This year’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGSX) Colloquium, Women in War: Object/Subject, explored the often tragic use of women to both commit and justify warfare.
The colloquium, according to Associate Professor of Political Science Sahar Shafqat, was “started by a number of faculty on campus that wanted a unique intellectual experience in Women’s studies.” The committee created for this year’s colloquium, headed by Shafqat and Professor of History Gail Savage, chose the theme of women in war in part because , according to Shafqat, “the intersection of [WGSX and war is … ] very timely and frankly a very urgent topic that needed to be discussed.” She added that the topic had also come up many times before as a possibility.
This year’s colloquium, which took place on Wednesday March 23 and Thursday March 24, consisted of four speakers connected by their focus on women in wartime.
The first colloquium lecture was led by Isis Nusair, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and International Studies at Denison University in Ohio. Her presentation, titled Gendering the Narratives of Three Generation of Palestinian Women in Israel, focused on how Palestinian women define themselves and their culture in light of the ongoing Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Nusair, having conducted more than 100 interviews with Palestinian women, stated that many had experienced war first-hand and throughout most of their lives. Their narratives, according to her, focused on two major themes: the imposition of the Israeli government on their economic opportunities and personal well-being and the ever-increasing surveillance over their bodies by men in the communities with which they identified.
Nusair said many of the women interviewed emphasized the loss of their home and land. Second generation women in particular reported an experience of being “under siege” and “crushed” by the Israel government, and living in communities in which the fear of possible rape by outsiders or cultural assimilation of more liberal Israeli values may make them “loose” and embarrass the men in their communities. She added that the third generation in particular was most willing to adopt some Israeli values of feminism, but still felt the need to protect their bodies and still maintained a communal rather than national affiliation.
The second colloquium lecture, titled Collateral Image: Portrait of Iraqi Refugees, was by documentary photographer Gabriela Bulisova. Her focus was on the under-reported situation of close to five million Iraqis who have been displaced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. According to Bulisova, many of these displaced women and men had to flee because they had helped the U.S. during invasion and largely left without protection or assistance from the U.S. government.
Many of her pictures, which were also on display in the Montgomery Hall Upper Commons during a reception the day before, highlighted the turmoil these people had faced as a result of their choice to help the United States. Many of the refugees photographed and interviewed lived in squalid conditions with few opportunities for employment or money as a result of their status as illegal aliens. Many also had experienced estrangement from or the death of their friends and family as a result of their fleeing Iraq.
The third colloquium lecture, titled Neither Battle Field Nor Home Front: The Liminality of Women in Early American Warfare, Real and Imagined, was led by Assistant Professor of History at Macalester College Andrea Robertson Cremer. Cremer took a historical approach to the use of women as justification of war against Native Americans. Shafqat said, “we wanted to be very sure … not to just make this colloquium about the here and now.”
Cremer’s lecture centered around the idea that warfare is as much a matter of rhetorical justification as it is actual combat. The “purity” of women was often an excuse used to justify the Peaquot War. She noted that women on both sides of the divide were often kidnapped as a form of leverage, and that “rape function[ed] as a primary tool of coercion and conquest [for colonialists].”
Her study was on “women’s Indian captivity narratives,” a collection of very popular semi-biographical stories about women who were kidnapped or captured by American Indians and, at least according to the telling of these stories, forced to guard their own purity and chastity against their captors. Cremer added, however, that these stories were often either written or at least approved by men, and were therefore likely edited to accentuate the justification for violence against the Peaquots.
Her specific study, however, was of the off-hand captivity narrative of a Peaquot woman at the hands of the colonialists. Using the narrative of this woman, she demonstrated how, in wishing to protect herself and her children, she was not only acting with her personal well-being and chastity in mind (as these stories are usually portrayed), but as a shrewd political negotiator trying to maintain the political power of her family and tribe.
The final lecture, titled A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice, was to be given by the Afghan politician, teacher, and activist Malalai Joya. However, according to Shafqat, Joya could not attend; she had been denied a visa by the United States government due to her living “underground.” Shafqat noted that Joya has to live in hiding as a result of multiple death threats she has experienced since speaking against other members of the corrupt Afghani Parliament, and that she is in fact “the kind of woman that our government claims to want to protect.”
In her recorded message to those in attendance, Joya noted that despite the fact that the United States government had used the “liberation of women” as part of the justification for the beginning and continuation of the war in Afghanistan, and that she herself had initially been hopeful, the occupation had in no way improved the rights or lives of women. She added that the only possible solution would begin with the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan. Joya also discussed her status in Parliament, and how the fact that she simply spoke up against the oppression of women in the country was enough to be forced out of government and into hiding.
In a later interview, Shafqat explained that Joya had actually received a visa shortly before the colloquium after the United States government saw substantial public pressure. Though the visa was granted too late for her to make the colloquium, Shafqat confirmed that Joya will be speaking on campus Wednesday, April 13.
At the end of Joya’s video, the three presenters at the colloquium sat down to discuss the striking similarities between each of their topics. Cremer said, “there are so many parallels between women of the 17th and 18th century and today…[the] legislation and language used to describe victims has not changed.” She added that the “liberation” motto and the rhetoric of American imperialism is still very present in the notion of “American exceptionalism” present today.
Shafqat said the next WGSX colloquium is already in the planning stages and that the topic will be Women and AIDS.