In the first of a series of posts related to the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, Guest Blogger Dr. Vanessa Farr, Peace Activist and Feminist Freedom Fighter, reflects on the need to re-frame the debate and renew our efforts to end all forms of violence against women.
*note all page numbers following quotes in this post refer to Judith Butler, 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York, Verso: pp. 1-18.
One of the most significant successes of the global feminist peace movement in the past twenty or so years has been to expose sexualized war violence and galvanise international actors, including the United Nations, to act decisively to prevent and respond to it. Inside the UN, the women, peace and security agenda (WPSA) kicked off by Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000 has set off the most sustained and productive site of analysis, policy-making, lobbying and resource-mobilisation on women’s issues since the preparation for and passage of CEDAW from the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s. Under its purview, a steady number of SCRs has been passed whose intention is to safeguard women from the worst excess of contemporary warfare, in particular sexual torture and sexualised violence. The CEDAW Committee itself has just passed General Recommendation #30 to ensure that the two streams of the agenda – the full achievement of women’s human rights, by means of their protection and participation in all aspects of security decision-making – are fully aligned.
Yet feminist peace activists are claiming, as we go into this year’s 16 Days of Action, only the hollowest of victories: because in 2013 we seem to be just as far away from our goal of ‘ending war violence against women’ as we were in 1995 at the Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing which birthed the WPSA. Indeed, the third ‘P’ of our agenda, and the most important one of all, which is the goal to prevent women from suffering sexualised war violence at all, remains as elusive as ever. Women are not only still overwhelmingly unprotected from sexualised violence as a method of war, but the intensity and savagery of this violence seems to be increasing and may now even be seen by some armed groups as the most effective means to gain attention; its tenacity as the most egregious of crimes committed in war seems as strangling as ever; and efforts to end war violence against women through taking more punitive legal measures against any military actors who endorse it remain hopelessly ineffectual, slow, expensive and grueling for the survivors, while having no perceivable deterrent effect.
Are we at an impasse as a women’s movement? Can we engage differently with this apparently unyielding site of struggle and produce more effective results? And even more profoundly, what are our own self-limiting beliefs – what are we overlooking, or not properly articulating as we do our work?
In my efforts to think more deeply about these questions and to search out new frameworks for describing the problem that might allow us to move forward, I find myself looking anew at Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), a book that was written at around the same time as the WPSA was starting to take hold. In it, she articulates her response to the 9/11 attacks on New York City, questioning the endlessly aggressive US foreign policy that has been elaborated across the globe since that date, and calling for Americans to “take a different sort of responsibility for the global conditions of justice”, one not premised on a “cycle of revenge in the name of justice”, that moves beyond “seeking legal redress for wrongs done”. She suggests a stock-taking of how the world has become so cruelly mis-formed, “precisely in order to form it anew, and in the direction of non-violence” (17). Her questions are very much ours, as a feminist peace movement.
Butler’s central concern is to understand “accountability…apart from the claims of vengeance” (3). She challenges silences that seem impenetrable and carefully unveils the prejudicial, racist and orientalist/imperialist attitudes that enable the US to “position…[itself] exclusively as the sudden and indisputable victim of violence” to therefore authorise itself – unilaterally – “ to use limitless aggression against targets that may or not be related to the sources” of its suffering (4), and from this position, to ‘fight’ violence with even greater aggression. This response, she reveals, both springs from and entrenches non-egalitarian belief systems and reifies an essentially dehumanising perspective in which “those hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives lost in the last decades of strife” can be brushed aside as irrelevant, while “those Americans who have been violently killed” are reframed “through nationalistic and familial framing devices” (12) as fully human, and thus fully able to be, and deserving of being, mourned either individually or collectively.
At the beginning of her book, Butler does not yet show how her thinking extends to an analysis of the gender dynamics of either the processes of dehumanising the ‘other’ or making them disappear. The story she starts off by interrogating is almost exclusively one of big men, whether they are Arabs or Americans, duking it out to decide who has a greater moral right to ‘claim grief’. In this regard, she offers a particularly striking analysis of exchanges between Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in which the former’s offer of relief assistance was rejected because he made it at the same time as he made a plea to the US to take “a more a balanced stand towards the Palestinian cause” and spoke what Butler observes as an “unutterable” (12-13) phrase about how the world continues to overlook the Israeli “slaughter” of Palestinians.
What struck me about Butler’s assessment is that it would be quite possible to substitute the analysis of ‘imperialism’ for one of ‘patriarchy’, the focus on ‘Arabs and Muslims’ (who also, of course, include women) for a concentration on ‘women’ alone, and the unsayable word ‘slaughter’ as it applies to the millions of women around the world who die through violence; and in so doing, to further expand the power of her analysis.
The ubiquity and apparent unassailability of the problem of ‘war rape’ and the ‘moral outrage’ that we can all feel about it happening has, it seems to me, actually had a de-politicising effect on our work as feminists opposing all forms of violence against women, wherever and whenever they happen. I’ve noticed how many officials in policy circles have begun to constitute what look like a valid set of reasons for never discussing the extraordinary levels of (often lethal) male violence against females around the world who are not in war zones. Thus it becomes possible for the UK government to launch a huge fund to ‘end war violence’ in foreign lands at exactly the same time as it dramatically reduces already poor funding for work with survivors of male violence at home and passes increasingly draconian anti-poor measures that expose already-struggling women to even more marginalisation and a higher than usual risk of violence, especially as their dependency on unreliable and aggressive partners deepens.
In some ways, then, the global high-level discourse against ‘war rape’ that has been brought about by the WPSA shares the same features of being based in prejudice and silencing as those mobilised in ‘fighting the war on terror’: only the suffering of some women matters, and then, only if it takes place in circumstances that the majority of (male-led) international observers decide constitutes a ‘war’. Within this logic, it becomes clearer that the international community continues to not successfully tackle sexual violations ‘in conflict’ because it refuses to try to eradicate the gruesome spectrum of violence on which all women everywhere, live – including in countries that can otherwise claim themselves to be living in something pretty close to ‘peace’. Why else has ‘ending war violence against women’ gained so much traction as a donor and policy focus when other public spending to support women fleeing domestic violence declines and violent public rhetoric and actions against outspoken women escalate, taking on frightening new shapes – such as the truly vicious forms of online trolling to which women leaders are routinely subject in ‘developed’ countries?
The answer, of course, is that it’s all happening because it is useful to the neo-liberal paradigm which argues that supplying ‘technocratic fixes’ to complex social problems is an effective way of solving them. War rape, then, has become yet another ‘logistical’ problem that ‘experts’ like me are called in to help ‘fix’ – as long as we focus only on the crime itself and not on the ‘unsayable’, the fact that men’s propensity to use gendered violence with impunity is the global injustice of our time. It’s possible because those in authority want us to see the violent ending of women’s lives in war time as somehow exceptional, whereas the terrorisation and slaughter of women by men at all other times is – well, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of men gaining access to guns and knives or using their fists to keep women in subordination. We do indeed live in a world in which some can, as Butler points out, come to a place where “radical violence becomes an option, comes to appear as the only option for some” (16). But when it is men who, time and again, use the radical violence of intimate femicide as their ‘only’ option for dealing with interpersonal strife, their extremism is somehow, today in 2013, still unsayable; and in far too many circles, is still not seen as the worst form of terror happening in our world.
Butler very clearly warns us that the new wars of our time, whether they are ‘wars on terror’ or ‘wars on war rape’ do little to “offer another vision of the future than that which perpetuates violence in the name of denying it” (18). As we go into 2013’s Sixteen Days of Activism, let us indeed focus on militarisation and war rape: but only in order to re-awaken our vision of a world that is safe for all women and girls, whatever the political conditions in which they may live.