Towards a New Theorizing of Women, Gender, and War

Dubravka Zarkov. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

This chapter presents a search for new theoretical and analytical approaches to gender and violent conflict by investigating feminist analyses of two specific issues: sexual violence against women as a gender-specific war strategy and women’s participation in war and violence. These two issues most aptly reflect recent debates about the limits and biases of classical feminist approaches to violent conflict and militarism and offer possibilities for innovative thinking. This chapter is not written as a review of feminist studies of war and violent conflict. One could even question the existence of a field, as war and different types of violent conflict are studied by feminists in many different disciplines.

The chapter will first reflect on some of the main theoretical premises of the classical feminist studies of war and challenges they faced in the 1990s. Then studies of sexual violence against women and women’s participation in violent conflicts will be discussed by juxtaposing different perspectives and bringing in debates that challenge classical approaches and engage in alternative theorizing.

Classical Feminist Studies Revisited

Feminists in any academic discipline have always had to counter hegemonies present within their discipline’s theoretical and geo-political traditions, not just hegemonies along the line of gender. The hegemonic position of Western academia, for example, has offered an advantage to Western feminists and feminists living in the West, prioritizing their theorizing against the knowledge produced in other parts of the world. Thus, not surprisingly, much of now classical feminist scholarship on war and militarism produced in the 1980s has often foregrounded the experiences of Western women and Western perspectives on women’s engagements in and against wars and militant movements in other parts of the world.

The equality-versus-difference debate underpins this Western bias. It is a product of two fundamentally different feminist projects—liberal feminists’ struggle to counter discrimination and secure women’s equal access to all social spheres, especially those perceived as exclusively men’s, and radical feminists’ struggle to preserve the presumed (essential) difference between nurturing femininity and violent masculinity and to build a society based upon the qualities of the former. This debate produced a rich, complex, and diverse body of feminist knowledge about war. Studies focused on the relationships between women and war (especially the two world wars) rallied around the idea that dramatic social transformations caused by wars and women’s engagements in different ‘war efforts’ (be it in war industries or in the fighting) offer a chance for lasting change in gender relations and a long-term effect on women’s emancipation and empowerment. Other studies addressed the same relationship using essentialized notions of feminine-cum-maternal care and peace-loving as their stating points. Yet others analysed women’s participation in national militaries (both in the West and in the Third World) or in militant, separatist, and guerrilla movements, arguing that women’s presence could and would eventually bring about transformation of masculinist institutions, such as the military.

These studies have, on the one hand, made immensely valuable contributions to our understanding of the relationships between women, gender, and war, and of the construction of militarism through notions of femininity and masculinity and their impact on women’s lives. On the other hand, they have also produced the key analytical frameworks and tools through which women’s experiences and the relevance of gender have been approached, often assuming a direct conceptual link between women’s agency and women’s participation in armies, militaries, and wars as potentially empowering and emancipatory, especially when linked to anti-colonial or anti-fascist movements.

However, there is a huge ‘but’ in these conceptualizations. It concerns the nature of the army, military, or violent conflict in which women took part. That is, when these were seen as oppressive, hegemonic, or unjust, feminists seldom analysed the lives of women who joined them, and women’s agency disappeared from view. Such an attitude seems to have to do with the general feminist uneasiness of the time with women’s participation in politics that can be characterized as right wing: nationalist, racist, or religious fundamentalist movements, communal violence, or terrorist actions. It seems that feminist discourse of men’s oppression of women has been for long ill-equipped for perceiving women active in right-wing political groups and militant movements.

Nevertheless, there have been studies that analysed the lives of women belonging to, or associated with, movements, armies, and militaries whose definition could hardly be accurate without words such as oppressive or hegemonic. The study of German women in the Nazi movement by Claudia Koontz (1986) has been one of these exceptions, inspiring other studies, such as Jacklyn Cock’s (1992; 1994) analysis of the lives of women in the White South African Defence Force (SADF), against the backdrop of apartheid. Cock compared the role of women in the SADF in maintaining the racist and sexist social order of South Africa with that of Nazi women in Germany, who (like Nazi women in Koontz’s analysis) contributed to the power of an oppressive state ‘by preserving the illusion of love in an environment of hatred’ (1994: 154). She also compared the position of women in the SADF with the position of women in the MK, an armed wing of the African National Congress. She concluded that women’s roles in the SADF were extended into the men’s sphere, but not fundamentally changed. Women in the MK, on the other hand, were incorporated into rather new roles. While the SADF ‘cultivated subordinate and decorative notion of femininity,’ the ideology of MK ‘sometimes involved a denial of femininity’ (p. 161). Whatever the differences between the two, Cock asserts that in both the SADF and the MK, combat played a fundamental role for defining women’s position within the military. Those women who participated in combat were—sometimes, and very selectively—allowed to participate in the heroic myths and historic narratives of their communities; others were relegated to insignificance (p. 159).

Classical feminist studies of militarism have defined combat as one of the most important factors that defined the position of women within Western militaries, marking an ultimate difference between men and women. As an exclusive preserve of men, combat was analysed as the core axis around which femininities and masculinities in most of the militaries and wars have been constructed. However, during the Second World War, Russian and Yugoslav partisan women were fighting on the front lines, as is true for women in many liberation movements in the Third World. Therefore, the neat political, ideological, and theoretical constructions of combat as exclusively masculine crumble when perspectives and experiences are not Western European or North American. Reviewing feminist literature on women militants in Eritrea, Vietnam, Namibia, South Africa, Nicaragua, and South Asia, and comparing it with literature on the United States, Sarala Emmanuel (2004) points out that the sexual division of labour in many militant movements in the Third World did not exclude women from combat. Second, some of the support services provided by women—usually associated with the domestication of femininity within militaries—have actually been highly politicized. Thus, even when women were excluded from combat, they were not necessarily excluded from the spheres of political relevance. Consequently, Emmanuel concludes, these distinctions reflect Eurocentrism in feminist theoretical frameworks that still assume the split between the public and private and continue to link masculinity with the public, and femininity with the private, even when realities of women defy such neat divisions.

These realities became evermore complex in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, both theoretically and geo-politically. Theoretically, many of the basic feminist premises produced in the West have been questioned by the rising power of marginalized feminist groups within the West (Black, lesbian, migrant) and from the Third World. The post-modern turn in feminism, often coming from totally different perspectives and with totally different premises, further destabilized classical feminist theoretical assumptions. Sometimes the two met in highly prominent and visible feminists from the Third World working in Western academia, bringing in not only different theories but, ultimately, different strategies for political action. New theorizing has resulted in undermining some of the classical feminist concepts conceived within modernist feminist discourses, such as agency, emancipation, and empowerment, and their relationship. New strategizing has made feminist knowledge produced by Third World feminists both more prominent in the West and more relevant to feminist analysis of Western as well as global realities, not just Third World realities.

These theoretical and strategic trajectories go hand in hand, indicating the unsettling of Western feminist hegemony in the production of feminist knowledge by the growing presence of Third World feminists. There is also a growing demand within global feminist movements that new theoretical reflections and political solidarities be developed to suit the changing geo-political situation of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Simply put, new wars opened new questions for feminism. Women soldiers participated in the Falklands and the Gulf War, stirring up old debates and posing new challenges to classical feminist studies of war and militarism developed in the early 1980s.

One of these challenges was how to analyse links between gender and other social relations of power, and especially other social identities that seem to have gained in visibility and relevance in these wars. It was obvious, for example, that the British and American women soldiers fighting in the Falklands and the Gulf War became multiple symbols—of nation, racial identity, ideology, emancipation, and modernity—and as such, served the purpose of defining the Self and the Other.7

Wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s made the links between gender and communal identities even more painfully clear. They brought about yet another challenge to feminist theorizing: intersections of these identities with gender-based sexual violence against women as a war strategy. As I will argue, they also mark a shift from classical feminist focus on women’s agency to women’s victimization in war. In the 1990s, the increasing participation of women in communal violence and nationalist-cum-religious movements in India and South Asia has posed very different questions about the intersectionality of gender, collective identities, and violence, and stirred up some of the old debates about the concept of agency and its link to empowerment and emancipation.

Studying Sexual Violence in War

In her analysis of war rapes in Bosnia and Croatia, Rhonda Copelon pointed out that war rape ‘takes many forms, occurs in many contexts, and has different repercussions for different victims’ (1993: 213). She asserted that each instance of rape has its own dimension that must not be taken for granted, but that specificity does not mean uniqueness or exclusivity:

The rape of women in the former Yugoslavia challenges the world to refuse impunity to atrocity as well as to resist the powerful forces that would make the mass rape of Muslim women in Bosnia exceptional and thereby restrict its meaning for women raped in different contexts. It thus demands recognition of situational differences without losing sight of the commonalities. To fail to make distinctions flattens reality; and to rank the egregious demeans it. (p. 214)

Although she never states it explicitly, Copelon’s warnings come as a reaction to the fact that the rapes in Bosnia and Croatia were ranked by many feminists, in the region and in the West, as the worse in human history, as unique and exceptional. This assumption of exceptionality can be challenged by more recent studies of the prevalence of sexual violence in African wars and earlier studies of rapes in South Asian violent conflicts, and can be attributed to the ambiguous positioning of Bosnia both within and outside of the ‘symbolic continent of Europe’ (Bakic-Hayden and Hayden, 1992). Its symbolic inclusion into Europe made rapes there more visible and more relevant for Western feminist theorizing on war rapes, compared with, for example, rapes during the Rwandan Civil War. The violence in Rwanda remained for a long-time quite invisible theoretically in Western feminism, although it mobilized women’s organizations and feminist NGOs across the globe. The wars in Yugoslavia, in contrast, caused an enormous academic production in a wide range of disciplines.

The symbolic exclusion of Bosnia and Yugoslavia from Europe affected the way relationships between women, gender, and war in the region were theorized and ultimately created a shift in Western feminist theorizing on war. While studies on sexual violence against women in wars contributed hugely to our understanding of the intersections between gender, sexuality, collective identities, and violence, feminist studies of Yugoslav and, later, the Rwandan war in the late 1990s largely focused on studies of war rapes. Consequently, the concept of gender-based violence was reduced to sexual violence. More importantly, classical feminist studies of women and war shifted from a conceptualization of agency and empowerment to theoretically and politically much more problematic conceptualization of sexual victimization.

This new prominence, centrality, even, of the raped female victim in feminist studies of war could be traced to specific theoretical and political perspectives within feminism. On the one hand, in classical feminist theorizing on war, it is a direct, albeit paradoxical consequence of the centrality of the concept of agency and its relation to empowerment and emancipation. Informed by modernist discourses that split the social realities of women into private passivity and public activity, women’s engagement in militaries and wars with arms in their hands was easy to conceptualize as emancipatory and empowering within a feminist framework of public agency. The victimhood of civilian women was thus a mirror image of such an understanding of agency. As already indicated, geo-politics has a role to play, too. Eurocentrism, racism, and Orientalism made sure that there have always been women and regions that have been seen as more empowered and emancipated than others. Thus, it was also very easy to perceive some of them entirely through the prism of victimization. Not surprisingly, women in the Balkan and African wars have been among the latter.

On the other hand, the centrality of the rape victim for feminist studies of war in the 1990s can be linked to the classical Western feminist conceptualization of peacetime rapes. Probably the most significant feminist work for understanding peacetime sexual violence was Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, first published in 1975. Brownmiller analysed rape as the most powerful means of men’s control over women. In her words, through rape ‘all men keep all women in a state of fear’ (Brownmiller, 1986:5; emphasis in the original). Susan Griffin (1971) contributed to the same perspective by asserting the reality of women’s constant fear of rape and the defining social condition of that fear as ‘rape culture.’

For many feminists, these analyses have remained unshaken truth twenty years after Brownmiller published her book, although she herself has criticized the ‘rape victim identity’ in 1993, while writing about rapes in Bosnia (Brownmiller, 1993). Catherine Niarchos, however, referring to Bosnia, states: All women know a great deal about rape, whether or not we have been its direct victims. Rape haunts the lives of women on daily basis’ (1995: 650). The inevitability of female rapability inscribed in this paradigm has consequences: if women are already defined as rapable, then rape defines femininity as violability and becomes a female mode of being, and simultaneously ascribes propensity to rape as an essential prerogative of maleness. These definitions, paradoxically, reinforce the greatest of all gender distinctions, assuming, once again, the omnipotence of men and the absolute powerlessness of women. The context of war—when a man is invariably defined as a soldier and a woman as an innocent civilian—further underscores the inevitability of female violability and powerlessness and allows for the erasure of women’s agency.

The fatal linkage between femininity, sexual violence, and victimization has repercussions for legal remedies of war-time rapes. Julie Mertus (2004) shows how victimization was at play at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, where testimonies of raped women were turned into legal narratives that benefited either the prosecution or the defence, but hardly the women themselves. As both the defence and the prosecution focused on the acts of violence, within which description of the victim’s and perpetrator’s body parts and the actions of the perpetrator figured prominently, the victim’s testimony was broken into a staccato of questions and answers, and the testifying woman was reduced to a dismembered and passive victim. Thus the very act of agency—the public testifying at the court—is turned into an act that reproduces the woman’s victimization, if not into an act of victimization in itself. Showing instances of women’s defiance to such victimizing legal practice, Mertus (2004: 112) is weary of the enthusiasm of ‘the (mainly western) champions of “universal justice”’ who have not yet learned the lesson of the limits of legal response to rape. She concludes that legal processes like the Tribunal hardly bring a possibility for closure for the witness, and that the visibility of the victim is not necessarily followed by recognition and respect. Thus, she argues for alternative legal and non-legal modes of justice—truth commissions, memory projects, and ‘people’s tribunals’—wherein the narrative of violence would be controlled by the witness.

However, Antjie Krog (2001) and Chiseche Mibenge (forthcoming) show that there is no easy access to justice for women who experienced sexual violence in conflicts in South Africa and Rwanda. In both places, public witnessing of sexual violence had to be replaced by special closed hearings in order to protect women from contempt, intimidation, violence, and even death that testifying in public could expose them to. The point to consider here is that the struggle between feminist exposure and social erasure of rape against women in wars belongs to complex dynamics of different relations of power within which the rapes and the victims are given meaning. In other words, visibility of the raped women, be it in feminist texts, in legal practice, or in local communities, will depend on the differential place their bodies have within the given feminist, legal, or local community. And this is certainly not a fixed place.

Urvashi Butalia’s (1993) work on the partition of India, for example, very clearly shows that the visibility and recognizability of a victim depends on the very specific political context. She notes that within Hindu and Sikh communities, those remembered in ritual commemorations of partition today are not the raped women, but rather the so-called ‘martyred’ women—those killed by members of their own families and communities in order not to be raped by the ‘enemy.’ They are remembered by their communities, often by individual name and place of residence, precisely because they were not raped. The lives of those who were actually raped, or those who would have rather risked being raped than killed by their own relatives, were not written about in the popular booklets celebrating ‘martyrdom,’ which are currently sold to schoolchildren on street corners (p. 24).

Selective and differential visibility of the rape victim has relevance in the Sri Lankan conflict, too. The Tamil Tiger militant women raped by government forces are awarded a public space—and with it all the glory of the martyr—within the Tamil community only if and when they are already dead or killed. Raped women were systematically silenced when trying to talk about their experience of sexual violence while they were still alive (de Mel, 2001). Or, as Emmanuel (2004) shows, their sexual violation—while they are still ‘innocent civilians’—is turned by researchers and propaganda makers alike into a story of motivation for joining the Tigers. At the same time, the symbol of the raped woman is regularly used for propaganda and other purposes by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil separatist movement, and so is the practice of sexual violence itself.

Thus, social and cultural norms and specific political contexts affect the visibility of the victim of sexual violence by providing or withdrawing the discursive space within which the victim can speak or be spoken about. Diana Taylor (1993) and Biljana Kašic (2000), for example, both point to the links between violated female bodies and the voicelessness in the representation of women victims in Argentina and Bosnia, asserting that the muteness of the female victim went hand in hand with the appropriation of her pain and her voice for political purposes (dictatorship, nationalism).

So how are we then to study sexual violence in wars in a way that neither jeopardizes the plight of women who have been raped, nor takes sexual victimization as the ultimate destiny of women in war? Following Copelon’s suggestion of recognizing differences ‘without losing sight of the commonalities,’ one could argue for comparative studies of sexual violence against women in different violent conflicts and other political and violent contexts, such as, for example, colonial violence, as well as for more critical exchange between studies of peace rapes and war rapes.

An interesting comparative study of rapes in the former Yugoslavia and South Asia is that of Hayden (1998), who examined not only the meanings and functions of rape but also strategies of rape avoidance in different communal conflicts and mass violence in India. Further comparisons of rapes in the two regions come from feminists writing on sexual violence during the partition of India in 1947; they cite the female body as one of the primary sites of communal violence. The accounts of ‘rapes, of women being stripped naked and paraded down streets, of their breasts being cut off, of their bodies being carved with religious symbols of the other community’ (Butalia, 1993: 14) indicate that the violence functioned in the production of collective identities. Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin (1998: 43) assert that the divisions between India and Pakistan were ‘engraved … on the women … in a way that they became the respective countries, indelibly imprinted by the Other’ (emphasis in the original). According to Menon and Bhasin (1998) this symbolic geography of the sexually violated female body and its role in the construction of collective identities was a significant similarity between the violence against women during partition and during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. According to Mibenge (forthcoming), similar acts of violence against women, or their dead bodies, were also seen in Rwanda, indicating further possibilities for comparative analysis of the symbolic value of the violated female body in the production of collective identities.

In addition to comparative studies of rapes of women in wars in different regions, cross-disciplinary scholarship may also bring new insights. Black studies, post-colonial studies, and masculinity studies seem to be especially relevant here. On the one hand, they too are concerned with the specific socio-political context within which sexual violence is perpetrated. On the other hand, they bring in the subject of male victims of sexual violence. However controversial this subject may be for feminism, it actually offers new theoretical perspectives and insights.

Post-colonial and Black studies have asserted that rape functions within time-and-space-specific political contexts. In her analysis of rape in colonial India, Jenny Sharpe (1991: 36-37) pointed out that colonialism was a ‘signifying system’ within which the meanings of rape were produced. Susan Pedersen (1991: 662) asserted the same when describing the concerns of colonial administrators in Kenya that their interfering with ‘native issues’ regarding Kenyan women could endanger the sexual safety of White women. Analysing the history of slavery and racism, Valerie Smith (1998) argued that slavery, lynching of Black men, and rape of Black women informed the construction of racial and gender identities in America. James Messerschmidt (1998), for example, explicitly analyses lynching and castrating of Black men in relation to White masculinity and femininity. He asserts that the construction of Black masculinity through sexual violence against White women plays an essential role in obscuring racist violence against Black men.

The latter research, and many other studies of masculinity, show that male bodies also carry attributes of specific collective identities and functions as symbols of ethnically, racially, or religiously defined communities. It is this symbolic value of the male body for the community that exposes men to violence, including sexual violence, during a conflict. Not surprisingly, however, men as victims of gender-specific violence in armed conflicts and war have only recently received attention from feminists. War in Bosnia has again been the one that alerted some researchers to the fact that men have also been assaulted sexually, and that this assault appears to be as systematic as that against women, although the number of assaulted men was never indicated in the UN reports.

The research on sexual victimization of men in violent conflict, while still in its inception, is important for feminist studies of war precisely because it cautions us to avoid fatal linkages between femininity and victimization. While the female rape victim is often publicly visible in the West, the male victim is still mostly invisible. This public invisibility of the male victim of sexual violence is not only due to the prevalence of the dominant associations of masculinity with power and heterosexuality, but also due to the position of the violated male body within specific social contexts. Sexual violence and torture of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad is an apt example. The unprecedented exposure and high visibility of the naked bodies of Iraqi prisoners in the Western media (from press to TV to Internet) is a result of their social status in the West—their ‘Otherness.’ Violated and humiliated naked bodies of soldiers of Western militaries serving in Iraq have not been, and will probably never be, exposed that way.

The study of sexual violence against women and men and a comparison of the meanings of the rape of women and the rape of men during violent conflict carry potential far beyond the present conceptualization. What has already been done quite extensively is an investigation of the intersections of femininity and other social identities and power relations, such as those of race, class, ethnicity, and religion, and the role of sexual violence therein. But what needs further exploration is what sexual violence tells us about the intersections of masculinity, race, ethnicity, and religion. In short, research into sexual violence defines both differences between femininities and masculinities and differences within them.

Finally, researching sexual violence against both women and men brings a focus on female and male sexuality and homo/heterosexuality. As already discussed, the selective and differential concern with women’s sexual vulnerability, or female sexuality as violability, is part and parcel of war strategies of violence against women. This violable sexuality of women has almost become a dominant framework of feminist analysis of sexual violence against women in war, but, as Anita Roy (1997) pointed out, not everywhere around the globe is female sexuality constructed as timid, passive, and violable. Focusing on gendered sexualities is not enough. One also has to ask how norms of (hetero)sexuality intersect with notions of femininity and masculinity and definitions of collective identity within a particular violent conflict, and how this impacts upon war realities, including, but not limited to, sexual violence against women and men alike.

Studying Women’s Participation in Violent Conflict

Wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were not the only ones relevant for change in classical feminist theorizing on women and war. Other wars have also challenged established feminist thinking. The NATO war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999 and the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, justified by the doctrine of ‘humanitarian wars’ and ‘pre-emptive strikes’ and the discourse of the ‘war on terror,’ have further exposed, each in a different way, some of the limitations in classical feminist theorizing on violent conflict and a need for new approaches.

Throughout the 1990s, feminist conceptualizations of wars, violent conflicts, and militarization have been changing. After the study of women in violent conflict and its aftermath, femininity and masculinity became much more prominent tools of analysis. Then studies of women’s and girls’ experiences of war were joined by studies focused on representations of femininities and masculinities in various war narratives, on the genderdness of narratives and practices, on links between gendered identities, violence, and the military, and (much less so) on the changing nature of warfare.

The concepts of women’s agency and empowerment through war became ever more important for the global feminist movement. Thanks to feminist efforts in 2000, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1325, which demanded inclusion of women’s anti-war efforts in every step of the official political and social processes that transforms a society from war to peace. Resolution 1325 also asked for due attention to women’s informal ways of doing peace-politics and for preserving gains that women acquired during times of conflict.

Theoretically, the analyses of women’s agency in and against war continued through studies of women’s anti-war activism, individual and collective resilience and survival strategies, and community work and leadership. However, the old optimism about the long-term impact of changes in gender roles during war has been losing strength. Judy El-Bushra’s recent work is probably the most significant in this respect. She sends two grim warnings. First, while gender roles do change in violent conflicts (sometimes dramatically), and women do take greater responsibilities within the household and community, institutional supports that ‘would provide women with decision-making power consistent with these new and more responsible roles have been slow in coming’ (2004: 169). In other words, gender relationsmay stay intact, even when gender roles change. El-Bushra asserts that ‘the ideological underpinnings of gender relations have barely been touched at all and may even have become further reinforced through conflict’ (p. 169). Second, she notes that analysing how gender becomes utilized in preserving different political and economic orders is only one side of a coin. The other is that violent conflict and war are used to preserve gender orders. Theoretically, this point has been made earlier, but there were no empirical studies to prove it. El-Bushra’s work on several states in Africa shows how violent conflict becomes a means of preserving, achieving, and reclaiming the lost prerogatives of dominant masculinity (such as property, control, and social status) as well as dominant gender hierarchies.

Much feminist work on militarization of women’s lives—be it through direct participation in the military or through professional and family associations—also continues to rely on the concept of women’s agency and empowerment. But here too, the straightforward link of militant agency to emancipation and empowerment was undermined to quite an extent. First, women’s presence in the military does not seem to change the masculinist nature of these institutions, nor does it contribute to the general advancement of women’s social position—quite the contrary. Cynthia Enloe (2000), for example, shows that defending the rights of women soldiers in the US military may impact negatively on the rights of civilian women affected by the US militarism. For example, US feminists fighting for women soldier’s rights against harassment, sexual violence, and gender discrimination did ally with the lesbian and gay movement fighting homophobia in the military, but not with feminists working with prostitutes around military bases or military wives. Still, Enloe insists that women’s soldiering may, ‘under certain conditions,’ advance the cause for all women (p. 287). As a case in point she gives an example of exposing the cover-up of the rape of a woman soldier by a male soldier in the US press. Such an exposure of a cover-up, Enloe argues:

can tear away the legitimizing camouflage that has sustained that military as a symbol of national pride and security… [c]an make that military appear to many citizens for the first time to be little more than a men’s club…[A] state official … may become confused. Although state confusion is not as invigorating to witness as state transformation, it can be revealing. And revelation can alter consciousness. (p. 287)

This perspective is extremely optimistic, but also utterly unrealistic, and it further exposes the limits of some of the dominant feminist theoretical approaches to wars and militaries, women’s participation in them, and their gendered implications.

Second, the wars of the 1980s and 1990s and those of the twenty-first century confirmed the fact that women soldiers and militants are here to stay, not only as enlightened freedom fighters in liberation movements of the Third World, nor in presumed democratic Western militaries fighting fascism and totalitarianism, but in wars both gruesome and horrid, not only among the oppressed, but also among the aggressors. These women and their actions may well be contributing to the maintenance of national or international social orders based on oppression and exclusion. Their actions may well be part and parcel of male-defined ideologies and projects. But they are neither blind, manipulated victims of patriarchal social orders, nor are they empowered or emancipated in the way feminists usually define emancipation and empowerment.

As some of the old political and theoretical certainties of feminism crumbled, at least two things seem to have become evident: first, women’s agency, emancipation, and empowerment are not necessarily linked only to liberating and progressive movements. Second, agency, emancipation, and empowerment may not be the best framework at all for studying women’s diverse positioning within violent conflict, including women’s participation in violence.

The region in which both of these points have been taken most seriously in feminist theorizing on violent conflict is South Asia. There, a body of knowledge has been steadily growing on women’s diverse positioning within a range of very different violent conflicts. In India, women have participated in militant formations of the RSS, in riots in 1984, in the destruction of the Ayodhya Mosque in 1992, in communal violence in Bombay in 1992 and 1993, and in separatist movements in Kashmir, Assam, and Punjab. Women also took part in the communal violence in Gujarat, and in Maoist insurgency in Nepal, and separatist militant movements in Sri Lanka. These are all very different violent conflicts, with different histories and trajectories. Their effects on women and women’s engagements in them are also very diverse. But it seems that this diversity as well as the overwhelming presence of women on the side of those who inflict violence has forced feminists in the region to re-examine the old theoretical tools and search for the new ones.

Anita Roy once remarked that, for India, ‘1947 was a moment of triumph not only for anti-colonial nationalism but also for communalism’ (1997:261). Today, one could add, communalism marks the triumph of women’s will to violence. It is not surprising then that many feminists writing on women and violence in South Asia and especially in India criticize ‘“traditional” feminist concerns with violence, in which women are cast as victims,’ for their failure ‘to account for instances in which violence is perpetrated by women,’ and for their continuous gendering of violence as ‘male’ (Roy, 1997: 260; emphasis in original). The old feminist assumption that women cannot be active in right-wing political movements in any other way but as ‘manipulated and separated from each other in the service of a male-defined project’ (Seidel, 1988: 6) is increasingly seen as outdated among South Asian feminists. Roy even suggests that this assumption tells more about feminism of the North—‘willfully and perversely blind to the specificities of different women’s experiences’—than about the women on the right (1997: 261). Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake (2001: 111) further criticizes secular feminists in South Asia who see women’s political violence as a ‘black hole’ and part of ‘a male patriarchal project,’ and militant women as ‘pawns and victims in the discourse of nationalist patriarchy,’ while Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia (1995: 4) argue that women on the right ‘bring with them an informed consent and agency, a militant activism’ of their own.

In their work, Rajasingham-Senanayake (2001), Patricia Jeffery (1999), and Butalia (2001) suggest that feminist analysis of gender and violent conflict needs rethinking, as concepts such as agency and empowerment no longer offer satisfactory frameworks. First, radical right-wing politics are both appropriating feminist language and offering emancipation and empowerment. This practice seems to be especially true for the Hindutva nationalist movement in India. Figuring prominently as followers as well as leaders of the movement, Hindutva women have defied feminist imagery of victimized or manipulated women who simply catch the crumbs of privilege falling from patriarchal tables around which men leaders make all the difference. As Paola Bacchetta and Margaret Power point out, ‘women in the right are neither dupes of right-wing men nor less powerful replicas of them,’ they ‘consciously choose to support and help build the projects of which they are part. In so doing, right-wing women carve out a space and identity for themselves and enhance the ability of their right wings to implement their agenda’ (2002: 3). The consequence of such engagements of women in the Hindutva movement is empowerment. However limited, conditional, and controversial this empowerment might be, women’s activism in Hindutva has a ‘palpable impact on women in the public sphere’ (Deshpande, 1997:197); it politicized femininity and expanded the ‘horizons of domesticity.’ By becoming a ‘communal subject’ within the Hindutva movement, ‘woman has stepped out of a purely iconic status to take up an active position as a militant’ (Sarkar, 1995: 188).

Second, some South Asian feminists argue that the modernist concept of agency is too reductive, as it recognizes only political and public activism, thus missing a much broader social and cultural context of women’s engagement in violence outside of clearly defined political movements and public spheres. Far from being either the starting points or the central concepts of feminist theorizing of women’s soldiering or sexual victimization in war, agency and victimization should be, as South Asian feminists suggest, only two among many other narratives of women’s positioning within a violent conflict. Instead of assuming the presence of either agency or victimization, a feminist studying a violent conflict should rather ask when and how agency and victimization are prioritized in the experiences and representations of war, what other narratives of women’s and men’s positioning within the war there are, and how they are obscured or denied.


Two regional conflicts during the 1990s have inspired many feminists to study sexual violence against women—former Yugoslavia/Bosnia and Rwanda/ Africa. One region seems so far to inspire many studies of women’s participation in violent conflict—South Asia. In all of these regions women—and men—have been sexually violated, and have taken part, directly and indirectly, in violence. In the wars through which the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, men have been exposed to systematic sexual violence, and women fought as volunteers and within regular armies. Women have been tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for participating in genocide. In some of the African wars, girls and young women, as abducted or co-opted soldiers, commit gruesome crimes. But in the case of the Balkans and Africa, feminist studies have focused almost exclusively on raped women, while in the case of South Asia, sexual violence against women and their participation in communal violence have both attracted feminist attention.

Still, it is clear that these violent conflicts, with sexual violence against women and women’s participation in violence, have challenged classical feminist thinking about women, war, and militancy, and have raised questions with significant theoretical and strategic consequences. New feminist studies contributed hugely to intersectional analyses of gender and collective social identities, although, to a large extent, with assumptions about female sexual violability as the starting point. Thus studies of war were sometimes reduced to studies of war rape. New studies have also challenged the conceptualization of agency, empowerment, and emancipation, leading feminists to abandon the assumption that these make their presence felt only within progressive, liberating movements. Many have already noted that geo-politics and feminist theorizing about war seem to be related. If this is so, then the unsettling of the hegemony of Western feminism offers an enormous opportunity for rethinking some basic theoretical and strategic principles, for the benefit of a better understanding of present-day global realities.