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  • Sevinj Samadzade

Women on the “Home fronts” facing war during 44 days Nagorno-Karabakh war


Abstract

The second Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan starting on the 27th of September 2020 was much anticipated with increased construction of war systems and militarized masculinities in both societies for decades. One of the explicit signals was given in Azerbaijan in July 2020, just two months apart from the actual large-scale fighting. While another heavy escalation was going on the Tovuz/Tavush border during that time, demands of the thousands of men marching in the streets of Baku for immediate military mobilization overlapped with the plans of the political regime which in fact has been reproducing this “volunteery” insistence for quite some time. This masculine scene was neither interrupted nor explicitly supported by feminine voices which raise the question, famously put by the feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe: “where are women” in this process (Enloe, 2000)? Moreover, this question helps us to look at means of participation of women in facilitating the men’s militarized masculinity and the standpoint of women at the home fronts and near the frontline during six weeks of wartime around Nagorno-Karabakh. Highlighting the gender oppression, and construction of gendered expectations within the war system this paper will discuss various reflections of women’s different roles on the abovementioned six-week war through a feminist lens. The article will also look at the real experiences of women at the war zone which I happened to observe and record during wartime.



Introduction

Feminist theorizing of war and militarism explores how hegemonic and militarized masculinities reinforce the masculine/feminine dichotomy and vice versa. The historical construction of gender-binarism and hierarchies through gender socialization leaves men and women to conform to this structure at all costs (Sjoberg & Via, 2010). Compensation of this cost for men is autonomy, power, and sexual access if they can prove their manhood. However, masculinities are also in a form of different hierarchies and dominant/hegemonic ones always have the power over others. In the 1980th, Connell described an analytical instrument that explains hegemonic masculinity as societal level dominance of men over women, but also the power of some men over other marginalized and less privileged men (Connell, 2005). Hegemony, according to Gramsci is fundamentally a position of domination achieved through relative consensus and majorities’ willing participation in that dominant culture (Gramsci, 1971). Many of those who benefit from the hegemonic masculinity, as well as many of those who are oppressed by it, particularly women usually have a societal agreement for it to maintain. In other words, hegemonic masculinity is the societal ideal of this manhood which both women and men agree to reward and compensate.


When it comes to state and wars, masculinities are even more under pressure reinforcing stronger gender hierarchies and segregations, by dividing “Homefront” and battlefront”. Masculinized “Battlefront” serves for the protection of “homefront” and feminized “homefront” serves as its nurturer through providing social reproduction and production labor reaffirming the existing militarized system (Goldstein, 2009). Along with its material contributions, women’s social reproduction and care work on the background of being mothers, nurses, girlfriends or wives, sustains the gendered division and facilitates this masculinity. The states present this distinction as a “natural” division of labor, in order to strengthen the home front and battlefront dichotomy. This dichotomy defines the gender roles and expectations while also justifying “national interests” and “priorities”. In the cause of these “interests” women’s labor and bodies becomes “objects” under the control and “protection” of government and military elites (Peterson, 1992). This gendered division of home and battlefront distinguishes “normal life” and war structure giving justifications for wartime actions and legitimizing this massive violence. While naturally any person regardless of their gender should be terrified of war because of its obvious danger, men are raised to find meaning, status, and power in that violent structure. In order to deal with the abnormality of war, men try to distinguish war and normal life, as if war is a temporary performance to conduct for some higher purpose with getting rewards back in the normal life (Goldstein, 2009). Nonetheless, wartime masculinities continue shaping gender hierarchies and dominance even when the war is over because the war systems as Goldshtein argues are not only the fighting itself but more of interrelated ways the societies are prepared for any potential and actual wars.



“We can do it!” - Homefront support system

Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster from 1943
Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster from 1943

Gendered labor of women as people-makers, care-takers, and nurtures of militarized masculinity sustains war systems. Reproduction of these systems strongly relies on the unpaid and low-paid labor of women. Women are the objects of masculinist social control not only through direct violence but also through the ideology of militarism. While totally disvaluing this labor, gendered states continue encouraging women to take an active role in nourishing and supporting militarism (Sjoberg & Via, 2010). J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster from 1943 ironically “empowered” women workers to join the war efforts. Rosie the Riveter being the main icon of this cover represented nearly 19 million other women workers of World War II many of whom already worked in low-paid jobs that suddenly turned into working in war-supplying factories (Goldstein, 2009). Although today women not only nurture for the militarism but also, they are directly serving in the state militaries, it only doubles or triples exploitation of their labor. Nonetheless when it comes to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict gendered division of the war system is very clear cut: men fights and women with their work keep the war machine running.


Women presented an active patriotic stance during the Second Karabakh War through morally and materially supporting war. Apart from the women who were directly in the military whose stories are unknown, many women connected to the battlefront with either sending their male family members to the war, working to supply materials for warlike clothes, cooking for the doctors and soldiers, nursing the wounded or sometimes working as munition workers (in Armenia). For these women, this is their “natural duty” and above all, it serves for the “greater ideal” (Goldstein, 2009). The moral support of women to war starts with cheerfully sending their male family members to war and proudly hiding the pain behind it. Grieving itself is also gendered as women are associated with this emotional vulnerability, but men are expected to be more facing forward all the devastating loss without any grief. During this six-week war, not everything seemed to fall into that gendered division of mourning. A woman facing the death of her husband took the tomb on her shoulders rejecting the traditions, a father losing his two sons bent down and burst into tears over the gravestones showing his suffering. Hence, these somewhat reversed gender expressions themselves served as a key moral drive force because in the end women accepted the death of their heroes with pride.


Other forms of engagements like fundraisings, military and humanitarian aid campaigns initiated by some “empowered” middle-class women also supported soldiers at war or hospitals and displaced families near the frontline. Just a few days after the outbreak of the 2nd Karabakh war these women mobilized to collect support and supply for the soldiers on the front. A lot of these invisible supports directly helped the states at war cope with the material and psychological military needs and humanitarian catastrophe. Homefront support system supplied the war with all necessary materials to keep the war going and the active role of women in this process did not coincide with the idea of women as "naturally peacebuilders”. In fact, the majority of women who were once active peace-builders or civically active NGO workers, were among the most engaged ones in organizing supplies for the military. The vast majority of women regardless of their class were put out of any political discussions or conflict resolution since the beginning of this conflict, and perhaps suddenly with the start of this new war, they, who had some opportunities to practice their political rights turned into a patriotic model of “active citizens” assuming they were engaged in the conflict resolution. The State rewarded some of these active patriots with a special medal for their service in the Homefront, among which there were celebrities, civil society activists, journalists.


One of the key motivations for this was the “just war” illusion that had been injected into the societal consciousness for a long time. The majority, even once critical of the regime’s oppression, started collectively believing that getting back Karabakh through the means of war is just and it will end the conflict and bring peace to the region. Likewise, people in Armenia also had similar hopes in the beginning that the war will end their frustrations on the backdrop of the already changed status -quo and it will bring peace to the next generations. “Fighting for peace” was the general consensus of both sides, while peace meant different things to each side. Feminist critique of just war theory challenges the very idea of what is just and who decides for it, what is peace, and how it comes and sustains (Sjoberg, 2008). While obviously, the political regime in Azerbaijan decided for this, it also managed to create the “just war” illusion not by only creating strong militarized systems, but also by referring to their “enemies” as fascists. Loyalty and unity of Homefront and women’s cheerful moral support was once again maintained. However, it is important to note that the emerging feminist anti-war movement in Azerbaijan tried to dispel this illusion and challenged the cozy consensus of the society and the regime.

Women in the war zone behind battlefronts

Experiences of above mentioned middle-class women who were initiators of the material and moral military support, should not be equated with those living in the war zones and displaced because of the war. Schools, garages, abandoned houses, cafes, roadsides, buses, cars became a new home for thousands of families, mostly women, children and elders during six weeks of war. They were ordered to leave their houses immediately on the night of the 27th of September with redirection to those shelters, especially state-organized schools near the frontline. Most of these families were already IDPs themselves and they have been displaced quite a few times since the beginning of the conflict. Being in the loop of this displacement they were silently waiting in the shelters, their new homes. During one of the humanitarian aid distribution processes in sheltered schools, families were asked to go back to their rooms. One elderly woman told to her family members: “Let’s go back to our home (meaning classroom)” presenting how the loop of displacement over these years has prepared them to get adjusted to the new realities each time.


In the midst of realizing “national priorities”, the humanitarian catastrophe behind it was shadowed, although the Homefront support system was trying to address it as much as possible, for the sake of continuity of the morality. Unlike their “privileged” sisters organizing military and humanitarian aids, women living in the shelters were in a stage of precariousness and dependency. The majority of them were military families, as it is the only job men can attain at best in those militarized zones. These families were waiting in uncertainty with no access to information for around 44 days as there is no internet or TVs in the shelters. Sounds of weapons are also familiar to them. Even children are well-educated on weapons, they can easily differentiate the difference between weapons based on the sound from the distance. Young girls seemed shy and insecure, in this strange setting full of stranger men, even sometimes staying in the same room with strange families. Communities were not relocated as in-groups. Some people were with their relatives, but mostly each school had hundreds of families from various frontline regions, villages. Hygiene is a huge problem as there is only one toilet available for hundreds of families, and having a shower is a privilege if you have kind locals who will offer you, their bathroom. Menstruation hygiene products are not available and all you can is to rely on the aids. Pregnant women also stayed in those shelters without proper medical treatment. Similarly, humanitarian catastrophic was substantial among the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, which managed to get some media coverage unlike ignored stories from Azerbaijan (BBC , 2020; Kuchera, 2020). Real sufferings of these displaced people near the war zone were not allowed to be covered in the mainstream media as it was believed to affect the morale of populations until they were also killed during the bombings.

This survival mood, just like for the soldiers on the war front stands on the belief that war is for the time being. The idea of the war being temporary was so high that, displaced people did not want to move further away from their homes. They knew that their lives are not a “priority” just like the life of soldiers and for that matter, waited helplessly for decisions to be made for the war to end.


Conclusion

44 days war in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated that women took active roles in supporting and reproducing war systems while paradoxically being oppressed by the same system. Because without the “home front”, “warfront” would not exist, the pair had been reinforced through the construction of heterosexist gender role divisions. Not only the women embracing the traditional gender roles like being people-makers and caretakers but also their more privileged and emancipated agents took opportunities to contribute to the Homefront support system. On the other hand, women living near the war zones were totally disempowered and disregarded as their security was believed to be far less important than “national security”. Thus, as long as the hegemony of masculinities and gendered states will remain in dominance, on the background of women’s active contribution, it is unlikely that peace and justice will prevail for our societies.




Bibliography:


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Sjoberg, L., & Via, S. (2010). Gender, War and Militarism: Feminist perspectives.


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