Women’s Marginalization During Conflict Transition

Beginning with Western preconceptions concerning conflict and post-conflict transition, especially in reference to developments in Third World states, one is steered in the direction of accepting that marginalization of particular social groups will inevitably occur in primitive areas of the world that lack civility. The ‘Stop Genocide in Sudan’ tee-shirts and the rampant idealism in liberal, politically correct media and academia cease to resonate after years of constructing walls of desensitization to gruesome topics that do not affect our daily lives. And furthermore, the minority who do not succumb to a more jaded, realistic interpretation of society are often shunned for adopting labels such as feminist or progressive, in turn perpetuating stereotypes that are divisive to a society grounded on principles of fundamental equality. But rather, the cynics who bolster that social marginalization will remain existent in unenlightened places appear to suggest that human development is a static entity that is not socially constructed; this postulation simply does not hold considering the range of human rights abuses and breakthroughs relative to cultural norms.

In fact, as will be further developed, the overarching factor that influences the marginalization of women is the power structure of national and international systems that are socially and culturally constructed in a manner that distinguishes the extent of agency that women have. The amount of agency that women have of course varies culturally, but there are certain factors that remain prevalent in all societies. In summation, gender-based expectations coupled with a masculine power structure lead to the subordination of women seeking emancipation from historicized and contemporary male domination. Herein, significant facets that perpetuate the marginalization of women will be analyzed, and a final diagnosis regarding how the marginalization of women in conflict and post-conflict transition can be reduced will be articulated based upon the analysis of the array of causes leading to such marginalization.

Prior to engaging in a critical analysis of why women’s marginalization occurs and how activists can work to halt its inhumane continuance, an empirical look at case studies is warranted in order to gain perspective on the issue at hand. Firstly, it should be noted that the international community recognizes that the marginalization of women is unjustly persistent and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was created in 1979 in direct response to clear discrimination of women (UN General Assembly 1979: 1). Thus, state and non-state actors who engage in gender-based violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms, are in direct violation of international law and the direct defiance of international law by widespread actors reflects the shortcomings of the international system’s human rights initiatives that will be discussed in further detail later (Council of Europe 1992: 1). In Sudan, for example, the Janjaweed comprised of Sudanese Arab tribes publicly raped in order to humiliate the women and, being the main caregivers in Darfur, renders them [women] more vulnerable during attack as they usually stay closer to the village (Amnesty International 2004: 10-14). To make matters worse, women who were raped would stay away from relatives who fled to neighboring Chad because of the shame and stigma associated with rape, and communities would not welcome [back] rape victims, and this leads to social, economic, and medical vulnerability (Amnesty International 2004: 2-62).

As written in the Amnesty International Report, “Women and children are the most affected, physically and psychologically, during flight and as a consequence of forced displacement,” so it follows that the aforementioned vulnerabilities are only enhanced exponentially in cases of pregnancy which are ample in the absence of adequate contraceptive accessibility (Amnesty International 2004: 23). Ranging from Sierra Leone to Kosovo to Colombia the heinous abuses of women are similarly conducted, revealing that women are marginalized in the obvious manner of being subjected to physical and psychological abuse in conflict and post-conflict transition. Further analysis will examine why and how this marginalization is so prevalent in lead up to a prognosis as to how the abuse can be confronted more effectively.

While there are several socially constructed norms that exist in the realm of reality that influence the marginalization of women, mythological tales describing women form a bond between the perception of women in fantasy and the treatment of women in reality. As Sjoberg and Gentry posit in reference to the renowned Medea who commits a series of violent actions out of her forced love for Jason in Euripides’ Medea, “Even one of history’s most famous villainesses is not credited with her own violent choices. Instead, her violence is characterized as reliant on her role as a wife and mother, and thus not of her own doing” (Sjoberg & Gentry 2007: 30). And in the Roman Boudica myth, “Boudica’s violent response to the murders of her own loved ones is seen as monstrously savage and unwomanly rather than a natural human reaction along the same lines as Hamlet’s” (Sjoberg & Gentry 2007: 38-39). Given the circumstances of Medea and Boudica, a more reasonable explanation of their actions would be that they acted with calculated, rational agency (regardless of whether one agrees with the ethics of retributive violence).

The insistence that these women acted without innately womanly agency in the sense that only dysfunctional women can act maternally violent or monstrously is described by Hussain as an, “attempt to control, govern, regulate, or discipline text(s) in terms of policing the boundaries of  meaning” (Hussain 2000: 29). Such monopolized censorship of stories’ interpretation affects how society and the international system as a separate entity perceive women. In essence, it is an attempt to maintain the gender stereotype that ‘regular women’ are peaceful, innocent, maternal creatures, and any resort to violence is a result of one of these inborn qualities gone awry. If policymakers and activists in general fall victim to such simplified discourses, then policy will not account for the diverse motives that women agents have for their respective choices.

Gibson-Graham hones in on this point when ascertaining that, “feminists engage in projects of discursive destabilization, looking for and pointing out the gendered silences and oppressions inherent in the stories that get told” (Gibson-Graham 1994: 216). As discursive destabilization occurs, actors become open to an array of explanations behind the actions of women, and this can only lead to more adequate policy in terms of promoting the betterment of women’s lives ranging from equal pay in the Western workplace to the right to be part of the decision-making process, in the likes of Sierra Leone and Sudan, in postcolonial post-conflict transition after participation in conflict.

Regardless of whether the genesis is in fantasy or reality, gender-based expectations dominate the conception of how women are supposed to act. Women’s violence betrays the peaceful stereotype, and women in combat are forced to adopt a form of ‘hypermasculinity’ in order to conform to the male-dominated discipline (D’Amico & Beckman 1995: 8). In Sierra Leone, for example, women combatants must necessarily assume male roles and outdo men in order to prove that they are no longer typical, yet once the process of demobilization begins female fighters are frequently forgotten and passed off as camp followers (Coulter 2008: 63). A blatant double-standard exists: women have to work harder to gain respect in camp, but once peace begins to develop the military heartlessly abandons the very women who made unfathomable sacrifices. In a form of irony that shatters gender-based expectations and prompts further marginalization of women, women are often the most courageous, masculine fighters during conflict, and men, supposedly in existence to protect and provide, fail to protect and provide for women in post-conflict transition.

What this further entails is that, while males and females may exhibit respective tendencies, it is foolish to presume that there are modes of action that all men or all women share. As postulated by Sjoberg, “Women soldiers were not ‘soldiers’ but ‘women soldiers’; their gender marked their identity in militaries, and this often creates a state-perpetuated gendered protection racket which marginalizes women while appearing to foreground their interests” (Sjoberg 2007: 83). A comparable example of the argument Sjoberg is highlighting is the process of affirmative action in the United States. In short, by signifying that a ‘woman soldier’ is different from a ‘soldier’ or, in the case of affirmative action, that a ‘qualified minority applicant’ is different from a ‘qualified applicant,’ the State actually marginalizes social groups that are already perceived to be marginalized by indirectly making the claim that it is highly unlikely for them to be a formidable candidate at whatever enterprise they are pursuing. Instead, civil liberties pertaining to abolishing women’s marginalization, racial discrimination, etc. can and should still be pursued, but if the framework has undertones of gender-based expectations then the implication that civil liberties are in some way contrary to how humanity should naturally treat each other unnecessarily exists.

Thus far, and surprisingly contrary to many researchers, it has been argued that violent women, subjected to conflict as victim or combatant, engaging in action are rational agents just as men engaging in the repulsive abuse of women are acting rationally. Even if women were simply driven to action by how they have been affected as a wife or mother, like media coverage of women in Palestine assumes, women still have control over bestowing primacy to caring for loved ones (Sjoberg & Gentry 2007: 23-24). In spite of their rational agency, however, agency is socially constructed in a manner that leaves the culturally acceptable action as the only plausible choice (as evidenced by the earlier reference to rape victims in Sudan refusing to flee to Chad). Some people may then jump to claim that women like the Sudan rape victims are acting irrationally by passing on the opportunity to flee to a safer state, but this would paradoxically entail that abiding by cultural norms is irrational. Hence, these women are not acting irrationally; they have weighed the options of suffering prolonged abuse in Darfur versus receiving shame from friends and family in a safer Chad and have chosen the former option.

This is a prime example of the strength of socially constructed norms. Aretxaga has characterized this type of decision as a ‘choiceless decision,’ but it never ceases to be a rational one. And if one considers the chances of survival if the Sudanese rape victim returned to unwelcoming villagers or if the Sierra Leonean woman refused to fight after just witnessing the murder of her husband because joining the militia that massacred one’s spouse sounds reprehensible, the decisions these women make offer the greatest chance of survival—surely the core indicator of rational choice (Aretxaga 1997: 61). As said by Shaw, “The agency of those who deploy ‘weapons of the weak’, is very different from the agency of those whose authority allows them to act upon the world through control of an apparatus of domination” (Shaw 2002: 19). The argument is that being a victim does not equate to having no agency but rather, as asserted by Coulter in reference to Sierra Leone, “One needs to make a distinction, therefore, between different kinds and degrees of power and agency” (Coulter 2008: 68).

In accordance, clearly women’s marginalization is socially constructed but this remains vague and does not address whether marginalization is a result of structure, members of society, ruling elites, a culmination, etc. For instance, during the socialist revolution in Iran male activists attributed women’s marginalization to a problem of structure, but then remained ambivalent to women once gaining power (Shahidian 1994: 1). Therefore it follows that a feminist consciousness cannot be created instantaneously or even as a result of democratic revolution if oppression has historically been prevalent (Sajjad 2004: 12). Nordstrom writes, “What people tolerate in peace shapes what they will tolerate in war,” and this quote is certainly cyclical; if people tolerate marginalization during peace then their minds are socially constructed to accept oppression, and war albeit inspired by social revolution will not instantaneously change that (Nordstrom 1997: 1). Like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States or the international response to South African apartheid, changing social dynamics is a process because it requires altering ingrained mental schema. In acknowledging that reducing the marginalization of women will be a gradual process, the international community has the obligation to make women’s marginalization a public concern. But as aforementioned, the international community has done this and human rights abuses still persists often times at the hands of the very state that is supposed to provide security.

Therefore a clear divide persists between international security and national security since the former promotes human rights but lacks direct influence and the latter [in some cases] abuses human rights and has direct influence. Writes Shepherd, “International security depends on states complying with the moral authority of the international community, but individual states are the central actors in relation to monitoring marginalization” (Shepherd 2006: 383). In this view, international security is rendered obsolete if states act amorally. States maintain a tense relationship with women because in many cases joining in revolution alongside men has promised a women’s emancipation that has not been delivered by the State that still controls and defines gender roles. Women’s increased involvement in conflict and post-conflict transition has begun to pave the way for women of future generations, but instances of revolution by women combatants coupled with increased international recognition of women’s rights abuses has not yet eradicated women’s marginalization due to the fact that gender inequality is one of the few aspects of international relations that the domestic State and the beliefs it has rooted into its populous still maintains near total control over. Social movements and policy that advocate women’s rights, agency, access to medical care, and equality in a way that alters domestic abuse, socially constructed schemas of inequality, and general subordination rather than focusing upon abstract internationally systematic efforts would be a step in the right direction towards stopping the marginalization of women in conflict and post-conflict transition.

Amnesty International., Sudan: Darfur: Rape as a weapon of war: sexual violence and its Consequences. (2004). 1-46.

Aretxaga, B., Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern

Ireland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1997).

Coulter, C., Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War: Challenging the Assumptions, Feminist Review. 88. 1. (2008). 54-73.

Council of Europe., General Recommendation No. 19: Violence Against Women. (1992). 1.

D’Amico, F. and Beckman, P., Women in World Politics: An Introduction. Westport, ConnecticutBergin & Garvey. (1995).

Gibson-Graham, J.K., Stuffed If I Know: Reflections on Post-modern Feminist Social Research, Gender, Place and Culture. 1. (1994). 205-224.

Hussain, A., Joy Harjo and Her Poetics as Praxis: A Postcolonial Political Economy of the Body, Land, Labor, and Language, Wicazo Sa Review. 15. 2. (2000). 27-61.

Nordstrom, C., Girls and Warzones: Troubling Questions, Uppsala Life & Peace Institute. (1997). 1.

Sajjad, T., Women Guerillas: Marching toward True Freedom? An Analysis of Women’s Experiences in the Frontlines of Guerilla Warfare and in the Post-War Period, Agenda Feminist Media. 59. 1. (2004). 4-15.

Shahidian, H., Women and clandestine politics in Iran: 1970-1985, Feminist Studies. 23. 1. (1997).

Shaw, R., Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. (2002).

Shepherd, L.I., Loud Voices Behind the Wall: Gender Violence and the Violent Reproduction of the International, Millennium: Journal of International Studies. 34. 2. (2006). 377-401.

Sjoberg, L. Agency, Militarized Femininity, and Enemy Others. International Feminist Journal of Politics. 9. 1. (2007). 82-101.

Sjoberg, L. and Gentry, C.E., Mothers, Monsters, and Whores: Womens Violence in Global Politics. London, England: Zed Books. (2007).

UN General Assembly. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). 1-30.

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