What we don't get about women in politics and war

Conflict reporting often distorts the nature of female influence in peace and security

One of Shamsia Hassani’s 2019 work on a Kabul wall. Musical instruments are a common theme in her work which signify women’s need to use tools other than their voices to be heard. Picture courtesy of Shamsia Hassani
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Shortly after the Taliban fell in Kabul in November 2001 following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, I got a message from my then foreign editor back in London. “Go to a hairdresser that just opened,” he wrote in an email. “See what the women have to say. Get some stories of their miserable lives under the Taliban.”

I was furious. I had spent months travelling in Afghanistan with the opposition Northern Alliance – and living rough. I wanted to report about the new government, the American troops landing in the cave complex of Tora Bora, and the information available on hard disks that the Taliban had left behind. In my view, those were much more hard-hitting stories. I didn’t want to write about the women’s angle.

Fortunately, one of my male colleagues knew of our conversation and said: “I’ll go talk to the women.” He saw the "soft feature" as a novelty. As he trotted off in search of a hairdresser, I made my way to the Presidential Palace.

TOPSHOT - Armenian women make camouflage net to be sent to a frontline in Karabakh in Yerevan on October 18, 2020.
 Baku and Yerevan have for decades been locked in a simmering conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian region of Azerbaijan which broke away from Baku in a 1990s war that claimed the lives of some 30,000 people.
The Caucasus neighbours have defied international calls to halt hostilities and accused the other of starting new clashes that began September 27 and have seen the heaviest fighting since a 1994 truce.
Armenian women make camouflage net to be sent to a frontline in Karabakh in Yerevan last week. AFP

In retrospect, it would have been interesting to sit for a few hours listening to women who were allowed out in public for the first time in years. Later, I did seek out women to hear their stories. But what annoyed me then was that I was the only female in a team of male correspondents, and the "soft angle" inevitably fell to me – although I was the only one who had toughed it out in northern Afghanistan for months and the one who had the most experience in war zones.

From the beginning of my career, I was always told to go to hospitals and schools, to refugee camps and places where I could find women to get the “human angle".

As journalists and storytellers, we can focus more on stories of empowerment

This angle typically involved a broken woman who was desperate to survive and protect her family. There were always tears involved, sometimes anger and fear. This was backed up by a dramatic photograph, and it usually made the front page of a newspaper.

I resented victimising women, which involved portraying a traumatised rape victim or a refugee mother struggling to feed her children. A few years ago, when I attended a memorial of the Srebrenica genocide, it hit me that we were doing a great disservice to women.

epa08763905 An undated handout photo made available by the media team of Afghan politician Fawzia Kofi shows Fawzia Kofi at an unidentified location in Afghanistan (issued 22 October 2020). Fawzia Koofi, one of the four Afghan female peace negotiators with the Taliban, says it is too early to know if the Islamist rebels have changed their attitude towards women. Koofi, 45, was named in the pool of candidates for the Nobel Peace 2020 for her tireless advocacy of democracy and rights for women and is part of a 21-member delegation sent by the Afghan government last month to negotiate with the Taliban in Doha.  EPA/FAWZIA KOFI PRESS TEAM / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Afghan politician and women's rights activist Fawzia Koofi became the first woman deputy speaker of her country's parliament. EPA

We went to the Bosnian city of Zenica, which was the scene of terrible war crimes, including systematic rape. But the first person who was brought out to us to give testimony was not a woman, but a man. He wept as he talked about enduring rape while held prisoner. In my decades of reporting, it was the first time a man was shown as a victim of sexual violence. Why was it always a woman’s face then?

War reporting often distorts women’s role in peace and security. Mainstream journalists, including myself, tend to focus on the stories that the public would feel comfortable reading. When we read about the plight of Syrian refugees, it’s usually about women alone, struggling to take care of their children because their husbands are either fighting or dead.

According to a UN-backed global study on women, peace and security, only 13 per cent of stories in the news media on peace and security-related themes include women as the subject. Women are central to the story in only six per cent of the cases. Regardless of the topic, only four per cent of stories portray women as leaders in conflict and post-conflict countries and only two per cent highlight gender equality or inequality issues.

We can relate to a woman who has lost her power. A man who is powerless makes us uncomfortable; so does a woman who is too willful or strong. We don't read much about the brave women who fought in Aleppo or those who stood up to ISIS. What if we had amplified the voices of strong women recounting their experiences of war worldwide, such as the female commanders in Kurdistan or the Yazidi women who chose not to be broken by ISIS-imposed slavery but turned their trauma into a way of escalating women's position in society?

Nobel prize laureates Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege (R) and Iraqi Yazidi-Kurdish human rights activist Nadia Murad greet the crowd from the balcony of the Nobel suite in Oslo downtown, Norway on December 10, 2018. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)
Iraqi human rights activist Nadia Murad and Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. AFP

Is there an alternative that would strengthen women's voices, a feminist media perspective on war reporting? One way to do so would be to look at women's efforts to build peace. Women are so often shunted from the negotiating table – unless they are assistants sitting in the back row taking notes behind men with power.

I have always argued for women to have a vital role to play in peacebuilding. They don't have to be just female commanders or military leaders, but wives of commanders who have influence, or community leaders, or faith-based leaders.

Even in patriarchal societies, women wield influence at their own tables. So why can't they use their leverage to bring about peace? This is essential in Track 2 and Track 3 diplomatic efforts, which include more people-to-people talks than discussions involving high-level political and military leaders focused on ceasefires and treaties.

What really matters after a war is the reconstruction of a country and the delivery of justice. Rwanda and Sierra Leone, two countries that witnessed horrible conflicts, are good examples of countries where women played an essential role in peacebuilding. In 1994, women were being slaughtered and raped during the genocide in Rwanda. Yet the country boasts of more women parliamentarians today than any other country in the world.

Stephanie Williams, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, speaks about the fourth round of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Oct. 21, 2020. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
Stephanie Williams, the Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, has helped secure a permanent ceasefire in the North African country. AP

The United Nations, which plays an important role in preventing and ending wars, lacks enough women in senior positions. Yet studies prove that gender-equal participation contributes to longer, and lasting peace after conflict. UN Women, an entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, demonstrated that, in UN-sponsored peace processes, women's participation in delegations involved in negotiations has not improved in recent years. In 2018, out of six active UN-led or co-led processes, women were included in just 14 out of 19 delegations.

According to the US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, between 1992 and 2018, women constituted 13 per cent of negotiators, three per cent of mediators and only four per cent of signatories in major peace processes.

So what can we do to reverse this? As journalists and storytellers, we can focus more on stories of empowerment. We can train more women in post-conflict countries to tell their own stories, rather than rely on foreign reporters. We can make a case for the allocation of more peacebuilding funds and bilateral aid to promote gender equality and women’s rights in fragile states. We can push the UN Security Council to pass more resolutions involving women and security.

The photograph and the storyline might not be as explicit. In the old days of British tabloids reporting the kind of stories that used to grab their readers used to be referred to by editors as the “Shock Horror”.

There is no "shock horror" in telling stories of powerful women during war. But we would be doing a huge favour to women everywhere if we stopped portraying them as victims and gave them back their agency.

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs