Gender, war and conflict transformation

As Shelley Anderson suggests, war and gender are intimately related. Gender lies at war’s heart and the conduct and impact of war are equally gendered. Although conflict transformation is based on values traditionally regarded as ‘feminine,’ it struggles to implement them in a world shaped by masculinity.

Diana Francis
22 February 2010

Shelley Anderson is an old colleague with an inspiring track record in gender work. We see things very much alike. As she suggests  in her article Vital peace constituencies  a hidden war is being waged against women: a war on many fronts, expressed as beatings, rapes (whether marital or otherwise), ‘honour killings’ and other murders. It involves daily humiliation; imprisonment in the home and debarment from travel; deprivation of parental rights and property ownership; and exclusion from political and economic power. In all too many places these things are ‘normal’ and their impact, in terms of injury, death and ongoing suffering of all kinds, is equivalent to that of war.

Men are not born to be bullies, any more than women are born to submit. Many boys are gentle by nature and hate the roles assigned to them. Gender is not a matter of DNA but of cultural construction. In terms of genetic inheritance, each human being is different from all others, but society’s norms, along with personal circumstances, help to mould us. One of the ways in which they have most impact is in shaping our understanding of ourselves and each other as male or female, with all the attendant expectations of role, behaviour and power relationships.

There are differences in biology that are properly described in terms of sex – though even in biological terms the distinctions between male and female are not as clear cut as was once thought. Feminists disagree about how far our reproductive biology is accompanied by other essential differences but the powerful impact, for good and ill, of the creation of social norms through parental upbringing, socialisation and education, is recognised by all. Around the globe, the pressure on a child to be ‘a real boy’ or ‘a real girl’ is unrelenting and the ‘feedback loops’ created by social responses to conformity and nonconformity with these norms intensify their impact. 

The power differential between men and women is central to patriarchy, which is, as its name suggests, hierarchical.  From a patriarchal point of view, the combined strength and will to dominate is a primary attribute of the Real Man. Strong women, on the other hand, are somewhat suspect. Men are born to lead and should be complemented by pliant women. Among themselves, women should cooperate.  Of course these norms and the stereotypes they create are not immovable or uniform. Egalitarian sub-cultures exist and in some societies significant changes have taken place in the mainstream. In the West, domestic violence is no longer seen by most as either acceptable or inevitable; yet it still ruins lives. Attitudes to women have been modified but they have not been transformed. Meanwhile in many places the old gender norms are as strong as ever, and women are subjected to daily violence and virtual enslavement. Almost everywhere women are inadequately represented in politics and in key economic posts.

Boys are still raised very differently from girls, with different forms of play encouraged and different expectations in terms of household roles. Aggressive behaviour is tolerated in boys as it would not be with girls, being seen as natural.  This implicit encouragement is later translated into the ritual affirmation of the glories of fighting, through ceremonies of initiation into the world of warriors, recruitment into an army ‘officer cadet corps’ or some more humble version of apprenticeship for the military.  This is because, as Cora Weiss observed in her brilliant article, and I have argued elsewhere, the archetype of manhood is the hero and the archetype of heroism is the warrior. Courage and strength are bound up with violent aggression.


Women and war

Over recent years more women have assumed military roles, joining armies and sometimes acting as suicide bombers. Military employment offers income and status to young people who otherwise lack both. It also seems to offer women a chance to be equal with men and is welcomed by some feminists as an advance in terms of gender equality. Women’s experiences as soldiers tend to belie that interpretation. Often they share a fate similar to that suffered by child soldiers.  They are subjected to physical and sexual violence and often treated like military slaves. Even in the absence of such evident abuse they are on the receiving end of discrimination in terms of advancement and sexual harassment of a petty but demoralising kind.

Thus in many cases their life in the military can be seen as a paradoxical ‘business as usual’, with the added disadvantages of exposure to extreme physical danger and death from war, and in some cases the trauma of killing.  They are also participating in an institution that is borne of gendering and of a world view that frames life as battle, and violence as the most potent and heroic form of power and the best guarantor of security. The values that are regularly attributed to femininity, which are sorely needed in society and can be espoused by both sexes, are thereby further marginalised.

In times of war most women take on largely supporting and ‘coping’ roles and suffer the violence that is inflicted on them and other civilians. All too often they are subjected to rape, which is perpetrated as a sign of male power over women and against each other. Survivors are left to cope with displacement and to hold the remaining family together.

After war, while efforts are often made to reintegrate male soldiers into society and find them employment, women soldiers tend to be left out. As I heard from women in Sri Lanka, they are also liable to be seen as unfit for marriage, which sadly may be the only route for women to achieve any kind of economic security or social place. Their displaced civilian sisters fare badly too, with inadequate support for returning home (if home still exists) or rebuilding their lives elsewhere. If their husbands rejoin the family, they are often unable to adjust to the fact that the family reshaped itself in their absence, with the woman as the sole provider and decision maker. This reality, along with the men’s traumatisation through exposure to violence, typically leads to an explosion of sexual violence in post-war societies.


Women in conflict transformation (CT)

In most of the ‘international’ (Western) CT organisations I know, the top jobs are still held by men. Women hold a disproportionate number of administrative posts. However, the pattern is shifting and a high proportion of second-ranking leadership positions are now held by women. This means that women are beginning to have a greater say in the policy of their organisations and the development of their programmes, which should result in greater determination to honour and promote women’s perspectives on conflict and their contributions to CT. It should also mean that more women have the chance of interacting with and influencing civil servants and politicians.

Within civil society organisations more generally, the profile of women varies from one place or community to another. I have worked with organisations, for instance in the former Yugoslavia, where women were the predominant (though not only) civil society activists at a time when a high proportion of men were fighting or escaping conscription.  A strong feminist analysis runs through the post-war work of dealing with the past, which includes engagement with ex-combatants. 

I know of women who exercise leadership not only in NGOs but also through their own autonomous action at the community level. Precisely because of the gendered way in which they are raised, women have highly developed skills for communication and relationships, and are well practised as bridge builders within the family and community. These capacities are vital for conflict transformation.  A short video produced by Responding to Conflict tells the story of a group of women in Wajir, Northern Kenya (to whom Shelley referred), in which they use existing inter-clan relationships, formed in the market place, to address the tensions that are growing between them on account of cattle rustling. Having defused the tension in the market place they form a group to approach their different clan leaders and bring them together to make peace. They then go on to involve the local authorities in keeping the peace.    

Shelley gives excellent examples of women peacemakers, to which I would add the women in Cyprus who have stood against the enmity between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and called the establishment of one island nation. In many societies women have a traditional peacemaking role, for instance intervening between warring sides as the Naga Mothers’Association in India has done, or, as in Somalia using their relationships by marriage to bring different clans together. Such traditional peacemaking roles for women can be viewed positively, but as one affected woman said to me, ‘I get sick of hearing from our men about women’s role as peacemakers. Most of the time they keep us out, but when they are stupid enough to fight they expect us to come in and sort it out for them.’ She is angry that women are still marginalised in tribal affairs and state politics and regards inter-communal fighting as a scourge. 

Typically, military leaders are men, unused to regarding women as equals and potentially unwilling to respect a woman as an advisor or facilitator. This could suggest that at times it is necessary to weigh the need to practise equality with the desire to maximise the effectiveness of facilitation, in a bid to end the violence that is hurting men and women alike. Yet I have found that, once the initial surprise is over, women can be accepted as mediators. When people need help, they tend to take it.

Not only are women as well informed and incisive as their male colleagues but as Shelley suggests they sometimes are able to say things that men cannot: soft things, for instance. They can empathise with a degree of emotion that might feel improper in fellow men but may be important for leaders who feel stressed and trapped. Women may also more readily draw out these feelings, so that they can be addressed. I remember a very moving conversation with a combatant whose whole life had been violent. He told me how hard it was to step away from that life, which gave him his identity and status, into an unknown future.  Gripping one leg and leaning across the table he said in a broken voice, ‘This leg wants to go forward but the other one just doesn’t want to come.

Though I have relevant knowledge and skills, I have not been asked as often as male colleagues to work with armed groups, or indeed with politicians (also more likely to be male than female) and have more frequently been assigned to civil society support. What that work has shown me is the vital role that is played by women at the community level, both in educational work to emancipate women’s thinking and more broadly in helping them to understand the way war works and to recognise their potential role in ending it. When I have shared in this work I have been inspired by the power of women’s will to change their lives and those of their communities.

Meanwhile, many women activists and intellectuals are profoundly frustrated to have been excluded from circles of power at times when their contribution was sorely needed. I heard this from Sri Lankan colleagues while peace talks were still in progress there. Now it is exemplified in articles by Sara Mojtehedzadeh  and Deniz Kandiyoti on the London talks on the future of Afghanistan.  It seems that even in processes that, in the world of realpolitik, seem closest to attempting conflict transformation, whose most fundamental value is human equality, women’s voices are scarcely heard. Not only are their insights and skills excluded but the needs and wishes of half the population are unrepresented, so that any ‘peace’ that is made is liable to be tailored to meet men’s needs and perpetuate their power. The transition from war is a time of opportunity for change and crucial for women’s futures, so that their participation in peace processes is vital.

The conflict transformation ideal is light years away from current ‘normal’ practice in conflict. A massive cultural shift is needed that will bring systems change in its wake. We must not give up. Not only must we educate our children, boys and girls, to respect and care for others: we must continue and increase our mobilisation for power, seeking the support of men who share our perspective and drawing on the values, approaches and skills that have so far been described as feminine: the empathy that enables us to detect in others the points of need that give us our power for influence; the skills of communication that enable us to persuade; the habits of cooperation that help us to connect and move together; the capacity to let go of control that enables us to grasp opportunities. In developing this kind of power we will be serving the needs of the entire human community. Cooperative power and its opposite will be the focus of my next article. In the meantime, your comments, please. 

Diana Francis’s third book From Pacification to Peacebuilding: A Call to Global Tranformation will be published by Pluto Press on March 20 and we’ll be publishing an interview with Diana, by Vanessa Alexander and Jonathan Cohen.

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