From False Dichotomies to a Real One: A Response to Shana Tabak by Vasuki Nesiah
[Vasuki Nesiah is an Associate Professor of Practice at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study.]
From manufacturing petrol bombs in their homes in Northern Ireland to planning assassinations in Colombia, female combatants confound received scripts of gender and war. Shana Tabak’s article challenges the analytical frameworks deployed by orthodox approaches to transitional justice, lays out an alternative framework that she situates in critical ‘gender oriented’ scholarship and then draws from this framework to enter the world of female combatants. For Tabak this alternative framework highlights problems with orthodox transitional justice approaches to female combatants but also suggests policy directions for how we may reform transitional justice to better serve these combatants.
Significantly the challenge to orthodox approaches is in fact a challenge to two strands – both a gender-neutral strand, and what we may describe as a “traditional” feminist strand invested in female victimhood. I found Tabak most helpful in exposing the arenas of convergence between these two strands. While traditional feminism often sees itself as opposing the ‘gender neutral’ approach, Tabak reveals that the gender neutral strand and the traditional feminist strand share background assumptions regarding the dichotomies between conflict and non-conflict, victims and perpetrators, and even public and private. Equally, Tabak was helpful in systematically outlining key insights of critically oriented feminist scholarship – what she identifies as ‘gender-oriented approach to transitional justice.’
I part company with Tabak when she moves from this mapping of debates to an analysis of female combatants in Colombia. It is indeed the case that these issues challenge orthodox transitional justice. However, the implications of critical feminism may not fall neatly into the policy prescriptions that Tabak highlights. Tabak suggests that if we recognize that gender neutral DDR programs and interventions premised on women as victims do not address the issues of female combatants then we are unlikely to encourage demobilization, empower demobilized women combatants in their civilian lives or engender civic trust. Rather, she suggests that transitional justice interventions have to become more ‘holistic’ and multifaceted through strategies such as avoiding gender stereotyping in “social services” and making proactive efforts to ensure that DDR initiatives (from demobilization packages to job training programs) address opportunities for women. In other words, let’s be more context sensitive, and indeed, gender sensitive, to ensure meaningful inclusion.
On the one hand, no one can argue with tailoring DDR packages to the specificities of the context or more proactive and nuanced approaches to gender inclusion. On the other, to see the specific revisions to DDR programs that she makes as the end result of critical ‘gender oriented’ scholarship would be to defang the critique and domesticate the extent to which it challenges orthodox transitional justice. When critical traditions have taken on the “false dichotomies of transitional justice,” they have also highlighted that what is at stake is the extent to which extraordinary violence and violence on the body obscures and normalizes ordinary structural violence. Thus the response cannot be to once again foreground the battlefield in focusing on female combatants as combatants; rather (as Tabak understands) we need to also look at the structural issues that engendered the conflict. This may not be then merely about ameliorative measures for gender sensitive employment opportunities or inclusion of women’s clothing in DDR packages but a more radical push to restructure economic arrangements. In this brief response, I do not have time to highlight multiple examples of the internal tension that flows through the second part of Tabak’s paper but again and again one sees that the need to challenge the enabling conditions of conflict is clearly recognized in her analytical rethinking of orthodox transitional justice but it gets neutered in her discussion of the implications of this rethinking. There she defers to efforts that “re-legitimize the state” and “build civic trust”. There is, I would argue, deep political stakes here that cannot be reconciled with invocations of a “holistic” transitional justice framework; coating state policy initiatives with a layer of gender sensitivity is not on a seamless continuum with challenging social relationships. This is not to trivialize Tabak’s proposals but to highlight a disjuncture between the radical potential in the analytical framework she endorses and the ameliorative, small-bore policy prescriptions she advances. This is a real dichotomy.