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.