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Rebel girls and female fighters: women in non-state armed groups

Bettina Engels
Freie Universität Berlin
Bettina Engels
Freie Universität Berlin
Katrin Planta
Open Panel

Abstract

Scholars researching non-state armed groups usually do not pay much attention to gender-specific motives for participation in violent conflicts. This is due to a general gender-blindness, but particularly to a gendered coding of armed conflicts: Males are imagined ac-tive perpetrators while “womenandchildren” form a functional unity of victims. Existing em-pirical studies on women in armed groups mostly miss linkages to theoretical approaches in feminist peace and conflict studies. The paper discusses the literature on female participation in non-state armed groups against the theoretical background of feminist peace and conflict studies. Different theoretical per-spectives result in different arguments why women join armed groups. Liberal feminist work emphasizes female participation in rebel and liberation movements that (at least rhetori-cally) claim gender equality to be an aim of their struggle. Radical feminists argue that fe-male participation in armed groups is all in all small and that women mostly fulfil caretaking functions within the movements. Another radical argument explains women’s participation in armed struggles as an attempt to escape from patriarchal oppression. Building upon our own empirical research, we argue that postmodern feminist approaches can best explain female participation in armed groups. Firstly, they can illuminate the para-dox of women joining armed groups to protect themselves from sexualized violence. Sec-ondly, postmodern feminism conceptualizes gender as a relational category. It does not only explain what women do but male participation in armed groups and violent actions, too. Thirdly, postmodern approaches may link micro-level perspectives of individual action to explanations on the structural level.