“The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence.” -Judith Butler, from Precarious Life: the Mourning and Powers of Violence
“They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult: to feel like a woman.” -Dhia al-Shweiri, Abu Ghraib prisoner
This project began as an assignment for my Critical Thinking class with Scott Hoshida at Berkeley City College in Fall 2013. We were given the opportunity to form a whole semester’s worth of research around any subject which might interest us, and then to create a blog to share our work.
The research question I managed to formulate was: “How does gender inform armed conflict?”
In the process of answering this question, I hope to answer the following sub questions: How does gender inform nationalism and militarism? Is there a contradiction between feminism and nationalism as political projects?
Chelsea Manning problematizes a wide range of assumptions about both gender and patriotism in a time of war: a transgender soldier currently serving a 35 year sentence for leaking government secrets and exposing war crimes, she vehemently denies that she was motivated by pacifism. What, if any, links are there between gender struggle, militarism, and anti-war activism?
I have never read any Women’s/Gender/Queer theory so many of these ideas are new to me. I am also new to academia so sometimes I have a hard time articulating the questions I have. So bear with me: this really is a research project, and I ask these questions honestly and in earnest.
How I Got to This Point
I started asking myself these questions after reading the poet Sappho this summer. Sappho lived in roughly 650 BCE and wrote of love and sex as the aggressor: she called upon Aphrodite to aid her in the pursuit of her prey just as the epic dude poets would ask Ares for help in battle.
Because of this, and because of the gendered pronouns she chose, people for centuries assumed that she was “unnatural”. This got me to thinking: when did it become “unnatural” for a woman to be warlike? When did conflict become such a gendered thing?
I began to read about the pre-Islamic tribes of the Middle East. I learned that the role of woman was that of history keeper: she composed and performed the story of her people. But she also composed the poetry of war…the blood feuds and the revenge and the holy battles were incited, all, by the women of the tribes.
It would be easy to say that it was the advent of certain religions which changed women’s roles but I found, too, records of a woman named Umm Hakim: a Kharijite warrior poet who fought alongside the prophet and taught his wives how to read and write:
“I carry a head I can no longer bear
And I am bored with infusing it and washing it
Will no young man relieve me of its weight?”
I was struck by how the poet depicts the final meeting with her enemy as an erotic encounter. And though equating martyrdom with sexual satisfaction was nothing new in Islamic poetry, a woman laying claim to it certainly was. I was so in love.
I started to get excited: there was a link here, I was sure of it. Sex, poetry, aggression: these things were never entirely the province of men, were they? No! They were not! After much careful thought, and a bit more research, I decided where this project should go.
In this blog, you will find articles and essays, videos and images, and hopefully even more questions as the project develops. I appreciate your feedback!