Interfering women: Feminist thoughts on nonviolent interventions

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Feature by Kate Witham

Send in 1000 grandmothers, sang Holly Near, in response to Natos bombing of Yugoslavia wonderfully inspiring idea and perhaps not as bizarre as it sounds. Its certainly not a new suggestion, although as women's nonviolent interventions are seldom discussed you'd be forgiven for thinking so.

I am particularly talking about grassroots nonviolent action that either occurs or impacts across national borders, aiming to prevent violence or assist social change. Firstly I want to share some examples of women's nonviolent interventions over the last 100 years, then discuss feminist-pacifist approaches to nonviolent intervention. Additionally I have identified several gender issues in other forms of intervention; military, economic and political.

Historic interventions

In 1871 thousands of women protected the Paris Commune from invading Prussian troops through nonviolent interposition. In 1900 Emily Hobhouse raised funds for the civilian casualties (women and children) of the Boer War, travelled to South Africa to take solidarity and material support to the suffering women, and returned to Britain to publicise their plight and campaign against the inhumane war. She was later arrested trying to return to South Africa, as the British government were so embarrassed by her protests.

During the First World War Dorothy Hollins called for a women's peace expeditionary force that could interpose itself between the trenches; dressed in a quiet grey uniform and carrying a white banner whose symbol should be a dove. Following WILPF's 1915 Hague conference, envoys were sent to the heads of all European countries and the USA, in an almost successful attempt to reopen negotiations and end the war. At the end of WWI, WILPF were again the instigators of actions against the Versailles treaty, and its draconian food blockade. As well as protesting against the harsh conditions and calling for women to be involved in the negotiations, they organised practical aid collection and delivery, founding organisations such as Save the Children which are still active today. Seldom mentioned among the mixed actions of the 1950s and 60s is Dora Russell's Womens Peace Caravan of 1958, which saw a group of women travelling through every country in Europe on their way to Moscow, attempting to dispel cold war tensions.

Greenham: an inspiration

In the 1980s Greenham Womens Peace Camp inspired many internationalist actions; those that could best be described as nonviolent interventions include the peace camp at Comiso, Sicily, undertaken with local and international women, which opposed the US base sited there and local male violence against women, and supporting (not always in an appropriate or welcome way) women activists in Northern Ireland. Greenham women within Greenpeace invaded the Nevada nuclear test site to physically prevent the explosion of a British nuclear test. During the 1990s Womens Aid to former Yugoslavia (WATFY) and Womens Aid for Peace (WAFP)with their two red trucks Faith and Hysteriahave taken aid, emotional support and solidarity to peace and womens groups in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosova. The organisation Zoë links activist women in Lithuania and Britain, to inform, inspire and skill share between both groups. It is also worth noting local actions, with effects across borders, such as the Seeds of Hope Ploughshares women who disarmed a Hawk aircraft destined to be used by Indonesia for repression in East Timor.

Examples from outside Britain include visits to Vietnam from Women Strike for Peace (USA) and the hugely inspiring Women in Black, who hold public demonstrations in areas of conflict, solidarity actions in other places, and have international support networks.

A feminist-pacifist approach

So is there anything special about women's nonviolent interventions? Im not suggesting women's projects are different just because women are doing them, and many of these projects are superficially similar to mixed projects, but when undertaken with a feminist-pacifist approach new light can be shed on the dynamics, principles and effectiveness of nonviolent intervention. Feminist-pacifism includes a recognition of the links between masculinity, militarism, patriarchal domination and war, and a concern to eliminate violence in both public and private (political and domestic) spheres.

Many feminist principles have been taken on by parts of the nonviolent movement and this is reflected in the work of groups such as the Balkan Peace Team which works by consensus, without hierarchy, has gender balanced teams, and aims to model non-sexist ways of working in the field. However, many nonviolent intervention projects contain underlying or overt sexism, or replicate stereotypical gender roles. On the Mir Sada peace walk to Bosnia in 1993, for example, men dominated group discussions and patrolled the camp at night and I can think of several grassroots aid organisations where women do most of the collecting and sorting of contributions, while men dominate (the more exciting and powerful roles of) delivery and distribution.

Several of the examples of feminist nonviolent interventions have humanitarian aid as a central component; a materialist-feminist perspective (women have less part in creating war, and the gendered nature of their suffering goes largely unrecognised) surely adds something to the humanitarian aid debate. Women in Black have noted the important distinction between large aid organisations trapping recipients into a disempowered dependency, and groups working more on feminist principles who use aid as an empowerment tool, restoring dignity, choice and control.

Gender dynamics of peace teams

I haven't found any examples of women-only permanent peace teams; could this be because feminist interventions are less egotistical or glamorous and have more realistic goals, or simply that they are undesirable as mixed peace teams are more effective? Are gender equal teams merely a hollow gesture to political correctness? The gendered dynamics of peace teams need investigation to explore relations within the team and with target groups; single-gender teams might also fulfil a need. Protecting vulnerable activists through accompaniment is made effective by unarmed bodyguards representing the influence their home government could exert if they, or those they are accompanying are attacked. Perhaps as women hold less political power in patriarchal societies their interventions are less effective, as the concern of home governments and therefore potential leverage could be less. In situations such as Haiti where the government uses rape and sexual murder as a form of political repression, accompaniment by women would seem problematic but not necessarily inappropriate.

It could be argued that women are safer intervening in conflict zones due to masculinist notions of protecting the weaker sex, or they are at least seen as less of a threat and less likely to be mistaken for enemy fighters. However, at Greenham women found that when we step outside acceptable roles and challenge patriarchy, the response of men and the state is extreme and violent.

My country is the whole world

Peace teams are accused of being imperialist and racist as they are generally made up of white people from elite nations. Virginia Woolf suggested that as women are secondary citizens in patriarchal states, national boundaries are less relevant to them; as a woman I have no country... my country is the whole world. Could this contribute to women's interventions being less imperialist just another part of the struggle against patriarchal violence allowing a stronger solidarity and partnership between intervenors and local activists? The two-way links of Zoe's work, and the mutual support of Women in Black networks, suggest such issues are relevant in feminist interventions.

Perhaps the notion of intervention in other peoples conflicts is less relevant to women - borders are irrelevant when the greatest threat women face in any country is sexual violence from men during war or peace. A feminist definition of peace would include an absence of armed and gender conflict at home, locally and abroad. There are many gender issues that need to be explored around the issue of intervention. Without a specific gendered analysis women's experiences and needs are marginalised, and they are far too important, interesting and inspiring to do that. Hopefully I've provoked some thought without being too provocative: perhaps there are no profound conclusions to be drawn, but it seems worthwhile to at least ask some questionsI welcome comments and discussion.