This is a conversation with Marie E. Berry and Milli Lake, co-founders and principal investigators of the Women’s Rights After War Project. We primarily spoke about their article “on inconvenient findings” and their paper for Annual Reviews “women’s rights after war: on gender interventions and enduring hierarchies”
Dr. Berry is Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a member of Bridging the Gap’s current International Policy Summer Institute cohort. Dr. Lake is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics and a co-founder of the Advancing Research on Conflict Consortium.
- The limitations of many ‘women’s empowerment’ programs
- What happens when research findings challenge the work that policy makers are invested in promoting? Example of degrowth and economics
- Who gets excluded when certain interests (such as class) are maintained?
- Examples of Rwanda, Bosnia and Lebanon
- Narrowly-defined arena for justice
- The three Dayton agreements (referencing the episode with Aida Hozic) and ongoing situation in Bosnia and Serbia
- War logics in ‘postwar’ contexts
- The USA as a ‘postwar’ country
- Should we make inconvenient findings less inconvenient?
- The idea of nation states
- The role of futurism and speculative movements
- On inconvenient findings https://www.duckofminerva.com/2021/01/on-inconvenient-findings.html
- 69/ The Entrenched “Manliness” of Ethnic Power-sharing Peace Agreements (with Aida A. Hozić) https://thefirethisti.me/2021/03/28/69-the-entrenched-manliness-of-ethnic-power-sharing-peace-agreements-with-aida-a-hozic/
- Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
- Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
- The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow
- Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
- Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown
- Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation by adrienne maree brown
- On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
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The following is an extract which has been edited and summarized for readability. The original is available on all podcast apps as well as YouTube.
Joey Ayoub (JA): What is the ‘Women’s Rights After War’ (WRAW) project?
Marie E. Berry (MB): I think the origins of the project were really in conversations that we had with each other about what we saw going on in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on the efforts to empower women in these places, especially in the judicial, legal and political arena. We noticed that there was a real celebration, back in 2011-2012, of the Rwandan example as a model for other countries around the world, because Rwanda had the world’s highest level of women in parliament less than 10 years after the end of its brutal genocide, and today has 62% women in its national legislature. And yet what we were seeing, and what we saw so often, was the really limited way in which that sort of news headline actually played out in the day-to-day lives of women that we were meeting and working with. And so we started trying to ask the question of who benefits from ‘Women’s Empowerment’ programs and statistics? Which women benefit? Are women even actually the real beneficiaries of these projects? Because in the Rwandan case it is the regime that’s the main beneficiary because of it actually had an ability to generate international recognition. the president Paul Kagame [in power since 2000] has won numerous awards. There’s been a sort of celebration among aid donors, that there is this really strong commitment towards women’s empowerment in Rwanda, and yet for ordinary women we saw so many limitations for this.
Really it was to ask this question in other places around the globe, emerging from armed conflict, where there had been a concerted effort on the part of both the government and the international community to try and put women into these positions of political power as a way of building a more liberal, durable peace. It’s this idea that if we get women into the government, if we get women at the peace table, perhaps if we even include women into the military and the police, we will build these more gender-sensitive societies, which is part of building a more robust, durable, liberal democracy. And I think our starting point was very skeptical of this, and indeed we’ve been doing research not just in Rwanda but also Colombia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Bosnia, trying to understand the dynamics of this kind of rhetoric and interventions to see really who, at the end of the day, was benefiting from the inclusion of women in these spaces.
Milli Lake (ML): One of the major goals of this project was to really think about how class-based inequalities, ethnic inequalities, race-based inequalities are reproduced by ‘gender inclusionary’ policy, and to also think about the broader structures of colonial and imperial violence and other forms of violence that have manifested historically in a number of the countries that we have been looking. And thinking about how some of those systems are also similarly reproduced by the inclusion of women from very particular backgrounds of existing privilege who are dominant in a post-war settlement.
JA: Yeah, thanks for that. One of the things that caught my attention in your work is that you ask this question, which I feel is basically an evergreen question which cuts across multiple fields, which is: what happens when research findings challenge the work that policy makers are invested in promoting? For example, when I think of the topic of degrowth in economic circles. It’s still taboo to bring up. Although it’s fundamentally an economics topic, you’re more likely to find it in climate science-related papers because it challenges very fundamental assumptions that we’re supposed to have about economic growth, capitalism and neoliberalism.
How have you engaged with this question?
MB: That question hits on so many of the things that Milli, our team and I talk about all the time. There is a real push within academic fields like sociology and political science to do research that’s policy-relevant, that somehow can be adopted quickly. In some ways, this is a really refreshing and important shift from some of the acadeic research of the past that perhaps is a bit more out of touch with pressing questions related to people’s lives. At the same time, we find so often that the pressure to design research projects that will speak to policy questions sometimes can really narrow radical, old imaginative questions that I think academics are actually well-positioned to think about.
So what we find is that oftentimes, when we are talking about the importance of women’s empowerment and women’s inclusion in these spaces, there is a kind of audience that wants to make sure that this entire architecture of advocacy and of programmatic interventions that are focused on women is able to continue to grow and to become more and more robust. Our findings suggests is that the narrow focus on women’s inclusion and women’s empowerment neglects questions of class and race and cast and many other categories and axes of difference.
ML: There have been tremendous gains in the arena of gender equality and women’s rights in post-war spaces, and there is sometimes a perception that critiques of broader structural constraints are actually attacks on the gains that have been made. Our work calls attention to the ways that what we call ‘single-access focus on gender and women’s inclusion’ can reinforce and entrench other hierarchies of oppression if we are not also sensitive to the ways in which ethnic-, class-, caste- or racial-based inequalities are reproduced.
MB: For example, there is the way in which many women in politics also embody hyper-patriarchal legacies, often because of their connections and ties to powerful men (husbands, fathers etc), and I think what we have been calling for and what we’ve been really trying to highlight is that the inclusion of women into systems that are creating oppression is not going to lessen the oppression, those systems are creating.
I think the police and military are the perfect example of that. The inclusion of women into the police is not going to soften the violent, inherent violence of policy as a system, as a source of violence and insecurity in many people’s lives.
Something else we talk a lot in the WRAW project, is the difference between spectacular and non-spectacular violence and the way in which so much of the advocacy around women’s rights, peace agreements and building more robust liberal democracies in general, focuses on spectacular violence. By that we mean war violence, violence that looks like bullets and guns, rather than the insidious violence of patriarchy, of the brutalities of inequality as a result of capitalism, of the slow erosion of our climate and the kind of seeping toxicity in people’s waters and soils that creates harm to people’s bodies. And what we see so often is that policy-relevant research is focused on those spectacular manifestations of violence, addressing particular types of violence and the fallout of particular types of violence rather than on the much more holistic systems that create so much harm in people’s bodies and families and communities.
JA: I first learned about your work through Aida A Hozić’s work, and in particular her insights into what she called the “entrenched manlines of ethnic power-sharing agreements” in the context of Bosnia and the Dayton Accords (which formally ended the Bosnian War). Is this an example of what you call “narrowly-defined arenas for justice”?
MB: Absolutely. Her work is incredibly valuable in this area. It highlights these limits of these sort of highly institutionalized efforts to bring about profound social change, like the Dayton Accords. On The Fire These Times episode with you, she spoke about how there were ‘three Daytons’: the first one, that of the international community that was the source of major celebration; the second one, that of the Bosnian political elites, the champions of war that were rewarded with the kind of ability to divide up the country in ways that served their political constituencies and their political agendas; and the third one, that of ordinary Bosnians. This is were there is real synergy with what Milli and I were just talking about. We find so often that the more technocratic or institutionalized solutions to armed conflict that become the center point of the conversation about transitions from war to peace oftentimes fail to dismantle the underlying systems that are responsible for creating the grievances that led to the war in the first place. Dayton codified those underlying and deeply-rooted economic, political and social grievances. It was not about peace. It was about preserving particular interest in the status quo and wreaking havoc on the well-being of most Bosnians.
JA: The relatives of those who were forcibly disappeared during the Lebanese civil were effectively told by the government to just forget about them and to declare them legally dead. So one thing I do is focus on those forcibly disappeared, and through their lived experienced – I’ver interview a number of their relatives – I then put into question what do we mean by ‘postwar’. What do we mean by ‘post’? Who is moving on? Who is benefitting from this “peace”?
MB: We must trouble the distinction between spectacular and non-spectacular violence. The same holds for troubling the distinction between pre-war, war and post-war periods, because ultimately the same structures systems that are causing the physical, extreme violence during “war” are actually not actually dismantled by a ‘peace agreement’. Whether it’s ethno-racial fissures or massive inequality..
ML: Or the everyday violence perperated by security agents
MB: Absolutely. Or by patriarchy and the insidiousness of an opposing army, but because of partners, members of their community, family, extended family, police.. these forms of patriarchal violence stretched far, far before and far, far after the acute periods of war.
ML: So many of our findings in political science predominantly, and conflict studies more broadly, are rooted on this idea of signing a Peace Agreement, and then seeing whether or not fighting has re-emerged within five years. That just completely de-historicize and de-contextualize the ways in which violence manifests and the kind of underlying relationships and dynamics of power that forment forms of structural and racialized capitalist violence. We see this over and over again, and we see it invisibilized and overlooked in the way that the dominant scholarship in these fields even conceive of war and defines war in the first place.
JA: How do we make inconvenient findings… les inconvenient? How do you deal with that question?
MB: You don’t.
ML: Yeah you don’t. There’s a reason why they’re inconvenient.
MB: Because they challenge existing systems and structures. They rub up against the status quo and the status quo is not tenable. That’s what we know, especially when we’re talking about the crumblings of an apocalypse [global warming]. We are at the midsts of mass extintions, the rising temperatures that are creating cataclysmic weather events around the world. The erosion of soil, of plant life and animal life from so many parts of the world. We are already there. Being convenient is being palatable and operating within existing systems, and the existing systems are what require change.
JA: You’ve both linked to, in one way or another, the importance of imagination and the importance of thinking of alternatives. I’ve been talking more recently about different futurisms, different speculative movements, whether it is in fiction or in politics such as solarpunk, afrofuturism, indigenous futurism and so on. As a way of wrapping up this conversation, how do you think about these futurisms and how do they inform your own thinking in your work?
ML: I think one of the things that we just kind of constantly come back to is the ways that kind of communities living at the margins have always, out of necessity, carved out spaces of intimacy, creativity, radical love. We always come back to this Ruth Wilsom Gilmore quote, that there are many of us already living these alternatives. We need to move towards thinking not so much about policy recommendations and actionable reforms that lay out a blueprint for social transformation, and instead step back and think about where change comes from. We know that change comes from the streets, the peripheries. It never comes from those who are invested in reinforcing the status quo. So it wouldn’t be for us to, from where we are sitting, just lay out what a pathway to change or transformation looks like, and instead we should think more creatively about the values that we wish to center in a more peaceful and free world. So we always talk about care, embodied love, community and non-hierarchy, solidarity and interdependence. One of the things that people seem to often forget in this work is that if you can’t live your politics in your everyday life, if they aren’t personal, if you aren’t practicing the politics of love and solidarity that you wish to see in the world, then there isn’t nay hope. So all we can do is work to foster and create those communities of care within the spaces that we occupy. That’s one of the things that we’ve been really deeply committing to thinking about more broadly and more structurally.
MB: We do quote this line from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, this brilliant abolitionist, thinker and writer a lot, which is that calls to revolution are often creatively stunted, and we must instead consider that what the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces and experiments and possibilities. So much of our own dreaming is about looking at those who are living boldly and in these experiments and thinking radically at all levels, and thinking about whether our work can find ways of centering those stories and perhaps elevating, amplifying those experiments. I feel probably the greatest amount of comfort, given the state of the world, when I realize that it’s not just a small, radical fringe group of people who are talking about building more free worlds. So many of us around the world are living in relationships that challenge a hetero-normative status quo, we are mothering in ways that also differs from that, we are loving and leading in ways and organizing in relationship with people and all sentient and non-sentient life in ways that reject a capitalist relationship to nature that says you only have value if you can be extracted and turned into something for human profit. There are so many people who are thinking of ways of building more beauty into the world, and those are the experiments, the possibilities that I think are a lot of fuel for my imagination and certainly for our collective imagination in this project.