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The involvement of women in anti-establishment armed groups: deviance in the service of a citizenship enterprise

Maritza Felices-Luna
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’implication des femmes au sein des groupes armés contestataires : la déviance au service d’une entreprise citoyenne [fr]


There are few studies of women’s involvement in armed conflict and the majority of the existing research has gender as its main concern. However, through empirical research, this article will attempt to shows that gender is not a relevant issue when women discuss their motivations and experiences in being part of armed struggle. The interviewees refute the deviant label attributed to them and represent themselves as social and political actors. Thus, the analysis of their discourse leads us to see womens’ involvement in armed struggle as an active practice of citizenship, given that participating in political and war enterprises has traditionally been considered an essential component of citizenship.

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1. The theoretical construction of combatants: deviance or politics
2. The discourse of women combatants: social and political actors, neither victims nor depraved
3. Involvement in armed struggle: choosing political change through arms
5. The self-abnegation of fighters and the identity sacrifice: the complexity of the armed struggle experience
6. Warriors and Politicians: full citizens
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Texte intégral

1. The theoretical construction of combatants: deviance or politics1

  • 1  The term “anti-establishment armed group” designates organized groups that use armed struggle for (...)
  • 2  The system would use the “law of nature” to exclude women from politics by assigning them to a sex (...)
  • 3  Whether it is within independence movements, revolutionary armies, organizations of resistance or (...)

1Traditionally, women have been excluded from politics2 and war because these activities have been considered contrary to the nature and the social role assigned to them. These roles have confined them to the private sphere of social life and have limited their possibilities for involvement in economic, political and social life in their countries, especially at the command and decision-making levels (Moller Okin, 2000; Phillips, 2000). However, when some societies experience a situation of internal armed conflict, women become directly involved in political violence3. Therefore, women commit a triple act of deviance because the use of violence for political ends is generally considered to be an undesirable political strategy and the participation in politics as well the use of violence in an instrumental and utilitarian manner by women are significant transgressions of the normative and cultural codes existing in most societies.

  • 4  Scientific interest in the study of women in armed conflicts developed mainly after the 1990s but (...)
  • 5  Although several countries had incorporated women into their military organizations, none admit th (...)
  • 6  Héritier (1996) explains how biological differences symbolized, for example, by the loss of blood (...)

2In spite of the interest that this type of deviance could arouse in an academic milieu, very little scientific research has been done on the participation of women in armed conflicts as military actors4. The studies devoted to the subject use two clearly different approaches to the phenomenon. In the first case, the authors consider female involvement in the enterprises of war as an undesirable thing because the use of instrumental violence by them is seen as a form of degeneration5. The military historian, Van Creveld (2002) asserts that women would lack not just aggressiveness, a trait essential for war, but would present a morphology and biology that could predetermine their natural inaptitude for war : their lesser height and weight as well as the higher proportion of fat to muscles, would not allow them to participate in the same physical activities as men; their physical fragility would make them less effective in hand to hand combat; their bosoms would hinder their movements and require special protection; their bone structures would prevent them from aiming as well as men and their shorter arms would hinder their capacity to draw their weapons. Finally, the loss of menstruation when women participate in military training would, for this author, be the primary indicator of the « ban » that « nature » imposes on the participation of women in war. According to him, such menstrual disorders would indicate a change in the nature and even in the female essence of those participating in war6. This natural interdiction leads the holders of this position to propose a social ban in which transgression would result in the questioning of the essence and the nature of deviant women. Thus, this type of analysis postulates that the image of the woman is linked to intrinsic attributes (femininity and maternity), attributes that will be contested if not withdrawn from her if she becomes a soldier (Guenivet, 2001).

  • 7  Talbet (1979) disputes the “natural” foundations of sexual divisions of labor which assign certain (...)
  • 8  Internal limits always separate the full citizen from the second class one having limited rights ( (...)

3This position is strongly criticized by the second approach encountered in the scientific literature; in this approach, the use of violence by women is not seen as deviant and the incorporation of women into military activities is considered acceptable. The arguments fall into two groups : the « natural » differences between men and women are mainly the result of a socialization based on a « gendered » construction of society (Reynaud, 1988; Dombrowski, 1999; Guenivet, 2001)7; the biological and morphological differences between men and women are « real and natural » but do not mean that woman cannot participate in war (Izraeli, 2000; Peniston Bird, 2000). In fact, the weak point in the claim of some authors that maternity and war are incompatible is based, according to Reynaud (1988), on an erroneous logic that places in parallel an incontestable biological reality (the differences between the sexes in relation to procreation) and an aptitude (an ability or inability to fight) which varies according to the individual, the society and the era. If there is no natural interdiction on the use of violence by women, their exclusion from war activities would reveal the existence of mens’ interests in terms of citizenship and the maintenance of a masculine exclusivity in relation to the duty of community protection (Reynaud, 1988; Izraeli, 2000). In other words, because traditional conceptions of citizenship require that the responsibilities of citizens be respected in order to have access to the associated rights and that one of the essential responsibilities is the protection of the community, the « natural » exclusion of women from this task « naturally » places them in the situation of being second class citizens. Thus, in terms of rights and power, men have an interest in maintaining this exclusion because by limiting women to a partial citizenship, their oppression and domination are more easily maintained8.

  • 9  Marshall et al. ( 1986) indicate the existence of theories which explain female “terrorism” as a s (...)

4In the studies on the use of violence by women for political ends, the discourse on the bio-psycho-social abnormality of the involvement of women in war activities is expressed, by causal analyses centred on a lack or an excess of characteristics thought to be ontological to women. If the participation in war is « abnormal » for women, those who participate in « terrorist » activities must therefore be considered failures as « women ». They are thus presented as having masculine characteristics, being asexual or failing to correspond biologically or psychologically to their « nature » (Fare, Spirito, 1982; Talbot, 2001)9.

5Nevertheless, when the women studied display « feminine » traits, their « terrorism » is analyzed as the result of an « excess » of femininity. The women are presented as victims of men who seduce or manipulate or through their physical superiority, force them to get involved in a « terrorist » group (Victor, 2003). In other cases, the involvement of women, particularly in suicide attacks, is presented as a sacrifice made to restore the family honor which they would have scorned or to save their family from the economic and social burden they represent for being single, widowed or divorced (Cunningham, 2003; Victor, 2003). Thus, from this perspective, the deviance of women is seen as being the result of a lack or an excess of femininity.

6For their part, the critical authors define women as political actors and denounce the sexism of explanatory theories which apply to women approaches deemed unacceptable for men (Talbot, 2000 ; Taylor, 2001). These theories condemn the attention given to determinist explanations to the detriment of analyses which focus on the motivations and the committment of women in armed struggle as social and political actors. However, the research pursued from a critical perspective tends to suffer from the same faults and mainly sees their research subjects through their condition as women. Thus, a large number of publications focus on two debates. The first debate pertains to the consciousness of the inequalities of the sexes : are women conscious of these inequalities ? Does this consciousness of inequalities drive women to armed action or is it their involvement in an armed group that politicizes them and thus facilitates their reaching an awareness of inequalities ? The second debate pertains to the liberating or oppressing experience of being involved in « terrorist » groups : does this involvement allow for a breaking away from masculine exploitation and domination or is it, on the contrary, a recreation or a new form of exploitation and domination ?

  • 10  These life narratives were collected over the course of several meetings totaling between 4 and 10 (...)

7A survey of the literature therefore allows us to observe that either the women are excluded from studies dealing with internal armed conflicts, or their female identity becomes the object, the central preoccupation, of the research. In the case of the determinist perspective, it is the excess or lack of feminine characteristics that attracts the attention of researchers whereas the critical perspective places the emphasis on gender. Following this observation, it seemed relevant to us to conduct a study of women’s involvement in the armed struggle, taking into account gender but without placing it at the centre of the study. The goal was to analyze their involvement (motivations, experiences and trajectory) without being gender blind, nor being blinded by their gender. To do this, we conducted an empirical qualitative study of women’s involvement paying special attention to the subjectivity of the actors as a favored means for the comprehension and interpretation of their realities. The research tried to go beyond a static vision of their involvement through the use of life narratives as a data gathering technique10. This technique allows us to map out the trajectory of the participants within their personal histories while taking into account the processes, the experiences, as well as the meaning given to their involvement.

  • 11  Because of the legal context, where the recognition of membership in an armed anti-establishment g (...)
  • 12  According to Pires, (1997), this type of sampling allows the researcher to work as if both were si (...)
  • 13  The interviewees were connected to different organizations. Their involvement varied from a durati (...)

8To produce this analysis, we collected, during 2002 and 2003, the life narratives of six Peruvian and five Irish women who had participated in armed struggle11. The women interviewed were identified through snowball sampling with many lines of referral. This technique allowed us to obtain an in-depth/contrasted sample12 which presented us with great diversity in terms of personal characteristics, trajectories and generated social reactions13. Because this subjective study of women’s involvement in armed struggle was casted in terms of career processes, the interviewees could share their motivations and experiences according to what they considered important, thus allowing us to identify the impact their gender may have had upon their trajectories.

2. The discourse of women combatants: social and political actors, neither victims nor depraved

  • 14  The first action of the Shining Path was led by a woman and the death squads, especially in urban (...)
  • 15  For more information on the social representations of women members of the Shining Path see Felice (...)

9Armed struggle provokes diverse reactions on the part of the population. On the one hand, we find a certain degree of comprehension of it  and support for an organization perceived to be watching over the interests of the community. On the other hand, there is condemnation of these same organizations which are perceived as a threat to society and the nation. The involvement of women in armed struggle is thus a significant source of controversy because of the doubly deviant character of their actions. Even though the members of a community can accept that violence is necessary for political ends, it is more difficult for them to concede the transgressing of sexually defined role divisions and spaces. Conscious of these facts, military and political organizations have developed certain « public relations » strategies. In the Irish conflict, the Republican movement and military organizations emphasize the role of support played by women in the struggle and mention very little or not at all their participation in military actions. Their involvement is presented as in continuity with the traditional role advocated by the nationalist community, thus diminishing the deviant character of their actions. This strategy would have facilitated the acceptance, the support and the admiration of the republican population, which would have transformed the deviant character into a romantic one. The Irish interviewees claimed that this romantic vision placed them on a pedestal and granted them a celebrity status difficult to cope with when they left prison because every day they would recognized, saluted and approached, thus arousing feelings of embarassment and suffocation. On the other hand, the Shining Path and to a lesser extent, the MRTA, in Peru publicised their participation in violent military actions and their preeminent role in the political direction of the organization to demonstrate the organisation’s intent to create a new social order14. Thus, the women are seen as having broken with traditional social roles, inciting their condemnation by a siginificant part of the population which would have perceived them as abnormal and dangerous beings15. As a result, the interviewees are extremely careful to avoid having their status as ex-prisoners become publicly known because of the negative consequences they anticipate in the areas of employment, housing, and especially social networks built upon release from prison.

10The interviewees are aware of the negative social representations the population tends to hold towads them and therefore attempt to deconstruct them through their discourse. In the Irish context, it is the romantic aspect that is challenged.

  • 16  The interviews having been conducted in in English or Spanish, the citations were translated by th (...)

The female freedom fighter in Ireland is very much romanticized. It’s an image of the very beautiful and angelic young woman. And you can’t have these experiences and come away beautiful and naive. You obviously had to look after yourself, you were subjected to a lot of horrible things, and I couldn’t come out of it being angelic and naive and innocent. My life experience hasn’t allowed for that. It’s taught me coping skills, it’s taught me how to stand up for myself, and sometimes it has to be in a forceful manner. And to me the men still have a problem recognizing it.  Men need to challenge their perception of women in the movement (Carey)16.

11Whereas in the Peruvian context, it is the abnormality and depravity that is contested :

It is not at all like ‘okay, this person, since his parents were separated, poor kid, she had psychiatric problems and okay, she lost a few of her marbles, and okay, she got stuck in a role’…and stuff like that. No, absolutely not. It’s not because of an abnormality or an illness. It’s also not because it was in fashion that I got myself involved in such a situation. For me, it was something that I felt, that I did consciously, with certainty. I was sure my gesture was well founded, and so I did it » (Zenaida).

12The interviewees thus refute the label of deviant but also the fairy tale versions of victim or heroine and declare that their actions result from a decision taken as a legitimate social and political actor. In fact, while recognizing that their capacity for action is seen as limited by circumstances or actions of third parties, the interviewees see themselves as actors who develop strategies to ensure their room for maneuver and their possibilities for action. For example, in Peru, Veronica explains that when she found herself pregnant and forced to remain in a military camp of the Shining Path, she stained her underwear with blood to show that her pregnancy was at risk and that she represented a danger for the organization because of the quickness of action and mobility required of fighters. A combination of different strategies led to the granting of authorization for her to leave the military camp, an opportunity she took to definitively quit the organization.

13This example allows us to see how the interviewees used the opportunities given to them by the research to transmit a message, to present themselves from a certain angle and to convey a certain view of themselves and their experiences. In Peru, the Peace Agreement and the process of pacification happened after the near total dismantling of contending armed groups and in a context which delegitimized the use of violence for political ends. It is thus understandable that the interviewees, incarcerated at the time of the interview or having been pardoned, presented themselves as having had a weak motivation to join the armed struggle and little control over diverse situations connected to their involvement. The interviewees have a pragmatic interest in presenting themselves as social actors having tried, on the one hand, to distance themselves from armed struggle and on the other hand, having had minimal freedom of action regarding their involvement in the arm struggle : their freedom depends on it. On the other hand, in the case of Ireland, the Peace Agreement signed by the powerful paramilitary parties, could have been perceived as a legitimization of the use of violence for political ends. Thus, it is also understandable that the Irish interviewees proudly admitted their involvement in armed struggle, emphasizing their strong political motivation and showing through their discourse that they were social and political actors continuously in control of their involvement.

3. Involvement in armed struggle: choosing political change through arms

  • 17  The involvement of women in armed struggle is an uneven trajectory often initiated by a strong voc (...)

14The discursive logic of the interviewees aims to legitimise the armed struggle and challenge the legitimacy of the State, which is considered and presented as the deviant. The living conditions of their community, their second class citizen status as well as the problematic political and socio-historic context are the basis of their decision to get involved in armed struggle17. In fact, this vocation developed as the interviewees noticed the existence of social, economic and political inequalities which needed, in their eyes, to be redressed. At the same time,, they came to the realisation that traditional politics was incapable of protecting the interests of their community and of forging a society corresponding to their ideal. The interviewees condemn the existing government which does not represent their community and its interests and instead uses violence to maintain its power. Both in Peru and in Ireland, the interviewees describe their use of violence as being the « force » necessary to counteract the « violence » of the other State, responsible for the original violence which gave rise to the conflict.

I remember being completely outraged at the injustices that were part and parcel of our everyday life. It was reinforced constantly that we were second-class citizens. The brutality that we took from the State was immense. So I always had a sense of awareness of the injustices that were happening in our community and in our culture and I thought somebody needed to challenge it, it wasn’t right what was happening. And I had always genuinely believed that the only way that anything could be achieved, was an arms struggle against the Brits. And I mean against the Brits, it was never against hard working class Protestants, even loyalists and unionists. Because I assume they were very much in the same boat as ourselves with improper living conditions and continuously struggling financially. (…) I was about fourteen when I came around to politics and I think at the end of the day politics will win this but only because the time is now right for politics to win. I don’t think Sinn Fein could have challenged the Brits in the early mid eighties. They had a Tory government that absolutely refused to negotiate with republicans or with nationalists (Carey).

15The interviewees opted to join the armed struggle in order to defend and protect the community they belonged to, just as those who join the army to defend their country. For these women, giving their lives was the ultimate sacrifice they were willing to make to protect their community. Thus, the decision to take part in the armed conflict was taken in a stoical manner and with pride. They were conscious of the dangers and risks incurred but equally aware of the difficult living conditions and the sacrifices that they would have to make.

It’s a massive decision because you’re basically either going to go to jail or you’re going to die or you go on the run. But possible, you’ll do one or all of those three things. That’s what you get out of it. That’s it (Alison).

16Throughout their discourses, the use of violence for political ends is presented as inevitable because of the specific circumstances which delegitimizes the power in place and legitimizes their own use of violence. The violence is thus not constructed as a deviant behavior but rather as a legitimate political tool for the creation of change. Thus, the interviewees are opposed to a definition of their involvement as deviant and position themselves fully as citizens; they attribute to themselves and, based on this view, exercise their rights and responsibilities in political and military matters. In other words, they participate directly in governing by asserting their rights as citizens to control the State in order to demand social, economic and political changes and by claiming their legitimate rights to topple the power in place through armed struggle when other options seem to be lacking.

17However, in the case of Peru, some interviewees who withdrew from armed struggle questioned the basis of their decisions and came to believe that armed struggle was possibly not the only or the best option for achieving necessary changes and creating the society they had hoped for. In this case, they question their judgement but not the authenticity of their motivations. In other words, they believe that their intentions were right and noble but that possibly, the means used were inadequate.

So that during my confinement, I came to think that what I had done was bad…after a certain point I changed this hard and critical posture towards myself. Now I believe that I had to endure a difficult time and that I did not remain indifferent. I didn’t invent it, I didn’t force things. This was an historical and concrete situation. And I fulfilled my responsibility. Above all with the story of my family which had worked so long for a social change which did not happen. I was convinced that it had to be at that time. So now I have a slightly more positive opinion of myself and I respect myself, I respect my life for I experienced and did because I was coherent » (Ximena).

4. Continuity or rupture in gender relations: the malleability of informal social control

  • 18  It is important to emphasize that Carey in Ireland and Ximena in Peru identify themselves as femin (...)

18In spite of a context where the involvement of women in politics and in violent action is condemned and considered deviant, the interviewees’ discourses do not centre on the fact that they are women18. They are nonetheless aware of their lack of conformity as  their immediate network tends to consider them to be deviant and condemns their involvement. Notwithstanding, when their close relations learn of their involvement, they are not denounced to the police nor excluded from the family but are subjected to intensive surveillance accompanied by reprimands and criticisms which emphasize their failures as mothers, daughters and/or wives. Afterwards, when they are imprisoned, they receive the support of their network, even if it is accompanied by comments about deserved punishment and reproaches for the pain caused and the heavy burden of delegated responsibilities (particularly when old and poor close relations have to take care of their grand-children). Once freed, they are confronted with greater surveillance, a constant control of their activities and relationships as well as frequent criticisms.

19In other cases, the members of their closest circle do not seem to consider the political and military involvement of women as being deviant. Parents, friends and spouses support the interviewees in their decisions, without thinking that their sex should have any role in the decision to join or not join the armed struggle. These interviewees underline the surprising cultural freedom of action they enjoyed, beyond the collaboration of their non-politically involved spouses who took charge of the domestic tasks normally assigned to women. This is particularly surprising in the context of two cultures strongly anchored in patriarchy which associates the masculine or feminine « nature » with roles attributed to each of the sexes. Thus, in two societies where non-conformity to social roles assigned according to the sex of individuals is interpreted as a failure intrinsic to individuals, the involvement of women in masculine enterprises with the support of closest circles and the acceptance of domestic tasks by men signifies an important disruption of the status quo. In fact, some interviewees testify to a certain pride in being women within a masculine milieu : they are proud to have had enough political conviction to be coherent in what they said and what they did while some men in their circles were not capable of such a commitment. Their discourse demonstrates the awareness of their non-conformism and thus of a certain adhesion to cultural codes because pride is associated with breaking away from social standards. Furthermore, the non involvement of men is presented in certain regards as a questioning of the manliness of these men. In other words, the involvement of women is not considered as deviant but the non-involvement of men is perceived as such.

It bothered me that he was not as committed as I was. And sometimes, I told him : ‘Look at this, you too, it would be nice if we went together’. I explained to him the importance of this, that I had gotten involved and that I was happy because I had been selected. It was quite an opportunity, it was like winning a prize! Because not everyone gets to be selected. During a discussion I eventually told him ‘You’re nothing but a faggot, if not, you too would also be involved’. Maybe I was a bit macho. I thought : ‘but how can he, as a man, not commit himself more deeply than me?’ And at the same time I thought : wow, me, a woman, I am more involved than him and I am doing a man’s business’. And he was doing a woman’s business. Because he was cooking, he was taking care of the baby, washing the clothes and at the same time he was working  (Ximena).

  • 19  We use here the theory of individual and collective appropriation by Guillaumin (1978a, 1978b).
  • 20  In principle, the armed anti-establishment groups involved in the Irish and Peruvian conflicts hav (...)

20This ambiguity reappears when the women withdraw from armed struggle because the close circle of acquaintances will again exercise a more significant informal social control over their movements, activities and relationships. This type of reaction generates confrontation because the behaviors that were accepted earlier now become the objects of criticism, surveillance and jealousy. In this regard, Yolanda expresses her incomprehension of her spouse’s jealous scenes when she converses with a customer in their restaurant, when he had accepted her spending many nights away with other men. This fact demonstrates that it is not a question of individuals who stem from milieus that are particularly open or flexible in their cultural traditions and thus indicates the extraordinary nature of the situation. The attitude of the circle of friends and family should not be understood as a fundamental shift in cultural traditions but as a temporary abdication by family members of their individual19 appropriations of women in order to allow, while they are part of the armed struggle, a collective appropriation by the armed group in the name of the well-being of the community. In other words, the spouse and the family abandon their control or their right over the women so that this can be transfered and used by the armed group which becomes responsible for exercising a certain social control over them. So, in a sense, the group guarantees that the activities of women that can be considered « immoral » or deviant will occur exclusively in the service of the cause20. As soon as the involvement of the woman ends, the family and immediate social circle reappropriate the woman and assume responsibility for exercising informal social control over her. Thus, it would be precisely the flexibility or malleability of informal social control which would allow for the maintenance of gender relations for the period of the armed struggle because the accomodation allows for the adaptation to a particular and limited context while rejecting a more profound rupture or change. A truely fundamental change would have as a consequence the refusal to consider as deviant the participation of women in certain domains (especially political and military) where men would have an interest in maintaining exclusive control once the state was achieved.

5. The self-abnegation of fighters and the identity sacrifice: the complexity of the armed struggle experience

21The discourses of women concerning their experiences of armed struggle mainly revolve around the impact of their experiences, on their attachment and committment to the armed struggle; in other words, their persistence in a career considered deviant by a certain segment of society. The life conditions and the experiences of these women are thus essential to the pursuit of, or the withdrawal from, this form of deviance. Because it is their feminine status that renders their involvement doubly deviant, it is important to linger over the discourses of women concerning their experiences, as women, within the organization and in relation to their comrades.

22Regarding the armed group, it is important to note that the active recruitment of women into the armed struggle required overcoming, as much on the ideological as on the pragmatic level, the individual and collective hesitations aroused by the participation of women in tasks and in areas traditionally exclusive to men (politics and the military). In other words, it is necessary to influence the points of view of men so that they do not see women as deviants but rather as comrades. In this regard, the interviewees affirm that ideologically, the anti-estsblishment armed groups advocate an equality in principle between men and women and are structured on the basis of this principle. This principle of equality removes the possibility of declaring them to be deviant and it « forces » a complete « integration » in all political and military activities. Thus, the directives in relation to training as well as political and/or military work decree that the men and women be given the same training and be assigned the same tasks. Furthermore, the normative code of the organization stipulates that all sexist behavior is forbidden and must incur a reprimand or punishment. Sexist attitudes could, indeed, lead to an identification of women as deviants instead of as comrades and thus impact on the effectiveness of the organization.

  • 21  When analyzing the assignment of tasks, it is important to emphasize that this depends not only on (...)
  • 22  The interviewees give very little importance to the hesitations expressed by some men either becau (...)

23The interviewees agree that they did not experienced discrimination during their training and in the assignment of tasks21 in spite of the individual hesitations of some male comrades22. The ideology of the group and the norms stipulated by it served to protect women because they can thus see these men as the deviants instead of questioning themselves about the truthfulness of their comments. Regarding the sexist behaviors of their comrades, the interviewees do not mention the application of the normative code or the initiatives undertaken by the organization to insure its ideological assimilation and practice in daily life. So, from the description of the interviewees, the ideology and the practice of the armed groups they had committed to seemed to reject the naturalizing ideology which advocates that women are determined to be passive and peaceful entities in need of men for their protection. In other words, although these groups are part of societies whose structures are based on a sexual division which separates the private from the public spheres and construes the relationships between men and women on the basis of gender, these organizations might seem to have succeeded in distancing themselves from this naturalizing ideology that leads to the exclusion of women from political and military enterprises.

  • 23  In the particular case of Peru, the anti-establishment armed groups would have required that conju (...)

24The discourses of women regarding their experiences of daily life within armed groups are more nuanced aside from the apparent gender equality within the organisation. In fact, the interviewees, particularly in Peru, claim to have had difficult times because of the continuous pressures of mental and physical exhaustion as well as the resulting health problems. They describe in detail the constraints on their use of time; the economic uncertainty experienced because the armed struggle was given priority over all other activity (including the activities of economic subsistence); the restrictions on their social life and comfort; the security constraints; the risks incurred (whether military, sanitary, medical or related to ordinary criminality); the loss (flight and withdrawal, arrest, disappearance and death) of comrades which reminds them the reality of  the dangers faced. They also underline moments of relaxation and sharing of camaraderie which they enjoy and enrich their social lives. On the professional level, the interviewees claim to have sacrificed university training or other education as well as the development of a career for the benefit of the armed group. Once retired from the armed struggle, they are then faced with the practical consequences of such a sacrifice : hardships in finding a job and the economic insecurity that results. The difficulties associated with involvement in armed struggle, combined with professional sacrifices, make the living conditions of the women difficult and precarious. It is then relevant to wonder if these situations do not finally translate into a collective appropriation of the work and the bodies of the women which might go against the egalitarian principles advocated by the organization. In fact, although they succeed in creating a family by having a long lasting couple-relationship with children, the interviewees claim to have neither the time, the energy, nor the mental availability to succeed at having a balanced family life23.

When there were wounded comrades, I would sometimes go a day or two without sleeping. I was becoming more and more involved and had disappeared as an individual, my appearance became less important to me, nothing, was as important as caring for the patients. (…) I was only existing as a member of the group. They had taken everything. There was no more place for me. I arrived, I cooked, I did the housework, washed them, cured them and after, I went to another place and it was the same. There were many of them and not many of us. I was like a tool, a link that had to be there. And I could not say ‘ no, today I’m going for a walk with my husband…’; I had no family. What I mean is, I had a family in theory. I had a husband, I had a child. But I was not…so to speak, an ordinary wife, like every one else, well, cooks for her husband or cooks with him  (Yolanda).

  • 24  We refer here to the concept developed by Goffman (1961).

25Analyzing armed resistance groups as forms of total institution24 helps us to see the experience of women as a victory for the total institution because its main objective is to destroy and remake the identities of the members of the organization (men and women) according to the combatant model. In spite of the limits of the gathered material in this research focused on women, it is pertinent to consider whether the appropriation experienced by these women is a collective experience exclusive to women and based on their gender or is part of a more general form of institutional appropriation, applicable to both women and men. In other words, was the appropriation experienced by these women the result of their gender? Was it also experienced by men as a result of the total character and not the patriarcal character of the institution? Or was it the result of an institution that was both total and patriarchal?

26Concerning the experience of women in relation to their male comrades, the interviewees attest, in a general, to egalitarian and positive relationships in which they were not viewed as deviant women. There would be, in principle, an egalitarian sharing of domestic and military tasks and, when couple relationships developed, they would be, with a few exceptions, based on respect and equality. However, according to the discourses of the interviewees, it would seem that the exceptions are more important or, at the very least, more striking than what we we could perceive at first sight. Some interviewees talked about the existence of macho attitudes in the context of daily activities and relationships outside of the armed struggle as well as a caricatured view of women, similar to that held by the rest of society. Other interviewees mention much more difficult situations such as violent behaviors as well as cases of repeated sexual assaults committed by the leader of an organization. Even if the antiestablishment armed group gives behavior directives in an attempt to change the relationships of domination by men towards women, the members of the organization may not want to surrender their male prerogatives. The decisions of an organization based on practical issues, the needs or desires for changing the social structure do not imply an automatic change of the people involved who have been socialized within a society driven by traditional ideologies and values.

27This contradiction in the experience of women, between the male comrades who adhere to egalitarian principle and those who want to maintain their prerogatives, can be analyzed according to the ideas of Bourdieu (1998) who asserts that the transformation in the relationship of domination is not produced only by an awareness of it, but through a change in the social structure. The organizations to which the women belong aim at creating changes on the structural level. These changes are progressive and do not depend only on a decision taken by the leadership but also by the awareness and will of its members. Furthermore, the creation of a new structure and new social relationships within a group which coexists with a traditional society makes the presence of a uniform change more difficult, particularly when we consider that individual and collective appropriation of women serves the interests of men. Establishing the new social structure would mean renouncing the advantages that the old structure represented for them, which is not an obvious choice to make. Thus, the members of an organization can simultaneously share the ideology and the organization concerning the social situation arousing the conflict and desiring to maintain traditional sexual relationships of oppression and domination of women by men.

6. Warriors and Politicians: full citizens

28The discourses of the interviewees demonstrate that their involvement in the armed struggle is not connected to the improvement of living conditions of women or to changes in the relationships between the sexes in spite of the feminist orientation of some of them. However, their involvement in political violence has real and concrete consequences for this question. In fact, in spite of the absence of an agenda that is particularly women-oriented or feminist, their political participation through armed struggle questions social representations regarding the feminine nature and the natural differences between men and women. In other words, there is a weakening of the naturalist ideology that is at the foundation of the attribution of the deviant label regarding the involvement of women in politics and the military. The participation of women in military activities in the context of internal armed conflict might lead to a transformation of traditional social relationships and of the conception of the role of women in society. According to the traditional vision, women would show a natural inability to participate in warlike activities. The experiences of the women encountered negates this belief because they were able to undergo military training and successfully participate in combat related activities without their morphologies and psychologies presenting any obstacles. Furthermore, the attribution of a natural incapacity to kill because of their ability to give birth is also put into question because the interviewees were able to do both in parallel. Finally, the determinist assumption claiming that women get involved in armed struggle for reasons intrinsic to their nature is refuted by the women encountered, who took these positions as social actors adopting a political project and choosing armed struggle as the only way to implement it. Thus, through this simple decision, and often without their knowledge, they overturned the vision that society had of women as being « naturally » pacifistic and transgressed social norms by getting involved in a domain that is traditionally limited to men.

29The involvement of these women in armed struggle is only one of their strategies for implementing their political project because they also participate in weapons-free politics before, during and/or after their involvement in warlike activities. This participation in unarmed politics is more obvious with the Irish interviewees who, upon their release from prison, switch to traditional political work as well as community work. In the case of Peru, this reorientation was more difficult not only because of the context but also because some were actually incarcerated at the time of the interview. On the other hand, those who were free thought of their current profession as a continuation of their political work. The presentation of an elaborated and coherent political discourse associated with practices within community organizations, social movements or political parties is a way to denounce and contest the exclusion of women from this domain traditionally reserved for men. Thus, even if the women subjectively do not see themselves as actors who are transforming the private/public division, objectively, they are achieving this.

30Dealing with women’s involvement in anti-establishment armed groups means covering two vast and sensitive areas that are the basis of the concept and practice of citizenship : the involvement of women in warlike enterprises and their participation in politics. In spite of the lack of explicit motivation to question the gendered division created by society, the women involved in armed struggle have, objectively, an impact upon it because they took their place as military and political actors which should open the doors for them to obtain full citizenship. However, although communities had required such self-denial by women and they had agreed to accept the « ultimate sacrifice » for their community and die for the cause, the end of the conflict did not lead to the recognition of a full citizenship for these women. It would seem that the anti-establishment armed groups, once in power, would progressively forget the participation of women who would be relegated to a traditional and secondary role, and, as a result, a negligible one. Thus, the inclusion of women in politics, to visible but powerless positions, is presented as a reward for their cooperation and not as a right due to them. In that regard, the Irish interviewees denouced the ease with which the republican movement « forgot » the military and political participation of women, in the speeches, displays and other commemorations. Furthermore, they claim that it is difficult for them to find positions in the high levels of traditional politics even within the republican movement. In fact, the literature clearly shows this forgetfulness in the context of other conflicts and defines these difficulties as strategies used by societies to reestablish the traditional relationships destabilized during conflict. Hence, particularly in Ireland, the end of the conflict risks a retreat from progress made by women involved in armed conflict: access to full citizenship for all women. In Peru, the military failure of anti-establishment armed groups, the lesser investment in politics by women involved in armed struggle as well as the weak support of the population, ensured that the involvement in armed struggle would have a minimal impact on access to full citizenship for women. One might also argue that this involvement might have the reverse effect by reinforcing the traditional roles and relationships between the sexes because of the socially negative representations of women involved in politics and combat as being violent, bloodthirsty and dangerous. Thus, in Peru, the end of the conflict and the forgetting of women’s involvement constitute, in the end, conditions more likely to eventually allow women to become involved in military and political positions and to thus gain full citizenship.

31The involvement of women in armed struggle raises the debate : deviants or political actors? This questioning underlies significant repercussions for the retention or reversal of traditional social relationships. On the one hand, we find those who want to protect the status quo and the domination of women facilitated by their assignment to second-class citizenship by virtue of their exclusion from these central spheres (war activities and politics) through a naturalizing discourse which biologizes their exclusion and as a result the domination of women. Attributing the label of deviant thus becomes the principal tool for the protection of the status quo. On the other hand, we find women who – consciously or not – reverse traditional social relationships by getting involved in domains from which they are usually banned and by demanding to be recognized as full citizens through a positioning as legitimate social, political and military actors instead of deviants. Finally, a third, rather utilitarian position seems embodied in the anti-establishment  armed groups which, having a need to involve women in armed struggle to gain power, impose an internal ideology which allows them to be effective combatants while assuring that there be no real transformation of the social relationships which must revert to tradition once power is achieved. Thus, for these organizations, it is necessary to find the equilibrium between recognizing the citizen quality in the involvement of women in politics and the military under the direction of the group and maintaining as deviant all involvements in those domains not endorsed by the group.

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1  The term “anti-establishment armed group” designates organized groups that use armed struggle for political purposes. This term, seeming more neutral on the moral than the political level, allows us to avoid the controversial use of other qualifiers such as “terrorist”, “insurrectionist”, or “guerrilla”.

2  The system would use the “law of nature” to exclude women from politics by assigning them to a sexual and maternal role presented as involving weaknesses connected to their nature (Dayan-Herzbrun, 2000). Yuval Davis (1997) claims that the exclusion of women from the public sphere allowed for the attribution of rights to men as individuals but also as representing members of the family who were did not have full citizenship.

3  Whether it is within independence movements, revolutionary armies, organizations of resistance or insurrectional groups, women from the four corners of the world have used violence for political ends in regions with varied cultures, religions, histories and political organizations (Cunningham, 2003).

4  Scientific interest in the study of women in armed conflicts developed mainly after the 1990s but the studies related mainly to the victimization of women and less to their real role or potential as agents of pacification (Moser, Clark, 2001; Rioux, Gagné, 2005).

5  Although several countries had incorporated women into their military organizations, none admit them into combat yet (Guenivet, 2001).

6  Héritier (1996) explains how biological differences symbolized, for example, by the loss of blood through menstruation serve to construct differences between men and women as well as the creation of a hierarchical classification which orients one’s thinking about the world and which facilitates the creation and renewal of reserved masculine domains reproducing these hierarchical differences.

7  Talbet (1979) disputes the “natural” foundations of sexual divisions of labor which assign certain tasks to men because of their physical strength by demonstrating how the work of women also requires significant physical strength. In fact, the division of labor would be based not on the difference in physical strength but rather on the tools associated with different tasks. The tasks of the women involved simple tools whereas those of the men involved more complex tools which add power and allow him to produce new tools. Thus, the sexual division related to work would be a question of relations of power and of domination and not based solely on physical capacities.

8  Internal limits always separate the full citizen from the second class one having limited rights (Jenson, Phillips, 1996). When the members of the community do not satisfy the obligations of citizenship, they are assigned the status of second class citizens or, at least in practice, are relegated to a partial citizenship in relation to the state and society (Yuval-Davis, 1997). However, the formal status of citizenship does not always involve a complete social belonging in the sense of an equal capacity to exercise the rights of citizens. Thus, several groups, including women, are still under-represented in the formal political system and at the decision making level, thus limiting the exercise of their civil rights. (O’Connor, 1996).

9  Marshall et al. ( 1986) indicate the existence of theories which explain female “terrorism” as a strategy for resolving personal or sexual problems.The women are presented as being more cold, fanatical, cruel and brutal than the men because of a short circuit in their sexuality. Cooper (1979) describes female “terrorists” as being obsessive and pathological, which would prevent them from thinking strategically, and would pressure them to adopt male roles and participate, clumsily, in a game for men.

10  These life narratives were collected over the course of several meetings totaling between 4 and 10 hours with each interviewee.

11  Because of the legal context, where the recognition of membership in an armed anti-establishment group can cause individuals to be sentenced to imprisonment, some Irish interviewees have recognized their participation in military activities without establishing a connection of belonging to an armed organization.

12  According to Pires, (1997), this type of sampling allows the researcher to work as if both were single case studies while using data collected in a complementary manner or to establish contrasts. The number of case studied is limited because of their depth.

13  The interviewees were connected to different organizations. Their involvement varied from a duration of three years to more than 30 years, having reached different hierarchical levels within their organization (combatant, leader, executive and management) and their combined experience was acquired in many domains (combat, military maneuvers, logistics, transport, surveillance, press and propaganda, security, health…). Some of these women have been or still are incarcerated for periods ranging from 3 years to life whereas others have never had to deal with the justice system. Moreover, if the Peruvian fieldwork gave us access to women who had retired from armed struggle and politics and, and in some way, regret their involvement, the Irish fieldwork allowed us to meet women who do not regret their involvement and continue it through arms, traditional politics or community work.

14  The first action of the Shining Path was led by a woman and the death squads, especially in urban milieus, were headed by women who were charged with the “coup de grâce”.

15  For more information on the social representations of women members of the Shining Path see Felices-Luna (1999).

16  The interviews having been conducted in in English or Spanish, the citations were translated by the author. Translator’s note: the original quotes were used for the Irish interviewees.

17  The involvement of women in armed struggle is an uneven trajectory often initiated by a strong vocation even if it comes with moments of doubt characterized by a continuation of their involvement which can be circumstantial or under constraint. In other cases, the involvement within an armed anti-establishment group happens because of circumstances or under constraint but the involvement continues following the development of a vocation for the cause.

18  It is important to emphasize that Carey in Ireland and Ximena in Peru identify themselves as feminists and include in their description of the social, historical and political context the gender relations and elaborate an analysis of them through the concept of patriarchy. They express the need and the will to participate in the dismantling of the patriarchal society but do not connect to this political project to their involvement in armed struggle.

19  We use here the theory of individual and collective appropriation by Guillaumin (1978a, 1978b).

20  In principle, the armed anti-establishment groups involved in the Irish and Peruvian conflicts have a detailed moral code which defines forbidden behaviors and their punitive consequences. For example, theft is forbidden except if necessary to obtain resources for the armed struggle and under the direct order of a superior.

21  When analyzing the assignment of tasks, it is important to emphasize that this depends not only on the political or ideological project of the organization but also on the capacities and concrete skills of each individual. In this regard, it seemed obvious that if the women, like the men, were socialized in a naturalizing ideology and a society divided according to public and private spaces, their capacities and skills would correspond, generally, to those associated with their gender, likely to reproduce traditional roles. Nevertheless, the interviewees rarely seem to have been assigned tasks traditionally associated with women which could mean that since the cultural “determinant” had been bypassed by the training given by these organizations, there was thus a demonstration of their commitment to the transformation of social roles.

22  The interviewees give very little importance to the hesitations expressed by some men either because they would change opinions after having worked with them, or because they think that the doubts expressed by the men show their own limitations and not those of women.

23  In the particular case of Peru, the anti-establishment armed groups would have required that conjugal relations be put in the service of the cause and that their children, conceived of as the property of the organization, be given to its care. It is at the level of the family that the women built what we perceive in their discourse to be a certain concern to not be “deviant”, in their role as mother and wife, without this concern automatically entailing their abandonment of the armed struggle.

24  We refer here to the concept developed by Goffman (1961).

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Maritza Felices-Luna, « The involvement of women in anti-establishment armed groups: deviance in the service of a citizenship enterprise »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. IV | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2010, consulté le 18 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Maritza Felices-Luna

Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa. Canada.

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