A QUESTION OF HONOUR : WOMEN, ETHNICITY AND ARMED CONFLICT
By Radhika Coomaraswamy *
(UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women)
(Lecture delivered at the Third Minority Rights Lecture on 25th May, 1999 at Hotel Intercontinental, Geneva)
Most men and women we spoke to agreed that honour, for losing and preserving, is located in the body of women Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon.1
In October 1997, for the first time in the history of the world, a woman took the stand to testify before an international criminal tribunal to describe her experience as a victim of sexual violence during war time. She charged that what had happened to her was a violation of international humanitarian law. The Tribunal listened to her and a few months ago passed judgement saying that the violence that occurred to her was indeed a war crime, a crime against humanity and an element of Genocide. These are excerpts from her testimony.
They threw us into the building where they were drinking and smoking marihuana. A young man rushed at me. He led me to the corner of the room. He undressed and put his clothes on the ground. He began to do humiliating things to me even though I was a mother. When he finished the first time, he started a second time. I was exhausted. I was almost insensitive. He left me and climbed into the area where other persons were being raped. I could hear the cries of young girls. While I was recovering a second person came and made me lie down again. He also raped me... A third person came while I was there. When he saw me rolling on the ground he put on a condom. When he finished I thought I was going to die for sure... After the meeting, the Interhamwe made us return to the Cultural Centre. When we arrived inside, they did the same thing they did before. They raped us again and again. The rapes were public, they raped us in front of our children. The rapists were young rascals. Try to imagine a mother raped by young boys.
This happened to JJ as she is anonymously called when she sought refuge with the Mayor at the Cultural Centre of her town. The Mayor, named Akeyesu encouraged the men of the Interhamwe to rape the women who sought refuge saying loudly, 'So never ask me again what a Tutsi woman tastes like'.2
In discussing the issue of women, ethnicity and armed conflict, I propose to do the following. I will begin with a general analysis of rape during armed conflict. I will then move onto a discussion of ethnicity and nationalism in the context of sexual violence. After that I will try and portray a typology of violence based on the fact-finding missions that have been conducted by human rights groups from around the world. Finally there will be a discussion of the more reflective, conceptual issues that have troubled me in reading and fact finding while working in this very important but very depressing area of women and armed conflict.
Rape and sexual violence during war are as old a practice as war itself. Yet, rape and sexual violence have been invisible issues in the discussion of international humanitarian law especially in the last two centuries They were often dismissed as private acts, the ignoble conduct of perverts, and regrettable excesses of the occasional soldier. Since they were seen as aberrational practices of errant soldiers, they did not enter the mainstream analysis of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This dismissive attitude to sexual violence along with a hidden belief that 'boys will be boys' has prevented sexual violence from being dealt with as a terrible tragedy of war.
Recent analysis, however, has focused attention on the fact that far from being an isolated act, rape and sexual violence have often been used as a strategic weapons of war. Though this varies from conflict to conflict, and in certain contexts, sexual violence and rape are more prominent than in others. It is necessary to isolate the factors that make this so. My analysis will focus on case-studies of the more extreme variety but many of the themes are present in most wars of an ethnic nature.
The recent wars in Bosnia Herzegovina, in Rwanda and now in Kosovo point to the fact that sexual violence can be a central instrument of terror especially in campaigns that involve ethnic fratricide or nationalist wars. According to Dorothy Thomas, one of the first activists to write on this subject, rape and sexual violence are used to punish populations for acts that are seen as supportive of the other side. How many times have we heard about land mines or explosions killing soldiers and their comrades who survive the blast going on the rampage in neighbouring villages killing, raping, burning and plundering. This happens in practically every war that has been researched around the world.3
In addition rape and sexual violence has been used to assert dominance over your enemy. Since women's sexuality is seen as being under the protection of the men of the community, its defilement is an act of domination asserting power over the males of the other community or group that is under attack. Sexual aggression has long been regarded as an act of domination in anthropological literature. Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will chronicles in detail the use of rape as an act of domination since pre-historic times--not only domination against women but also against the men who are expected to protect them.4
Besides their strategic use during wartime, rape and sexual violence are very often employed as torture in interrogation. Let me read from one of my reports the testimony of a victim whose story was corroborated by many sources:-
They came and took N to the military post and interrogated her on the whereabouts of her husband. They disbelieved her story and continued with the interrogation. On the sixteenth day, they began to use force. They undressed her and she was raped by one of the soldiers while the others watched and laughed, After that she was given electric shock treatment in her ears, nose, breasts and genitalia. Five days later she was released. As result of her torture she has many internal injuries and no money to pay for her medical expenses.5
Rape and sexual violence are also used in ethnic wars to pollute and defile the other side. Forced pregnancy is new aspect that has been recorded in modern wars where racial and ethnic purity are valued. Women are kept in rape camps and raped repeatedly until they are pregnant. Then they are released as in Bosnia and Herzegovina to give birth to Serb babies.
This pernicious aspect will be dealt with in depth a little later.
Finally there is the element of sexual gratification that also fuels sexual violence. This leads not only to some perverted sexual acts during conflict but also to forced prostitution and sexual slavery. Let me read you another case study from my work on comfort women, in this case Korean women who were abducted and kept as sex slaves of the Japanese military during World War II.
One day in June, at the age of 13, I had to prepare lunch for my parents who were working in the field and so I wet to the village well to fetch water. A Japanese garrison soldier surprised me there and took me away so that my parents never knew what happened to their daughter. I was taken to the police station in a truck, where I was raped by several policemen. After 10 days or so I was taken to the Japanese army garrison barracks... There were about 400 other Korean young girls with me and we served 5,000 Japanese soldiers as sex slaves every day.6
In recent times rape and sexual violence during war time have an added dimension. Stories of sexual violence often lead to greater mobilisation of the community against the other side. In addition such stories receive international attention and galvanise human rights and human rights groups into action. As a result, despite the invisibility of a lot of real sexual violence, figures are often inflated or exaggerated for international consumption. It is now very necessary to corroborate victims stories to ensure that they are correct. This manipulation of women's trauma is a unique new manifestation of sexual violence during modern wartime.
This lecture is entitled a question of honour. In many countries sexual violence is seen as a crime of honour, an act against the community not the physical integrity of the individual victim. This is the civil law tradition as well as the tradition in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies. It is this aspect that is at the core of an understanding of violence against women in armed conflict that involves, ethnic, religious or linguistic conflict among groups.
In describing violence against women in ethnic conflict during partition in India, Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon argue economic factors, though important, cannot sufficiently account for the brutality. Part of the explanation lies in cultural, psychological factors and in the abiding nature of prejudice.7 Veena Das in analysing violence during riots argues that crowds draw on repositories of unconscious images to spur them on.8 She states that there appears to be a pact of violence, violence that actually helps define the identity and becomes a constituent part of its history. Communities then have a historical memory of warring with each other and their enactment of this violence from episode to episode makes violence central to the definition of self and community. In fact Benedict Anderson in studying nationalist myths comes to the conclusion that the history of violence and suffering and its memory bond communities together more than the positive, non-violent acts of nationalist history.9 To break this cycle of violence as part of self identity requires vision and generosity that very few leaders have.
Nira Yuval Davis makes the connection between gender and nation the central thesis of her popular book of the same name. She argues that women play a major role in the construction and defense of ethnic and nationalist identity. She points out that women's honour and the control of their sexuality by the community makes them the reproducers of the boundaries of ethnic and national groups.10 Their bodies, and their controlled sexuality are instrumental in keeping the boundaries of the community free from pollution and infiltration. Good women that protect the honour of their community by curtailing their sexual desires for marriage within the community ensures that generations of the community are of pure ethnic origin. It is therefore not unusual that during ethnic conflict, rape and sexual violence become strategies for destroying these boundaries, for assaulting the honour of the community and for defiling women who are entrusted by the community to maintain the purity of lineage. The act of rape or sexual violence during ethnic and nationalist conflict is not an isolated, aberrational act. It is extremely purposive and aimed at not only destroying an individual woman but the communities sense of ethnic purity which many believe is vested in the 'honour' of women.
Another way in which women are involved in the creation of ethnic and nationalist identity is as the ideological reproducers of the myths and legends of the community. In fact research has shown that it is not the men who first introduce children into the ethnic imagination of their community. It is the women through songs, stories, legends, folk tales. They keep alive the myths and are the first to transmit a sense of the collective memory of success and suffering to children. Stories of great kings, the description of 'other' people are often imbibed by children not from racist patriarchs but from the mother who distills this information and first creates an awareness of ethnic or nationalist belonging. It is therefore not surprising that mothers and myths of mothers play an important role in ethnic and nationalist propaganda. The story of the Spartan mother who lost five sons in the war rushing to the temple triumphantly to give thanks for a Spartan victory is an example of this mythology. In recent times BBC television interviewed the mother of Captain Muller, a hero of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The mother expressed unreserved joy that her son had died for the cause. Stories of mothers asking messengers whether their sons were killed by a bullet in the front or the back before they begin mourning is another archetypal legend found in war stories.
Recent feminist writing has focused on the use of this mother mythology during times of war. Malathi De Alwis has discussed this imagery in a different context in a subverted form as the voice of peace. Mothers of the disappeared from Peru to Sri Lanka, the Mothers Front, Women for peace take this mother imagery and turn it on its head. Mothers are life givers and therefore they are opposed to war.11 Some writing on women and war in the United States argue that in western heritage it is assumed that there is an affinity between women and peace and men and soldiering. Women are seen in Hegelian images of the 'beautiful soul' innocent, pure and trusting in peace. But in other cultures such as Hinduism, Goddesses such as Durga are seen as fierce warriors, riding a lion, avenging their community and its honour. This contradict ion in the portrayal of 'mothers' during armed conflict as both the fearless supporters of war or the courageous campaigners for peace is only an indication as to the power of mother imagery and its resonance in ethnic and nationalist culture. The decision to appropriate this image for political causes is therefore not unusual in an era of manipulative semiotics.
Finally Nira Yuval Davis reminds us that it is women who are often used as the markers of ethnic difference. Men the world over dress very much alike. It is women who are compelled to wear the ethnic clothing and carry the ethnic markings on their body. They are the cultural symbols of ethnic worlds.. Partha Chatterjee in his pioneering work on women and nationalism draws attention to the fact that during the nationalist phase, men strive to protect the home and the inner sanctum of their homes as the spiritual centre of their nationalism.12 Women become symbols of this spiritual domain the caretakers of nationalist and ethnic practices and rituals that keep the identity alive in a visual, coherent sense. This role is played by women throughout the world- whether it is New Year ceremonies in the East or Christmas or Thanksgiving it is the women who are in charge of the rituals of the cooking of the distinctive meal, of the culturally appropriate dress to be worn during these rituals, and the religious practices to be followed in the home. Chatterjee sees them as the sphere that was protected from colonialism or the 'other' ethnic group. In this context, to rape or mutilate women in ethnic conflict is to raid the inner sanctum, the spiritual core of ethnic identity and to defile it. It is not unusual that men after they rape the women often tattoo their breasts or genitalia with insignia of the other community. This accentuates the fact that the female body is a symbol of a community's honour and its inner sanctum. To rape women with impunity and to mark their bodies with the symbols of the other side is to assert domination and to symbolically assault ethnic identity in its most protected space.
In addition to the myriad facets of the relationship between gender, ethnicity and nation, in terms of women's rights this combination is a problematic arena of contestation. In addition as Davis says, the rise of religious and cultural nationalism often results in imposing idealised notion of women from a mythical past. These ideals born of another history, transmuted across time to a different time and another context often result in denying women rights and in lessening their mobility. These notions of the past, often serve to keep women in the home, to deny them education and employment opportunities and to prevent them from asserting any form of personal autonomy. In addition they are often discriminated in the personal and family laws that govern the private lives of ethnic groups. The Taliban are extreme version of this process- perhaps even a caricature- but their practices and regulations serve to highlight what happens to women in most contemporary ethnic and religious revivalist movements albeit to a lesser extent. Regardless of this many women become actively involved in ethnic and religious causes. It is only the rare individual like Virginia Woolf who will stand up and declare, 'As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.'13
As I said earlier, sexual violence and rape were often seen as an aberrational part of warfare. However, this has begun to change. Firstly, anthropologists in large numbers are now studying violence and trying to devise a methodology to understand its role in society and among communities. In addition human rights groups are attempting to perfect the strategy of fact finding missions. As a Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Commission I see the importance of these missions even though they are short in time and do not carry the weight of an academic thesis. Today we have a plethora of information on human rights violations during times of armed conflict including information on sexual violence and rape. As I review these materials and reflect on my own fact finding missions, I begin to see a typology of violence when it comes to women and armed conflict.
During times of armed conflict, women experience violence at the hands of the men of the 'enemy' community as well as soldiers of the 'enemy' community. They are most often gang raped in front of family members, their sexual organs are mutilated, tattooed or destroyed, they are sometimes stripped and paraded naked, they are often made to dance naked in front of enemy soldiers, they are sometimes enslaved and made to cook and clean for the men and soldiers of the other communities, and sometimes as in Rwanda intimate family members are asked to rape them in public. Finally after such an ordeal, the majority are killed or left to lead a life with these memories.
However, the question of honour raises another dimension. Not only 'the other' men but the men of their own communities, often their fathers and brothers commit violence against them to protect them from their fate. During the Indo-Pakistan partition riots this was chronicled in detail.
He had six daughters, all of them very good looking. He was well to do and also had good relations with his Muslim neighbours. They told him to give his daughters in marriage to their sons- that way they would all then be related and his family's safety assured. They could continue to live in the village without fear. He kept listening to them and nodding seemed to agree. That evening, he got all his family members together and decapitated each one of them with his talwar (sword), killing thirteen people in all. He then lit their pyre climbed on to the roof of his house and cried out 'Bring on the marriage parties...'. And so saying he killed himself too.14
Women were killed by their own men's sword, or they were made to swallow poison, pushed into wells, strangled and burnt alive. This violence was nearly as extensive as the violence by the men of the other community.
In addition, the question of honour forced some women to commit suicide. Many women carried around poison packets, jumped into well or set fires and burnt themselves alive. Many women and girls saved their honour by self-immolation. They collected their bedding and cots in a heap and when the heap caught fire they jumped on to it, raising cries of 'Sat Sri Akal'.15 In Rwanda, a psychiatrist told us that one of the major problems he had was survivor's guilt. Those who did not commit suicide feel that the community has concluded that they gave into sexual violence to save their lives, that they did not have a sense of honour to take their own lives. This survivor's guilt had paralysed many women and some did end up taking their lives after the war was over. In other contexts, children of the next generation recited with pride how their cousins and womenfolks took their lives rather than allowing themselves to be violated thus preserving the honour of the family and the community.
Finally with ethnic violence one horrific type of violence has recently emerged both in Bosnia and Rwanda, the problem of forced pregnancy. Stiglmayer reports,
In the rape camps of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kadira was raped again and again (she has forgotten how many times)... They just came and raped us and later they told us, 'Come on now, if you could have Ustasha babies, then you can have a Chetnik baby, too?...' She said those women who got pregnant had to stay in the camps for seven or eight months so they could give birth to a Serbian child.16
In Catholic and Muslim countries abortion remains a difficult proposition so many of these women had to give birth to children of hate. In East Timor one mother brought her child born after a rape by an Indonesian soldier to meet us. She told us how she hated and neglected a child until a counselor and a nun came to teach her how not to pass on her outrage and anger onto an innocent child. The body language of mother and child was plain for the world to see. While other women cuddled the child and played with her, the mother did not touch the child even once and when she spoke to the child it was always in harsh undertones.
Women suffer from armed conflict not only as direct victims. One of the classic images of war and armed conflict are pictures of the mother and child refugees. Women are a large percentage of the world's refugees. While living in camps they are often victims of sexual violence and harassment. Human Rights Watch has chronicled the violence in East African refugee camps.17 Women are often victims of rape and sexual violence on their way to refugee camps while in flight. At the camps, they are often at the receiving end of sexual harassment from camp officials as well as other refugees. Often sex is exchanged for favours. If they are in camps as a family unit, observors point to an increase in domestic violence. They are also denied adequate medical care, especially gynecological services. Aid agencies portray women as powerless, helpless needy people and couple them with children.
But there is also another narrative. Stories that portray refugee women in another light. Val Daniel and Dharini Rajasingham Senanayake argue that though many women are traumatised by the events, other women are often empowered. The breakdown of traditional patriarchal norms creates a new space and women begin to take control of their lives. Dharini Rajasingham Senanayake points to the fact that this is often in the well run camps near towns where women can have access to employment.18 Once they become economically independent they begin to make decisions and are not the needy helpless women of the newsreel clips.. They regain their dignity and insist on making decisions in the camp itself. Agencies like UNHCR have responded to this reality by involving women in decision-making with regard to the camp as well as making them participate in the running of the camp. Women's groups are encouraged and women are often urged to fully participate in all activities. Not all UNHCR camps have these practices but this is the model as spelt out in their guidelines. However, the new found independence of some refugee women is not always seen as a positive aspect. With increased social mobility the existing communities are often suspicious of these women. Malathi de Alwis chronicles how these women are seen as being 'loose' and immoral by the existing communities because they immediately perceive a loss in masculine authority and the ability of the man to control his wife who now has begun to work.19
Women also suffer from the excesses of armed conflict as widows. Since most wars are fought between men, it is inevitable that women become widows overnight. In Rwanda female headed household rose sharply after the genocide.20 In Southern Sri Lanka after the JVP insurrection the rise of female headed households have been noted.21 In fact widowhood becomes a serious problem in post-war reconstruction. Bhasin and Menon write, 'The scale and incidence of widowhood in 1947-48 (in India) was so immense-as was the related task of resettling refugees- that is resulted in the Indian government setting up what was to be its first major welfare activity as an independent state:- the rehabilitation of what it called 'unattached women'. Never before in the country's experience had a government, either feudal or colonial, been called upon to shoulder social and economic responsibility for circumstance as problematic as widowhood, ritually inauspicious, socially stigmatised, traditionally shunned.'22 Women suffer enormous economic hardship as well as trauma as many of them witness the death of their husbands. Many confess that what keeps them going is the future of their children.23 Unskilled, often sexually harassed and carrying a terrible psychological burden, these women deserve special attention in the work of rehabilitation and reconstruction after the war.
Finally, women are factors in armed conflict not only as victims but also as perpetrators. When I was in London before my field visit to Rwanda, I read a story in the Sunday Times of a Hutu nun named Bernadette who led the Hutu militia the interhamwe into her church and joined them in brutally massacring hundreds of Tutsis who were seeking refuge in the church. I was horrified by the details and it was the first time that I had encountered a woman perpetrator of a crime against humanity. When I was in Rwanda, I requested permission to visit the prison where those accused of Genocide had been kept- and who should lead the prisoners' delegation- non other than Bernadette. She complained about the conditions in the prison and like Lady McBeth kept asking us for more soap. My heart was stone cold when talking to her but in time I realised that human rights also means the right to dignity of genocide perpetrators regardless of their past deeds.
The complicity of women with regard to the violence of their men, especially during ethnic wars is a very disturbing phenomenon and goes to the heart of the feminist statement that women are for peace. Women perpetrators of violence are now present in many armies as well as in guerrilla groups. Do the Geneva Conventions adequately deal with the needs of women prisoners of war? Is there a need to bring in some changes? These are questions that just beginning to be asked. And how do we as women crusaders for human rights react to women who have joined the military. As someone who believes in the affinity between women and peace, this development and stories of women who have been emancipated by becoming military fighters troubles me deeply. It involves foundational questions about women and human rights and the moral approach to violence- questions that have yet to be answered adequately by any one of our modern theorists.
My final section will attempt to raise some general issues with regard to violence and women. These are just reflective thoughts and an attempt to raise issues not to provide answers. In some way they are moral and philosophical questions about how societies organise their universe and how the individual will often triumphs above adversity.
Durga Rani, an Indian survivor of the 1947 partition riots tells her interviewers,
In the villages of Head Junu, Hindus threw their young daughters into wells, dug trenches and buried them alive. Some were burnt to death, some were made to touch electric wires to prevent the Muslims from touching them. We heard of such happenings all the time after August 16th.24
What is the quality of honour that it allows people to do such horrible things not only to their own but also to themselves. The stories of intra community violence and suicide highlight this question of honour in a very stark manner. Linked to this question is honour's primary instrument the fear of shame, what the renown anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere calls 'Lajja-bhaya'.25 In such context, to take a woman's life to prevent her from experiencing shame and humiliation is an act of saving her honour and giving her martyrdom in the annals of the collective memory. It is not death that the men fear- they do not kill their sons. It is sexual violence and the anticipation of sexual violence that terrifies them. To preserve their community's honour they kill their daughters. This linkage of sexuality and honour, a linkage preserved in the language of even Article 27 of the Geneva Convention has killed many women during armed conflict. If we are to move beyond this we have to think of a tomorrow where fathers and brothers tell their women, 'you have been raped, forget the shame, let us help you rebuild your life'. If they make that conceptual leap then 'lajja-bhaya', the fear of shame will disappear and the use of shame and honour as military or nationalist strategies of sexual violence during war time will no longer be meaningful.
Linked to questions of shame and honour, are the issues of ethnic pollution. The hideous stories of forced pregnancy that come out of the Former Yugoslavia point to the fact that men perceive that women can be defiled. This defilement is based on the face that a woman's sexuality is the marker of the boundaries of an ethnic group. If women are strictly controlled and only permitted to express sexuality with men of their own community then it is apparent that the community lays great emphasis on ethnic purity. During war that purity is deliberately assaulted precisely because it strikes at the core of ethnic identity. In communities where purity is not an issue sexual violence is not so earth shattering an event so as to force women to lose all desire to live. Plural societies where boundaries shift and where there is an appreciation of hybridity lessen the edge of sexual violence as a means of community defilement. It is in the acceptance of hybridity as an important part of the modern condition that will dispel, or make meaningless, war time strategy that seeks to defile or pollute the other side. If we celebrate hybridity- a condition that often exists in reality in the very societies that make a claim for purity, and we appreciate the breaking down of barriers among individuals and groups then to violate a woman would be a matter of her physical integrity and not an assault on the symbolic world of the community or nation.
In researching violence, many scholars have noted the difference between the way men and women tell their stories. Val Daniel in Charred Lullabies points to how while men have coherent narratives, women find it very difficult to speak about sexual violence.26 I found that this is very true even in my area of work. The classic case was a victim of sexual violence who was brought from East Timor to speak to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. When she was introduced to me she spoke a few words but when asked to tell her story, she just could not speak. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, and then her eyes filled with tears. Whatever reality she was facing was obviously a devastating one. This went on for about twenty minutes till I finally called it off. Silence then is the first reaction of anyone who has experienced sexual violence. It is only with effective counseling and support that women break that silence and cope with the emotional fall out of breaking the silence. It is therefore not unusual that the victims who have been most articulate have been those who have gone through counseling, who are close to women's NGOs and who are being treated by them. Without a supportive network, as many are discovering in Kosovo, women will not speak. The terror is too intimate.
In armed conflict, the issue of what has been termed 'heroic death' is an important part of the mythology. It brings forward the celebration of valour, courage and discipline. For women in armed conflict who are civilians, heroic death plays its part. However, what is celebrated is not the murder of the other side but the taking of one's own life instead of facing dishonour. These stories abound in cases around the world. Their purpose, to instil in the younger generation the sense of sacrifice and heroism. As one family member said:-
Krishna was very young, very beautiful. We often spoke about her when we were young. The children would gather round to hear Partition stories. The suicides, the deaths were remembered with some kind of pride by my male relatives- an women also. For us it was like a story, a kind of drama.27
Heroic death is also present in ethnic and traditional practices for women. Veena Das in a controversial article argues that Sati or widow suicide must also be understood in terms of the community's expression of what they perceive as heroic death- a wife jumping into a husband's pyre. These issues raise a whole host of concerns especially when the heroism appears to be forced. In another context, women soldiers of militant group are also inculcated with this notion of heroic death. The female suicide killers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are one such example. Heroic death is a very problematic concept. In the West in its origins in Sparta to Eastern mythologies glorifying suicide, it is usually part of the arsenal of strong nationalist movements that draw on this symbolism of valour to recruit and mobilise the young men in their society, In this context, it was refreshing to read about Taran, a Sikh girl and her attitude to the 1949 riots.
I loved life, was in love with it. And I saw death staring me in the face. Just a few days earlier there had been a wedding in the family and we all had new clothes made. I started wearing a new suit every day, along with all the jewelry. I would dress up- and call my friends over. My grandmother would get furious and say, 'What do you think you are up to?' I said to her 'Beiji, since we are going to die, why shouldn't I wear all my nice clothes now? Why should someone else wear them when I am dead?'
The celebration of life is therefore one way of fighting ideologies of war that valorise heroic death
The great ideologies of the twentieth century, Liberalism and Marxism did not deal with the 'affect' in politics or the 'passions' of the community. Only Fascism and Nationalism have drawn on these forces. Liberals and Marxists dismissed these aspects as not relevant and part of another project. Thinkers like Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon try to bring us back. It is important not to dismiss the affective part of politics because it is what has the strong link to violence. What we need is a methodology to understand the construction of hate in a particular society. The case of Tutsi women in Rwanda is a case in point. Tutsi women were constructed as beautiful, seductive, sexual beings. Their reputation was seen as the greatest threat to Hutu identity, When the ten commandments of the Hutu militia were released the first two related to the Tutsi women. The first called on Hutu men not to be seduced by Tutsi women and the second demanded that Hutu wives prevent their husbands from being seduced by Tutsi women. This extraordinary demand highlighted Tutsi women as seductress spies and justified violence against them. This resulted in an enormous amount of sexual violence against Tutsi women sanctioned by the militia. This was also shocking because it is the only in this context that I have heard of women engaging in sexual violence against other women- cutting their breasts and pulling out their wombs. The violence against Tutsi women was truly horrific. Though sexual violence is commonplace in war, the extremity of the brutality lies in the construction of hate and it is something that has not really been studied in the context of major wars. The imagery of women play a central part in this construction.
Another interesting connection that is brought out in the Bhasin/ Menon book is the strange relationship that the State has with the female body. During the Partition of India, many women were abducted and taken to the other side- Muslim women were taken into India and Hindu women were abducted and taken into Pakistan. The question of these abducted women troubled the new post-colonial governments in Pakistan and India. Finally after a great deal of negotiations, the two states negotiated a settlement. The abducted women would be returned but the children over a certain age will remain with the father. There was no question of asking a women what is in her best interest. The women were not consulted. They were just physically removed. Sometimes they were rejected by their families and had to spend their lives in large state run homes. This resulted in some strange events. Urvashi Butalia writes:-
Zainab was a young Muslim girl who was said to have been abducted while her family was on the move to Pakistan. No-one knows who her abductors were, or how many hands she passed through, but eventually Zainab was sold to Buta Singh. Buta Singh who was not married at the time performed the 'chaddar' ceremony and married Zainab. The story goes that in time, the two came to love each other. They had a family, two young girls. Several years after Partition a search party on the lookout for abducted women traced Zainab to Amritsar...Like many women that were thus 'rescued' Zainab had no choice in the matter. She was forced to leave... the entire village had assembled to see her go... as Zainab boarded (the jeep) she turned to Buta Singh and pointing to her elder daughter said 'Take care of the girl, and don't worry I will be back soon'. She never returned. Buta Singh went on a frenzied search, even changed his name and became a Muslim but never found her, Finally he committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.28
The debates in the Indian and Pakistani legislatures are even more revealing in the State's duty toward the female ethnic body. The Indian state claiming its right over the Hindu woman's body- despite being a secular state and the Pakistani state claiming its right over the Muslim woman's body. The research in this field is rich with great detail on the connection between the state ethnicity and gender.
In armed conflict, religion and religious institutions are important sites for women. However, in armed conflict, desecration of sacred places is also a manifestation of hate. In Rwanda, they keep this desecration as it was as a memory for the survivors. I was taken to one of these churches. Thousands of skeletons with mutilated bodies lay scattered. The horror of it is made worse by a statue of the Virgin Mary, on a large pedestal, staring down helplessly with compassion on her face. You are led into a room where certain skeletons are kept encased in glass- again a memory of the genocide. The one I was led to was a skeleton who had been a victim of sexual violence with a pole up her genitalia. There she was preserved for posterity. Such horror in the most sacred of spaces.
But armed conflict's relation to religion has another side. Commentators points to the fact the in eastern Sri Lanka, temple and mosque building has increased in intensity since the ethnic conflict began. As people lose faith in the political process, and lose their freedom to move and speak for fear of consequences from a multitude of actors, religious spaces become the only spaces where communities experience some measure of freedom. So these spaces become sites of the way a community deals with crisis. Patricia :Lawrence in an extraordinary study of temples of the Goddesses in the Eastern province show how communities deal with torture, disappearances, pain of losing loved ones et... by turning to oracles and other less traditional religious systems to find solace. Women play an important part in these alternative religious experiences. They are the solace seekers and in many cases they are also the solace givers... In countries where the Goddess is worshiped- the countries of South Asia, her temples are filled with those who want respite from war. It is also the place that women who suffer sexual violence go to seek divine revenge for what has happened to them. Religion then breaks the silence but it can offer no real remedy only solace.
The medical way of dealing with the extremities of war has always been in the field of psychology. In Rwanda the psychiatrist told us that at least 85% of the population was suffering from some form of disorder resulting from the war, They are depressed, they are psychotic, they are in grieving for lost ones, they are guilty that they survived, they have children of hate or they are perpetrators suffering from trauma of their own deeds. One of the most comprehensive works of psychology during war time is the book Scarred Minds by Daya Somasunderam.29 He chronicles the cases of torture, of mental illness that exists when one is forced to live in a war environment, the illness the perpetrators of violence suffer when they kill, depression and grieving at the loss of loved one and a psychological profile of a community involved in armed conflict. It is heartrending and a reminder of research in the United States that shows that the psychological damage resulting from the World War II holocaust goes on to a third generation. Any programme for rehabilitation and reconstruction of war situations must make psychological issues an important component, otherwise a society will never be allowed to return to normal.
The other long term effect of war is the militarisation of society- a generation of men who have learnt to resolve conflict by going to war. David Levinson's study that shows how a society resolves its conflicts determines the way conflicts are resolved in the home The increase in domestic violence and rape in recent years, may be because of greater reporting but I suspect that in many societies under armed conflict, these statistics increase as war justifies and exalts the use of violence in settling conflict. Women then are the receiving end of a society's increased tolerance of violence. The transformation from a war culture to a peace one is extremely difficult and requires planned and strategic intervention.
In this context, it has been asked what has the international community done about sexual violence during times of armed conflict. Patricia Sellers in her work on war and war crimes against women argues that the early chivalry codes were explicit about the prohibition of rape during war time. However, in the nineteenth century and twentieth century this appears to have disappeared. The Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention speak about the violation of honour and the Geneva Convention does not explicitly make sexual violence a grave breach triggering universal jurisdiction and individual criminal responsibility. Luckily this gender insensitive approach of humanitarian drafting has now changed. Due to the vigorous campaigning by women's groups the new Rome statute of the International Criminal Court passed in July last year makes rape and all forms of sexual violence into a war crime and a crime against humanity and ensures that it applies both to internal and external wars. The Rwanda Tribunal looking into the Rwandan conflict goes even further- rape and sexual violence are seen as elements of Genocide, something that the Criminal Court does not contain in its provisions. This clarification of the normative standards, and the clear enunciation in the Rome statute that rape and sexual violence are grave breaches in and of themselves is a fitting culmination to the efforts of the international women's movement and its tireless attempts to combat violence against women.
Though the international normative framework has been set in place, the implementation of the framework is still a major problem. The inability of states to arrest and try the leaders of the Bosnian, Croatian and Serb atrocities is a case in point. Though mechanisms for international accountability exist states do not have the political will to implement these norms in an objective impartial manner. In addition programmes of reconstruction such as the one in Rwanda ignore violence against women as an important fallout of armed conflict. The need to make violence against women a central issue in planning rehabilitation and reconstruction cannot be stressed adequately. And yet we see bilateral and multilateral programmes, ignoring these question when they actually carry out their mandates. It is important that they are sensitised to the problem so that the society after war heals in manner that empowers its women.
Finally, in reflecting about women during armed conflict different images come to mind. Woman as victim, the pictures of women refugees carrying their children, the faces of victims as they tell me their stories about physical violence, the churchgoing, god fearing woman who got AIDS through war time rape thanking us for holding her hand, myriad images of tragedy, knowing clearly that if I was in their place, I would not have survived. Then there is the image of the exceptional woman empowered by crisis. The Rwandan woman who spent a month in the jungle with an arm infected and gone gangrene with machete wounds, eating grass and berries, raped a countless times, now running a counseling centre, offering me tea and cakes with her one arm, smiling a warm welcome. Rwandan women breaking into songs of welcome, showing me their organisations and holding our hands when our faces turned ashen in listening to their horrific tales of tragedy. The celebration of life after their terrible stories of death.
And finally and perhaps most importantly, I carry the images of a Tutsi woman giving me a poem about holding the hand of her Hutu brother, the women from Sierra Leone who forced the leaders to make peace, the Irish coalition of women sitting in the background during the Belfast peace talks, intervening and assisting the mediator, the Indonesian women from all the islands united in their determination to seek justice, sitting together united in their humanity. And finally in my own country, women from all ethnic groups signing petitions and planning a campaign for peace, vilified in the papers, threatened in public, but still determined to continue.
I do believe that there is an affinity between women and peace and it is in the mobilisation for peace and in the campaigning for accountability like the Mothers of the Plaza that women subvert and challenge those who are determined to wage war. Every morning when I come into work- and I know that this is a policy followed by many of my colleagues- I put on the internet expecting to see an e-mail from Yugoslavia and in earlier times from Kosovo's women's groups. These e-mails tell you the other narratives that the papers do not carry. They tell you the stories of the cost of bread, the shock of devastation, what it is like to be in a bomb shelter, how they are resisting nationalist hysteria, their fears for their sisters in Kosovo and for a moment you feel part of a greater movement that must surely triumph in the future- the movement of what Oscar wilde may have called the community of the sensitive- those who make peace and human rights the basis of their system of values and the foundation of their political and legal actions. It is only through efforts such as these that women can make their mark, by breaking the vicious cycle of violence and hatred, replacing them with non-violence and a search for justice and compassion.
1. K.Bhasin and R. Menon, BORDERS AND BOUNDARIES,Kali, New Delhi p.58 [up]
2. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Mission to Rwanda, Geneva E/CN.4/1998/54Add.1 (1998) p.4 [up]
3. Dorothy Thomas and Regan Ralph, 'Rape in War:- Challenging the Tradition of Impunity', in SAIS Review, Winter Spring 1994 [up]
4. Susan Brownmiller, AGAINST OUR WILL, MEN WOMEN AND RAPE, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1975 [up]
5. Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, Report on Mission to Indonesia and East Timor, Geneva, E/CN.4/1999/68/Add.3 (1999) [up]
6. Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, Report on Mission to Japan and Korea, 1995 [up]
7. Bhasin and Menon p. 39 [up]
8. See Veena Das, CRITICAL EVENTS, Delhi Oxford University Press 1995 [up]
9. Benedict Anderson at a seminar presentation at ICES (1987) [up]
10. Nira Yuval-Davis, GENDER AND NATION, Sage, 1997 [up]
11. Malathi De Alwis, 'Toward a Feminist Historiography:- Reading Gender in the Text of the Nation' in R. Coomaraswamy et.al INTRODUCTION TO SOCIAL THEORY, Konark,, New Delhi 1994 [up]
12. Partha Chatterjee, 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women?s Question' in K. Sangari et al, New Delhi, Kali, 1989 p.233 [up]
13. Virginia Woolf, THREE GUINEAS, New York, 1966 p.113 [up]
14. Bhasin p.48 [up]
15. Bhasin p.42 [up]
16. Bhasin footnote 34 p.63 [up]
17. Human Rights Watch , Global Report on Women's Human Rights (1995) [up]
18. Dharini Rajasingham Senanayake, 'After Victimhood- Cultural Transformation and Women's Empowerment in War and Displacement', (SSA) 1998 [up]
19. Malathi de Alwis, 'The Purity of Displacement and the Re-territorialization of Longing' SSA 1998 [up]
20. Rwanda report [up]
21. Sepali Kottegoda, 'Female Headed Households in Situation of Armed Conflict' in Nivedini, Vol 4. No 2 p.10 [up]
22. Bhasin p. 149 [up]
23. Gameeela Samarasinghe, 'Living in Conflict Zones, Past and Present:- Women and Psychological Suffering' SSA 1998 p. 149 [up]
24. Bhasin p.32 [up]
25. Gananath Obeyesekere, MEDUSA'S HAIR, University of Chicago Press, 1981 [up]
26. Val Daniel, CHARRED LULLABIES, University of Princeton Press 1996 [up]
27. Bhasin p. 53 [up]
28. Urvashi Butalia , THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, Viking 1998 p.96 [up]
29. Daya Somasunderam, SCARRED MINDS, Sage, New Delhi 1998 [up]
* The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2 Kynsey Terrace, Colombo - 08, Sri Lanka, Telephone : (941) 685085 Fax : (941) 698048 Email : email@example.com
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