Victims, Perpetrators or Actors?

Caroline O.N. Moser and Fiona C. Clark (eds.), Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence (London: Zed Books 2001).

Review by Adam Jones

Published in International Feminist Journal of Politics, 4: 1 (April 2002), pp. 137-42.

In recent years the study of gender and conflict, and the related issues of reconstruction and development, has undergone something of a sea-change. In particular, early and optimistic assessments of women's relationship to peace and peacemaking have given way to a more nuanced analysis that also considers women's active involvement in nationalist movements and communal violence.

Few works have made a more important contribution to this conceptual advance than Zed Books' series on women and violence. Edited volumes like Ronit Lentin's Gender and Catastrophe (1997), Meredith Turshen and Clotilde Twagiramariya's What Women Do in Wartime (1998), and above all Susie Jacobs et al.'s States of Conflict (2000) have decisively transformed the framing of women's agency and female victimization in conflict and post-conflict settings worldwide. Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? is the latest addition to the series, and the most impressive yet. It combines rigorous, sometimes groundbreaking theoretical analysis with diverse case-studies, ranging from Northern Ireland to South Africa.

In association with Amazon.comThe portrait of women's role as both victims and perpetrators of war and communal conflict builds on earlier works in and outside the Zed series. The myth of female "passivity" in such conflicts was fundamentally undermined by African Rights' taboo-shattering 1995 report on the Rwanda genocide, Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers. It has been further eroded by detailed studies of women's roles in the Hindu nationalist movement in India, memorably addressed by Parita Mukta in States of Conflict and explored in the present volume by Urvashi Butalia ("Women and Communal Conflict," ch. 7). Butalia writes that "Women's involvement in communal ideologies and communal conflict has raised certain important questions for women activists and has challenged various assumptions, notably that women share an overarching commonality of experience that unites them as women and transcends their caste, class and religious divisions. We now know," Butalia bluntly asserts, "that this most cherished article of faith for women's groups has had to be given up as a chimera" (p. 102).

The volume's contributors avoid the temptation, however, to concentrate excessively and sensationalistically on women as perpetrators of violence. Isabel Coral Cordero's chapter on "Social Organizations: From Victims to Actors in Peace Building" (ch. 10) makes a powerful case for the leading role of women-sponsored movements and initiatives in regenerating civil society after violent conflict. She finds that in Peru, the women's movement "assum[ed] essentially political functions" to become "the accepted interlocutor of civil society," and thus "was able to broaden its presence and impact" regionally and nationally (p. 158). Marie Mulholland reaches similar conclusions in her chapter on "Women, Discrimination and Decision-making in Northern Ireland" (ch. 11), offering a wonderful image of joint actions by Protestant and Catholic women's organizations to secure funding for women's centres in Belfast. "Standing shoulder to shoulder," these groups stressed "the need for solidarity in confronting as women the injustice, discrimination and inequality that permeated the fabric of Northern Ireland" (p. 171; see also Caroline Moser and Cathy McIlwaine's discussion of "Gender and Social Capital in Contexts of Political Violence," ch. 12).

Perhaps the most significant contribution of the volume is its willingness, as announced on the back cover, to address "men and women as both actors and victims." The male victim, in particular, has been left out in the cold by the vast majority of feminist scholarship on conflict, peacebuilding, and development. Occasionally he has managed to poke his nose through the door (as in Gender and Catastrophe); in States of Conflict, he perhaps advanced as far as the hallway. Several contributors to Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? actually invite him to sit down and join the conversation. Most notable in this context is Donny Meertens' excellent case-study of "Terror, Displacement and Gender in Colombia" (ch. 9), which turns up the somewhat unexpected finding that for populations displaced from the countryside to urban areas, "the period of survival and rebuilding ... is more difficult for men," while women may experience "a small gain of autonomy after displacement" (p. 143).

Elsewhere, though, the attempt "to provide a holistic gendered analysis of the agency and identity of women and men throughout violent conflicts" (p. 4) is patchy at best. Most of the case-studies focus entirely or almost entirely on females (see, e.g., chs. 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13). Caroline Moser's construction of a "Gendered Continuum of Violence and Conflict" (ch. 3) works well at the general level, but in applying the framework retreats too often into traditional formulations. Rape and domestic violence, for instance, are discussed exclusively as phenomena visited upon females by males. This is surprising, given that Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? includes a striking contribution by Dubravka Zarkov on male victims of rape and sexual assault in the Balkans wars ("The Body of the Other Man," ch. 5). Zarkov notes, accurately, that this subject has been virtually ignored by scholarship, the media, and the human-rights community. Nonetheless, her chapter is concerned primarily with the reporting of male-on-male rape in the Croatian and Serbian press, focusing on the nationalist biases that depict such actions as the work of the designated enemy. A broader critique would have to reckon with the near-total exclusion of male victims of rape and other atrocities from prevailing feminist and feminist-influenced discourses on "gender."

There are also flashes, throughout the volume, of the kind of female chauvinism that has served to marginalize male victims and to place the suffering of women and girls on a pedestal. For example, Ana Cristina Ibáñez's generally strong contribution on women's experiences in El Salvador's civil war (ch. 8) argues that "the length and intensity of this war affected men and women alike, but for women the losses are innumerable, their effects incalculable" (p. 117). The claim is both untenable and largely meaningless, as is Moser and McIlwaine's assertion that "fear tends to affect women to a greater extent than men" (p. 184). Much more objectionable is Antjie Krog's passing reference to male rape victims in apartheid-era South Africa (ch. 13). "Male victims of rape don't use the word when they testify" to the post-apartheid Truth Commission, Krog states. "... By denying their own sexual subjugation to male brutality, they form a brotherhood with rapists that conspires against their own wives, mothers and daughters, say some of those women who do testify" (p. 208, emphasis added). No sources are cited, and no sympathy is extended to the males who presumably overcame deep personal trauma to testify about their experiences of violation and brutalization. This shallow blame-the-victim strategy would surely evoke howls of outrage if it targeted female rather than male rape victims.

The editors of, and contributors to, Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? are nevertheless to be commended for their efforts to broaden the theoretical and empirical range of analyses of gender, conflict, and development. One hopes that future additions to the Zed series will continue this important work, and that they will influence and encourage similar initiatives in the feminist study of international relations.

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