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Women Doing Peace

Women in Peace Politics edited by Paula Banerjee, South Asian Peace Studies: Volume 3 (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2008;

Women Doing Peace

Rajashri Dasgupta

ost of south Asia has faced the universal realities of violence, war and armed conflict. With every conflict or terrorist attack, people’s worst fears are confirmed: their governments resort to even more draconian laws, implement tighter immigration controls against the “outsider”, expend their limited resources on sophisticated arms and race to stock up their nuclear arsenals to deter the so-called “enemy”. But experience has repeatedly shown that these aggressive measures have not only failed to instil greater confidence and a feeling of security among the people, they have actually reinforced greater distrust, hatred, fear and heightened paranoia in the region. On the one hand, these policies inevitably lead to the shrinking of democratic space for citizens, whether in India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, and on the other, harden the religious divide between ethnic groups and nurture feelings of b elligerent nationalism.

In the aftermath of the violent terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, India and Pakistan predictably fell into the same trap of outdoing each other in making matters worse for their people in the region. With the blame game escalating into threats of war, people continue to suffer as both Islamabad and Delhi impose severe restrictions on people’s movements across the borders. As the atmosphere increasingly vitiates, religious minorities fearing for their personal safety have gone on record, to profess loudly their patriotism and allegiance to their country. But whether in Kashmir or during the recent events in Mumbai, both the governments of India and Pakistan have missed the wisdom one had hoped the two governments would have acquired through past experience. It is a key lesson that the phenomenon that is termed as terrorism is also a political phenomenon, a problem that cannot be dealt with by military might alone.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 28, 2009

book review

Women in Peace Politics edited by Paula Banerjee,

South Asian Peace Studies: Volume 3 (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2008; pp 323, Rs 450.

It is in this context that the book, Women in Peace Politics, edited by Paula Banerjee, is so refreshing to read. The volume does not deal with lofty treatises of governments and game theories that policymakers love to spin, or claim grand solutions for conflict resolutions. Instead, it challenges the existing notion that the only effective way of dealing with violence

– in the name of people’s peace and security – is more violence. It breaks myths about the dominant ideas of peace expounded by national and international security establishments, which argue that the cessation of war or armed conflict, undeniably great impediments, is equated with peace. The book, in fact, highlights how in the process of their daily existence, ordinary women implement peace, refusing to abandon the peace process to the sole monopoly of the State and the machinations of its blinkered functionaries. Women in Peace Politics has also attempted to reflect the aspirations of women for their rights and in their search for justice and democracy against the backdrop of national and community liberation struggles, even as leaders of movements continue to ignore their specific needs and interests.

It is in the struggle against everyday injustice, violence and gender inequality, that the issue of peace for women acquires an inclusive, multidimensional significance; the emphasis shifts, depending on the location. Thus, peace could imply food for women in impoverished Rwanda, employment in turmoil-ridden Kashmir, absence of the sound of gunfire in N agaland, or a few hours of undisturbed sleep in Kosovo. The experiences with everyday violence – “violence continuum” as Radhika

vol xliv no 9

Coomaraswamy, formerly the UN Special Rapporteur of Violence Against Women so succinctly puts it – endow women not only with an empathy with victims of violence, but also the will to strive for the eradica

tion of all forms of violence.

This “responsiveness” to situations is not to argue that women are the sole and perpetual victims of violence, or are by nature peaceful. While there is an immediate need to address the horrific violence inflicted on women and the immense hardships they face during periods of conflict, the rhetoric of male-aggressor/ female-victim reinforces the image of women as completely powerless, instead of recognising their potential as survivors and agents of change in society. To glorify women as “natural” peace lovers is to deny that women can be as brutal as men; women can be perpetrators of unspeakable violence was revealed in Gujarat in 2002, and earlier in Bombay during the 1992-93 riots and elsewhere, acquiring social status either by default or as reward.

Three Sections

Peace Politics is the third volume in the South Asian Peace Studies series. The volume is organised in three sections: ideas and ideologies, movements, and voices, each with a separate introduction by different authors. Since the essays are based on women’s experiences with politics in the south Asian region, the inclusion of the interview with the Palestinian spokesperson, Hannan Ashrawi, and the lecture-article by C ynthia Cockburn on women’s experiment with alliances based on political and moral values in the context of Cyprus, is somewhat puzzling.

What is somewhat disconcerting is that out of 17 articles and poems in the volume, more than half are reprints from other journals and books. This is not to argue that the reprints are irrelevant to the topic. Some, like Afterword, an extract from We Were Making History, 1989 is a gem, and “Islam, Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Pakistan: 1981-1991” and “Nego tiating Peace” are valuable inclusions in the volume. Nevertheless, the basis of


s election and the reason for critical emphasis on reprints is not at all made clear to the reader. Does this indicate a dearth of feminist scholarship in peace research, gaps that one had hoped was being assiduously bridged with continuing peace activism?

Among the new pieces, one of the most contentious is Samir Das’ “Ethnicity and Democracy Meet When Mothers Protest” under the “Ideas” section. Since motherhood is a conveyor of patriarchy and a metaphor not new to Indian politics, it would perhaps have been challenging to probe the potential of peace politics in the region beyond the trope of motherhood. Many feminists and writers have consistently argued that although Meiti groups like the Meira Paibis, the Naga Mothers’ Association, or organisations of mothers in Kashmir and Sri Lanka, have shown exceptional courage, they are limited in their vision and have failed to question the power of patriarchy. These groups, they point out, are at the core organisations of women, but not necessarily for women.

Challenging these arguments, the point Das argues is that the emotive rhetoric of motherhood is used in the north-eastern states as a political strategy for social resistance. He cautions that the uniqueness of the movements will be missed if one fails to view the issue of motherhood as an “entry point” for the women in the region to steer through the complex conflicts between gender and ethnic identities. This is perfected by the mothers simultaneously to protect themselves from extreme State repression and at the same time make peace interventions against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. Women as mothers, Das points out, have repeatedly protested and agitated not only for the security and safety of their own children, but also for other victims of atrocities and violence, thus transforming the dominant notion of maternal care into one of political action. But even in the fight against the hated Act, why various mothers’ groups have failed to forge a partnership, so crucial in the struggle for lasting peace, remains a concern.

As elsewhere, the subjugation of w omen in the north-east simultaneously involves their deification. This is because patriarchy speaks with a “forked tongue” to women, points out Kalpana Kannabiran in her introduction to the section on Movements. A powerful example is the movement of the women in Manipur protesting State atrocities, when it took an unprecedented turn on 15 July 2004. About a dozen of them bared themselves in front of the army headquarters with the s tunning banner, “Indian Army Rape Us”. This act, says Kannabiran, hurls back at the perpetrators the shame and humiliation the women in the region have repeatedly faced in the hands of the army, in ways that “rock the complacency of the habitual masculine appropriation of female sexuality”.

Sri Lankan Experience

The experience of organisations in Sri Lanka in using the motif of motherhood has been diametrically different and conflicting. The group, Mothers and Daughters,


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that was formed to take on the challenges of militant nationalism and State authoritarianism, disintegrated, faced with the dilemma of having to deal with the intrusion of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, and Tamil and Sinhala nationalism. The Sinhala Mother Front that was instrumental in highlighting state violations of human rights was co-opted and later collapsed. Saro Thirupathy and Nirekha De Silva in Women in Sri Lanka Peace Politics, argue that, one among several reasons for failure is that the Front did not call upon groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to stop violence or disarm; it also never built on the “cosmopolitanness” of inter-ethnic and religious solidarity (perhaps a lesson for us in the north-east?).


For similar reasons, the Jaffna Mothers Front failed because it was unable to sustain women’s activism and aspirations for peace in the direction of the peace process. However, the article still provides an informative overview of the involvement of women in the State’s war with the LTTE, maps the various organisations and personalities which campaigned for peace, and discusses the role of women in militarisation and their position in the LTTE and the army.

The thrust of Megha Guha Thakurta’s “Minorities, Women and Peace”, based on her readings of Bangladesh, has import in understanding peace politics in south Asia. Against the backdrop of oppression of vulnerable groups such as



ethnic and religious minorities, Guha Thakurta criticises development discourse of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that tends to be both ahisto rical and apolitical, while simultaneously hijacking the political issues.

The book is no doubt a contribution to the growing body of significant work on peace politics started in India by feminist author-publishers Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia, and Rita Manchanda among

o thers. As women become prominent players in the peace process, we look forward to fresh insights into women’s contribution and their role in determining the agenda of peace-building in the region.






Economic & Political Weekly

february 28, 2009 vol xliv no 9

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