Women challenging war: a feminist lens on patriarchy and conflict

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Milena Abrahamyan

20178-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

In our globalized world, violence permeates all spheres of life. From sexual and gender-based violence, to racialized violence, to larger structural and systemic violence, to economic inequality and disparity, all violence is interconnected.

A feminist analysis of war allows us to see how all these systems of violence are interconnected. In contexts of violent conflict, gender is produced and maintained as an extension of the violence manifested within society, politics, the economy, culture and family structures. Dominant hierarchical systems of oppression maintain power relations such that gender roles not only persist, but intensify the divide between women and men. In such contexts of exaggerated masculinity and exaggerated femininity, and the normalization of militarism and daily insecurity in all spheres of life, it is immensely difficult to fight against harmful gender norms, stereotypes and patriarchal values.

Yet despite these challenges, in the South Caucasus where three different conflicts have been dividing the region since the early 1990s, a small number of women’s organizations and groups are working to build peace and confidence and transform conflict at community, regional and international levels.

In research I recently conducted with two co-authors from Azerbaijan and Georgia, we looked at ways in which women’s organizations and groups in those two countries and in Armenia, where I live and work, not only challenge gender norms and patriarchal values, but can also reproduce them, in and through the work they do.

Most of the organizations that we interviewed are non-governmental organizations that depend on funding from foreign donors to advance their agendas in the region. These groups’ agendas include the social, economic, and political empowerment of women and marginalized groups in South Caucasus societies, from grassroots to government level. A significant number of NGOs in all three countries make use of international tools, such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, to advocate for women’s participation and inclusion in peace processes.

Among the groups we interviewed, many use non-formal education methods, including training focused on gender, human rights, peace and conflict resolution, as well as awareness-raising initiatives such as public activism, and lobbying politicians about the issues faced by conflict-affected and other marginalized communities.

In order to understand the extent to which these organizations were challenging (and/or reproducing) gender norms and patriarchal values in and through their work, we looked at the values they held as individual organizations. From the beginning it was clear that very few of them (five out of 16 organizations) either identified as feminist organizations or approached their work through a feminist perspective.

The feminist-identified organizations had a critical approach to power and authority, militarism and violence. This approach enabled them to, for example, connect domestic violence with the increased militarization of society, or to highlight links between nationalism with increased control over women’s bodies. These five groups were the organizations that not only held strong feminist values, which entailed anti-militarism and rejection of violence, but also practiced this in their words and work with young women, border communities and different layers of society.

But to have any legitimacy in these three national contexts, even as a civil society organization, groups are dependent on institutional capital and connections to donors, government officials, and international actors. Consequently, we found that the voices of women with unpopular demands for the eradication of war and weapons provisions, and for the establishment of feminist peace and justice, often become even more marginalized, if not completely silenced.

This is perhaps why such a small percentage of the organizations we interviewed identified as feminist and/or had a feminist approach to the work they carry out. Given the complexity of these rather nationalistic, patriarchal and patriotic societies, simply being a woman is enough of a challenge. To call oneself a feminist and challenge patriarchy would mean inviting aggressive responses and backlash, and even threats to one's own life. Add to this the work of challenging the system of war and militarisation, and advocating for peace, and one becomes a traitor at best, an enemy of the nation at worst.

So for many women's organizations, there is a limit to the extent to which they can challenge gender norms and patriarchal values. What ends up happening is that certain patriarchal values become reproduced: women's organizations see military structures and the war system as inevitable, and ascribe masculine notions of strength to the processes for achieving peace. The groups we interviewed that advocated under UNSCR 1325 saw the inclusion of women in military structures as a positive change, under the discourse of gender equality.

In contrast, a critical feminist lens shows the extent to which war, violence and weapons are significant factors in the construction and maintenance of masculine identity and crucial for the continued functioning of patriarchy — a system in which women are at best devalued and at worst, eliminated. If women are to enter military institutions and contribute to the perpetuation of war, their role will be merely to support masculine ways of being for the benefit of a patriarchy that will continue to oppress both women and men.

Rather than advocating for including more women in the military, it would be better to have more women take part in peace processes. However, in the South Caucasus context, women’s access to these processes, especially on the political level, is limited, due mainly to the dominant narrative that sees women's voices as insignificant and insufficient. In cases where women do take up positions in politics and spaces of decision-making, they are inevitably in a minority, and thus unable to influence political processes to address women's agendas.

It is not yet clear how exactly women's inclusion in decision-making will challenge the structures, spaces, and formats where and through which decisions are made. However, there appears to be an underlying assumption that women, merely by virtue of being female, can bring something different to the table. Some of the ways that organizations, especially in Georgia, have worked with this positive perception is to focus on the human security element, which encompasses daily concerns for the basic needs and rights of people, including women, who are affected by conflict.

If structures such as patriarchy, the war system and gender are built in such a way as to keep reproducing themselves within the state, society, politics, economy, and institutions, then perhaps the only effective way for NGOs to work on the intersection of gender and violent conflict is through a critical feminist approach, in a strategic effort to transform violence and establish justice in terms of daily security, human dignity and peaceful existence for all.

This blog is a short summary of “Women Challenging Gender Norms and Patriarchal Values in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation Across the South Caucasus”, a research report co-authored by Milena Abrahamyan, Parvana Mammadova and Sophio Tskhvariashvili and published in the Caucasus Edition: Journal of Conflict Transformation, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2018.


Milena Abrahamyan is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She is a feminist justice and peace activist, and founder of the feminist trust and solidarity-building initiative Beyond Borders: Linking Our Stories with Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian women. She tweets at @MilenaAbrahamya

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo credit: Kate Williams @kmw152 via Unsplash.com