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NATIONAL | winter 2007

War Through a Feminist Lens
An African scholar reflects on a U.S. gathering to confront militarism

Feminism and War conference posterAfter almost a year in the U.S. as a visiting feminist scholar, I was more than ready for a conference on “Feminism and War” at Syracuse University this past fall. The “complex and contested relationship” between the two was the overriding theme, and in attendance would be a race-, class- and age-diverse group of more than 400 women—anti-war activists and academics— from around the world.

By the time a colleague and I landed in icy-cold and rainy central New York, anti-feminist forces were positioned around the Syracuse campus, shouting pro-war rhetoric and marking the space with familiar right-wing propaganda. But we escaped to the warmth of the evening’s public speeches, attended by more than a thousand women and men from the community and delivered by peace activist Cindy Sheehan and feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe. Both raised the emotionally charged issues of pervasive social militarization in this country, increasing militarism and violence in U.S. schools, and a war budget that defies imagination, even as millions of U.S. citizens lack basic health care, adequate nutrition and shelter, and the most minimal requirements for a dignified life.

The three-day conference gave feminist voice to the most urgent political matters of the day. We debated, for example, the ways in which war and religion oppress and exclude women, and how issues of identity are easily conflated into belief systems. At the “Rally Against Iraqi War and Occupation,” justice activist Angela Davis spoke in a local park about the necessity of resisting the seduction of right-wing propaganda associated with “homeland security” and “terrorism.” She discussed ways in which feminism could better engage with notions of security and community.

The notion of resisting war as an aggression against all people, and the courage required to make peace durable and inclusive, resonated in many of the presentations. In this sense, the conference wasn’t only about the Iraq War: It was also about Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia and Lebanon, to name a few of the societies that have been ravaged by war. The African continent, in particular, has experienced a brutality so egregious that it boggles the mind. At least 3.8 million, for example, have died in horrific circumstances in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a society that had been crushed by a fascist dictator who was installed and propped up by the U.S. and Belgium so that the country’s wealth could be plundered by Western corporations. The same sentiments and greed drive wars in a multitude of other places— some in which peoples’ pain and humanity have not yet entered the imaginations of U.S. citizens.

Ithaca College professor and author Zillah Eisenstein and peace activist Huibin Chew offered analyses of how war has served as a pillar of “Western democracy” and maintains Americans’ “way of life”—a notion seldom critiqued even by feminists who disavow violence and impunity. But feminists everywhere need to make the connections between accepted ideas of Western civilization and the reality of war as plunder.

Several scholarly presentations raised the idea of using war to “civilize The Other,” while a paper by Patrice N. Delvante of Simmons College linked Abu Ghraib with the history of lynchings in the U.S. But none of the scholarly papers asked the deeply troubling question of who the “we” is in arguments about whether war is necessary in the face of a perceived “terrorist” threat. Critical scholars have long known that the U.S. and other Western states label as terrorists those who fight for freedom from imperial and corporate occupation, yet the question of how to craft a feminist analysis that avoids conservative notions about “the dangerous Other” remained largely unanswered.

Many of the presentations pointed out the deeply misogynistic practices and beliefs of men on both sides of military divides. These men agree on one thing, if nothing else: that women should be kept in the Dark Ages through religious and ideological fundamentalism. Feminists also discussed the resurgence of conservative, deeply contested notions of motherhood and mothering that have been mobilized by the anti-war movement, specifically around the personal campaigns led by Sheehan and organizations like CODEPINK. Such campaigns raise the inevitable tensions associated with personal grief and the national deployment of a society’s youth in the service of destruction and imperial hubris.

The imperative of the conference was that intellectuals and activists begin to imagine and craft a feminist worldview that makes clear how militarism has become an all-too-acceptable way of being. At the same time, it aspired to present a defiant and sustainable alternative that is humane and respectful of all forms of life. These are goals that will persist within the feminist movement for the next year, decade and lifetime of those who continue to challenge state impunity and patriarchal arrogance.

Patricia McFadden, born in Swaziland and an activist against apartheid in southern Africa, is the Endowed Cosby Chair in the Social Sciences at Spelman College. She was a plenary speaker at the conference