The promise of absolute vulnerability
I have had the pleasure to engage in conversations with feminist IR scholars, who are passionate about studying women, violence and war. In these conversations our focus has been mainly on the scale and intimacy of sexualized violence in violent conflicts and war zones. In our discussions we see how sexualized violence is tied with larger structures such as patriarchy, militarism and global political economy. In this way violence, becomes something that happens out there in far away and distant places of conflict zones and developing countries (from European and American point of view) or is tied with structures that we have no control over. The closest we get to violence touching us, is by acknowledging that perhaps in the midst of our students there may be someone who has experienced violence and therefore, we need to pay attention to and be sensitive about how we discuss violence in the classroom. But, we might as well be open about the rest of it. Perhaps also, in the midst of our feminist scholars there are those who have experienced violence or been in abusive relationships?
What concerns me here is the deliberate distancing of violence in feminist scholarship in IR as something which happens somewhere else, in far and distant places, or to someone else, we can maintain the idea that we academic scholars are not in any way part of the systems of violence. I do not mean to imply that feminist scholars take the position of being neutral observers of a world that is ontologically separate from them, but rather, we are unable to recognize that we are deeply entangled in the confusion of violence already. The trouble is that by associating violence as something which takes place in distant places or to someone else, we can somehow ensure our safety as being outside the cultures of violence and its production. We associate violence with weakness. It is the faith of the unfortunate or the action that someone deranged will resort to. In such a context admitting to having experienced violence may be harmful if one wants to maintain an image of a strong feminist.
My take on the problematic of understanding and addressing violence, comes from the experience of being someone who has lived in the seemingly safe, neutral and peripheral country, which has no on-going conflicts and is situated in a safe distance from any ‘hot spot’ of the world. Yes, I live in Finland, which is known for its high quality education, gender equality and welfare-state system. The capital Helsinki has been evaluated again this year as the 8th best city to live in. So life is good here?
What does not make the news, or which is not advertised as much, is that Finland is also known for being at the top of the charts in European context for gender-based violence. Finland leads year after year, the statistics of intimate violence in close relationships leading to death of the female spouse. The possibility for a woman to be killed by their spouse is double the average of any other EU member-state. And there is no denying of the fact that the perpetrators of violence are mostly men. Only in the case of lethal violence against children, women (the mothers) form the majority. Neither is violence tied to class background or income.
Violence is also something which is very much part of my everyday landscape. I can read the headlines of tabloid journals, which expose the violence and abuse inflicted by TV stars and other small scale celebrities on their families as I do my daily grocery shopping. The headlines narrate the motivations behind these acts such, cheating, jealousy and financial troubles, and so there is a sense that violence is only related to someone’s personal troubles or mental illness and is not something which is telling about our society and culture more generally.
Yet, the point here is not to highlight and say that Finland too should be paid as much attention to as the conflict zones of the world in feminist IR.
The example of the everydayness of violence in Finland serves to remind us that we should not be fooled by appearances. With appearances I mean that violence is not only tied to poverty, conflict or economic restructuring and neither can violence be reduced to something to specific conditions which induce violence.
This brings me to my second point and this is that we are also more likely to focus on violence, in terms of specific violent event and pay less attention to how people survive and recreate their lives years after the conflict and indeed what it takes to do so.
A prominent Finnish scholar Suvi Ronkainen, reminds us that violence is not something that can be reduced only to the violent event, but instead should be understood as a process that shapes the experience of everyday life long after the actual event or act of violence is over. The experience of violence may have a transformational effect on how the person sees herself and the world. Mundane things may be given different meanings, places once familiar and safe no longer feel so. Ronkainen shows in her research how the victims of sexual abuse as children carried a sense of being ‘dirty’ or ‘used’ way into adulthood. Taking a long time to heal could also bring a sense of shame as in Finland we adhere to the idea of women being strong and resilient. Victims felt they should already be ‘over it’ and were told to ‘just stop thinking about it’. Ronkainen argues that it is our postmodern culture, which values rationality and efficiency does not allow time for victims to heal.
My concern in this regard is by distancing violence feminist scholarship operates according to the same logic of postmodern individualist culture, which values efficiency and independence. By distancing violence to something which happens somewhere else, we continue to associate violence with weakness and this may reinforce the experience of violence as shameful among the students in the classroom or colleagues among us. And so, being open about the lived experienced of violence and speaking about it ‘straight on’ becomes even harder. Violence is also seen as something which is exceptional and distant as the discourse on ‘vulnerability of women and girls’ suggests.
In this I follow my colleague Tuula Juvonen who is brave enough to claim that women and girls are not vulnerable, because they are women and girls. Vulnerability is inherent in the experience of being human. Each of us can be violated and hurt. Each of us has also the capacity to harm others. It is only the toughness of our postmodern individualist culture that does not allow us to admit it. Vulnerability and weakness are qualities that nobody wants to confess to, especially in the academia. Indeed, being vulnerable and weak is shameful and this shame we have to hide. One way to do this is by distancing vulnerability and violence as a property of someone else.
In conclusion, I want to claim that we can move forward in our conversation about women, violence and war by acknowledging that violence is not that exceptional or that distant at all. Perhaps, if we opened up academic culture so that we could speak about violence directly, without attaching shame and weakness to it, we could be open about the violence we experience and violence we inflict on others. More importantly, we could also allow for understanding that healing can take time, and it does not have to being weak or somehow scarred for life. Vulnerability is also the quality in us which allows for connection and communication. It is because we are vulnerable that we can also appreciate this moment of being alive and the shared humanity and the world we are already part of. Therefore, I call for absolute vulnerability as a way of being in the world and in our relationships. Absolute vulnerability begins with softness and openness to the world and others in it. It allows entering into communication on the basis of what is, without fear or defences. Being open to what is, such as pain, suffering and violence also enables for ethical action and mindful listening. And so, I hope that perhaps we as feminists could be ready to ease the hardness of the postmodern culture that we are entangled in and thus also alleviate some of suffering we encounter in our daily lives.
Elina Penttinen is the author of Joy and International Relations: A new methodology (2013), Routledge: UK.
(The accompanying image is a mixed-media collage by Saara Särmä. Särmä uses a methodology she has named junk feminist collaging in both her academic and artistic work. This specific piece was created for Kaalratri and this post and it is based on and inspired by the accompanying text and visualizes the themes discussed in it.)