Looking back in history, the last decade of the Cold War was a very happening time. As the curtain slowly drew on the Cold War, the world theatre appeared a kaleidoscope of different hues and developments. If authoritarians such as Nicolae Ceaușescu were the cold and grim reality of Eastern Europe, people worldwide were won over and fondly reminisced the stellar performance by the world’s youngest gymnast Nadia Comenaci, whose world records at the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a fifteen year old remain unparalleled. Across the globe, the humanitarian plight and devastation wreaked on Afghanistan and the resilience of its people in the last battlefield of the Cold War was emblematically reflected through the mysterious green-eyed Afghan refugee girl who graced the cover of June 1985 National Geographic. The nameless Afghan Girl became the icon of what and how the West perceived Afghanistan under the Soviet invasion: a mystery land which appears invincible to outsiders yet holds immense depth and promise in its rugged beauty.
The end of the Cold War transformed the face of conflict, no longer the discourse centered around bipolar superpower rivalry which had valiant hand reared mujahedeen bringing the mighty Soviets down. The invincible dictators were being killed by common people, Nadia Comenaci a woman in her thirties defected her beloved homeland in the mortal fear of her life and safety, an anonymous Chinese youth became the icon of defiance as he bravely held his ground in front of the rolling armory of the Communist party. The kaleidoscope now holds images of a three year old Alan Kurdi’s face down on a Turkish beach, but in an eternal sleep. Of Amal Husssain, who at the age of seven recently died in a refugee camp due to starvation, her skeletal image splashed worldwide by the New York Times, highlighting the humanitarian plight did create an international outcry, similar to young Alan Kurdi but neither could move the global powers from wreaking further havoc. Both these children represent countless others facing the cruel reality of contemporary conflict worldwide. In search of the icons of resilience, the mysterious Afghan girl was tracked down with much difficulty in 2002 in a remote region of Afghanistan, now a woman in her thirties. The eyes still their vivid hues of green, now reflected the plight of countless other Afghan women, displaced from their homeland, living the lives of refugees, facing the ravages of conflict, the death, destruction, personal losses, trauma and poverty, which becomes a part of their being.
The trailblazers of yesteryears such as Laila Khalids and Hanan Ashrawis have paved way for a generation of young women today, Malala Yusufzai, Ahed Tamimi, Nadia Murad and many others, who are known to all, courtesy the overarching power of social media. Notwithstanding, their sacrifices and contributions alone are a sufficient source of recognition and appreciation. Furthermore, sexual violence as a weapon of war gained worldwide recognition, owing to the relentless efforts of Dr. Denis Mukwege from Congo. Affectionately known as Dr. Miracle, Mukwege who shares the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize with Ms. Murad, in the last two decades has been helping women recover from the violence and trauma of sexual abuse and rape in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Terming rape as a true Weapon of Mass Destruction, these people have more than often put their personal security at risk by courageously combating war crimes and seeking justice for the victims. Rape, physical abuse, slavery, sexual violence, women at risk during war are neither new aspects nor are being explored the first time. However, the realization that war and conflict are not an exclusive space restricted to men in arms has set in and that the male dominated discourse is a lens that needs to be altered and corrected.
Women even when at the center stage of discourse on security and conflict, have usually been showcased as victims whether affected directly or indirectly often portrayed as an inanimate liability and collateral of conflict that needs to be dealt with and settled. In addition to being civilian non combatants, women comprise a major percentage of directly affected population. They also endure the indirect brunt of war as mothers, daughters, wives and may have a persona other than hapless victims. Women are and may also be perpetrators, combatants or participants. As decision makers, they could influence the conduct and consequence of conflict. This lens remains unifocal, primarily because the discourse on security and conflict has long been driven and defined from a masculine perspective. The women practitioners in the field have been fewer and those who have aspired to reach the higher echelons of decision making, usually hit a glass ceiling. Majority of women practitioners and academics in the field of security studies, in order to claim the limited space accorded to them, take conformist, pre-defined positions mimicking the established narrative which is hardly a gender-neutral discourse, and try to appear to be man enough to earn respect and rank.
While categorizing women in conflict, the most direct reference point is women as victims. The most direct consequence of conflict to the person of women ranges from harassment, abandonment, displacement, loss of protection and livelihood, to the more heinous actions such as rape, physical abuse, slavery and girl child soldiering to name a few. Women in refugee or displaced citizens’ camps have been regularly subjected to harassment and abuse. Not only women of all ages stand vulnerable, girl child marriages in such camps are a very common occurrence. Access to education, medical aid (even in extreme critical cases), queuing up for daily rations and toilet facilities become a perpetual challenge and adds to the abuse which is endemic in such places. With male members either engaged in active combat or falling victim to it, women are compelled to redefine their role assignment as the sole bread earners, often finding employment as laborers or tillers, stepping out of their zones of modesty and comfort. The atrocities wreaked in Indian occupied Kashmir, paved way for a new conflict lexicon comprising terms such as half widows and widow villages (Dardpura, Hari) and children of conflict.
Women pushed into or voluntarily joining militant ranks, girl/ women child soldiering, or those involved in trafficking, are a subject of regular abuse and sexual violence. A pattern which is visible in almost all conflict zones is that women are the choice targets of regime oppression. The attendant consequences of conflict such as male members facing disabilities, loss of livelihood or losing male child to militant cadres brings about an overall structural transformation as a direct consequence of conflict. While it is understandable that reestablishing normalcy in a post-conflict ravaged society is by no means a small task, however, very little effort goes into addressing the impact of trauma, loss and abuse on the mental health of women. In a post-conflict environment, women generally fade into the background as comfort providers and caregivers, but hardly any narratives support their life stories of how they rationalize and overcome their own trauma let alone that associated with the entire family that depends on them.
Despite the gradual acceptance of young women joining armed forces in combat cadres, the concept of women as combatants or perpetrators as part of informal militia is tabooed. In the 2007 Lal Masjid incident, female students of the affiliate Jamia Hafza madrassa formed the first line of defence, equipped with sticks and stones buying their male comrades time to arm and take positions. They also toured the neighborhood as part of the vigilante brigade preaching and at times enforcing the norms of morality and virtue. At the height of the wave of militancy and terrorism, there have been several suicide bombing incidents attributed to women but there were no official confirmations primarily due to cultural sensitivities related to post-mortem details of females but also that it would have taken the conflict narrative in a different dimension. It was widely noted in the press that women in Swat collected funds, happily volunteered their jewelry and championed the militant leader Fazal ullah’s cause. The reality of female Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bombing squads and their proactive role in the Tamil insurgency has been widely accepted globally. However, in Pakistan, despite two decades of fighting militancy and terrorism, there is neither a formal acceptance of conflict zones nor signing of the UNSC Resolution 1325 which places stipulations with regards to gender roles in peace and security.
On the other hand, there have been many success stories of women as stakeholders in peace mitigation including the recently demilitarized area of Swat after ten years of militancy and reconstruction and phased rehabilitation by the military which has seen female civil society members facilitating the armed forces in de-radicalization, reconstruction, youth rehabilitation and conflict transformation. It is important to reach out to women in these conflict zones (who themselves have been belligerents) at a personal grid, appeal to the cultural codes of women as peace emissaries and invoke traditional role of women as harbingers of peace to enlist their support in post-conflict rehabilitation and transformation efforts. Women peacemakers often appear to be more sensitive in identifying post-conflict needs, addressing grievances between warring parties and offer viable solutions to these problems through cost effective, local resources to facilitate community development in a sustainable manner.
In the changing face of security and conflict where women are mostly considered part of the problem, they also need to become part of the solution. They need to be consulted when it comes to critical decision making on issues of war, peace and security since alongside men, they also suffer just as much or more in some cases. To consider developing an alternate or gendered lens, women themselves have to self-actualize, be the instruments of change, create and claim space, and break the stereotypes. Their walk cannot be solitary. Men need to join their cause and help break these stereotypes that identify with women only as victims. The world has seen enough hardship and violence, it can certainly benefit from some soft power.
Dr. Salma Malik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Defence & Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.