16 Days Campaign Theme series: Women’s bodies and (en)gendered political violence, by Swati Parashar

Swati Parashar

Women’s bodies and (en) gendered political violence in South Asia

The feminist axiom that ‘personal is political’ comes to mind while studying cases of political violence that include terrorism, armed insurgencies and communal riots. Women are part of the political violence landscape in three significant ways: as victims and survivors, as perpetrators; and as cultural bearers of ethnic, religious and national identities. In a short piece like this it is not possible to engage all questions around women, gender and political violence. I would like to focus on two important aspects – women and girls whose bodies continue to serve as battle ground and whose complex experiences of violence are reduced to ‘bare life’ stories of victimhood where women are further disempowered and kept away from peace processes and conflict resolution.

This piece is being written in the backdrop of the terrifying ordeal of the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousufzai, from Swat who was shot by Taliban militants for praising the American ‘enemy’ and of propagating ‘secular’ values by advocating education for girls. Bizarre accusations, one would think. Malala recovers miraculously in the quiet surroundings of a hospital in the UK while her ordeal bears testimony to the fact that all militant projects and political violence are waging a ‘war on women’. A fourteen year old, school-going, teenage girl becomes a ‘threat’ to a militant group’s (Tehrik-e-Taliban in this case) ideology and their masculinity that is usually validated by erasing women out of public spaces, by issuing religious diktats of violence against women and by bombing and killing girls in schools and women in market places and shrines. Not long before this case a 14 year old girl affected by down’s syndrome, Rimsha Masih, was perceived as threat by extremists and fundamentalists. She was accused of burning pages of the Koran and charged under the notorious blasphemy laws in Pakistan. She was subsequently acquitted of the charges after an Imam was accused of falsely planting burnt Koran pages into the pile of papers she had burnt. Her life continues to be threatened and a normal childhood is denied to her.

There are many Malalas and Rimshas in the world today. Militant groups in Afghanistan perpetrate violence and abuse against women with ease, despite aid dollars pouring in and government pledges to fight terrorism and extremism. Extremist groups in Pakistan target women and girls (Muslims and non-Muslims) indiscriminately. The situation is no different in India, where Maoist women cadres are targeted by their own comrades who rape and abuse them. The state does no better when security forces kill ‘Maoist’ women and carry them like animals for barbeque. The rape and torture of women in custody is also common (Soni Sori’s case is a brutal reminder here) and dehumanising women who are considered as the ‘other’ is the norm. In Sri Lanka, former women cadres of the LTTE have not been spared either, as they are abused, raped and marginalised while the government propaganda machinery talks about its benevolent rehabilitation efforts. It is, therefore, not without significance that large numbers of women continue to be soft targets in acts of political violence (by state and non-state actors) and this factor needs to be exposed and highlighted consistently.

The fallout of this violence against women is their absence in formal peace talks and conflict resolution processes. This is based on the widely held belief that men participate in armed resistance and thus ‘sacrifice’ their lives and freedom for their ethnic, political or religious group. Women, on the other hand, perform multiple roles in wars and political violence, including as armed guerrilla fighters, militants and support systems. However, their experiences are only documented in public memory as ‘worst sufferers and victims’. Lack of social and political recognition of their participation in armed resistance (for example in Kashmir, Sri Lanka etc.)* has resulted in their exclusion from all peace talks. The message from such situations is that stakeholders in peace must have served and sacrificed in the war and it is usually men who are recognised in their war roles. Increasingly, feminist scholarship and activism has challenged this notion of what women ‘do’ in wars and articulated that women’s voices are critical in not just engendering and sustaining a conflict but also in its resolution.

There is another aspect to this exclusion of women in resolutions of political violence and conflict. ‘Peace’ deals are waged on women’s bodies as we witnessed in the case of the Nizam- e -Adl resolution negotiated between the Taliban and the Government of Pakistan in February 2009. Under the “peace for Sharia” deal the Taliban agreed to stop its armed campaign in the Swat region and surrender its arms in exchange for the legal enforcement of the Sharia laws. Sharia courts would interpret civil rights according to Islamic strictures and women would be veiled and pushed into a life of invisibility, violence and abuse. This deal subsequently collapsed because the Taliban refused to disarm but it highlighted how wars – and also peace – are waged on women’s bodies. In many parts of Afghanistan, women and girls continue to be exchanged as part of the practice of baad or informal conflict resolution. The violence against women continues even if there are policies and laws to prevent it.

As someone who studies political violence and insurgent wars, I conclude with the conviction that political violence has deep implications on the personal lives of people and is particularly played out on women’s bodies. Feminist discourses, in recent times, have been increasingly divided over the universal application of human rights, gender equality and respect for local cultures and traditions (this debate did not end with the Shah Bano case in India!). We would be doing great disservice to our own feminist activism and scholarship if we argue that violence against women is acceptable in any culture and tradition. Political violence thrives on ideologies that ‘other’ women and justify violence against them. The way forward lies not just in exposing these cultures of violence but in articulating our fundamental feminist commitment that critiques and questions traditions and cultural and religious practices that marginalise women and inflict violence on them. I am always reminded of the poet Sahir Ludhianvi’s powerful words;

Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki auqaat hi kya
Zulm bas zulm hai, aaghaaz se anjaam talak

(What is about oppression? What is with its impression?
Oppression is, all of it, but oppression. From beginning to end.)

Dr. Swati Parashar is a lecturer in International Studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research, publications and teaching focus onterrorism and security studies; feminist international relations; and women, gender and political violence

For further references on these and related topics see the following.

  • Alison, Miranda (2004), “Women as Agents of Political Violence: Gendering Security,” Security Dialogue, 35, 447–463
  • Moser, Caroline and Fiona Clark, eds. (2001), Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence (New York: Zed Books)
  • Parashar, Swati (2011) “Gender, Jihad, and Jingoism: Women as Perpetrators, Planners, and Patrons of Militancy in Kashmir”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34: 4, 295 — 317