Will women talk about the war?

Will women talk about the war?

How do women talk about violent experiences? How can we understand women’s stories of war without reproducing stereotypes of female victimhood or subservience? Rosi Aryal won the Speckmann award with her MA research on war time violence in Sierra Leone.

In 2014 I spent 3 months in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, working with a Sierra Leonean research assistant to record women’s stories of wartime and domestic violence in the shanty town of George Brook. During the 1990s, Sierra Leone experienced a prolonged civil war that progressively spread across the country from rural areas in the southern and eastern provinces. Precariously built around rocky outcrops on the hills bordering Freetown, George Brook is home mainly to rural migrants from the provinces, who have moved to the city in the years since the war.

Scripted stories and stereotypes

Originally, I had planned to research changes in female gender roles – to ask questions about women’s experiences and daily lives as wives, daughters, sisters or mothers before, during, and after the war – and to avoid direct questions about wartime violence. I felt uncomfortable addressing violence directly, and had assumed that such questions would be unethical. Imagine my surprise, then, during my first week, when several women sought me out and jostled playfully with each other for the opportunity to recount graphic stories of war: of bodies piled up in the back of trucks, of jumping over rivers of blood to find food for their families, of hearing the angry voices of soldiers “calling out” for young girls.

Nonetheless, I sensed that their stories were highly scripted, avoiding specific details and personal experiences. The violence they described was always a general violence inflicted en masse on others – never inflicted on themselves – and their stories reproduced the horrific imagery and stereotypes of female victimhood typical of NGO discourse. My early fieldwork notes reflect my confusion as I describe how “women do not seem to talk about the war” in one sentence; and in the next describe how they literally queued up to be interviewed.

Containing women's stories of war

During our interviews, it became clear that women were managing competing demands to conceal or reveal certain aspects of their wartime experiences. I link the pressure to conceal stories of violence to a set of patrimonial discourses which symbolically associate the dangerous nature of women’s words with the threatening nature of their sexuality. Ethnographic accounts of pre-war, rural Sierra Leone and Liberia by anthropologists such as Caroline Bledsoe, Michael D. Jackson, Mariane Ferme, Melissa Leach and Rosiland Shaw suggest that such associations developed in response to a violent historical legacy of warfare and slavery.

In West African patrimonial ideologies, verbalising experiences of violence risks reactivating the very forces which first caused that violence. Women, in particular, are considered to have “looser” tongues and a supposed tendency to reveal important family and military secrets. This “lesser” bodily capacity for maintaining secrets is reflected in women’s sexual and reproductive roles – women must indeed allow external forces to cross their bodily thresholds (that is, their mouths and their vaginas) during intercourse or child birth for the reproduction of the social order.

Women’s words about war are thus potentially dangerous, and both women’s verbosity and sexuality have to be tightly controlled if the generative aspects of the feminine are to be realised without unleashing destructive social forces.

Victimhood and dependency

At the same time, I link the pressure to reveal (or recount) stories of violence to a set of humanitarian discourses which associate ‘empowerment’ and redemptive healing with the verbalisation of personal pain. Liberal and humanitarian constructs of victimhood and empowerment have been primarily introduced into Sierra Leone through wartime and postwar international interventions. I suggest that by presenting themselves to me as victims in need of patronage (rather than empowerment), my female informants have interpreted liberal discourses of empowerment in terms of patrimonial discourses of dependency.

Seeking patronage and placing themselves in a relationship of dependence on a powerful patron historically allowed people in the region to protect themselves against slave-raiders and war violence. Certainly it was appropriate for women to engage with me as a potential patron who could reward them for their stories of war. This reflects not only my subject position as a “white man”, presumably connected to a network of donor wealth, but also a key factor in the constitution of moral womanhood in Freetown – namely, that a woman is expected to be economically autonomous and able to provide for her children.

Questioning stereotypes of women

When presenting themselves to me (a foreigner), women were thus juggling two opposing constructs: on the one hand liberal constructs of victimhood (which required them to reveal certain aspects of their stories); and on the other hand patrimonial constructs that closely tie feminine morality both to economy (which in a postwar donor-dominated economy goes some way to justify scripted revelation of stories) and to ‘quiet’ subservience (which requires women to conceal the ‘dangerous’ aspects of their stories).

By paying close attention to the competing discourses that inform their storytelling, we can question stereotypes of women as subservient victims in need of empowerment, or as dangerous threats in need of social control.


With many thanks to the generous women of George Brook, to Jennifer Kargbo for her tact, humour and intelligence, and to my excellent supervisor Professor Peter Pels.

On February 15th Rosi Aryal was awarded the Speckmann Prize 2016 for her MA thesis 'Containing Power, Asserting Agency: Understanding Women’s Accounts of Wartime and Domestic Conflict in Urban Sierra Leone'. The MA Speckmann prize is awarded annually by the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology for the best MA thesis.

This blog is published in Dutch on OneWorld.nl under the title 'Oorlogsgeweld: wat zeggen vrouwen er écht over?'.


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