Art, expression and dialogue: towards social transformation

In recent months, I’ve neglected the written word dreadfully. Hence the decision to adopt a more personal tone in this post, which is address to those of you who were so supportive of my writing throughout the PhD and who may have been wondering where in the world I’ve gotten to…The answer is, I’m still in Berlin (currently sitting on my balcony listening to the rattle and hum of S-Bahn trains pulling in and out of the nearby station), still engaging with refugee and migration issues at the local level, and still…still…still toying with different ideas about post-doctoral research. Which I promise to write more about in the future. For now, it being September 1st, I thought I’d treat you an old-fashioned essay on What I Did On My Summer Holidays. (It’s a sign of how much time I’ve spent in full-time education that I use the term ‘summer holidays’ interchangeably with ‘July and August’ – to be clear, what follows is about work, not an extended vacation)

For those in need of a reminder/introduction: not long after I arrived in Berlin last October, I became involved in an organisation that serves as an intercultural community and volunteering hub for old and new Berliners. I began working in a voluntary project that uses art, craft and storytelling as a basis for transcultural dialogue and emotional recovery in the context of the refugee crisis. Specifically, we (a group of more and less privileged locals, migrants and refugees) work with people in and from refugee camps to create safe spaces for self-expression and healing. To use more jargon: it’s an art-based form of psychosocial intervention with strong elements of social transformation. To use less jargon: we use art in a way that encourages people tell their stories and formulate their needs and desires, while building a small grassroots community.

One of the main things I’ve come to appreciate is that time is of the utmost value in this line of work. It is with time that you come to see beyond the surface impressions which arise when you first step inside the camps – mostly shock and indignation – and start to recognise the relentless, monolithic, self-serving nature of the system. You start to see the small changes, the subtle and not-so-subtle additions and alterations, the chain of decisions being made all along the line, which all add up into a picture of institutionalisation, punctuated by moments of resistance. (For me, it’s horribly reminiscent of the evolution of Direction Provision in Ireland – a temporary solution which becomes a permanent fixture on the landscape of social injustice.) It is only after a few months of observation, when you’ve realised that this is more than just a contingency plan – this is THE plan – that the real sadness and anger kick in.

Yet it seems to me that only when you reach this point can you appreciate the agency and resourcefulness of those struggling to keep their dignity intact in these living conditions. When you find yourself forced to laugh or cry because the security guards (who seem to have tripled in number) will no longer let you carry craft scissors into the camp, you get a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live every day in a system that treats you as a securitised object rather than a person. I do not want to overstate the potential for empathy to develop out of these encounters, in a situation that remains so riddled with inequalities. And of course, I do not want to make blanket statements about the experiences of such a large and diverse group of people as those who fall into the category of refugee. But I do believe that with time, small pockets of empathy emerge, and, given the right treatment, can be expanded into meaningful, ongoing encounters.

From empathy and survival we move to transcultural solidarity and resilience. And from there – perhaps to personal agency, perhaps to political activism. Frankly, there is no sense that I can see in trying to instigate the latter without having a firm basis in the former. Here is where feminism really has to prioritise connections between women – empathy and solidarity – over fighting the patriarchy. I would add that this is a point where age and motherhood (as well as class and ethnicity) emerge as important variables on the axes of identity, and where feminism really has to shed the illusion of being a movement composed of young, unmarried/childless, middle class, white, western women (like it or not, the majority of volunteers I’ve worked with the last six months fall into at least 4/5 of these categories, and personally I fit all of them). Despite the difference in context and scope, this resonates clearly with the findings of my thesis. Memories of fieldwork constantly interrupt and interweave with the work I’m doing here, testing and strengthening its ethical foundations.

The author of the aforementioned article on Direct Provision references Wallace Heim’s essay on Slow Activism (Sociological Review 51: 2003), whereby:

“slowness refers not only to the duration of the event and the drift which can be momentary or extend over years, but to its temper. There is a resistance in slowness which responds to the reductive aspects of haste and frenzy. The locus of change is one person at a time, in a process of communication which is dependent on finding enough common meaning between the artist and participant to sustain a dialogue. This mutual adjustment is method.”

Although we who are engaged in this project do not consider ourselves artists, art provides an apt metaphor for the creative and intuitive nature of the work (we have also called ourselves magicians and gardeners on occasion). Undoubtedly, our participants are artists in a similar sense, whether we are painting walls, drawing on pavements, crocheting and embroidering, creating photo albums or hand-writing letters to one another. It is a delicate encounter, but one which has, I think, taken a firm root in the minds of all who have been involved long enough for it to form a habit.

Time is undoubtedly what it takes to create and sustain dialogue, but there are other more fragmentary ways in which we can visualise art in relation to conflict transformation and peacebuilding. For instance, the well-known mediator John Paul Lederach writes about the importance of the “artistic five minutes” in this essay:

“In the larger picture of politics and social change, many would say, “And so what? What difference does something like this artistic five minutes actually make?” I am not sure I can answer that question. On the other side of the coin, I would ask a different but parallel question: How, when, and why did politics and developing responses to needed social change come to be seen as something separate from the whole of human experience? The artistic five minutes, I have found rather consistently, when it is given space and acknowledged as something far beyond entertainment, accomplishes what most of politics has been unable to attain: It helps us return to humanity, a transcendent journey that, like the moral imagination, can build a sense that we are, after all, a human community.”

For me, a large part of the summer has been about coming to terms with the tension that arises between these efforts to create a human community and the frequent comings and goings of volunteers. Naturally enough, summer has been an especially busy time with many beautiful but short bursts of energy and enthusiasm from those passing through Berlin for a brief period. I find it is difficult to keep focused on the different layers: from our core community that has been working together for several months, to the wider community of well-intentioned  and free-spirited individuals who come and go so casually. How do we ensure that the meaning is not lost when the experience can be so fleeting? Then again, I have to admit that the last eight months have felt like a lifetime, and my feet are itching for change. I feel homesick for a different place on every day of the week. And I do wonder, sometimes, how to resolve the contradictions between local and global activism.

Well, as you can see, I’ve begun the slow drift back from observation and experience to reflection and analysis. My feet seem to have found that path of their own accord, after several months of stumbling in the dark. Over the next few weeks (which will probably be my last ones here, for a while anyway) I hope to find time to share more stories and reflections, to address European politics more specifically, and to bring in some comparative insights from my research in the South Caucasus. On a personal note, thank you to everyone, family and friends, who has supported the work I’ve been doing. And to those involved in this or similar efforts who have made the time to read this – thank you for inspiring me and please continue doing so in the future!

Peace, violence and security (ii): reflections on a refugee shelter

Let’s take another example of the links between peace, violence and security which I began discussing in my previous post. Recently I’ve been spending some time with women and girls in a refugee camp in Berlin (this is not an academic project, but perhaps it might inspire one). I am part of a group of female volunteers who visit this shelter on a weekly basis bringing materials for art and needlecraft. We organise a weekly ‘creative circle’ where women from inside and outside the shelter come together on an equal footing to engage in hobbies and try to overcome language barriers. We help teach the younger girls how to do things like sew and knit, and some of our volunteers look after small children so that their mothers can be absorbed in their own tasks. The core idea? To create peace in an otherwise stressful environment; to help sustain individual efforts to preserve mental peace and stability; to provide a space where worries can be shared and solidarity sought. To take the empty concept of ‘shelter’ and give it a practical meaning.

The project is in its early stages, and now is not the time to write a full review of it. But one thing that has struck me from this and other initiatives is that security offers a useful lens for seeing how the refugee ‘crisis’ has played out in Berlin. Around 70,000 refugees arrived in the city in the last year. The vast majority are scattered throughout the 120 or more shelters that have sprung up in old sports halls and hospitals, disused office blocks, and of course Tempelhof, the former airport for west Berlin. Visiting just a handful of these shelters, it is clear that ‘security’ is a primary concern for those in charge. To gain access to Tempelhof, for example, one passes through an external security check, followed by a second check inside the building, followed by a third (and fourth, and fifth) check every time you move between the hangars. Usually these checkpoints are manned by groups of three or four security guards, all dressed in black. So it is not unusual to encounter 10 or 12 security guards on a single visit. Residents are also checked whenever they re-enter or move around within the building. In ten weeks, I have only ever seen one female security guard. I have only met one social worker (who wasn’t particularly friendly). I have never looked around and thought “this seems like a really safe place.”

Of course, if you have fled war or persecution in your home country, and had to survive awful things on the journey here, then it probably does feel relatively free from violence. On the other hand, what if you are worried that your asylum claim will be rejected and you and your children will be deported? What if all you want to do is make progress in your German class, but you can’t sleep at night because the noise is so loud? What if you are eight months pregnant and wondering if you will have to bring a baby into this place? What if you can’t help but feel threatened by the presence of so many men, both refugees and security guards, who for all you know could be violent and intimidating? How would you feel if you were living indefinitely in a place where taking a shower was a complicated, semi-public event and you weren’t able to cook or shop for yourself, and you didn’t know when the situation was going to change, and if it was going to change for the worse or the better?

You’d feel pretty insecure, right?

So if security guards are there to maintain security, then whose security are they maintaining? The building? The equipment? The bunk beds and portaloos that some company paid money to have installed?

We worry (not entirely without reason) about right-wing attacks on refugee shelters, but in the meantime we turn a blind eye to the subtle violence impacting the everyday lives of refugees. But the beauty of structural violence – the reason it is so hard to combat – is that it seems that nobody is to blame. Across the world, refugees are treated like prisoners and refugee camps are run like prisons. That might be an exaggeration, but it is closer to the truth than to say that refugees are being given every possible assistance in building a secure life for themselves. Why is the security of things so highly valued (and remunerated) while peace for the people is pushed to the margins, squeezed into whatever corners and hours volunteers can manage to arrange?

I already suspect that things are changing, and that the energy and determination of Berlin’s Wilkommenskultur is making a large dent in the system – welcomed by many on the inside. But what I cannot shake is the feeling that there is some flaw in our thinking which allowed the system to develop this way in the first place – which apparently designed a humanitarian response without a sustained psychosocial component. And for all the good work being done by volunteers (many of whom are themselves refugees), we are still left with the problem of unpaid emotional labour. Which is also, naturally, a feminist issue…

And that is where I have got to in my thinking. Stay tuned for more updates.


P.S. If you would like to make a donation to the project I mentioned, you can do so through Give Something Back To Berlin (specify that it is for Open Art Shelter). Merci!

Peace, violence and security (i): reflections on a conflict zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about security lately, inspired by a couple of great feminist books – ones I won’t name because I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read them earlier. Their main arguments were already known to me: feminist scholars have challenged the idea of state-defined (or national) security, and introduced a concept of security that is related to women’s sense of control over their own lives. To do so, they examine patterns of peace and violence in women’s everyday lives, regardless of the proximity to conflict zones. Thinking about peace, violence and security all together has been reshaping my understanding of two situations which have been on my mind a lot. The first is the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which escalated again this month, and the second (which I’ll deal with in a separate post) is the refugee ‘crisis’ as witnessed here in Berlin.

Let’s start with what happened in Karabakh. To say that “violence erupted” or “clashes broke out” is to point to the sense that something – violence, clashes, conflict, war – has been simmering below the surface for some time. Yet by suggesting that conflict is somehow dormant in the periods between clashes, the media erases the traces of violence, pain and injustice that are re-inscribed in everyday life. The wounds of war are etched more deeply with every day that brings news of a minor ceasefire violation, a soldier killed or wounded, civilian homes under attack, a mine explosion, an incident involving a prisoner of war, a diplomatic argument, evidence of cultural desecration, or the commemoration of a major loss inflicted more than twenty years ago. These are stories that never make the international news headlines, but are part of everyday life for Armenians and Azerbaijanis, especially those living in conflict-affected communities.

Other forms of violence are also present in the conflict. Take for example the economic blockade which prevents Armenia, and even more so Nagorno-Karabakh, from reaching its full potential as a society. What is economic violence if not an all-pervasive tactic of war, with psychological and cultural effects, which disproportionately impacts the poor? The continued denial of the right of Azerbaijani IDPs to return to their homes is a similar kind of violence. At least half of IDPs live in over-crowded or unsanitary conditions, and they lack full voting rights. The destruction of their livelihoods and the impact on family structures does more than anything else to ensure that the trauma of displacement will also affect the next generation. We could go on…what about gender violence, which is legitimated through the construction of protective masculinity and vulnerable femininity, the valorisation of the military (which chews up and spits out young men’s bodies) and the degradation of women’s rights (which are inevitably sacrificed to the war machine)? What about government corruption, which has the effect of magnifying economic violence while seeking to blame it all on the conflict?

Once we start thinking about everyday violence, it becomes much easier to imagine what everyday security means. Everyday security does not mean risking losing your sons and brothers because they have been sent to the front line (even if they have volunteered for it). Everyday security does not mean watching your government invest in bigger and better tanks and missiles, while you cannot even access the gynaecological care which you urgently need. Everyday security does not mean waking up every morning afraid to check the news, or struggling to remember a dream you had of home. Everyday security means knowing that you and your family are safe and free to pursue your own needs and interests. The latest clashes are devastating in the sense that they reaffirm the sense of everyday insecurity, rather than shattering the illusion of security, in the region. No one who is familiar with the region was surprised by this “outbreak” of violence. Moreover, they know that enforcing the ceasefire and even renewing the commitment to negotiations is only one of many steps needed to address security issues.

How does this concept of security relate to peacebuilding as it is practiced in the region? One of the main aims of peacebuilding is establishing cross-border dialogue, in the hopes of reducing stereotypes and harmful perceptions, and providing common ground for peaceful solutions. The other is more akin to peace education: promoting the idea of nonviolent conflict resolution and civic participation in the peace process (for feminist NGOs this also means opposing gender-based violence and promoting UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security).

But peacebuilding does not end there. The idea that the dogma of peace might slowly be infused into society through trainings and seminars must also take reverse feedback into account. Peacebuilding must aim to create a platform where everyday security concerns can be articulated and addressed at the appropriate level – local, national, or international – and in the context of cross-border dialogue. It seems to me that this tends to happen in spite of, rather than because of, the usual peacebuilding format. Last week I spoke to several people who are deeply concerned that their peacebuilding work has been derailed. People can’t imagine how they are going to re-establish trust in the community. This has been a recurring problem for peacebuilders, but it is one that could be creatively avoided (to some extent) if peacebuilders geared their work more towards listening than telling. Maybe the imposition of ‘peacebuilding’ on conflict-affected communities brings with it its own forms of violence and exclusion?

Personally, I do not want to abandon the idea of peacebuilding and I believe that there is value and purpose in bringing people together. But I also agree with the anonymous feminists who wrote this week that peace and conflict resolution programmes can only succeed when coupled with the dismantling of patriarchal and militarist systems. This simply cannot be done without rethinking security from a feminist perspective.

The final stretch (six steps for finishing your PhD)

I’ve refrained from commenting on the final stages of my PhD up to now, so as not to feel I was jinxing the outcome. Happily, my viva came around at the end of February, and my thesis passed without corrections. I’ll try to devote a post in the near future to some of the questions that came up, but first, for what it’s worth, here’s some general advice on getting across the finish line.

  1. (Re)read the manual

This is especially true if your thesis diverges from the scientific method (introduction – method – results – discussion) by presenting and analysing findings together (e.g. a series of thematic chapters). I rarely plug books this whole-heartedly, but if you haven’t read Authoring A PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, ignore the rest of what I have to say and just go and get a copy. As well as invaluable advice/reassurance on structure, it’s very helpful on style (thanks to the Thesis Whisperer for the original suggestion).

Want some bonus reading? Savage Minds, a group blog for sociocultural anthropologists, will make you feel less alone in dealing with the challenges of ethnographic writing (take a good look at their writers’ workshop series!).

  1. Write, write, write

There will be days when it feels like getting blood from a stone. But there are some things that usually make it easier:

  • A positive mental attitude. Positivity is not one of my strong suits, but writing is, so I developed a mantra: it’s not about getting it done, it’s about reaching the flow. This came from the realisation that whenever I’m in the flow of a written assignment, my stress and anxiety melt away – and I actually enjoy what I am doing.
  • Structure. Following Dunleavy’s advice, I broke every chapter into sections, and every section into sub-sections, so I was left with chunks of text usually between 1000 and 2000 words (750 and 2500 were the limits). Taking the thesis one section at a time made it much more manageable, and much easier to track progress.

Remember to stop and smell the roses

  • Routine. My ideal mornings involved writing as much as I could from home. Then I’d go for a short run or nature walk; spend the afternoon editing or preparing for the next section; have an hour off to talk to a friend and unwind; and work on footnotes for as much of the evening as I could stand (often with the help of some music, a glass of wine, and the neighbour’s cat for company. If possible, I suggest you borrow a cat for the last two months of your PhD).
  • Systematisation. I was allowed two drafts per chapter. Draft one = any old mishmash of previous efforts, copied and pasted to meet my word count. Draft two = my attempt to turn found text into readable content with clear structure and style. This draft went to my supervisor and proof-readers, and was modified based on their comments. The chapters were placed in sequence for the final round of polishing (with the help of my supervisor and two amazing proof-readers). In parallel, I worked on footnotes for each chapter, ticking things off on a wall chart as I went along.
  1. The proof-reader is always right

This is true when they are reassuring you that your thesis is interesting, readable and most likely going to pass. It is also true when they point out that your repeated use of ‘scare quotes’ to highlight contested concepts, metaphors or field-related jargon is disconcerting for the reader, or when they attack your use of the word ‘within’ 20 times in one chapter when just ‘in’ would have sufficed. It helps to have a range of proof-readers, including some who know your field and your work in depth, some who are intellectually curious and kind people, and some who will preface their replies with “I hope this isn’t too nit-picky, but…” It is a good idea to tell each of these people in advance why you have asked them in particular to read this chapter (to all my proof-readers, thank you again from the bottom of my heart!).

  1. Think about your examiners

Several people have asked me how examiners are appointed in Ireland. Some were horrified that the student has to compile a shortlist of potential external examiners. Your supervisor contacts them in turn, until someone agrees to take on the role. An internal examiner is appointed from your department – you discuss this with your supervisor.

Selecting your examiners has advantages (you can think about who you really respect in your field) and disadvantages (is it your fault if you end up with a dragon?). Conference attendance is a good way to get a sense of potential examiners – who can you imagine having a lively discussion with?

The point I want to emphasise though, is to think about this well in advance and submit your list a couple of months – or at least weeks – before your thesis is due. I say this as someone who sent in her list the week after she submitted, and ended up waiting four months for the viva.

One of the reasons I waited was because I was trying to see how the thesis would shape up, particularly which of two disciplines would come out strongest. In retrospect, this was a weak excuse for not gritting my teeth and getting on with it. Thinking about the viva when you’re three chapters in and still unsure of your conclusion is nerve-wracking – but it isn’t worth a four month wait!

  1. Prepare for the viva

If you can, find a couple of recent graduates who can tell you how their viva actually workede – their advice matters. The Irish system is relatively tame. There are usually five people present: you, the two examiners, a chairperson (whose job is to make sure things go according to regulations), and your supervisor (who has the right to attend, but not to speak). The student makes a short oral presentation, followed by about 90 minutes of discussion. The examiners have a brief chat in private (witnessed by the chair) and then you and your supervisor are brought back to hear the result. It sounds simple, but it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

Remember, the outcome of the viva is, to all intents and purposes, decided in advance. Your examiners have read the thesis and decided whether it is, or can be brought up to, PhD standard. The purpose of the viva is to confirm their decision (by demonstrating that it’s all your own work and/or that you know exactly what went wrong, and how to fix it). So long as you are prepared to stand by your thesis, while accepting some criticism, there’s no reason to be nervous. But since you’ll be nervous anyway, take plenty of long walks and avoid caffeine and sugar in the days leading up to it.


Sunset on the eve of my defence. Try to get as wind-swept as possible.

A good way to warm up for the viva – one or two weeks in advance – is to practice some basic questions. What was the most interesting aspect of your research? Which part did you enjoy most, and why? What are you most proud of? These questions might not be all that likely to come up, but preparing the answers can rekindle your enthusiasm.

Do also consider the nastier questions (What are the weaknesses of the thesis? What alternative methods could or should you have considered?) – but don’t dwell on them too much. Jot down some possible answers, discuss them with your supervisor or a friend, and think about how to reframe negatives as positives (Why was your approach the most feasible at the time? How might you incorporate this counterargument into future publications?).

Use the time before the viva to review key literature, and get up to date with any publications you might have missed – including ones that came out after you submitted. Read some of your examiners’ work and think about what questions they might raise.

Finally, reread your thesis – even if the thought of it brings you out in hives. I found reading my own work difficult, but in the end I had a very manageable list of points (five to ten per chapter) that I thought I might be asked to elaborate on, while being more confident in the overall thesis.

  1. Bear in mind…

The viva is meant to be a constructive process; the chairperson is there to offer you a break, refill your water glass and pass you the tissues. Everyone will (probably) be kind.

There will be questions that surprise you. There may also be questions that are phrased as a series of three or four related comments. You might only manage to respond to one of these points before the next follow-up question is asked. Don’t panic – you will be offered a chance at the end to say anything that you feel needs to be said.

Lastly, whatever the outcome, congratulate yourself on making it this far. And if you are lucky enough to be given a full pass, be prepared for the elation to rapidly give way to exhaustion. Five years of accumulated stress dissolving in a single moment can feel a bit like being run over with a steamroller. But once you’ve grown accustomed to that empty space where the thesis used to be – the possibilities are endless.

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: What’s Education Got To Do With It?

Today, Human Rights Day, is also the last day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign running from November 25 to December 10. Last year, I wrote a blog post about the origins of this campaign and the gap between UN discourse and grassroots feminism. This year, I’ve written a longer post discussing the new campaign theme: Make Education Safe for All!

A new take on an old theme

Since 2011, the theme for the 16 Days Campaign has been From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women! Lasting four years, this was the longest-running theme in almost quarter of a century. Arguably, it helped sustain interest in the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the crucial period between the 10th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 and the High Level Review this October. Following on the heels of the High Level Review (which brought forth another Resolution – UNSCR 2242), this year’s theme was announced as From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!  To me, this marks a step back from the focus on women as peacemakers in recent years. It also corresponds with civil society efforts to broaden the WPS agenda so that it is not just about getting women into peace processes (primarily as peace advocates) or seeking justice for women affected by conflict: it is also about realigning base values and engaging men and boys in building a gender-just peace from the bottom up.

Although women are absent from the slogan, the new campaign theme is in keeping with the broader aims and principles of feminist peacebuilding. While some feminists do support wars, feminist peacebuilders tend to agree that much of the money spent on war should be invested into areas such as health and education, on “books, not bullets,” as Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says. There is near-universal agreement that education is one of the most crucial sites for tackling both gender-based violence and radicalisation among young people. These issues are often priorities for women’s organisations in conflict zones, and on the day-to-day level may eclipse the struggle for women’s political participation and their role in peace processes.


A mural in Italy depicting Malala Yousafzai. Photo credit: Nicholas Gemini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This last point is especially true in areas where (1) radicalisation of young men and women poses an imminent threat to social stability, (2) the state offers little or no purchase for women’s political participation or the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and (3) there is limited or no opportunity for women’s organisations to circumvent the state by appealing to international actors – I am thinking in particular of women I have met from the North Caucasus, though many women’s organisations in the South Caucasus value informal education and youth work as much as lobbying/advocacy, if not higher.

Some campaign statistics

Drawing on data from UNESCO, the official 16 Days Campaign press release highlights the negative consequences of war and militarism on education, especially for young women and girls:

“Recent data shows that approximately 38 million people are internally displaced worldwide, while 16.7 million are refugees. Girls and young women in particular are most adversely impacted by insecurity and crisis, with the most recent estimates showing that 31 million girls at primary level and 34 million at lower secondary level are not enrolled in school, and 15 million girls and 10 million boys will never see the inside of a classroom. As many as 58 million children of primary school age do not have access to education, with approximately half of these (28.5 million) living in conflict affected areas.”

It highlights reasons why young women and girls in these precarious situations can be denied a full education: the rising instances of early or forced marriages, the danger of sexual violence or forced abduction, institutional and structural barriers such as lack of adequate sanitary facilities.

The statement continues:

“In 2014, global military spending stood at $1.8 trillion, while experts cite a $26 billion financing gap to achieve basic education for all by end of 2015.”

In other words, what we spent on arms last year would have been enough to end lack of access to basic education, worldwide, almost 70 times over.

The challenge of this year’s campaign is not only to promote safe access to education for all, but to draw the link between militarism, conflict and unequal access to education for young women and girls. In the rest of this post, I focus on how this message might resonate with western feminists, and how it pushes us to reconsider the relationship between the universal and the particular.

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What Next? And Why?

These last few weeks, I’ve been preoccupied by two questions:

  1. What Next?
  2. Why?

Number one is the predictable consequence of having, to all intents and purposes, finished my PhD. I suspect that number two is a consequence of having emerged from four years of full time research (with a very clear goal that helped to filter out a lot of what was going on elsewhere) to find that the world at large is an extremely inhospitable place for idealists.

Just to be clear, the question I’m asking is not “Why Violence?” One thing that Peace Studies does well is to explain the origins of violence – direct, structural and cultural – and to demonstrate that in the long term, violence begets more violence.[1] So while I am saddened by the atrocities in the world (I keep coming back to the seventy Yazidi women whose remains were discovered in a mass grave in Sinjar a fortnight ago, and their daughters and granddaughters who remain alive), I cannot profess myself to be shocked or confused by what I read in the news.

No, the question I am asking is, “Why Peace?” It seems like a frivolous concept. An outlandish idea. Something very old-fashioned, totally impractical in today’s world. An unattainable relic from a bygone era, and of course, very much associated with some uncomfortable (for me) discourses on religion and spirituality. Why should I continue to identify as a peace researcher, when it would be so much more in tune with the times to reinvent myself as an expert in conflict, in security, even in terrorism? Why not abandon principles and side with the pragmatists? What difference does it make?

Reading the statements produced by various pacifist and peacebuilding organisations over the last two weeks, unequivocally denouncing all violence and militarisation on a global scale, has only heightened this inclination. Not because I think they are wrong, but because I think they seem to be talking past all the warmongers, or perhaps shouting down a deep, dark well. Of course, someone has to say all these things. I just don’t think I’m cut out to be one of those people. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, but I prefer to inhabit those blurry spaces – precisely the ones where principles and pragmatism come into conflict – and to understand the mechanics by which we learn to cope with our unending disappointment in the world. Maybe that explains why I stubbornly cling to the identity of peace researcher, in spite of my abundant cynicism.

The Strategic Peacebuilding Wheel

As I grapple with these questions of What Next? and Why?, I am reminded of a useful tool which has helped me in similar situations in the past (usually during some kind of fieldwork crisis). It’s a visual tool, and I find that studying it makes me feel much calmer than repeating a mantra or a physical exercise. It’s called the Strategic Peacebuilding Wheel, and it can be downloaded as a PDF from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at

strategic peacebuilding wheel

Strategic Peacebuilding Wheel, by John Paul Lederach and Katie Mansfield.

Looking at the Wheel comforts me for three reasons:

  1. The image is a reminder of the effort that goes into peacebuilding, every single day, across multiple contexts. It is a reminder that all these areas of social and political action – from Transitional Justice to Development, and from Humanitarian Action to Dialogue – are interconnected. When we concentrate all our energy in a single area (which we often do), we don’t always see what is going on in the other sections. It seems so easy to point out the links between violence around the world, from Paris to Baghdad, Beirut to Bamako. It is much harder sometimes to spot the connections between different kinds of peace activism. Yet the connections are there. A systematic approach to peace is not only possible, it is imperative.
  2. The image helps me to identify my own position within the whole. For several years, I’ve consistently identified with the orange segment, Dialogue/Conflict Resolution Strategies, with a strong side interest in both Education and Non-Violent Social Change. Acknowledging that this is where both my strengths and my interests lie makes it easier to figure out my identity as a researcher and activist, and to limit the amount of energy I spend getting involved in other areas – physically, intellectually, emotionally. (It also explains why I am often irritated when people suggest that I apply for jobs in policy-making, or when they assume that I must spend a lot of my time working with survivors of sexual violence. These are important areas – but they’re not what I do.)
  3. The image is clear evidence that peacebuilding is not (just) about taking a principled, pacifist stance. The idea of strategic peacebuilding calls for a mixture of principles and pragmatism – as becomes obvious to me when I think about what little I know of other areas, such as restorative justice. My own fieldwork demonstrated that women’s peace activism in Armenia and Azerbaijan is grounded in pragmatic efforts to maintain/develop cross-border dialogue and cooperation, rather than advocating for peace in an abstract sense.

Feminist Curiosity

Thinking about all this, I am reminded of one of the major feminist contributions to international relations, which is Cynthia Enloe’s work on war and militarism. As a curious feminist, Enloe teaches us that:

“Decisions involve power. Many observers of nationalism, by ignoring women’s experiences and by trivialising relationships between men and women, have underestimated the number of decisions it has taken to construct nationalism. Those who have underestimated the number of decisions it has actually taken to develop ethnic consciousness, to politicise it, to transform it into nationalism, and – on occasion – to turn it into a violent force, in turn, have vastly underestimated the flows of power.”[2]

A similar framework can be applied in peace studies. As a feminist peace researcher, I am concerned with the flows of power in the arenas of peacebuilding and peacemaking, and with the power relations, many of them gendered, that lead to strategic decision-making on the part of diplomats and mediators, peacebuilders and activists.

As a research agenda, I find this both critical and potentially transformative. One thing it does not do – offer a panacea for the devastating violence taking place around the world. But then again, why on earth should anyone expect it to?

[1] The distinction between direct, structural and cultural violence was made by Johan Galtung, one of the founders of peace research in the 1960s. A huge volume of his research is available to download here: For a useful summary of his theory of violence, see:

[2] Cynthia Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2004), 103. ISBN: 9780520243811. For a list of her other publications, see

Choose You Own Adventure! The perils of empathy in PhD-Writing

Have you ever read one of those Choose You Own Adventure books? You’re lost in a forest, suffering from amnesia after a plane crash. Suddenly, you come to a fork in the path. Do you (a) turn around and try to retrace your steps, (b) set off down the darkest trail, towards a faint sound that might be someone screaming, (c) climb a tree to see if you can spot the place where the forest ends, or (d) absent-mindedly pluck a handful of shiny red berries growing on a nearby bush? Each answer leads to a different page, and each page leads to a new set of choices and, eventually, a variety of endings.

photo credit:  via photopin (license)

A scary forest. photo credit: via photopin (license)

Coming to the end of the PhD thesis feels a lot like being trapped in one of those adventure stories. There are countless ways to write a thesis: the final manuscript is not so much a carefully crafted piece of writing as a series of choices that you alone have made. Even with your supervisor, your best friend, and your mom breathing encouragement down your neck, the truth is that they mostly just want you to get it done for your own sake. You’re the only one losing sleep over whether or not you made the right decision about the wording in Chapter 5 section 3 sub-section ii paragraph (c).

Still, important choices remain. Most of these seem to lie somewhere at the nexus of academic writing and creative writing. Because thesis-writing, at least if it’s based on qualitative social research, is a kind of story-telling. You might not have much artistic licence, but you do have power over what you tell, how you tell it, and who you choose to use as a mouthpiece. Sound confusing? Imagine that you’ve spent nearly three years collecting data, you’ve listened to hundreds of people talk about their experiences, and you’ve built up a picture in your head of what the real issues are, the ones you should be writing about. Inevitably, these are the ones that are conveyed in hurried whispers, distant silences, late night conversations, tiny hints and humorous throwaway lines – not in the pre-rehearsed interviews in polished offices and scripted speeches in conference halls.

At the same time, you’ve internalised so much of the pain, the frustration, the fear and anxiety of your interlocutors, that you dread the thought of accidentally putting words in their mouths. You worry, endlessly, that something you say might be construed as something they said, putting their work in jeopardy. You went to such lengths trying to break down the wall between researcher and ‘subject’, and now you’re about to write something that will remind everyone of your outsider status, because you have the freedom to say things that they don’t. There’s a huge part of you that wants to abdicate this responsibility, to just keep going along with all the subtleties and the cynical performances that are part and parcel of doing dangerous work in dangerous places. To hell with ‘critical’ international relations theory – when has that ever helped anybody?

Ethics are only so helpful in this instance. The truth is that you can do a lot to disguise the identities of your research participants, and you can write a thesis that’s simply riddled with disclaimers. Criticism can be obscured by writing in a dispassionate manner about the widest range of contradictory viewpoints to be found in your fieldnotes. ‘Multiplicity of voices’, ‘diversity of opinions’, ‘complexity of cross-cutting identities and lived experiences’ – phrases like these will ensure that you portray the truth as fragmentary and elusive (a claim which usually tends to be fairly accurate). The real concern is whether or not you decide to speak your own truth – and whether or not your truth turns out to be more important than maintaining the illusion that you are one of your participants, bound by the same rules and silences.

Here we find ourselves on the dangerous path of working with empathy. It’s not difficult to identify emotionally with your research participants, especially since you’ve been so dependent on them throughout the research process (seriously – if they didn’t do or say things for you to document, what would your research look like?). You’ve built a relationship with them largely on the basis of following their cues, learning to keep your head down and quietly observe what’s going on around you. In the meantime, the emotional baggage has been building up, waiting for its moment to explode. Writing about these emotions – yours and theirs – is one way of illustrating the dilemmas of difference between researcher and participants, trying to form a fragile bridge between theory and practice. Only theory and practice are poor euphemisms for the real difference being negotiated here, which seems to be a question of privilege.

Swati Parashar writes, “emotions do not corrupt research, but involve a process of owning up to being human.”[1] Sometimes, I think that means accepting that we cannot always know in advance what the ‘right’ thing to do is, however much we read and reread our ethical guidelines and worry about being responsible. Our research might not have an impact on very many people, but it still has the power to transform our relationship with our subjects and to influence those who come after us. The PhD thesis sets the tone for our future publications and research inquiries, and sometimes non-academic engagement with the field. It can demonstrate strength and solidarity, or it can show weakness and liability. Perhaps it can do both – depending on who’s watching us.

You’ve reached a point where you face the final choice. Do you retrace your steps, follow the screams, climb a tree, or eat the berries? If you’ve read those stories, you know that surprise is the key element. Retrace your steps and you’ll be eaten by wolves; climb a tree and you’ll probably break your neck; you reach for the berries when you suddenly remember that red means poison and throw them away. The dark path may lead you past the screams and towards the sunlight, or it could mean certain death. There is no way of knowing – you just have to follow your instincts.

[1] Swati Parashar, “Embodied “Otherness” and Negotiations of Difference,” in The Forum: Emotion and the Feminist IR Researcher, edited by Christine Sylvester. International Studies Review 13 (2011): 687-708. doi: 10.1111/ j.1468-2486.2011.01046.x