Feminist Activism and the Politics of Crisis: Why gender sensitive analysis and policymaking must be a priority

Read findings emerging from the latest research conducted by the Centre’s co-directors, Dr Maria-Adriana Deiana and Dr Jamie Hagen, with Danielle Roberts, doctoral candidate at Ulster University and policy officer at Here NI.

Our research project sought to investigate the impact of the crisis engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic on feminist activism and gender equality more broadly. 

Drawing on the experiences and knowledge of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in Northern Ireland through focus groups, we detail the exacerbation of inequalities and ongoing challenges to the realisation of meaningful rights, inclusion and gender justice. 

We also trace the strategies developed by organisers to sustain collective activism in the complex political and economic environment in Northern Ireland. 

We join feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in Northern Ireland and globally in demanding that gender-sensitive analysis and policymaking must be a priority as we plan for recovery, rebuilding, and transformation post-Covid and beyond.

Read our policy brief below:

Are you interested in getting involved in feminist activism in Northern Ireland?

Earlier this year, we partnered with Reclaim the Agenda for a workshop on how to make feminist activism part of our everyday. 

Watch below the recording of our conversation with some phenomenal women organising on various issues in Northern Ireland and beyond. Hear more about how to get involved – even if that’s from your sofa for the time being! 

Reach out to the following organisations and individuals  to be part of some phenomenal feminist activism!

Alliance for Choice 
Reclaim the Night
End Deportations Belfast 
The Homeless Period Belfast

If you want to keep up to date with feminist news, policy consultations and events:

Sign up to NIWEP mailing list here

Sign up for Women’s Link – mailing list open to all here

Follow the Women’s Sector Lobbyist on Twitter

Conversation with Gemma Bird launches new CGP theme ‘Feminist Dialogues on the Politics of Borders’

This year our research theme is ‘Feminist Dialogues on the Politics of Borders’. With this theme we will explore the following key areas:

  • Border politics in the everyday: race, gender, sexuality
  • How can feminist and queer theory resist and move beyond borders of the nation-state?
  • What work are activists doing to confront the violence of the UK border regime, the hostile environment, to protect migrants?

To kick off our conversations on this theme, we had a conversation with Dr. Gemma Bird during the Political Studies Association 2021 which was hosted at Queen’s University Belfast in March. CGP’s co-director Dr. Maria-Adriana Deiana served as discussant for the event with Bird.

Dr Gemma Bird is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at University of Liverpool. Her research sits at the intersection between political theory and International Relations. Since 2017 Dr Bird has been working on a collaborative research project IR Aesthetics with colleagues from Aston University. As a part of this project, she has looked at questions of border governance, citizenship, visual politics and provisions for refugees on the Balkan Route(s). Besides her book ‘Foundations of Just Cross-Cultural Dialogue in Kant and African Political Thought’, she has published in leading journals in the field including Cooperation and Conflict and Citizenship Studies.

You can watch the full conversation here:

Please watch the blog and CGP social media to be informed of future events and emerging research from our 2021 theme.

Feminist activism and the politics of crisis in Northern Ireland

How is the current crisis impacting on feminist activism and gender politics more broadly? How can feminist and LGBTQ+ activists sustain collective organizing in moments of crisis? 

These are questions at the core of a new research project led by co-directors Dr Maria-Adriana Deiana and Dr Jamie Hagen, and Danielle Roberts from Ulster University.

Evidence suggests that during political, economic and health crises gender equality concerns and the experiences of women and LGBT+ folks tend to be marginalized in favour of other political issues deemed of more urgency. At the same time, the logic of crisis works to obscure or accelerate ongoing processes that undermine the social, sexual, cultural and economic situations of diversely positioned women and LGBT+ individuals.

This research project investigates the challenges for gender equality, social justice and inclusion engendered by the politics of crisis with a focus on the experiences and knowledge of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists in Northern Ireland.

You can watch a presentation of the project below:

 The research teams has organised a series of focus groups with activists to reflect on what challenges for the realization of feminist demands for social transformation remain in place, emerged anew or have been exacerbated by the current health crisis.

Research findings will be published in an article for the upcoming special issue on Gender politics in the Island of Ireland for Irish political studies (co-edited by Maria-Adriana Deiana, QUB, Lisa Keenan, Trinity and Claire McGinn , IADT, chairs of the Gender and Politics standing group of PSAI). a report collated by the Centre for Gender in Politics will be shared with participants and their networks to facilitate communication  and review of findings.

Queer@Queen’s: Queen’s, Outburst and Queer Arts in Belfast

Belfast was a somewhat different place in 2008 when the first Queer at Queen’s took place. The region’s LGBTQI+ community had been dealt a blow by, firstly, a number of serious homophobic attacks that had occurred in the preceding years and, secondly, by the public and political response to those attacks, including the now infamous Iris Robinson comments made that year. That NI was hostile place for queers was not in doubt; that it could be better was an idea that spurred on the actions of a number of dedicated artists, activists and scholars. Ruth McCarthy set up Outburst Queer Arts Festival in 2007. Dr Alyson Campbell, then a lecturer in Drama at QUB, created Queer at Queen’s as an academic space for the festival, and a queer space within the university. From its creation, Q@Q has been responsive to the needs of a festival operating on a shoestring budget and those of a community whose political leaders’ tolerance for, if not public expressions of, homophobia forms a continued violent backdrop to their lives. It was one of the first conferences on the island dedicated to queer performance and these events were, as Campbell remarks, catalytic for the creation of both Outburst itself and Queer at Queen’s.

The demand for a different Northern Ireland that these events represent was revisited last year with Conor Mitchell’s Abomination (reviewed in The Guardian here). This opera, which premiered in Belfast in late 2019 as part of the Festival, takes the homophobic utterances of NI politicians and weaves them into a thing of angry beauty; the piece was a reminder of those years of homophobic violence of word and deed, litanies of ignorant and cruel statements – to repeat here would only replicate that violence – and it was a reminder of that time period when to say such things was publicly tolerated. It perhaps still is, times and attitudes do not change so quickly, but such a groundswell of collective rage and relief underpinned the 2019 production of Abomination that inklings of a different Northern Ireland might be glimpsed. That is a Northern Ireland that Outburst attempts to fashion and envision ever year and for that reason remains a bright queer jewel in the murk of November here, even in the midst of the pandemic as well. Alongside the festival therefore, Q@Q has operated to create a space within the university for queer ideas to be expressed, for modes of resistant performances and pedagogies to be practiced, and for queer and atypical lives to be welcomed.

Holly Hughes

Myself and Kurt Taroff took over the running of Q@Q in 2015 and have usually partnered with an individual or organisation to create a tailored event in response to a particular need or question. For instance, we partnered with UCD lecturer Cormac O’Brien in 2015-6 to run events, workshops and talks on HIV-AIDS. That year we, along with Outburst were lucky enough to welcome Sarah Schulman to speak on the legacy of the AIDS crisis and her ongoing activism. Subsequent years have given us a chance to bring in people who amount to lesbian theatre royalty: in 2017, performance artist Holly Hughes joined us and performed her recent work, Dog and Pony Show; in 2018, we welcomed Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw of Split Britches fame with their performance-conversation Situation Room.

Although not exclusively, Q@Q events have tended toward the theatrical or performance-focused. It was founded by and continues to be run by theatre people so the connection is an obvious one. But there is also the fact that we see queer culture (and theory) as being fundamentally related to performance, to performative acts and to live events. The liveness and presencing of non-normative bodies and identities in a place like Belfast is all the more urgent for us, given the context outlined above. In the main, we took over this event as a practice of allyship, as people well-placed within the institution to facilitate meeting, networks, and safe spaces for conversation. Last year we established a steering (& queering!) committee to help build and maintain connections across geographic and academic lines. The committee includes founder Alyson Campbell, now at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Steve Farrier (Central School of Speech and Drama), Sarah Mullan (University of Northampton), Jamie J. Hagen (QUB Centre for Gender in Politics, Prism network), Michael Gorry (QUB Prism network), Hilary McCollum (QUB Postgraduate) and Sara Greavu (Outburst Arts).   

Q@Q is not research-led and the lack of academic agenda on our part means that this is not a queer studies conference but rather, as Steve Farrier has suggested, the generation of civic spaces within a university. This year presented unique challenges for live events, yet we were able to welcome artists virtually to discuss their work and showcase some of the new gender research being done in NI. Our new research panel included QUB doctoral candidates Ciara McAllister and Hilary McCollum and Belfast-based doctoral researcher Sophie Anders (University of Salford). We also facilitated a conversation and show of work with playwright Mojisola Adebayo, artistic researcher Manola Gayatri and practice-research scholar Nando Messias, along with writer and PhD candidate at QUB, Hilary McCollum.

Part of the work of running this event, as we see it, is to maintain openness and responsiveness to pressures, tensions, dialogues and events happening around us, to the ways in which the university might be instrumentalised to serve communities and include the voices of those who have been historically marginalised from or by our various cultural institutions.

If you would like to get involved or to propose work for Q@Q, please email Trish McTighe, t.mctighe@qub.ac.uk. We welcome proposals for events to be held in November during Outburst, or at any time of the year.

Q@Q is grateful for the support of the Athena / Swan initiative at the School of Arts, English and Languages.

Trish McTighe is Lecturer in Drama at Queen’s University Belfast. Previously, she lectured at the University of Birmingham and was an AHRC post-doctoral researcher on the Staging Beckett Project at the University of Reading (2012-2015). Her book, The Haptic Aesthetic in Samuel Beckett’s Drama, was published with Palgrave in 2013, and she co-edited (with David Tucker) the double volume Staging Beckett in Ireland and Northern Ireland and Staging Beckett in Great Britain (Bloomsbury-Methuen, 2016). She has published in the journals Modern Drama, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, and the Irish University Review. She is theatre reviews editor for the Journal of Beckett Studies.

Pride in Solidarity Audre Lorde event recording

On 13 September the Centre for Gender in Politics co-hosted an event with HEReNI. The event was virtual and open to the public. We began the event with a screening of the film ‘The Berlin Years’ which, ‘documents Audre Lorde’s influence on the German political and cultural scene during a decade of profound social change, a decade that brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of East and West Germany. This chronicles an untold chapter of Lorde’s life: her empowerment of Afro-German women, as she challenged white women to acknowledge the significance of their white privilege and to deal with difference in constructive ways.

Following the film Northern Ireland based poet Anesu Khanya Mtowa read her poetry. Anesu Mtowa is a 17 year old poet currently studying A-levels. For 3 years, she has been writing poetry heavily focused on her identity as a second-generation immigrant, with her first piece ‘Where am I from?’ being published in October of 2017 for the Northern Ireland Youth Forum’s Black history month campaign.She has read at and been on a panel for the QUB Student Union Black history month event ‘BlackHerstory’ and for the past two years, she has been one of the poets for the ‘Sky You Are Too Big’ event.” Watch her in The Muff Monologues here.

Following Anesu’s poetry reading, black feminist scholar Naimah Z Petigny shared reflections on the film and Audre Lorde’s legacy.

Naimah Petigny is a Black Feminist scholar, educator, and dancer. As the granddaughter of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants, Naimah grew up in Western Massachusetts as a youth organizer, racial justice facilitator, and student of Afro-Caribbean dance. Naimah received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s Studies and Sociology from Vassar College in 2014. Currently, she lives in Minneapolis and is a Ph.D. candidate in Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. Naimah’s work is interdisciplinary and exists at the intersections of Black Feminist Theory, Black Studies, and Performance Studies. She is dedicated to the study of Black life and liberation, and to building spaces of connection within her classrooms. Her dissertation research centers experiments in contemporary dance-theater performance, Blackness, and erotics. 

For those who were unable to join us last month, you can enjoy the poetry reading and film reflections here:

Femonationalism and the Preoccupation with Muslim Women’s Bodies.

In 2016, images from the beaches of Nice were published, showing a group of male police officers stripping a Muslim woman wearing a Burkini, an overall swimsuit that includes a Hijab. The French law prohibits wearing an “integral veil” for reasons of public safety on the one hand and “explicit religious sign” in public schools on the other, which means it is technically legal to wear hijab everywhere except public schools, including burkini on the beach. However, the 2015-16 attacks in various areas of France have radicalized the public attitude towards veils, with seven towns, among them Nice and Cannes, banning the burkini. 

The prohibition doesn’t refer directly to Islam, but Newspapers and politicians didn’t fail to mention the Nice terror attack in their reports on the matter, and the ban itself is written in terms of “state of emergency”, requiring citizens to respect “moral standards”, “common decency”, “hygiene”, “safety” and “secularism” in their fashion choices. These measures have since been cancelled by the state, but studies report that 66% of French citizens are currently in favour of forbidding the burkini on beaches and less than 50% of employers are open to employees wearing a hijab at work.

The sentiment surrounding the burkini ban manifests a long-standing tradition of Western man’s concern with the Eastern woman’s body. The terms “West” and “East” are in themselves social constructs, as postcolonial studies assume that existing ethnic hierarchies have no objective meanings, but rather derive from colonial and nationalist views of the Western world seeing itself as modern and rational, and the “other” (e.g., the “East”) as irrational and passive. This ideology, defining Western culture as a universal benchmark for moral judgment, was referred to by Edward Said as “Orientalism”, assuming that ethnic identity is based on the creation and definition of the “other”, regardless of ethnicity and geography. This enabled the construction of “otherness” by the French under the East/West discourse, despite the geographic fact that most French colonies were in North Africa (i.e., not the east). 

With growing involvement of post-colonial subjects in the lives of French citizens through immigration, orientalism spawned sophisticated variants that appeal to liberalism as a justification for continued “Western” supremacy. Such is the notion of Femonationalism, introduced by Sara Farris (2017). The term aims to frame the political-economic logic underpinning “the surprising intersection among nationalists, feminists, and neoliberals” in denouncing Muslim communities as exceptionally sexist, unlike western countries, perceived as sites of “superior” gender relations. Farris demonstrates how invoking women’s rights to stigmatize Muslim men advances those different actors’ own political objective.

Such narratives are not new in colonial perceptions. Spivak’s (1988) essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” discusses the Western intellectual’s view of himself as transcending the socio-cultural context in which he was educated to examine the colonial subjects in a “context-less” manner, that in fact echoes his own voice. The white man perceives himself as the saviour of the non-white woman, protecting her from the oppressive patriarchal regime in which she lives while ignoring the oppression undergone by those women under his rule, as well as the oppression that white women undergo.  This thought paradigm is useful for understanding the context of the forces exerted on non-Western women in the burkini affair and in general. I do not mean to imply that non-Western cultures should not be criticised, but to highlight that the active force here is an inherent sense of supremacy of the West rather than a necessity arising from the voice of the victims (real or imagined).

A quote by France’s former minister of Families, Children and Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, is a good example, stating that “women’s control over their bodies is at risk. When a brand invests in a Muslim clothing market, it is essentially renouncing responsibility and promoting women’s incarceration”. Her claims do not take into consideration the will and needs of women who buy and wear the burkini. Ra/ther, she is the one putting their control over their bodies at risk.

While Burkini is a relatively new phenomenon, the concern regarding covering Muslim women is a long-standing practice. Elor (2017) discusses how the word “veil”, narrowing and inaccurate to begin with, became a “problem” or an “issue” in Western countries. The word immediately relates “the problem” with Muslims people, government, economy and culture, but Elor demonstrates that time after time the concerns end up being placed specifically on the heads of girls and women. In current discourse, the West presents an ethos of gender equality that seeks to see itself as a universal order. The woman in the veil undermines this representation when she does not adopt the “principle of equality” but openly selects difference. These women are acting on the gender axis, and yet they’re being disciplined first and foremost on the national axis. Accordingly, the politicians’ criticism of the Burkini allegedly refers to gender, but mainly reveals the national source of Western discomfort. French 2016 PM Manuel Valls, called the Burkini “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic” and Nice’s deputy mayor wrote that “hiding the face or wearing a full-body costume to go to the beach is not in keeping with our ideal of social relations”. In the terms of Bhabha’s (1998) “The White Stuff”, with these statements “Whiteness” (i.e., the West) continues its “nationalist career” under the guise of “civil culture”, “tolerance” and other terms created to draw humans into a community, but, also to exclude some as “others.

Further understanding of what Farris (2017) describes as an “unholy alliance” between feminists and nationalists requires a closer look into the positions of western women towards the Burkini.  Nadia Guessous’s (2011) ethnographic study of leftist feminist politics in Morocco of the new millennium connects the hostility of some Moroccan feminists towards younger women who wear the hijab with their struggle to deal with loss, a moment before recognizing and accepting that the aesthetics of modernity have changed. Guessous found that feminists of the older generation, similarly to Susan Okin’s approach (1989;1999), discursively construct “tradition” as a problem and perceive themselves as “guardians of modernity” despite struggling with its constitutive contradictions themselves. They are unable to deal with the gap between their assumptions about freedom, religion, and the body and those of the younger generation of women, who have different strategies and ideas on how feminist action looks like. Rossignol’s critique – both as a woman and as the minister responsible for women’s rights – shares the national dimension that characterizes male politicians, with this additional shade of gender dimension.

The West male gaze of the East has infiltrated so deeply into the population through the practice of nationalism, that feminist women, who feel committed to women’s struggles, remain blind to its impact on their feminist approach. The absence of this impact is very noticeable in the writings of Lady Mary Montague, the first secular account by a woman of the Muslim Orient, written in the 18th century before the idea of nationalism became central in European thought (Melman, 1992). Montague wrote in the early days of the imperial era, a period characterized by extensive travel literature, much of it by “armchair travellers”, who never left Europe and base their writing on third-hand sources and/or their fertile imagination (Montesquieufor example). As opposed to those mainly male writers, Montague wrote from the Orient itself, while living in Istanbul between 1716 and 1718. Already then, veils were seen in the West as a symbol of the enslavement of women in the Muslim world. However, when Montague addresses the subject in her letters, she presents a different stance:

“Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank so ever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head […] You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery” (p. 242).

In addition to the pre-national context, the lack of gender equality ethos in her society allowed Montague to examine women and men relationships in other societies with a less judgmental, more curious eye. “The manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe”, she writes (p. 243). Spivak warns us from nostalgia for lost origins, and indeed, our look into Montague’s world cannot be separated from the history of colonialism. Nonetheless, learning from women from varied eras, locations and contexts is helpful if we wish to recognize our blind spots.

The burkini affair reflects a core debate in feminist political thought and policymaking, highlighting the urgent necessity to include voices of women from different backgrounds in decision-making processes. In Abu Lughod’s words, we must develop “serious appreciation of differences among women in the world” and consider “our own responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves” (2002, p.783).

Author bio

Shir Berebi is a Masters student of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She works in the field of critical pedagogy and facilitates Israeli-Palestinian dialogue encounters. She is active in various feminist anti-militarist movements as well as co-mobilizer of the anti-pinkwash block – Queers against Pinkwashing in Israel. Contact her at shirberebi@gmail.com. Pronouns: she/her.

Why intersectionality cannot wait. Considering Northern Ireland’s widening participation policy

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘everyone has the right to education’. The establishment of this right in social and legal discourses, as well as increased access to schooling in many countries within the last one-hundred years has led to the perception of education as essentially inclusive. In this context, access to higher education and successful educational outcomes are often taken for granted and are rarely framed as major issues—let alone as issues related to gender, race or any other social identity. 

By adopting feminist and intersectional perspectives, however, we can see how inequalities and injustices effect many aspects of life, including education. Intersectionality emphasises overlapping social categories, in addition to gender, that work together to compound an individual’s marginalisation and disadvantage. Kimberly Crenshaw, one of the pioneers of intersectionality, describes it as,  

‘a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power’, that ‘[brings] to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them’. 

In this sense, intersectionality is an analytical perspective. More importantly though, it is also a lived experience—based on multiple identities—that is often overlooked, unacknowledged and misrecognised.

Increasingly, the concept of widening participation in higher education is drawing attention to the role of social identity in determining whether or not a student has the opportunity to attend and succeed at university. As both a government policy and higher education practice in the United Kingdom, widening participation initiatives aim to increase the accessibility of undergraduate study for students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds. Most often, students targeted by widening participation strategies are those who face financial barriers to attending based on their socio-economic status, although other social categories that may disproportionately face barriers may also be included to a lesser extent. These include disadvantaged groups based on gender, race or ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, refugee status, care leavers and those with caring responsibilities. Widening participation, in other words attempts to examine and mitigate the negative effects of privilege, marginalisation and disadvantage as they relate to students’ various economic and social statuses.

From their very nature, many widening participation strategies may seem intersectional. In practice, however, these intersectional approaches not always perfect, nor clear cut. For example, the Northern Irish version of the policy, Access to Success, claims ‘support should be tailored to individual needs and based on identified multiple disadvantages’ (DfE 2015, p.17). Nevertheless, there is limited evidence of this in the rest of the strategy. In fact, the only evidence of an intersectional approach is the identification of Protestant males from areas of high deprivation as distinctly underrepresented in higher education–combining disadvantages related to religion, gender, and class. 

 Simultaneously, several other groups that are recognised as facing disproportionate disadvantages in access and successful outcomes in their higher education experience elsewhere in the U.K. are completely excluded from the widening participation strategy. Most notably, Black, Asian, ethnic minority (BAME) and female students are considered ‘well represented based on enrolment statistics. As a result, these groups are considered to have fair and equal access. Despite this broad assumption about female and BAME student access, there has been acknowledgement of disproportionate disadvantages and barriers faced by these groups elsewhere in the UK through higher education policies, the National Union for Students and in academic research. Further, LGBTQ+ students and several other groups are not mentioned in the policy at all, despite also experiencing disadvantages and marginalisation.

Equally worryingthere appear to be no attempts to fulfil the initial promise to recognise forms of multiple disadvantage, stemming from the intersection of these identities with others. In using broad categories such as ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘ethnic minorities’ the different types of barriers faced by an LGBTQ+ student, a BAME woman and a white woman all from low-income households, for example, are apparently not considered. Rather, Access to Successtreats these groups and potential barriers or disadvantages as homogenous. Essentially, as bell hooks put it, the policy assumes ‘all the women are white and all the blacks are men’ and so on.  

The outright exclusion of certain groups as well as their exclusion from the policy’s intersection approach, indicate that policy makers in Northern Ireland do not see these groups as facing significant barriers and inequalities to access and success in higher education. Perhaps this is because many of the disadvantages faced by these groups, specifically at the intersections of identities, are not always straight forward, easily quantifiable, nor reflected in admission and enrolment statistics on which many policies are based. Or perhaps, in the case of race and ethnicity, it may be because Northern Ireland is perceived as almost entirely white and, therefore free of racism. (Although we know this is not the case, particularly in higher education, as was recently highlighted by Queen’s University’s Afro-Caribbean Society). 

Nevertheless, this selective application of an intersectional perspective on educational inequalities is not inconsequential. By overlooking some specific and less obvious barriers while appropriately attempting to mitigate the effects of others, the policy risks increasing the gap in educational inequalities between groups. This does not mean, however that Northern Ireland’s widening participation efforts are beyond improvement. A more intersectional approach could be achieved if policy makers and higher education professionals commit themselves to posing more critical and intersectional questions, such as: ‘which types of men and women are present in the student bodies of universities?’; ‘how is LGBTQ+ identity connected to multiple forms of disadvantage and marginalisation that may affect access to or success in higher education?’; and ‘how do experiences for both male and female BAME students from low-income households compare to both white male and white female students from similar socio-economic backgrounds?’.

Without addressing these questions to create a more inclusive policy, many the groups mentioned here and the variety of complex barriers they face both to entering higher education and to success within it will ultimately continue to be left unacknowledged, misrecognised or entirely invisible. To quote Kimberly Crenshaw, ‘intersectionality cannot wait’. Indeed, if Northern Ireland’s widening participation policy is to be an effective tool in the fight against educational inequalities it is important to use intersectional perspectives to scrutinise the effects of social policies, especially taking into consideration who and what is not addressed.

Author Bio:

Anna DeWitt is a master’s student from the United States completing a degree in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s. She is interested in the role of education and community organisations in promoting conflict transformation and social justice. In the future she hopes to combine these interests in her work to encourage positive outcomes for young people by supporting educational and leadership opportunities and promoting their capacities to work with others from diverse backgrounds. 

The Intersection of Gender, Power and Violence in Armed Conflict.

On the 30th October 2014, soldiers of the Sudanese army searched houses, severely beat residents and raped women and girls in the Sudanese town of Tabit in a series of attacks over a 36-hour period. According to one report, over 200 cases were credibly reported, with two soldiers stating, “that superior officers had ordered them to ‘rape women’”. Why did military officers order the rape of civilians? Because they were believed to be “rebel supporters”. This case provides an example of how sexual violence in armed conflict can be chosen as a specific tactic. As will be explored in this blog post, what makes this tactic feasible or effective in the eyes of the perpetrator is the underlying gendered hierarchies that rely on essentialist identities and marginalises femininity. 

Rape as a “weapon of war” was brought to international attention predominantly after the mass use of rape in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and the 1994 Rwandan genocide with international bodies, such as the United Nations, taking steps to tackle it. For example, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, enacted in 2000, called for all parties within an armed conflict “to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape”. However, feminist research since has shown that while rape is a gendered insecurity in war that does target predominantly women, this does not encapsulate its full gendering dynamics nor the gendered assumptions behind it.

Sexual violence in conflict holds a range of purposes and aims. One such purpose relies on the gendered assumption of the masculine ‘warrior’ and ‘protector’ identity. Rape can serve a communicative purpose in the form of humiliation by targeting this gendered identity as it ‘feminizes’ the enemy by reducing them to ineffective protectors of their communities and thus undermines the cultural and social fabric of their society. Cynthia Enloe highlights how militarized rape is used by states occupied with the sweeping threat of ‘national security’ as a form of repression. This use of militarized rape is evident in the case of Sudan, as the state relied on gendered assumptions by exerting its masculine dominance and authority against a village perceived to be supporting their enemy, thus undermining the rebel group’s authority, targeting their masculinities and ‘feminizing’ them.

Therefore, in relation sexual violence in conflict relies on the gendered assumptions of the feminine ‘victim’ identity as women and girls become the ‘protected’.  Laura Sjoberg describes sexual violence and rape as a tactic of warfare that serves an explicitly gendered purpose by targeting the foundations of a community through women who are utilised as “centres of gravity” for their communities. This holds significant implications as it positions female bodies in relation to their society, as it is not only the individual victim that is the target but through them the wider community, ethnic group or nationality. Female bodies become weaponized. In the case study of Tabit, it is the power positionings of women as symbols of their societies that makes them effective targets to those seeking to undermine the wider group through their gendered foundations and it is therefore through them that responsively the group’s masculinities are targeted.

It should also be mentioned that the majority of Tabit, the village targeted, belong to the Fur ethnic group, a minority group in Sudan who have been previously targeted by militias, such as the notorious Janjaweed, supported by the Arab-dominated government. Women were targeted because of their identity as not only women, but minority women, and therefore in these armed conflicts there is an intersection here of not only gendered power hierarchies but also ethnic power hierarchies. 

Women in Darfur

The case of rape in Sudan provides evidence that through the use of sexual violence power and gender intersect as a tactic that specifically targets an enemy’s masculinities undermining the gendered identity of the male ‘protector’ while subjugating them through the process of feminization. This tactic relies on notions of gendered subordination and is only made feasible because of the gendered positionings of women that locates them as the ‘protected’, in relation to their communities and therefore viable targets. Therefore, the explicitly gendered use of violence in armed conflict reflects and reaffirms the patriarchal system of power that subjugates femininity and valorises masculinity. Significantly, the example of Tabit is but one of many examples of the continued use of tactical rape in conflict. It is important for the full gendered dynamics behind sexual violence and the tactical nature in which it is adopted to be fully explored in order to effectively tackle it.

Author Bio:

Anna Grant-Jones is undertaking an MA in Violence, Terrorism and Security at Queen’s University Belfast. She is currently working on her dissertation focusing on gendered narratives and media conceptualisations of female terrorists. 

Welcoming Clara Fischer to the Centre for Gender in Politics: An interview

Welcome! You have recently joined HAPP as an Illuminate Fellow. Can you tell us a bit about the focus of your research in this role?

My research is broadly concerned with Irish feminisms, embodiment and reproduction, theories of emotion and affect, and feminist-pragmatism. My current interests lie specifically with reproduction and abortion rights on the one hand, and gendered (economic) precarity on the other – both viewed through the frame of the politics of emotion. Emotions and affects have long been recognised in feminist work as being of political significance and there is now a renewed interest in emotion/affect reflecting recent developments in critical thought. My research positions itself within these developments and examines emotions for their political value.

You recently undertook an EU project GENDEMOTION, looking at gender, shame and economic disadvantage in austerity Ireland. What was one of the most interesting/surprising outcomes of that research project?

The research examined the 2008 financial crisis and its gendered fallout. It included interviews and a survey with lone parents in ROI (the vast majority of whom are women), and explored the role of shame in women’s experiences of austerity measures and the crisis more generally. I suppose one of the more surprising outcomes of the project was the diversity of “sites” of shame that survey and interview participants shared. While it is not entirely surprising that social welfare offices can be experienced as sites of shame, participants highlighted many other sites of shame, including maternity wards, which were experienced as shameful owing to gendered and heteronormative norms  – especially around motherhood. This raises important questions for future research,  eg on the delivery of maternity care. 

Much of your work has been with the NGO sector and civil society. Can you tell us a bit about how you think about connecting with civil society organisers while also working in academia?

This presents both challenges and opportunities.I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several engaged activists and grassroots organisations whose work at the feminist “coal face”, if you like, I greatly admire. I think it’s really important for feminist academic work to be responsive to such civil society work and to build alliances between civil society and academia to achieve feminist ends. This can be tricky sometimes, though, as such collaborative work has not always been considered “academic”, especially within certain disciplines – although this seems to be, thankfully, changing. Feminist thinking and practice of course takes place both in civil society organisations/grassroots groups, as well as in academia, and one can greatly enrich the other through collaborative and responsive work. 

Who is one of the most influential feminists in your life (academic or otherwise) and why?

This is quite a challenging question as  I’m really lucky to know – or know of – many impressive feminists, so having to choose just one is really difficult! I’ve been personally and professionally supported by several more senior women in academia – women who model feminism for the rest of us. And of course I am greatly influenced by feminist thinkers ranging from Jane Addams to Sara Ahmed. I suppose the primary feminist influence in my life, however, would have been my mother. She has always been strong willed and unconventional, and fostered in me the need to pursue one’s passions and a desire for independence. 


Recent work:

Feminists redraw public and private spheres: Abortion, vulnerability, and the affective campaign to repeal the eighth amendment; Fischer, C., 01 Jun 2020, In : Signs. 45, 4, p. 985-1010.
Abortion and Reproduction in Ireland: Shame, Nation-building and the Affective Politics of Place; Fischer, C., 01 Jul 2019, In : Feminist Review. 122, 1, p. 32-48 17 p.
Gender and the Politics of Shame: A Twenty-First-Century Feminist Shame Theory; Fischer, C., 11 Aug 2018, In : Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 33, 3, p. 371-383 13 p.

The Irish Abortion Referendum Is A Chance To Change A Culture Of Shame, Huffington Post, 2018

Philosophical Perspectives on Contemporary Ireland  book cover