Gender and Conflict

Author: Rubina Saigol

In a recent exchange between Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the latter said: “There has been talk of bangles. We do not use such language. It is not a sign of manliness… Indian is not a weak nation of bangle-wearing women but a macho country of men with metal bracelets. “Vajpayee said that the Indian Army was on alert and prepared to thwart any aggression. “Let there be no illusion … India is ready to face any kind of challenge to its unity”, said the Prime Minister (The News, November 1, 2001).

After Pakistan’s defeat against India in the Wills World Cup Cricket in 1996, the defeated Pakistani team was sent a set of bangles signifying that losing to arch enemy India was akin to becoming feminized, as bangles are a feminine symbol (the News, March 12, 1996). In May 1997, a news item in the press was entitled, “No long hair for Sahiwal boys”. The District Administration in Sahiwal decided to launch a campaign against young men with long hair and earrings. The City Magistrate started a campaign in which he took barbers with him to cut off boys’ hair and remove their earrings on the spot (The News, May 31, 1997). Wasim Akram was accused by several people of losing the cricket match to India because he wears and earring symbolizing femininity.

Such petty exchanges between heads of governments, and seemingly trivial incidents like the ones mentioned above, may not appear to be significant enough for reflection or analysis. However, all of them share an important characteristic: each one is a manifestation of latent sexual anxiety revolving around notions of masculinity and femininity. Feminists have recognised for a while now that social and political ‘realities’ are deeply sexualised phenomena, which have gendered origins as well as gendered effects.

War and peace, like most other public social discourses, are also infused with conscious or unconscious gendered ideas, imagery and content. War is often referred to in a strongly masculine language of conquest, domination, power, heroism, valour, victory, and symbols of conquest such as the sword. War tends to glorify masculinity and the values associated with death, dying, killing, bloodshed, conquest and martyrdom.

On the other hand, the discourse of peace tends to center around ‘soft’ (read feminine) issues. Peace activists tend to emphasise the lessening of hostilities, reducing tensions, living in harmony, refraining from killing, and the values of bloodletting; conquest, victory and valour do not normally form part of the peace discourse. Peace discourses are also often feminised in the sense that women are told to keep the peace in the home even at the expense of violence and exploitation. An appeal is made that for the sake of the children and for domestic peace, women should remain quiet and acquiescent in the face of oppression and violence.

Although this kind of peace is a repressive and unjust peace, nonetheless governments and states tend to impose this form of silencing on dissenting populations and freedom struggles. The language of ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ to denote hardliners, and those who are willing to compromise, is also gendered language differentiating ‘hard’ from ‘soft’. Just as war associates strength, valour and courage with masculinity, the values of peace, forgiveness, gentleness and quiescence tend to get associated with women. Being peaceful tends to get equated with being weak and feminine, while being aggressive comes to be associated with being strong and masculine. Discursive constructions, thus, render war as the opposite of peace in much the same way as they make men the opposite of women.

The kind of nationalist anxiety evident in PM Vajpayee’s words quoted above, and in the Sahiwal District Administration’s need to ensure the creation of masculine men, is the hallmark of nationalist discourse. Nations, in their ideal self-image, demand strongly masculine men (not those with long hair, wearing bangles and earrings), and feminine women able to produce strong sons to defend the land-as-mother (motherland) against enemies. In nationalist constructions, therefore, dharti (land) becomes an iconic signifier of motherhood and reproduction.

A great deal of nationalist passion is transferred to the land, which is constructed as feminine, and as a mother because it nourishes and reproduces life. The ‘sons of the soil’ are in turn constructed as the defenders of the land against invasion, which is akin to rape. Just as soldiers defend ‘mothers and daughters’ of the dharti against humiliation and rape against enemies, they defend the land-as-mother and nation-as-mother against impure outsiders who threaten to defile the mother/land.

While nationalist selfhood tends to create men as heroic martyrs and brave defenders of the feminine land-as-woman, nationalist imagery also casts women primarily in the roles of mothers and daughters. The roles of women are invariably those of supporting, eulogising, goading and admiring male warlike exploits, and their own participation in the glory is vicarious, through their relationship to the men. The figure of the mother is central to nationalist constructions, as women’s reproductive capacity is harnessed to statist and nationalist goals and considered a national duty. The mother is a glorified figure who sacrifices her sons for the land.

While motherhood and womanhood, as idealised formations and constructed in specific ways, are eulogised and venerated in nationalist thought, actual women and mothers are subjected to unbridled violence, rape and murder in the name of honour. The association of womanhood and motherhood with male and, by extension, national honour is what leads to women being affected by war in gender-specific ways. As recorded by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin in their Borders an Boundaries, women of each community, ie Hindu, Muslim and Sikh were raped by males of the other communities as a form of destroying the very seeds of the ‘enemy’. Raping women collectively and publicly was designed to prove that men of the enemy were not brave or strong enough to protect their women.

The rape of women in Bosnia, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Germany, Kosovo and Palestine during armed conflict shows the extent to which it has become a weapon of war used by all armies whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Marxist. Rape inflicts the ultimate defeat upon the enemy as its women, the biological and cultural source of the reproduction of the nation, have been ‘defiled’ and made impure. It is meant more to humiliate men of the opposing group through the symbol of their national honour, women. In Afghanistan’s case, women report that all factions raped women of the opposing faction even though they were Muslim women. The same is true of Bangladesh were Muslim women were raped in thousands by Muslim men. The claim to moral superiority of any community does not hold when war rape is considered. According to Menon and Bhasin, women of each community were often raped in front of mandirs, mosques and gurdwaras. It was, thus, a simultaneous desecration of women and sacred space, and bound to lead to riots and more vengeful rape.

As the Afghan Women’s Network wrote in a letter to Ambassador Mestiri on April 7, 1996, “Women are not profiting from the war, that is, they are not getting power, money or positions as a result of the war. They are only experiencing the suffering and deprivation of war.”

Women are not corrupted by war in the same way as men. They are more in touch with the suffering of war. They are more involved with the struggle for daily survival. Most women are NOT involved with factions and political parties. Women can see another way to live without fighting and can encourage family members and colleagues to work for peace. War reproduces masculinity and enables men to re0-enact the masculine posture in a world in which it has become increasingly difficult to prove it.

In modern times advanced machines, and hi-tech distance war based on push-button missile technology, has rendered physical prowess and manly strength irrelevant. Physical courage and manual dexterity, essential in another era for survival, have become redundant with machines doing most of the work of commerce and war. Women have increasingly entered the workforce belying the myth of ‘man the breadwinner’. The only arena still available for the expression and exhibition of male strength and valour is war, even though distance war (high flying planes and long-range missiles) ahs led to less fear of actual death. Masculinity and masculinised states, thus, produce war and war in turn reproduces masculinity. However, war also produces femininity as increased controls over women, greater domestic violence, eg in Afghan refugee camps, and particular constructions of women as mothers of martyrs, reinforce the notion of femaleness.

In modern times, soldiers have become safer primarily due to distance war (missiles and jets) and there is less fear of losing life, but civilians have become increasingly enmeshed in strife. This is because of two reason: 1) weapons of mass destruction mainly target civilian populations, a large portion of which are women’ and 2) most forms of conflict have become internal rather than external. In ethnic and other forms of conflict, women are most affected as they are displaced, dislocated, raped and forced to carry on the everyday work of cooking, cleaning and looking after the sick and wounded in highly adverse circumstances.

The civilianisation of conflict and the militarisation of civil life have led women and children to become the majority of refugees, fleeing death and destruction and living in sub-human conditions in refugee camp. Women have little to gain from war as they do not become commanders, leaders or heads of state and they have a lot to lose. Hence, most Afghan women interviewed for an SDPI study opposed the war and longed for peace– not a repressive but a just peace. While war is not only created by masculinity, as arms capitalism which survives on the huge arms market, is central in stirring up war, nonetheless the highly problematic notion of masculinity, and the associated restrictive ideas femininity, are strongly implicated in the passion that comes to be centered on ‘national wars’ ostensibly designed to protect us but in reality killing us.