Can talking about ‘peace and security’ be a tool of oppression? What if peace were taken to be a process that begins and ends in the body? Sofya Shahab and Chloe Skinner report on their work with women researchers in Palestine and Iraq to disentangle ‘peace’ from patriarchal framings of security and relocate it in bodily sensation.

The Women, Peace and Security agenda has sought to incorporate the voices and experiences of women into peacebuilding and conflict prevention strategies. However, the focus within this has predominantly been to bring women into institutional and traditionally patriarchal peace processes – taking somewhat of an ‘add women and stir’ approach. This often fails to recognize the myriad strategies used by different women at various intersections as they navigate everyday life in the midst of oppression and insecurity.

Through an Arts and Humanities Research Council project ‘Embodying Peace, Navigating Violence: A network of auto-ethnographers in Iraq and Palestine’ we have been working alongside four Yezidi women researchers from Bashiqa and four feminist and/or queer Palestinian women in occupied Jerusalem.

Our goal has been to explore together what peace might mean if it were taken to be a process that begins and ends in the body: attending to the physical, emotional and psychological responses of navigating daily life in the midst of insecurity, violence, colonialism and distrust. For the latter group, living under a decades-long military occupation and ongoing colonisation project, ‘peace’ was an illusion – indeed, a discourse of oppression – and thus we found that working from the reality of struggle (nidal) was the most appropriate entry point for analyzing everyday life in this context.

In both contexts, we focused on everyday encounters and experiences and the felt sensations that accompany them. In Palestine, we explored the realities of struggling on many fronts, and the embodied sensations that accompany this. So often ignored, repressed, or delegitimised, we acknowledged the importance of naming the inevitable rage and trauma the researchers carried, reasserting that without justice, there is no peace.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, we found that the researchers – who were also marginalised in many ways due to their gender, religion, ethnicity and location – could cultivate a felt sense of peace through various means and strategies. Our first lesson, therefore, is that those working for peace and justice must tailor projects, language and approaches to the communities that they are working within, creating space for the embodied and emotional responses that emerge.

Secondly, by approaching peace and struggle from an embodied perspective we delved into the differences and tensions between meanings of peace and security as, in contexts of oppression, a felt sense of peace can involve facing insecurity, or, ‘peace and security’ can themselves be tools of oppression (to justify the repression of colonised or marginalised peoples).

In order to challenge the restrictions of their everyday lives (which were often justified through the lens of security and safety), the researchers found that a range of actions represented risk and resistance, including: acknowledging their bodily needs; enacting bodily autonomy; looking, dressing and behaving as they would wish and not as traditional gender identities would dictate; working; moving through occupied space; exercising; or even enjoying a coffee in a café alone.

In this way, everyday life is an active, everyday struggle, and the possibility of building embodied peace necessarily aligns with justice, equality and equity (and the fight to achieve this) rather than an end goal or result.

Thirdly, in the Iraqi context, understanding peace as a process meant that it was possible to incorporate ‘peacebuilding’ activities into everyday events and encounters. In attending to embodied experiences and sensations of peace, the researchers increasingly began to consciously draw upon the strategies they used to help achieve this throughout their everyday lives and in their interactions with others. This included sharing and incorporating methods such as meditation, mindfulness, and community walks into trainings they were conducting, or during meetings with colleagues in a way that was relatable and applicable to the contexts in which they were operating.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian context, recognizing the embodied realities of everyday struggle felt alien to those involved in the project. Amid acute and ongoing crisis, the researchers explained that they are adrenally exhausted. Operating from this space meant that focus on embodied or emotional well-being was consistently side-lined. As one researcher explained, ‘thinking, processing and feeling feels like some of the many privileges we can never enjoy’ as colonised peoples.

As the academic Loubna Qutami writes:

“As a people who are still waging an anti-colonial struggle which has now lasted over seven decades, Palestinians are often required to place our emotional worlds to the side to respond to the bare-bones material realities of life under military occupation and exile. Our bodies, lands, and homes are always under attack, forcing us to think, feel, and act in a context of emergency and out of a sense of urgency. [….] Palestinians have not been given the time and space to grieve all that has been forcibly taken from us and all that we continue to endure.”

Within this state of emergency, ‘stopping’ and ‘reflecting’ amid this project proved difficult, yet was recognised as necessary in view of the traumatic effects of colonisation and patriarchal violence.

Fourthly, through working together as teams and building friendships over time, the need for support networks and spaces of collectivity, solidarity and sharing were foregrounded. Meeting together each week, establishing trust and sharing experiences, feelings and anger, in a space free from judgement and responsibility, highlighted how care can act as a form of catharsis.

This was because in creating a shared space with those who face similar forms of marginalisation or intersecting oppressions, there was a heightened sense of solidarity with regards to the discrimination, repression and harassment that marked their lived realities, and also their feelings and responses to it. Physical solidarity like this can be a base for collective action and strength amid struggle, and a space in which to envisage resistance to the blockades that inhibit peace and justice.

Finally, we found that research practices themselves can help cultivate and contribute to either a felt sense of peace or solidarity amid struggle. Over the course of the research, the permission to prioritize and attend to personal needs, including at times a need for space and rest, and having the justification that this was an integral aspect of the paid work they were undertaking. In Iraq, this helped counter the guilt that could sometimes accompany the personal peaceful practices in which the women engaged.

Furthermore, the auto-ethnographic research methods themselves, which variously included journaling, voice-notes, learning circles and photovoice, were also experienced by the researchers in this context as contributing towards an embodied sense of peace, as they engaged in creative and reflective practices that provided an outlet that at other times, or in other ways, they felt unable to express.

Violence – whether physical, emotional, or psychological – is imprinted upon and felt within the bodies that are exposed to it. Consequently, when thinking about peace and justice (especially in the aftermath of – or amid ongoing violence) it makes sense to centre the body and embodied experiences of struggle and (the lack or presence of) peace. By doing so, we come to see peace and struggle as it is encountered, engaged with and experienced in the everyday lived realities of diverse groups, foregrounding and seeking to foster embodied well-being and safety at all layers and levels of the work we do.

This enables us to disentangle ‘peace’ from normative patriarchal frameworks of security, and move away from activities and protocols claiming to maintain ‘peace and security’ irrespective of justice and in sharp opposition to a felt or embodied sense of peace.

Sofya Shahab is an IDS Research Fellow in Power and Popular Politics and an AHRC/DCMS Policy Fellow in International Cultural Heritage Protection. She holds a PhD from Deakin University, Melbourne and has a background in in Cultural Anthropology and Critical Heritage Studies.

Chloe Skinner is a post-doctoral researcher in the Power and Popular Politics Cluster at IDS. Her research interests transect and weave together intersectional feminism and queer theory, embodiment and affect, coloniality – specifically the material and epistemological dimensions of settler colonial violence – and the broader context of backlash amid intersecting global crises. Geographically, she has specific expertise and experience working in the occupied Palestinian context.

This article was first published by the Institute of Development Studies on 24 April 2023.

Rethinking Security is a dissemination partner in this IDS-led project.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Sahar Murad. Yezidi woman outside a temple in Bashiqa, northern Iraq.

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