The Politics of Women's Agency'
The research project that this podcast has emerged from is titled ‘The politics of Women’s Agency: gender and peacebuilding in post-conflict Nepal’. This project was initially my PhD research project at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London (2011-2017), which I then pursued further as part of my ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship (2018-2020).
The project explored questions of women’s agency in the context of peacebuilding in Nepal, focusing on experiences of women ex-fighters and women engaged in collective mobilisations around the issue of enforced disappearance. It was inspired by a curiosity around how women’s political agency is expressed in post-war contexts: what are the forms that agency can take? How are these expressions of agency located?
Agency is of course a complex concept to pin down – sometimes I feel I spent most of my PhD thinking about this one concept. One way to start is to explore agency as a capacity to act and to make a difference (e.g., McNay, 2000). What interested me was the possibility that the conditions of war and its aftermath might generate specific, embodied capacities to act, and specifically, ways to contest existing hierarchies and relations of power. It was through delving deep into the stories of the women I met – and to the encounters we had – that I tried to explore the questions of how agency emerges, what forms it takes, and how are these expressions located in relation to various structures of power – including practices of peacebuilding.
Why women's agency?
The post-war moment presents itself as an opportunity to effect change in the very relations of power that underpinned and enabled wartime violence. Feminist activists and scholars have sought in various ways to seize this opportunity – by campaigning for women to be included in peace negotiations, by calling for women ex-fighters’ contribution to be recognised in reintegration programmes, or by highlighting the gendered effects of wartime violations such as enforced disappearance. These feminist engagements with post-war times have generated difficult questions of agency.
In a context in which the call to recognise women as ‘agents’ has been institutionalised as part of the UN architecture of peacebuilding questions of agency have crucial significance at the level of policy
practice. There now exists a vast critical feminist engagement with the UN ‘Women, Peace and
Security agenda’, including with the agenda’s focus on agency. However, the theoretical assumptions upon which feminist scholarly analysis identifies agency and recognises subjectivities as political in post-war contexts have largely remained unexamined.
What are the assumptions upon which forms of women’s agency in the post-war context are recognised and debated? What counts as political agency? What becomes excluded through our theoretical lenses? How to understand research encounters as productive of various forms of agency – as well as forms of exclusion and silences?
These were the kinds of questions that troubled me during the PhD research process and continue to do so! The podcast series is one exploration of these questions – this time in a more collective way – in discussion with my brilliant co-host Swastika Kasaju and importantly, in conversation with the stories the women I met shared with me.
The theoretical framing of my project brought together feminist theorisation of agency with postcolonial theories of subaltern politics, invoking Partha Chatterjee’s (1998) notion of ‘political society’. More specifically, I advanced understandings of ‘gendered agency’ and ‘local agency’ put forward in the feminist scholarship on Peace and Conflict (O’Reilly, 2018; Henrizi, 2015) and the Critical Peacebuilding literature (Richmond, 2011; MacGinty, 2010). My project aimed to rethink agency beyond resistance to regulatory gender norms and/or resistance to liberal peacebuilding, pushing the existing literature into a deeper engagement with postcolonial theory (Mahmood, 2012; Madhok, 2013; Baines, 2016). This last aspect I have also developed in a journal article titled ‘Withdrawing from Politics? Gender, agency and women ex-fighters’, published in Security Dialogue and available on SAGE Journals.
To conduct the research, I employed a mixed methods approach consisting of ethnographic research (6 months), qualitative interviews, and thematic and discourse analysis. In 2013 I conducted 70 in- depth interviews with women ex-fighters, women engaged in victims’ groups and with a wide range of stakeholders, including women’s NGOs/human rights NGOs, INGOs, UN agencies and government officials. With many of the women who had fought in the PLA and women engaged in the victims’ movement I conducted also follow-up interviews. The interviews were mainly conducted in Nepal’s Southern plains (Tarai), in the following districts: Banke, Bardiya and Nawalparasi. In addition, I conducted interviews also in Kathmandu and the nearby district Kavre.
All the interviewees gave their informed consent to be interviewed and for the interview to be recorded. All the interviews were then transcribed in Nepali and translated into English and anonymised. The PhD research as well as the postdoctoral project received a full ethical approval from the War Studies Group Research Ethics Panel.
My research project put forward three main findings:
First, ‘subaltern’ forms of political agency do not constitute an autonomous realm of politics but rather are deeply intertwined with the very categories and discourses that peacebuilding practices produce and enable. I show how it is precisely through their engagements with practices of human rights training and NGO actors that the women activists have developed capacities to mobilise and to make contestable multiple hierarchies.
Second, when women ex-fighters express political agency this might involve a ‘withdrawing’ from the public sphere and from a continuing involvement in collective mobilisation. I demonstrate how this ‘withdrawing’ emerges as a set of practices through which the political subjectivity of being an ex-fighter is pursued in relation to the Maoist party and peacebuilding practices.
As my third finding I demonstrate a problematic omission of female ex-combatants in the design and implementation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 agenda in Nepal. In a context in which the case of Nepal is promoted as an example of ‘best practice’ by UN agencies, INGOs, and donors this finding has significant ramifications for policy practice.
For full reference list, please see below.
Baines, E. (2016) Buried in the Heart: Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chatterjee, P. (1998) Beyond the nation? Or within? Social Text, 56, 57–69.
McNay, L. (2000) Gender and Agency. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Henrizi, A. (2015) Building peace in hybrid spaces: women’s agency in Iraqi NGOs. Peacebuilding, 3(1): 75-89.
Mac Ginty, R. (2010) Hybrid peace: The interaction between top down and bottom up peace. Security Dialogue 41(4): 291-412.
Madhok, S. (2013) Rethinking Agency: Developmentalism, Gender and Rights. London: Routledge.
Mahmood, S. (2012) Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
O’Reilly, M. (2018) Gendered Agency in War and Peace: Gender Justice and Women’s Activism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Richmond, O.P. (2010) Resistance and the Post-liberal Peace. Millennium 38 (3): 665-692.