Why war needs feminism — Cynthia Enloe’s keynote address at 40th anniversary of women and gender studies

The ongoing Syrian civil war is a well-known conflict, but the way that the world views it is lacking female perspective — that’s what an award-winning professor had to say during her keynote address at last week’s 40th anniversary of CU’s women and gender studies program at Norlin Library.

“Most media begin to cover it like an NFL football game,” said Cynthia Enloe, a research professor at Clark University. “There is one team, and there’s another team, and they’ve taken this town, and they’ve taken that town, and they have an air force and they don’t have an air force…”

Enloe argues that gender politics is at the center of military conflicts, and that people often fail to look at how gender issues factor into wars like the one in Syria. Wartime does not end the debates over gendered issues, and that is why Enloe, a recipient of the Susan B. Northcutt Award and author of numerous books on feminism and world politics, urges people to “ask feminist questions” about war.

In 2011, there were pro-democracy uprisings against the Syrian government — Syrian society is dominated by President Assad’s authoritarian regime, which maintains control over its partly privatized economy and allows little freedom of speech or press.

Some members of Assad’s military joined the uprising, but because the military was all-male, the armed rebel militias that developed did not include women. “Many women felt that they could not [join] or were opposed to the use of violence against violence,” Enloe said. “A lot of Syrian men were also opposed, but were more persuaded to join the rebel militias.” The initially gender-inclusive pro-democracy movement became overwhelmingly masculinized by 2012.

This January, Enloe was invited to Syrian peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, where she saw an imbalance in gender — the discussion table was full of men. “The classic and still conventional wisdom is that the men who have the guns are the only ones who can make peace. Now, who does that leave out?…In almost all civil wars…you mainly have masculinized forces facing masculinized forces.”

But during the war, Syrian women organized their communities to get access to food, continue schooling for children and provide health clinics in warzones — all despite the fact that women typically face more domestic violence during wars. Enloe said that “those things don’t just stop” because the media chooses to cover wars in a masculinized, battle-focused way.

“If you’re gonna have any resolution to these highly violent conflicts….it has to be out of these sorts of skills, these sorts of organizations, and these kinds of experiences” that women have had, Enloe said. “We have to be part of these negotiations.” But the United Nations-led peace talks denied Syrian women access. Naturally, in Enloe’s view, the talks fell apart because the men “could not come to any kind of agreement.”

For Enloe, it is critical that the world listens to women in times of conflict. “If we had more feminist analysis in, say, news coverage….we’d be smarter about how wars are actually fought.”

“Don’t just treat it as an NFL game,” Enloe said. “Treat it as a complicated, multifaceted, highly gendered but fluid political process in which there is a lot of violence. And then see if, in fact, you can become even better as local citizens….and especially see if it makes you a better citizen of the world.”
Contact CU Independent Opinion Editor Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

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