February 14, 2012 

In 2002, Dr. Edit Schlaffer founded the Women Without Borders – an advocacy and PR organization for women around the globe. The organization, based in Vienna, supports women around the world as they strive toward inclusion and participation in all levels of the decision-making process and helps them to bring their talents and energies into the public arena. 

Schlaffer’s research and activities focus on women in international politics as well as on women as agents of change in the international arena and in civil society. She has designed a number of ground breaking projects focusing on building up female self-confidence as the key tool for establishing a female powerbase in countries that are transitioning from tradition to modernity, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and India. 

Before leaving for the Middle East, Edit Schlaffer sent us this update – the story of two Nigerian mothers who found common ground: 

In 2001, extreme religious riots devastated her neighboring city of Kaduna, Nigeria, prompting Esther to quit her banking job and lead Jos Christian Missions International full-time, which she had founded in 1995. In 2010, bloody riots hit her hometown, Jos, and Esther organized the 100,000 Women March to stop the violence in summer 2010. Tens of thousands of women took to the streets in the racially segregated city of Jos to chant and wave palm fronds, demanding an end to the killings.

That same year, I met Esther at a conference celebrating the successes of African female leadership organized by President Kagame in Rwanda. Conference participants were discussing the past genocide in Rwanda, and the emotional slogan 'Never Again' filled the meeting halls. Esther was sitting next to me at the conference, and said, "What are they talking about? This is going on right now in Nigeria!"


I was very excited to learn about her courageous march and began asking her questions about how they managed to walk side-by-side – Christians and Muslims - in such a volatile situation driven by religious and ethnic mistrust. Esther was taken aback and responded, "What are you talking about? It was us - the Christians, who took to the streets. How and why should we interact with the other side? This is not possible."


We stayed in touch. Esther was enthused by the idea of Women Without Borders and the SAVE Sisterhood philosophy. Several months later, we invited Esther to our Mothers MOVE (Mothers Opposing Violent Extremism) conference in Vienna, where we brought together women who, as mothers, are determined to stand up against violent extremism. But this time Esther came with her Muslim counterpart, Khadija Hawaja, the Chairperson of the Plateau State Muslim Women Peace Forum.


Khadija, an expert in Islamic studies, is one of the only women in Nigeria who commands the same respect as male religious leaders. She organized a Muslim women’s protest march in reaction to the Esther’s 100,000 Women March. 

The process of coming together was not easy for Esther and Khadija. Khadija remembers the first time Esther reached out to her. 

“The first time Esther called me, I thought it was a slap in my face for her to think of involving me in a discussion,” recalls Kadija. 

She goes on, “We met in a restaurant. Jos is polarized, so we cannot cross into each other's areas. She was talking, and I was listening, but I wasn't interested. Esther was determined. Finally, I started seeing sense in what she was saying. I wasn't directly involved in the violence, but I was defending the actions of the Muslims without understanding if we were right or wrong. At a point I said, 'This madness can stop.' But the problem was, how do I stop it? I have become a local celebrity, and people look up to me, so how can I wake up one day and say we must talk? I had a crisis within my soul. So at a point I had to let go of that, and we sat down and we talked. Before we knew it we were ready to take the step of telling the public that this must stop." 


Esther, on the other hand, faced her own struggles. 

She says, "In 2010, the crisis in Jos took a different dimension, and women and children were particularly targeted and killed. At that time we felt the Muslims were the enemy, and we didn't want to have anything to do with them. After the rally, I met with Edit in Rwanda, and Edit began to encourage me to reach out to the Muslim community. I said, 'No, they are enemies. They killed us.' But I thought about it and realized we did our rally and they did theirs, but the killings still have not stopped, so what have we really achieved? On my own, I reached out to the Muslim community in the form of Khadija, as a leader of the community. She really gave me a tough time. She was very suspicious of me, but I felt in my heart that we needed to stop them turning us against each other and join our hands together in a common voice, to say that the killings must stop. Whether Christian or Muslim, a life is a life. We as mothers are able to tell boys to sheath their swords and enter into a dialogue,” Esther concludes. 

Today, the conflict has evolved. The Nigerians are still divided, but they are simultaneously more united than ever before, as they are coming together to challenge Boko Haram -- a terrorist organization that is gripping hold of the whole nation. Fear is never a good advisor. Now is the time to come together and challenge the terrorist forces that even Nigeria's military is scared of confronting.
 Peace starts at home, and the women who are passionate about protecting their children are at the forefront of this struggle.


Mothers MOVE: 

On June 7, 2011, Women Without Borders brought together eight mothers and one former radical extremist to share their inspiring stories of transforming grief into action, building bridges of reconciliation and providing civil society with an emerging counter-narrative to violent extremism. 

Women from Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Palestine, Israel and Yemen, all of whom have been affected by violent extremism or work actively to combat it, shared their stories to show the human face and aftermath of extremism. Among them were Esther Ibanga and Kadija Hawaja. 

They were joined on stage by a former extremist, who also shared his experiences in order to show how young people can be lured into radical groups but also learn to eventually reject the ideologies which drew them in. These powerful insights into the everyday realities of women from around the world showcased the potential of mothers to create a more stable and secure future. 

“I thought, ‘I am a housewife, I can’t do anything.’ But then I realized it is not enough to tolerate what is happening, we must do something. The hardest thing I had to do was to go against my constituency and reach out to the Muslim women to stop the killings. It was a big surprise to find that these women are just like us. For the first time I began to see similarities between us – we are human beings; we are mothers; we have pain and hurt. That helped me overcome the prejudice, the hate I felt over the killings. As a result, we are able to hold conferences together, take a stand together and say, ‘The killing has to stop.’ In order to bridge the gap, we have reached out to not only Muslims and Christians but every tribe of people. We want women to represent every tribe in the state.” – Esther Ibanga, Community and Christian Faith Leader, Nigeria 

“The vision is to create an enabling environment where Muslims and Christians can coexist peacefully. One way is to introduce a curriculum into schools to talk about tolerance, coexistence. There is a need for trauma healing and for the services of experts. We need to create a joint talk and use the media to redefine concepts. We have to talk about why a certain group of people would feel the need to kill, and why we must not use violence to show we are not happy with certain issues or certain systems. We need to use the media as a tool that will help us to coexist.” 
– Khadija Hawaja, Community and Muslim Faith Leader, Nigeria 

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