The Gender Fishbowl

By Lee McKenna

Editor’s note: Lee McKenna is minister and a Conflict Transformation specialist. Lee, who lives on a farm in Ontario, travels around the world—South Sudan, Uganda, Northern India and the Philippines, to name a few—training people to be peacemakers in areas where there is great conflict. Lee leads people, who have little hope, into re-imagining themselves and their lives, largely by means of what she calls “peace games.” She refers to one of these activities as “The Gender Fishbowl.” The following is a description of what happens during one of these games.

gender-fishbowl1

Above: Lee McKenna (inner circle, just left of center) leads a Gender Fishbowl activity during a Conflict Transformation training in Nagaland, in Northeast India. Photo courtesy of Lee McKenna. Used by permission.

Typically, one of the ways by which we raise issues of gender is a “fishbowl.” This consists of two concentric circles of chairs with women in conversation in the middle and men on the outside listening.

We ask two questions. The first is, “What is the ideal woman in your culture?” A sigh moves across the tight knees-to-knees circle of women. The men lean in. It doesn’t matter whether the question is being posed in Toronto or Timbuktu, San Francisco or Santo Domingo, Manhattan or Manila. Women say some variation of the same thing.  The rule of men is the common narrative, with local distinctives.

In South Sudan, they say,

Girls are not for educating—what for? Our role is to bring cows into the marriage, to have babies, to fetch water, grind millet, tend the livestock, till the gardens. You don’t need an education for that! We are to stay home, keep quiet. Men beat us and we’re supposed to be grateful; when the next wife arrives, we are polite. Our work begins even before we are big enough to tie our baby brother or sister on our backs—and carry water on our heads and hoe the sorghum.

Bought and sold for cows, lots of cows, into polygamous arrangements, their genitals mutilated at puberty (to “keep them from wandering”), women are little more than slaves. The illiteracy rate of women in South Sudan is second only to Afghanistan.

We ask the second question. “Is this okay with you?” This time the sigh is more like a groan. The men are getting restless; they’re not sure what to do with what they are hearing. They’re figuring out that they are eavesdropping on a conversation that would otherwise not be held within their hearing.

We have no say. Decisions about our village, about our lives, are made without us having anything to say. My work never ends. He is in the village common, drinking tea and talking. The boys are playing football amongst the eucalyptus trees; the girls are washing clothes, stoking fires, stirring pots.

We play other games throughout the course of a training, designed to help participants to understand the dynamics of their culture. They will unpack emotions that surround the horrors they have experienced. They will come to understand the “other” through these exercises.

The Gender Fishbowl is one of the most profound of the games. By the end of a training like this, through their conversations with one another, both men and women understand this fact: Any society that marginalises half its population sentences itself to permanent underdevelopment and a permanent warrior culture.

With the sound turned off, it might look like silly games. But what it turns out to be is the rending and mending of the heart and soul in the service of peace.  “Aren’t we all tired of war?” they want to know. “Can we trust peace negotiation processes that are played out against all-male displays of militarised prowess? Where are the points of intervention in the cycle of violence?” But also they want to know what can be modelled in a place of exile, right here and now—in new ways of being with one another. They want to know how to intervene in conflict before it turns into violence.

At the end of the training in Uganda, the joy—the jumping, laughing joy—is startling in its exuberance. Sudanese in exile from their homes in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state celebrate alongside their Ugandan hosts, who are now friends. It is only the beginning. They will take their certificates to hang on the walls of their modest shelters to remind them of their commitment to peace, and to help them share these concepts with others.

In Sudan, we began a two-week training, this time with all Christian participants living in Internally Displaced Persons camps, with a worship service gathered around the carved wooden image of a kneeling, pregnant, praying, weeping woman as the symbol of gestating wisdom awaiting the labouring of birth.

This is, indeed, symbolic of what occurs during these trainings. We wrestle repeatedly with the Bible and its mixed messages of redemptive violence and radical peaceseeking. Trained as trainers, they will return to their temporary homes to train others, multiplying the experience, building peace from the family level to the government level.

—The article above is reprinted with permission from the Seeds of Hope publication Hunger News & Hope, Volume 16 Number 3, Summer 2016. For more information about Seeds of Hope, go to www.seedspublishers.org. For more about Lee McKenna’s work, go to www.partera.ca.

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