What We Learn from Women: Feminist Approaches to the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide

Jewish women and girls wearing the compulsory badge, Vienna, Austria, 1941. (Bildarchiv der Oesterreichischen Gesellschaft fuer Zeitgeschichte)

This post is based on a presentation given at the 2018 Le Frak Conference at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It will soon be published as part of the conference proceedings.

The feminist writer Rebecca Solnit has written that “[v]iolence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent; to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.”[i] This presentation is meant to highlight Solnit’s central point – that there is a relationship between violence against women’s bodies and violence against women’s voices, that a silencing of women is in itself a form of violence. Because of this, the violence that characterizes so much of women’s lives in peacetime, and which links peacetime forms of violence to genocidal ones, also links the violence of genocide to the structural, systemic and epistemic violence against women in the field of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. I will argue here that violence against women is hidden in the script of dominant narratives within Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which serve to further marginalize women – as agents and also as interpreters of reality.

We know that the modern academic profession is one that is still dominated by men and that, as a consequence, narratives of knowledge are still profoundly androcentric. Attempts to challenge the masculine epistemological norm are therefore still received with hostility in many sectors of academia, no matter how much lip service is paid to diversity, fair play, and freedom of expression in academic institutions. In Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the epistemological stakes of this continued male domination become so much more pronounced, because the subject matter is of such seriousness. The continued marginalization and exclusion of women as transformative historical agents—from the subjects of inquiry to the producers of knowledge—risks missing important insights about the crime and hampering all efforts to prevent it.

Those scholars who embrace the conceit of Enlightenment objectivity, and despair at the emergence of scholar-practitioners, scholar-activists, and now old-fashioned post-colonial critiques of knowledge (which posit that all knowledge is situated), hitch their wagon to the “ego cogito” (“I think”) and the “ego conquiro” (“I conquer”) that prompted Rene Descartes to declare, “I think, therefore I am,” thereby founding modern, Western Cartesian thought on the epistemic solipsism that the “I” can, in conversation only with itself, come up with ideas that are not situated and therefore are of universal validity. Although the universal “I” is of course a minority opinion dressed up in the hubristic garb of truth, its ties to specific modes of masculine power mean that it must be reinforced in order to remain coherent, a project that can only be realized through the active marginalization and silencing of everyone else – women, people of color, queer people, sub-dominant religious and ethnic groups, and so forth.

In a challenging work of epistemological critique, Ramón Grosfoguel ties the emergence of the “ego cogito” not solely to the “ego conquiro” but also to what he calls the “ego extermino” (“I exterminate”) that provided the necessary spark for the creation of modern secular approaches to Truth. In his view, it was Europe’s early modern conquests and genocides that set the stage for the God-like epistemological powers claimed by Descartes and institutionalized in the modern university. The myth of knowledge that is not situated is therefore itself a product of genocide.[ii]

If the certainty of the thinking Self in modern epistemology can be traced to the genocidal projects of the early modern period, then it is critical that the gendered relations of power at the heart of knowledge production be interrogated, since genocide is, at its core, a gendered project. More importantly to the point of this essay, thinking about, writing about, and speaking about genocide are also highly gendered projects, but ones that are rarely discussed as such. The prevalent and cruel violence against women that occurs during genocidal processes is dependent upon the marginalization – or the eradication — of our right to sovereign authorship of our own lives and the world in which we live. One of the reasons that the gendered nature of this marginalization affects women at times of genocide as well as at time of “peace” is that our storytelling – that is, our testimonials about the alternative reality in which women live and work – can have consequences that challenge and upset the existing power structure, including the power structure in which Holocaust and Genocide Studies “happens.”

It has tobe said that in the field of Holocaust and Genocide Studies there must be someaccounting for the long, long time that women’s voices have been marginalizedand their insights dismissed. We cannot blame the masculine bias of history forthis state of affairs. Several early scholars of the Holocaust and genociderecognized the importance of women and gender, most notably Raphael Lemkin, theman who coined the term genocide and fought for the Convention, and EmmanuelRingelblum, the Polish-Jewish historian and leader of the secret Oyneg Shabbos documentaryproject in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Women were written out of therecord, and out of the fields of Holocaust Studies as Genocide Studies, afterthe Shoah and as the disciplines evolved. Still now, women’s experiences ofgenocide and their work on genocide are considered to be a special interestrather than a critical part of the whole story. As the historian Zoe Waxman recently noted:

The mainstream of historical research [on the Holocaust] … has not taken on board the insights of women’s or gender history, much less acknowledged the importance of insights derived from feminist theory. Recent major works on the subject still assume that the Holocaust was somehow gender-neutral or—worse still—that women’s experiences are somehow a sideline, a distraction even from the main event. Tellingly, for example, a major recent study by a distinguished former colleague includes a separate index entry on ‘women’, but no entry headed ‘men’. This assumption, that men’s experiences were normative and that women were either an addendum or that their specific experiences can shed no broader light onto the Holocaust, has proved surprisingly long-lasting.[iii]

Waxman hassought to upend the assumption that male experiences are normative by writing aspecifically feminist integrated history of the Holocaust, which was publishedby Oxford University Press in 2017. 

Thetrajectory of the surfacing of women’s stories during the Holocaust very muchfollows the trajectory of the history of feminism in the USA and WesternEurope. The courageous first-generation scholars of women and the Holocaustunderstood that they were both excavating a history that had been silenced aswell as bringing attention to a history that was well-known in some circles butthat did not fit into the canon of Holocaust history. This was a feminist act –in the words of Marion Kaplan, the purpose was to “give women a voice longdenied them and to offer perspective long denied us.” It is largely womenscholars who have written about things like sexualized violence because we cansee it, we know to look for it, we recognize that it might be there due to ourown position in the world.

One of the great contributions of feminism and feminist theory to Genocide Studies, then, has been the collective rescuing of women’s voices from the oblivion of history that patriarchal knowledge systems – like modern scholarship and the modern university – have accorded them up until very recently.  In thinking about this essay, I was reminded of a very moving quote from Audre Lorde – in a short essay she wrote in 1977 called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Discussing the fear she experienced while waiting for the results of a biopsy, which at the time ultimately came back benign, she tells us she had a realization:

“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”[iv]

I was reminded of this quote, I think, because increasingly I find myself unable to write about gender and genocide or women and genocide without getting caught up in my own complicated imbrication in the same structures, systems and discourses of violence against women that I am analyzing. In particular, my attempts to negotiate a space in genocide prevention for women has run up time and again against my own experience of violence against women and the silencing of our voices on university campuses – from the time I was an undergraduate up to my current position as Associate Professor. Attempts to surface how women’s lives challenge accepted norms in our field have too often become struggles to be heard and respected in the first place, requiring the search for supportive men to carry insights forward and rendering my own silences about my personal treatment a threat to the epistemology of prevention, especially given the number of women who experience the same strictures as I do. Such enforced personalizing of the project of preventing genocide to the limited sphere of academic politics, with all the ways in which men profit from their status in terms of support, funding, authority, is counter-productive and a waste of time that none of us have, whether we are men or women. And yet, it cannot be avoided in the present system.   

I supposeall the events of the present-day – in the USA and globally – have driven homeonce again – especially to us women – that the personal is indeed political –that slogan of Second Wave feminism which, like most feminist insights, hasbeen mercilessly mocked in American popular culture but which still somehowmanages to emerge rather unscathed as an article of truth.

The personal is political.

I want tosay a few very short words about what is on my mind as a university professor,a genocide scholar, and an unapologetic feminist. It is my hope that thesewords with resonate with some of you.

And thesewords include the following proposal: That the very same silencing that wewitnessed at the highest levels of political power in the United States againstthe courageous Dr. Blasey Ford 1) is going on all the time on college campusesand 2) is also an essential part of genocidal systems. These connections are sovery important because they define the world in which knowledge about women, genocide,and its prevention is created.

For example, I know very few women who have not witnessed a Brett Kavanaugh meltdown at some point in their careers from senior or junior male colleagues, from male students, male administrators, etc. – especially if the women are outspoken and if they wish to challenge patriarchal norms and sexism in the profession. Until Brett Kavanaugh, however, I did not know that there is a name for his very effective defensive maneuver: Among psychologists, it is called DARVO – which is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.[v] These days, the DARVO offense is being used by faculty members and administrators to silence feminists, sometimes even through the use of civil rights laws that were originally intended to protect women as well as other marginalized groups. Many campus “Codes of Conduct” work to further silence women’s voices by rendering illicit those justifiable critiques of systemic and structural violence against women as well as protestations of unfair and discriminatory practices that require speaking up. Targeting of feminists in academia even extends into women’s personal lives as speaking out on social media and within professional networks is further interpreted as illicit speech, quite in contradiction to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. We can only expect things to get worse as US President Donald Trump’s executive order on free speech on campus targets—with intentional irony—precisely those people speaking out against oppressive systems.

The personal is political.

Importantly,the psychologist at the University of Oregon who came up with the concept ofDARVO, Dr. Jennifer Freyd, has also been a leader in studying sexualizedviolence on campuses. In 2014 she conducted a study of the campus climate at theUniversity of Oregon that found a very high level of sexualized violence againstfemale students on campus.  She repeatedthe study in 2015 and found the same results. She was transparent in sharingthe results with the university, offered numerous strategies for addressing andmitigating the incidence of sexualized violence, and viewed her work very muchas a contribution to a strong and healthy, inclusive campus. In return for herefforts, her own university attacked and sought to intimidate her by callingher objectivity into question and charging her with bias – essentially treatingher social scientific findings as a court of law would treat the testimony of arape survivor.

Dr. Freydhas since then successfully shown her university to be wrong. She is still afull professor at the University of Oregon and is now also a visiting fellow at the Center for AdvancedStudy in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. So, in that verylimited sense, this story has a “happy ending.” But imagine what couldhave been done had the university instead embraced scientific evidence andcommitted itself to creating a campus where people of all genders could learnand study in peace. Imagine if women like Dr. Freyd were supported from theoutset rather than treated as hostile interlocutors and accused of bias—imaginewhat might get done!

The “institutionalDARVO” that Dr. Freyd experienced is repeated in less high-profile ways at manyuniversities across the country. Women faculty are generally the people to whomvictims of sexual violence (and other forms of identity-based violence) go forhelp. However, because women faculty are still essentially cut out ofinstitutional power on most university campuses, their knowledge of the campusclimate – even when presented as part of a professional scientific study – israrely credited. Moreover, women faculty are the ones who generally are therecipients of harassment and harassing materials. They are the ones who speakout for female staff members and students who are being treated poorly by male facultyand administrators. They are usually the critical observers of inappropriatebehavior on the part of the same. Those women who report these things, even ifthey have tenure, become branded as people who “know too much” in addition tonags, harpies, and other old sexist labels designed to deny us the authority ofour voices. Silence around wrongdoing is re-imposed and the system continues. Becauseuniversities are bastions of male domination and misbehavior, the majority ofthem cannot imagine taking the steps necessary to create truly safe and welcomingspaces for women students, staff and faculty. Because it is untoward to speakabout these professional incivilities, much of this occurs under the radar ofcampus communities and certainly the public eye. But I assure you it ishappening every day.

I’ve beenthinking a lot about this – since it is evident on my campus as well as on others.It is part of the alternative reality in which we women operate. And it isbecoming increasingly intolerable to me. I find myself wondering, at what pointdo institutions crumble under the weight of their willful blindness? And I askmyself: If we cannot address this basic, ongoing, unsurprising problem on ourown campuses, how can we expect to be able to address it in places all over theworld where young women are experiencing sexualized violence in war andgenocide?

The shortanswer is: We can’t.

Lest thatappear to be a statement of defeat – or of despair – let me reprhase:

We cannot expectto address sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in genocidewithout also, and simultaneously, addressing the prevalent violence in our ownhomes and workplaces, and this is because all of these discrete acts ofviolence are linked together in time and space through conduits of power thatare now truly global.

Let metell you a story:

In fall of2015 I was invited by a small Iraqi NGO, along with fellow Executive BoardMembers of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, to visitnorthern Iraq in order to witness the atrocities being committed by ISISagainst national and religious minorities, including especially the Yazidipeoples. The hope was that our presence in the war zone would help bringinternational attention to the plight and the needs of affected communities.

For twoweeks in January 2016, three of us – me, Irene Victoria Massimino, and KjellAnderson — traveled in the recently liberated war zone between Kurdistan andSyria, an area known as the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar, right along the firingline, so that we could see for ourselves the destruction that ISIS had causedto religious and national minorities such as Yazidis, Christians, and ShabakShia. We visited emptied Christian towns, destroyed Yazidi and Christianreligious buildings, and mass graves that contained the bodies of thousands ofYazidi men and older women as well as many Christians. We also spoke with manyreligious and political leaders, internally displaced people, women rescuedfrom ISIS sex slavery, and grassroots activists among the targeted communities.

I was sotaken by the well-developed discourse on genocide that existed at thegrassroots level. The Yazidi, Christian, and Shabak Shia IPDs knew what hadhappened to them was genocide and were aware of the need to prove it. Theywanted help from the international community, which was not at all forthcoming,in doing things like securing mass graves and appropriately collectingtestimony that eventually could be submitted at trial.

I laterlearned that the Yazidi elders I had met, including the Yazidi Pope, hadimmediately recognized the gendered pattern of genocide that ISIS had committedagainst them after ISIS’s initial attacks in August 2014. Almost as if theywere gender scholars of genocide, they communicated to the outside world thatISIS’s genocidal strategy was to kill men and older boys – as well as someolder women – and enslave women and younger children. They clearly felt that thespecific crime of sexual enslavement was an assault on the core of their groupidentity. Because three thousand Yazidi women still remain in ISIS captivity,the Yazidi always remind us that the genocide against them is ongoing.

Due to theawareness among Yazidi men of the gendered nature of genocide, Yazidi womenhave been encouraged to speak plainly about their experiences with the outsideworld. This is why for a long time we could all read about their suffering inextreme detail in all the major newspapers. Journalists, filmmakers, lawyers,scholars, witnesses like me and my colleagues were in and out of northern Iraqtalking to Yazidi women.

By shininga light on the plight of Yazidi women and girls, Yazidi leaders and courageousYazidi women have done something that gender scholars could never have done –and especially not so quickly – and that is to have brought the gender-basednature of genocide to the attention of the highest political authorities in theworld. As a consequence of their incredible outreach work, for example, Secretaryof State John Kerry determined in 2016 that ISIS had committed genocide, citingevidence of the murder of Yazidi men alongside the rape and sexual enslavementof Yazidi women and girls.[vi]Whether or not this gendered analysis of genocide will be accepted in futureinternational criminal tribunals is unclear. But we should definitely keep upthe pressure.

Havingsaid all of that, I also want to share with you some observations that are moreproblematic, followed by an observation that is not only rather despairing butalso really enraging. I will then try to end with some hope.

Moreproblematic is the effect that this accurate Yazidi interpretation of their owngenocide unintentionally has had on the women who have been rescued from ISISonce it hits the international stage. The international awareness has led to anoverdetermination of Yazidi women’s sexualized persecution at the expense ofall else – and for a time generated an industry in journalism and human rightswork that led to the same women being interviewed dozens of times. Many of thewomen I met over three visits to Iraq were eager to speak about theirexperiences and clearly placed the shame on the perpetrators, sometimes directlylaughing at and mocking them as an act of defiance and a declaration of theirintegrity and dignity. Other women and girls, however, seemed much morereluctant.

The firstpeople we interviewed was a young Yazidi girl with her mother. The girl was perhapstwelve to fourteen years old and had dressed up in a fashionable outfit ofjeans and a T-shirt with a butterfly on it. We were in an administrativecontainer at one of the refugee camps, and had not been clearly told beforehandthat this mother and daughter were going to be brought in. As they were broughtin, the administrators – who were all men – cleared out. The girl and her momsat facing one another, and we three – plus our interpreter – a young, gentleYazidi man who bore the weight of the whole world on his shoulders – huddled ina semi-circle of chairs around them. It was silent. We introduced ourselves andexplained that we had been asked to come witness what had happened by aChristian-Yazidi NGO.

They bothpolitely said hello. Feeling very uncomfortable, I turned to the interpreterand asked him what he thought we should do, as none of us were quite sure ofwhat was supposed to happen. He told me that he was surprised that the twowomen would be brought to the administrative container. He motioned to the bigpicture window that looked out on the expanse of the camp and provided noprivacy. So I asked him to ask the mom if they were there willingly. He asked.The mother nodded, with a slight shrug of the shoulders that demonstrated thatshe was not coerced but also not particularly personally committed to seeing us.I then asked the interpreter to ask the mother if she wanted to be there and tospeak with us. He did so. And she said, with great certainty, NO. There was aslight pause, and then she told the interpreter that all these people come tohear about the sad things that happened to her daughter and yet nothing intheir life changes. They are always told to speak, but no one is helping them.

Welistened attentively to her concerns, of course, which were as revelatory asany other testimony she could have given us. We thanked this mother and herdaughter for coming in to see us. We promised to do all we could. We told themthat we would never have asked them to come speak to us if we knew how theywere feeling.  We told them that we werecommitted to bringing ISIS to justice. But we had nothing to offer, not evenassurance that someone, somewhere in the ether of the global community, wouldhelp them in the direct and focused way that they needed in the refugee camp.

As aconsequence of this terrible situation, we informed our hosts and the campadministrators that we would not speak with anyone in the administrativeoffices but that we were happy to meet with people in places that were morefamiliar, comfortable and private. As a consequence, we were brought to a smallcommunity tent that was shared by a sector of the camp. There we met two womenwho sat with us on mats as a little girl brought tea. We were being hosted, andas a consequence the environment was immediately more relaxed. We told thewomen that we only wanted to hear what they wanted to tell us. One of themasked us directly – do you want to know what ISIS did to us? We told her thatwe only wanted to hear about it if they wish to talk about it. After somesilence, both women, who were related to one another through their husbands,took out photos of their husbands who had been killed by ISIS. They spoke aboutwhat nice people they were and how much they missed them. Then they brought outpictures of their children. Their little girls had been captured with them andwere also rescued with them. Their little boys, however, were captured andintentionally separated from them at some point in the process, and only oneson had been rescued. The rest of the boys were still in ISIS captivity.

The discussion was immensely sad but also seemed to cheer the women, because we sat around cooing at pictures of their wonderful children — as people, and especially women, are apt to do. During our lengthy discussion, both women did also speak about sexualized violence. What did they say? They said, “ISIS did everything you can imagine to us, and also things that you can’t.” But their main concerns lay with their absent boys — and that is one of the important stories that the world community was missing at the time due to its limited framing of women’s experience.

IreneMassimino and I have returned twice to run intensive genocide preventionworkshops with Iraqis from all walks of life. The first time we went back, inJanuary 2017, we also made sure to check in with Yazidi camp administrators andwomen survivors to see what was being done now that more women had beenrescued. We did not expect much, but what we found defied belief.

By thistime, many of the women had clearly told their stories dozens of times tooutsiders. They patiently sat in a living room in a one-story administrativeoffice just outside of several different camps waiting to speak with us. Theadministrators with whom we were working seemed agitated and more shorttempered than previously. When we asked too many questions that they felt wereinessential – about the women’s lives before ISIS, for example – one, who wastranslating, told us to hurry it up. Women came in to an office where we satone at a time and sometimes in pairs. We felt this was like a factory assemblyline, but all of the women really wanted to speak. They had prepared themselvesand we listened.

It becamevery clear very quickly that these women were receiving absolutely no servicesin the camps. They were interviewed a lot, but there was no psycho-socialsupport, no educational or recreational activities for them. We began to askwomen what help they were getting. “Nothing,” we heard. Nothing. Nothing.Nothing. We asked them what they needed. A job. To get out. To get someeducation without having to go to camp schools, where they felt they would beostracized because of their experiences. Anything. Something. One fifteen-year-oldsat and cried for 15 minutes straight as we crouched around her. And then shetold us that she sits in her tent and thinks about ISIS 24 hours a day and 7days a week.

To ourshock and despair, we realized that we were witnessing the abandonment of theYazidi people and their growing desperation. While the international press wasrunning stories about the intimate details of the sexual violence committedagainst rescued Yazidi women, very, very little of that information wastranslating to anything palpable and helpful on the ground.

The nextday we went to see a camp administrator who had given us a great tour of hiscamp the year before. At that time, he had been so positive and almost excitedabout the possibilities of rebuilding and how he was serving his community.This time, he greeted us in his office clearly having just awoken from a nap.His shoulders were hunched and he barely looked us in the eyes. He told us hewas hoping we would not show up. We asked for an update on the situation in hiscamp and he told us that the tents were falling apart, rain was getting in,people were starting to die of easily treatable diseases, but he had nomedicine. The scraps sent to him to patch the tents were not the right size,but nothing else was coming. There was little food. Of 15 internationalorganizations that had been there the previous year, only three would be leftby spring.

Mycolleague and I also subsequently went to the Kurdish parliament, which was notmeeting at the time because it had fallen out of political favor withKurdistan’s president, but we managed to meet with women parliamentarians tosee what they thought about the state of Yazidi captives who had been rescued.They agreed with us that female Yazidi bodies were exploited by ISIS and thenre-exploited by the international community – trafficked, in other words, into ourhomes through the international media with no follow up. To them this was nosurprise. They had learned that not only Iraqi women’s bodies, but also Iraqitself, were mere instruments – tools – of a complex constellation of competingdomestic and foreign interests.

At thispoint we realized that we needed to work on a new language of gender ingenocide that would not risk exploiting the sexualized violence experienced bywomen to advance careers and make political points. We began to talk about whatwas happening in Iraq within a larger social justice frame – that what washappening to women reflected global power asymmetries and interests in which weare all some ways complicit.

TheKurdish camps in northern Iraq are actually some of the better ones in theworld. I certainly do not wish to paint a picture that incriminates localauthorities, who are doing their best in impossible circumstances. Strapped byhostile Iraqi economic policies, unable to engage in autonomous trade, theKurdish government and people are themselves suffering, and yet they have shownsuch remarkable hospitality to over 2 million refugees. I especially do notwish to incriminate Yazidi authorities or even the international organizationslike UNHCR that are at least trying to do something, however small it may seemin the vast sea of need.

What I wish to do instead is to call attention to the urgency of having strong feminist voices – male and female — in genocide scholarship, in genocide prevention, and in anti-genocide activism –in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the United States, in Argentina, and at the United Nations and other international bodies. And I wish to tie the need for strong feminist voices to the really encumbered and compromised positions that women scholars occupy in Iraq, in the USA, and elsewhere. How are we to generate knowledge about genocide and work towards preventing genocide when we operate in our own hostile environments, ones that seek to silence and deny us authoritative voices our own lives, through a lack of support and, if necessary, retaliation? How can we do anything of value when we cannot even speak women’s alternative reality in our own contexts and expect to be heard?

In apowerful work of international relations theory, called Sex and World Peace, a group of scholars crunched the numbers andcame up with strong correlations between levels of insecurity of women andgirls in peacetime societies and the vulnerability of those societies toconflict, including genocide.[vii]Among other fascinating things, they speculate that one of the reasons for thisis that the gender binary is still the primary marker of difference in theworld today. Children learn this difference from the moment they are born, andif there is stark power asymmetry, and violence, within this binary, childrenlearn that dealing with difference requires violence.[viii]

Certainlyviolence against women, in all of its intersectional forms around the world,can be a powerful model for a project of annihilation, which always depends ona perceived zero sum struggle between perpetrator groups and victims.

But thelink between gender and genocide goes deeper. Feminist studies have shown thatgender informs the thinking and behavior of perpetrators. Gender informs theirdecisions to resort to genocide rather than other policies. Gender informs theway in which genocides are implemented – the patterns they take. Gender informsthe responses among victim communities. Gender informs how individual victimsare targeted. And gender informs the now global processes through which battlesare fought, peace is made, justice is served, and reconstruction begins.

Genderanalysis had changed our approach to the shape of genocide, the atrocities ofgenocide, the start and end of genocide, the process of genocide, the timing ofgenocide, the space of genocide….It has made the field much more complex—and yet,feminist scholars are still so infrequently credited, or even read.

At themost fundamental level, feminist analysis, due to its focus on thedifferentiated mechanics of domination, has “opened” up our notion of genocide,allowing us to begin to examine experiences like North American slavery withina genocidal framework.

Gender isin fact so critical to an understanding of genocide that I have begun to arguein my work that genocide is subcategory of a broader phenomenon of“reproductive violence,” understood in both physical and cultural terms. Thismeans that preventive mechanisms and restorative justice will have to engagewith reproductive justice.

The ironyof feminist scholarship in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, perhaps, is that ithas helped to surface women as perpetrators and men as victims. It stands toreason, of course, that we should not assume women’s voices will necessarilybear emancipatory or just messages, for anyone, including themselves. Feministscholarship differs from gender scholarship in that it seeks to examine whywomen’s voices are silenced, no matter what it is they wish to say. Feministstake seriously structures of patriarchy and male domination, while some genderscholarship assumes a level playing field or even inverts the hierarchies andargues that men are in fact the primary silenced victims of the modern world.That latter view, it should be noted, is an article of faith within “incel” andviolent right-wing extremist culture in the USA and Europe, and it is drivingso much of the turn to fascism in these societies, so it is disturbing whenversions of it begin to show up in our own field.

Thisdifficult heritage – feminist advances and a very strong and vicious backlash –is being inherited by young scholars today. So many of the new voices that comeinto our field are young women, but the leadership is still largely men. Theprogress towards equity that my generation expected has not happened. Womenleave the profession, or are forced out, in so many ways between undergraduatelife and full professorship.[ix]This is a real shame. And it has direct consequences on the field of genocidestudies by preventing the very diversity of viewpoints, and the very maturediscussion of one half of the world’s denizens, that are our only hope of everseriously addressing this crime.

Nevertheless,there is room for hope. Women have made strides in gaining equal rightsglobally, especially in the last few decades, and the visibility of women’sagency as targets, bystanders, and perpetrators of genocide has also increased.The lessons this has for prevention have yet to be seriously addressed, but, ifwe work hard to support women as authoritative voices all over the world, wecan be certain that great strides will be made in the future.

I wouldlike to make sure, as my sisters have done before me, that women in Holocaustand Genocide studies have secure colleges at which to study, equitable graduateprograms that support and advance their voices, and a just profession in whichthey must not recapitulate yet again the insecurities and blowback that mygeneration is experiencing. Whether we older women witness young women cryingin our offices, or in offices somewhere in the heart of Kurdistan, the etiologyof those tears is very similar. We have to make sure that our professions, andthe world, hear, believe and – most importantly – appropriately respond totheir voices – and our own.


Flaherty, Colleen. “More Faculty Diversity, Not on TenureTrack.” Inside Higher Education (August22, 2016).

Freyd, Jennifer. “Violations of Power, Adaptive Blindnessand Betrayal Trauma Theory,” Feminism& Psychology 7:1 (1997): 22-32.

Grosfoguel, Ramón, “The Structure of Knowledge inWesternized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the FourGenocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11:1(2013): 73-90.

Hudson, Valerie A., Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli,and Chad F. Emmett, Sex and World Peace.New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Lorde, Audrey. SisterOutsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Ten Speed Press, 1984.

Peck, Emily. “Brett Kavanaugh Plays the Victim: The SupremeCourt Nominee’s Strategy is Classic.” TheHuffington Post, 27 September 2018

Rosenberg, Matthew. “Citing Atrocities, John Kerry CallsISIS Actions Genocide,” The New YorkTimes (March 17, 2016).

Solnit, Rebecca.“Silence and Powerlessness Go Hand-in-Hand: Women’s Voices Must Be Heard.” The Guardian (8 March 2017).

Waxman, Zoe. Women inthe Holocaust: A Feminist History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.


1. Haveyou experienced discrimination and violence in your life (as a survivor,bystander, or perpetrator) that you believe is tied to your gender? How do youthink this influences your perception of truth when you hear women’s stories ofpersecution?

2. Whatare some of the problems involved in bringing adequate attention to rape andother forms of sexual violence during war and genocide while still honoring thedignity of survivors and the complexities of their stories? What do we learnfrom interviews with Yazidi survivors about how they prioritize issues after rescue?

3. Whatare some of the ways in which you are linked to the people in northern Iraq(Iraqi Kurdistan) through global circuits of power, domination, andmarginalization? How might your position influence the work that you do?

4. What doyou think Audre Lorde meant when she said, “Your silence will not protect you”?How are our voices important to our safety and security in the world?

5. In whatways is genocide gendered? Why is this important to understanding approaches tolong-term prevention and the creation of positive peace?


Bemporad, Elissa and Joyce W. Warren. Women and Genocide: Victims, Bystanders, Perpetrators.Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2017.

Hudson, Valerie A., Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli,and Chad F. Emmett, Sex and World Peace.New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Lorde, Audrey. SisterOutsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Ten Speed Press, 1984.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. AreWomen Human? And Other International Dialogues. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press, 2007.

Murad, Nadia. The LastGirl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. London:Penguin, 2017.

Roth, John and Carol Rittner. Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. New York: Paragon House,1993.

Video/Film Resources

Grbavica: The Land ofMy Dreams (2006). 1hr 47min. Drama. The story of love between a mother andher daughter born of genocidal rape after genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

My Neighbor, My Killer(2009). 1hr 20min. Documentary. The story of female survivors of the 1994genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and their experience of the gacaca genocide trials.

Pray the Devil Back toHell (2008). 1hr 12min. Documentary. The story of women who fought forpeace in Liberia.

The Uncondemned(2015). 1hr 21min. Documentary. The fight to prosecute rape as a crime againsthumanity.

[i] Rebecca Solnit,“Silence and Powerlessness Go Hand-in-Hand: Women’s Voices Must Be Heard,” The Guardian (8 March 2017)

[ii]Grosfoguel, Ramón, “The Structure of Knowledge in WesternizedUniversities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides ofthe Long 16th Century,” HumanArchitecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge:, 11:1 (2013).

[iii]Zoe Waxman, Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2017), p. 6.

[iv]Audre Lourde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (NewYork: Ten Speed Press, 1984), pp. 40-44.

[v]Jennifer Freyd, “Violations of Power, Adaptive Blindness and Betrayal TraumaTheory,” Feminism & Psychology 7:1(1997), pp. 22-32; Emily Peck, “Brett Kavanaugh Plays the Victim: The SupremeCourt Nominee’s Strategy is Classic,” TheHuffington Post, 27 September 2018.

[vi]Matthew Rosenberg, “Citing Atrocities, John Kerry Calls ISIS Actions Genocide,”The New York Times (March 17, 2016).

[vii] Valerie M.Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett, Sex and World Peace (New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2012).

[viii]Hudson et. al., Sex and World Peace,pp. 37-38.

[ix]Colleen Flaherty, “More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track,” Inside Higher Education (August 22,2016).

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