Building a feminist peace


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* In March 2000, a busload of Indian women went to Lahore under the banner, ‘Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia’. Other exchanges and projects have followed.

* In 2002, the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam agreed to set up a Subcommittee on Gender Issues as part of Sri Lanka’s peace process. The members were all women, five from the LTTE and five members of civil society appointed by the government. The mandate of the committee was to identify and add to the peace agenda issues of importance to women.

* In April 2010, a female official in the Indian Embassy in Islamabad was arrested on charges of espionage. Most striking about the story was the reportage that surrounded it, as a sampling of the headlines shows: ‘Madhuri Gupta was friendly, brash and fearless’ and ‘Madhuri Gupta’s motivation was revenge’, ( and ‘Madhuri Gupta: exploited for her insecurities? (Economic Times). We are told (in the Economic Times article), ‘She was a lonely spinster with a taste for life’s good and extravagant things.’ The gender of the official made a difference to the tone and language of the reports.

* In August 2010, a female Maoist commander who had surrendered, in a newspaper interview, revealed details about pervasive sexual exploitation in the movement. She spoke of many women who had been raped and that being in a relationship with a senior male leader served to protect women from random exploitation.

* In January 2011, news broke that an officer in India’s London mission had been charged with domestic violence but that the incident could not be investigated because he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. While the initial official response was typically Indian and paternalistic, expressing hope that the family would sort out the dispute, the Foreign Secretary in a note to all Indian missions explicitly stated that there would be zero tolerance towards domestic violence. She reiterated this in a television interview a few days later.

What would a feminist imagining of peace look like? There are feminist theoretical critiques of other theoretical literatures on war, peace and diplomacy as also activist positions on particular conflict situations and security decisions. There are tentative formulations on peace and security. Because none of these answer the question to my satisfaction, I want to reinvent the wheel and make a fresh attempt.

This essay is structured around some common elements of feminist thought across the various theoretical schools that have emerged particularly in international relations.


The most obvious question raised by feminists and the easiest one to answer is: Where are the women? One can answer this question in multiple ways, beyond victimhood. Women are sometimes protestors and combatants and they are resisters and peace activists. But women also perform auxiliary and administrative services. They are part of the larger political economy of a conflict situation as producers, merchants and consumers. They write stories, as journalists, film-makers, academics and archivists. Women are everywhere, but mostly invisible. So the feminist challenge is to see them and ‘tag’ them, to use the language of contemporary social networks. In the middle of all the diplomatic and military back and forth and mainstream media debates, it entails seeing the busload of women going to Lahore.

Asking ‘where are the women?’ throws up details, hitherto effaced as insignificant, into sharp relief. For instance, at a summit meeting, we begin to notice who is seated at the main table and who is relegated to the ante-rooms. In an archival photograph of an official delegation, we notice the one sari-clad woman disembarking from the aircraft and ask what her role was. The news stories both about the Indian spy and the wife of the Indian diplomat in London remind us that a large embassy employs people, many of them female, in multiple roles.

As we engage with this question, we are also invited to notice those whose social and geographic locations might usually exclude them from the orbit of international relations. We learned, for instance, that during the tsunami many women died because they could not swim to safety. In response, many international charities supported projects in India and Sri Lanka that provided swimming lessons to women, thus connecting women from different parts of the world.


Feminists across the board challenge the artificial, gendered boundaries around which so much political thought and activity is constructed: inside-outside, private-public and domestic-international. The international order is predicated on these binaries. The domestic-international binary has been undermined by population movement, trade, terrorism and the flow of ideas, to name a few. It is now difficult to posit an airtight ‘sovereign’ state without caveats and footnotes. But the private-public difference remains. It allows all of us to consider violence within the four walls of a home as private business, moving it firmly away from the world of treaties, banquets, armies and trade.

The domestic violence allegation against the Indian diplomat sliced through the private-public and domestic-international binaries like a hot knife through butter. Strikingly, the discussion of the London case centred around two diplomatic issues. There was concern that India had the reputation for being a place where domestic violence victims did not get justice. Second, there was a great deal of discussion of the rationale, terms and conditions of diplomatic immunity. Any discussion of the violence itself plunged immediately into a debate about provocation. The first response of letting the family sort it out, a delayed recall and then press interviews with the diplomat’s family that cast aspersions on his wife, reflects our deep discomfort when these boundaries are in fact shown up to be artificial. Had the Indian Foreign Secretary not been female, would the government’s final word on this have been as unequivocal? This is not a question we can ever conclusively answer, but is nevertheless one that stares us in the face.

‘If women ran the world, it would be more peaceful,’ people sometimes declare apropos something or the other. History suggests this is not necessarily true. Nevertheless, some feminists do contend that the very particular experiences that women have, predispose them to think differently and to have different priorities. Just going by some of the issues feminist IR scholars choose to write about, it would seem that they view the issue from a somewhat different standpoint: migration, sex ratios, militarization (rather than strategy), development and domestic violence. If feminists bring a different worldview and women bring a different style to the peace table, how different is the resultant peace likely to be?


Trying to describe ‘feminist peace’, one should start with the note than in an age where the common factoid that one in three women suffers violence in her lifetime does not surprise anybody, we are all arguably living in a state of war. What Kalpana Kannabiran evocatively describes as ‘the violence of normal times’ is pervasive. Factor in structural inequity, and the journey towards peace – any peace – begins right where we are, not necessarily from a state of war.

First, it would be predicated on an analysis or understanding of any given situation which takes into account the existence of women, their work, experiences, concerns and needs, as well as those of men, recognizing both as human beings located in particular contexts rather than as legal or accounting abstractions. This ‘seeing’ might mean that suitable and competent women would become visible and, therefore, get appointed to offices and committees that can make a difference. Moreover, feminist peacemakers – male or female – would ensure that the concerns of the marginalized would find a place on the agenda.


A feminist peace would follow from a peace process that is also inclusive and democratic. Researchers affirm that women and men have different work and communication styles. A critical mass of feminist/female peacemakers might bring in the ‘good’ qualities associated with a feminine style to peace work – listening, consensus building, cooperation. An inclusive process built on a foundation of genuine listening is likely to lead to a more inclusive and representative new peace dispensation. Looking at sexual and other gender-based violence squarely in the eye is a prerequisite of a feminist peace. Recent UN Security Council Resolutions have stated firmly that there should be no amnesty for those found guilty of sexual violence or rape during a conflict. This should extend to all gender violence and beyond conflict situations. Thus, truth and reconciliation processes, reconstruction, regime design and leadership appointments should all take into account this horrible reality, for peace to meet feminist standards. A peace that starts by labelling such violence as ‘collateral damage’ or ‘the spoils of war’ is no peace.

Inclusion, communication, justice and democracy are values peace-builders generally support. What sets a ‘feminist peace’ apart are three elements: factoring women into the situational analysis, ensuring their meaningful participation in the work of building peace, and deciding not to ignore gender violence any more. How would one operationalize these elements in the real world?

‘Add women and stir’ is the critique levelled at the most superficial attempts to include women or gender in either analysis or programming. Substantive attempts to understand and document how women (and men) experience a particular situation, take cognizance of their work and their concerns on board must inform peace-building efforts. It is important to ensure that this documentation is not confined to women’s victimhood. This applies not only to academic and policy research, but also journalism, action research by fieldworkers, in short to all documentation work. Equally important, once the documentation is there, once it is part of the situational analysis, it must be used.

For instance, people living in Northeast India have lived with conflict for decades. Over those decades, we have learned about the work of women’s groups and networks such as the Naga Mothers’ Association and the North East Network that have played important conflict resolution roles. Even as their peacework has led them to participate in many conferences, workshops and dialogues on conflict or on particular regional issues, most of these are unofficial. It is worth noting that each time the state embarks on peace talks women with this experience are rarely part of the process? The ‘factoring in’ must not only inform these appointments as also extend to involve such groups so that we can hold all those who speak in our name accountable for these exclusions.


Ensuring women’s meaningful participation involves three considerations: choosing the most competent women; making sure they are well-represented at and/or have access to decision-making power; and building women’s capacity for such participation. Moreover, the meaningful participation imperative applies beyond the peace table and official positions to all professions and positions whose work feeds into peacebuilding – that is a given.

Critiquing electoral quotas in domestic politics, the argument that ‘token’ women will be chosen from within existing elite circles is often advanced. Those inclusive understandings just discussed are important ways to offer alternative candidates. Perhaps the top leadership of a militant group was male, but still there are women who did other public work in the areas for which the group claims to speak, who could have a great deal to contribute.

Second, it is easy to hire women in support positions without giving them access to the corridors of power. The numbers would look good, but nothing would change. ‘Meaningful participation’ demands both appointing competent women to positions of authority as well as creating channels of communication that allow women to speak with those who are sitting at the peace table itself. An additional option would be to invite women’s groups into the peace process in a consultative capacity.


The most critical input is actually capacity-building. While women may be active in the public sphere in social movements, political parties or NGOs, the work of peacebuilding – whether the starting point is war or ‘normal times’ – also involves technical matters which may be new to some of them. (This is also true of most men, but seldom works as a disqualification to their holding important positions.) Therefore, feminist peace work includes training women who work in the public sphere in governance-related skills from reading budgets to parliamentary procedure to specialist briefings on particular policy issues. In other words, feminist peace work includes the elimination of reasons conventionally advanced to exclude women from decision-making positions!

The global campaign against gender violence has probably never been as visible and vocal as it is now. To the extent that UN resolutions reflect a consensus in international society, we might say there is an emerging norm that precludes post-conflict amnesties for those who have been found guilty of perpetrating or allowing sexual violence as part of a conflict. Feminist thought would efface the lines both between a norm at the international level and a policy guideline at the domestic level, and between conflict and non-conflict situations. A feminist peace would argue for an across the board elimination of impunity when it comes to cases of gender violence. This is harder to implement than to sign a UN resolution.

To add a tier of complication, a feminist peace requires the creation of a regime with gender-just norms. Equal political and socio-economic rights are an important component of such a regime. While these do not eliminate the threat of sexual violence, they do empower women to report violence, walk away from it and to survive the experience of violence.

Finally, having a track record of gender violence allegations must necessarily result in political disqualification. Persons who abuse their power in one situation will do so again in other situations. A peace in which wife-batterers and sexual abusers can hold power is not peace; it dismisses the trauma of those they have victimized, denies the humanity of the victims and makes light of an important human rights violation. No feminist would call that peace.