What Happens Next? On War, Masculinity and the perks of ‘Non-Essentializing’

by rooswijnants


In my previous posts I have mostly focussed on how Fanon’s ‘Algeria Unveiled’ deprives women of agency, I did not yet discuss what else African and/or Algerian women warriors faced during war times. Aaronette White, in her article ‘All the Men Are Fighting for Freedom, All the Women Are Mourning Their Men, but Some of Us Carried Guns: A Raced‐Gendered Analysis of Fanon’s Psychological Perspectives on War.’ (2007) gives a lengthy account of the actual circumstances – an confused/stereotypical genderoles – that resulted from women fighting in independence wars. What I find particularly striking about White’s text is that she not only takes Fanon’s text to the actual lived world (it is important to take into consideration that Fanon himself died a couple of years before the Algerian war of independence ended), and that she also answers the question ‘what next’, a question that I addressed in my post on ‘Resurfacing the Surface’. Throughout my research, I have not yet encountered articles that address both the psychological/psychoanalytic as well as the geopolitical and sociohistorical circumstances at the same time. Chapeau, White!

In her article, White makes several claims about women warriors that fight in anti-colonial and independence wars. White claims that

 Although Fanon did not completely ignore the gendered aspects of nationalism and pre-war mobilization, he understated their pervasiveness. Fanon attributed any narrowness within nationalism to class issues, placing particular emphasis on the myopia of the national bourgeoisie (1968, 148–205). Concerning their efforts to create new governments, Fanon warned the colonized not to perpetuate “the feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine over the feminine” (1968, 202). Despite this warning, Fanon’s failure to address the gendered struggles of African men under colonial subjugation as thoroughly as their race and class struggles contributed to his overly optimistic expectations concerning the transformative power of the Algerian revolution. (White 2007: 863-864)

Starting from the same starting point as this research, White explores how the conditions for women have changed during and after the war. Important to note, is that White argues that for independence war for women meant more than just getting rid of their colonial oppressor: it could also be the moment when women could shake of the (presumably) oppressive patriarchal structures (White 2007: 865-868). In other words;

 Liberation wars constituted an important means through which the colonized regained their agency and dignity. Rather than remaining victims of historical conquest, they became creators of history. (White 2007: 859)

Wars of independence, how horrific they may be, did bring with them a promise not only of nationalistic liberation, but also ways to rewrite and regain historical and political agency. This is not only what White explains, but also what is focal in (the oeuvre) of Fanon. Yet what Fanon did not acknowledge is the inherently masculine aspects of warfare and the military. If indeed women wanted to participate in the military (and therefore liberating herself from the confined private and locked up spaces), she could either employ or mobilize her sexuality (she could become a sex worker, prostitute), or continue her daily ‘ascribed’ chores (but this time for the militiamen). Another option was the option that Fanon focused on; she could become an active member of the military. Whereas this latter ‘option’ is one that seems to promise to be the most ‘liberating’ one, White immediately opposes this. She rightly points out that,

 Women who assumed masculine military roles, including combat, were seen as exceptions, and their nontraditional activities were often interpreted as temporary and as helping the men (White 2007: 869)

White continues by elaborating how war can be gendered; Fanon’s revolutionary tactics, as well as the overall notion of war, can be considered as a notion that promotes hypes masculinity, macho behavior and male bounding. White writes that:

 In addition to the authoritarianism that pervades the military as a social institution, the stereotype of the supermacho combat soldier perpetuates hypermasculine attitudes and values that also work against a male soldier’s recognition of a woman soldier (or any woman) as his equal. South African feminist sociologist Jacklyn Cock elaborates: “War does not challenge women to prove that they are women, whereas wars have been historically symbolized as the touchstone of ‘manliness.’ The concept of war as a proving ground of manliness has centered on the notion of combat, which is understood to be the ultimate test of masculinity, and thus crucial to the ideological structure of patriarchy” (1991, 235–36). (White 2007: 865-866)

The women who were allowed to fight along had to prove that they are ‘man enough’ to fight along. They did not had the opportunity to liberate their gender from its (supposedly negative) connotations, since they had to mimic men.

White’s perspective, and her ‘gendering of war’, allows us to consider warfare and Fanon’s text in a different way; the means to come to liberation as advocated in Fanon’s book is one that, from the very beginning, does not really allow a space for women to explore their ‘femininity’, nor is she allows to mobilize it herself. Moreover, White’s article is based on first-hand accounts of these women warriors, adding to her argument the weight of the female witness.

White’s article continues by arguing that not much has changed after these wars; the women warriors did liberate their country indeed, but did not change the patriarchal structure on a large scale. White writes that

 Contrary to Fanon’s optimistic predictions, participation in revolutionary violence does not necessarily contribute to the mutual recognition and equality of women in the aftermath of war. Indeed, many aspects of gendered violence work against it. Contradictions between the values of democratic revolution and militarism, postwar pressures on women soldiers to censor reports of nontraditional roles as well as gendered tortures that many experienced, and the pressure to resume traditional female roles leave only a select group of women feeling empowered by the war. (White 2007: 880)

Whereas I can imagine that you, my dear reader, might think; is she really again trying to tell how and where Fanon is wrong? The answer is: yes. Why? Because White’s text is a text focussing on the actual lived experience, and its aftermath, which is extremely important, especially considering the fact that I am ‘critiquing’ Fanon, since now, on an exclusively textual way. In other words, up till now, I have only considered the power of Fanon’s words, and how his words can be contradicted by feminine words without alluding to ‘what actually happened’; the women and men that Fanon talks about, and I as well, are not beings that exist out of time, space and history (and usable for one’s own philosophical and literary goals), but are also susceptible to actual historical and temporal circumstances.

As for my next post, I have planned one on another topic; agency and Islamic Feminism. Therefore, my dear comrades, stay tuned…