Cynthia Cockburn, 'The Space Between Us. Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict'

IssueJune - August 2001
Review by Rose Lindsey

Cynthia Cockburn's book draws on three case studies to examine how women of differing ethnicities, living in conflict zones, work together within an NGO setting, to achieve better conditions for women within their communities.

The three case studies she uses are: the Women's Support Network, Belfast, Northern Ireland; Bat Shalom of Megiddo, Nazareth and the Valleys, Israel and Palestine; and Medica Women's Therapy Centre, Zenica, central Bosnia.

In her introductory chapter “Women and Nationalism” Cockburn identifies the focus and broad themes that run through the three case studies. Although Cockburn identifies each project as founded on difference, her focus is on the methods and negotiations that have taken place amongst women, not to bridge difference, but to find a third space in which women of different ethnicities can work together. She identifies these spaces as physical, emotional, and political.

At times these spaces are contested by those using them, and by those outside of them. Cockburn's focus allows her a non-judgemental examination and acceptance of these women's engagement with, or rejection of, their “own” nationalist projects, their own particular brands of politics, and their own individual negotiations with feminism. This approach is consistent throughout the book. At the same time, however, Cockburn manages to critique the intersection of nationalism and militarism within societies in conflict, and identifies some of the effects that these phenomena have on women's lives.

Cockburn uses her final chapter to draw most of her conclusions from these case studies. There is thus a sense that the flow of the text within the case study chapters is not interrupted by too much analysis. The final chapter itself is accessible, and easy to read. For readers looking for hard-core theorising, this may be initially disappointing. Yet the underlying analysis represents a unique contribution to a body of theoretical literature on ethnicity, feminism, and difference, that will be attractive to both academics and activists. A particular strength of this book is the way in which Cockburn weaves in detailed historical knowledge, with critical understanding of theoretical debates on nationalism, feminism, and ethnicity, without ever being inaccessible to the non-academic reader. She packs an incredible amount of information into what is a relatively short and very readable text.

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