Does participating in armed conflict represent liberation for women?
Scholars and activists join anthropologist and historian Carol Mann to discuss the relationship between women’s liberation and armed conflict.
As thousands of women enlist with male Kurdish fighters to defend the Syrian town of Kobani besieged by the Islamic State, the battle has shed light on female participation in conflicts worldwide.
At LAU Beirut, two-dozen female and male scholars, writers and activists joined social anthropologist and historian Carol Mann on January 13 for an intriguing presentation and discussion about her specialist subject, gender and armed conflict.
Mann was in Beirut to coordinate plans for the second conference of Women in War–an offshoot of FemAid, an NGO she founded in 2000 and which works with women grass-roots organizations in war zones–. The event will be held in June in partnership with LAU’s Institute for Women’s Studies in Arab World (IWSAW), which hosted the talk.
A self-proclaimed pacifist against legalized access to violence, Mann was introduced to the group by fellow educator Evelyne Accad, herself a graduate of Beirut College of Women (now LAU) and professor at the University of Illinois.
“She is exceptional because she combines academia with activism, teaching in Paris and working in hotspots worldwide plagued by war,” said Accad of Mann, who teaches at the Sorbonne and Sciences-Po, and has held seminars in Kabul or in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she worked with FemAid. She also took the organization to Sarajevo among other war-ravaged sites.
“Does participating in armed conflict represent liberation for women?” asked Mann, by way of introducing the paper she had prepared for the evening’s talk. Using examples of women and conflicts through history–from Joan of Arc to female suicide bombers– Mann stressed that we must not fall prey to “the fallacious discourse that wars liberate women by placing them on equal footing with men. Women were brought in to the arms factories to enable more men to be canon fodder.”
Among the reasons for increased female enlistment in some western armies are the offer of job security and the need to fill the more administrative positions that the social elite used to fill before shifting their interest to private business ventures.
“Women have always occupied more domestic roles during war, be it for sex, medical treatment or sustenance. Now armies use them very much in positions related to care and communication,” explained Mann.
One example of this approach to women’s participation in armed conflict was the U.S. army’s unsuccessful ‘Hearts & Minds’ program in Iraq. Young tough emancipated female soldiers were asked to spend time with illiterate mothers from rural areas with the expectation that they could gain their trust and sympathy “simply because they were of the same sex.”
This expectation of women’s role as peacekeepers explains the taboo of female violence. “It is embedded in culture across religions. Givers of life may not administer death.” This expectation, said Mann, is why perceptions of women who engage in violent acts vary greatly from those of men. “Women’s motives are depoliticized and their actions seen as abnormal and rooted in insanity, while men are seen to be fighting for a cause.”
Mann’s talk and the discussion that followed were both thought provoking and presented a plethora of analyses and anecdotes, many of which will no doubt be expanded upon during the upcoming conference to be held 2-4 June at LAU Beirut.
The thumbnail used for this article features a FARDC woman soldier during International Women day parade in Goma the 8th of march 2012 . © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti
Other stories in: Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World.