Book Reviews

Speaking for Her Security

"Do women understand and define security differently from men? Are they animated by the same concerns about state and national security? Are there other issues that concern them?" - asks Farah Faizal, a security studies specialist from Maldives, who recently co-edited a collection of writings entitled 'Women, Security, South Asia: A Clearing in the Thicket'.

According to Swarna Rajagopalan, her co-editor (a Chennai-based security studies expert), there are major gaps in the conventional masculinist understanding of security, calling for feminist reappraisal and re-setting of policy and research agendas. Their book is a beginning in that direction.

A chapter by Pakistani political scientist Saba Gul Khattak deals with 
Afghan refugee women - their lives torn asunder by conflict. Bangladeshi international relations expert Amena Mohsin's paper focuses on Chakma women of the Chittagong Hill Tracts whose lives were shattered by the 1971 Liberation War. Both Khattak and Mohsin dwell on the point of view of victims of armed conflicts, the hardships they face and the convergence of physical and social insecurities.

Women's bodies and lives seem to become the battleground on which male violence is played out. At the same time, women are not just passive victims, rather they are active agents in the processes that generate both security and insecurity. As journalist-researcher Sudha Ramachandran discusses in her analysis of women LTTE combatants in Sri Lanka, when women take up arms, it is often due to their sense of social insecurity, which exists in times of peace and conflict. When these women were asked what life would be like in the Tamil Eelam they were fighting for, many simply said it would be "a state free from hunger and want, where lives and livelihoods are secure".

Faizal notes that, for Maldivian women, ordinary lives are a minefield of insecurities even in times of peace. Women are commonly symbolically identified with the honor of their community and nation, and are pressurized to follow strict codes of behavior, speech and sexuality. Rajagopalan asserts that so long as fundamental survival concerns are unmet, "the State has no business securing itself".

For this to happen, women who explicitly relate to progressive women's solidarity politics should have a voice at the negotiating table. Although a few women do take part in inter-state and inter-ethnic negotiations, the players at this level are predominantly men. Notes Rajagopalan, "South Asia needs both women to be part of conventional security discourse as well as for the discourse to be expanded to admit the importance of their security concerns." A change in mindset, culture and rhetoric is called for if ordinary women's concerns are to enter and make a sufficient impact on the political process.

Neluka Silva's book 'The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writings from South  Asia' views the same terrain from the stance of a literary critic and analyst. She considers the implications of the overarching gendered imagery associated with the 'nation' and 'nationalism'. Invoked through gendered icons, the nation has a popular and emotive appeal. But while feminized images define and denote the modern nation-state, the actual practice of nationalism is reserved for men. Dress, eating and other cultural habits fix certain forms of essentialised femininity, which represent particular nations. Ideal womanhood is specified within patriarchal notions and frameworks, with nationalism being basically a 'male drama'.

By virtue of belonging to certain warring groups, women are likely to be uprooted, raped, displaced, widowed or used in conflict situations. Vulnerable even in times of peace, this vulnerability is enhanced in times of conflict and war. The exact forms of subordination of women depends on the socio-cultural and religious contexts that differ in different parts of South Asia. Yet most South Asian countries are strikingly similar in according low value to women's lives, education or health, and relatively high corresponding values for males. Violence on women is legitimized in the name of superseding national priorities.

It is interesting to examine the role of women leaders, of which South Asia has had several. Silva notes that these leaders have generally come up as representatives of a lineage, and have seldom acknowledged women's issues as significant. Thus when asked if she was a feminist, Indira Gandhi's reply was: "Why should I be? I always felt I could do anything. My mother was a strong feminist but she always felt that being a woman was a great disadvantage."

Like Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Chandrika Kumaratunge positioned themselves  as 'daughters' of the nations, consciously projecting a traditional image, with notions of martyrdom and sacrifice seeping into their political discourses. They wore the national dress for every public occasion and invoked the image of mother, a conscious effort designed to appeal to the masses. They derived political mileage from the achievements of their fathers/husbands. Although they prized radical western ideas, when they engaged in mainstream politics, they conformed to the dominant indigenous patriarchal codes of behavior and political practice.

Though nationalism can at times be emancipating, at other times it is a reactionary force. The underpinning of gender symbolism is usually a drag on the emancipatory potential, drawing the nation-state back into suffocating stereotypes. Concerns generally associated with women, such as food and water security, sustainable households, subsistence farming, child rights and sexual rights are relegated to the periphery and marginalized. A clear line is drawn between social concerns and national security - a binary division that further strengthens the masculisation of the state. Women are essentialised and sub-divided, becoming symbolic weapons with which to beat the 'other': thus for instance Sinhala women as authentic "ideal Aryan wives" are used as foils to the "licentious Burgher women". Women are manipulated, and themselves internalize patriarchal thinking, within a politics of over-determined ethnic and nationalistic identities.

The multidisciplinary approaches adopted by the two books at hand help  bring out some of the complex realities that determine the dilemmas and contradictions faced by women in contemporary South Asia. We need to grapple and engage with issues of identity, agency and politics in order to carefully redefine pre-set agendas, so as to be able to effectively intervene in the processes that exclude us. These processes are too significant for us to tolerate this continuing exclusion.


More by :  Deepti Priya Mehrotra

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