More on the Critical Role of Women in Transitions to Democracy

The other day I posted a celebration of Secretary of State Clinton’s recent call for Egypt and Tunisia to include women in the processes of their transitions to democracy.  Transitional justice is one of my scholarly interests, so I thought I would say a bit more about why it is so important that women have a seat at the table during transition.  More after the jump.

            For those unfamiliar with the field, transitional justice explores the question of what successor regimes, committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, can and should do to address the atrocities committed by an abusive predecessor.  Many scholars have argued that, for transitional states, these issues are a function of ordinary justice, provoking the same conversations that would be relevant in the stable state context.  As I have argued here, here, and here, this ordinary justice approach mistakes the nature of transitions.  While justice endeavors in relatively stable states may properly be treated as events of retrospection, transitional states exist in a position “betwixt and between” the past and the future that can be described as “liminal,” marking a passage from an abusive past into a future peace guided by commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  It is in this liminal space that transitional states negotiate their new identities.  That liminal moment extends to individuals as well; and transitions frequently require perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of past abuses to redefine their positions and roles in post-transitional society. 

The state’s socio-legal institutions are crucial to these projects of collective and individual transformation.  Indeed, those institutions are precisely why transitional justice is not just business as usual, but is extraordinary.  Unlike in stable states, where acts of violence stand out against a background constellation of norms that proscribe them, the mass and targeted violence that characterizes abusive regimes is the product of large numbers of people enacting institutionalized abusive paradigms, which rationalize and justify the abuse.  Conversations about transitional justice usually focus on the abusive paradigms that sanction violence targeted against particular ethnic/religious/political/racial groups.  In doing so, however, they fail to recognize and meet the material needs of women.  Women in targeted groups are subjected to unique forms of violence during periods of punctuated abuse.  Furthermore, outside periods of punctuated abuse, women and girls frequently suffer a base level of injustice and violence, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or racial affiliations.  Because transitions fail to upset these gender hierarchies, a return to peace after transition usually means a return to baseline gender injustice.   Transitional initiatives not sufficiently gender-sensitive are therefore deeply flawed.   

            Women and girls who are victims of pre-transitional violence frequently occupy a unique position because they live at the intersection of two targeted groups: women and the targeted ethnic/religious/political/racial group.  This intersectional identity makes women in transition uniquely vulnerable if they are excluded from transitional processes.  While their ethnic/religious/political/racial may make tremendous gains, they risk being left behind with other women as continuing objects of patriarchal exclusion and abuse.  Of course, including women in the process of transition puts them in a position to advance the material and justice goals of women by giving them a voice in the construction of new legal, bureaucratic, and social regimes.  That is obvious.  What may be less obvious is that including women in the process of transition may also serve overall transitional goals of peace and stability.  Making that case responsibly requires more time and space than is afforded in a blog posting.  For those interested in the longer case, I am happy to share the most recent draft of a book chapter I am writing with Ben Levin.  Just drop me an e-mail.  For those who want the shorter version, here it is:

It is common, but wrong, to believe that social stability is achieved by encouraging universal faith and fealty to one strand of social identity.  Quite to the contrary, societies that press for this kind of universal identity are running headlong toward the cliff.  As I have put the point elsewhere: “Behind calls to unity lies the specter of a final solution.”  Instead, stability in any society of more than a couple of people is an artifact of overlapping lines of association and opposition.  The trick to social justice, peace, and stability, is to maintain a robust web of overlapping associations and oppositions so that claims of natural entitlement, and even exclusive authenticity, are rendered implausible.  Among those oppositions and associations are those constructed on gender and those constructed on ethnic/religious/political/racial grounds.  Because they live at the intersection of these groups, women and girls who were victims of pre-transitional abuses can play an important role in transitions by developing and sustaining lines of empathetic affiliation between members of different ethnic/religious/political/racial groups through shared gender identity and between members of different gender groups between shared ethnic/religious/political/racial identity.  That, at least, is the hypothesis Ben and I advance in the book chapter.   It appears that we have at least one ally in Secretary of State Clinton.


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1 Response

  1. JRB says:

    Hear, hear!