Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Gender & Catastrophe

Ronit Lentin
Zed Books: London
1856494462 (pb); 1856494454 (hb)
£14.95 (pb)
282 pp.

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When Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas was published in 1938, many of her closest friends and political allies, including her husband Leonard, reacted to this book extremely negatively. In it Woolf had had the effrontery to draw links between masculine displays of status and power in government, in bureaucracies and in universities with those in families and of both with those in armies in general. She had also pointed up the similarities of these things within fascist states as well as within democratic ones, and emphasised that war, what led to it, what was done during it, and how it was 'settled' afterwards, all took gendered forms. Woolf said plainly and openly, and with the greatest of savage eloquence, what was for most people not only unthinkable but offensively disloyal and tantamount to a kind of betrayal. How she was reacted to was as someone who, by gendering these matters, had trivialised them by including women into them and by treating men's behaviour as the behaviour of men rather than that of ungendered humanity. 'How dare she?' might summarise a good part of the response.

Remembering the reception accorded to Three Guineas and to the woman who wrote it points up three important things. The first is the immense capacity of social commentators, both then in 1938 and now in 1999, to fail to see just what is under their noses: that war and terror like all other aspects of social life take gendered forms, and therefore people who are differently socially located by virtue of their gender, age, class, nationality and so forth, are also differently located in relation to their experience of genocide, war, terror, catastrophe and violence generally. The second is that it is crucially important that there are people, like Woolf then and like the contributors to this edited collection now, who continue to insist upon what many people still seek to deny: that the human experience of the terrible and terrifying cannot be subsumed within the male experience, for men's experiences are not universal, those of humanity as a whole. And the third is that, as for Woolf then as for these commentators now, without this recognition there can be no proper understanding of genocide or war or terror or catastrophe or violence, only something partial that acts as a distortion which denies and silences.

Gender & Catastrophe is concerned with the specific experiences of specific groups of women, as migrants in Russia, 'comfort women' in Korea, under fundamentalist regimes in Iran, during the partition of India, raped during the Bosnian conflict, dying of hunger in Ireland, dying in Nazi concentration camps. It is also concerned with the lives and experiences of those close to them, the men and the children of both sexes to whom their lives are attached by the bonds of love, responsibility and commitment. In addition to its editorial introduction, it contains eighteen contributions, each of which combines, albeit in sometimes very different mixtures, substantive and theoretical discussion. All of the contributions are concerned with attempting to explain and to understand.

As well as recognising and putting on record these specific experiences and the meanings attached to them, this collection is also concerned with establishing a way of bring them into theory in a way which does not lose sight of either the experiencing suffering people involved or the fact that it is the very specificity of their experience which gives it its indissoluble human significance. Succinctly, in her introduction, '(En)gendering genocides', its editor Ronit Lentin attempts to find a way of generalising and theorising that does not lose sight of particularity and meaningful understanding.

What are 'catastrophes' and why do definitions matters? The political minefield involved means traversing the potentially explosive impact of definitions hinging on effects, on intentions and causes, on the 'natural' and the 'man-made'. Basic definitional terms such as 'widespread' and 'extreme' can sometimes be used to distinguish disasters and catastrophes from genocides, wars, refugee movements and internal displacements. One wonders just how much pain and suffering, how many unnecessary deaths, how much conflict or human movement it takes and where the cut-off point comes. Thankfully, these yardsticks are abandoned here in favour of an approach that says, in effect, 'if it's gendered then in this aspect at least it's socially produced and could be otherwise'.

For the contributors to this collection , then, and as its title emphasises, gender is a crucial dimension in looking at, understanding and attempting to explaining the socially constructed aspects of all catastrophes. While rejecting any essentialising of either women or men as 'innately' victims or agents or good or bad, the collection as a whole firmly insists that catastrophes always have effects and consequences that take different forms for males and for females, children as well as adults. Moreover, this also occurs not least because of the endemic nature of patriarchal relations with regard to the distribution of material power and resources, and so the causes of catastrophes also take equally gendered forms because males and females, children as well as adults, are involved as agents differently and are differently invoked and positioned in nationalist and other forms of political rhetoric as well. Succinctly, 'gender' is a defining element of the very nature of catastrophic experiences, of the very core of what a catastrophe is.

It is for this reason that in this collection women's own accounts are positioned as primary documents, privileging women's lived experiences of catastrophe as a means of placing on record these specific experiences, to stand alongside other specific experiences. To be 'on the record' in this way is to break the silence, to speak what is seen and treated as unspeakable, to insist upon what others deny or seek to deny. And to speak the difference of gender is a part of this, for as long as the realities that stand as an army behind 'gender specificities' continue to be denied or denigrated.

Of course, in this collection as in any self-respecting feminist writing, the category 'women' is neither treated as universal nor transhistorical, nor are the binary categories of 'women' and 'men' treated as reducible to determined biologisms. At the same time, there is a heartening refusal here to allow the fact that gender does imply material realities that are different for males and for females to be dissolved, to be defined away and out of sight by a mistaken theoretical zeal that becomes unable to tell perceive any difference between realities and representations thereof.

There are two such differences that arise because of the way that gender is made to become central to catastrophe. One occurs through the rhetoric of nationalisms which proclaim women's inevitable fundamental undeniable biological destiny as the bearers of little men/future citizens/future opponents, reducing women to wombs that are the bearers of national as well as biological destiny. The other is closely related, and concerns the importance of mass rape and other means of effecting and enforcing sexual terror as a political instrument.

Because of the fear, and sometimes the everyday omnipresence, of these things at the heart of catastrophe, there is a terrible temptation to treat women and children as victims and men as agents, whether as perpetrators or as recipients. However, as the contributions in this collection remind us over and over, the world is not so simple nor so stark. Victims can wrench agency out of the jaws of hell, but also potential victims can become agents, benefactors, and sometimes perpetrators themselves.

This is a book that it is tempting for readers to turn away from - its title and its cover with its Käthe Kollwitz drawing brings to mind things most of us do our best to forget. Much of the world and its peoples of course do not have that choice. For all the painfulness of its contents, terror and misery writ across history, across continents, this is not a hopeless book. This is in part because of the determination of its contributors to recognise, to pay tribute to and to put on record that 'agency' and 'victimisation' are complex, non-unitary and not binaries. It is also in part because of the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the will to survive, and we should not forget this ever.

I conclude with three statements of 'more, please': Firstly, 'gender & catastrophe' is an oxymoron, in the sense that the coupling says no more (and no less) than that catastrophe like every other aspect of human life takes gendered forms. This is in itself hardly news. So what is it that lends the coupling a similar shock value now to the one it had then in 1938? Has the world outside of academia been so impervious, or is it perhaps the simplicities and simplifications of 'news' by those who purvey it and who look but often fail to see that we are commenting on here? Secondly, as the editor and some of the contributors note, the resolution, as well as the origin and conduct of, catastrophe is gendered. Yes indeed, but let us not lose sight of the fact that resolution, howsoever gendered, is still different and preferable, and recognition of this could go further. Tell us more! And thirdly, gender is a start and not a finish, an opening and not a conclusion to analysis. One way in which gender needs to travel further in this sense is to look at, theorise and publicise what helps encourage gendered agency, what promotes it, enables it to be wrested from victimisation, undercuts its ethically dubious and substantiates its ethically preferable forms. Tell us more!

Liz Stanley
University Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999