When Feminists Think About Rwanda


It is dangerous indeed to be urged to dampen one's sense of surprise. Commentators frequently describe ethnic conflicts in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda as the outgrowths of "ancient" hostilities. Thus, their eruptions in the 1990s allegedly should not surprise us. It follows, then, that we need not be particularly curious about their origins. In choosing the adjective "ancient," these observers are implying that hostilities between these groups are a-historical, that they go back so far that it is a waste of our time and energy to figure out their causes. Writers and television reporters who lure us into imagining that any conflict has infinitely deep roots seem to be trying to persuade us that these mutual hatreds have never needed reinforcement, that they may lie dormant now and then, but they survive without any contemporary fertilizing.

To the extent that we do not stand surprised and thereby accept any outbreak of inter-group warfare as not worthy of sophisticated explanation - to that extent, we ourselves are complicity in its perpetuation. For it is only through collective explanation that we can hope to pinpoint the processes that need to be changed so that such violence will not break out in the future.

Having learned the hard feminist lesson that allegedly natural inequalities between women and men in fact have had to be created and routinely recreated, we should take this casual use of "ancient" with a very large grain of salt. The conflict today in Rwanda is more likely to be understood-and thus effectively engaged with-if we reject the a-political argument that it is merely ancient. Instead, we need to go in search of the specific decisions which have created, and now are perpetuating such group hatreds.

Among those decisions are likely to be government policies intended to mold men's and women's perceptions of what is "manly"-naturally manly. Inter-ethnic conflicts are no more non-gendered than are government trade negotiations or political party candidate nominations. To be complicit, even from afar, is to metaphorically throw up one's hands in political despair, to accept the portrayal of Rwanda as a "mess," even if a mess of tragic proportions. To be complicit is to refuse to give as serious thought to causality in Rwanda as one does to causality in one's own backyard. For in refusing to apply the same sort of engaged feminist analysis to Rwanda, a feminist is likely to help sustain the dangerous idea that Rwanda women don't have to navigate between complex identity choices as those facing Bosnian or American women, choices that shape the larger political scene. In refusing to apply feminist analysis to Rwanda, one becomes complicity in making unproblematic the male Hutu militias and the male forces of the mostly-Tutsi staffed Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). What is left unproblematic will be taken to be natural. It thereby will be left unchallenged. The refusal to apply feminist analysis to Rwanda is likely to cement the image of Rwandan women as "natural" victims, as "natural" refugees coping with their children on Goma's ungiving lava-hard ground.

The Making of Militiamen

The ethnic strategies of the men who led the Hutu-dominated regime of pre-civil war Rwanda were developed out of their presumptions about what caused their predecessors in power to be overwhelmingly Tutsi. They believed that the Tutsi had been unfairly favored by the Belgian colonial officials, a favoritism which put them at the front of the power queue when Belgium gave up its imperial rule and Rwanda gained independence in 1962. This interpretation was not the stuff of mere ethnocentric fantasy.

The German and then the Belgian men who had staffed Rwanda's colonial civil service and Catholic church hierarchy during the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century in reality had created a set of concepts which in turn propelled specific ethnicized policies. Africa specialists, such as Alex de Waal, reporting in the July 1, 1994 issue of the Times of London Literary Supplement, and Catherine Newbury, author of The Cohesion of Oppression, have detailed some of the building blocks out of which the current crisis has been built: 1) the European colonial and church authorities imagined that the Tutsi and Hutu were not merely different social status groups defined by their relations to property, but that they were ethnic groups, people of fundamentally different cultural attributes and even racial origins; ) they went further and presumed that these two alleged recialized cultures were of unequal worth, the "Tutsi" being allegedly not only superior to the "Hutu," but the former deriving its superiority from its historical ties to Judeo-Christian tribes; 3) they thereby invested their clerical and civil trust in the Tutsi, which hardened the social boundaries between the previously fluid frontiers between women and men of the two groups and modernized Tutsi advantages in the evolving estate system; 4) they further perpetuated the gendering of the increasingly ethnicized political system by imagining that Tutsi men, like Belgian men, were more appropriate than their community's women to staff the state's bureaucracy, police force and military; 5) they consequently set the stage for new political parties of all ideologies to be not only infected by ethnic constituency loyalties but by the artificial notion that manliness was a principal qualification for political leadership.

The party that drove out the Tutsi-dominated post-independence regime was the male- and Hutu-led Mouvement Republicain National pour le Development et la Republique, best known by its initials MRND. It was in power when the current civil war broke out. It political rivals, the male- and Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriot Front (the RPF), grew organizationally in exile in Uganda. There during the 1980s many of its male supporters gained military training and a militarized masculine identity by serving as soldiers of the Ugandan armed forces. While constantly looking over their shoulders toward Uganda, leaders of Rwanda's ruling MRND imagined opposition parties and human rights groups inside the country to be threats to the state, not simply to the regime. Those groups included Hutu as well as Tutsi critics, and, while mostly male, these civil organizations included a visible number of outspoken pro-democracy women, the most prominent being Monique Majawamariya, born of a Tutsimotheranda Hutu father.

The MRND's leaders went about securing its hod on ethnicized state power by adopting a policy to militarize Hutu manhood. To accomplish this, they, like anyone trying to reconstruct masculinity, needed at least implicit acceptance from certain women. First, the government deliberately filled the regular army with Hutu young men in the rank and file and Hutu middle aged men in the officer corps. Increasing numbers of Hutu women thereby became intensely woven into the state's ethnicized system as mothers and wives of regular soldiers. Second, the MRND leadership created a Hutu-manned Presidential Guard, a military unit awarded special privileges and depended upon to protect the senior officials of the regime. By this move, MRND policy-makers elaborated the hierarchy of militarized manhood among Rwanda's Hutu men. At the same time, they wove ethnicized masculinity ever more tightly into the fabric of both the dominant party and the state. It is not clear what the mothers and wives of the men in the Presidential Guard thought they gained - or lost - when their husbands and sons gained entrance into this special military units. No one yet has systematically investigated - been rigorously curious about - whether, despite the continuing practice of Rwandans to intermarry across ethnicized boundaries, men upon entrance into the Presidential Guard were more than other Hutu men pressed by the regime not to have emotional attachments or sexual liaisons with Tutsi women. But, military wives are more than mere appendages. For instance, Monique Mujawamariya, the courageous human rights advocate, began her own political activism from the unlikely status of a military wife. When her husband, a senior officer, abused her, she left him. Soon after, she founded a battered woman's shelter in Kigali. It was this organizing that prompted her to challenge the regime's ethnocentric authoritative policies, including the use of intimidating militiamen.

The formation of militias was the next step towards militarizing Hutu manhood. The militias were not formally state military units. They were created in 1992 by the leaders of the MRND to serve as armed wings of the dominant political party. These militias became known as the Interhamwe. The name chosen by its creators means "those who attack together." According to the investigators of Human Rights Watch Africa, whose report "Genocide in Rwanda April-May 1994" details the events leading up to the outbreak of a full-scale civil war, the militias were but a handshake away from the state. The Interahamwe depended on the state for guidance and material and were designed to support the regime's hold on the state. Three hundred young men at a time were recruited by the MRND - chiefly from among the unemployed-and sent to training camps run by the government's military officers.

When the stories of atrocities first appeared, the militiamen of the Interahamwe seemed to be the chief culprits, and it was easy for shocked onlookers, including foreign feminists, to think of them as the "undisciplined youth." The regular soldiers thereby got credit for being comparatively more disciplined, less symbolic of distorted masculinity run riot. But such a casually drawn portrait leaves unexamined just how men in the regular military forces, men presumably older, better paid, subjected to more formal training and more elaborate chains of command, actually helped to create and arm and guide the militiamen. As in pre-Aristide Haiti, and Bosnia, the seemingly untamed terrorist form of masculinity represented by armed units outside of the central government may be the product not simply of the male youths themselves, but of their particular interactions with older men, older men with explicit ties to a government.

Human Rights Watch Africa's investigators discovered, furthermore, that the MRND leaders drew self-conscious delineations between different sorts of Hutu men. They seemed to imagine that it was Hutu young men from northern regions of the country who would be most easily molded into militiamen. Male youths in Butare, the southern region of Rwanda, they reasoned, were harder to militarize. Butare was the same region where the ethnically-mixed opposition parties had developed among their strongest followings.

During their three week training period the MRND recruits lived in camps where they were converted into "militiamen." We have yet to uncover exactly what this conversion process entailed or what definitions of militarized, partisanized, ethnicized masculinity were wielded to assure this conversion. Once formed, the militias were not simply assigned to the political party; they were supplied by the military, and military men, as well as government policemen, were assigned to accompany them on their terrorizing operations.

Let us take a step back, however. Recruiting young men often requires militia organizers to persuade the mothers of potential recruits. Women all over the world-from Boston to Liverpool, from Belgrade to Kigali-worry about unemployed sons. Their maternal worries are a resource for military recruiters. Did many women with unemployed sons whom the regime categorized as Hutu feel some relief when recruiters turned up on their doorsteps offering young men posts in the militia? Did most of these women imagine three weeks in the military camps would lead to a "job opportunity"? If any of these Rwandan mothers did, they were not unlike millions of women who have seen encouragement of sons' enlistment in an armed force as fulfilling a maternal responsibility. Governments on every continent try to nurture precisely this sort of militarized maternalism.

Motherhood also was made politically salient in the militarization of Hutu-Tutsi relations by militia trainers who adopted the conventional Rwandan criterion for ethnic belonging. According to New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner, the regime's militiamen selected those to kill in the spring of 1994 according to whether their potential victim's father was of the "right" - politically loyal, trustworthy-ethnic group. A mother from the "right" group was not enough. A mother couldn't insure ethnic identity and, therefore, could not insure political reliability either. It is not that only the militiamen and their trainers believed that a Rwandan was Hutu if her or his father was Hutu; many civilian Rwandans believed this. Rather, it was that the young MRND armed men were trained in a fashion that wove this patriarchal ethnic definition into their deadly operations.

Weaponry is crucial to the creation and maintenance of militarized masculinity. Therefore, whoever supplies rifles, ammunition, vehicles and radios is worthy of our feminist curiosity everywhere, and no less so in Rwanda. Again, it has been investigators for Human Rights Watch who have sought to provide us with answers, although they have remained incurious about the political implications of masculinity. Their January, 1994 report, "Arming Rwanda," describes the flow of weapons to the MRND-controlled army, Presidential Guard and party militias. On the surface, the largest arms supplier in the early 1990s seemed to be the government of Egypt. Digging beneath the surface, Human Rights Watch found that the nationalized bank of France, Credit Lyonnais, made this $6 million arms sale possible by providing Egypt with a crucial bank guarantee. The MRND regime's second major weapons supplier was the then-apartheid regime of South Africa, through the government's arms company, Armscor.

Inter-governmental agreements, including trade arrangements, are greased by gender presumptions. Who is a good risk, who is competitive, who is credible, who can keep a secret, who has access to state elites - these are questions answered in all too many international economic circles with gendered-loaded replies. When the arena is the weapons trade, gender's role in the crafting of complex deals may be even more central.

Thus in mid-1994, when one looked at photographs of Hutu men wielding mortars, automatic rifles, grenades, shoulder-firing rocket launchers and long-rang artillery in a fashion that exuded hyper-masculinity, what one should have mentally airbrushed into each photograph were portraits of Egyptian defense ministry officials, French government bankers and white South African state corporate executives.

The adopted masculinities of each of these three groups of men might appear quite different from that of the recently unemployed, now rifle-toting swaggering young Rwandan militiaman. But it took all four varieties of masculinity-five, if one counts too the masculinity in which MRND male leaders wrapped their own authority-to create the militias and military units which soon thereafter were to wreck havoc on Rwandan society.

Nor are armaments companies non-gendered. According to Jacklyn Cock, author of Women and War in South Africa, by the late 1980s, women had become the majority of all the workers employed by Pretoria's state company Armscor. It is unclear just where in the picture the South African women employees of Armscor should go. What is clear, however, is that leaving them out of the picture would lead us to underestimate how much male-led governments rely on certain functions of femininity when they are sustaining an arms trade that, in turn, sustains particular forms of militarized masculinity. Thus it takes a lot more than merely raw images of manliness to turn an unemployed male youth into an ethnicized, militarized man.

Were all the soldiers rapists?

The men who fought the armed forces of the MRND's regime were organized into the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front's insurgent army. They too had to have their particular masculinity constructed. The process and the ingredients were quite different in some ways than those going into the making of the "Hutu militiaman."

First, most of these Rwandan boys became men while living as refugees in countries neighboring Rwanda. To be a refugee is not a gender-neutral experience, nor is to return home. Women as refugees may have special responsibilities for keeping alive, among the next generation, thoughts of a far away "home." Some women who become refugees take pride in playing this role, and may even see it as patriotic. Men as refugees may be the targets of other men wanting to recruit them into a rebel force capable of returning the entire community to their former home. Women may be pressed to see their mothering as a vehicle for insuring that a refugee boy will want to become a rebel soldier. Some women will accept this definition of refugee-mothering. Others will resist it. A refugee camp in Goma or anywhere can be an intensively political place for women as well as men.

Paul Kagame was one of the thousands of Tutsis who fled Rwanda in 1959. He was a small boy then. He grew up in Uganda as a refugee, a masculinized refugee. Kagame later joined scores of other Rwandan refugees enlisting in Yoweri Museveni's insurgent Ugandan force. When Museveni took over the reins of power in 1986, many of the Rwandan men remained in uniform, now members of Uganda's new military. Being Rwandan and manly, a refugee had become merged into soldiering. But this didn't insure Rwandan-Ugandan friendship. Resentful of what they believed were Rwandan-caused land shortages, gangs of young Ugandan men in the 1980s burned Rwandan houses and killed their cattle. Thus, it was that two quite different forms of Ugandan militarized masculinity-in the army and in armed gangs-resulted by 1990 in enough mobilized refugee Rwandan Tutsi men capable and willing to mount the RPF's rebel military incursion across the border into Rwanda. At the command of these forces was Paul Kagame. By August, 1994, Kagame would be vice president, defense minister and acknowledged chief strategist of a newly installed Rwandan government.

Most observers have been monitoring the ethnic composition of the new government. It needs, as that of all regimes, to be tracked in its evolving gender composition as well. It would not be surprising if the new RPF-led government were disproportionately male, given the masculinized, militarized operation that brought it to power. That is, the gendering of refugee life typically results in the gendering of later political life, when and if those refugees ever are able to return home.

Initial human rights reports suggest that Paul Kagame and the RPF leaders had a policy toward wartime rape unlike that of their MRND counterparts. While Human Rights Watch monitors reported that Hutu men under MRND command had engaged in rape without apparent punishments, New York Times reporter Ramond Bonner described the RPF as having adopted a code of military conduct that set out specific punishments for soldiers who abused civilians. Kagame told Bonner in September of 1994, that "a dozen or more" soldiers had been executed for infringements of this code and that some of those men executed had been charged with rape.

The violence in Rwanda has not stopped. In mid-1994, the new Tutsi-dominated regime was accused by Amnesty International of permitting their soldiers to conduct revenge killings against Hutu civilians. Moreover, there is no definitive record, as yet, of the acts of rape, individually motivated, organizationally condoned or explicitly ordered. We will not have such a record until all Rwandan women and girls feel secure enough and empowered enough to be able to describe publicly what they experienced in the early years of this decade. But it is not impossible to imagine that the Hutu-manned regime's army, the ruling MRND militias and the RPF forces pursued different policies toward the sexual assault on women. It is not impossible precisely because so much else that has caused the politicized and militarized violence between Rwandans has been self-consciously gendered.

Demilitarizing and re-gendering the new Rwanda

On a hot sunny afternoon in October, 1994, a BBC reporter went to a Kigali school yard to watch the making of a new Rwandan police force. Its long range mission was an awesome one: to rebuild trust among citizens torn apart by violence. The United Nations was there playing its role as peace keeper, one it is more and more frequently called upon to play in the post-Cold War world. On this afternoon, a UN official was helping to train the new police force recruits in the art of traffic control. Gasoline and cars were in short supply, so the trainer was himself acting the part of an automobile coming to a dusty intersection. The BBC reporter described the new recruits, these Rwandans who would more than the elites represent the new order in the everyday lives of their country's citizens. They were young men. This seemed completely unremarkable to both the reporter and to the UN recruiters. But it represented an important set of assumptions about demilitarizing politics and rebuilding civil society. Selecting only young men to staff the new police made it unlikely that the relationships between masculinity and social strife would be self-consciously explored by Rwandan policy-makers or their foreign advisers. It also meant that the role of violence against women in the waging of ethnic conflict would not be thoroughly investigated by the new regime. Finally, this masculinized recruitment decision meant that, even if these police officers adopted a mode of behavior very different from that of the MRND militiamen, the political system would continue to associate masculinity with public authority.

In the refugee camps outside Rwanda's borders, the tightly woven rope binding masculinity to militarized public authority appears even less likely to be unraveled. Soldiers and militiamen from the old regime are promising to keep their units intact. And they are trying to recruit new members. Now it is the Hutu mothers' turn to weigh the alternative meanings of refugee maternalism, to decide whether their young sons will be better off, as they grow up away from home, inside or outside a military organization dependent on a particular sort of armed masculinity.

What is going on today in the hot and dusty Kigali school yard and in the refugee camps is no more unfathomable than what was going on ten years ago as the former regime and its opposition made their choices. Now, as then, those choices are fraught with ethnic implications. But they also are profoundly gendered. No inter-communal violence is built merely on the manipulation of ethnic identities. It depends on self-conscious decisions about the constructions of femininity and masculinity. If Rwanda-and Haiti and Sri Lanka and Bosnia and Northern Ireland and the Middle East-are to be remade so that peaceful civil discourse replaces hate filled violence, explicit attention will have to be paid to the politics of gender - not only by local actors, but by those international advisors and donors who claim to be seeking a more peaceful post-Cold War world.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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