WAR IS GENDERED
AN INTERVIEW WITH CYNTHIA ENLOE BY BJØRK GRUE LIDIN
BGL: You argue that all wars are made up of gendered phases and women’s lives are impacted differently in each phase. The present foreign intervention in Iraq has led to yet another war-phase in the country. Can you predict some of the gendered outcomes of this phase?
CE: Bjork, first of all, let me say what a pleasure it is to be a small part of HYSTERIA. Every new feminist magazine is distinctive in the windows it throws open on to this dynamic, complex, always gendered world.
Thinking about your first good question, yes, it was in the midst of trying to make sense of the 2003 – 2010 Iraq war that I realized that diverse Iraqi and American (and British and Polish and Honduran – all their governments sent troops) women’s experiences of that war were not static. Those experiences and how diverse women interpreted and responded to those experiences each seemed to go through distinct phases. I had been following British and American women’s diverse relationships to militarism back in the 1980s. But, really, it wasn’t until 1990 that I began paying as close attention as I could in 1990 to what was being revealed about Iraqi diverse women’s relationships to internal and external militarisms. As I came to writing Nimo’s War, Emma’s War, featuring the experiences of four Iraqi women and four American women, I realized that this discovery of apparent wartime gendered phases needed to be one of the core themes.
I tried to read everything I could by feminist-informed journalists, by gender-smart scholars, by feminist-conscious ngo researchers, by on-the-ground women’s rights activists. AND I was especially influence/tutored by the work of SOAS professor Nadje Al-Ali. It was staying focused over those years, from 1990 through at least 2010 that allowed me to see that this succession of wars seemed to go thorough gendered phases. For instance, the gendered politics of Iraqi women’s coping with the post-Gulf War international economic sanctions – especially being laid off from state jobs as the Saddam Hussein government dealt with the sanctions – had much harsher consequences for Iraqi women than for Iraqi men during the years 1991 – 2003. Also, it wasn’t until more than a year after the US/British military invasion that some Iraqi militiamen began fire-bombing Iraqi women-owned small beauty parlours. Or think about Iraqi women’s organized political activism; it became more energized and elaborate as the Baathist Party’s control over the country’s political space loosened after 2003, but before the Maliki-led political party, DAWA, asserted its own grip on the state’s machinery after 2007. All this was in the midst of a violent multi-sided armed conflict.
So, staying focussed, cultivating a long attention span is crucial, I think, to useful feminist analysis of anything, including of women’s diverse relationships – to men, to marriage, to paid work, to political organizing, to beauty, to ethnic identity, to sexuality, to policing, to violence, to home, to schooling, to public spaces – in the midst of any war.
But this doesn’t mean that any two armed conflicts will go through identical phases. So I can’t look into a proverbial crystal ball and predict what Iraqi or Syrian women will be experiencing and responding to in, say, 2017. What noticing the distinct phases that gendered politics (the politics both both masculinities and of femininities) went through for Iraqi women between 2003 – 2010 does mean, though, is that we have to avoid imagining that taking a “snap shot” of Syrian women’s diverse lives in 2011 can equip us to understand their lives in 2014.
Take, for instance, those Syrian women who thought of themselves as non-sectarian and pro-democracy activist women in March of 2011. That was when Syrian mixc-gender civil society went into full blossom. That was before the Assad security forces’ violent repression. That was before any of those women’s male comrades in Homs or Aleppo or Damascus decided to form armed militarized opposition groups. Today, three years later, as the war drags on, t the number of masculinized armed groups have multiplied. While all are male-led and all militarize the presumptions of their armed participants, they have increasingly widening differences in their goals, each with deeply gendered implications. Some are secular in their vision of the new Syria. Several are explicitly theocratic in their own vision.
Secondly, as the violence has continued over these three years, more and more Syrian women active in independent groups have felt compelled to prioritize urgent humanitarian work. This has made it increasingly important for them to broaden understandings of what constitutes “political action” and “civil society.” These activist women have been talking about this. Furthermore, as the violence has spread, more and more women – many now as heads of households – have become displaced internally or have had to flee across national borders, usually as the chief caretakers of dependent children; this has made the gender politics of refugees far more pressing for those same pro-democracy activist Syrian women than it was in 2011.
All this time, from 2011 through 2014 (and next year and the year after), patriarchy will keep morphing. Women will have to keep analyzing their places in it, their uses of it and their ways to challenging it in every one of its new guises.
BGL: The Kurdish Peshmerga’s women fighters battling IS have been applauded by the Western war-leading nations and one-sidedly portrayed as heroines while the same nations are demonizing the IS female fighters, one-sidedly portraying them as Jihadists. In both cases women are seemingly prescribed ‘agency’ and assigned a different gendered role than that of ‘victim’. What drives this narrative and what gendered implications does it have on the concept of ‘security’?
Moreover, it is striking that the women portrayed as heroines in British media live and fight outside the British borders and many of the Muslim women portrayed as Jihadists – and thus a security threat – live within the British borders. How do we make feminist sense of this?
CE: It’s true that many male journalists, editors and producers for generations have been entranced with/horrified by the images of women with guns. And so too have many of us, their readers and viewers. In fact, often those media decision makers give us only the eye-catching image, as if that told the “whole story.” But, of course, in reality, women’s historical relationships to guns – and to gun-wielding organizations – need to be explored with a sharp, steady curiosity, with feminist questions asked and energetically pursued.
That’s what your good question about the current British media’s apparent contrast between the “good” Pesh Merga Iraqi Kurdish women and those “frightening” women inside some of the Islamicist fighting forces provokes for me – questions, curiosity. I’m always trying to learn more about how all sorts of femininities become militarized. I also try to remember always to ask questions about any weapons-wielding institutions’ gendered divisions of labour (who is assigned to search women at the check points, who is trained to handle the grenade launchers, who does the nursing, who does the strategic planning). And then I try to stay curious about the Big Picture: What are the causal relationships between the wielding of violence and the effective challenges to patriarchy – or reinforcements of patriarchy.
A photograph with a short caption or a 10 second film clip will not answer any of these questions. An image that cuts short a feminist quest, that silences feminist questions is, I honestly think, a very dangerous image.
To think more clearly and usefully about women’s roles inside either of these male-led militarized groups, then, we need to not see those women as weird or exceptional or heroic. I confess, personally am totally turned off by the warrior goddess! It is an icon that explains nothing. And it flattens out women’s complicated relationships to violence and militarization. Instead of icons, I hunger after nuance and dynamic complexities playing out over time. Not exactly the stuff of Tweets or sound bits, but a lot more interesting!
Women have been recruited (usually by male leaders) into all sorts of militarized forces – think of those Nicaraguan women who joined the Sandinistas in the 1970s. Think of the North Vietnamese women who enlisted in the North Vietnam Army and the South Vietnamese women who joined the Viet Cong in the 1960s and 1970s. Think of the Eritrean, Mozambiquan, and Zimbabwean school girls who fought in their respective countries’ insurgent forces. But also think of women who have served in state militaries – for instance, in today’s British, Russian, Fijian, US, Canadian, South African, Israeli, Australian, Norwegian, New Zealand and Japanese state militaries.
Sorry to burden you with this long list (it could be a lot longer!).
Making this partial list, though, reminds me of all that dozens of feminist researchers have taught us over the last forty years about women’s unfolding experiences as members of male-led military organizations. We’ve learned from their work that some women have felt empowered by being accepted as the “comrades” of men inside a masculinized fighting force. We’ve learned that some of those same women have experienced let-down, even betrayal, at the end of the war, when they were cast aside, often treated as “unmarriageable” by their own fellow citizens, as the insurgent-army-turned-state-army became officially masculinized. We’ve learned that some women have struggled against homophobia inside the ranks in order to continue soldiering.. We’ve learned that some women have taken pride in becoming a post-war “veteran,” while others have scarcely told the younger generation about their fighting experiences, leaving the men to tell the “war stories..”
So, thinking about those women who have been or now are in the Iraqi Kurdish Pesh Merga, we should be asking serious questions: are their assigned durties identical to those of Kurdish Pesh Merga men – if not, how not, and with what consequences for patriarchy? We should also widen our lens and ask whether the Kurdish Iraqi civilian women’s rights activists have found common cause with the women inside the Pesh Merga – over what issues especially? We can also try to discover whether acts of violence against women in the Kurdish-controlled northern communities of Iraq has been rolled back due in part to women’s participation in the community’s fighting force. And that’s just the beginning….
And there are just as many questions to ask if we are really serious about (not just titillated by) those women – both Iraqi women and Syrian women, but also those women recruited from overseas – who have joined ISIS. We know from Iraqi feminists (for instance, Hanaa Edwar) that ISIS male leaders have been targeting Iraqi women professionals – lawyers, teachers, doctors – for execution in some of the towns that ISIS has occupied. Just last week an Iraqi women’s rights activist who was running as a candidate for her town’s council was executed by ISIS fighters. So clearly, we all need to be curious about the actual experiences of any women once they have joined ISIS forces .
For instance, if we are serious, we should be trying to find out whether women who have voluntarily joined ISIS have married ISIS male fighters,. Marriage politics are always relevant to investigate if you are interested in any militarized organization! The ISIS expressed ideology seems to place a heavy emphasis on a masculinity proven in both wielding violence and entering marriage; so how has that affected women who have joined ISIS of their own accord? We could also try to discover whether women inside the ISIS organization have been assigned by male leaders to enforce codes of behaviour of local women, with what results? And this would prompt us to find out what have been the foreign women recruits’ relationships with the local Iraqi and Syrian women in the towns controlled by ISIS. What were each woman’s original aspiration and how has she interpreted the match between her hopes and her experiences?
I know these are tough questions to pursue. None of them will be reliably answered by any journalist or editor – or any reader or viewer – who imagines women to be mere cartoon figures. One thing I’ve learned is that we can’t take short cuts or be lazily satisfied with mere images if we are really serious about doing feminist investigations of this world.
Artwork © Sama Alshaibi