Is peace a gender-neutral term? Can peace be tied up in patriarchal fantasies? What is masculinity nostalgia and how does it shape ideals of post-war peace?
Our recent article published in Security Dialogue answers these questions through a case study analysis of Palestinian peace activists. We asked peace activists to talk about how war and occupation might impact their ability to live up to gender norms. One interview in particular stands out for us. When asked about his experiences at checkpoints, a male peace activists told us:
you feel that, OK you can take the humiliation if you are on your own but you don’t want your family or your wife to… see that humiliation or…it affects your ego, it effects your dignity, so you know how it is so especially for men here they feel very proud about their dignity and think maybe macho or something… To destroy the dignity especially of men by even having young girls, female soldiers interrogate you and sometimes humiliate you at checkpoints. (Interviewee 6)
For us, this interview illustrates the complex way that war and occupation not only cause trauma and humiliation, but cause particular forms of stress related to gender norms. For this man, the humiliation of checkpoints was made worse when his family was there to witness and when young female soldiers performed interrogations. The interviewee went on to explain that both these factors exacerbate the humiliation because they thwart his ability to perform his expected role as a father, protector, and leader of the family.
Through this and other interviews, we observed how war and occupation- particularly checkpoints, changes to the local economy, the presence of occupying forces, and loss of land- can disrupt and produce new gender norms. We were particularly interested in civilian masculinities and the ways in which masculinities might be impacted by conflict and insecurity. The goal was not to downplay or trivialise the very real everyday forms of violence and oppression experienced by men and women in Palestine. We were also not attempting to create a new typology of military masculinities, or assuming that expressions of masculinity nostalgia are fixed categories that will remain relevant for all time. Our main goal was to listen to civilian men how map how they see war and occupation impacting their gender identities.
Perhaps the most interesting finding- to us- was that male peace activists saw war and occupation as limiting their ability to fulfil their ‘traditional’ gender roles as fathers, breadwinners, and landowners. For them, peace was not only about the absence of war, but also about them returning to what they saw as their rightful place as head of the household, primary breadwinner, and patriarchal leader. Peace is often defined simply as the absence of war or as a gender-neutral and positive ideal. However, some ideals of peace and security assume and are dependent upon ‘the return’ of men to their presumed rightful places at the head of households and as economic providers. In turn, masculinity nostalgia emphasizes the ways that yearnings for peace and security can be interwoven with yearnings for patriarchal gendered orders.
These interviews helped us to develop the concept of masculinity nostalgia. Nostalgia is generally understood as a longing for the past, or for a set of relationships and experiences associated with the past. Masculinity nostalgia mythologizes peace as a time of patriarchal power, authority, and gender certainty. Masculinity nostalgia is both the yearning for an idealized, secure and peaceful time in which gender roles were presumed to have been clear and uncontested, and a quest for the loss of patriarchal power and gender authority that is associated with insecurity, war and occupation. We argue that gender norms and identities are often impossible ideals that individuals- even in peacetime- struggle to live up to. Masculinity nostalgia seemed almost like a coping mechanism. It allowed men and women to idealise peace as a time when finally- one might be able to successfully perform masculinity.
Conflict and occupation have altered the economic and political environment in the West Bank. Checkpoints, significant changes in industry and economic relations, and migration and displacement have all impacted daily life for Palestinians. Our research shows that these fluctuations in daily life, impact men and women’s capacity to perform and live up to gender norms and ideals. In particular, men are finding it increasingly difficult to perform masculine models of fatherhood, land owners, and breadwinners. These shifts create a particularly perplexing situation: at the same time as it has becomes ever more impossible to perform models of masculinity, there are continued expressions of masculinity nostalgia for these very models of masculinity. In other words, there is both a lamenting of one’s inability to perform masculine ideals coupled with a yearning for these very ideals. The most unique findings of our research are the ways that masculinity nostalgia associates peace, security, and the ‘return to normal’ with men’s ability to reclaim their presumed rightful place in society. This ‘rightful place’ is understood as a time and place where men are in control of both the domestic and national sphere; as the ultimate benefactors of patriarchy. Therefore, masculinity nostalgia emphasizes the ways that yearnings for peace and security can be interwoven with yearnings for patriarchal gendered orders.