This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
"When there are few people who rise up against the system – for example, because the system is extremely violent – there’s little left to do but react against that system in a violent way.” This is how former far-left militant Margrit Schiller explains her choice of resorting to violence in the newly published book, On ne va pas y aller avec des fleurs. Violence politique : des femmes témoignent (We're Not Going With Flowers. Political violence: women's testimonies, only available in French).
Schiller was once a member of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a far-left militant group engaged in urban guerrilla in West Germany in the 1970s. The book contains her testimony and that of eight other militant women from all around the world, collected by authors and researchers Alexandra Frénod and Caroline Guibet Lafaye from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
From the RAF in West Germany to Direct Action in France, from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Kurdistan to the Red Brigades in Italy, the activists interviewed have one thing in common: At one point, they all considered political violence necessary.
Interviewed by Frénod and Guibet Lafaye, the activists look back at what marked their personal journeys to a course of action typically associated with men, and elaborate on their vision of political violence. We spoke to the authors about their discoveries.
VICE: According to your book, there are many women in extreme left armed groups - why?
Alexandra Frénod and Caroline Guibet Lafaye: Women generally make up a third of clandestine armed groups. They’re more rife in extreme left organisations, and in some national liberation groups, than in the extreme right or in political-religious organisations.
How can this be explained? Far-left ideologies are based on emancipation and non-discrimination, so it’s logical that women would be interested in being part of them. They advocate equality between men and women on principle, which should theoretically result in the full participation of women in all political and military activities.
Does theory meet practice?
In some Western European movements – including the Basque one – the question of women's emancipation came up quite early, but the problem is how it was put into practice. Some groups ended up reproducing gender stereotypes in their internal way of functioning, assigning specific roles to men and women based on traditional gender divisions of labour.
In the PKK, women’s position within the movement was theorised by Abdullah Öcalan - one of its founding members - in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, he published a theory saying that the liberation of Kurdistan could only be achieved through the prior liberation of women, who were placed at the heart of the nationalistic struggle. During that same decade, though, women weren’t always accepted in the ranks of the PKK Kurdish fighters.
This reluctance happened in other clandestine organisations in Latin America, too. Members shared the organisation's ideology and social perspectives - which put them at conflict with the state - but they also wanted to maintain the traditional gender relations of oppression and domination of women by men. Even when groups provided behaviour guidelines to try and change the inherited relations of patriarchal domination, members weren’t always willing to give up their male privileges.
Why are these structures of power so difficult to dismantle?
An organisation might make a decision based on pragmatic reasons or the desire to change social structures, but that won’t automatically transform people who’ve been socialised in a patriarchal society. Changes in relationships of domination don’t happen just when people become aware of them - but through changes in the social structures themselves.
Actively recruiting women into the armed struggle requires overcoming the individual and collective reluctance to involve women in tasks traditionally reserved for men - such as politics and the military. Within these clandestine structures, a change in the male gaze is often necessary, so men don’t see women as deviants but as comrades.
Why are women who resort to political violence considered exceptions or even enigmas?
The social construction of gender places women on the side of gentleness, life and motherhood. Society is organised based on a bipolar distribution of tasks and stereotypes which contrasts culture and nature, public space and private space, giving death and giving life, strength and weakness, virility and femininity.
This gendered division of roles establishes women as pacifiers rather than fighters, and forbids them from using sophisticated weapons, such as Kalashnikovs, rifles and precision weapons. The use of lethal violence by women represents a double transgression - of gender representations and of state laws. When women resort to political violence they’re considered outsiders, because they’re outside “their expected role” - AKA they challenge the monopoly of violence assigned to men.
Many people would refer to these activists and their organisations as terrorists. What would you say to that?
Western societies have a very low tolerance for violence. This is encouraged by the language of the media and politics which often abuse the term. When smashing a window is called an “act of violence” rather than of “damage” or “breakage”, we’re measuring it in degrees of violence, even when that’s not the nature of the event. The misuse of the terms – another example is waging “war” against a virus – empties them of their meaning and affects our perception of reality.
Instead of repeating the eternal quote about one man’s terrorist being another man’s resistance fighter, we can look at Noam Chomsky who wrote: “The words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ have become semantic tools of the powerful in the Western world.” Identifying someone as a “terrorist” constructs an enemy, regardless of what means the opponent is using.