The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

“Women as Prey” in Guinea

October 8, 2009

Though my post about serious issues in IR through gendered lenses got less attention than tongue-and-cheek discussion with Dan Drezner, it has been almost impossible to ignore gender in the news the last couple of days, so I think I’ll re-try blogging about gender and IR.

The New York Times led a story yesterday, front page, above the fold, called “In a Guinea Seized by Violence, Women as Prey” and followed it up with an article called “US Envoy Protests the Violence in Guinea” later online.

The article recounts that “women were the particular targets” of “rapes, beatings, and acts of intentional humiliation,” further evidenced by the public distribution of humiliating rape pictures taken on a cell phone. Adam Nossiter, the author of the article notes that at least 157 people were killed in the breakup of a protest on Sept. 28, “but even more than the shootings, the attacks on women, horrific anywhere, but viewed with particular revulsion in Muslim countries like this one – appear to have traumatized the citizenry …” Witnesses testified to seeing several rapes, including gang-rapes and the combination of sexual violence and beatings.

Nossiter explains that “rape is a fairly common tool of military repression in Africa, but large-scale violence against women has not been a previous government tactic here.” The article concludes with Guinean sources calling for the junta to lose power as a result of this behavior, and the follow-up article quotes U.S. envoys and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking a similar stance.

There’s an obvious point for those who would see IR through gendered lenses here: women’s rights. What happened to the women who were raped in Guinea is terrible, fraught with gender subordination, violent, and should never happen to anyone ever again.

It would be a mistake for gender analysis of this situation and the news stories portraying it to stop there, however.

Through gender lenses, I’m interested in the question of how it came to be that “rape is a fairly common tool of military repression” (the article adds “in Africa,” but most research on wartime rape shows that the prevalence of rape as a weapon of war is not geographically or culturally limited). What is it about rape that makes it an effective tool of repression and war-fighting (or, if not effective, perceived as effective or desirable)?

I don’t think its possible to understand that question without reference to the gendered nature of war (see the work of Carol Cohn, Ann Tickner, Cynthia Enloe, etc.). There are a number of different tools in this literature to help to understand and analyze this reporting about the situation in Guinea. With limited time and blog space, here’s just one idea:

The argument that Jean Elshtain originated (and which has been built on by my work, Iris Marion Young’s, and Lauren Wilcox’s, among others) that expected roles in war are distributed on the basis of gender (where men are expected to be “just warriors” who bravely defend and protect women “beautiful souls” who are at once innocent of war but its casus belli), is instructive here. If one side’s warriors are motivated by proving their masculinity (that’s Joshua Goldstein’s argument, and protecting the feminized “other” at home, then it makes sense that the other side would want to “get” the (symbolic and actual) motivation that its opponent is fighting “for” – wartime rape (and rape in the context of oppression, like that reported in Guinea), then, can be seen targeting the (symbolic and actual) “heart” of the enemy.

In the book I am writing right now, Gendering Global Conflict (for Columbia University Press), I make the argument that women are a Clausewitzian center of gravity. According to Clausewitz, a center of gravity is something that is the “heart and soul” of a belligerent – that is, that it must have to win the war and that its opponent eliminate and thereby eliminate that belligerent’s will or ability to fight. The uniqueness of the Clausewitzian concept is that, unlike many theorists who followed him, Clausewitz recognized that a center of gravity does not have to be entirely material, but, instead, can be symbolic or representational. I argue that feminist analysis shows that (innocent, civilian) women are that thing – the thing that a belligerent’s soldiers fight for and without whom war has no justification. This is both because innocent women are a casus belli, and because they are seen as producers/reproducers of the nation. This logic also tells us something about when belligerents attack “their opponents'” civilians – belligerents attack civilians as a proxy for women (and sometimes women civilians directly, e.g., wartime rape) in order to attack and dismantle opponents’ center-of-gravity/will to fight. This explanation accounts for attacks on civilians in a more complex and nuanced way than belligerent desparation, and accounts for other observable phenomena (like claims that wars are being fought for innocent women, and genocidal rape).

+ posts

Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.