The Myth of Peaceful Women

In the past few weeks, we have dwelled over the different roles associated with peacebuilding, especially ones that hold particular weight in our identity. Gender is one of the first roles that comes to mind, and its role in peacebuilding is particularly interesting as different practicioners and academics have very different perspectives of it. Throughout this reflection, I will briefly analyze some of the main ways in which peacebuilders thought of women and their role in the field, and then proceed to explain my perspective on nature vs. nurture.

Perhaps one of the most compelling perspectives on women in peacebuilding is that they are not real actors in it, and as such play very little role in influencing decisions. For example, during our panel with military officers at the beginning, all of whom had served in either Afghanistan or Iraq for at least over a year, one of them admitted to only having interacted with women only once during his entire time on the field. An interesting documentary we watched with Professor Poethig called “Redefining War” on the discourse surrounding women on the frontline looked at how with the shift of international focus from national security to human security, there was more emphasis on the pacifying role of women in war – which brings us to the dilemma on whether women truly are more “naturally” peaceful than men. Professor Monteville stressed on the destructive effect of testosterone in foreign policy and the fact that the mature male brain is not fully formed until they’re 26 years old; a compelling premise for a battle cry to involve more women in the field.

However, the biological argument is definitely brought to discussion when in extraordinary circumstances, women are given the same social status as men and their genitalia does not stop them from committing the same level of aggression as men. The first case that comes to mind is the “sworn virgins” in rural mountainous Albania, where by radical social code they adopt the social role and status of a man, while vowing to remain abstinent for the rest of their lives. Despite the fact that this is one of the most conservative isolated communities in Europe, and that the “sworn virgins” had lived fully as women until the point of the decision, there was no distinction between the level of social aggression that the “sworn virgins” were capable of committing to fulfill their role and men. Furthermore, despite this being one of the most conservative isolated communities in Europe, it was the first one to accept cross-dressing unanimously for as long as it served a cohesive purpose – there was absolutely no dissent with  regards to the way the “sworn virgins” were treated by the community for as long as they embodied their male role.

This example truly illustrates my perspective on the nature vs nurture debate on gender and te role it’s currently playing in peacebuilding. Whether it’s “sworn virgins” only being respected because they perform the male gender, or the female prison guards being respected only when they act uber-masculine with their counterparts, we keep dwelling in the nature of gender as a social construct. This construct in itself is so deeply ingrained within our society and its patriarchal tendencies that even when the glass ceiling is “broken” and women are allowed into male spaces, they have to embody the performative male.

Culture vs. Conflict

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Last morning we had an extremely interesting session with Dr.Iyer on Culture, Empathy, and Resilience, where we talked about their implications on conflict. We first talked about the nature of culture and illustrated it as an iceberg where customs and behavior stand at the visible tip and the values and our deeper understandings of the world remain underwater. Then we discussed the nature of empathy, as a crucial tool in understanding and intervening in conflict, as well as resilience, which is essential to post-conflict reconstruction.

I was particularly moved by a statement that Professor Avruch had made on the root of conflict, stating that conflict rides on culture, because conflicts are never about culture. It reminded me of cultural materialism, a research strategy proposed by Marvin Harris that prioritizes material, behavioral and etic processes in the explanation of the evolution of human socio-cultural systems. This research method treats human behavior and culture as an object of scientific inquiry and finds the roots of cultural traditions in material conditions. Professor Harris famously explained the Indian ‘sacred cow’ taboo by breaking it down to the fact that the cow is the factory that produces the ox, which, in turn, is the Indian peasant’s tractor, thresher and family car combined, thus extraordinarily useful. This deconstruction of culture brings me back to Professor Avruch’s point about conflict never being about culture itself, and reinforces my deep disagreement with both of these overlapping perspectives.

I don’t feel that it’s possible to detach culture from the root of conflict, as it’s so deeply ingrained in how people view and think of the world. There is a terminological distinction to be made on culture as only the expression of behavior in the form of traditions and customs (visible part of the iceberg) and culture as both, that as well as the deeper norms, values, and ways of thinking (invisible part of the iceberg), yet just as crucial in our understanding of conflict. Whereas it’s neat to see culture as exclusively visible, there is a whole world of cognitive patterns driving the behavior of individuals, which cannot be separated from the behavior itself.Following the definition that culture is how we make meaning of the world, and that conflict is primarily a clash of world views, I feel that it is safe to assume that conflict is very much about how we make meaning of the world, i.e. culture. Whereas it’s impossible to trace the root of sacred beliefs such as the Indian cow, it’s important to be mindful of the incremental meaning associated with it from communities over centuries. Culture is not an animal to be dissected in a lab, because the whole of collective meaning is so much more than the sum of its peaces. This is why I believe that it is outright reductionist to claim that there is a fundamentally material explanation for what drives individuals’ behavior, or that conflict is not caused by the forces driving individuals’ behavior, beliefs, and values.

Takeaways from the Development Industry

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Several days ago, during our session on the Impact of Conflict and Violence on Development, Professor Laurence asked us to write down five takeaways. As the days(weeks?) pass, I go back to those takeaways almost every day when contemplating the development industry and how essential it is to decondition myself from how and what I’ve been taught to think about it. My group researched the Global Peace Index in particular, which is “an attempt to measure the relative position of nations’ and regions’ peacefulness”, by looking at the correlation level between several variables, such as the number of internal and external conflicts fought, number of deaths from organized conflict, terrorist activity, political stability, etc. The following points were the conclusions I drew from our research and background in the field.

 

  1. Peace is not necessarily correlated to foreign aid.

A very interesting trend we observed while looking at the Top Five National Improvements in Peace was that the biggest improvements in peace were correlated to the withdrawal of foreign aid from those areas. Even though correlation does not infer causation, this particular correlation makes a very important point about the true impacts of foreign intervention and how they might serve to disrupt peace instead of the opposite. I have been thinking a lot about these negative impacts in the context of Western human rights NGOs in the Global South, where there is significant qualitative evidence to back up the actual harms caused by the Westernization of marginalized identities.

 

  1. There is no causative correlation between peace and development.

There is a grand narrative surrounding development, as anchored by the democratic peace theory, which states that democracies are less likely to go into war with each other than non-democracies. Since most of the democratic countries are developed countries, by default we are led to believe that the more developed a country is, the more peaceful it is. However, by looking at the statistics regarding the Global Peace Index, it was obvious that there definitely wasn’t a clear correlation as there were really developed countries, such as the U.S., ranking very low.

 

  1. Data must not be taken and used for granted, since it’s not always reliable and generalizable.

During this session, we talked a lot about how data actually gets collected and the consequent problems with its application and usage. First of all, there a substantial problem with its reliability since in the field of development there’s cross-cultural implications for data collection methods, which if applied incorrectly can lead to largely incorrect findings. Secondly, the application of this data can be quite problematic even when we’re mindful of its generalizability, because development data is so essentially linked to its communities, their culture and their political, economic and historical context. In the end, data is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s problems and it’s our responsibility to use it responsibly as a tool.

Rousseau On The Field

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You can’t go back to your hotel room and read Rousseau when you’re on the field, dealing with the consequences of a conflict or a natural disaster, is what Professor Joseph Bock told us today. Coming from a primarily academic background developed while simultaneously volunteering in human rights’ NGOs and visiting refugee camps in post-violence areas, the intersection between theory and practice has always been one that has fascinated and challenged me to no end. Going back to Professor Bock’s statement, how does Rousseau then factor into what happens on the field, if at all?

First and foremost, I’m a strong believer in the capacity of academic discipline to inform our understanding of what happens on the field. Critically reading ethnographies on gang violence in East Harlem, or tribal customs and practices in southern Sudan, certainly allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of the human condition by challenging my positional and cognitive biases. If one is to considering self-awareness on these terms as a skill, training that cognitive skill through rigorous academic disciplines should be just as essential as fieldwork. However, I have been noticing a pattern in the way which all the people we’ve been talking to are approaching the narrative of fieldwork – there’s a layer of understanding that no one can explain but everyone recognizes which separates the experience of being on the field as opposed to reading about being on the field.

So how do we, then, bridge that impenetrable layer of understanding? This is the question we’ve been trying to address for the past two weeks and a half, and it has only expanded since. We have come to understand that the frontline action does not only include the “visible” actors, and that it’s not only affected through top-bottom intervention, but also through horizontal collaboration. Yet, there is something to be said about the necessity of situated knowledge, in so that two different people in the same room watching the same documentary for the first time are completely affected by different things – yet they both can completely fail to notice the subliminal messages at play due to their cultural and experiential biases. At the end, the field of piecebuilding ontologically constructs itself like an inverted continuum of perpetual questioning of oneself and the other, and whichever end of the spectrum we thrive on, there will be someone else standing at the complete opposite point, working towards the same ultimate goal.

The Ontological Weight of Gender

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Our sessions today with Dr.Kathryn Poethig on Feminist/Gender Analysis and Women in Peace Processes were definitely some of the most impactful we’ve had so far for me. We started out by discussing our relationships to our bodies and others’, as well as the impact that the dominant cultural ideology has on the social construction of our gender identities. It was particularly interesting to speak to each other one-on-one as part of the exercise on our personal experiences with gender identity. Even though gender identity is something I have given a lot of thought to and researched over the past few years, I always find that there is still so much to learn from one another’s experiences with it.

I was profoundly touched by the documentary on “Redefining War” that the professor screened, which dealt with the (invisible) role of women in war and how the international discourse around it has progressed over the past decades. Perhaps the most important breakthrough in discourse was the shift of focus from “national security” to “human security”, which redefined the attention to the individual in times of war and consequently brought to light the role of women as tactical targets of sexual violence. It was outright shocking to become aware of the extent to which sexual violence has been and is still used as a weapon of war worldwide, and how dormant the international reaction to it has been, allowing for mass sociocide.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway was reaffirming that personal is political. We cannot possibly detach ourselves from the matrix of power we are entangled in and the micro and macro-politics of performative identities: our stories are interchangeably linked to a continuum of violence. However, we can try to work towards a “peaceful normativity”, one that makes space for the full spectrum of normative and transgressive human identities.

An Ode to Cognitive Dissonance

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When I was 14 and still living in Albania, I accidentally ended up reading a book that turned my mind upside down. Both fortunately and unfortunately, that book was 1984 by George Orwell, the ultimate dystopian novel narrating a reality dictated by omnipresent government surveillance with a terrifying resemblance to our world today. I was absolutely fascinated by the idea of ‘double-think’, the Newspeak term for cognitive dissonance, i.e. the acceptance of two contrary beliefs or opinions at the same time, as a result of political indoctrination. However, the true implications of this ideological tool didn’t cross my mind until yesterday when we were watching “My Daughter the Terrorist”, by Beate Arnestad and Morten Daae. It’s a powerful documentary on two female LTTE Black Tigers, Dharsika and Puhalchudar, as they train for their ultimate mission, uncovering how they view themselves and their mission and world.

As the two girls and how they joined the armed group are introduced, we learn that they have been training side by side every day for the past seven years. What’s particularly striking from the beginning is their completely desensitized way of speaking about atrocities like violence, death, and suffering – in a completely neutral tone of voice and facial expression, as if they were talking about the weather. At one instance, they explain that they have to carry cyanide capsules around their neck at all times and at times of danger, they have to hold them in their mouths. One of the girls makes a joke (cue for laughter) about accidentally biting it in their sleep and never waking up, because the poison would instantly mix with their blood. They continue to explain that they need to learn to stop caring about things like their own death because if asked to, they wouldn’t hesitate a second to shoot themselves or each other – they already know where they’re going to be buried anyway, even if there won’t be the tiniest piece of their bodies left.

The level of cognitive dissonance in these girls’ perception of themselves and their mission is completely professional, purely a tool of the system. However, this particular tool is where it all begins: the violence, the death, the suffering. If they weren’t completely convinced of their own contrary reality, they wouldn’t devote their lives to a cause that dehumanizes them to the extent it systematically annihilates them in a second. There is not one Dharsika, there are thousands. Until we start trying to understand the implications of cognitive dissonance as a primary tool of war, which leads to everything else, we won’t be able to understand the true power of armed groups like LTTE, which are both resource rich and ideologically strong.

Talking without Speaking

Coming to Mount Madonna has been nothing like I expected – yet, this entire program has surpassed my expectations. Living with a group of strangers over the course of three weeks through lectures, visits with even more strangers, and late night conversations has created a special sense of community that reflects the nature of peacebuilding. However, it’s not time for the bittersweet reflections just yet, so today I’ll write instead about unexpected surprises.

 

This morning, while we were having breakfast and discussing our experiences from the past few days, an old man passed by us and we greeted him. At first, he just smiled as he walked past our table. However, he returned after a bit and took out a small piece of chalkboard and by writing short sentences in it, asked us about our stay at the center and our program. After we told him we were in the Peacebuilding program, he smiled in recognition and admitted he’d read our blog and really enjoyed it. When he returned the last time, he had a piece of paper with him and said it was a gift for us. On the paper, there was the beautiful quote in the picture below.

 

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Why are you here?

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As a fellow SPP participant and I entered the small, neon-lit room of the Salinas Correctional Training Facility, I felt that I was stepping away from the prison and entering into a classroom. The first thing the instructor asked the group was to use one word to describe how they were feeling, and the answers ranged from “blessed” to “sad”. The session we were attending was part of the rehabilitation programs taking place in the facility, particularly focusing on substance abuse. The theme was ‘the pros and cons’ and the participants shared the positive and negative aspects of their disease and gradually discussed how to apply that thinking mechanism to greater life decisions, especially life after prison.

The most striking moment for me came nearly half an hour into the session, when one of the participants asked us to share our story as to why we were there. We weren’t the outsiders, shielded in our sense of moral integrity for a few minutes. We had spent the entire day walking through prisons and stealing glances at the dehumanized faces behind the glass, yet neither of us could escape our roles. By sharing their stories, they had welcomed us into their safe space and through this question, we were given the opportunity to speak to them, as human to human to human.

Throughout this week, I have given a lot of thought to how stories humanize people. No amount of social science research or postmodernist philosophy can explain the true complexity of the human condition, in all its peace and conflict. Strangely, the visit to the prisons left me feeling more feelings than I expected to, and more hope than ever that people can make a difference in their own lives and others’.

Introduction to Peacebuilding

I cannot pinpoint a specific moment in time when my interest in peacebuilding began. Growing up, I remember hearing stories about wars around the world and seeing news reports on TV about the war in Kosovo and trying to understand what was happening. It wasn’t until I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina I was able to see first-hand the aftermath of great violence and realize how much I really didn’t know about conflict or its resolution.

Throughout my two years there, I heard the stories of artists and activists and refugees whose lives would be affected by the aftermath of the war for generations to come. Even though the violent conflict had ceased nearly two decades ago, the ethnic and interdependently religious separation was actively present in everyday life, such as the fact that in the very building I was taking classes, the local Bosnian and Croatian students had to occupy different floors or live in different sides of the city. While there was still a prominent foreign influence as a remainder of the peacekeeping mission, everyone agreed that the current state of BiH was not what it was supposed to be like.

Those two years there left me wondering about a lot of things, such as what a ‘successful’ post-violence country is supposed to look like, or how it would have been possible to prevent what happened then and now and in the future. I don’t think it’s possible to find answers for all my questions in the next three weeks, but I’m excited to learn more about all the other participants’, lecturers’ and scholars’ perspectives and experiences in order to understand more and better.

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