On Women and War

by kenyantraveller

It’s the typical image of a war torn state. An angry woman, her hungry child on her hip or at her feet, looking up pleadingly at the all-seeing camera lens. Rarely if ever have people wondered what lay beyond the image. Who is the woman beyond the hunger in her eyes? What does she believe besides the fact that she has been wronged? What would make her happy beyond getting back all that was lost? What would we think about her if she were holding a gun instead of a baby?

Today , we tried to get beyond these issues, at least as far beyond as one can get in one and a half hours of spirited discussions. One of the great joys of being a part of such an illustrious group is the frequent opportunities to talk in great length about things that matter with people who have a lot to say about those things, and this evening was no different. We got together to take apart the image of the woman as the victim of war and attempt to put back together an image of the woman as a participant in conflict; a complete actor capable of both victimhood and villainy.

It was a fascinating discussion brought on by the speakers’ interest in conflict around the world. N. who presented with me wrote her masters thesis on gender issues in East Timor following the conflict there, while I worked and have a personal interest in post conflict reconstruction, particularly after civil conflict, brought own by a personal experience of the political violence in Kenya. The challenge that we brought to the table was to highlight how our own perceptions of gender roles in conflict had either been challenged as in East Timor where women are getting a larger political space in the post conflict era, or confirmed as in Kenya, where the peace process and the subsequent implementation have been decidedly patriarchal.

The issues in the discussion topic were two fold. On one hand, gender is a social construct, meaning that understandings of what it is to be gendered “masculine” or “feminine” vary from society to society. Still, there seems to be world over a uniting theme of women only as victims of conflict, overlooking the fact that as in Rwanda and in East Timor, women can be perpetrators too. In these situations, conflict has presented an opportunity to transcend gender roles. At the same time, there are also complexities in understanding what we mean by conflict. When does war end? When does a civil conflict become a war? Does the upsurge in domestic violence, as seen in Angola and Mozambique after the end of those civil wars point to a Clausewitzian continuation of war “by other means”? Is Ciudad Juarez, with its impossibly high rates of femicide, at war?

The case of the Liberian women in the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” presents an interesting perspective on women as peace brokers. Ordinary women came together and staged a peaceful protest at the presidential palace in Liberia in the final days of the conflict there, and it is believed that this widespread protest, uniting Christian and Muslim women from all class backgrounds was critical to bringing an end to the conflict. We were privileged to have in the group Hila L. (USA, 2008) who spoke about her own experiences in the US Military and some of the challenges that that raises. When you have a woman in combat, should she be given extra protection because she is a woman, considering that research shows that women once captured are more likely than men to be victims of sexual violence? Hila also brought up an interesting point that few of us had considered; in that combat divisions that have a female soldier who is injured or dies during the conflict have been found to have a greater inclination towards revenge than those that are all men.

None of this precludes the fact that women have and continue to take an active part in combat situations around the world. In India tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities have often involved incidences of great brutality by women. The negative side of this is of course the upsurge in female suicide bombers in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there is another layer of analysis embedded in this, in that in some societies, women are turning to extremism as a way to address some deeply sated community issues; where for instance some female suicide bombers were victims of sexual violence or had lost their virginity in societies where this was still unacceptable, and saw suicide bombing as a way to regain their dignity. A false choice perhaps?

Conflict, and more pertinently, its resolution, offers opportunities and has drawbacks for women. Civic education and engagement by women in post conflict situations, as with the women of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. Grassroots peace initiatives as that in Liberia take off after conflict, and post conflict constitutions tend to be more inclusive towards women, as in Rwanda and Uganda. Still, women tend to be excluded from final peace negotiations, as in Kenya. Challenges to social mores can lead to great violence against women, as in East Timor and the psycho-social fall out from conflict, particularly relating to the use of rape as a weapon of war can be devastating, as in the DRC. The division of labour in society after conflict tends to burden women unfairly – they are still fulfilling traditional roles but taking on new ones as well.

Yet one of the greatest positives that comes out of conflict is an increased participation in the public sphere. Ellen Johnson Sirleif became the first female African president in the post conflict Liberian state, even though Liberia was traditionally a patriarchal state. In Rwanda, the post conflict constitution guaranteed 33% of all seats in parliament to women, and today they are the majority with 56%. This has led to the passing of laws that have empowered women in the broader society – including laws relating to banking (women no longer need a husband’s signature to keep a bank account) or land tenure. The argument is that quotas get more women into politics, who then pass more “women friendly” laws.

All very interesting, but what does this mean for other women? Aside from the simple engagement with the issues, for women considering life in politics, the discussion was an interesting starting point in emphasising the point that to succeed, we need to find ways of uniting issues that affect women from all walks of life. It is a recurring theme in the feminist movement; where an issue unites women from all walks of life, as with Gender Based/Domestic violence or Female Genital Mutilation, greater traction for working against it is gained in the public sphere. But if it continues to be divisive, then it fails to take off. The women in Liberia succeeded in part because they were able to unify women from all walks of life in their campaign to end the war.  Class and notions of feminism can divide as much as unite.

More importantly, it’s a challenge to rethink the way we think about war. The UNRISD[1] report urges a transformation in the way we think about women in war: from gender blind to gender sensitive, from universality and homogeneity to specificity and diversity, from victimised women to female actors. Ultimately, as the variety of cases cited in this post highlight, conflict means whatever we as a society determine it to mean for gender equality, and it falls upon the leaders and aspiring leaders of any society to give it that level of meaning that makes it a transformative rather than destructive process.


[1] United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Women and Societies Project Report (June 1998) available at http://www.unrisd.org/ (registration necessary)

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