Including women at the peace table: Retiring Essentialism

In this post, Kirthi Jayakumar makes the case for retiring essentialism and favouring inclusion that goes beyond mere tokenism. By examining rhetoric that has often been used to make the case for the inclusion of women in negotiation tables and peace treaties, she dismantles the basis of inclusion and argues that an intersectional approach can lead to true peace.  

How often have you heard that women should be part of peace processes or negotiation tables because they are inherently peaceful, because agreements that women help negotiate have a greater chance of remaining in force or being implemented than those negotiated by men? While these arguments are useful in presenting a basis for the inclusion of women, they also isolate women in many ways. Yep, you read that right. It might seem like an unpopular opinion, but I ask you to read on.

When we attribute particular characteristics to a particular people, we not only risk stereotyping them, but also, if they are positive characteristics, foist an expectation on them to perform in ways that respond to those characteristics. In doing so, we engage with what is called essentialism. For example, if we say women are inherently peaceful, we also silently place a rider on women to not exhibit anger. In doing so, we exclude women who are outspoken, vociferous, and perhaps even thump the table with their fists because, well, that’s not in line with our image of women being inherently peaceful. Take another example: if we say women are inherently nurturing because they have motherly qualities with them, we exclude trans women whose self-determined gender identity is disrespected in the process, and we also exclude women who choose not to be mothers and women who cannot medically be mothers. When we present arguments of this kind, it is almost as if we’re making an excuse for women to be included, and within that, making a case for the kind of women to be included. In the process, we’re left with tokenistic representations that leave us checking boxes and not including those that should be, substantively.

Making essentialist arguments also runs the risk of homogenizing all women into one category. As my sisters on this platform will attest, we are all challenged by same and different things, and it is these different things that challenge us each uniquely. Unless we have room to speak out, address, and engage with these unique challenges, change would only be piecemeal at best. Essentialism responds (inadequately, of course) to the universal challenges that all of us face, and puts us into a homogenous group. It ignores the intersectional identities and contexts that position each of us differently within this group, where privileges and oppressions also set up a pecking order within our group itself, where some women in positions of power enjoy (varying degrees of) privilege over other women.

Instead, what if we framed our articulation to speak about the value women bring to the table – by offering perspectives informed by their own, unique, lived experiences? What if we sought to present women as human beings that deserve to create lasting change and not be excluded because of their sex and/or gender identities? What if we can make a compelling case for how the agreements, negotiations, laws, and policies made by cis-het men serve their own interests and continue to exclude, discriminate against, and isolate women and other non-binary gender identities and that the only way to right that wrong is to open the door to include every relevant gender-based stakeholder in making these agreements, negotiations, laws, and policies? What if we acknowledge that as women, we are not a homogenous group and that within our larger group as “women,” we have several diversities that present unique challenges, and that addressing these challenges requires the sustained engagement of those who have lived experiences of those very challenges?

Peace is not the absence of violence. Peace is, instead, a deliberate effort to include those that have been excluded, to dismantle structures that have constantly marginalized, oppressed, and excluded people, and to strive to build futures on justice, healing, inclusion, empathy, and compassion. One of the natural corollaries of this idea of peace, then, is to start from a peaceful mechanism, for peace is both a means and an ends. Retiring essentialism and standing up for substantive inclusion is a powerful way to get that peace started.