International Women’s Day Special: an Interview with Professor Vivienne Jabri

By Sofia Lesmes

8 March 2019

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on 8 March to raise awareness for women’s rights. (AFP/Getty Images)


In a special International Women’s Day edition, Strife’s Sofia Lesmes sat down with Professor Vivienne Jabri to discuss the legacy of International Women’s Day, the intersection of feminism and the arts, and feminism’s important role in conflict and its study.

Professor Vivienne Jabri is a professor of International Politics at the Department of War Studies and was founding Director of London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (LISS DTP). Her research focuses on international political theory, critical social and political theory, postcolonialism, and feminist perspectives, with specific interest in the politics of conflict, violence and security practices. In 2016, she was the co-curator of the exhibition Traces of War at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House.

S: International Women’s Day has been in existence since 1911. How do you see the role of the day evolving into 2019?

VJ: It’s interesting how a day that celebrates women is actually controversial. March 8th is not always internationally recognised as International Women’s Day. For feminists internationally, it celebrates the agency of women; it’s a day to celebrate what women bring to the political sphere, to business, and to all walks of life in a larger context of society. In some societies, it’s a day of celebration of women per se, so women receive flowers, for example, and you might consider that to be rather apolitical. But within a global context, it has become a political event because it’s seen as part of the feminist armoury for celebration as well as protest. It’s certainly a day that I consider to be very important as a feminist and scholar in international politics.

And you would think that in the twenty-first century, we wouldn’t need such a day to emphasize women’s position in society or the inequalities that still exist between the genders. We are increasingly talking about misogynistic acts that women go through because they are women — issues that are very much present in our current public discourses, if you consider the levels of daily and routine violence that is directed at women, the use of violent language through social media, and the murder of women in politics, including amongst others, Jo Cox in the UK; the feminist and LGBT campaigner in Brazil, Marielle Franco; Aquila Al-Hashimi in Iraq; and Sitara Achakzai, a leading campaigner for women’s rights in Afghanistan. It’s important to celebrate the day, but it’s also important to remember it is as part of the continuing struggle for women’s equality.


S: Your research has focused on feminism and the political sphere of international relations. How do you see internationalist feminism aligning with the range of conflicts around the world today?

VJ: So, feminism in international relations contributes a great deal in relation to understandings of conflict and security, and it has become a very large research agenda within international relations as a discipline. In terms of my own work, I take a feminist discourse and the history of feminist thought, within wider critical thought, in order to understand war and politics, to see what war does to the political context internationally. Though the titles of my works do not always have the concept of ‘gender’, feminist political thought is a great influence. I’ll give you an example of how that works because it’s not always straightforward. If you consider interventionist war, it brings up a discourse of protection. The interventions in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or in other parts of the Middle East, were legitimised through a discourse of protection, of civilians generally, and in Afghanistan, of women. It’s a powerful legitimising discourse that enables such interventions to take place. So where does feminism come in? In the history of feminist thought, the construct of ‘protection’ immediately suggests a power relationship; it suggests that women lack agency and, therefore, call for the protection of men. Protection as a concept is very gendered, and it is understood as such in feminist thought. So what’s happening in these interventionist contexts is the infantilization of the populations involved, just as you have the infantilization of women in the discourse of protection. Interventionist warfare uses the trope of care and protection in order to legitimise what are in effect militarised interventions that primarily affect populations. In Iraq, an early estimate of casualties as a direct consequence of the intervention suggested around 600,000 civilians had been killed.

Similarly related to my work on subjectivity, it (my work on feminism) analyses what war and conflict do to the subject of politics. Once again, feminism has a great deal to say on subjectivity, particularly post-structural feminism. Feminism has always understood subjectivity as a product of power relations, especially, I would say, within the post-structural understanding. The aim there is to problematise the notion of the subject in politics, to understand the complexity of the subject and the situatedness of the subject in relation to matrices of power.

So, why is feminism important to me? It tells us a great deal about how power operates in its very microcosm. While realism, for example, may look at power relations in a broader perspective that takes ‘the state’ for granted, international feminist theory looks at power in a way that is microcosmic, that unravels how structures of power impact on the body, the self, and gendered socio-political and economic relations. Indeed, a Foucauldian understanding of power is also microcosmic, but not necessarily as specific as feminist conceptions of power.


 S: The exhibition you co-curated in 2016 focused on the traces that war and conflict leave on daily lives, and the unlikely places that a war can affect. If feminism is moving the private into the public and the personal to the political, how do you see this in its relationship with the traces that war leaves in daily lives?

VJ: The idea of the trace is suggestive of war having an impact — a continuing one — on bodies, bodily movement, psyches, landscapes, and language. This was important to capture in Traces of War, because whereas war understood conventionally is a crisis that is happening ‘over there’ on a battle field, war’s impact on space and time goes well beyond that battlefield. Such impact is inherited across generations, and its traces, as we sought to reveal in the exhibition, permeate the everyday, or the seemingly everyday, and the routine. What that means is that the assumed distinction between war and peace is not as clear cut as the dichotomy might suggest, and, as you know, feminism has always been interested in the everyday. If you think about Simone de Beauvoir, she distinctly writes about the everyday positionality of women and how the socio-political constellation of forces impacts the lives of women and their unequal status. In an exhibition on ‘traces of war’, the challenge was to engage with how the trace can carry within it deeply rooted forces that perpetuate war and its injurious acts, impacting on memories, bodies, articulations of subjectivity, bodily movement and trauma, the language of love in the midst of war, and imperial and postcolonial landscapes that inflict and bear continuing warfare.

In an exhibition like Traces of War, you also have a discussion with your co-curator (in our exhibition, Cecile Bourne-Farrell) and with the involved artists, since each one had a unique perspective. Jananne al-Ani looked at traces of war upon landscapes, where she’s specifically focused on postcolonial perspectives. Her work focuses on aerial views of landscapes, essentially to show that even in a supposedly peaceful setting such as the Kent countryside, there are layers and layers of warfare that can be found in excavation of the land. And the genius of someone like Jananne Al-Jani is that she evokes those layers of warfare and colonialism from the air because she’s not excavating like an archaeologist would. The idea of excavation is very important when we want to understand relationships of power globally. We learn from Michel Foucault that to understand how power operates in the present, you excavate archaeologically into the past in order to understand the conditions that have generated power relations today. The question of power and subjectivity was also crucial in our exhibition, and this theme was also evident in the works of Baptist Coelho and Shaun Gladwell.


 S: There is no shortage of different approaches to the intersection of feminism and international relations. How do you see different approaches converging when it comes to conflict and war?

VJ: There are different conceptualisations of feminist theory in international relations and within the broader feminist movement. I think it’s important to continue to problematise the relationship between the public and the private, for example in the sphere of social media, where the right to privacy is most blatantly challenged and where violent misogynistic threats are made against women.  Often, the way in which women are attacked is through sexuality, which is a very highly gendered discourse that seeks to limit, and not to mention completely undo, women’s agency.

It’s important to recognise that misogyny is so deeply rooted even in societies where you might think that we’ve achieved, in terms of legislation and public policy, a certain level of equality between the sexes. This is evident in what’s happening in the present political context, both domestically and internationally, where women become targets of violence and exclusionary practices, and this is especially the case for women involved in rights campaigns. For the contemporary extreme right in the US and Europe feminism as such has become a target.

Regarding conflict and locations of war, the research question on how women’s agency in a context of war is articulated is highly salient. Women are certainly a part of warfare; they join up with conflict groups and are a part of militaries, and questions relating to women ‘joining up’ must unravel how gender plays a part. Then, there are broader questions on how women’s agency and gendered institutional practices influence war and politics. These questions are all to do with how gender impacts governing practices — and that’s what the feminist agenda is all about. Going back to someone like Cynthia Enloe, who remains a major voice in feminist international relations, Ann Tickner and Christine Sylvester — these are founding voices in feminist international relations and should be included in every International Relations and War Studies reading list. Then there is the current generation of feminist voices in international relations: people like Dr Hannah Ketola and Dr Maria O’Reilly, both of whom were my PhD students and produced brilliant research on gender in the post-conflict context. I would say feminism is one of the most flourishing fields in international relations.

Sofia is a final year student reading History & International Relations and a BA representative for Strife. She has worked as an intern at her local U.S. House District office, in addition to having extensive experience in the private sector. Her academic interests include analysing the U.S. and UK’s ‘special relationship’ from a historical perspective, coercive diplomacy, and ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. You can follow her on twitter @slesmes98.

Professor Jabri’s latest book is The Postcolonial Subject (Routledge, 2013). An overview of Traces of War is available here.

Read more about more about International Women’s Day and its charity partners here.

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