Viewing peace through gender lenses.

Author:Sjoberg, Laura

The war in Iraq is over. U.S. troops have withdrawn. Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and replaced with a government perceived to be more democratic and more just to the Iraqi people. In late 2011, concurrent with the U.S. withdrawal, strategists suggested that there was "peace at last" in Iraq, a cause for celebration. (1)

There is, of course, substantial evidence to rebut the premise that the "peace" in Iraq is unproblematic, or even that such a peace exists. The U.S. "withdrawal" was paired with an increase in the responsibilities of private military and security corporations and in the number of their employees stationed in Iraq. U.S. military drones remain operational not only in Iraq but also in neighboring Iran. The new democratic government of Iraq is anything but stable, frequently failing to find consensus among the representatives of the country's religiously and ethnically diverse population, and often finding itself unable to control parts of Iraqi territory.

There are other places where the war continues, though in less visible ways. For example, on March 25, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a woman from Iraq, "was found beaten, lying in a pool of blood in her El Cajon, California, home next to a note saying 'go back to your country.'" (2) Her daughter recounted that a week before her death her mother had received a letter that said "this is our country, not yours, you terrorist" and that she was "hit with some kind of a tool about eight times in the head." (3) Her murder may have been a hate crime against Iraqis by American assailants, or an "honor killing" by other Iraqis in the United States. (4) Whatever the direct cause, Shaima Alawadi's death was also a part of the Iraqi war, which reaches into the daily lives of countless people (especially women) all the time and all over the world. Still, Alawadi's murder--and many other manifestations of war in everyday life--are often not recognized as an aspect of war, and therefore are not addressed in peace-making efforts.

Cynthia Enloe's striking Nimo's War, Emma's War makes this point engagingly through the stories of eight very different women, four American and four Iraqi. (5) The women are politicians, soldiers, workers, widows, caretakers, and prostitutes --and sometimes more than one of those at the same time. Stories like those of Nimo (a hair salon owner in Iraq), and Emma (an American soldier's wife), make visible literally hundreds of places and ways that the war in Iraq has affected women--ways that are often ignored by traditional media, politicians, and scholars.

Feminist work in International Relations, Security Studies, and Peace Studies has encouraged us to see war as fought through and in the lives of ordinary people, and to understand that those experiences differ on the basis of sex. As I have stated elsewhere, "gender analysis is necessary, conceptually, for understanding international security, important for analyzing causes and predicting outcomes, and essential to thinking about solutions and promoting positive change in the security realm." (6) In this essay I argue that feminist theorizing of peace suggests a number of transformative observations. First, feminist perspectives focus a critical lens on the meaning of peace, often making invisible violence visible. Second, feminist perspectives help to critically interrogate the role of the United States in furthering "peace" in the international arena. (7) Finally, feminist perspectives make different theoretical and policy prescriptions than perspectives that omit gender from their analyses.


Almost a century ago Jane Addams and other women formed the Women's Peace Party in the United States, concurrent to the establishment of the Church Peace Union--the organization today known as Carnegie Council, the publisher of this journal. The Women's Peace Party declared that "as women, we are especially the custodians of the life of the ages ... particularly charged with the future of childhood," and they therefore demanded peace and "the organized opposition to militarism in our country." (8) The Women's Peace Party was not the first or last time that women, femininity, and peace have been explicitly associated. Still, this idea of peace is different than the concept of peace that is discussed in the fields of Peace Research or Peace Science. That work has often defined peace as the opposite of war, and focused on preventing interstate wars and advocating for disarmament. Even more often, it has ignored the sex and gender implications of different notions of peace. Some organizations such as the Carnegie Council, as well as such scholars as Johan Galtung and peace activists as Mahatma Gandhi, have suggested that there is more to peace than the absence of war, and they have looked for ways to talk about positive, robust notions of peace, which include the goals of justice and equality. (9) Even then, however, much research on peace has not engaged peace as gendered, that is, the assumptions about gender that are necessary to current understandings of the concept of peace. The contribution of feminist thinking to peace theorizing, then, is two-fold: it develops and advocates for special notions of peace tied to women, and it draws attention to peace as gendered.

The special sort of peace with which women are often associated is foundational to, and has been a large part of, feminist contributions to thinking about and making peace. Early feminist work recognized a relationship between masculinity and soldiering, where the "manly" virtues of soldiering are held opposite the "sins or silliness" of femininity. (10) Virginia Woolf argued that "to fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's." (11) This work served as the foundation for a long history of associating women with peacefulness, by virtue of their place on the sex hierarchy, their roles as mothers, their assumed need for protection, and the disproportionate impact of war on civilian women. (12) That history ranges from Jane Addams' Hull House to Greenham Common, from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom to Women in Black, from Mother Teresa to Code Pink. (13) In almost every conflict in recent history, women's peace advocates can be found protesting war-fighting, looking to end violence, and making policy suggestions to create and maintain peaceful relations among states in the global political arena. (14)

Still, the feminist legacy in peace studies is complicated. This is in part because there has been a serious debate within feminist scholarship about the affinity between women/feminism and peace/pacifism. As Catia Confortini explains, "Feminist debates on the relationship between feminism, peace, and women's peace activism and scholarship have focused on one issue: whether, to what extent, and how women are more peaceful than men." (15) Some see advocacy for women and advocacy for peace as naturally similar, since both draw attention to characteristics that women are said to possess (whether biologically or socially) more than men. Others, however, are concerned about gender essentialism (the assumption that people share traits or life experiences because they share a biological sex) in the association of women and peace, and that this association serves to perpetuate the devaluation of both women and peace. (16) Because of these concerns, there are wide divergences among feminisms about the relationship between and among women, femininity, feminisms, and peace.

These controversies, like many others in feminist advocacy and feminist scholarship, stem from the fact that there is no single feminist perspective (on international politics or more generally) or one interpretation of women's experiences. Some...

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