Early this year, an improvement in French-Rwandan relations led to the French government finally beginning to take note that many of the most serious war criminals in the 1994 Rwandan genocide were living in France without having been tried or punished for their crimes. The French government’s previous apathy towards these suspects was part of a long list o problems with accountability for the genocide in other states, internationally (in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), and within Rwandan courts.
The last couple of days, a particular (accused) participant in the genocide has been in the news – Agathe Habyarimana, spouse of former (assassinated) Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. Agathe, one of the women discussed in Caron Gentry and my Mothers, Monsters, Whores book, is accused of complicity with and perpetration of the genocide (as well as, in certain circles, participation in her husband’s assassination). The French government flew her out of Rwanda in the summer of 1994, and has arrested her for genocide this week, nearly 16 years later.
There are all sorts of interesting questions surrounding the French government’s sudden cooperativeness in prosecuting Rwandan war criminals generally, and in this high-profile case particularly, concerning the nature of the conflict, ethnic relations, post-colonial relations, the nature of truth and reconciliation, and Rwanda’s future prospects for peace and even prosperity. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the narrow topic of gendered representations of Agathe ….
Caron Gentry and I have observed that women engaged in proscribed violence are often portrayed either as ‘mothers’, women who are fulfilling their biological destinies; as ‘monsters’, women who are pathologically damaged and are therefore drawn to violence; or as ‘whores’, women whose violence is inspired by sexual dependence and depravity. Each narrative carries with it the weight of gendered assumptions about what is appropriate female behavior. In these terms, a woman who commits proscribed violence, in her home or in global politics, has committed a double transgression: the crime and her disregard of a gender stereotype which denies her mental capacity to commit such a crime.
The portrayals of Agathe Habyarimana that focus on whether she is worthy of a widow’s pity, her emotional fragility and maternal nature, and exoticism have gendered elements. Those gendered elements play out in the ways Agathe’s (and other women’s) “innocence” and “guilt” are discussed, in understandings about gender roles in the genocide-era and post-genocide Rwandan society, and in the increasing representation of women in Rwandan civil society and government.
In fact, coverage of Agathe’s arrest goes side by side with coverage of Rwanda’s election of the first woman-majority parliament in history. Looking back at the genocide and looking around at the complexities of gender and political life in Rwanda today, it is obvious that women can at once be victims and perpetrators; and women can make advances in some areas while experiencing setbacks in others shows “the status of women” is a much more complicated and multidirectional construct than it appears in either the idealist or Orientalist accounts. The “status of women” in Rwanda cannot be explained either by referencing women’s increased participation in politics nor by ignoring it; instead, it is important to note that the story is not only women reconstructing Rwanda but also Rwanda reconstructing women/femininity. The reconstructed subject of the traditional woman needs to be deconstructed in order to understand, continue, and complete the project of the reconstruction of the Rwandan state. Dealing with Agathe’s contribution to the genocide in gendered ways is one piece of that puzzle.