Category Archives: Women and war

And no, the US are not liberating Afghan women…


American officials often justified the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by an argument about liberating Afghan women. In the dust and haze of the Bush administration’s lies this seemed just one more handy pretext. It is therefore somewhat surprising to see just how much the fate of Afghan women continues tos preoccupy the US adminstration and legislature, with hearings being held on a regular basis referring explicitly to Afghan women. Despite its certainlygood intentions, this fixation on liberating Afghan women has a couple of exasperating aspects to it, foremost of which is the entirely distorted perspective on the US role in helping trample any advancement for women in countries with reactionary regimes.

In the past, the US tried extremely hard and often successfully to squelch any communist or socialist regime in Third World nations, including Afghanistan. Yet communist or socialist regimes typically  did a great deal to abolish traditional legislation that kept women out of work and out of the “community”. For these regimes, the “women’s question” was closely associated with larger issuess of social justice, class equality and the progress of the working class (or whatever other formerly oppressed group was put forward). There are good reasons to critically discuss how effective these policies were in promoting women’s freedoms, as rather often radical feminism was denounced as hostile to the working class and feminists ended up in dissidence. Some argue,  probably not entirely incorrectly, that the main aim of communist women’s politics seems to have been to move women from the home to the factory without  really conceding positions of male power and influence.

However, the association of women’s politics with larger issues of social and political justice as well as economic  redistribution had two healthy side-effects:First, the “women’s question” was lifted out of the morass of biological or cultural arguments about women’s “nature” and set into a political and socio-eocnomic context. Second, women’s status was changed from within the political system and with economic and social rewards for the families that followed the party line. By targeting communist or socialist regimes in the name of a supposedly better and more progressive ideal – liberalism – the US destroyed this association and it did so in two ways.

First, the US supported the most reactionary groups in society to fight against the communist or socialist government of Afghanistan  up to the point of literally lifting them on to the throne. History will judge whether the losses for women’s freedoms  provoked by these US-sponsored counter-revolutions were more than just “collateral damage”. It is quite obvious today that the losses for campesinos in general were intentional goals of the strong Latin American lobbies in the US, and hence, not  so-called collateral damage rom the US contra strategy but rather an intended consequence.

However, supporting reactionary groups was not the only way that US hysteria with communist regimes in the Third World destroyed advances of and prospects for women’s freedoms in these countries. By crushing these regimes and imposing some sort of reactionary (neo?)liberalism in these countries, the US largely contributed to dissociating women’s question” from larger questionsof social and econmic justice. The “women’s question” became a stand-alone issue, and, in the best liberal tradition, one of rights rather than one of status, recognition and equality. As a question of rights, the “women’s question” all of the sudden was a human rights issue–and just as other human rights issues, it became a yardstick for civilizational and cultural progress, and so  drowned again in the swamp of culture and nature.

What is more, particularly in those countries where the US intervened militarily in the post-Cold War era, the “women’s question” was now part of the “clash of civilizations” (which remains an ideology only Al Qaeda and the Tea Party believes in) and a marker of imperialism. As the reactionary forces the US had fed through during the Cold War turned upon their former masters, they obviously turned upon the “women’s question”too, partly because, yes, they were reactionary, but partly also because women’s emancipation had become part of the cultural package of US imperialism. Therefore, when the House and Senate now babble over women’s freedoms in Afghanistan, they are just reinforcing the dwindling spin against women.

But this is yet not the nauseating aspect of this. One can still concede that those NGOs and legislators advocating more women’s rights and protection in Afghanistan do so in full awareness of this history,yet still assumethat it is better to bang the drums for Afghan women now. What is exasperating in this is much more basic: the complacency and smugness that makes them believe they know best what Afghan women now need, and whatever it is they need, that it can only be achieved if the US promotes it…it is exactly the same complacency and smugness that made Cold War warriors chase communists in the Third World back then.


United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and how women’s rights and peace do not always go together


Since 1977, the United Nations celebrate the 8th of March as United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. The combination of women and peace is flattering and yet starteling. How come women’s rights become associated with international peace? Will there be peace on earth when the last woman is liberated of male oppression? Or shall we read this title as a sort of disclaimer, a reassurance that the fight for women’s rights is not a violent one, not in any way comparable with war? The ambiguity of this title and the cloudiness of the association of women with peace is in any case rather typical for the discussion of the relationship between women’s lives and war violence. The question what role women can and do play in acts of collective violence such as wars touches deeply and painfully on fundamental issues of feminist theory and practice, most particularly upon the question of female agency in situations of violence. The dilemma of feminist theory is obvious: if women are more peaceful than men (whether by nature or nurture be left undecided for the moment), then they can only be passive victims of war. This is the position radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon defend, having found their ultimate prove that women have always been, are and always will be mere objects of male sexual abuse in the war rape victims of this world. Yet, if women can only be victims of war and particularily of war-related sexual violence, then they cannot be subjects determining their own lives. If women in war are reduced to their role as sexual objects, then female agency in wars becomes inconceivable. Not only does this eliminate the question how much agency women exercise in using their sexuality and their feminity to survive wars and to save their own and maybe the lives of others, but it most importantly represses the existence of women soldiers. In the imaginary that women only exist as victims of war, women cannot be agents of violence. Correspondingly, the UN security council resolution 1325 (2000) does not talk of women as soldiers at all, and the Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women as well as  the Secretary General’s reports on The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children mention girls only as victims of violence.

It should raise a feminist’s scepticism if a male-dominated organisation like the UN conceive of women’s destiny in wars only as of that of victims. And indeed, careful studies by anthropologists on the ground have not only found that many girl and women take active part in soldiering and fighting, they also retrace women’s destinies in subservent positions with much more sensitivity to women’s agency than the UN standard narrative of the woman-war-victim allows. Rachel Brett’s report for the United Nations Office of the Quaker Union, Yvonne E. Keairns study on girl soldiers, or Chris Coulter’s, Mariam Persson’s and Mats Utas’ study of women in civil wars, all show that women and girls not only participate in fighting but that they do so willingly, purposefully and consciously. Chris Coulter also offers an extremely sensitive and balanced account of “bush wives” in the book “Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers”, just as Mats Utas in his contribution to Alcinda Honwana’s and Filip de Boeck’s “Makers and Breakers”.

These studies show that women are far from being helpless victims of war and merely objects acted upon, although they often do experience extreme forms of violence, indeed. And yet, there are many, many who do develop coping strategies, who do manage their environment, who do decide and act upon the events befalling them and who do take their destiny into their hands.They do so on coercion, certainly, but they also do so because their personal history has bestowed with the agency to do so by instilling the will (might it be for revenge, might it be for booty, might it be for shere survival), as well as the capacity and the intelligence to find their way in the male world of war. Rather often than not, girl soldiers chose fighting as the better alternative to(more)  submissive forms of exploitation.

The often fatal disempowerment then does not come forcibly in the war but, worse, in the post-war times, those of peace where the plethora of international development agencies get together with all these other men to huddle women back into the house, into “rehabilitation” in form of sewing or nursing classes, and into trauma counselling. Demobilization projects rarely, probably never, take women’s roles in fighting into account, up to the point that major studies on demobilization dispense with gender questions alltogether. The girls who had managed to fight for their lives in the war, are thrown back into the agentless position of victim and object of development assistance and trauma counselling so that peace, in the end, means disempowerment and less rights and entitlements. If those anthropologists are to be believed, then women’s rights and peace do not go together.