Jakana Thomas talks role of women, female soldier in war

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Michigan State professor discussed her research on violent politics. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Friday, Jan. 24, the College of William and Mary welcomed political science professor Jakana Thomas to campus for a talk entitled “Women in Violent Politics: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The talk, which was co-sponsored by the Center for African Development and the College’s International Justice Lab, focused on her research regarding women soldiers and the role of women in historical and modern warfare.

College professor Philip Roessler introduced Thomas, and explained that Leymah Gbowee’s autobiography “Mighty Be Our Powers” informed Thomas’s experiences researching women soldiers, especially given her peacemaking work in Liberia and her analysis that women during civil wars are often seen as either victims or peacemakers.

“In the traditional telling of war stories, women are always in the background,” Roessler said.

“In the traditional telling of war stories, women are always in the background,” Roessler said. “Our suffering is just a sidebar to the main tale. When we are included it is for human interest. If we are Africans, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted solely as the affected. Hopeless expressions, torn clothes, sagging breasts. Victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to and the image that sells.”

Thomas began her research with early examples of women on the battlefield such as the Amazon warriors in a 700-year period between 900 B.C.E. and 200 B.C.E., and then went through time chronologically by detailing the experiences of 16th century Dahomey women warriors and the trials of women in Kurdistan fighting against the Islamic State group in modern times.

“If you’ve seen the newspaper, women are pictured seated, looking sad, talking about wanting peace,” Thomas said. “You see women being victimized by conflict but don’t have an agency or participate actively in these conflicts. This is certainly a true portrayal of some women’s experiences with conflict, but what you don’t typically see are women who have been participating in violence for centuries and millennia.”

In her research, Thomas has found a common theme throughout media frequently presenting women as victims of wars, and rarely as active participants. However, with the involvement of women, Thomas’ data supports that peaceful resolutions can be hastened, posing negative and positive consequences.

“Fourty-five percent of the organizations we have looked at included female participants in some capacity,” Thomas said. “This could include support roles like couriers, information transmission, cooks and spies. Twenty-nine percent of these groups included women as former combatants like soldiers and fighters. This is a phenomenon that has transcended beyond Africa.”

Thomas explained how conventional perceptions of female temperament can play a significant role in how women approach war negotiations. Women are usually more amenable to compromise, are more willing to negotiate and value peace more because of the likely benefits of incorporating women’s rights into resolution treaties.

“Women fight in a variety of violent political organizations,” Thomas said. “In almost every region of the world, women are participating in rebellion. Some countries have seen upward of 40 percent participation by women.”

“Women fight in a variety of violent political organizations,” Thomas said. “In almost every region of the world, women are participating in rebellion. Some countries have seen upward of 40 percent participation by women.”

Women are drawn to violent groups for complex reasons. Women frequently mirror men in that they possess strong ideologies, and they care strongly about political outcomes because of the repression and victimization that they encounter in many societies. Most of women’s presence in war efforts, however, is explained by the necessity of recruiting many different groups of people in war times, regardless of whether women actually want to serve.

“A lot of the literature that exists suggests that participation in violence is not voluntary, so it is forced,” Thomas said. “When it is voluntary, a lot of people have simple motivations. It is either to get something out of the conflict like solitary rewards, like ideology, or goods such as protection and material support.”

Terrorist groups are starting to use women in the field more due to their potential lethality. Recruiting women, especially young girls, as suicide bombers is a strategic choice as the terrorists use gender stereotypes to evade detection and exploit the element of surprise. Oftentimes, women use stereotypes of femininity, such as maternal pacifism, to their advantage to get close to targets and bypass certain security measures. As gender equality improves, these tactics prove less effective, limiting the advantage women have in obtaining violent objectives.

“Security operatives or counter-terrorist operatives eventually learn,” Thomas said. “But in the global picture, it takes on average 10 years for security forces to catch onto women such that men and women are equal in terms of their lethality.”

Gender equality influences women’s role in rebellion. Women’s action can improve gender equality through the peace process, but gender norms also influence how lethal women can be.

“Gender matters,” Thomas said. “Women and security matter. There is really no one effect of women on security. In some cases, we can see that women mobilize for war and participate in rebellion and terrorism, but we also see that women mobilize for peace and civil society. We need to understand what women are joining. Gender norms affect what they will mobilize for.”

“Gender matters,” Thomas said. “Women and security matter. There is really no one effect of women on security. In some cases, we can see that women mobilize for war and participate in rebellion and terrorism, but we also see that women mobilize for peace and civil society. We need to understand what women are joining. Gender norms affect what they will mobilize for.”

Thomas explained how female participation is far more complicated than what is portrayed in the media. Situational contexts matter, and women can wear hats both as warriors and as victims.

Nathaniel Liu ’22 attended the talk because he wanted to expand his knowledge on the topic.

“I came to this presentation because I am not very familiar with this area and Africa in general, but also this study area of conflict and peace,” Liu said. “I wanted to learn more about it.”

While the media depicts women, especially those in Africa as victims, it is crucial in order to understand policy and violence that women play a role in determining the future outcomes.

“Joining the armed movement as soldiers — that story is not very well told,” Roessler said. “Dr. Thomas brings us that lens.”