I leave Armenia at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, and break up the journey home by stopping off in London for 24 hours. There’s a ritual element to these visits, like passing through a decompression chamber after a deep sea dive. By evening, I find myself in a pub in Dalston, sipping at a nondescript English ale, and mourning the separation from the Caucasus. It’s not a total reverse culture shock, as the friends I meet up with are fellow Russophiles and Eurasia-watchers. We nurse our pints and talk about corruption and journalists and oligarchs and the Who’s Who Index of emerging regional analysts. It strikes me that the entire conversation has an indefatigably masculine air to it, but then I chide myself for the involuntary essentialism.
After a while, I let it slip that I’m planning on taking in some of the Fringe Programme at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict before my flight on Wednesday. There’s a collective wince around the table – whether at the words “sexual violence” themselves, or the tawdry way they’ve been packaged into an designer format to make them more palatable for international diplomats, or the idea of the William Hague-Angelina Jolie double act, I don’t know.
“Where’s it happening?” ventures one of the friends.
“ExCel,” I answer.
“Ah yes.” His face brightens in familiarity with the venue. “That’s where they hold all the weapons expos.”
Scrolling through the pictures on his phone, he finds what he wants to show me – some of the posters that he saw on display at a recent arms fair. They look like they would be more suited to a retrospective exhibition entitled “Everything That Was Wrong With The 1950s.” Scantily-clad girls posing provocatively on assorted weaponry, hips and chests thrust forward at impossible angles. Most of the big manufacturers have toned down the sexism these days, he says, but there was a group of Floridians that clearly didn’t get the memo. At least they’re just posters, I think to myself. Not that you can’t find the real life version if you go looking for it.
This exchange is still in my head as I head out along the Docklands Light Railway on Wednesday morning. The transient nature of the Summit is one of the many aspects that women’s rights activists find troubling about it. Gather ye rosebuds, feminists, because soon your stalls will be replaced by missiles and rockets, and your global dignitaries will be hanging on the sleeve of the highest bidder (funnily enough, I doubt the arms traders ever worry about the reverse happening). The new International Protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict will sit on the shelves next to CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, MDG3, UNSC Resolutions 1325, 1820 et al, and you will go back to the daily grind of lobbying local decision-makers/warlords and fighting with a hostile or frightened public and repressing your own secondary post-traumatic stress disorder because you just don’t have time to deal with it.
I feel a bit more cheerful when I get to the convention centre though. The Fringe is set up like a miniature festival, with galleries and pop-up stands and a variety of tents and performance spaces. The crowd seems more diverse than it really is, because of the abundance of patterned dresses and handmade jewellery that distinguish the feminist activist from the academic or policy-maker. I head into Discussion Room Six, which is an inflatable white dome, tinged with purple light. About thirty people are gathered to listen to a presentation from Isis-WICCE (Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange), a Kampala-based organisation which has documented women’s experiences of sexual violence in 28 different countries. Men are dotted throughout the audience, but it’s not their gender that makes them stand out, so much as their ties and collars.
Out of habit, I take out a notepad and start to scribble down everything that is being said. “Our research is not just academic, it’s also feminist,” is the first sentence I hear, and it feels like a personal challenge. Isis puts survivors right at the heart of the organisation’s work, raising their voices in order to challenge the dominant peace and security discourse and – ultimately – to change the world. They call their vision “embodied peace”. They emphasise that while reparations and legal justice are important, their mission is to respond to the immediate needs of survivors, which means putting social justice and healing first. The International Protocol is largely about testimony and trials – but to gather the testimonies, you need to be prepared to deal with the trauma.
These speakers are powerful and inspiring. They are passionate and humble. But no one in this tent would have expected anything less. It’s an echo chamber – the ministerial delegates are all next door at the closed sessions. Phrases float around: “continuum of violence…address the root causes…ending stigma…monitoring mechanisms…” Voices are raised in criticism of the UK government. They care about women when they are being raped somewhere in Africa, but they do not seem to care so very much for them when these women come to British shores seeking asylum.* We talk about the need to challenge the established ways of creating and distributing knowledge, and again I feel a stab of guilt, in spite of the inclusive atmosphere, convinced that my research methods fall far short of their ideals.
Then they talk about the security risks for Women’s Human Rights Defenders themselves, both physical and psychological. I listen to their accounts of some of the flashbacks they experience, and it hits me – these women are not here in the vain hope that governments will listen to them. They’re not even here to try to influence people like me who could maybe be convinced to dedicate their careers to this cause. They’re here because they need a safe space – with soft purple lighting and cushy chairs and discreetly-placed coffee carts – to talk about all the terrible things they have seen, the tortured organs and the irreparably damaged souls. There’s an element of catharsis in it. I’ve seen women in the Caucasus undergo the same relief after travelling hundreds of miles to discuss politics, violence and peace together. Suddenly I feel like I’m back on familiar footing.
I spend the rest of the morning wandering around the Summit. I don’t have time for the silent cinema, but I let the event brochure guide me towards the ‘bustling’ Market Place, where one can ‘browse and buy an eclectic and beautiful array of first class products produced by people in conflict countries.’ This description ramps my feelings of the Post-Colonial Gaze up to about a hundred, but I buy some earrings from a Medica Zenica volunteer anyway. I’ll wear them to my next conference, to signify to everyone else that I’m really an activist at heart, and shout about how Irish I am in order to demonstrate non-allegiance to the Empire. I get a pair for my supervisor as well – she’ll appreciate the terrible irony of the sexual violence souvenir industry. I try to explain this to the volunteer at the stand, but I don’t think I do a good job of it. She gives me a postcard bearing the legend ‘We are not “those poor women”, we are strong, active and courageous.’
They’re stronger than I am. I haven’t been working in this sphere long enough to put aside my qualms about cooperating with bellicose governments or dressing feminism up in celebrity garb. I know that all of those women I heard earlier will have wrestled with those demons for a long time. They will have told themselves that it must be done, that there is no other way to get results. Direct nonviolent action might work to resolve some issues, but we just want a stable source of funding and some legitimacy for our activities – not a revolution. For my part, I wonder if I’ve taken another step down the road of being socialised into the comfortable world of governance feminism, with its convention centres and festival atmosphere, where no one will ever question my presence – or my privilege. I wonder if my misgivings will shrink the more of these conferences and summits I attend. Or if they’ll grow to such an extent that I find myself uncomfortably marginalised, maybe even quitting the scene.
I still don’t know. On the one hand, the Summit is a pop-up event, here today and gone tomorrow. On the other hand, the International Campaign to Stop Rape in Conflict will go on. There’s also Women’s Power to Stop War, the global movement initiated by WILPF to mark their 100 year anniversary, to look forward to. And no doubt hundreds of grassroots organisations will take part in the Beijing+20 events next year, in addition to their quotidian labour. In between all of which, there will be new campaigns and newspaper articles (at least some of which won’t be written by Nicholas Kristof**), and feminist submissions in major academic conferences, and who knows – maybe we will bring death to patriarchy through a thousand tiny paper cuts?
It seems to me that the biggest feat of strength required in feminism is learning to suspend your disbelief without silencing your conscience…Maybe it’s just the post-fieldwork blues talking, but sometimes, I feel like this is impossible to achieve.
*On which note, see this piece in the Guardian – note that the opening is somewhat graphic: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/09/margarets-story-congo-rape-yarls-wood
**For some excellent criticism of his work, see here: http://postwhoreamerica.com/nicholas-kristof-half-the-sky-all-the-credit/