On Wednesday, Feb. 4, Visiting Research Professor at the Colin Powell Center for Global and Civic Leadership at City College New York, Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, gave a lecture entitled “Understanding the Female Fighter: Women in ISIS.” Gowrinathan is an expert on gender and violence and is also the creator of deviarchy.com. The website explains that the term “deviarchy” draws on the symbol of the goddess Devi as embodying both the strength and the consciousness to challenge multiple forms of rule. The website features artwork and writing that aims to understand the experiences in and around conflict that leave a mark on women’s emotional, physical and political selves.
Gowrinathan is currently directing the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative at her home institution. She is also the Executive Producer of the Vice News Women in/at War Series. She has recently been the Gender Expert for the United Nations Human Development Report on Afghanistan and a policy consultant and analyst for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the International Crisis Group, analyzing gender inclusion in peace building and women’s insecurities in conflict zones.
Gowrinathan has lived and worked in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, where she supported community-based organizations while serving as Director of South Asia Programs at Operation U.S.A. She has published articles for Foreign Affairs, Huffington Post, World Policy Institute and gawker.com, among others, where she has examined the impact of militarization, displacement and sexual violence on women’s political identities.
Her most recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The Women of ISIS,” examines the political identities of women in violent movements. Gowrinathan is also interested in the overlapping discourses of civilian agency and a critique of humanitarian aid and intervention, and has hosted conferences drawing together scholars and practitioners to broadly examine the politics of aid as well as address more specific issues like reimagining refugee camps.
On her website, deviarchy.com, Dr. Gowrinathan says, “I have tried, and continued to try, to take the lived experiences of women and insert them into multiple discourses and dialogues—highlighting insights with the potential to shift perspectives and policies.” She goes on to assert, “As a writer I have drawn on women’s stories to challenge perceptions in academic and policy spaces, while pulling out the richness of their narratives in nonfiction writings” (deviarchy.com, “About Nimmi”).
In “Understanding the Female Fighter,” Dr. Gowrinathan aims to answer the question as to why women would choose to join a political struggle, that oppresses them. She articulates that such a question reveals a certain set of assumptions about women, that they are not only inherently more peaceful than men, but also that women who participate in armed rebellions like those of ISIS are working toward a dead end because the movement’s goals, if achieved, will not benefit them.
Gowrinathan asserts that these assumptions prove to be false when considering the women of ISIS. She goes on to portend that, “If policymakers overlook such motivations, treating female fighters as nothing more than instruments of male leadership, they will find it difficult to prevent female extremism. As Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, wrote in a recent op-ed, countering radical narratives requires understanding the radicalized” (Foreign Affairs, “The Women of ISIS: Understanding and Combating Female Extremism,” 08.21.14).
Gowrinathan was first invited to speak this week by professor of history at Dutchess Community College and current president of the World Affairs Council of the Mid-Hudson Valley (WACMHV), Dr. Andrew Rieser. WACMHV is a non-partisan, non-profit organization serving Dutchess, Ulster and Orange Counties. The council was founded in 2003 but is part of the World Affairs Council of America based in Washington, D.C. that was founded in 1918. WACMHV organizes about six or seven free, public lectures per year.
Rieser spoke about his connection with Gowrinathan: “I first learned about Dr. Gowrinathan when I was looking for panelists for last September’s ‘Slavery Today’ event at Dutchess Community College, which focused on the scourge of human trafficking. A colleague provided me with her name, and she was an outstanding panelist. We asked her to give a talk at Vassar on topics related to the ‘Women of Isis,’ the title of her latest article in Foreign Affairs magazine. We’re fortunate to have her.”
The lecture will be co-sponsored by the Poughkeepsie Branch of the American Association of University Women, the Department of Political Science, the International Studies Program and the Women’s Studies Program.
Gowrinathan has been a fairly frequent guest in many Vassar classrooms, including a Political Science seminar, “Political Violence in Comparative Perspective,” where she spoke about her research on women in conflict zones and also shared her reflections with students about working in international NGOs. Chair of the Political Science Department Katherine Hite wrote in an emailed statement about the upcoming lecture: “Given the interest and saliency of the topic and Dr. Gowrinathan’s expertise, I imagine her lecture will draw a sizable audience on Wednesday.”