Women’s Time: Cognitive Dissonance around Gender in Peace Studies

Yesterday evening I attended a public lecture by a very distinguished professor. He was speaking about time – specifically, about the role of time in peace processes. The lecture was based on a forthcoming book, so it would be very difficult to condense it into just a few lines. To give you some sense of what it included: the professor referred several times to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, expressing strong criticism of the role of western governments and military intervention in the region. He emphasised that conflict prevention and sustainable peacebuilding require a significant temporal investment, and an appreciation of time extending beyond the accepted phases of conflict resolution. For example, one of his slides featured a photo you may have seen recently, that of the ‘starving hordes’ waiting for UN food assistance in Syria. He pointed out that this photo was taken in Yarmouk, a region of Damascus populated by Palestinian refugees, and that this picture more accurately represented “a 66 year long queue” (a reference to the 1948 Nakba). This interplay between politics and media in shaping, or distorting, our perceptions of history and conflict was another running theme throughout the lecture.

What inspired me to come home and start writing about it, though, is the way that gender featured in the presentation. Or rather, ways it could have, but didn’t. I started to have an inkling of this at the point when the speaker gave an overview of different approaches to time, drawing on both the natural and the human sciences. He explained that time is not an absolute, that we have – for example – biological time, meteorological time, religious time, secular time, and that time has different values for different actors in conflicts and peace processes. I don’t disagree with this point, or with the idea that we need to take time seriously, but I was struck by what seemed to be a glaring omission in his otherwise comprehensive list, and that is women’s time. I thought of it in those terms, and not as gendered time, because I was reminded first and foremost of an article that is actually called “Women’s Time”, written by the structuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva and published in the journal Signs back in 1981 (the article is worth a read). I felt that gender studies deserved a mention as a branch of the human sciences in which time and temporality have been treated seriously for decades.

Well, from that point onwards, my mind was running on a parallel track, as so many thoughts about women and time ran through it. I thought about the millions of girls who reportedly miss out on time in education for reasons such as domestic chores or early marriage. I thought about the estimated 40 billion hours that women in sub-Saharan Africa spend carrying water per year – a problem that has become desperately clichéd, yet continues to exist. I thought of how women and girls around the world face an unofficial curfew (and sometimes an official one) because of the threat of sexual violence. For some reason, I thought of Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem, with its immortal line: “In the dreadful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad” (where her son was a political prisoner). I thought about women’s collective activism in war, which has often reflected an impatience with negotiations and a sense of the urgency of peace, most strikingly in the case of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Now, a large part of my research is about how we need to transcend all these ideas about women as victims, mothers and peacemakers, but the gender division of labour is still real enough that I was astounded that there was no mention of the gender division of time, even if it isn’t an absolute.

We came to the questions and answers session without any mention of gender whatsoever, and I sat and struggled with some time-related problems of my own, namely the perennial problem for feminist researchers who attend lectures such as this: do I want to be the person who raises this question, who takes up the time of someone who hasn’t given it a minute’s notice up to now? Is it a waste of my time to argue this point, here and now? In the end, thankfully, a colleague of mine raised the issue. He spoke about the presence of those Liberian women at the peace talks in Ghana, and their lack of patience with the male leadership, and the question he asked was something like this: when (and how) do you say to the people in power that they’ve resisted long enough, now it’s time for peace?

The distinguished professor began his response by acknowledging the importance of gender. This in itself was an interesting moment. My colleague had given an example of women’s peace activism, but his question had been about the fine line between appreciating the need for time and indulging war-hungry politicians. However, the professor remained caught on the underlying question of gender, which indicates to me that he had been taught to expect it – though evidently not to anticipate it in the main body of his lecture. And in his answer, he related to the audience that when he was a student (presumably some time ago) there was an experiment in which three groups were given the same problem to solve. One group was all male, one was all female, and one was mixed-gender. And which group do you think had the most constructive approach to conflict resolution? (He paused, waiting for someone in the audience to shout out an answer.) Have you guessed it? Of course – he said – it was the mixed gender group. And so, he concluded, women must be included in peace processes, and this is not merely an ideological position, this is a finding. This is science, people.

The thing is though, a lot of feminists struggle with the notion that the added “value” of having women in peace processes should be cited as an argument for gender equality, because emphasising their utility undermines the idea that women have a right to participate in social and political processes, by virtue of being human. The male domination of peace processes is symptomatic of a wider problem – call it patriarchy, or just sex discrimination – and alluding to gender complementarity reinforces these existing inequalities (regardless of the speaker’s intention). Now, I give the professor credit for drawing attention to the fact that an all-female group did not do a better job of conflict resolution. But I also agree with Christine Sylvester in the preface to Making Gender, Making War, where  she points out that the present political culture of peace processes is one in which “women are encouraged to speak out and then go home to a status quo ante.” Again, feminists have consistently argued that women’s experience of “war time” and “peace time” is different, and that often the post-conflict period is more repressive than war itself, as gender norms become violently reasserted.

There was so much that could have been said in this lecture, and wasn’t, about women and time. As it came to an end, I was struck by a sense of cognitive dissonance. The distinguished professor has told us that he supports inclusive, gender-friendly negotiations. However, he has not mentioned this once in his lengthy presentation, leaving me to wonder whether it is mentioned at all in his book. Had my colleague not invoked the example of the Liberian women’s movement in his question, there would have been a complete silence around the subject – total discursive foreclosure. As it was, the answer failed to approach the question of gender from the theoretical perspective that was adopted in the book. There was barely the ghost of an acknowledgement of “women’s time” and the idea that it too might be worth exploring – has been explored in the peace and conflict literature. And when feminist perspectives are still being consigned to the margins, when distinguished professors don’t make time for gender, it’s easy to wonder whether any real transformations are taking place in our thinking, or whether there’s still a gaping hole in our approach to gendered structures, such as militarism and nationalism, which sustain war and violent conflict.

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One thought on “Women’s Time: Cognitive Dissonance around Gender in Peace Studies

  1. A great post Sinéad. Thanks for the insight. I hadn’t known about the shocking 40bn h figure or the Liberian women’s peace campaign. Not to mention the whole concept of men’s versus women’s time. A lot of food for thought! I look forward to reading more!

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