Are women inherently more peaceful than men? And are women’s interests always united when it comes to debates over war and peace?
These are just some of the intriguing questions brought up by a new PBS documentary series, Women, War, and Peace, which is airing Tuesday evenings in October. Last week’s episode, I Came to Testify, tells the story of the 1998 Kunarac case, in which sixteen brave women testified at The Hague against Serbian military officers who presided over the systemized sexual slavery of thousands of Bosnian women and girls. The case marked the first time an international body declared rape a crime against humanity.
“Rape has always been an undercurrent of war. People talk about raping and pillaging,” says US Kunarac prosecutor Peggy Kuo in the film—noting that even so, sex crimes were left off the docket at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals, despite ample evidence of mass rape in concentration camps. “I had heard that in Nuremberg there was a discussion of whether to bring up the subject of rape,” Kuo recounts, “and somebody made a comment: ‘We don’t watch a bunch of crying women in the court room.’ ”
Indeed, until late in the twentieth century, female victims were denied recourse for the special, gender-specific suffering they endured during times of war. The result of downplaying conflict-related sexual violence was that not only war but peacemaking and reconciliation, too, were coded as activities to be conducted by men.
The second film in the series, airing tomorrow night, is the award-winning and absolutely bracing documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tells the story of Liberian feminist peace activist Leymah Gbowee, one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Gbowee led a movement that united Liberian Christian and Muslim women to bring about an end to her nation’s blood-soaked civil war, in which male militias vied for control of Liberia’s mineral deposits, deploying drugs and sexual violence to terrorize local populations and recruit young boys as soldiers.
Wearing white, thousands of Liberian women lined the streets to pray, sing, chant and protest for peace. Their message was a powerful one—that as mothers, they would no longer tolerate their sons being drafted into a violent conflict that led to the mass rape of their daughters. When the female activists were excluded from peace talks in Ghana, they stormed the meeting, forcing a compromise that led to the exile of disgraced Liberian president Charles Taylor and the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this month.
The success of Gbowee’s movement has inspired a wave of international calls for women to act as peacemakers in conflict zones around the world. The argument is that female activists are more likely to be nonviolent and to be viewed as sympathetic on the world stage, in part because they can wrap their calls for peace in traditional, nurturing rhetoric about motherhood. Nicholas Kristof has argued that Palestinian women, for example, might have the best shot at bringing about an end to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
As inspiring as these stories are, however, we cannot assume that women in every global conflict zone share any specific approach to peace. Next week’s episode of Women, War, and Peace takes place in Afghanistan, and follows several female politicians and activists as they resist the Taliban’s efforts to exert political power and roll back gains for women and girls made since the U.S. invasion in 2001. The documentary, Peace Unveiled, is narrated by Tilda Swinton, and unfortunately presents a totally lopsided view of the Afghan political situation. Hillary Clinton is presented as a heroine who must resist domestic calls to end the American occupation, “which could set women back. … For Afghan women caught between war and the prospect of peace with the Taliban, the road ahead is a hellish one,” Swinton says.
Indeed, Afghan women exposed to Taliban death threats for working outside the home or sending their daughters to school live between a rock and a hard place: war at first opened up opportunities for Afghan women and girls, but then led to an increase in violence and warlordism, with civilians caught in the crosshairs. Many girls’ schools that opened in the wake of the US invasion are now closed, as families are too scared to enroll their daughters. Afghan president Hamid Karzai has signed into law several disturbing pieces of legislation, including one that made rape legal within marriage and required women to get permission from their husbands to work.
These developments have led Afghan feminist politician Malalai Joya and other activists to call for an end to the US occupation—yet voices like Joya’s are excluded from Peace Unveiled, in favor of a more simplistic narrative that the US military presence in Afghanistan protects women’s rights.
I wish PBS’s Women, War, and Peace had looked more closely at debates among women about how to end wars. While women disproportionately bear the burdens of authoritarian regimes and violent conflicts, women are just as politically complex as men, and must juggle the same competing demands of family, ethnicity, religion, and political power when evaluating how to make peace.