Women against war

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Terror Counter-Terror: Women Speak Out edited by Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma; Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2003; pages 283, Rs.200.

`YOU are either with life, or against it'. This line, from a poem that kickstarts the anthology on women and terrorism, also sums up its central argument. With the world today living under the threat of war, large numbers of women across the world have rejected the dominant discourse of military aggression. "Militarism and so-called terrorism," the introduction notes, "are similar in their indifference to human life and the killing of innocents." In fact, the terms are almost interchangeable, depending on which side is using it.

Civilian deaths during war are written off as "collateral damage", just as loss of life is justified by terrorists as the inevitable consequence of the battle for a cause.

If the defining struggle of our time is the clash between terrorism and national security, women's movements have maintained that there can be no security without social and economic justice, political liberty and the absence of violence, in both the public and private spheres. Reminding us that the personal is the political, this selection includes poems, impressionistic accounts, pledges and open letters as well as in-depth analyses of the world after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Across the world, women constitute the largest constituency for peace, stressing dialogue and negotiation as an alternative to strife and warfare.

For instance, in Palestine and Israel, who have nearly bled each other dry in decades of gory conflict, women have come together to form the Jerusalem Link, in the conviction that there can be a solution without violence. As Simone Weil says in her moving essay on war, "The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force", people who suffer violence are transformed from living, breathing human beings, into objects.

Contributors to this book rally behind the global peace movements, as a gesture of both intellectual solidarity and human concern. "War is a committed act of violence. It reproduces violence and cultural amnesia, not its opposites," writes Nelofer Pazira, in a sobering essay on her personal experience of the Afghan war. Women usually feature in the war landscape as victims in whose names wars must be fought, as the conflict in Afghanistan amply demonstrates. Across the world, aggression, violence and rape have marked situations of armed conflict. Women have been used as post boxes for men to send messages to each other, writes Dubravka Ugresic about the war in Bosnia. Closer home, the "gendered pogrom" in Gujarat offers chilling examples of how power is played out on women's bodies.

Women's lives, even after overt hostilities are declared closed, are usually impacted most by displacement and flight. And they face, unsurprisingly, the major responsibility for rebuilding lives around the rubble. It is not surprising, then, that a striking proportion of women remain unconvinced of the moral worth of military assault. Like Yossarian in Catch 22, they take the bombs personally.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, have altered geopolitical reality, resulting in a renewed faith in violence. This is quite apart from the new vigour and strength the attacks lent to religious, racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Since women's movements have always been aware of the connection between gender inequality and other unjust systems of social stratification, they are uniquely placed to interrogate this post-9/11 phenomenon. Sunera Thobani's essay probes the realpolitik behind the American "war against terror". Even though Afghan women's groups were in the frontline of resistance to the Taliban and Islamic militias, including the present Northern Alliance, she points out, they were projected as "victims" of Islamic culture, to be pitied and "saved" by the West.

Feminist thinking has also challenged the "clash of civilisations" thesis that divides the world into mutually warring ways of life, and looks at the collision between the "enlightened" West and the "barbarous" East as inevitable. Recognising that the alliance between violence, militarism and patriarchy is intimately linked to religious fundamentalism that attacks women's rights, feminists have historically critiqued identity politics as divisive and self-defeating.

Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to understand the roots of fundamentalist misogyny, ascribing it to the way globalisation creates a "masculinity crisis". She argues that women's soaring work participation rates as migrant domestics and in export-oriented manufacturing (although based on a high degree of exploitation) have sparked a "global gender revolution", which undercuts the male breadwinning role. This, in combination with the onslaught of western cultural imagery, could be responsible for the woman-hating mindset of Islamic fundamentalism, suggests Ehrenreich, while making the point that Christian and Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism also seek a throwback to the same repressive gender roles. In a different essay, Ellen Willis underscores the need to remain true to our cultural contradictions, to defend feminism and freedom in the face of the fundamentalists.

Another sign of our troubled times is the silencing of all debate in the name of patriotism. Even in the immediate aftermath of September 11, several women thinkers had voiced their discontent with American jingoism. Martha Nussbaum and Barbara Kingsolver try to evolve a notion of compassionate, inclusive patriotism. This collection also features Susan Sontag's interview to Salon.com, in which she defends her refusal to call the suicide bombers cowards. Even as these women sought to bring nuance and integrity to the analysis of September 11, 2001, they found themselves demonised by the mainstream American media. Meanwhile, these essays also overturn conventional notions of the good fight, arguing that the battle for economic justice and inclusive development is ignored by war-mongering policies.

IN a hard-nosed article on the economics of war, Suchitra Vemuri argues that beyond the price of lives lost, "interrupted development means prolonging suffering for someone `out there'." Directing investment into wartime requirements naturally requires someone else to foot the bill in the form of higher taxes or decreased consumption. The disruption of goods and services means that someone suffers from shrinking access to essential goods; maybe someone dies from the lack of an essential commodity. Taking off on the anthrax scare and the resulting paranoia about biological warfare, Vandana Shiva makes an impassioned case against the proliferation of economic and trade policies that are crippling public health systems.

She identifies the stifling patents regime and market-minded healthcare systems as equally dangerous instruments of bio terror, taking essential medicines out of the reach of the poor.

These writings represent a cross-section of women's commentary on warfare, successfully avoiding sexual straitjackets of the "Men from Mars, Women from Venus" variety. They acknowledge that women are not inherently more peace-loving than men, and are often equally implicated in aggression. However, they argue that women as a group have a special stake in peace, as demonstrated by their struggle against violence of all kinds, at every level of society.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment