18 Feb 2014
Symbolic Gender-Based Violence in the South Caucasus
When analyzing conflict environments, we often lose sight of one of the crucial dimensions for understanding any conflict-prone culture, namely, its gender organization. While in gender egalitarian cultures such gender blindness could actually be a good thing (e.g. in employment, education, remuneration, political rights and freedoms, etc.), in deeply patriarchal cultures, such as the cultures of the South Caucasus, blindness toward gender power imbalances not only constitutes the essence of symbolic gender-based violence, but also contributes to sustaining the culture of conflict in the region. In order to develop this thesis, I propose to draw our attention to the following questions:
– What kind of gender organization prevails in a patriarchal society?
– How do we construct/reproduce this organization?
– How does it affect conflict dynamics in the South Caucasus?
– What are the lessons to be learned for the purpose of conflict prevention/peacebuilding?
Any one of these questions could offer ample material for an extensive study, which is outside of scope of the current format; hence, we will treat them merely as sources of insights into the intersectionality of gender and conflict. Meanwhile, let’s look at the kind of gender organization that prevails in a patriarchal society. R. W. Connell, while researching gender regimes and orders, has singled out four domains of gender relations, namely: labor, power, cathexis (i.e. public arena of desire and sexuality), and cultural or symbolic dimensions. I propose not to dwell on labor and cathexis dimensions at the moment (despite these being undoubtedly relevant to reproducing gender systems) and instead zoom into the symbolic dimension of gender relations and its relevance to maintaining the status quo of power structures. For that purpose, Connell proposes to look beyond the naturalized and often taken for-granted male/female taxonomy. Once we look beyond it, we may be able to recognize an intricate web of relations, which tend to be organized into discernible patterns of hierarchies.
On top of the social pyramid we will find a hegemonic masculinity (valorizing power, authority, physical strength, and heterosexual cathexis), which is sustained by way of maintaining a clear hierarchy between itself and conservative (complacent in the collective valorization of macho culture) and subordinated (deviating or feminine patterns of male behaviors) masculinities, as well as emphasized femininity (female behavior accommodating the male dominance in both public and private domains). Yet, while Connell saw femininity as homogenous in its subordination to hegemonic masculinity, Schippers goes further and, in line with Pyke and Johnson, proposes to discern different patterns of power dynamics among women as well. In particular, she singles out pariah femininities or patterns of female behaviors, which are viewed as “contaminating” traditional values and public spaces. It is especially the case when women lay claim to qualities that are often the premise of manhood and by definition cannot be made available to “proper women”. For example, when women do exhibit such qualities as authority, power, physical strength, or sexual desire toward other women, their “deviating” behaviors often trigger public disapproval, stigma, punishment, or self-censorship.
How do we construct or reproduce this clear complimentary gender hierarchy? According to Judith Butler this heterosexual matrix is the result of performativity of gender hierarchies – a naturalized, polarized, and routine reiteration of gender behaviors assigned to categories “man” and “woman” for the purpose of regulating their symbolic and practical application. As a result of such gender indoctrination, we are no longer able to see another person (or ourselves) as anyone other than a “man” or a “woman” with attached to these categories symbolic and behavioral repertoires falling within the boundaries of the permissible. When observing deviating or “contaminating” behaviors transgressing those boundaries, one may experience a cognitive dissonance or feel an urge to tame such “anomaly”. Such taming of the diversity in gender behaviors and ideology is the essence of what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence, which is a “subtle, euphemized, and invisible mode of domination” over the disadvantaged populations. This type of domination is not only not recognized as such, but also accepted and defended by those being dominated as a result of incorporating inegalitarian naturalized public norms (doxa) into personal system of beliefs (habitus). In order to illustrate this point on the example of the South Caucasus, we may want to consult the data signaling to us that it is not only men who believe in gender inequality, but women themselves who often accept (or even insist on) being restricted to private spaces, secondary roles in public (and often in private) domains,  or having less political and civic rights and freedoms. One of the tools used to justify such inegalitarian gender politics become appeals to local cultural norms and traditions, aiming to naturalize and disguise gender power imbalances and symbolic violence. But once such naturalization of gender imbalances is achieved, symbolic violence is legitimized and often translated into other forms of violence, such as structural or even direct.
Given the nature of gender organization and mechanisms of its reproduction in a patriarchal society, how does it affect conflict dynamics in the South Caucasus? To answer this question, let us recall our opening thesis: blindness toward gender power imbalances not only constitutes symbolic and legitimates structural and direct forms of gender-based violence, but also contributes to the maintenance of the overall culture of conflict in the region. In societies still holding on to deeply patriarchal values, naturalization of gender ideology and inequality erodes not only personal rights and freedoms of subordinated genders, but also the very social fabric by exposing it to intra- and inter-communal antagonisms. The awareness of the gender dimension of peace and conflict is well articulated by a wide range or gender experts, who remind us that it is women, children, and elderly who often pay a dear price for men’s decisions leading to violent conflicts, let alone the fact that men themselves experience violence firsthand in cases when they are unable to reach compromises. In fact, the compromise itself is often viewed as a weakness, undermining the display of masculinity, which, in Bourdieu’s terms, signals to us that the patriarchal system produces different types of domination: in addition to direct and more subtle forms of oppression against subordinated genders, it also generates the type of domination, in which men are dominated by high standards of masculinity they set for themselves. Needless to say, we are still hearing echoes of politics based on contempt for compromise and valorization of violence even decades after the conflicts over Nagorny Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia erupted. These echoes translate not only into stories of personal suffering of those who bore the brunt of the violent conflict, but also into systemic gender asymmetries solidifying the privileged status of a man as a public figure and as a head of the family.
What could be done to prevent future outbreaks of violence and to expand the existing peacebuilding efforts in the South Caucasus? Before we make any suggestions, it is important to establish that the belief in uniformity of cultures is a myth. On the contrary, cultures often contain phenomena of impressive complexity and contradicting, striving for dominance discourses, hence, it would be unwise to treat the cultures of the South Caucasus as homogenous or identical. That is why even in cases when we do encounter gender-sensitive projects and dynamics activated there during the post-Soviet period, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. If we do, we risk a chance of overlooking the absence of long-overdue systemic gender empowerment reforms (in media, education, business, governmental, etc. sectors), strong national women’s and sexual minorities’ movements, and coordinated efforts of gender networks for the purpose of targeting conservative gender stereotypes, which naturalize gender inequality, de-contextualize and universalize the history of gender relations, confine women to predominantly private and men to public spaces, and de-politicize the lack of women’s involvement in taking the responsibility for the future of their communities. But despite the realization that a meaningful shift toward a gender-egalitarian reality remains a distant ideal, the introduction of gender-oriented reforms, institutions, and ratification of international gender agenda in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia extend a promise of possibility of such shift in the future. With gender politics gaining more public visibility, women taking on more leadership roles in all sectors of public life and expanding their roles in intra- and inter-national dialogues and reconciliation processes, the future of building sustainable regional peace in the South Caucasus, for once, seems a little brighter.
Amnesty International (2012) ‘Virulent’ homophobic attacks put South Caucasus activists at risk, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/virulent-homophobic-attacks-put-south-caucasus-activists-risk-2012-05-18
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Caucasus Research Resource Center (2011) How Does the South Caucasus Compare? Online report, http://www.crrccenters.org/store/files/Reports/How%20Does%20the%20South%20Caucasus%20Compare.pdf
Connell, R. W. (1987) Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Cambridge: Polity.
Connell, R. W. (2000) The Men and the Boys. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gender Policy and Mainstreaming, United Nations Population Fund Armenia,
Gender Politics in the South Caucasus (2010) Caucasus Analytical Digest, No 21, Center for Security Studies, http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/pdfs/CAD-21.pdf
Krais, B. (1993) Gender and symbolic violence: female oppression in the light of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social practice. In: Calhoun, C., LiPuma, E. & Postone, M. (eds.) Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 156-177.
Lomsadze, G. (2013) Mars outshines Venus in the South Caucasus. EurasiaNet, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67412
Schippers, M. (2007) Recovering the feminine other: masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony. Theory and Society 36, 85–102.
Study on Women, Peace, and Security (2002) United Nations,
Women and Armed Conflict. Directory of UN Resources on Gender and Women’s Issues, Women Watch, United Nations, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/directory/women_and_armed_conflict_3005.htm
Анника Фленсбург (2012) Новое исследование: мирные процессы по-прежнему арена для мужчин, Kvinna till Kvinna,
Лапицки, Ю. (2013) Это действительно твой выбор или тебя так научили? Интервью с Ларой Агароньян. Kvinna till Kvinna, http://www.equalpowerlastingpeace.org/ru/eto-deystvitelno-tvoy-vyibor-ili-tebya-tak-nauchili/
 Connell, R. W. (2000). The Men and the Boys, p. 24.
 Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, The Person and Sexual Politics, p. 183.
 Schippers, M. (2007). Recovering the feminine other: masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony. Theory and Society 36, p. 95.
 Ibid, p. 94.
 Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, p. 34.
 Krais, B. (1993) Gender and symbolic violence: female oppression in the light of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social practice in Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives, p. 172.
 Ibid, p. 168.
 Лапицки, Ю. (2013) Это действительно твой выбор или тебя так научили? Интервью с Ларой Агароньян. Kvinna till Kvinna.
 Caucasus Research Resource Center (2011) How Does the South Caucasus Compare? Online report, p. 3.
 Gender Politics in the South Caucasus (2010) Caucasus Analytical Digest, No 21, p. 9.
 Анника Фленсбург (2012) Новое исследование: мирные процессы по-прежнему арена для мужчин, Kvinna till Kvinna, .
 Amnesty International (2012) ‘Virulent’ homophobic attacks put South Caucasus activists at risk.
 Women and Armed Conflict, Women Watch, United Nations.
 Study on Women, Peace, and Security (2002) United Nations, p. 14.
 Lomsadze, G. (2013) Mars Outshines Venus in the South Caucasus. Tamada Tales on EurasiaNet.
 Gender and Politics in the South Caucasus, UNDP Georgia,
 Gender Politics in the South Caucasus (2010) Caucasus Analytical Digest, No 21, p. 4, 5.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 Ibid, p.3.
 Ibid, p.5.
 Gender Policy and Mainstreaming, United Nations Population Fund Armenia.