"Don’t talk to me about war. My life’s a battlefield."

When we’re looking for the links between war violence and male violence against women in peace time, we need to look for causality and influence, flowing in both directions, says Cynthia Cockburn.

Cynthia Cockburn
25 November 2012

I remember one day, when I was working in Belfast – it was back in the nineties. That battered city was very poor and very violent. But it had one thing going for it – it had quite a few women’s community centres. I remember so clearly a woman in one of them who said to me, “Don’t talk to me about war. My life’s a battlefield.” The particular network of women’s centres I was working alongside, and learning from, at that time was involved in a bold cross-community initiative for peace, to end the war between the Unionists, the British and the Republicans. But a lot of those drop-in centres found they needed to provide support to women experiencing violence in the home, from men who weren’t called the enemy but the husband. There was a thread of violence in Belfast running from the bedroom, through the streets and bars, to the barracks. And the different kinds of violence weren’t entirely separate or distinct. Looking at it from a gender perspective brings to view some of the links between them. Some people talk of a ‘continuum of violence’.

When we’re looking for the links between war violence and violence against women in peace time, I think we need to look for causality, influence, flowing in both directions. Put briefly, violence in our everyday cultures, deeply gendered, predisposes societies to accept war as normal. And the violence of militarization and war, profoundly gendered, spills back into everyday life and increases the quotient of violence in it.

To think about the first flow first…My research between 2004 and 2007 took me to visit women antiwar activist organizations in twelve countries. One of the things I tried to learn is what they think are the roots or causes of war, so as to know what it is that they feel they need to tackle if they’re to reduce militarization and end armed conflict. Of course they were all pretty clear that capitalism is one of the causes of war - the greedy, global ambitions of corporations, competition for control of markets. And then again, nationalism, state claims to territory, or the struggle for religious and ethnic supremacy – in places like Bosnia or Palestine women can’t fail to see those things as causes of war.

But the reason these women had set up women’s, indeed feminist, antimilitarist organizations, is that the mainstream mixed peace movements of men and women that they’re part of seem to them to be missing something. They point to patriarchy. They’re not afraid of that old fashioned word. Gender relations that involve male supremacy, violent hierarchies of men and complicit, compliant or victimized femininities - patriarchy seems to them to be a cause of militarism and war. Not in the same immediate sense as those other causes of war, but present as a root cause, a predisposing factor.

That perception about the roots of war leads feminist antimilitarists to look at some of the very same things that feminists addressing violence against women in peacetime are looking at – domestic violence, rape. How do ordinary boys and men learn to be combative, to use, to invest in, their bodies as forces of coercion, to use fist, head, boot and penis as weapons to exert dominance, to get the things they feel they’re entitled to: the respect of other males, the sexual submission of women? Women find themselves looking at everyday cultures of violence, and the part they play in making actual war, armed conflict, thinkable and do-able.

Conversely, feminists whose main focus is on violence against women in peacetime find they need to be alert to the penetration of militarization, the feedback from war, into everyday life and culture. Cynthia Enloe shows how militarization is much, much more than the obvious bristly things – helicopter gunships and kalashnikovs. It’s threaded intimately through our lives – it’s in the videos and films we watch, in the way products are styled and marketed, the language we use without thinking.

The connection between the violence of armed forces and violence in civilian peacetime life, what part gender plays in it, and what some women are doing about it is demonstrated by the story of Okinawa, the islands at the southern tip of Japan, where there’s an impressive group of women who call themselves Okinawan Women Active Against Military Violence (OWAM).

Okinawa is a cluster of islands way way to the south of the main territory of Japan. It’s capital, Naha, is nearer to Taipeh than to Tokyo. It was once an independent kingdom, but was occupied by Japan and incorporated into the Imperial state. A lot of Okinawans still resent Japanese hegemony. But they also feel colonized by the USA. After the Second World War, the US continued to control Okinawa long after the Occupation of Japan itself was ended. Today 75% of the massive US military presence in Japan is actually on the tiny islands of Okinawa, which are less than 1% of Japan’s land area. The place is groaning under the weight of concrete and razor wire. Nowhere is free of the roar of helicopters and armoured vehicles. Or the demands of US soldiers for rest and recreation – in other words, access to women’s bodies.

In 1995, three US Marines based at Camp Hansen in Okinawa abducted and raped a 12-year old. A group of women activists mobilized an island-wide protest. They drew a crowd of 85,000 to Ginowan Park. Half a million people signed a petition for justice, and for closure of US bases. That’s what led, a couple of months later, to the founding of OWAM. First and foremost these women were ‘anti-Ampo’. The ‘Ampo’ is the Security Treaty that sets the terms by which the US keeps its huge military presence in Japan. OWAM called for the removal of the US bases. In the meantime they wanted the Status of Forces agreement revised, to end the protection of American servicemen from prosecution under Japanese law. They researched and published a case by case chronology of hundreds of incidents of violence by US soldiers against Okinawan women since 1945.

A couple of years ago I went, with my co-researcher Naoko Ikeda, to Japan and Okinawa to carry out research on the political and gender dynamics of peace movements. Suzuyo Takazato, a founder and now coordinator of OWAM, and other OWAM activists, told us about their history, their current work and their aims.

OWAM are an integral part of the mainstream (male and female) antimilitarist and peace movement of Okinawa –a well-known and respected part of it. But they’re different in a particular way. Yes, with the rest, they join protests against threats of massive violence. For instance against the patrols high in the sky and deep under the oceans that the USA call their ‘nuclear umbrella’ over the North Pacific. What’s different about OWAM, though, is that among the forces of coercion they perceive as threats, as wrong, along with nuclear submarines, they include the fist - or the erect penis – of the individual perpetrator of violence. These may be puny little weapons on the scale of physical force but they’re devastating to the individual victim. OWAM allow for absolutely no separation between the issue of the Security Treaty and the issue of women’s sexual abuse, and their right to security. What’s more, if a rape occurs, before they ever organize a campaign about it, they’ll seek out the woman, ensure she’s getting medical care, ensure the police are treating her right. The individual survivor matters to them, more than anything else. That’s where their politics begin.

There’s something else though. Foreign soldiers are not the only perpetrators of rape and domestic assault in Okinawa. Given that the population of Japanese and Okinawan males is much greater than the number of American males, it’s likely they account for a pretty large proportion of the total of gender-based violence on the islands. Some of the women decided to act against sexual violence in the civilian population by establishing a sister organization to OWAM, the Rape Emergency Intervention and Counselling Centre – REICO. It’s a support organization for women who are threatened by violence or suffer rape from whatever source. They work closely with OWAM and are vocal about the link between the presence of the bases and the violation of women’s human rights. But importantly they assert the reality of sexual violence in Okinawan society. They say, ‘Whether the perpetrator is a US serviceman or a Japanese, our shared anger is against sexual violence itself’.

Each new military rape adds energy to the mainstream anti-base movement in Okinawa, the mixed movement of men and women. But the responses can be problematic. Often men of the mainstream movement use the rapes to fuel anger against the US military, the Japanese government and the Security Treaty. And that polemic against American men can be quite nationalist and patriarchal. “Look how they trample on ‘our women’ and ‘our Okinawan land!” OWAM resist this exploitation of the woman victim.

Another point of divergence is prostitution. The media and public opinion often deal with prostitution in such a way that blame is deflected away from the soldiers and onto women. Brothels cluster in camp towns around the US bases in Okinawa, as in other countries. Of course it’s questionable to what extent the prostitutes involved are working under their own free will. A lot come from the Philippines and other Asian countries. All of them are poor, driven to work overseas to maintain themselves and dependents. Some are ‘trafficked’, virtually enslaved or tricked into prostitution. All the same, popular and media opinion often represents prostitutes as delinquent women, selling themselves for US dollars. OWAM and REICO refuse this representation of sex-workers. As Suzuyo reminded us, "raped women and prostitutes are not separate phenomena. It’s the structural violence of militarization that produces both effects."

So for the women of OWAM the US bases issue isn’t just to do with land, the space they take up, which is the key issue for the mainstream anti-ampo movement. They continually assert the connection between the use of force at different scales, by different perpetrators in different locations with different motivations. They believe militarized gender relations, or the other side of the coin, gendered militarism is the connection. The military, OWAAMV claim, is a violence-generating system. Patriarchy is a violence-generating social order. Violence against women is a significant part of global violence.

So - there’s a strong link between civilian violence and military violence, violence in peacetime and violence in war. A light switches on for us and lights up that link when we focus on gender. And in particular when we highlight masculinity, masculine behaviour. The light switches on for the Okinawan women when they see three soldiers come out of their base and rape a schoolgirl. So what does this insight, this perceived gendered link between militarism/militarization on the one hand and violence against women on the other, suggest for our activism? It speaks to what are currently two rather separate fields of activism. On the one hand, the feminist ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns, against male violence against women in the home and out of it, and, on the other hand, feminist antimilitarist, peace movement activism.

I think what we need above all, our fundamental need in both movements, is a way of thinking, a theory of violence, if you like, that offers actual possibilities of violence reduction wherever violence occurs. I first came across the expression 'continuum of violence' in a pamphlet Piecing it Together, written in 1979 by women associated with War Resisters International. They called themselves the Feminism and Nonviolence Study Group. In that pamphlet they wrote ‘individual men attacking individual women is one end of the continuum of violence which leads inexorably to the international military abuse of power’. It was a striking and novel idea at the time. Today the concept, the notion, of a continuum of violence is used quite widely by people searching for the link between violence in war and violence in peacetime. Activists may not always use that very term but the idea’s current, inspiring women’s activism, as we’ve seen in Okinawa.

The continuum of violence is a time continuum – pre-war, war, post-war, peacetime - that’s what comes first to mind. But it has other dimensions too. It’s a continuum of place (home, street, battlefield), and a continuum of scale (from fist and boot to nuclear missile). There’s also a continuity between types of violence. For instance structural violence, the oppression of enforced poverty or imprisonment, often leads to, legitimates, maybe even necessitates, direct physical violence…such as revolt or police action.

The concept of continuum does offer us, I think, a strategy of action. Because once you start looking at the link between different Instances of violence you begin to see that a lot of the links aren’t just casual, they are causal. One kind of violence leads to or precipitates another. This throws up possibilities of interrupting the continuum. If by weakening a link, breaking a sequence, violence can be averted, it makes sense to seek an accessible point of intervention. For instance, if the normalization of violence in popular culture leads individuals to enact violence in real life, it will be productive to work at the cultural level to discredit gratuitous representations of violence, on our computer, TV and cinema screens. Or to campaign around children’s toys and play.

This means that those of us who work against violence against women in the home and in community life, and those of us who work against the violence of war, including rape of women in war, could each see our campaigns as being supportive the others. But more, we can ask what we might do more consciously to link and overlap our messages and activities.

This article was first published in 50.50's coverage of 16 Days 2011

View all previous articles in 50.50's 16 Days coverage.


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