Women and Wars

Edited by Carol Cohn with a forward by Cynthia Enloe

(Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013)

women war

This book is available from Polity Press

When the Trojan hero Hector takes leave of his wife Andromache and their son for the battle of Troy, he reminds her that ‘War is a man’s concern’: honour and protection of women are just some of the justifications he gives. Her role is to wait at home, nurturing their son, in the hope that Hector will return triumphant, with epic tales of his exploits. Hector’s and Andromache’s exchange is narrated in Homer’s Iliad, an epic tale set in the mythic past which describes as much as it establishes the traditional view of warfare as gendered. Before Women and Wars, there has been little concentration on the role of women in wars or the impact such armed conflicts have on them either historically, in scholarship, or in media reportage; in the tradition of Homer’s Iliad in almost all instances on the subject of war, women are presented as peace-loving homemakers without stories set against male, war-mongering “heroes” with epic tales to tell.

Women and Wars challenges this blinkered tradition in its interdisciplinary contribution to the gendered politics of wars. In bringing women’s stories into view, it shows how women have played significant roles in the vagaries of warfare in all its forms and stages throughout history down to our present times, and in a world-wide context. At each stage of any war effort, women (and girls) continue to be present in a multitude of ways: fighters, war victims (for example, rape victims, sex slaves, refugees and internally displaced persons), and peace-builders. In effect, Women and Wars seeks to highlight how present women (and girls) are in warfare, the impact armed conflict and militarization has on them, how highly gendered the military and militarisation is, and how deep-seated gender stereotypes intensify during wartime.

The presencing of women in armed conflict is reflected both in the book’s title (Women and Wars), and in its anthological structure, which comprises ten essays written by an impressive range of all-female contributors, each of whom is professionally implicated beyond writing as activist, scholar and/or practitioner. Editor Carol Cohn can only be commended on producing such a diverse and practical textbook on what is a demanding and often painful subject. Setting the tone in an inspiring introductory chapter that is, in fact, an extended focus on what Cynthia Enloe describes in the ‘Foreword’ as ‘a sophisticated, up-to-date gender analytical tool kit’ (xv), Cohn provides a conceptual framework for thinking through the relationship between women and wars, and women’s experiences of wars.

Following on from Cohn, each chapter provides recent feminist scholarship and wide-ranging data, documentation and discussion to consistently reiterate the importance of a gendered approach to this most difficult terrain. The early part of the book draws the reader’s attention to the impact of wars on women’s daily lives; specifically, how they acclimatise to often overwhelming changing circumstances. In ‘Women and the Political Economy of War’ (chapter 2), Angela Raven-Roberts demonstrates that women are not merely wars’ victims; they are fighters, protestors, survivors. In spite of the devastation wars bring, women still find the wherewithal to sustain a livelihood for themselves and their families.

Pamela DeLargy enters the contentious territory of ‘Sexual Violence and Women’s Health’ (chapter 3) in her focus on the unequivocal risks facing women as a result of armed conflict. She discusses the problems and challenges facing policy makers, and health and human rights workers as a result of an insufficient understanding of the specifics of the politics of rape in individual conflicts, for instance. She also addresses the stigmatization facing rape survivors, and the way in which sexual violence is dealt with separately from other types of violence in conflicts, among other issues.

Wenona Giles investigates the living conditions of women in the aftermath of displacement and exile in ‘Women Forced to Flee: Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons’ (chapter 4). Unpicking the confusing ‘vocabulary of displacement’ (p. 81), Giles gives a clear picture of the nuances of this difficult terrain in spite of the fact that, for simplicity’s sake, many tend to place “refugees”, “forced migrants”, and “displaced persons” under one umbrella. Giles highlights the way in which gendered attitudes of a refugee’s place of origin can interact with the gender relations of humanitarian organisations and other institutions of the international community to the detriment of the refugee.

The middle part of the book presents women who are politically involved in armed conflict. Chapter 5, jointly written by Carol Cohn and Ruth Jacobson highlights how gendered alignments – ‘men/war women/peace’ and ‘protector/protected’ – shape the political space through which women operate, whether this is to perpetuate such a dichotomy or to subvert it. Women have paid a severe price for their activism, for example, many have been jailed, tortured, ostracised, or murdered for daring to protest in some way. Recently, however, and with increasing intensity, through ‘moral and financial support’, transnational women’s and feminist’s anti-war networks of activists, practitioners and scholars have bolstered ‘the kinds of cross-regional exchange of experience, ideas and analysis that invigorate and strengthen women’s political action in the face of war’ (p. 122).

Jennifer G. Mathers challenges the myth perpetuated by non-feminist scholars that women have no real involvement in the business of war in ‘Women and State Military Forces’ (chapter 6). She shows how states, societies and militaries reinforce traditional notions of masculinity and femininity so that the ancient dichotomy of man as war-monger and woman as home-loving peacemakers persists. Because the military contributes both to the construction of traditional masculinity and the militarization of civilian women, even those women that train as fighters can never be considered “real soldiers”.

In ‘Women, Girls, and Non-State Armed Opposition Groups’ (chapter 7), Dyan Mazurana discusses the motivating factors behind why women join non-state armed opposition groups (NSAG), and the vital roles they play within these groups in terms of identity and support. Mazurana conveys the militarising and gendered incentives NSAGs promote within the communities from which they mobilise their recruits in relation to authority, wealth, protection, and legitimacy, and the tensions that arise when women are included in violent action.

The final three chapters examine the processes involved in bringing armed conflict to an end and the “post-conflict” situation. ’Women and Peace Processes’ (chapter 8) is co-written by Malathi de Alwis, Julie Merthus and Tazreena Sajjad and explores the wide-ranging and on-going peace-promoting activism women participate in. Arguing that peace processes are as gendered as wars, the chapter challenges the traditional (and simplistic) assumption that women are included in such processes because they are innately peaceful to  show, instead, that their involvement is determined by the fact that they are political subjects.

‘Women, Girls and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration’ (chapter 9),  a collaborative chapter by Dyan Mazurana and Linda Eckerbom Cole, draws attention to the ways in which planners and programmers of DDR processes remain unaware of or downplay the impact of militarised gender relationships on women and girls during armed insurgencies. Such a failure results in DDR processes working in favour of ex-servicemen, often to the extent that women and girls are excluded.

‘Women “After” War’ (chapter 10) by Ruth Jacobson is a well-considered concluding chapter that brings together many of the issues raised in the book in relation to the aftermath of armed conflict. In particular it considers the ways in which various institutions (from the global to the local) transform the post-war lives of women and girls in “conflict-affected” areas and the on-going gendered discourse that informs much of the decision-making during this period.

Each chapter of Women and Wars concludes with a brief summary of its key points, a set of questions aimed at bringing the reader into the analytical process, and an extended bibliography as a guide to further inquiry. Of course, as with any rich, subtle and varied study, Women and Wars poses more questions than it can answer, but don’t be put off by its textbook format: its appeal will far extend an academic community to reach those that have a more general concern for the traumatic and dramatic magnitude of contemporary and global warfare. In fact, rather than distancing the reader from the realities of wars, each chapter goes beyond theory to offer well-chosen, detailed and sometimes unsettling case studies which bring women’s actual experiences sharply into focus. Women and Wars is one of those rare and spirited books that will touch the lives of everyone, implicitly or explicitly. While insistently theoretical, it is equally sensitive to the heart-breaking effects of wars and is poignant in its presentation of the complications of wars in a world that insists on gender distinctions.

Dr Jean Owen is an Independent Researcher whose interests include feminisms, incest studies and auto/biography. She is currently working on a series of interviews with scholars across a range of disciplines that have written on incest in the last twenty years. She is also working on a theoretical memoir titled The Poacher’s Daughter. Jean has a blogsite at http://jeanffp@wordpress.com