On International Women's Day, How to Tell Women’s Stories In Conflict Zones

People ask why I return to conflict and post-conflict zones to work on project after project, ranging from designing a capacity-building curriculum for Egyptian women parliamentarians to developing a vocational training program for mothers in Guatemala. The truth is that I am attracted to the power of stories. Stories of resilience and perseverance, of courage and optimism in the face of adversity, inspire me to the core.

As a gender-related development specialist, writer, and photographer, I have been called to document these stories in Latin America, the Middle East, East Africa, and the Balkans. Whether in Cuba or Colombia, Egypt or Israel, Uganda or Jordan, I have consistently asked myself the same question about gender and storytelling: How do we share stories of women without falling into the same gender stereotypes we seek to combat?

In the wake of Arab spring, there has been an increase in the number of stories covering the role of women in social movements. I am torn in my response to them. On the one hand, as a feminist and an advocate of women’s rights worldwide, I am thrilled to see women in the spotlight; on the other hand, I am looking forward to seeing gender narratives shift the emphasis from the fact that the subject is female to highlighting her accomplishments. As Egyptian activist Deena Adel recently said in an interview with fellow PolicyMic contributor Anna Day, “International media should stop featuring successful, outspoken Arab women as an exception to the rule, rather than as examples of the many impressive women in the region.”

Adel’s point holds outside the context of the Arab Spring as well. We need to allow women to determine by themselves the role that gender has played in their story. In the spring of 2010, I found myself in Guatemala, documenting the lives of female recipients of microcredit. When I asked the owner of a tortilla stand how she felt about being a woman who started a small business, she responded: “This is not about being a woman for me. It is about being an entrepreneur.”

I encountered a similar attitude in Colombia, where I was designing and implementing a series of workshops that aimed at the reintegration of female ex-combatants into peacetime communities. One of the exercises prompted women to list the different capacities in which they viewed themselves and in which their communities viewed them. “Mother,” “daughter,” and “wife,” were some of the identities. “I want to be viewed as a community leader,” said one participant. Another wished to tell her story as a teacher, another as a former FARC fighter who chose to abandon the armed struggle in favor of non-violent resistance. When pressed about how being a woman has affected those experiences, the women agreed that they were immensely proud of their gender and honored to be women leaders in their respective spheres — but, ultimately, it was their experiences of teaching, community organizing, and fighting in war that they wanted to share, not their thoughts on gender.

Gender is a lens, not a conclusion. If we are to do women’s stories justice, we need to enable them to cast themselves in the light that feels true to them. As storytellers, we are endowed with the responsibility to ask open questions and to be receptive to the answers that surprise our preconceived notions — about gender, conflict, entrepreneurship, or any life experience. In the future, instead of asking how it feels “to be a woman” participating or playing a leadership role in a social movement, I will try to ask how it feels to be part of the social movement at large. Female respondents can bring gender in the conversation when they feel it is necessary. I will be wary of conclusions that may suggest that an outcome or a life story is even more surprising because the subject or the storyteller is a woman.

The most magical stories are, at their heart, honest. We need to listen to and write women’s stories while shedding light on the identity that they themselves wish to put at the forefront of their narrative.  

Photo Credit: Karen Hoffmann