Traumatic histories: the ethics of research in conflict zones

Academics investigating militarism and war must explore their own assumptions as well as those of their societies, event hears

June 28, 2017
Woman grieving at funeral with coffin
Source: Reuters

Researching war and other traumatic historical events can raise many methodological, ethical and emotional issues for academics.

An event titled “War, Gender, Memory: Feminist Scholars in Conversation”, organised by the University of East London earlier this month, heard from four researchers about the dilemmas that they had faced and tried to overcome.

Nadje Al-Ali, professor of gender studies at Soas, University of London, described her work “documenting and narrating gendered memories of war and violence in the context of Iraq, and, more recently, Turkey and the Turkey-Kurdish conflict”.

Taking time to build rapport with respondents was often essential, she said. On one occasion, she went to interview 12 Iraqi women in a restaurant and the first question she was asked was: “How do we know you’re not a Baathist spy?” It took several meetings to gain their trust.

In general, Professor Al-Ali said, “the more we give in terms of time and intersubjective experience, the more we get back”. When interviewing women about their memories, she initially “often got the official script”, and it was only later that “they shared experiences that diverged from and sometimes challenged it”. But, although she “tended to engage, question and challenge the women I talked to”, this could sometimes lead to difficulties. When an Iraqi told her that only Shia had been tortured under Saddam Hussein, she had felt obliged to object – only for the woman to remove her shirt and show her scars as “evidence”. When a Turkish interviewee claimed that stories about human rights abuses against Kurds were untrue, she had again challenged her, but “this didn’t go down well and she didn’t want to talk to me any more”.

Several speakers stressed the need for researchers to keep interrogating their own preconceptions as well as other people’s.

Maja Korac-Sanderson, reader in refugee and migration studies at UEL, said that she had been “a feminist anti-war activist” in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and saw her research as driven by “personal, academic and political” issues. Her generation had achieved some notable victories, such as the recognition of rape as a war crime (although only when “systematic” and “a conscious tool of war”). Yet they had largely failed to acknowledge “how men are victimised by hegemonic conceptions of masculinity” or to speak out about “the gender-based sexual violence against men” that was “systematic across all the so-called detention centres” in former Yugoslavia. Failure to do so represented “a missed opportunity for demanding more radical challenges of the patriarchal state systems of gender-power relations that discriminate against both women and many men”.

Ayşe Gül Altınay, professor of anthropology at Sabancı University in Istanbul, addressed the conference via Skype because she had been unable to obtain a visa to leave Turkey. She, too, urged delegates to reflect on their own blind spots.

She had attended university, she explained, at a time of ferocious fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK forces, when “the mountains of my childhood had turned into a war zone. I had no idea whether my primary school friends had become soldiers, village guards or guerrillas, or were still able to live in their houses and villages. In my political science and international relations classes, there was little mention of the ongoing war.” After studying in the US, therefore, she returned to Istanbul to “conduct a historical ethnography of militarism in Turkey”.

This research, Professor Altınay went on, was “conducted from 1997 to 2003 under difficult circumstances, with threats of police surveillance and legal investigation”. The resulting book, The Myth of the Military-Nation: Militarism, Gender, and Education in Turkey, challenged much received wisdom about military service and conscientious objection. It was only in retrospect that Professor Altınay noticed a significant omission, namely that “the genocide of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was addressed only in a footnote”. Although she therefore began to investigate hidden Armenian history, it was not until 2015 that she took a further step and “started asking about the legacies of the genocide in my own family” and “articulating my positionality as the great-granddaughter of a perpetrator”. Facing up to their own “incoherences” and “academic and non-academic complicity”, she concluded, could only help researchers to understand the behaviour of others.

Andrea Peto, professor of gender studies at the Central European University in Hungary, examined “the memory politics of illiberal regimes”. The end of communism in 1989 had led many in Hungary to challenge traditional “communist historiography”. What she called “the second transition”, which started with the linked financial, security and migration crises around 2008, had led to attacks on her institution. It also produced “a state supporting a particular kind of remembrance”, as could be seen clearly in the ways that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is now commemorated.

Although there is greater acknowledgement of the presence of women in the abortive revolt, the emphasis tended to be on “women in caring positions” or ”women as members of the family” without any agency of their own. Ilona Tóth, a leading figure who was executed at the age of 25, had been turned on billboards into an iconic “angel with nice make-up”. Interviews often followed “stock narratives”, with women talking about getting involved in the rebellion “because of fathers or partners, and not about what it meant for them”.

In one of her own projects, Professor Peto tried to interview women who had left the country after 1956. If their husbands happened to answer the phone, they would often say “I was also a migrant in 1956” or “My wife is not at home”, so she had been forced to rely on “conspiratorial meetings in cafes or cultural centres” to get the interviews that she wanted.

There were also issues about how research gets used. At the end of the 1990s, Professor Peto had looked into the largely taboo issue of women raped by Red Army soldiers at the end of the Second World War. Few others had been interested in pursuing her work at the time, but it was now “much cited by far-Right commentators”.

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