A review of Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Sterns book Sexual violence as a weapon of war? Perceptions, prescriptions, problems in the Congo and beyond, by Nadja Piiroinen (2015).

During the spring term I taught African Studies at Uppsala University. Students created a blog Uppsala African Reviews where they published reviews of books with a focus on contemporary African issues. Nadja Piiroinen is one of the students.

As a feminist I have had many reasons to feel hopeful during the last few years. As a consumer of entertainment I’ve watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler slay the last three Golden Globes, Taylor Swift make a 180, going from ignorant to feminist-spokes person with her now bff Lena Dunham, I’ve binged through SVT‘s Full Patte twice, and I cried as Beyoncé, standing tall in front giant letters spelling out the word feminist, became a gif, not talk about the whole Emma Watson amazingness. As a Swede I have seen a growing political movement for mainstreaming an intersectional feminist agenda, I’ve seen that movement intimidate the political establishment to include more feminist talking points, to form a ‘feminist government’, and appointing a minister of foreign affairs that has promised a ‘feminist’ foreign policy. These are some of the examples that have opened up for my hopefulness and enthusiasm, the atmosphere feels changed, and not just in Sweden anymore, slowly but surely being a feminist in Hollywood is going from taboo to norm, and personally, I’m loving it.

But as we all know, new ideas and ideologies that manage to break through and be accepted into mainstream society are still given very little room, not surprisingly their talking points are cut short and simplified. Often only a specific part or point gets the breakthrough, leaving no space for varied interpretation of the subject matter. This is partly due to the mainstream media’s habits of simplification and generalization. But it is equally a result from self censorship. Most of us are guilty of this. We mean no harm, we simply want speed things up, in the end, isn’t it a minor detail compared to the greater good? I often find myself not entirely agreeing with a policy, while simultaneously hoping no one mentions it in public, since the benefits of mentioning and maybe fixing the minor details can be rather small compared to the possible drawbacks of not showing a unified and clear message.

Sometimes the truth hurts, and when it does, we usually need to hear it. And when Maria Stern and Maria Eriksson Baaz thought we ought to revisit what has become a general narrative of sexual violence in conflict situations they were right. Most of us have been fairly happy with the increased attention sexual violence in conflict situations has received. Finally, we say, we cannot continue to act like this doesn’t exist — we say, as we shake our heads at each other. Meanwhile that thing happens again. That thing where we’re so happy over the attention our subject of concern is receiving that we don’t react or protest when its simplified and generalized in ways we never intended it to be. In this case sexual violence in conflict situations finally breaks through into mainstream media and research. It rises in the ranks as a popular talking point for UN officials and high stake politicians and makes it all the way in to legislation and UN resolutions. ‘Finally!’ we say. Meanwhile the discourse of sexual violence in conflict situations has already been high jacked by one of its sub discourses.

The sexual violence in conflict situations discourse made its major breakthroughs in the after math of the Balkan wars and the Rwandan genocide. The way sexual violence was used in these conflicts has highly influenced the way we conduct research and policy proposals regarding sexual violence in conflicts ever since. The idea to generalize human behavior and categorize all similar outcomes as the result of the same identical process seems crazy, yet this is what seems to have happened to sexual violence in conflict situations.

Sexual violence can very well be a planned strategy or a ‘weapon’ in war, as it has very well been showcased in Lisa Sharlachs ‘Gender and genocide in Rwanda: women as agents and objects of genocide’ from 1999. But somehow our logic has been flawed, and the fact that this indeed was the case in Rwanda and the Balkans has lead us to assume that all sexual violence in conflicts is strategic or ordered from above. Stern and Eriksson Baaz build their investigation around the plentiful research on the “rape capital of the world”; the DRC. As one of the most disastrous wars in human history the war in Congo has mostly become known for its extreme normalization of sexual violence, and as such it has become the place to visit sexual violence survivors and to take an official stance against sexual violence in conflicts. This is where politicians come to protest against the gendered weapon of war that is rape.

Yet the reality of rape and sexual violence isn’t always as strategic and planned as we are lead to believe, instead we find our own arguments flawed when we even try to describe them as such. The strategicness of rape is often defined as a military tactic and a planned tool to humiliate and demoralize the enemy or civilians, yet those very arguments rely on statements where ‘lawlessness allows perpetrators to act with impunity”. The strategicness of sexual violence actually usually builds on the assumed gendered symbolicness of women within their communities, putting little emphasis on actually explaining the strategicness in the perpetrators’ actions. The strategicness of rape is generally implied rather than proved.

Having established that the general narrative of wartime rape is linked to strategicness, Eriksson Baaz and Stern start by busting the strategicness myth by showing that there is hardly any evidence to support such a general narrative. The following section is by far the most enjoyable read of the book as the authors open up for the perpetrators stories. By giving us an in depth look at how the soldiers explain their actions themselves while linking those stories to military sociologist theories you as reader get to enjoy something very rare, a highly self critical feminist read. We have now evolved from the one-dimensional masculine and monster-like male rapist soldier that is usually provided by the general narrative, narratives are often further devalued through a racialized aspect which according to Lisa Shannons article, No, sexual violence is not cultural from 2010 in the New York Times, dismisses any gendered criticism as simply cultural. In Eriksson Baaz and Stern’s book we instead meet people of poverty, trauma, and most importantly, read their own stories. These stories remind us that even the worst of perpetrators’ are themselves victims of gendered stereotypes, and that sexual violence is a result from emotional and moral collapse, hopelessness and revenge as well as forward panic and unstoppable spirals of violence.

Eriksson Baaz and Stern’s book provides an excellent problematization of what has become a general narrative of wartime sexual violence. We are once again reminded not fall in the pits of generalizations that feminism means to question in the first place. That is where the books great accomplishment lies, in finding that many of the current feminist arguments themselves still build on stereotypical images of gender. We might not find the perfect alternative right away, but by problematizing each other we can get one step closer. And me? I will try to make more noise over the things I find problematic, even if doing so might seem counterproductive to the bigger goal.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Sexual Violence, Student book reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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