Pénélope Larzillière, leader of the working group Women and violence with a gendered approach: MENA region and diaspora is a social scientist, research fellow at the Institute for Research on Development (Paris), and associate fellow at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (Paris). Her research focuses thematically on political commitment, activism, narratives and ideologies, including extreme forms of repertoires of violence and action. She has carried out extensive field research in the Middle East (Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon).

Your work looks at political engagement and militancy in the Middle East. How do you perceive current evolutions in this militancy, in relation to violence?

Political violence is indeed reflected in militancy and political engagement in the Middle East. A violence of coercion and repression: this is the case of militancy in an authoritarian regime or in a coercive environment. And when we reconstruct the trajectories of militants of different political leanings, the relation to their first experiences of political violence – during checkpoint crossings, to take a Palestinian example – is very striking. Violence is also brought about through actions initiated by militant organisations.

Nevertheless, the violence of these contexts should not undermine the militancy and political engagement in these countries. The Arab uprisings brought into focus other types of action, which were not new, but which never made the news: strikes and demonstrations, and more recently, the occupation of public space. We may also note the importance of protest art. The actions of artists were particularly visible during these uprisings. They helped create messages and symbols for the revolutionary experience; they helped construct shared meanings for these movements and make them visible beyond the Arab world.

But the Arab uprisings also gave a fresh perspective on how difficult it can be to conduct such actions in the face of particularly violent repression, with Syria offering another tragic example.

What place do women hold in militant organisations? Are there any specific characteristics?

Gender constructions influence militancy, less so with regard to the political aims displayed than with the place of women in militant actions. Certain transversal themes emerge in the discourse of militant women, such as the struggle against political authoritarianism, oppression, occupation or imperialism. But that is a general panorama; priorities of course vary depending on the organisation and country. However, and this is not specific to the Arab world, within organisations female militants find it particularly difficult to have their struggle and participation recognised as equal to that of men, and to rise within the organisation’s hierarchy. Female branches of organisations are often considered separately, especially in Islamist organisations, as dealing primarily with “women’s affairs”: education, assistance and charity, for example. And feminist struggles face particular challenges. While links are made between struggles to improve the situation of women and struggles for political emancipation, priorities are in fact defined, especially in the case of nationalist struggles. Debates take place: does a feminist agenda reinforce or, on the contrary, weaken the national cause in the short term? Moreover, the way in which the situation of women in the Arab world has been used as an argument for foreign interventions, and is associated with a neo-orientalist imaginary, does not benefit these struggles.

What about the relationship to violence?

Gender construction also plays a part in various ways. Like men, women endure a context of political oppression and violence, but they also specifically experience gender-based violence which pervades society: domestic violence, harassment, rape, etc. And gender constructions also bring to light the “taboo” of female violence, in the sense that women are seen above all as victims of conflict. When female activists engage in violent action, it is considered to be doubly transgressive: a transgression of political violence, especially when it is an extreme form of violence, and a transgression of gender identity. Therefore, reconsidering the relationship between violence and gender construction means addressing the issue of violence against women, but also the less-discussed topic of women who are the actors of violence, and above all the relationship between violence and gender construction in the context of conflicts, with the corresponding representations: women as victims, or “peace-loving” and promoters of peace, and militarised masculinities.