Gender Identities in Conflict

Nimmi Gowrinathan, Founder and Director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative and Visiting Professor at Columbia University, studies conflict and its impact on women’s political identities. The Journal of International Affairs spoke to Professor Gowrinathan about her research on gender identities in regions of conflict, female fighters and sexual violence.

Nimmi Gowrinathan
September 11, 2019

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Global Feminism is a debated nomenclature. With the course of feminist movements being largely dependent on their unique social, cultural and geographical contexts, how then, in your opinion, should Global Feminism be defined?

Nimmi Gowrinathan (NG): The idea of a “one universal feminism” is very difficult to achieve. Particularly at the present moment, I’m not sure what such an aspiration would achieve politically. I think that there should be space for multiple, complimentary, feminisms. My interest is really in a kind of situated feminism. For instance, how does one get to, first, understand the positioning of women in the global south under multiple layers of repression? I talk about it in terms of concentric circles of captivity: family, community, culture and the state. It is essential to understand the view from this position and acknowledge it. It is from this space that one should be able to see other women similarly situated in the United States, Europe, and other contexts. I think that you understand the deep, layered, oppression that so many women are under; the work of identifying sources of repression in itself becomes an important political through-line linking these communities and their women. Resistance has to emerge from a situated kind of feminism, which is why I hesitate to say that any one form of feminism could be universal.

JIA: In militarized regions, the identities of individuals are largely political in nature. Is there then a place for gender identities in regions of conflict?

NG: I do not think that there is a separate gendered identity outside of political identities. I think that in militarized regions, in which I would include the United States, political identities are formed based on experience, and most experiences of repression are deepened by gender. So, gender is inextricably linked to the political identity that is formed in reaction to militarization. I do not see that as a separate identity – rather one, complex, political (and politicized) identity. I believe that mobilization happens along political lines. Where gender plays a role is in the politics that are formed. Even in the initial stages where people do mobilize around purely gendered identities (violence against women for example), I believe that in order for that to be effective, eventually, those will have to take on a more politicized form (addressing the root causes of violence).

JIA: “Deviarchy” is the name of your online platform, where you expand on the work you have done as a scholar, humanitarian, advocate, researcher and scholar. What is Deviarchy? What are its primary postulates?

NG: Deviarchy means a conscious resistance to rule, in various forms. It is the collective that we work under. Fundamentally my work is on the female fighter. The reason that I am drawn to studying female fighters, aside from personal reasons, is that I find it to be a subject that can force an acknowledgement of the political impact of what we see as women’s issues or women’s rights issues. That is to say, understanding how factors such as sexual violence or militarization shape the politics of women, not just the socioeconomic marginalization or psychiatric affect, but in how their experiences distinctively shape their politics. My work at the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative focuses on identifying how one should mobilize these politics. Currently, most interventions with women in the developing world are really one dimensional and are available for women who are identified on the basis of their trauma, rather than recognizing that this same trauma has shifted her politics. As a researcher, educator, writer, and activist my political project is to continually reveal the distinctive politics that we fail to willingly acknowledge that women have.

JIA: Could you give us an example of your work with the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative at City College?

NG: We worked on a paper called “Emissaries of Empowerment”, which looks at how the empowerment framework is fundamentally flawed in its approach to women, where rehabilitation includes giving out sewing machines and pastry carts, which essentially tries to re-feminize women and, in the process, de-politicizes them. This is especially stark when I see ex-combatants, who are highly politicized, being offered trite opportunities like beauty salons. Our work is trying to create the space for women to have these distinctive politics and also identify the barriers in gender programming that prevent them from being able to articulate these politics.

JIA: You discuss the impact that militarization has on lives of Tamil women in Sri Lanka and the evidence showing that the efforts to protect women from sexual harassment often result in undermining their political and economic agency. What measures could be taken to provide women with the necessary protection from sexual violence, while also strengthening their economic and political agency?

NG: Sexual violence, I think, is sometimes extracted from its political context. Looking at Sri Lanka, particularly during the war, you can see that sexual violence is very much a political tool. A lot of the women that I interviewed either were raped or knew that they would be. It is important to acknowledge that this idea of inevitability for a lot of women drives them to take up arms. In the United States we are now seeing the rise of black women taking up arms, which I discuss with Kimberle Crenshaw in the Female Fighter Series at Guernica Magazine. The desire to protect oneself is very a clear motivator for taking up arms. After the end of the war in Sri Lanka, the question of protection for Tamil women is very clearly tied to military occupation – while political action of any kind remains a risk for all Tamils. There is an urgent need to increasingly expand the context in which one sees issues not just as gender or human rights concerns, but also as issues that are deeply entrenched in a broader political context.