Disclaimer: This is a personal essay about how researching sexual violence in conflict has affected my feminist consciousness. As such, it offers but a snapshot of my feminist identity. It is not to be understood as an academic text.
Something I have been thinking a lot about this past year is how writing a dissertation on conflict-related sexual violence has changed me. Not just my insight into the horrors people are capable of inflicting on others and the immense suffering many people have endured. Not just the despair I have felt about the human condition as such on days I spent reading or listening to the testimonies of victims of sexual violence in conflict. Not just the bouts of depression these testimonies have occasionally left me with.
What I have been thinking about most of all is how researching conflict-related sexual violence against women has changed my view of the world. Between the day I first started looking into the experiences of women in war to the days I am finishing up my dissertation, I have developed a strong feminist consciousness. The kind of feminist consciousness that comprises an awareness of structural issues of gender inequality and misogyny – certainly further intersecting with ethnicity, class, age, (dis)ability etc. – but that also evokes anger about, and a strong ambition to change, the underlying patriarchal system.
This ambition is nourished with every story I encounter about violence against women, about sexual harassment, about discrimination based on gender in the work place, about women’s legitimate grievances being dismissed as drama or hysterics – about how a world designed for men is consistently blind to the differential needs and experiences of women. I can no longer claim that I do the research I do only in the interest of advancing knowledge or to address an interesting puzzle. The research I do has become closely tied to the person I am, and the experiences we as women have in this world.
The journey to this state of mind has been a long one. When I attended high school in Germany from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, feminism was not on my radar. It was a concept associated with a few middle-aged women rejecting make-up, high heels and marriage. Bizarre, out there, nothing I could relate to. I was never one to uphold traditional values, by any means. I always believed (and was raised to believe) that girls are just as capable as boys, women just as capable as men. But I had no awareness of patterns of gender discrimination or the sexualization and harassment of girls and women. I certainly didn’t then understand the continued need for feminism.
It was not until much later, in the context of my developing interest in issues of violent conflict as a master’s student, that I first started thinking about gender at all. The catalyst was a presentation by a former member of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda I attended while I was an exchange student in the U.S. The presenter, whose name escapes me now, was recounting how women had been central to the country’s post-genocide reconstruction and had risen, in larger numbers, to positions of political power. Rwanda’s post-genocide story, about which at the time I knew relatively little, sparked my interest.
This interest was driven by intellectual curiosity, by the puzzle of how women claimed and assumed new roles, on a great scale, in the context of a genocide that itself had been so gendered. The ideas I engaged with at that time – about male-dominated fighting, sexual violence against women and the transformation in gender roles as a result of both – led, years later, to the PhD dissertation I am now finishing up. But at the time, there was no underlying feminist awareness or theorizing. Sure, I saw violence against women and women’s political empowerment as important normative concerns.
But even as I was starting to delve more deeply into the topic in the early stages of my PhD education, I would be puzzled whenever I came across a feminist piece of scholarship that brought it all down to patriarchy, this systemic ill detrimental to women’s full and equal participation in society. I was deeply skeptical of the very concept and its usefulness. If sexual violence in war boils down to patriarchy, or structural gender inequality, then what can we say about cause and effect? With so many other factors having been shown to affect when and where armed actors in fact perpetrate sexual violence, e.g. forced recruitment or social dynamics within and between armed groups, what insight does patriarchy even offer? What is the merit in seeing patriarchy everywhere, bringing patriarchy into everything? This perspective was certainly reinforced by the rationalist literature on armed conflict, which was the only thing to which I was exposed in the context of my coursework at the time.
Things began to change when I transferred PhD programs and attained the flexibility to develop my PhD project in whatever direction I wanted and using whatever methods took my fancy (as long as they were suitable, of course). I began exploring different bodies of literature and a wider range of scholarship on gender, international relations, conflict, and sexual violence from different epistemological and methodological standpoints.
The shift in my thinking was incremental. My initial skepticism about feminist research that, as I saw it, brought gender into everything gradually gave way to a more benevolent reading and finally, to the acceptance that feminist scholars are, after all, on to something. They didn’t bring gender into everything – gender was already there, just often subtle, invisible because normalized and therefore overlooked. Politics, political institutions, armed conflict, academic research itself – none of these are gender-neutral. They are traditionally dominated by men and generally adhere to rules developed by men and with men in mind. Political, economic and social power hierarchies are gendered.
In armed conflicts, such gendered power dynamics have severe implications for the lives and the security of women, who are disproportionately affected by displacement, the indirect consequences of armed conflict and sexual violence. But the social upheaval caused by armed conflict also allows for transformations in gender roles, for new spaces for women’s agency. And why shouldn’t women actively confront violations of their rights? Before my first fieldwork trip, I started theorizing that women would mobilize in civil society in response to the collective threat that prevalent conflict-related sexual violence poses to them as women.
I understood that there was something about sexual violence that makes this violence distinctly gendered, by targeting women’s bodies and sexuality. But it took a deeper engagement with the feminist literature, submersion in the Colombian context and interviews with representatives of women’s organizations and victims’ associations to grasp exactly how salient gendered power relations are in the perpetration of sexual violence (in conflict and outside) and in the mobilization against it.
This is not just because the majority of perpetrators are men and the majority of victims are women. It is because of the ease with which sexual violence against the enemy’s women used to be explained away as collateral damage, with women being seen as the spoils of war, sexual violence as an unavoidable side effect of war.
It is because of the way women are blamed – and not only by men – for sexual violence perpetrated against them, including in conflict. It is because questions like “Why did she go out alone, at night? What was she wearing? Was she maybe flirting or drinking? And did she fight back hard enough?” are not only asked, but seriously engaged with.
It is because of the shame and the stigma and the fear of being ostracized, with so many women remaining silent about the sexual violence done to them. It is because the victims of sexual violence are often not taken seriously by the authorities even if they report, while the perpetrators go free. It is because women raped by armed actors are at heightened risk of future sexual or domestic violence by domestic partners who blame them for their victimization.
I encountered many such stories during my fieldwork in Colombia. Recounted by women mobilizing in civil society against sexual violence, several of them victims themselves. The resilience, the strength and the depth of women’s activism in a highly patriarchal context, and all the challenges this brings with it, were eye-opening. I have probably learned as much from these women about the power of feminism as I have learned from all the academic literature I have read, if not more. I have come away with an understanding that Colombian women’s mobilization in response to conflict-related sexual violence is, at its core, a mobilization in response to the underlying patriarchal structures that give rise to this violence.
Because at the heart of the perpetration of sexual violence, the women insisted, is the devaluation of women, the view of women as property and as an extension of men, an entitlement to women’s bodies. This is why sexual violence is perceived as a violence “reserved for” women, as a means to exert masculine control and assert dominance. This is reflected also in the feminization – or, in the term by Philipp Schulz that I have come to prefer, of “displacement from gendered personhood” – of male victims of sexual violence. Sexual violence subordinates the victim in the gendered power hierarchies in society.
The more I read, heard and learned about conflict-related sexual violence, the clearer it became to me that a feminist perspective is essential to understanding all these facets of sexual violence. Conflict dynamics, organization of military groups, social norms within military units may certainly help us understand when and where armed groups are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence. But only a feminist perspective provides a satisfactory answer to the question “why sexual violence”? Precisely because it lays bare the functions this stigmatized violence fulfills, in a context of gendered power relations. Functions of domination, control, humiliation and subjugation.
Then #MeToo happened. Sexual harassment, even violence, against women were revealed to be pervasive in the film, music and service industries, in academia, in politics, in women’s daily lives. This, of course, no longer came as a surprise. It did, however, bring to life the feminist concept of the continuum between the everyday and war, between (sexual) violence against women and sexual harassment, sexist comments, behaviors, jokes. There it was again, the objectification and devaluation of women. At the time I also happened to be reading “Surviving Sexual Violence” by Liz Kelly, which like no other piece of scholarship was fundamental to my understanding of the linkages between patriarchal norms and practices, entitlement to women’s bodies, pressured sexual activity and violence against women.
It was the confluence of #MeToo, reading Kelly and doing research on conflict-related sexual violence, being constantly exposed to stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault – which also made me relive unpleasant episodes in my own life (although none of physical violence) – that had a profound impact on a personal, as well as an intellectual, level. Reading or hearing stories of victims of conflict-related sexual violence was harrowing in its own way, but then and there I fully grasped the continuum of violence, across space, time and contexts.
Different forms of violence and harm women experience are, beyond a doubt, vastly distinct in magnitude and in the suffering they cause, but they are nonetheless interconnected. At their common root sit gender stereotypes, and gender inequalities, and misogyny, and a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.
There are men who defy and challenge these inequalities and harmful norms, and there are women who perpetuate them. But ultimately, they are deeply structural and while they persist, violence against women will always be an all too common reality.
This is why there is no other way for me to be a scholar, to be a woman, to be – than to be a feminist.