In 2001, after finishing her undergraduate degree in journalism and political science, Siobhan Byrne went to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz. She wanted to see more of the Middle East before she embarked on a career in international journalism that she imagined would focus largely on that part of the world. What she saw not only changed her perspective, it changed the course of her career.
“I didn’t even know how to begin to think about the things I was seeing,” remembers Byrne. “You would have these Arab villages along the same stretch of the beautiful Mediterranean as Tel Aviv, where people were living in really poor conditions. Mandatory conscription meant that you saw teenagers in military fatigues ride the bus to and from their maneuvers. I realized it wasn’t something I could cover as a journalist — day-to-day life in a militarized society and the structural inequalities that produce such disparities between communities.”
Instead, Byrne returned to Canada to do an MA in political science, focusing on Palestinian national identity. Through that research, and drawing on her own Irish identity, she began to think about the parallels between Israel/Palestine and Northern Ireland. The two conflict zones have figured in her career ever since.
Today Byrne is an assistant professor specializing in gender, conflict and security in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. She is currently working on a book she hopes to publish in 2016 that focuses on feminist peace groups in Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine—their emergence, growth and demise.
Byrne explains that women played an important role in both conflicts by working across ethnonational divisions and building bridges. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, for example, comprised both Catholics and Protestants and played an important role in the peace negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But the group dissolved after failing to win seats in subsequent elections. In Israel and Palestine, the deepening of the occupation and Israel’s construction of the West Bank Wall were some of the many factors leading to the breakdown of women’s groups. The Wall made it much more difficult for women to meet and harder for the relationships to persist.
This role of women in conflict and peace runs throughout Byrne’s work. In a new project with Allison McCulloch at Brandon University, Byrne examines gender, peace and power-sharing in political transitions. The two want to find ways to bring together two norms in conflict resolution: the “women, peace and security” stream, which aims to include women in all stages of the process, and “power-sharing,” which focuses on the leaders of the main ethnonational groups, usually with the exclusion of women. In other research, Byrne looks at the U.S. –based feminist peace activist group CODEPINK.
So why the overarching interest in gender during conflict? Byrne explains that conflict zones are hyper-masculinized spaces, where men are expected to join resistance movements or to serve the nation as soldiers. In war, such service is considered the most honourable way to be a man. “It is difficult to challenge these expectations,” she says. “The hope is that in a peace zone there is an opportunity to dismantle those militarized notions of masculinity that are damaging to both men and women.”