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Notes from the Women in International Security Conference in Canada

In early June, I had the pleasure of presenting my research and work on the topic of wartime sexual violence at the Women in International Security (WIIS) Canada conference, which took place at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto [see here for the original call for papers]. Telling the story of the experience is challenging because it was, in itself, the convergence of the stories of scholars, policymakers, and Canadian military representatives. Therein lies the first refreshing lesson: In my experience of conferences and seminars so far, it is truly refreshing to have individuals from different realms and agencies with different mandates, resources, and sources of expertise in the same room. I wish it happened more frequently, and I wish the conversational cross-pollination were the norm.

The agenda was organized around issues related to women and security, ranging from women as agents of violence to women as peacemakers, and most presenters took into account broader questions of gender, including the role of men as victims and the importance of understanding wartime iterations of masculinity. This more inclusive approach to a gender analysis is not uncommon in my field — and yet it was refreshing to watch presenter after presenter emphasize the need to move away from ‘gender essentialism’ and be skeptical of statements such as “women are inherently peaceful/nurturing/anti-war” and “men are inherently violent/men will inevitably rape in wartime etc.” For some of my favorite scholars dispelling these myths, see Cynthia Enloe, “All the Men are in the Militias, All The Women are the Victims: Politics of Masculinity and Femininity in Nationalist Wars” (in The Curious Feminist), as well as Dara Kay Cohen, Elisabeth Wood, and Amelia Hoover Green’s excellent March 2013 USIP publication on misconceptions about wartime sexual violence.

One of my favorite panels related to the topic scholars of violence because it provided a more (self-) reflective forum at which to consider our motivations for being in our respective fields, our self-care mechanisms, and our responsibilities to knowledge, to fellow scholars, and to the communities we interact with during our research. Highlights included prompts to consider where and how our personal narratives fit into and inform our research, a call to question our assumptions about how women scholars are perceived ‘in the field,’ and a cautionary note to reflect on how the research we present may be traumatic for members of the audience. Hearing Lee Ann Fujii (one of my many sources of academic inspiration!), Veronica Kitchen, Krystel Carrier, and Barbara Falk address questions I regularly revisit was an absolute privilege.

A personal realization that emerged from presenting findings from my own work and research is that while I simultaneously inhabit the identities of a conflict management practitioner and a scholar, these identities manifest in different ways, with different obligations, and different insights and limitations. Even though the questions I ask as an academic and a practitioner are quite similar, the action that stems from the responses diverges. As a practitioner, I am service-minded and, depending on my role and the institution of which I am a part, my task may be to protect individuals and communities from harm, contribute to alleviating pain and suffering, provide assistance, conduct a gender analysis of a facet of armed conflict, or measure the effectiveness of these efforts. As an academic, I am quite a few steps removed from these responses — in a sense, the task itself is to ask more questions, to think more and better and smarter, to refine the responses. This, in turn, means that when wearing the scholarly hat, I am likely not going to be the person on the ground in every situation, responding to a set of needs or crises. I am not sure if this difference between my roles and the tools at my disposal is one I lament or celebrate at this stage; for now, I know I am lucky to inhabit the overlapping segment in the Venn diagrams of these universes and I try hard to have my knowledge of one sphere inform my practice in the other.

That cross-pollination is challenging. It is important to recognize that different rules govern the fields of academia, conflict management, and humanitarian practice. From the types of questions we are allowed to ethically ask survivors of violence to the number of promises we can offer after we hear the responses, the roles are different and blurring the lines can be misleading. At a conference, one can speak “off the record” or issue caveats that she is speaking “as a scholar” or “as a practitioner.” In the field, though — in many ways, in real life — the separation of the identities becomes murkier and it informs both our interactions with survivors and victims of violence and their expectations. If there is a balance, I am still learning it.

The theme of balance reverberated throughout the conference. One of the features of Women in International Security that I most enjoy is the way in which conference organizers intersperse scholarly discussion with mentorship. A recurrent theme in the mentorship conversations and panels were the personal challenges in balancing academia and the rest of life, whether that implies starting or having a family, or travel, or simply personal leisure time. In many ways, these questions feel distant because I have let my love and dedication for the topics I study and explore professionally guide my decisions. I usually know which projects resonate, to which I can contribute, and which ones will make me come alive. I usually know when to get on a plane and when to stay put. This is not to say that the decisions are not difficult or heartbreaking at times; rather, it is to say that, at this point, I have no fixed masterplan of academia+fieldwork+personal life+babies. I will continue to do this work as long as I feel I have something to contribute, as long as I am still learning and serving, as long as I still feel it is my life’s work.

If the past five years are any indication, this will likely involve a lot of time away from the people I love, a lot of poor internet connections, and a lot of turbulent flights that will make me question whether I ever want to get on a plane ever again — and ceaseless learning, giving, loving, and serving. And, if the testimonies from the conference are any indication, it will also involve dilemmas about married life and child rearing and career advancement — corroborated by a recent study that suggests female academics pay a much higher professional penalty than their male counterparts when caring for a family. The conference planted a lot of these questions in my head, but in yet another fit of optimism, I trust that we will work and fly and talk and love our way to the answers.

Finally, two realizations spring out about community in academia: First, it is lovely to find it. Unlike ‘the field,’ which I have always found to be full of sources of community, academia has at times been isolating and more rife with critique than camaraderie. It was reassuring and inspiring to be in conversation with scholars whose work I have read and footnoted — indeed, to be in the presence of the individuals who shape the direction of their field of study, work, or interest. In a sense, it is quite an oxymoron to feel the benefits of proximity to fellow scholars and, at the same time, to realize that by virtue of our being clustered in a conference room, we are geographically (and even emotionally) removed from many of the places and themes that we study. Secondly, the beauty of community is magnified when the community itself expands — so, in the spirit of sharing the inspiration, below you will find a highly subjective and non-comprehensive list of some of the scholars I encountered at WIIS Canada whose work piqued my own interest.

  • Lee Ann Fujii: I have been following Prof. Fujii’s work on Rwanda and the topic of genocide at large for years, and it was an absolute treat to watch her speak in person! If you are a scholar of mass violence, I highly recommend her book, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda.
  • Maja Catic: Dr. Catic convened the conference and her work is particularly inspiring on the topic of politics of memory. As a conference presenter noted, simply performing a YouTube search and hearing her speak is enough to be inspired.
  • Krystel Carrier: Krystel shares a lot of my research interests, including a focus on memorialization, women militants, and gender as a lens to understanding conflict. I was fascinated by her ongoing research with women in the Canadian Forces, and you can read more about it here.
  • Doris Buss: I had the immense privilege of being on the same panel as Professor Buss, who is thinking critically and innovatively about conflict-related sexual violence. I truly cannot wait for her upcoming book on this topic and I’m looking forward to reading more of her research on identity and international criminal tribunals as well.
  • Maya Eichler: Dr. Eichler was the discussant on the panel at which I presented, and I am intrigued by her thoughts on militarized masculinities, as well as her approach to feminist international relations theory.

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