Women, Peace, and Security in the Cultural Sphere

5 October 2005

Entering this conversation as a documentary filmmaker and an academic in the areas
of international politics, gender studies, and cultural studies, I spend
a lot of time thinking about how gendered and sexualized people outside of the
mainstream (usually women and queers) challenge mainstream understandings of
peace and security through their everyday actions.  In particular, I'm interested
in how films, filmmaking, and web interventions break past conventional understandings
of where politics occurs, beyond states and formal international organizations. This kind
of thinking compliments the work of the many activist women blogging on this site,
who strive to ensure that women are more equitably represented at all governmental
decision-making levels and in extra-governmental mechanisms for the prevention,
management, and resolution of conflict.

In considering 'women making a difference', I'm interested in how women use
film and the web in efforts to promote peace and security.  But I'm also interested
in how these interventions by women are so often taken over by others to serve their
own purposes.  As a US citizen living and working in the UK, I pay a lot of
attention to how mainstream discourses of peace and security coming from the
Bush and the Blair adminstrations overwrite or obscure what these women are doing.

Let me give you an example.  Did any of you see the film Kandahar?  If you did, you
probably remember this film as a devastating critique of all recent interventions
into Afghanistan.  These include critiques of the ideological struggle between the US
and the USSR during the Cold War that played itself out in Afghanistan in the late 1970s
as well as critiques of the subsequent implimentation of a fundamentalist interpretation
of Islam imposed by the Taliban regime.  This critical message about war as a way
of imposing enlightenment was vividly portrayed in the film and explicitly stated in
countless interviews with the film's director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and the film's star
Nelofer Pazira.  Yet in spite of all this, the Bush administration used Kandahar as part
of its justification of its war in Afghanistan.  Implying that the film made the case for
the urgent rescue of Afghan women by US and UK military forces, the Bush administration
encouraged US citizens to view the film as a testimony to the hardships these women faced
while imagining themselves supporting the military rescue of these women. In the struggle
for the hearts and minds of US and UK citizens over how to think about the plight of
Afghan women, the Bush and Blair administrations paraded first wives Laura Bush and
Cheri Blair before the public to emphasize this official line. As women speaking
on behalf of the human rights of Afghan women, Laura Bush and Cheri Blair added
legitimacy to the official foreign policies of the US and UK governments.  In so doing,
they participated in the occlusion of the message the film's star, collaborator, and
conceiver of the story, Nelofer Pazira, hoped would reach the wider world --
military intervention is not the answer in Afghanistan. 

Examples like this one demonstrate how the so-called cultural sphere is very much
part and parcel of the so-called political sphere.  But it also demonstrates the
power of institutionalized voices like Presidents, Prime Ministers, and their wives
to short-circuit powerful political interventions for their own purposes -- in this
case, in support of military intervention rather than against it.  In so doing, it
supports the idea that women make a difference in politics, but it complicates what
this difference might be and might do.  Is it enough to increase women's participation
as key decision-makers in or allied with instititionalized political organizations? 
Or is it necessary to think about what these women stand for?  For, as this example
demonstrations, the category of 'women' as stereotypically standing for those opposed
to conflict and supporting peace almost immediately breaks down when we consider
a real-world example involving real women.


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