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Cypriot women challenge the island's partition

In her ongoing examination of how women can and do operate across borders, and create spaces for dialogue, Cynthia Cockburn reports on a recent "bi-communal" experience in Cyprus.

Cyprus isn't in the headlines much these days but, 26 years on from the nationalist-inspired fighting that resulted in its partition, it remains a sharply divided country. The UN-guarded Green Line is all but impenetrable, except by tourists and other internationals.

South of the Line is the actual Republic of Cyprus, now monoculturally Greek. North of the Line is an unrecognised entity known as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, remote-controlled from Ankara.

Heavy outward migration by Turkish Cypriots has been more than matched by an influx of settlers from the Turkish mainland, making some Turkish Cypriots say they feel like an endangered species.

Despite bad memories of violence and loss, an open-minded minority on both sides would like another try at healing the split. On the rare occasions they are enabled to meet, in some internationally-sponsored exercise of reconciliation, the resultant event is termed “bi-communal activity”. It sounds simple and innocent, but a recent experience showed just how threatening it appears to nationalists on both sides. Perhaps because women are a little more detached than men from the party political system, perhaps because family, friendship and local networks play a more important part in women's lives—or even, perhaps (who knows?) because women's life experiences have instilled in them a higher quotient of social courage—it is women more than men who most persistently take risks for the sake of bi-communal contact in Cyprus.

What women can do

Recently, a Turkish Cypriot woman, Sevgul Uludag, and Katie Economidou, a Greek Cypriot friend, inspired a bi-communal seminar in Nicosia. They obtained funding from the British High Commission, and the event was held in March 2001, facilitated by the British Council. The theme was Communication in Divided Societies: What Women Can Do. The aim was to draw 60 Cypriot women together, equal numbers from north and south. One day would be held in the south, the second day in the north, the idea being that every participant should get a chance to visit “enemy” territory in the process.

I facilitated the event, bringing into dialogue with the Cypriots a small group of women activists from Ireland/Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel/Palestine—all of whom had experience of women's creative dealings across other partition lines.

“Traitors!”

However, the weekend cost the organisers and participants dearly in frayed nerves and political compromise. In the run-up to the seminar, some Greek nationalist newspapers charged their “own” women with the cardinal sin of “recognising the renegade northern regime”. “Traitors” they shrieked, and added that it was a pity the IRA didn't operate in Cyprus, so the women would get their heads shaved as they deserved. The Turkish Cypriot authorities played tit for tat, withdrawing permission for the thirty women to cross the Line and limiting the participants to ten.

For all that, the women persevered, and the outcome was encouraging. Cypriot women were inspired and encouraged by the stories of women's refusal of political borders in other countries. Before parting, they established an email list and left the seminar committed to forming twin organisations, and launching an international women's campaign for “the human right of freedom of movement and communication”. They plan to use the intended accession of Turkey and Cyprus to the European Union to re-open the case for a resolution of Cyprus's “cold war”.

Topics: Peacemaking | Gender