The Politics of Research on Trauma – A Gendered Perspective

29 November 2017, 1436 EST

The following is a guest post by Ayelet Harel-Shalev and Shir Daphna-Tekoah.  

Ayelet Harel-Shalev is a Senior Lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her academic interests include Feminist IR; Women Combatants; Ethnic Conflicts and Democracy; Minority Rights; and Women and Politics. @harelayelet

Shir Daphna-Tekoah is a Senior Lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College, and Kaplan Medical Center.  Her academic interests include Gender, Health and Violence; Women Combatants; Child Abuse and Neglect; Dissociation and Trauma.

In the era of the #MeToo campaign, we call for critical thinking about trauma and suggest engagement with a variety of women’s narratives of trauma. We take our cue from Cynthia Enloe’s advice to scholars to seek questions that are thus far unidentified in International Relations and Political Science. In these spaces of query and in these silences,  she notes, one will often find politics.

When one evaluates the history of Trauma Studies, it becomes evident that this field of study was triggered by wars, combat, and their attendant political developments. The study of trauma started by examining the exposure of men to combat experiences. The resulting body of work was subsequently complemented by studies of the trauma of women and children as abused victims. Current knowledge about trauma, therefore, stems from studies on combat men and victim women.

In a parallel line of scholarly endeavor, Judith Herman (1992) holds that the systematic study of psychological trauma was initiated as a result of the evolvement of political movements and political events. She put forward the idea that political developments are interrelated with the development of the field of psychology. Herman further reflected that the study of war trauma gained momentum and advanced rapidly only after the growth of antiwar movements, particularly during the Vietnam War. Similarly, the study of trauma in sexual and domestic life intensified only after human rights and feminist women’s rights movements brought this topic to global awareness.

The gradual opening of combat roles to women in the past two decades was also initiated by struggle of various feminist political movements. And yet, to date, studies on the psychological trauma of combatants have focused mainly on the experiences of men. Moreover, rather than incorporating the combat trauma of women into the mainstream of trauma studies, studies on women combatants’ trauma have related mainly to sexual assault and its affects, thereby relegating women to the ‘victim’ or ‘powerless’ categories.

As Critical Studies, Feminist Security Studies and Feminist International Relations (IR), move forward from the traditional realms of IR, they offer different means to study war and combat. These approaches suggest that conceptualizing war and conflict should include the analysis of war as a subset of social relations of experiences, investigating underlying political hierarchies and exposing power relations within a militarist patriarchal structure. In following this path, we suggest an additional critical perspective on the study of trauma.

It is thus obvious that a deeper understanding of trauma and women combatants’ trauma is urgently needed. We believe that listening to women combatants who have experienced traumatic events in combat may serve to enhance our understanding of women exposed to trauma not merely as victims of abuse. Since women combatants are exposed to experiences that are similar to those of men combatants in war zones, there is a need to examine an additional perspective on trauma, one that focuses on women as those who have, by the very nature of their roles in the military, experienced traumatic events, while struggling to integrate into the military hierarchy. Some of these women combatants also face the additional trauma of sexual harassment. Yet, combat women should not be regarded as a homogeneous group, as they experienced life-threatening events in various ways and their reactions to the trauma differed, as did their functioning in the battlefield and in danger zones.

One should remember that the study of trauma should not be disconnected from social-cultural processes and political critique. Although more and more combat positions have been opened to women in the past two decades, the heated debate as to suitability of women for combat continues to rage. Yet, studies of women’s trauma in the context of armed conflicts and wars have been confined to a number of specific topics, namely, sexual harassment of women soldiers; war widows; female spouses of combatants and veterans; and sexual crimes and rape against civilian women in conflict zones. It has now become necessary for such studies to include the combat trauma of women in the battlefield and in warzones.

To learn more about the nature of trauma of women, there is a need to study various narratives of women, not merely as victims or as women standing by their men, but as active participants in making war. For instance, one should compare women who have experienced combat trauma with women who have experienced sexual assaults. In addition, one should explore moral injury to women combatants who have completed their military service. Women combatants and veterans who have participated in various ethno-national struggles and wars deserve much greater attention in the research of trauma.