Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War

4 Jun

Marsha Henry

A guest post, following on from some previous reflections on gender and teaching and the politics of pedagogy, from Marsha Henry. Marsha is Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute, where she teaches, amongst other things, a course on gender and militarism. Her most recent research is into sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions and peacekeeper labour hierarchies, and she is also, with Paul Higate, author of Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (Zed, 2009). With Pablo, she recently co-edited a special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics on ‘Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence’. This post is based on a presentation given in San Francisco at the International Studies Association in April 2013.

It’s the first day of Lent term and the students are nervously gathered in a small stuffy classroom.  When I walk in and head towards the front of the room, the group falls silent. I introduce myself and we start a round of introductions and I ask students to speak briefly about their interest in the course. The first student tells me, and the class, that she’s in IR (International Relations), and is keen to take the course because she’s interested in studying sexual violence in war.  Another student turns to her, incredulous because she too is interested in that exact subject, and that furthermore she has worked for 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has ‘seen a lot’. A few more students echo similar interests and I’m trying hard not to stereotype these students. But it’s difficult. A mythical figure is beginning to crystallise in my head and I can’t stop it. This figure is young, female and possibly middle-class, sometimes Scandinavian. She’s studying IR, Human Rights or Gender Studies. A few male students also indicate an interest. Some indicate interest in other topics, but there is a numbers problem from the outset. I feel uncomfortable as this is the third year that I’ve taught this course, each time allotting only one lecture week to the subject of sexual violence in war, and subsuming it under the larger heading of ‘gender, sexualised violence and work in militarised contexts’. Each year students have asked for more time to be devoted to the subject, for the lecture week to be moved up, and for their to be less focus on diversity in the armed forces. When students come to me during office hours to discuss the scope of their dissertations on the subject I fidget. After a few conversations with colleagues, I decide I need to start compiling a list – of compelling reasons why students should not write on the subject of sexual violence in war. But what would I do with this list? Can it be shared? And what of my responsibility not to teach on the subject?

10: Writing About ‘It’ Narrows The Political Focus

As a committed feminist, I’m all for drawing significant attention to the ways in which women experience conflict in distinctive ways. But the concentration of interest on sexual violence in wartime often leads to a neglect of the ways in which women experience violence (labelled as sexual or not) in peacetime. This noticeable singular focus on the topic also narrows the possibility of dislodging categories and subject positions. It is often assumed in class conversations, essays and subsequently dissertations that women are the victims and men are the perpetrators of this form of violence. This assumption appears in written work in a way that both masks the possibility of other positionings within the perpetrator-victim continuum, as well as the structurally embedded way in which sexualised violence occurs and is experienced by individuals and communities. This failure to explain the pervasiveness of sexualised violence against women tends to reinforce the binaries and provides a rather fixed aperture for analysing sexual violence in war and its consequences.

9: Researching The Topic Inspires Voyeurism

I’m squirming in my seat as one of the students smiles widely while she explains her interest in working on the topic of sexual violence as a weapon of war. She could be nervous explaining herself in front of her peers and her professor. She could be feeling awkward about the subject matter. She could be conforming to gendered expectations of women in the classroom where female students who express themselves confidently or through feminist rhetoric are categorised as aggressive. If feminist critique is pleasurable, how do we ‘do’ our analysis of sexual violence in wartime, paying attention to experience, trauma, and moral responsibility? There is a tendency, in making visible the ‘horror’ of it all, that students sensationalise the subject by focussing on the minutiae, the details and the thick descriptions. Honing in on the bodily experience of rape, for example, can remove rape in war from the wider social, cultural, economic and political context in which it always takes place. It can be an abstraction of the total experience. The affective impact is that readers of these dissertations distance themselves from subjects in the studies. Those who are victims and/or survivors and end up consciously or unconsciously performing what Donna Haraway referred to as a god-trick.

8: Writing About ‘It’ Invokes Colonial Stereotypes & A Colonial Gaze

Students who are developing gender goggles in regard to militarisation and the effects of war on women tend not to recognise their critiques as potentially reinforcing colonial tropes. Sexual violence in war cannot be easily dislodged from its articulation within colonial narratives. The subject of sexual violence in war is multiplex, precisely because attached to the many narratives and discourses are ideas and metaphors of Africa as a place of barbarity, exceptionalism, alterity: the ‘Heart of Darkness’ (as Margot Wallstrom recently commented in a speech aimed at drawing attention to sexual violence in war). Along with this, African men feature as pathologically violent and therefore prone to participate in sexual violence as a war weapon. The Black Man as Rapist Myth has a long history in colonial and popular accounts, and haunts these dissertations. Add to this, stereotypes of subaltern, ‘Third World’ and African women as the penultimate victims living in what some have deemed the ‘worst place to be a woman’ (DRC), connote many problematic ideas about Africannness, gender and geopolitics.

IRIN Broken Bodies Broken Dreams

7: There Will Be An Insufficient Account Of History and Geopolitics

The majority of dissertations focus on the subject of sexual violence in the conflict region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In seminars and supervision sessions in my office, I felt unease with the abbreviation of the full name for the country to Congo. When using the term Congo, students revert the country back to its colonial history and place it at the centre of discussions about sexual violence in war. Few students are interested in studying older conflicts and thus empirical studies of Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo have more or less dropped off of the list of case studies that concern students. These conflicts become archived, shelved into the past in a way that suggests each new and contemporary conflict is somehow more worthy of study. It is almost as if students feel that if the study is not located in the ‘heart’ of Africa, it is a lesser form of violence to document. As such, ‘random’ acts of sexual violence (read: everyday), become too mundane to feature. In addition, larger relations of global politics across geographic contexts are left unaddressed. What is the relationship between where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and the body of academic knowledge being produced in order to expose it? Students do not always think about the power relations between those who are able to speak about sexual violence, to name the victims and the perpetrators, likely at a distance, and those who witness, but who may not want to testify, speak to truth or even to be given what Pupavac has termed ‘therapeutic governance’.

6: Ethical Dilemmas are Rarely Challenged or Resolved by Writing

How can I object to outrage and criticism of rape? And sexual violence as a weapon of war? To criticise someone else’s criticism of gender-based violence would be itself an ethical challenge. As such, writing on the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war can create an ethical vacuum and a political seal around the discussion, making it morally reprehensible to challenge the way in which arguments are strung together, information is arranged and presented, and the geo-ontological space from where the student speaks about (or for) women who have experienced sexual violence during conflict. As such these dissertations and essays provide little opportunity for discussing the politics of representation, the ethics of humanitarian intervention, the imbalance of power produced by international global governance institutions, and the dilemmas of treating rape survivors as a means to a (feminist) end. Many of the dissertations end up treating sexual violence as a weapon of war as a grand anecdote, used instrumentally to critically comment on the state of sexism and militarism in the world order – a laudable goal and necessary critique – but what about the simultaneous responsibility to acknowledge academic privilege? Moral compasses need to be checked: student and myself.

5: Where Are You From?: Positionalities, Standpoints, and Situated Knowledges

In addition to the ethical dilemmas that are not considered sufficiently, there is the question of perspective. Which type of student is able to write about sexual violence as a weapon of war? And worse, what about the students that may have (recently) experienced war (Swati Parshar recently spoke about the methodological and ethical dilemmas of teaching about gender and war at ISA San Diego). How can sexual violence as a weapon of war be articulated? What are the registers available? And from which geopolitical position can the subject be approached? At least two types of students emerge in relation to this growing interest in the topic. White, middle-class, (sometimes-Scandinavian) female students have told me over the past two years, that they want to write about the subject. I try not to think of the growing problem of students just a few years back who developed a mass obsession with writing about the veil, but I’m experiencing intertextual anxt. The other student ‘figure’ emerging is the young, feminist-sensitive white, middle-class male – who is likely to be from Europe or the US. He is interested in meticulously mapping the issue, demonstrating some of the quantitative complexities of sexual violence. But I’m grossly generalising here. Mastery narratives are infused in many of the students’ desires. I’m trying not to jump to conclusions. Am I being too sensitive about positionality? Why does it matter where the student is standing, thinking and feeling? If all knowledge is situated then cannot this problem be resolved by a mere paragraph or two in the dissertation giving the usual declarations of privilege, reflexivity and western attachment? I’ve got my doubts.

4: Singularising Grammar

Recent work by Maria Eriksson-Baaz and Maria Stern, and Paul Kirby shows the dangers of not paying attention to grammar and narrative form when analysing the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war. A tendency towards specific types of narratives, or a singularising grammar can have a number of problematic effects. Again, student dissertations and essays can adopt a colonial gaze, therefore unproblematically analysing the subject of gender-based violence without sufficient attention to a critical ‘race’ perspective on the subject. In addition, singularising grammars tend to reinforce and crystallise binaries and binary thinking. Only one sexed subject can be the victim and the opposite [sic] sexed subject remains perpetually the perpetrator. Students need to pay attention to the modes of writing they are engaged in. And, of course, not just for the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

3: Encourages A Non-Feminist Standpoint

Sexual violence as a weapon of war is a subject that encourages a mastery complex in students. It becomes another subject to be managed, mapped, tallied and diagrammed. Some students over the years have continually crafted lengthy, worthwhile dissertations analysing issues of validity and reliability of statistics available, especially on the DRC. One student wrote a comprehensive analysis in a recent essay, without once making reference to the politics of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The dissertation outlined all of the arguments for and against taking numbers seriously, different variables that should or should not be included, causes including greed and grievance, and finally some of the ways in which practices vary from context to context, citing the infamous piece by Elizabeth Jean Wood which shows that sexual violence in war cannot be explained on simplistic biological arguments. But should dissertations on sexual violence in war pay adequate attention to the political perspectives of feminist scholars and activists? Is this attempt to say everything possible about sexual violence as a weapon of war a reterritorialising and silencing move? Is it an attempt to master the subject without paying attention to the ways in which sexual violence is embedded within social, political and cultural relations, and require all students of the subject to ask moral, ethical and political questions?

2: It Inspires Problematic Proximity and/or Remoteness

Dissertations and essays often take an intimate or proximate approach to the subject, or remove themselves from the messiness of experience altogether. For example, some dissertations spend a great deal of time illustrating the ‘horrors’ of sexual violence as a weapon of war, reiterating victims narratives from various primary (or not) sources. In an attempt to draw significant attention to the seriousness of sexual violence as a weapon of war, and the dismissal of it as a systematic practice, students spend considerable time illustrating the bodily affects of such war practices, sometimes describing in visceral terms the embodied details of violence through film clips, testimonies and journalist exposes. Vicarious trauma can be evidenced, in addition to forms of witnessing, and voyeurism. Many of the accounts are repetitively traumatic (oftentimes for the reader), with multiple essays and dissertations on the subject, following similar grammatical registers and rhetorical strategies as outlined above. At the same time as the proximity becomes vulgar, there is also a simultaneous distancing that occurs. The ‘inhumanity’, ‘exception’, and ‘bare life’, depicted in the students’ words creates a rupture in the reader’s ability to engage. It dehumanises the victims as it does the audience. This is sometimes reinforced through a ‘rational’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ tone. The rape narrative is elevated and becomes untouchable – and even unmarkable.

1: Replication and Reiteration Are No Good

Here’s another important reason not to write a dissertation on sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC. It’s been done already! Students continually ask me ‘can you suggest a couple of books on the subject?’. Where to start? There is so much to be said about gender and violence in militarised contexts more generally, but there has also been a great deal written about by a number of scholars. And it is precisely this body of knowledge that has sometimes been misanalysed by students. That is, although much of this writing has politically exposed the issue, students often read it as a holistic canon on the subject, interpreting the text as they wish. Dissertations often become regurgitated and simplistic snapshots of other work, reinforcing particular perspectives and portrayals and therefore contributing to the reification of the subject (missing a cogent assessment of narrative forms). A rhetorical stasis is created, where certain material and citations are circulated and re-circulated, with little new insight or critical perspective provided.

So these are my thoughts about writing on the subject of sexual violence as a weapon of war and a list of reasons why I think students should not write their dissertations on the subject. There are clearly many potential pitfalls. All of these reasons demand another set of analyses which is to do with how I should teach about sexual violence in war, although in many ways this, I think is a much harder task. In the meantime, can we have a moratorium on dissertations on sexual violence as a weapon of war?

34 Responses to “Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War”

  1. owenelisha June 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    Reblogged this on owenatukunzire.

  2. Federica Caso June 5, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    This post highlights very important issues about writing on sexual violence as a weapon of war. However, I think that the conclusion – students shouldn’t write on the topic – seems to me to be too harsh, simplistic and lacking in reflexivity on the part of lecturers. I think that the fact that students, whether Scandinavian women, Western men or whoever, are interested in the topic is a positive thing in itself. It means that in some ways people are more aware of the topic, that maybe we are breaking a social taboo (wary of naiveté). Interest is the first step. The above post goes point by point highlighting why students shouldn’t write a dissertation on sexual violence as a weapon of war, but are these points unfixable? Can’t the lecturer/dissertation supervisor direct students towards writing a better dissertation in light of the 10 points rather than discourage them all together? While I agree with all the 10 points, I wouldn’t discourage students from writing on the topic at MA level, as this can be the beginning of a life-long project.
    NB point of view of a STUDENT who is NOT writing on the topic.

    • Marsha Henry June 7, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      The post was meant to be provocative—for myself as well. Just think about these statements and what they might mean in relation to questions of standpoint, narratives of progress and : ‘breaking a social taboo’, ‘Interest is the first step’, ‘beginning of a life-long PROJECT’ (my emphasis). The post is meant as a challenge to students and to lecturers to think carefully before writing, and is not meant to be a prohibition.

      • Federica Caso June 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

        I would stick your 10 points on your office door (avoiding the title and the end paragraph maybe – too discouraging and demoralizing for students). It would give students something to think about while waiting to talk to you about their dissertations on sexual violence as a weapon of war. They are important points of reflection and I agree with most of what you say; I just find disturbing the power relations between student and lecturer that the post activates/reinforces.

  3. Philip June 5, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    How about insisting that if students want to write on sexual violence in, say, the DRC they do so comparatively with another case study, perhaps a historical one? In order to draw links between the cases they’d have to recognise that there is more to sexual violence in war than particular cultural or racial identities or specific geographies. They’d need to see the broader dynamics of gender inequality in general and understand that while places like the DRC might see some of the most egregious and shocking acts of sexual violence that the contestations and politics of sex and gender are woven into the fabric of human life and are observable anywhere.

    If your students are passionate about this subject that’s good! The trick must be using that energy to push them deeper into the subject matter, making them think more critically about it rather than remaining on the surface and worrying about whether or not the rape stats are accurate or whatever.

    I mean, the very fact that such stats are unreliable is an interesting thing in itself. That can be related back to the sociology of knowledge, Foucauldian social history and so on. Stats are not just tools, they have a history. The only reason we have comprehensive data on most aspects of life in the West is because institutions have grown up over the years to collect these data. And these institutions could only emerge in certain political, economic and social contexts. The fact that we expect these same institutions to function in totally different contexts begs the question of how transferrable Western state-centric standards, in this case epistemic standards, are to non-Western environs. Isn’t the emphasis on stats itself symptomatic of a kind of governmentality that presupposes infrastructures that simply aren’t there in places like the DRC, for better or worse?

    In other words, mightn’t the best pedagogical strategy be *deflection* rather than rejection? Try to deflect their interests onto more interesting and productive paths rather than mute their passions by making them do something else entirely.

    • Gabrielle June 6, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

      excellent points.

    • Marsha Henry June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am #

      Thanks for taking the time to reflect on the post. Again, I would draw attention to the choice of particular stands in relation to bodies of knowledge about sexual violence in the DRC: ‘most egregious and shocking acts of sexual violence’, ‘worrying about whether or not the rape stats are accurate or whatever’. I appreciate your thoughts on stats and where they fit with our understanding of the politics of knowledge. I think I can certainly expand on that in relation to mastery desires. I am not sure what I think about deflection versus rejection as a specific strategy in relation to MSc disseration choice, but I would always encourage students to think, reflect and wait rather than to dismiss any particular body of knowledge or conceptual framework. Thanks!

  4. Pablo K June 6, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    I concur with some of the responses of early commenters here, although I’d also want to strongly defend the legitimacy of polemic, especially when addressed beyond a specific classroom over which we might have *some* control to a wide audience of past, current and future students of gender/war. And I hope this post will act as something of a provocative resource for that in the next years.

    Another difficulty might be the hedging of this to the level of ‘MA’. And I write that as a middle-class, white-colonial male who wrote an MSc on rationality and rape in Darfur and a PhD on feminism, wartime sexual violence and the DRC. If there is a consistent problem here – one sucking intellectual effort away from wider circuits of inequality and violence to a voyeurism of African rape – then surely it holds as much amongst advanced graduates and Faculty as it does among undergraduates and masters students.

    Add to that some pressures from the real world. It is frequently said that “more men” need to work on, and be aware of, sexual violence, and for all the attention to sexualised aggression, it’s also pretty clear that there are some huge failures of understanding and action going on in relation to it. On home fronts as much as on war fronts. Which rather suggests the need for better analytics, rather than less academic work (although it might also certainly require that).

    The what and how of analysis remains central, fersure. After all Eriksson Baaz and Stern (and others like J. Ann Cahill) are still writing about ‘It’, but they’re reconceiving and undermining and reconstituting the knowledge/politics of sexual violence as they go.

    • Gabrielle June 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      Excellent follow-up….would love to read your dissertation,,,in my opinion, “men” who write on “rape” are making change, they are part of the converted. Bravo to you for embrassing a study that is difficult and really sexless, as rape can happen to both men and women and affects all families involved…The repurcussions are long lasting as we now read of children warriors trying to move beyond the atrocities they experienced .

      • Marsha Henry June 7, 2013 at 9:11 am #

        Michael Kimmel has commented in a public lecture recently that when he gives guest lectures in the classes of his female colleagues and talks about gender and/or masculinity, he is often take more seriously. He attributes this not to the political act of speaking from a feminist perspective, but to the power and authority automatically attached to men’s practices both historically and in the contemporary period. While I think it is important to expose how the personal is political (especially sexual violence in and out of war) and vice versa, I also think we need to pay attention to the different positions from which differently gendered people can speak about the subject. And my 10 points while relevant to the activists, were mostly in regard to the production of Master’s dissertations.

    • Marsha Henry June 7, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      Pablo, agree that a new analytics is crucial. And I’m not advocating that all people stop thinking and writing on the subject. I guess I wanted to gauge the discomfort people might feel, and whether I can meaningfully analyse some responses as reflections of entitlement and privilege…

  5. Sophia June 6, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    The ‘humanitarian’ poster from IRIN that illustrates this post is truly shocking – maybe an idea to encourage a promising student fallen into the mass obsession to do an analysis of media images of victims of sexual violence in war….and see what they come up with.

    • Marsha Henry June 7, 2013 at 9:14 am #

      See also the website for the film ‘The Greatest Silence’ http://thegreatestsilence.org/
      I think your suggestion for analysis is a good one…and I will certainly incorporate more on critical reading as I revise the way I present the subject, too.

  6. cafegemmayze June 7, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    Good points, and polemic is all well and good, but the obsession with Scandinavian women is baffling and certainly a little insulting.

    • Marsha Henry June 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

      My foregrounding of Scandinavian women is not meant to situate blame on individuals from Scandinavia or elsewhere, but to draw attention to geopolitics, and who can speak for others or about certain issues, without attention to the speaker’s locatedness, ‘roots and routes’ and so on. A more systematic analysis of the national background over the past years might reveal even more about the course, my own ‘situatedness’, and those who choose NOT to write on this subject, so I take on board these comments.

      There is also something else going on with my reference to Scandinavia that I want to touch on. Sweden and Norway in particular have had a significant role to play in funding for gender, development and post conflict projects in a number of countries in Africa over the past, at least 50 years and Scandinavians are heavily invested in the ‘development’ of various countries. In addition, a number of high profile Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian women have been appointed as ministers of foreign affairs/development agencies, heads of peacekeeping missions, or UN bodies tasked to deal specifically with gender-based violence. Hailed as a gender-equality paradise, many of the countries mentioned are consequently invested in historical narratives of themselves as having ALREADY ACHIEVED gender equality—a point which many Nordic feminists have been critically arguing against for sometime. So while I don’t want to generalise about Scandinavian students, I also don’t want to completely detach this region of the world from some of the points I am making about the politics of knowledge.

  7. Robbie Shilliam June 8, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Thank you Marsha this is an excellent resource. There are many broken masculinities that are causing serious problems for some young women in UK cities. Utterly unreported, and not simply rape but often self-destruction too. but as they say in the USA: to look at that is taxing; to go to DRC etc is a free-ride.

    • Marsha Henry June 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      Thanks! I really want to ENCOURAGE students to look at other issues also and hope that they will recognise my tone is not meant as a disciplining one.

  8. Dr. Gerard S. June 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    The writer of this blog is quite right to be wary, though my reasons would be more focused around ethics and well-being matters. I feel that this topic could place the researcher in a very vulnerable position, and expose them to potential distress. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should never encourage students to work on sensitive topics – far from it – but above all, I feel that supervisors have a duty of care towards novice researchers. For experienced researchers, it’s quite another matter – they will have the grasp of ethics and the self-awareness to understand the issues the blog writer is addressing.

    • Marsha Henry June 9, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      Dr Gerard S., thanks for this. I think this is a really important point and one that we were discussing at ISA about trigger alerts. I think this is something to think further about in teaching about the subject and guiding students to think about the ethical questions involved in any research topic that involves such human experience of this magnitude.

  9. LFC June 10, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    In looking through the post this sentence jumped out: “Mastery narratives are infused in many of the students’ desires.”

    This, I take it, is supposed to be bad. Unfortunately, I have very little idea what it means.

    Then there is the notion that “replication” is bad. Heaven forbid that someone should come along and actually confirm the validity of what someone else has said or found. (That might smack of — gasp — positivism.)

    This post mentions a lot of supposedly bad things — reification, replication, mastery desires — and proceeds to apply them to this one subject. Why couldn’t much the same post be written about many other topics students might want to write about?

    • Marsha Henry June 10, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      LFC, I agree that I am not particularly clear about why particular narrative moves or the replication of arguments are ‘bad’. What I want to do in drawing attention to writing that does not acknowledge a writer’s own motivations (including students and faculty here), is to challenge the academic community to think about why ‘we’ want to write about certain subjects such that we begin to do so in significant numbers. But I wholeheartedly agree that there are a number of other topics that we should also pay attention to, and think critically about.

  10. ILA June 12, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    Reading your text, I can agree with your warning against the narrow focus on sexual violence within the larger context of gender in conflict zones. However, although I symphatize with some of the arguments you make in your text, I think you frame your issue wrongly: you do come out as ‘diciplining’, not as ‘encouraging’. The headline in itself is undisputably diciplining.

    More importantly, having read your text, being a white, female middle-class, Scandinavian IR student, I feel ashamed for my interest in the topic. Throughout your text my genuine interest in the topic is doubted by adhering different motivations (sensationalizm) and limitations (my intrinsic Western bias), which I am so clouded by my priveliged, Scandinavian, gender-equal reality to possible realize on my own. This shaming I find to be a particulalry unsuitable means to achieve your goal of a more diverse and novel interest in your course’s topic, even as a provocative strategy.

    • Marsha Henry June 14, 2013 at 11:29 am #

      ILA, I think you are right in labelling what I am doing as a form of disciplining—although perhaps I do not intend for that to be the case, at least not in the parental sense of the word. Although my tone is critical, I don’t mean it to be scolding. But you are correct in that the post itself doesn’t exude encouragement. I also do not have the intention to individual shame students, especially those from Scandinavia. Maybe I can add two comments in relation to what you say, and to think upon what you have written for my further elaborations and the importance of taking care when making critiques.

      First, I want to say something about critical work and transformative projects such as feminism and anti-racism. My colleague Professor Anne Phillips has been for some time now been working on the subject of feminist judgement (http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2012/05/20120525t1000vWT.aspx) and in another vein Sara Ahmed has written about the feminist as a ‘killjoy’ (http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=17446). Both of these works have influenced my decision to publish this post, precisely because I think it is also important to make critical judgements, and to be that pervasive killjoy that Ahmed finds sitting around the dinner table, speaking at conferences and in my case, posting ideas in a blog. But I agree, the way it is done is important—especially if I’ve said the WAY students write about sexual violence as a weapon of war is IMPORTANT.

      Second, I want to clarify something about the national background of students. As I said before, I have not documented this in a systematic way over the past 10 years that I have been supervising Masters dissertations, but I am struck by the few Black and Asian students from the UK that I have had in my classes overall and of that group, the majority of whom have often chosen to write their dissertations on critical race topics (which may or may not include sexual violence in war). Importantly, I have NEVER had a Congolese student in any of my classes. A few years ago I had a student who told me that s/he did not want to even use the word sexuality in their dissertation because as a government-funded student they would face serious risk upon their return home. Thus who can, and wants to, write about sexual violence in war? From what standpoint and location? What role does nationality play in privilege or disadvantage—or both?

      In any case, I appreciate your reminder that provocation certainly has its limits.

      • RS January 31, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

        Although I enter this conversation almost a year later because I read Marsha Henry’s text just now, I need to tell that I fully agree with her. I recognise her irritation and hesitation: I am also one of those lecturers who meets an increasing number of students every year who want to study sexual violence, preferably in the DRC, and I am also getting more and more desperate. However provocative, Marsha’s post exposes inconvenient realities we have to face: why are we preoccupied with certain topics in Africa? How does it relate to a long history of preoccupation with people’s intimate lives in Africa? What kind of body of knowledge has been produced by focussing on particular themes and neglecting others? Do you want to contribute to a very long history of representing Africa as the paradigm of difference (Mudimbe 1994), a continent of savagery, war, poverty, despair and god knows what? I always ask my students three things: why are you interested in this topic? (i.e. what does it tell me about you?) Why Africa? And: do you really think there is one African waiting for your help? In our department students conduct fieldwork for their master thesis and many students are motivated to “do good” and “help people”. This opens a whole different debate about humanitarian interventions about which Marsha needs to write another post. In short, most (personal) reasons are legitimate reasons to choose a research topics but, as Marsha points out, most topics are not value free and as a privileged student from the global North you have to reflect carefully on your choices and their effects.

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  3. Monday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva - June 10, 2013

    […] Henry provides ten reasons not to write about sexual violence in war for an MA […]

  4. Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War, by Marsha Henry | Mats Utas - June 11, 2013

    […] Marsha Henry is Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute, where she teaches, amongst other things, a course on gender and militarism. Her most recent research is into sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions and peacekeeper labour hierarchies, and she is also, with Paul Higate, author of Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (Zed, 2009). This post is based on a presentation given in San Francisco at the International Studies Association in April 2013. This post was originally published on the blog The disorder of things […]

  5. On the delicate problems involved with studying sexual violence in wartime | Observing US Security, Politics, Geography, and Pop Culture - June 14, 2013

    […] Reblogged The Disorder of Things. An interesting and provocative invitation by Marsha Henry and an insightful comments section. Food for thought for teachers and students! […]

  6. How not to study sexualized violence in the DRC - July 11, 2013

    […] is actually helpful or constructive in reducing the violence, as Marsha Henry, points out, in her piece, `Ten Reasons not To Write your Masters Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War’: “Here’s […]

  7. How not to study sexualized violence in the DRC « Afronline – The Voice Of Africa - July 12, 2013

    […] is actually helpful or constructive in reducing the violence, as Marsha Henry, points out, in her piece, `Ten Reasons not To Write your Masters Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War’: “Here’s […]

  8. The Conflict-Related GBV that the Humanitarian Community Ignores | Cassandra Complexity - February 12, 2014

    […] thanks to the work of GBV activists around the world. There are more programs, more media and academic attention about the problem, and even an acronym (CRSV = Conflict Related Sexual Violence) created to allow […]

  9. Are YOU guilty of Violence Against Women? | Cassandra Complexity - February 14, 2014

    […] fail to treat sexual violence survivors “in the field” with humanity – seeing them as a ‘scientific object to study’ rather than as a fellow human being in need. These critiques and responses to them have been […]

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