15 Jan 2020
Beyond the Abstract Political: Peace as Intimate and Relational
Why Place Feminist Next to Peace?
Peace and feminism as fields of intersecting inquiry have been theorized for over four decades now, yet an agreed upon ideology for what constitutes feminist peace remains an open question. Firstly, the kind of feminism through which peace is theorized makes a difference in whether we are problematizing or reproducing normative gendered associations of women with peace. Secondly, the concept of peace has been theorized under multiple ideological frameworks according to which peace can be merely the absence of violence or it can be a much wider process and phenomenon encompassing the elimination of all types of violences – whether visible or invisible.
In preparing this paper, we have asked ourselves, as independent scholars, activists, and practitioners of peace and feminism, why we want to place feminism next to peace and co-create knowledge regionally on how we envision feminist peace. Through much contemplation, discussion, and sharing of our observations and experiences in the field of peace-building, we understood and agreed that current modes of peace practiced not only in our wider context of the South Caucasus but also internationally are, in fact, constitutive of various invisible violences that would render it as “non-peace” when looked at from the margins. We have observed how formal peace processes are more or less exclusively dominated by male political and diplomatic figures, rendering peace as an elite male endeavor. We have observed how international (and sometimes national) peace-building organizations with large budgets tend to allocate a small percentage of their budgets toward local organizations and groups doing the most difficult work on the ground, while at the same time very little money is spent advocating their own national governments or companies to stop promoting and growing the military industrial complex globally. We have observed the contradictory nature of peace platforms or initiatives being established by prominent leaders in both Armenia and Azerbaijan with Russian diplomats, businessmen, or politicians as partners in the promotion of peace without any mention of how Russia is the main supplier of weapons to both countries. Even the discourse of Armenia’s peaceful “Velvet Revolution” was contradictory when taking place in parallel with the militaristic symbolism of the camouflage t-shirt that its leader turned Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan kept on wearing for days during the 2018 mass protests. We have also experienced at firsthand how calling on us as agents of change in our contexts to be peaceful, whether by police in street demonstrations or by colleagues, professors, or so-called intellectuals and others with power over us, has often meant to silence us or minimize our anger toward unjust structures and systems. We hold firmly the conviction that any discourse of peace that is used as an instrument, whether symbolically or actually, to normalize other kinds of violence cannot be considered feminist peace.
As women or gender non-conforming, queer, and critically minded people, we are often on the margins of dominant discourse and methodology. As such, we also tend to have access to an alternative ground from which to sense and know the world. We see that the frame influencing upon peace in the region and perhaps the larger world is often shaped by the dominant patriarchal, capitalistic, and militaristic modes of perceiving, being, and doing. As activists engaged in peace-building projects in our region, we see this first hand when donors funding “peace” are also indirectly involved in any part of the military industrial complex, including the more invisible aspects of this through exploitative and extractive practices in the mining industry, training of police or special forces, support of corrupt governments, and perpetuation of various forms of violence within their own contexts (i.e., police brutality, economic inequalities, racist policies, etc.). We also see this when actors—
whether local, regional, or international—that implement peacebuilding projects overlook the work of connecting intersecting systems of gender, violences and war, which often leads to narrow conceptualizations of women in peace reproducing gendered nationalistic and militaristic narratives (Tskhvariashvili, Mammadova and Abrahamyan 2018).
We see that peace seems to be in crisis, both in terms of practice and theory. In this paper we try to understand how we can deconceptualize and reconceptualize peace(s) from the standpoint of feminists in the South Caucasus by incorporating the voices of women identifying as feminists in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. It is clear that there are a number of standpoints on what feminist peace is in practice and how it can be envisioned. Many of the feminist voices we listened to found it difficult to go beyond the limitations that patriarchy and capitalism place not only on possible actions that can be taken for a world based on feminist peace, but also on the imagination. Nevertheless, we encountered a number of inspiring and powerful perspectives and visions for a just feminist peace, including a focus on the senses and the body as locations from which peace can emerge and be known, a deep knowing of what feminist peace can be based on what it is not in the dominant reality, a vision of peace based in feminist modes of relating to oneself, to others, and to the world at large, and a reconceptualization of peace
as emergent responses to acts of patriarchal violence based in feminist self-defense modalities.
Conceptualizing Feminist Peace
Much of the literature on the topic of feminist peace tends to highlight the ways in which women’s contribution to peace processes can affect durable peace agreements, stronger democracies and equality between the sexes in a given society. The links between feminism and peace have most prominently been made in practice by Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILFP) founded in the early 20th century as a response to World War I. Although the organization has undergone an evolution in its thinking around these themes, their positionality as a white and western women’s organization has mostly subscribed to a liberal peace model highlighting the notion that where there is inequality in a society, especially between men and women, violence is prone to continue and can ultimately escalate into violent conflict (Cecilia Confrontini 2011). The United Nations has offered a number of tools under Security Council Resolutions, most prominently UNSCR 1325, to ensure gender equality, tackle gendered effects of war, and foster democratic participation in peace processes, which have been advocated by women’s organizations internationally, including in the South Caucasus. Yet this tool in practice often equates “women” with “gender” and assumes “equality” as a priority in the struggle to end gender-based discrimination, an approach which has come under criticism by feminists who aim to dismantle relations, structures, and systems of power that reproduce women’s oppression. Among these criticisms are the tendency of the resolution to assume women either as peaceful or as victims in need of protection, its failure to focus on ending wars in the first place, and its lack of depth in terms of analyzing and addressing power in structures and systems that perpetuate violence and violent conflict in the world (Nikoghosyan 2018).
More recent discussions and academic work by feminist peace and conflict scholars conceptualize feminist peace research as a transdisciplinary field encompassing gender studies, feminist critical theory, psychology, post-colonial studies, international relations, political science, and more. As such, feminist peace is conceptualized as an ongoing process of undoing binary systems and dichotomies such as male/female or peace/war while “paying attention to questions of social justice… as well as the level of the interpersonal and intercorporeal” (Wibben, et al. 2019). In this sense, feminist peace research aims to “explore the sexual and gendered social orders, which re/produce violence exactly because of attempts to make the world fit into the binary hierarchy of male/female,
masculine/feminine” (Wibben, et al. 2019). In so doing, assumptions about the nation-state and all manifestations of patriarchal normativity are questioned and problematized, including how one studies and analyzes war, violence, and conflict. For feminist peace research, this often means that marginalized voices and experiences of people directly affected by violence must be given primacy in order to co-resist attempts at casting responses of anger, hopelessness, grief, and the need to fight back as illegitimate modes of behavior in the face of injustice and violence (Wibben et. al. 2019).
Furthermore, in seeking the voices of those at the margins of power, the everydayness of conflict and the non-violent responses that are given to conflict in day-to-day interactions provide possibilities for an understanding of peace that is already a part of our existence and daily lived experiences, which can be incorporated in all areas of life (Wibben, et al. 2019).
Perhaps most important of all is how feminist peace research places an emphasis on imagining and envisioning peace through the practice of prefigurative politics as a means to achieving a “future of emancipation, [including] a peaceful and just social order” (Wibben, et al. 2019). Prefigurative politics are defined “as experiments in living, laboring or provisioning that are alternatives to ‘what is’ and prefigure ‘what could be.’” (Lin, et al. 2016). Often this implies that one not only imagines utopian alternative worlds, but also experiments in the day-to-day living, interactions, and practices to bring about this world. The work of Elise Boulding in facilitating processes for people to imagine a world without weapons has been integral for the peace movement and for peace research in order to “provide the imagination of the people, of a society, of the polity, of the citizen, that things can be different, that they don’t have to be the way they are” (Boulding 2018). Through this work, new spaces are opened up within the imagination where the possibility of nonviolent modes of existence begin to seem attainable, leading to discursive spaces for negotiating possibilities for integrating peaceful practices into the micro and macro level of the personal political realms. In this paper, we have worked to open up our own imaginations and we have also invited feminists in our contexts to do the same so that we may dream together what feminist peace can look, feel, and be like in both our day-to-day and political lives.
A Feminist Process of Envisioning Peace
Prior to presenting our findings with regards to how feminist peace is conceptualized and envisioned among feminists in the South Caucasus, let us begin with the question we chose to explore and how we as co-authors and agents of change in our respective societies are situated in relation to the question. Each of us has been involved with peace-building initiatives alongside intersecting issues around the environment, women’s rights and LGBT rights. All of us self-identify as feminists and bring a feminist lens to our own lives and the subjects we study both in terms of peace and conflict as it relates to the world at large on a macro level as well as to the micro, personal, and interpersonal levels of our immediate worlds and realities. The question we explore in this paper is first and foremost a topic of interest for us and this is the main motivation which drives our process. We have all had the experience of working with different groups in our contexts whether through research or through nonformal educational activities or cross-border dialogue where people are asked to imagine peace and find that it is rather difficult for them to imagine it in reality. As we embarked on this journey, we were driven by the desire to go beyond the difficulty of imagining feminist peace in our region and to co-create the space to imagine, dream, and theorize together with feminist peers in our respective contexts as well as together as co-researchers.
Precisely because we have had the experience of finding it difficult to imagine peace both on a personal level as well as in conversations with others, we incorporated a process of meditation and art into our approach when speaking to peers in order to access spheres of knowledge outside of our immediate cognitive minds. Drawing from participatory action research and feminist oral history methodologies, we implemented three focus group conversations in each context (a total of nine focus groups), including nine participants from Azerbaijan, eight from Armenia, and 13 from Georgia—a total of 30 participants (not including the co-authors). Prior to implementing these focus group conversations with others, we as co-researchers held a focus group with ourselves as three participants using the method we have designed to collectively envision feminist peace. We decided to focus on the process of envisioning peace with women only for two reasons: firstly, we wanted to create a space where women could feel free to openly discuss about their socialization and experiences of the world as women and how that might have affected their imagination with regards to peace. Secondly, we wanted to give priority to women given that the study is limited in terms of scope and we could not have a bigger number of participants in order to include men identifying as feminists. However, the women we spoke to cannot be said to represent only women, as there were a number of differences in where they came from, their age, their professional and educational backgrounds, and how they have been affected by conflict.
Among the interviewed women there were refugees and displaced women, lesbian, bisexual and queer women, feminist activists, environmental activists, feminist academics, and women who come from cities and towns outside of the capital cities of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. We also carefully selected the participants for each focus group based on relations of participants among each other and aimed to bring together those people who share similar values and worldviews. This approach was chosen so as to enable an environment where people would open space for themselves and for one another in order to dream together and envision peace, instead
of debating and critiquing each others’ views.
We started each focus group with a 10-15 minute meditation and asked participants to delve into their memories and remember the first time they had felt peace and the last time they had felt peace. Following the meditation, we opened the floor for participants to discuss where their journeys into their memories of peace took them, including what made the experiences peaceful and the reason for remembering that experience. After everyone had the chance to talk about their first and last memories of peace, we asked them to talk about their associations with the word “peace” in a larger sense. This created the opportunity to go from the inner world to the outer and speak about not only the personal, but also associations of peace within the wider social and political spheres.
Because we were speaking to women who self-identify as feminists, we trusted that any perspective of peace they would bring to the table would also be framed through their feminist politics regardless of which feminism they subscribed to. As part of our process, however, we did include a discussion on how we as co-researchers had chosen to place “feminist” next to “peace” and make the assumption that a feminist peace would contribute to a discussion on peace different from dominant discourses of peace. In the final part of the focus group we asked participants to draw feminist peace as they would envision it in order to open up a space for formulating and expressing the concept through a method other than speech. Following this exercise, we held a discussion on what participants had drawn (if they wanted to explain) and how they would describe their vision of feminist peace as it came to them in the process of drawing. Some of these drawings are available with this article.
Once we had held all of the focus group discussions we went back to the transcriptions and reviewed them to make summaries of all that was said with a focus on what peace was imagined (or not imagined) to be, as well as how a feminist peace was articulated in the process. We presented the findings back to some but not all of the focus group participants to ensure that we had understood what had been said correctly. All focus groups participants had the opportunity to see the paper in its entirety and give input after we had put together all of the findings from the three contexts. Finally, we as the co-researchers shared the findings from each context through a joint Skype call and made an analysis to combine our findings in order formulate an overall concept of feminist peace. These findings are presented in the following section of this paper.
“I was trying to understand whether we were talking about peace that is inside me—inner peace—or about world peace? There was confusion because they seemed very different to me… The peace that I think about regarding countries or in the context of war… is something difficult to understand, it is without shape and a strange thing for me, which I could not feel at all.” Focus Group Participant, Armenia; March 2019
At the very beginning of our research we found ourselves worrying about whether the method we chose to conceptualize feminist peace with feminists of our region would lead people in a direction focusing more on inner peace rather than peace as a political and societal phenomenon. We were worried that the women we would interview might end up talking more about inner peace, their feelings, and personal approach as opposed to what we assumed one should talk about when asked to reflect on peace as a feminist, such as political issues, conflict in the region, and more or less the topic of peace as it relates to the external world. In retrospect, it is strange that we separated so strongly between the inner and outer—inner peace and regional peace. Even as feminists, we found ourselves for a brief moment affected by the very dichotomous approach that systems of oppression instrumentalize in order to dissociate rational from irrational, mind from body, femininity from masculinity, and war from peace as if one is not connected to or even dependent on the other. As explained by one of the women interviewed in Georgia, the concept of peace was different from the concept of peacefulness, where “peacefulness is personal, and peace is something that is happening beyond me. I can search for peacefulness within myself and I can search for peace outside” (Focus Group Participant, Georgia; February 2019).
Yet it takes something as simple or perhaps as complex as meditating on the question of peace in order to remember how the external world influences upon the inner world. The mere presence of military personnel, attire, or even advertising, for example, has an effect on the sense of insecurity one may feel (internally) when walking down the street (externally). Yet often we are sold the myth that the military is there for us to feel secure within our borders, assuming that the borders drawn up by the nation-state contain rather than impede upon our freedom of movement as a whole, especially if we move through the world as women. Perhaps it is this dissonance between the public/private divide, traditionally allocating the public space of politics for men and the private space of the home for women, which places limits upon the imagination inside of patriarchy to conceive of peace as a dynamic and relational process encompassing both the inner and outer spheres of knowledge as well as what stands in between.
Not surprisingly, it was difficult for many of the women we spoke with to recall times when they felt peace and even more difficult to envision what a feminist peace may look like. Most of the time the difficulty to imagine peace was connected to the clash of the seemingly utopian concept of peace and what interviewees kept describing as “reality,” which was perceived as the violent continuousness of the world. This often meant that the first association with the word “peace” was war and violent conflict, an association often steeped in the experiences of displaced and refugee women. In one case a woman displaced from Abkhazia explained: “For me the term ‘peace’ brings fear and I don’t know how to connect with it, anyhow. Peace is always temporary, followed by some mess and disturbance” (Focus Group Participant, Georgia; March 2019). Beside the difficulty in imagining peace when reflecting on the experience of war as something that takes away one’s sense of peace, another difficulty in imagining peace came from the struggle one becomes a part of as a feminist activist. A group of feminists we spoke to in Armenia referred to existence and being as already a conflict in itself, explaining that: “If there is feminism then there is struggle, then there is no peace.” One feminist activist in particular articulated the tension between what we can envision as peace and what actually exists in reality as non-peace in terms of the unrest it creates. In other words, the space between idealized peace and realized violence forms a gap, an anxiety that rises once we face the limitations of how far we can struggle to bring about a feminist peace in the face of patriarchal violence.
Does the Political not Touch the Body?
“…but what is peace outside of my body—I don’t know.” Focus Group Participant, Armenia; March 2019
The woman quoted in the beginning of this section refers to peace in the context of war as something abstract, something she cannot touch and thereby know. Yet when she tried to recall the first time, she felt peace she referred to her body to remember peace, explaining that: “When the question was about the first time we felt peace I immediately went into my body.” The task we place upon ourselves to separate the internal and external realms of being in order to reflect on peace seems to make sense given the tension of public and private domains we often navigate from. Yet to know feminist peace requires a non-dualistic way of perceiving the world and centering the body as a significant locale of knowing. As such, we can say that feminist peace is to remember peace through the body, as if peace is a piece of the body, something tangible and possible to know instead of abstract and unknown.
In one case an interviewee from Armenia even went so far as to question whether peace was something that existed or exists prior to our ability to remember: “I couldn’t remember the first time I felt peace because I assume that in the time prior to my memories I always felt peace, maybe when I was very small and don’t remember” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; February, 2019). In a sense, peace is something that happens when one cannot remember, meaning one has no recollection of the memory of peace, and at the same time peace is something that one feels all the time preceded by memory, or rather, peace is what we know when we un-remember. If we were to approach the question of recalling from memory as similar to unearthing knowledge from the unconscious to conscious awareness, perhaps the conceptualization of feminist peace is also something that requires unknowing. When we unknow what we have been taught as knowledge about peace through a patriarchal lens, we may come to know feminist peace.
To Know Peace is to Know What Peace Isn’t
“The feminist world I imagine is freed from violence.” Focus Group Participant, Azerbaijan; March 2019
One of the major themes we observed in almost all focus group discussions was how the task of remembering peace brought to mind cases of non-peace. Everyone was able to say what peace is based on what it is not. Most of the examples revolve around what peace would be if there was an absence of violence, danger, and threat. In some cases, it was articulated more in depth as a condition of lacking fear. One of the feminists interviewed in Azerbaijan recalled a childhood memory of the first time when she felt peace, when she was on vacation with her parents who were on talking terms. This moment was related to peace for her because she was used to her parents fighting every day and she explained that: “At that moment I thought to myself that it can happen this way, too—they can talk to each other normally [instead of fighting].” A feminist from Georgia referred to peace as any “moment when you feel no fear, threat, or challenges.” Another feminist from Armenia spoke about her experiences with the catastrophic earthquake of 1988 as well as the war over Nagorno-Karabagh in the early 1990s. She explained that peace for her was “when there is nothing falling on my head” (because of the earthquake) and “when no one is throwing rocks at us” when passing through an Azerbaijani village during the war.
Peace in a sense becomes something that exists in the space where expected violence or danger could have been. We can even go as far as to say that feminist peace is about what is missing, including what is missing from the spaces where peace is spoken about. To imagine feminist peace, we must ask what is missing from the narratives, discourses, and general stories we hear about war, especially with regards to the details of women’s lives during war. For many of the feminists interviewed, the theme of what should not be in order for peace to be was telling of the experiences they had living as women in their immediate families, communities, towns, regions, and the world at large. In their own words, for peace to exist there should not be a feeling of danger; there should be no gender and no perceptions of what is male or female; there should be no social constructions; there should be no discrimination; there should be no defined sexuality; there should be no states, no flags, and no visas; and, most importantly, there should be no violence, whether direct or indirect. This is not the same as negative peace, however, because what we are articulating by the concept of feminist peace as something that exists in the space where violence is missing is ultimately about the expectation of violence as the norm, and when that violence does not take place, a space for relief opens up in our bodies, minds, and worlds.
Feminist Peace as a Culture of Deep Listening
“Telling one’s story has the effect of putting it in a bigger context and having the story make a difference within that context.” Focus Group Participant, Armenia; April 2019
After listening to some of our peers, we understood the significance that speaking and being heard can have in efforts to achieving feminist peace. As such, speaking is not only about an action one performs to express their experiences and stories but is also an act that depends on a space for being heard. Being able to relate to the one speaking by providing a space and an opportunity for them to speak is crucial to challenging normative discourses on war, violence, and peace because it enables women on the margins and often the most affected by displacement, whether from violent conflict or patriarchal violence, to reveal the roots of non-peace. According to some of the women that work specifically with oral history, being able to speak has an important role to play in letting out aggression, pain, and hopelessness from not being heard, which in turn contributes to a sense of calm and release. This not only challenges normalized narratives of violence, but also supports women who have been silenced as a result of traumatic experiences to reflect, analyze, and re-signify those experiences in an attempt to achieve inner peace.
Contrary to patriarchal notions of being rational as a strength versus being emotional as a weakness, feminists in the region express the need to reflect on internalization of violence and dealing with internal conflict as a means to create peace in their lives. As expressed by one of the women we interviewed: “For me the solution of conflict is not about strength, but about approaches to communicate that are feminist” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; April 2019). However, recognizing the connection with internal conflict and structural violence means that one has to be in conflict with oneself and with others as a feminist, meaning that there is both a struggle internally to challenge internalized norms as well as a struggle externally to bring about social change. Some feminists have a pessimistic perspective of how this means that structural systems gain from this constant fight.
One example that was given in a debate between feminists in a focus group taking place in Armenia was regarding how notions of “caring” connected to femininity were in fact attributes that have been exploited by patriarchy for its own gain. One way of caring that was discussed in another focus group of Georgian feminists was by giving space and staying silent so as to allow others to speak who might need more time to build up the confidence to take up space. Yet this concept and practice of “giving space” was contested by some as a mere reproduction of patriarchal ways when considering relations of power with regards to who has the power to give space and who does not. An open question that remains from this discussion is whether a culture of caring can exist alongside patriarchy, which does not become appropriated by patriarchy.
Feminist Peace as Non-Patriarchal and Non-Capitalist
“A lot of work needs to be done here [in terms of] imagining peace outside of patriarchy and capitalism.” Focus Group Participant, Georgia; April 2019
One major dilemma we encountered in discussions across all three contexts had to do with schools of feminist thought that essentialize women’s biology and schools of thought that deconstruct gender. In trying to envision feminist peace, some feminists referred to characteristics and ways of relating, which are often associated with femininity and women. One of our peers directly stated: “I associate that which is feminine with peace—that is caring, collaboration, not competing with each other but rather collaborating. We are concerned about each other, we take care of each other—all of these things that are feminine, that I perceive as feminine, and what I see in women’s circles. I see peace in that” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; February 2019). This perspective received responses by other feminists as a perspective that essentializes femininity in opposition to masculinity, thereby reproducing gender dynamics and stereotypes, which in turn foster the strengthening of patriarchy as opposed to its demise.
In some feminists’ experiences caring was a burden placed upon them as a result of their perceived gender. Caring was something they did not consider as an innate characteristic coming from their nature as women but rather as something they have been socialized and, in a sense, forced to be. In the words of one of the feminists who was part of this discussion on women being caring and collaborative: “Woman is permanently under threat under patriarchy, so women collaborate because they have to” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; February 2019). In a sense, when we perceive women’s environments to be more peaceful than male environments, that says more about how women are socialized to be less violent and more caring, as opposed to women being innately caring and collaborative. Furthermore, it is not a certitude that women’s environments are always and only caring and collaborative, as voiced by some of the feminists who spoke of their experiences in women’s spaces where patriarchal mechanisms of competitiveness and exclusion were reproduced in practice.
As one of our peers put it, “Maybe it is more about terming it [practices] as feminist rather than feminine.” As such, a constant practice of analyzing gender in our relations, within ourselves, and within the systems in which we struggle as feminists can divert us from becoming stuck in essentializations and limitations upon how we expect ourselves and others to be based on our perceived genders. Ultimately, such an approach becomes more about ways of living, being, thinking, and doing in the world that are disrupting binary systems, instead of reproducing them. Yet, because there were differences in strategies among the women that were discussing these issues, another dilemma arose with regards to the “what is” and the “what could be” as was discussed in an earlier section of this paper on conceptualizing feminist peace. The perspective that was positioned as “women-only” concerned having to “oppress [one’s] caring side,” which, in turn, was perceived as being part of one’s femininity in the fear that it could or would be exploited by patriarchy. Instead, a world was envisioned where we can “direct that care toward women only and also receive care from women.” Another perspective considered it impossible to separate women from the rest of the world and the reality of patriarchal, capitalist exploitation and found it important not to divide care by sex, but to have an alternative system where everyone can care for one another.
Two distinct barriers exist here: one is the difficulty to imagine feminist peace taking place within the same space where patriarchy and capitalism are taking place, and the second is the difficulty to imagine patriarchy and capitalism not taking place if feminist peace is a process that takes place without clashing with these oppressive dominant systems. In both cases, however, there is a difficulty in imagining reality freed from patriarchy and capitalism. Feminists in Georgia delved even deeper into the dilemma to conceive of feminist peace:
Feminist peace? How can peace be feminist? Feminism itself is in conflict with patriarchy. If nothing worries us and we are not in conflict with patriarchy, then why do we need feminism at all? I am saying that I am feminist because I am in conflict with the whole system and I don’t want peace at all. In post-patriarchy why would I need feminism at all? (Focus Group Participant, Georgia; March 2019)
Perhaps it is not possible to achieve feminist peace or even to speak of it as long as the obstacles that patriarchy and capitalism create continue to hinder our efforts to live free from violence and coercion. If feminist peace is something that is outside of patriarchy and capitalism, then how do we begin to speak and imagine our bodies, selves, and lives as the liberated “what could be” of intimate and relational politics?
We found a disparity and a sense of despair in the two-fold experience of writing this text in the context of the South Caucasus after having listened to feminist perspectives from the region, while we read academic literature on feminist peace, mostly realized in western contexts. As we read the proposals of feminist peace scholars to “deconstruct the type of strategic thinking that informs the discourses within which we live, act and form our subjectivities… and create new discourses, thus moving into the realm of desire and the imaginary” (Molloy 1995), we reflect on one of the statements made by the feminists we spoke to: “…when we are involved in systemic everyday routine, we do not have time to give our minds space for thinking about peace… The system should be set up differently if we want to talk about peace” (Focus Group Interview, Georgia; April 2019). Making the connection between patriarchy and capitalism provides an important insight into the abovementioned reflection as well as other reflections we heard from many of our feminist peers regarding the exploitative nature of capitalism when combined with patriarchy.
To be involved in systemic everyday routine as women often means that wherever the work of caring and taking care of others is left out of work that is given value, it is always women who are expected to and often take on the task of physically, mentally, and emotionally caring for others. And even where men take on work in the care industry, this work is often effeminized and deemed as part of women’s gender roles, placing men who care on the margins of society. Capitalism’s exploitative power takes advantage of the patriarchal notions of gender roles and creates monetary value out of beauty standards that women should aspire to, body structure that men should aspire to, and a number of other gendered expectations one should fulfill in order to fit within societal standards for each gender. As mentioned in the beginning of this section, a lot of work needs to be done to begin imagining peace outside of patriarchy and capitalism. Perhaps before we can find space in our imaginaries to envision feminist peace, we must first envision a reality freed from systems of oppression such as patriarchy and capitalism that maintain non-peace in our relations with others, with ourselves, and within institutions and structures that maintain the exploitation of women’s and effeminized bodies.
Feminist Modes of Relating as Peace
“An embrace for example. What is an embrace? It is safety, it is love, unity… it is about living, being able to live.” Focus Group Participant, Armenia; February 2019
The question regarding why the political imaginary does not include the intimate, relational, and emotional aspects of our day-to-day living kept coming up throughout several focus group discussions. In one of the focus groups there was a discussion on the politics of embracing and relating an embrace with peace and a sense of peacefulness. In more than one case, people spoke about an embrace as being an act that regulates difficult emotional states such as anxiety, deep sadness, and “to come back from having lost your breath… if there is something that took you out of rhythm” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; February 2019). To place the image of embracing in the patriarchal, masculine, and militarist sphere of politics then becomes impossible, because as mentioned by one of our peers: “How can a soldier with a weapon be something that can fit inside of an embrace? He is not someone who embraces, not someone who gives life” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; February 2019). Not only do soldiers not “fit inside of an embrace,” they are also trained to be anti-embrace, for anything that can give one a sense of calmness and peace makes one “weak” and at risk of being demolished by one who is “stronger.” Yet if we are talking about peace as an action that maintains life, then an embrace is a strategy and approach that can break the ascribed norms of relating in a patriarchal reality, which expect disconnection, desensitization, and dissociation from ourselves, others, and our surroundings.
Embracing was a memory that came up in many of the focus groups when recalling the first- or last-time participants had felt peace, which was often connected not only to the emotional sense of security one received from the embrace but also a physical state of calmness and ease. Returning to the body, then, is one of the mechanisms through which an embrace acts upon the systems of oppression that make it seem impossible to imagine feminist peace in our lives. In the words of one of our feminist peers: “I imagine feminist peace as a walking house that is also the body and nature and security— security in the body and in the home” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; April 2019). Nature was a theme that kept coming up as peace in the memories of the women interviewed across all three contexts with mountains, bodies of water, the wind, and other elements mentioned. For many, this sense of peace as safety and calmness was both individual as well as collective, meaning that inner peace was perceived as equally important as co-existing with others collectively. One of the feminists we interviewed described it as everyone having their own space where they feel safe, with “these spaces [being] connected to each other not by force, but willfully” (Focus Group Participant, Azerbaijan; April 2019).
Relating and interacting with oneself, with others, and with one’s environment in a way where trust abounds was pointed out as a significant condition necessary for being in harmony and peace with one’s surroundings and in one’s relations. In this case, trust is not only about feeling that one will not be harmed physically, but also about trusting the process— “trusting the trees, the breeze.” It is something that takes place “when all our senses are not in dissonance” (Focus Group Participant, Azerbaijan, March 2019). The idea that one needs to be in one’s senses to find peace and that peace is itself a sense and a feeling is important to take forward as an indicator of peace in a given space or situation. How often are our senses not in dissonance, meaning in harmony, in a peaceful condition, when we are relating to ourselves and others inside of institutions, whether those are academic institutions, work environments, family gatherings, heteronormative relationships, or patriarchal and capitalistic media? How often do we feel subjugated by oppressive structures we operate in and through, whether by force or by choice, and further oppress ourselves by suppressing our emotions of anger, frustration, humiliation, hopelessness, and powerlessness because emotions threaten to usurp so-called rational and objective reality? These are mere examples of micro-effects of macro-systems of violence that comprise the politics of all our daily relations under a patriarchal, capitalistic, and militaristic paradigm. Once we begin to deeply sense these effects bodily, we may come to resist internalizing oppression and domination and shift the dynamics of all our relations toward more just and peaceful ways.
Feminist Justice as Feminist Peace
“For now, feminist peace remains a struggle because we live in a system that is not peaceful at all.” Co-author in Focus Group between Co-authors, February 2019.
As was previously discussed, feminism exists because patriarchy creates a conflict for us to live in a just and peaceful world. One of the Georgian feminists expressed the frustration she felt when people are told that “conflict and violence are bad, yet the reality remains that we are already living under conditions of unequally distributed resources, and we are in conflict with systems and groups who own these resources.” The need to struggle for equality was voiced among feminists across all contexts in order to achieve concrete results, such as basic income, access to healthcare, education, and so on. Particularly, women who had the experience of displacement mentioned that they “cannot imagine peace without any social guarantees” (Focus Group Participant, Georgia; March 2019). Although in some cases the connection with equality and peace reflected a more liberal feminist ideology, ultimately the need for justice brought the discussion toward a more radical feminist position about fighting back in the face of patriarchal violence.
One of the feminists struggled with the language of war when explaining the need she has to fight back using violence if she must in order to defend herself when her bodily integrity is violated. In her own words: “I am more at peace when I talk about how to defend myself… because in those moments when I need to protect and defend myself [I have been taught to be passive], but I can’t let my weapons go” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; March 2019). And although we heard within different discussions the perspective that weapons cannot bring peace, the dilemma faced by some feminists remained with regards to how to push back against patriarchal violence non-violently. None of the women we spoke to were praising weapons or the military industrial complex, but peaceful means as a response to the violence of a militarized masculine patriarchal culture could not fit inside the feminist imaginaries of some feminists from the region. As put by one of these feminists: “I think that my attentiveness and readiness is lost from talks about non-violence” (Focus Group Participant, Armenia; March 2019). Perhaps feminist peace is a method of staying attentive to the necessary responses that emerge in the face of violence and acting in accordance to those as they emerge. In any case, we must stay aware about what is happening at any given time and work on creating alternative spaces to cultivate feminist peace ideology and practice visibilizing and responding to normalized, often invisible, violence.
Imagining Feminist Peace
“Everything has a different form but lives together collectively.” Focus Group Participant, Azerbaijan; April 2019.
The process of envisioning peace collectively with feminists from the South Caucasus was both a difficult and rewarding experience for us, the co-authors of this paper. Throughout the discussions we held in our three contexts we found feminists expressing that they could not imagine peace, while at the same time being willing to use the statement “I imagine…” to dream together. Despite the clash that kept being brought up between the existing reality of hegemonic patriarchal and capitalistic systems oppressing all spheres of life and the need to live free from systemic violences, the feminists we spoke to persevered in stretching the bounds of their imaginations to envision a utopian future of feminist peace. This in itself is a significant indicator of the power that we hold to spawn an alternative future in the present. According to Cynthia Cockburn: “Imagination, then, becomes itself a political practice” (Cockburn 2015). For feminists based in the South Caucasus, an alternative vision for a more just and peaceful world encompasses a reality without authority and nation-states, without greed and capitalism, without a culture of violence, and without patriarchal misogyny.
The awareness among feminists for a politics steeped in the formation of coalitions “in which the differential positionings of individuals and collectives involved will be recognized, as well as the value systems which underly their struggles” (Yuval Davis 1997 as quoted in Cockburn 2015) is indicative of the transversal politics many feminists already practice among each other in the region. One feminist activist in a focus group that took place in Azerbaijan even phrased it as “a peace [that is] an ‘aware cacophony’ of multiple standpoints, calling for solidarity across differences, for ‘empathetic cooperation,’ without considering it at the expense of peace itself.” Indeed, we concluded from the discussions we held with our feminist peers in the region that there are more methods and approaches to envisioning feminist peace based in the different experiences of feminists themselves than there are outcomes for peace. It is these methods and approaches envisaged by feminists in the South Caucasus that helped us put together the ideas articulated by our peers and come up with some of the building blocks of a regional conceptualization of feminist peace.
The first thing that we take away from this collective conceptualizing of feminist peace is that there is a real tension between the effort to imagine and envision peace as (a) feminist and the clash with the reality of daily, visible and/or invisible, structural violences, that manifest, whether materially or immaterially, in our lives. Following this tension between the “what is” and the “what could be” of prefigurative politics, the second thing we take away from this collective conceptualizing of feminist peace is that to know feminist peace requires a non-dualistic way of perceiving the world by centering the body as a significant location of knowing. As such, we cannot separate the personal from the political in envisaging peace, which means that we can and must bring the body, senses, emotions, and intuition into all conversations regarding conflict, violence, war, and peace in national, regional, and international relations.
Another important understanding we take away from our collective feminist peace envisioning process is that feminist peace exists in the space that is created, or perhaps allowed to expand, when violence as the expected norm does not take place. In this sense, we heard many of our feminist peers discuss instances in their lives where violence was expected but did not take place as instances where they felt peace and/or understood what peace was or could be. We understood that for many of us, peace does not actually contain its conventional meaning of serenity, calm, and quiet, but is rather more loaded with reminders of violence and violation given that we relate to these terms from our lived experiences as women living, speaking, and relating from queer, feminist, activist, displaced, and marginalized standpoints. From this perspective feminist peace was also envisaged in terms of feminist justice, which according to some of our peers encompassed an active struggle, including self-defense, against systems of oppression violating our being, our work, and our dreams.
One major challenge that feminists in the South Caucasus find in the practice and envisioning of feminist peace is the patriarchal and capitalistic context in which we live, and which poses an obstacle in actually imagining feminist peace, much less living it. Many of our peers felt that as long as these systems of oppression continue to impact our lives and realities, we cannot live in peace, but rather we must stay struggling against these systems. Nevertheless, the dream of feminist peace is articulated as one of non-patriarchal and noncapitalistic modes of relating to ourselves, to others, and to the general environment. The additional complexity here is in coming to agreement about how we see non-patriarchal and non-capitalistic approaches in practice, given that some feminists argue for women only spaces as one solution whereas other feminists perceive a more queer, non-binary system of relating to self, to others, and to the world.
Perhaps as long as we come up against the hindering factors that oppressive systems enforce upon us, it would be difficult to see how there might come a day where we will no longer need to fight against, use self-defense, or protect spaces for women only. Perhaps without these systems of oppression that limit our conceptions of ourselves and others, we will no longer even need to categorize ourselves as “women” in order to define common struggles. In many ways, such subversive realities seemed to materialize in some of the conversations where feminist peace was envisaged as intimate and relational, encompassing touch, an embrace, trust, and harmony of the senses and body as a whole. According to feminist peace researchers Tarja Väyrynen and Eeva Puumala, “…it can be claimed that people experience political processes as felt, corporeal memories as the body is exposed to those processes and as it withdraws from being completely captured by those processes” (Väyrynen and Puumala 2015). As such, it suddenly became possible through simple gestures, shifts in perception, and coming back to the senses to combine envisioning and embodying peace as a feminist process of “withdrawing from being completely captured” by oppressive political processes.
In conclusion (albeit a continuous one), the prefiguration and practice of feminist peace depends on feminist approaches to relating to oneself, others, and both the dominant oppressive structures and systems as well as alternative processes of liberation existing in emergence. These are envisioned to be based in a politics of solidarity, collective existence and being, a constant creation of spaces for analysis and exposure of invisible violence, and a practice of affirming our collective bodily integrity in unison with our self determination. Ultimately, feminist peace is a process, which is also attested to in feminist peace research, which transforms and is transformed as it becomes envisaged and practiced beyond the abstract political in our everyday lives.
The authors of this paper would like to express their deepest gratitude to the women who shared their memories of peace, their practices and dreams for a feminist peace, and their frustrations and disappointments with regards to movements, ideologies, realities, and politics. We consider this paper a cocreation and production of knowledge by all the voices that contributed to this collective brainstorming on feminist peace as envisioned by feminists in the South Caucasus. We consider this a beginning to collectively imagining feminist peace in our region, but there are still more voices that can be included here. We hope that this work will inspire those voices and other voices to embark on a similar process of envisioning feminist peace so we may eventually have a constellation of “what could be-s” with the potential to make the world a more peaceful, just, and kind place in which to live.
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