Enloe was one of more than 40 acclaimed international academics and feminist writers in İstanbul this week for “Gendered Memories of War and Political Violence,” a conference organized jointly by Ayşe Gül Altınay of İstanbul’s Sabancı University and Andrea Peto of Central European University in Budapest.
With participants welcomed from academic institutions across the globe ranging from the University of Western Sydney to the London School of Economics, a common thread emerged during the course of the diverse two-day conference, namely, the need to expand the notion of a warzone beyond the geography of conventional warfare and begin a breakdown of what for many women has been a long period of silence. As Doris Melkonian of the University of California said, quoting Professor Kamala Visweswaran during her presentation on Wednesday, “If we do not know how to hear silence, we will be unable to understand what is being said.”
Speaking at the opening of the conference at Beyoğlu’s Cezayir conference hall on Tuesday morning, Enloe, sprightly at the age of 73, told her audience that to argue that women’s memories are not only worthy of being remembered but of being shared is in many ways very profound as it suggests that the costs of war are much higher than anyone is willing to admit. “Conventional commemorations of war list men who die in uniform, but a feminist reckoning of the costs of war is much greater,” she said, adding that the postwar period is often far longer than most people feel comfortable imagining. “Postwar lasts as long as it takes any woman to rebuild her life after the war, and many women across the world have, and continue to live, intense periods of postwar silence.”
A session on Tuesday, “Women’s Narratives of War and Soldiering,” which included discussions ranging from the participation of Abkhazian women from Turkey in the Abkhazian War to the memoirs of Fascist female soldiers from the Italian Civil War, saw Karen Turner of Holy Cross College show clips from her 2002 documentary “Hidden Warriors: Women of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
The film sheds light on the role played by thousands of young women who volunteered to fight in youth brigades in North Vietnam during the war. It also exposes the enduring impact of the conflict on the lives of these women in the postwar period. While many veterans returned to find their land and homes occupied, others were struck down with disease and injury or deemed “too old” to marry or have children. Similarly, as part of a panel discussion titled “The Wars at ‘Home’,” Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu of the University of Sussex talked about another variant of postwar pain for women: caring for disabled partners.
Having conducted her research in Turkey, Sünbüloğlu said the role that women play in healing the “wounded masculinity” of their partners goes largely unnoticed as such women fall into the context of the conventional gender division of labor. With a total of 10 panel discussions over the two-day period, the conference drew to a close on Wednesday evening with one of the most anticipated sessions, titled “Reflecting on Feminist Memory Work,” featuring presentations from professors Anna Reading, Cynthia Cookburn and Nadje Al-Ali of the University of Western Sydney, the City University London and SOAS University of London, respectively.
Moderated by Kathy Davis of Utrecht University, the panel prompted interesting questions about the research methodology in memory work. Reading, whose research has made a critical contribution to the international debate on “the right to memory” in relation to marginalized groups such as the European Roma, told the audience that changing narratives are emerging with digitalization. Cockburn, who began working closely with women peace activists across ethno-national lines in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Israel/Palestine in 1995, highlighted the key issue in memory work as the question of giving agency to those being worked with.
Gathering memories, it transpired through the presentations and discussions, is no easy task. Reflecting on feminist memory work in post-invasion Iraq, Al-Ali shared frank insights on the difficulties she has with the automatic assumption of a “truth narrative” when gathering memories. “Modern Iraq has seen the development of the construction of hierarchies of suffering, so if a person I was talking to denied in their narrative the suffering of others in a biased or closed-minded way, I found myself intervening and couldn’t always be the objective researcher,” she said.
This has been one of the largest platforms of discussion on gendered memories of war to date, and Enloe told Sunday’s Zaman that the merit of getting together in such an international capacity is that “it makes us all realistic.”
“Those who ridicule feminist ideology often imagine themselves as being realists. However, we show in this work that such thinkers are not only not realistic but also simplistic and naive,” Enloe reflected.
As what will no doubt be remembered as a pioneering and significant global feminist conversation drew to a close, Stephanie Yuhl of the Massachusetts-based College of the Holy Cross, praised the event as having opened a new angle on reflections of memories of war. “I say ‘new’, but in fact it is not new because women have actually lived these lives,” Yuhl told Sunday’s Zaman. “But it is new in the sense that we are giving voice to the voiceless and making visible the invisible.”