Upholding Gendered Peace at a Time of War: Academics and Activists Speak Out on the Shifting Places of Women in the Arab World

This is Women in War’s  second annual conference in a cycle commemorating the place of women in the First World War, which will last from 2014 to 2018. The inaugural conference took place in Sarajevo in June 2014 and this time we are teaming up with the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

The aim of the conference is to review the multiple aspects of the gender dimension of the political and social upheavals that have swept the entire Middle-East resulting in a veritable war against women. As fifty specialists and activists coming from all over the word will show, the battlefields are situated in multiple loci that share comparable forms of gendered oppression, produced by religiously cautioned ideologies founded on extreme militaristic patriarchal values. The rise of human rights abuses has been exponential, and sinister commonalities emerge in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Yemen the Northern Caucasus republics, West Africa, all areas covered by the conference. Young girls are enslaved and traded as rarely since antiquity, the fate of widows, increasingly younger and more forlorn waxes even more tragic as protective traditional family structures have collapsed. This particular feature is a consequence of post-modern warfare: the eroding of traditional structures by even the most patriarchal and ultra-masculinized warmongers. As refugees bereft of any linkage to recognized family units, women stand far less chance of being taken up and reintegrated in any host countries, even at their own borders in places with comparable traditions. These tendencies have been brought about by radical movements (Daesh, the Taliban, Boko Haram) and local governments who support, overtly or covertly,such policies with the grumbling blessing of the West. The consequences are limitless.

Are women, be they from dominant religions (mainly Muslim) as well as actively persecuted minorities (Christian, Yazidi) solely victims? Whilst this is undoubtedly true, this conference will show that the women-as-victim-trope may not be the only reality on the field.


The Green Movement in Iran in 2009 against the re-election of Mahmood Ahmadinejad brought women out massively in the street of Tehran. Then, during the so – called Arab Spring, women participated massively at every level from leadership to cyberactivism and militant journalism .

During the events, many Orientalist stereotypes concerning Arab women were shattered, mainly that of cloistered passivity. Furthermore, the Western feminist ideal as sole rhetoric of liberation was also questioned, witness the vast numbers of women in hijab partaking in the protests. The elite, urban Western model of womanhood as a role-model for authoritarian governments in Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, had shown its limitations by its lack of relevance for the majority of MENA population where in-built gender inequality nevertheless persisted, unabated. Despite current repression, the protests movements initiated by women will continue to allow them to move beyond these narratives.

With the rise of Kurdish Rojava female battalions, another myth has been crushed: here women have joined military formations in a unique egalitarian struggle for survival and autonomy. In the battle zones, young artists, poets, film-makers and bloggers are expressing their opposition in exceptionally creative ways.

Nevertheless, women also internalise hyper-masculinised repression and make it their own. The active presence of women within gender-repressive structures, especially Western (but not only) recruitment into ISIS as well as participation through suicide attacks needs to be considered as a source of paradoxical self-empowerment in the midst of universally failing states. The fall of Communist governments has led to the collapse of a half century of gender rights and to the surge of what amounts to a variety of invented Islamic traditions in the service of aggressive nationalist policies as in the case of the Caucasus and the Balkans- a trend also seen elsewhere in non-Muslim countries such as Hungary. The role of women in the performance of these regressive but increasingly globalized nationalist folklores warrants careful scrutiny.

The Middle-East is going through one of the most critical phases of its history. As Palmyra burns and teenage refugees are bartered to the general indifference of an otherwise chest-thumping West, a generation of courageous women is emerging in this part of the world, ready to take the fate of the whole region in hand in the name of what amounts to a modern feminist revolution. These must be empowered and supported by world governments who must come their senses and put human rights at the centre of their otherwise sinister Realpolitik


This conference organized by the  Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University (Beirut) and Women in War with Beit-El-Hanane

With the support of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Lebanon (Rule of Law Program MENA Region) KVINFO and the OIF, Office de la Francophonie. June 8-11th in Beirut