“Women Without Arms: Gendered Fighter Constructions in Eritrea and Southern Sudan
By Annette Weber, Senior Associate, Middle East/Africa Division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin, Germany
(…) The results reached through my field research in southern Sudan and Eritrea can be summarized as follows:
1. Women have restricted access to power positions during conflict because they are not fully acknowledged as active fighters.
2. Women are able to perform but not transform gendered fighter images. They can act as fighters but not become “real fighters.” As a result they fail to benefit from the fighter-citizen connection created by the masculine fighter image. Even if they turned into fighters during the war, they are forced to turn back into women afterwards and thereby leave the masculine sphere of power.
3. Masculine fighter images are idealized by men and women alike. But for women to become fighters means crossing established gender lines. Fighter ideals are grounded in gendered body images and narratives and practiced through gendered social roles.
4. Women actively participate in the construction of the masculine fighter idea(l) and legitimize the fighters’ use of force and violence.
5. There seems to be no apparent difference between men and women in the use of violence; it is merely the opportunity factor that leads more men to legitimized uses of violence.
6. The armed movement and civilians create a sub-status of supporters of the struggle, which is hardly contested. Thereby the high status of the fighter is manifested whereas the supporters are not fully acknowledged as active participants in the struggle.
While feminist theorists and peace scholars (Alison 2007; Ruddick 1990, 1994; Reardon 1985, Gilligan 1992; Chodorow 1989), masculinity scholars (Theweleit 1993, 284), and war theorists (van Creveld 2001) discuss both inherent and socialized peacefulness of women and war-proneness of men, my research clearly demonstrates that despite socialized gender norms women can play violent roles during conflicts, both in active fighting and in legitimizing violence. The case studies from Eritrea and southern Sudan clearly show that women possess an interest in the use of violence and in becoming active fighters. Yet one of the manifestations of structural violence in gendered fighter images is exclusion (Weber 2007). In many insurgent groups, armed forces, rebel groups, and militias, women are simply not allowed to operate as fighters. And if they do, they are not formally recognized as active combatants and fail to gain high positions in the military hierarchy. This enforced absence from the armed forces themselves by no means excludes women from war and conflict; on the contrary, the home front, support, and supply are continuously tended by women. And civilian casualties are much higher than casualties amongst fighters.
It is also apparent that civilians, despite the hardship they suffer through war – from the enemy but also from the armed groups of their own side – support masculine fighter ideas and ideals and legitimize privileged access to power through fighting positions. This has already been reflected in studies of men and women in Western armies and conflicts (Boulding 1988, 2000; Cooke 1993; D’Amico 1996; Enloe 1983, 2000; Isaksson 1988; Kaplan 1994; Stiehm 1996, Tobias 1990) and is part of the ongoing debate in feminist theory and masculinity studies (Connell 2005; Goldstein 2001; Hooper 2001). The crystallization of gender dichotomies during war and the privilege of hypermasculinity (hegemonic masculinity) is discussed, yet the debate lacks analysis of the knock-on effect of this militarized masculine mindset on post-conflict society.
The significance of this evidence for post-conflict-societies, demobilization, state-building, peace negotiations, and conflict management is widely neglected. Analysis of war and political violence (Kalyvas 2006; Schlichte 2009; Tilly 2003) addresses “exceptional” politics (Agamben 1998, p.145), but forgets that exceptional politics and the use of violence are normal everyday praxis in gender relations.
The discussion generally focuses on the aspect of peaceful women as carers and mothers, rather than reflecting their function in mothering the frontline, legitimizing violence by “their” sons, and keeping quiet about atrocities. Active female fighters are hardly considered at all, and where they are, are mainly depicted as the exception, the travesty (Sjoberg 2007; Sylvester 2011). While there is a growing literature on the role of men as warriors and fighters in southern Sudan (Burton 2007; Deng 1972; Madut Jok 2007;) and autobiographies of military men turned politicians (Akol 2009; Arop 2006; Igga 2008; Nyaba 1997), there are very few reflections on the experience of women during the war (Hutchinson 1996; Turshen 1989) or autobiographical writings by influential female figures in southern Sudan. The experience of women in the war in Eritrea is more visible (Wilson 1991), but rarely reaches beyond biographical anecdotes (Schamaneck 1989) and is rather unreflective of the political exclusion of former female fighters and the potential consequences for post-conflict state-building. It is important to acknowledge the reality of these women in demobilization and reintegration schemes, and their experience and expertise need to be reflected in conflict management and peace negotiations, precisely because it differs from that of mainstream male fighters. Understanding the relational praxis of fighter-civilian interaction, the attribution of meaning and status to fighters and civilians before, during, and after conflict, is relevant for the success of post-conflict demobilization as well as for the shaping of societies and citizenship. Longstanding and protracted conflicts create social practices that carry on as habitual references after the conflict.
The United Nations acknowledges this connection and the necessity for women to become active participants at all levels of conflict resolution and peace negotiations.13 However, analysis of the basis of the fighter construct and the fighter-citizen nexus is lacking, especially in the efforts to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325. There is also a growing body of literature on African rebel or liberation movements that have become governments (Boas, Dunn 2007; Mampilly 2011; Rolandsen 2007), but a total absence of critical debate about either the broad exclusion of women from fighter status or the existence of female fighters and its repercussion for post-conflict governments.
Whether gendered fighter images will become an important building block for the grand narrative of the “imagined community” or a mere ridiculized travesty will depends on the political and social transformation from conflict to post-conflict. Especially in cases where the new leadership is unwilling or unable to downsize the armed forces, successfully demobilize and reintegrate former combatants, and subsequently form a national army with a meaningful role, the image of the soldier is degraded. Masses of men with arms but no pay roam the streets – often far away from their families – and become a threat to civilians rather than a force for protection. This scenario is currently quite realistic in the case of South Sudan. The opposite case, mystified over-admiration for everything connected with the fighter, from the assumed spirit of honor and discipline to moderation and endurance, a hierarchical style of leadership, and the foundation of the national identity on an exclusivist fighter experience, is strongly visible in the Eritrean case. Neither the SPLA’s propaganda apparatus, nor its political agenda, nor its community outreach ever reached the level of organization of the EPLF. The SPLA never formulated the need for social transformation in southern Sudan – only a transformation of the political elite in Khartoum. There-fore they did not think it necessary to educate or mobilize the rural and urban population for their struggle. Unlike the EPLF, the SPLA did not engaged in literacy programs for the rural population, nor did they mobilize communities to educate girls and boys alike. The sectors of distribution of public goods, education and health was outsourced to international humanitarian agencies. The fighter image is not constructed in isolation, but is closely linked to the efforts, discourse, and realities surrounding it.
Do women gain anything by actively joining armed struggles? This question has at least two answers. The skills, status, and acknowledgement acquired through active participation in the struggle empower women to perceive themselves as active members of society. The decisive question however remains whether their active involvement, their new skills, their transformed social gender role and praxis are acknowledged by the armed movement and the society at large. If female fighters remain a mere travesty of the construct of a “real” women and the image of the “real” fighter remains a masculine image of a male person transcending beyond the sphere of femininity, the gains for active female fighters in political power, participation, and social transformation are limited. Whereas women in southern Sudan were kept in a subordinated feminine image of support and supply, in Eritrea the fighter image underwent a gender transformation during the struggle, including equal distribution of formerly gendered tasks such as fighting and bringing up children (Pateman 1990; 220).14 The reason why this deep transformatory aspect could not prevail has largely to do with the militarization of society after independence. The retraditionalization of gender roles had a broader support base (the patriarchal non-fighting society as well as many male fighters) that obviously benefitted from the traditional role of women.”