Familial ties as a gendered relationality in civil war

Family as a social institution is entangled with the aims of war and is profoundly transformed by violence

Hanna Ketola

This is a summary of the theoretical framework for understanding familial ties as a gendered relationality in civil war. The article was originally published in Civil Wars as part of a Special Issue edited by Jenny Hedström.

In what ways is family militarised in civil war? How to understand familial ties as configured in relation to violence? This article develops a theoretical understanding of familial ties as a distinct form of gendered relationality in civil war. It illustrates first, how family as a social institution is entangled with military and political aims in ways that sustain and legitimise war, and second, how familial ties are not merely militarised but also emergent from and profoundly transformed by violence. The argument advances the theorisation of social ties in civil wars by offering a feminist rethinking of the familial domain.

Family as militarised: Entanglements

Scholarship on civil wars increasingly recognises family as a key social institution enabling and sustaining war. Familial ties are understood as part of the broader quotidian relations that are key to processes of mobilisation, organisation, and sustaining of armed groups. Yet, what goes missing in the current scholarship is the key feminist insight that these are not just any social or quotidian ties but ties that are constructed and enacted in familial terms. That is, these are ties that are constituted in relation to family as a social institution and thus militarised in specific, gendered ways. This first aspect of my argument builds on feminist theories of militarisation as a social process that is geared towards normalising war and is enacted in the everyday. I conceptualise family as a gendered social institution and then use this conceptualisation to illuminate the ‘entanglements’ between family and military and political aims to show how such entanglements are key to legitimisation and sustaining of civil wars.

Familial ties: Configured in relation to violence

The second aspect of my argument develops a framing of familial ties as affective bonds and attachments that are emergent from and transformed through war’s violence. I explore the insight that these are not just in familial ties, but ties configured in relation to violence. To do so, I build on feminist theories that conceptualise violence as transformative of subjects in their relations to others (e.g. Baines 2016). These accounts examine processes of subject formation in relation to violence by foregrounding the vulnerability of bodies and the ways in which violence can both generate and undo our attachments to others. It is this theoretical move that allows me to conceptualise the generative and transformative relationship between war’s violence and familial ties in novel ways.

To substantiate my theoretical argument, I discuss narratives of women activists engaged in a victims’ movement, mobilising around enforced disappearances in Nepal. These narratives, emerging from my field research in 2013 illustrate how familial ties are not merely shattered but also emergent from and transformed by war’s violence. I highlight how the women crafted new affective ties through their activism and how these ties were expressed in familial terms. At the same time, the specific practices attached to these ties – such as advocating for others and investing in the lives of others – are a crucial part of how the women mobilised and sustained their struggle. The ‘victims’ work’, as the women often called it, brings into being – generates – new affective ties that are intimately connected to experiences of violence. Yet, I also show how the embodied processes of cultivating ties need to be situated in relation to the broader societal norms that constitute ‘family’ – norms that may also be reconfigured through militarised violence, in this context through enforced disappearances.  

Implications for civil war legacies

I argue that to understand the legacies of civil wars, we need to explore both – the everyday practices through which embodied and affective attachments emerge and are cultivated (such as the victims’ work) and the broader transformations in social norms around family that civil wars set in motion (including through processes of militarisation) that condition the evolvement of these affective bonds. When this intertwining of ties and war’s violence is conceptually captured, it becomes possible to ask different kinds of questions about the aftermaths of civil wars, or indeed the long-term legacies of violence and of ties.