Is There a Strategic Advantage to Political Invisibility?

Dr. Selina Gallo-Cruz, College of the Holy Cross

Published on: March 17, 2021

Photo Credit: Vesna Pavlović

The Circle (The Third International Conference “Network of Women’s Solidarity Against War” held in Novi Sad in August 1994.)

In my recently published book, I argue that for marginalized actors in repressive regimes, there is.

When women’s movements confront the phenomenon of women’s political invisibility, they usually focus on its harmful effects, and for good reason. To gain inclusion into the polity, one needs to be accorded social regard, relevance, and respect and to be recognized as worthy of equal rights.

From their experiences of marginalization, women have made unique contributions to nonviolent organizing that have expanded activists’ thinking about the possible relationships between process and outcome. In most of these movements, women are fighting for the right to be recognized and respected. But some women’s movements navigate a paradoxical dynamic between women’s political invisibility and their strategic opportunities.

In Political Invisibility and Mobilization: Women against State Violence in Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Liberia, I explore three women’s peace movements that mobilized during periods of violence and repression that illustrate that process. Although these conflicts unfolded out of distinct political histories and played out in unique cultural arenas, in each case women fighting for an end to state violence experienced a comparable dynamic—the perpetrators of violence laughed at them, derided them, or disregarded them altogether as irrelevant to the real political conflict, not bothering to crack down on their activism.

In Argentina in the late 1970s, at the height of the military junta’s “dirty war” against suspected subversives, the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo were demonstrating in front of the presidential mansion and meeting with everyone from the Military Vicar to foreign journalists, the Argentine Cardinal at the Vatican, and US Senator Ted Kennedy, along with any NGOs that would take up their cause of seeking justice for their “disappeared” children. They took these bold actions all while their compatriots who had been labeled as subversives were being arrested, detained, tortured, and killed by the thousands. Yet, with one early and tragic exception, the Madres were not themselves subjected to violent repression.

In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as then-President of Serbia Slobodan Milošević was mobilizing forces to wage attacks against secessionist movements and the ethnic minorities targeted as state enemies, the Women in Black were mobilizing in turn—helping to hide men from the draft, demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade to publicize the horrors of the wars and to call for an end to the violence, and supporting victims of war in refugee camps and throughout the countryside while expanding their resistance internationally through feminist and human rights networks. Although they were denigrated by some politicians as unwomanly and disloyal to Serbia, on occasion even assaulted by angry fellow citizens, the state never launched a violent effort to silence them.

And in Liberia in 2003, as rebels opposed to then-President Charles Taylor were circling in on the capital city of Monrovia , in a vicious standoff culminating over a decade of violence and civil war in which hundreds of thousands had already been killed, members of the women’s peace movement were taking decisive action to end the conflict. For years, they had been advocating for peace—joining diplomatic talks (often without invitation), holding demonstrations, even standing in front of tanks. During this final standoff, they went to the international peace talks in Accra. After weeks of sit-in protests at the conference building, the women formed a blockade and compelled the mostly male leaders to come up with a final agreement to end the war. As in Argentina and the former Yugoslavia, despite the women’s defiant protests against powerful actors, they had remained largely free from direct repression in response.

These stories of women’s resistance in the face of political disregard and disrespect are important not only because in each case, women displayed remarkable courage, nor because, at times, they represented the only effective resistance to power, but also because these movements exemplify the significance of how we see, and sometimes fail to see, who is relevant to the resolution of political conflicts. In Political Invisibility and Mobilization, I develop a theoretical framework for thinking about how marginalization often leads to political invisibility, which, in periods of heightened conflict and repression, can prove unexpectedly favorable for mobilizing within free spaces and for shifting efforts from one political field to another—in these cases, from the local to the international fields—where resisters may find respect and new resources for their cause.

These women’s engagements with the repertoire of nonviolence cannot simply be tacked onto the typical storyline of male heroism. Nonviolence works differently for different actors and in different contexts. The behind-the-scenes work that women peacemakers so often do is a crucial source of power for movements, even though others—regimes and fellow organizers alike—commonly fail to see it. And scholars should note that in each of these fields of political struggle, the long histories of stratification imprinted themselves onto unfolding conflicts; in our studies of peace and social movements, of conflict and change, we should pay close attention to these legacies to better understand the patterns of relationality that shape the dynamics of violence and resistance.

Selina Gallo-Cruz is Associate Professor of Sociology and Peace and Conflict Studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is also currently a Visiting Professor in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.