Women and conflict

Rebecca Barlow
4 December 2007

In May 2007 I attended the First International Conference of the Nobel Women's Initiative (NWI) Women Redefining Peace in the Middle East and Beyond as a rapporteur. Women from more than 40 different countries came together to discuss and exchange strategies to improve women's conditions. On the first day of the conference, it became clear that the event would expose what Hilde Lindemann Nelson might call 'counter stories': narratives that resist oppressive stereotypes and attempt to replace them with axes of identity that demand respect (Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair, 2001). Counter stories challenge what Nelson calls master narratives: those stories "found lying about in our culture" that become accepted as summaries of human experience. In this sense, the conference was motivated by the recognition that women are not exclusively 'victims' of conflict. Rather, confronted with a spiralling course of violence in the middle east, women have demonstrated positive responses of resilience.

This reality contrasts with a deeply gendered master narrative of war and conflict. Almost universally throughout history men have been presented as heroes of war and protectors of the state. Conversely, women have been construed exclusively as victims in need of protection. This translates to political maladies on the ground. In their exclusive position as those who fight and die for society and the state, men come to be regarded as full citizens with automatic citizenship rights. In the logic of the master narrative, it follows that men should determine the direction of society and the state in the post-conflict climate. Women's non-participation in the physical defence of the state means that they do not have the same citizenship status as men. It correlates that women do not have the same right - or indeed capabilities - to participate in decision-making structures and post-conflict negotiations.

This article is part of a series on openDemocracy marking the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" from 25 November - 10 December, an annual mobilisation aimed at heightening global awareness of violence against women

Also in openDemocracy on the 16 Days theme, part of our overall 50.50 coverage, a multi-voiced blog where women around the world contribute

Roja Bandari, "Iran's women: listen now!"

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This not only represents an extreme injustice to women; it is also anathema to possibilities of human security at large. According to Noeleen Heyzer, peace agreements and post-conflict governance "do better when women are involved" (UN Security Council, October 2006). Heyzer highlighted the fact that women know well the cost of war, including what it means to be displaced not only from one's home, but also excluded from public life. Consequently, women tend to adopt more inclusive approaches to peace and security than men, and address social and economic issues that might otherwise be ignored.

Women and conflict - protecting rights

Post-Saddam Iraq offers a striking example in this respect. On the first day of the conference, a leading Iraqi feminist, Yanar Mohammed, critiqued the US-led (re)construction of the Iraqi government. She pointed out that at the dawn of the US occupation of Iraq, there were over 400 women's NGOs registered with the government, whereas now there are only three or four. According to Mohammed, over 70 percent of television programs in post-Saddam Iraq have a conservative Islamist agenda. The Iraqi constitution has been formulated under the guidance of the Washington administration along sectarian lines, but as she pointed out, "you cannot have women's rights without a secular constitution."

Mohammed asked, "What does this say about the United States' democracy-promotion project?" The agenda of the Bush administration does not include women's rights beyond the parameters of rhetoric. Therefore, who will support Iraqi women as they attempt to sustain their families and communities in the context of what is now widely understood to be a civil war? Her conclusion was that women-led initiatives "are the only way" to protect women's rights in Iraq and other conflict/post-conflict societies.

Women and war: heroes and victims

In fact, there is some debate within the feminist community regarding how best to deal with the marginalisation of women from decision-making processes. Whereas some support the equal participation of women in the military (including active battle), others emphasize the need to "work towards destabilizing the entire notion of armed conflict as an acceptable form of foreign policy" (Lorraine Dowler, GeoJournal [2002], 161). As a participant in every session of the NWI conference, it is my understanding that the women present collectively supported the latter agenda.

A version of this article will be published in Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 4:1 (Winter 2008)

Feminist support for women's equal participation in the armed forces stems from the perception that as long as women are denied the right to defend the state on the battlefield, they will never be considered equal in citizenship status to men. Thus, women should be allowed the opportunity to demonstrate their bravery alongside men, rather than remain at home as victims of the economic and social ramifications of events transpiring on the frontline. This argument rests on constricted notions of what might be considered the ‘frontline' of war and defence of the state, as well as constrained understandings of what it is to be ‘brave' on the one hand, and a ‘victim' on the other.

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi addressed this issue. She argued that whereas war can mean the end of suffering for men, it often means the beginning of suffering for women. When a man dies in battle, the end of his life signifies the end of his plight. Women who survive the war have no choice but to face the struggle of post-conflict reconstruction. Why then do we not consider women who survive wars ‘heroes'? Why aren't the women who attend to the economic burdens of society and child-rearing responsibilities in the absence of men, both during and after conflict, praised for their bravery? Why aren't men who are often involuntarily sent to fight and die on the ‘frontlines' considered to be the primary ‘victims' of war?

Feminists have offered expanded interpretations of the frontline as "places of change and transformation" and are "reclaiming the frontline as a frontier rather than a border" (Dowler 2002). Women at the conference exemplified these revolutionary ideas. Their suggestions do not negate the fact that countless men have demonstrated extreme bravery during war and conflict, nor the fact that these actions merit deep reflection and respect. What was being highlighted is the conceptual ease with which the master narrative of conflict and state citizenship can be turned on its head.

Ebadi suggested a way in which local communities might begin to pay the same respect to women who survive wars as they currently do to men who fight and die in wars. That is, the construction of a statue in all capital cities of the world to honour women as survivors of conflict. There are monuments to male soldiers in virtually every major city of the world, and typically communities are called upon annually to pay formal homage to these soldiers. Why don't we do the same for women who have carried the social and economic weight of their societies through these wars? The mental images that are most often conjured up when we observe existing war memorials tend to include weapons of warfare and death. The statues proposed by Ebadi to honour women might do better to elicit images of human sustenance and peace.

A window of opportunity

The incredible psychological endurance of women in conflict/post-conflict societies was a resounding theme. Numerous participants recounted experiences in which the outbreak of conflict revealed women's agency and innovative approaches to survival in the face of extreme hardship.

Jane Odwong Akwero, a representative from Uganda, explained that before the outbreak of violence in the late 1990s she was a "shy housewife, unable to talk to more than five people at once, and even then I would whisper!" In response to the tragedy that enveloped her society as a result of the rebel movement, Jane decided to take charge. She is now one of Uganda's leading peace activists, and founder of the Concerned Women's Organization for Peace and Development. Jane concluded from her experiences that women possess every capacity to lead their communities toward sustainable peace - the problem is that their voices remain marginalised in patriarchal systems of governance. She implored governments to "just give women the window of opportunity, and they will do the rest."

The counter stories imparted by Jane and other participants revealed the profound assertiveness, dynamism, and non-violent resistance of women in the face of war and conflict. It is incumbent on the international community to follow the lead of the Nobel Women's Initiative by replacing stereotypes imposed upon women by political master narratives with women's own self-perceptions and lived experiences. If I could emphasise one resounding lesson from my participation in the conference, it is that the development and maintenance of human security across the middle east, and elsewhere, will not be possible unless women's voices are prioritised.

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