Luce Irigaray and the Women Movement of Liberia: Female Subjectivity Changing a War Monoculture into a Culture of Intersubjectivity

(Or Luce Irigaray and Female Subjectivity Applied to Dismantle Savage Male Monocultures)

By Vrinda Pujals

[Essay first submitted as requirement for course “Luce Irigaray: Feminist Philosopher” with Prof. Charlene Spretnak, Women’s Spirituality Program, CIIS]


Creating cultures of intersubjectivity… feeling, connecting and loving Life til natural causes do us apart

It is very unlikely that women who have succeeded in asserting female subjectivity even in the midst of wars of genocide, carnage, and crimes against humanity have read Luce Irigaray on subjectivity and intersubjectivity. However, these women have successfully applied Irigaray’s vision for dissolving male monoculture. In this brief essay I will discuss examples of women who have connected with their primal subjectivity and applied Irigaray’s ethics of sexuate difference by entering into a dialogue of intersubjectivity with different levels of the most destructive patriarchal systems against women and children—war as a system where men engage in human butchery and where rape and massacres are used as a weapon of war. These women have passionately and efficiently engaged in female subjectivity during the most challenging conditions one can imagine: from the bowels of war. This essay draws inspiration from the PBS documentary Women, War and Peace.[1] The five-part documentary series reports on the work of women in four countries, which spans four continents; a project including all these will not be possible in this brief essay.

The women of Liberia transformed a whole nation. I choose to concentrate on Pray the Devil Back to Hell—women power in the peace movement and the reconstruction of Liberia. In this essay I also hope to awaken in the reader the curiosity to view Women, War and Peace and perhaps the desire to learn more about the victories of the women of Bosnia, Afro-Colombian women and Afghan women.

I would like to draw attention to how women in Liberia have applied their empowering subjectivity by engaging in revolutionary, dynamic relational and artistic ways of  communication, while creating a movement that brought women from the margins to the center of the discourse on armed conflict and peace resolution, to the point of attracting international support and attention. The women of Liberia offer us one of the most compelling examples of how women asserted their subjectivity in the middle of an atrocious human slaughter called civil war, which lasted more than fourteen years in Liberia. Their movement led to the re-education of the patriarchal monoculture, leading to a culture of intersubjectivity for the whole nation. Though internal conflict had been fermenting for almost a decade, civil war erupted in Liberia in 1989 and it lasted until 2003. Close to a quarter-of-a-million people, mostly women and children were killed, and according to The Economist, “the country was destroyed.”[2] For example, “Rebel soldiers played soccer with human skulls… created forms of torture unheard of before, like slicing open the stomachs of pregnant women, taking bets on the sex of the unborn child.”[3] It was under these conditions that Leymah Gbowee spoke one day before her church congregation and inspired Christian and Muslim women unite in protest against the war and demand that there be peace. Her ability to convey female subjectivity to those who listened and joined her eventually led to the creation of a new language. Like Irigaray, they probably asked themselves, “We come back to the problem of knowing which language will win out over the others,”[4]  even as we speak on the terms of “a subjectivity in the feminine”[5] in which women could envision, create several ways or languages  manifesting intersubjectivity at the same time, these were initial sparks to dissolve Liberian male monoculture. Their contribution is a significant model for women in other countries where conflict is present, now that rape and the slaughter of women is encouraged as a military strategy and as “efficient weapon of war.”[6]

War is the epitome of male objectivity and male monoculture—and the total control of women—the notion that “problems begin with woman,”[7] a sense that “women do not exist,”[8] or the absence of “a culture of two subjects.”[9] Gbowee demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that women were the solution. In an impassioned interview she explained, “… There is nothing in my mind that would make people do what they did to the children of Liberia.” The recognition of what is unacceptable from subjective experience can connect us with our differences, and it “is a source of fecundity, not only physical but also cultural, spiritual.”[10] Therefore, I suggest that according to the premises proposed by Luce Irigaray, war is an absolute negation and annihilation of female subjectivity.

Reports on war from The Youth Advocate Program indicate that “today 80 to 90% of the casualties are civilian women and children. From 1986 to 1996 alone, over 2 million children were killed in armed conflicts, and over 6 million were seriously injured.”[11] In another source of empirical data, the UNICEF report on the “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” states, “In the past decade, around 2 million children have been killed in armed conflict.”[12] How can marginalized women situate their efforts at intersubjectivity in a more visible position? In situations of imminent danger, the women of Liberia came together in a discourse of female intrasubjectivity never seen before. Few issues arouse more intense reactions in women than that which affects home, security, love, peace and the future of the family.

One day in 2002 when Leymah Gbowee was five months pregnant, she decided that she and her 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son had had enough of the war in Liberia. She describes how on days where the explosion of artillery was unbearable, she and her children would walk for 7 hours to get to her parent’s home. She describes it was “hell on earth.” It all began when Charles Taylor rose to power in 1989, at that time he took total control over the finances, including the gold and diamond trade of Liberia. Taylor also formed units of small boys, ages 9-15, and fed them drugs to secure absolute obedience. He had a private army called the “Anti-Terrorist Unit”—how ironic and, unfortunately, somewhat familiar to women in the US—and the whole country lived in fear.

In the early part of 2002 Gbowee, a social worker by profession, had a dream. In the dream she heard someone insisting, “Get the women of the Church together to pray for peace.” One day she addressed the full congregation at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Monrovia, saying, “We are tired… we don´t want to do this alone. We want to invite all other Christian churches to come and let’s put our voices together.” At this moment Gbowee’s voice expressed every woman’s urge for female subjectivity in war-torn Liberia. Soon Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Director of Liberian National Police—the only Muslim woman in the church that day—and Gbowee started a movement, and what would become the “Christian Women’s Peace Initiative” consisting of ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters. This was the beginning of a movement that emerged from women’s solidarity, and from it a new language of female intersubjectivity reached every corner of Liberia.

At this moment in history, the women of Liberia began to assert female subjectivity. But, to better understand the meaning of intersubjectivity, let me explain what Luce Irigaray meant by subjectivity and the subject? In Speculum of the Other Woman, Irigaray states, “Any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine.”[13] Lacking a communication of intersubjectivity, women and mothers have managed by using what Luce Irigaray calls “double subjectivity.”[14] This is necessary, she explains, because of the urge “that I exit the prison of a single discourse…”[15] for inviting an intimate dialogue with the other about a need for urgent change. How have the women in Liberia come to apply Irigaray’s theory of subjectivity and intersubjectivity? How is the vision of Luce Irigaray also being lived by women in villages and jungles of Colombia, and in Afghanistan? Irigaray’s powerful philosophical program can find examples in the experience of female subjectivity being enacted in the remotest corners of the world. One may say that it has reached other women from within, even spontaneously, as the wind carries fragrance. Perhaps the questions should be how Luce Irigaray, a scholar far removed from war-torn areas, created a philosophy that speaks directly to and connects with women in situations of conflict and imminent danger?

Gbowee later relates, “Seeing women who had lost everything and still had hope… I think that is how I got baptized into the women’s movement.” As the women began to mobilize in a way that was impossible for the government to ignore, Charles Taylor went to church, and the leadership of LURD, guerrilla warlords, went to the mosque. How can these men be religious? Then the women escalated their efforts and intersubjectivity skills: they began to pressure their pastors, bishops, and Muslim imams to pressure their leaders to make peace.

On April 2003 the war intensified, and the women met at the church declaring a need to act in more “forceful, dramatic and effective ways.” Then they decided to mobilize in public protest. Intersubjectivity is not a passive function, and the women of Liberia demonstrated how to escalate the power of female subjectivity to engage the male monoculture of war in intersubjectivity even as they pretended to turn a deaf ear to them. They were also emboldened to take this new language of female subjectivity to the radio. In radio announcements they declared, “Are you sick and tired of war? Come join us at the fish market for a rally organized by the women of Liberia.” And the announcements continued, even the color of their t-shirts and their headdress became part of the language of peace and female subjectivity, “We wear plain white clothes… as a sign that we want peace.” The fish market was a well thought strategic site, Taylor and his entourage passed that road every day—language in a strategic site.

Thousands of women gathered at the fish market with banners like “The women of Liberia want Peace Now.” To their display of valor Taylor replied in the usual tone of arrogant patriarchal monoculture, the self-appointed “right” to kill, “Women may go to the street and embarrass themselves, but nobody will gather in the streets to embarrass my administration.” Some women feared the worst. One woman told her aged mother who was taking care of her children, “If I get killed… Just remember mom, that I was fighting for peace.” The valor of these women was a testament to thousands of women empowered by female subjectivity. Over 2,500 women kept coming to line up under the hot sun chanting, “We want peace.” One day, Taylor’s convoy passed and slowed down but did not stop.

As women continued their rally at the fish market they were getting to know one another, weaving stronger bonds of female intersubjectivity, and empathizing with one another. Another strategy that the leaders of the movement suggested was for the women to engage in a sex strike if their husbands were not supportive. By encouraging other women to assert power over their bodies the bonds of intersubjectivity groew stronger. The leaders shared, “You have a power as a woman, and that power is to deny the man your sex. And when they ask why you are denying him, you ask them to exert any power they have to put an end to the war.” In this way, the women of Liberia asserted in another strategy in nonverbal communication to negotiate with men in terms of female subjectivity aimed at dissolving the monoculture of war. The women of Liberia continued creating a new feminist discourse meant to communicate at very personal, intimate levels. In this way they held made many men who were not participating in the war accountable, and guilty by omission, if they did not collaborate with the women to stop this war.

As women advance in an ideology and ethics revolution, the conflict took a turn for the worse. However, there was an international call for peace talks, the world was watching. Meanwhile, Taylor and the warlords refuse to come to the peace table. “At this point the tone of the women changed, “Now we are demanding, we are no longer appealing.”  The leader of the male monoculture of war crimes, Charles Taylor, could no longer ignore them, so he finally decided to meet with the women at the presidential mansion on April 23, 2003.

On April 11, 2003 the women headed by Leymah Gbowee presented the “Women of Liberia Position Statement on the Liberian Crisis” to Taylor. Formal peace negotiations started in Ghana. The language of female subjectivity in the case of Liberian women, excluded the possibility of being seen as politicians (because they could be prosecuted) they succeeded in manifesting a major public event which was a major success on on intersubjectivity. Again Irigaray comes to mind, “only when women insist on the integrity of their own spaces of embodiment can love become the basis of a revolution in ethics.”[16]

Taylor agrees to the women’s demands to go to the Peace Talks in Ghana. On that day the male monoculture began to be successfully dismantled by a female culture of intersubjectivity. In Accra, Ghana, on June 4, 2003: Gbowee and a group of Liberian women refugees went to Ghana; they expected it would be for about two weeks. Taylor, a group of Liberian warlords, plus several African dignitaries and heads of state were present. Unexpectedly, as he sat in the peace talks in Ghana, news broke that Charles Taylor had been indicted on war crimes. Taylor flees to Liberia a wanted man, while his delegation is left behind to decide Liberia´s fate… still in the hands of a criminal male monoculture.

Unfortunately, a full fledged war breaks  out in Liberia even as the Peace Talks continue in Ghana. Women peacebuilders remained in Accra extremely worried about the fate of their families. Meanwhile the Peace Talks were stalling. While women subjectivity centered on peace, the government representatives of Liberia’s discourse remained centered on power, jobs, positions and the control of the resources. For them it was all about who got to be the Minister of Justice, who got to be the Minister of Finance… so he could steal!

All along, women in Liberia continued gathering at the Fish Market every day, as the Peace Talks continued. There they fasted, prayed, while the looting and the raping continued. After six weeks, the Peace Talks still centered on male monoculture, and were going nowhere. As Gbowee suggested, “Some of the war lords came from poverty striken areas and were living their dream life at the peace talks. They were behaving like men in vacation.” July 21, 2003, Leymah Gbowee and the rest of the women were running impatient and angry knowing that while they represented peace for Liberia, their own children back home were in constant danger and experiencing hunger.

In a brilliant stroke of genius Leymah called for the women to assemble  inside the Peace Hall, blocking the door inside the building and loop arms with one another. This was another bold strategy intensifying an embodied language of female intrasubjectivity. Shortly after that a security guard told her, “You are obstructing justice!” She describes how, for her, this was the last straw. Gbowee shares that the word justice coming from this man triggered the most effective rage from within her. As the guard threatened to arrest her, Gbowee proceeded to remove her headdress and to undress… “In Africa, it is a curse to see the naked body of your mother, especially when she strips deliberately.”

The Peace Talks were immediately interrupted, and Nigeria´s president came down to listen to the women of Liberia. After that, a few of the women were invited to join the Peace Talks. Leymah Gbowee demanded an end to the war within a deadline of two weeks. She said that if peace was not reached in Liberia, “Next time we will be even more. There are 2,500 women in Monrovia’s refugee camps and over 10,000 exiled in Accra.” With this, the tone in the Peace Talks changed from male jolly to very serious. The Peace Agreement was signed. International peacekeeping troops arrive in Liberia on August 4, 2003, and Charles Taylor steps down as president of Liberia on August 11. In 2006, Sirleaf “established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a mandate to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating more than 20 years of civil conflict in the country.”[17]

Women engaging in a dialogue of female subjectivity demanded the end male monoculture by engaging in a dialogue of intersubjectivity. These women altered history, where they more engaged in cultural intersubjectivity or in asserting relational reality?[18]

Since women’s work in the reconstruction in Liberia and the appointment of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President in 2005, women’s work for maintaining a culture of intersubjectivity continues. On November 2011 Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won Nobel Prize, together with Twakel Kerman of Yemen. In spite of the extraordinary and persistent success of women in the transformation of Liberia, Sirleaf being the only female head of state in Africa, re-elected in 2011, there is a sense that the news about the major victories of these women—from Colombia, Afghanistan, Liberia and Bosnia—are not reaching women all over the world as it should.  The expansion of the private military companies (PMC) complex threatens to turn the whole world in to a military battleground for profit and we need urgent changes. At the present time the PMC industry is worth over US$100 billion per year. [19] Women from all walks of life and all parts of the world need to mobilize and apply the models presented here and to apply female subjectivity, intersubjectivity to dissolve the military industrial complex monoculture.

Much more can be said about these documentaries in the context of Luce Irigaray’s philosophy of female subjectivity and intersubjectivity applied to end male monocultures. I would suggest that feminists, ecofeminists and scholars expound on “War Redefined.” This segment contextualizes a new hermeneutic of women’s role in war and in creating peace.[20] As women continue to be in-spired, and in-spire others on the ways they have succeeded in dissolving the oppressive male monoculture by asserting female subjectivity, men and women will succeed in inventing and recreating more cultures of intersubjectivity  to secure a legacy of peace for future generations.

Secondary conclusion—based on the significance of the topic:

Now that the women of Liberia experienced the power of female subjectivity to successfully dissolve male objectivity and monoculture as they created a culture of intersubjectivity, the question remains, what is peace? Liberian women discovered that “peace is a process.’ And that when guns are put down, we have to continue to build peace. We have to accept our combatants into our midst, we cannot hold it against them.” How do you forgive men who have conducted massacres in your own village? On the other hand, how do you move forward if you do not forgive? Listening to the stories of women victims of war crimes, it is difficult to forgive.

Leymah Gbowee continued her social work with ex-combatants, and this helped her reach a different understanding of the perpetrator. After working with them, s he saw a lot of them “as much as victims as the women…” Not all women would agree to this. Liberian women continued working towards a democratic election. Their Mass Action Campaign ended two years after January 15, 2006 after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the first woman president of Liberia, and the only woman president of modern Africa. But now, Liberians know that if ever things go wrong, these women will come back. On January 2011, Ellen lJohnson Sirleaf was re-elected and began her second term as President of Liberia.


Hirsh, Elizabeth and Olson, Gary A.  Je—Luce Irigaray: A Meeting With Luce Irigaray, JAC Online Journal, Vol. 16. 3 (2009) ,

Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Irigaray, Luce. Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. Key Writings. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Charlie Rose interviews Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia, winner of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

Ford, Tamasin, Sirleaf Victory in Liberia Marred by Boycott and Violence, The Guardian, Nov. 10, 2011.

Huff Post, World, “Liberia Elections: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Wins 90 % in Boycotted Vote”

Nobel Peace Prize laureates for 2011,

PBS, Women, War and Peace: A Five-Part Special Series on PBS. Featured from Oct. 25 to

Nov. 8, 2011.

The Economist, War’s Overlooked Victims: Rape is Horrifyingly widespread in Conflicts All Around the World, January 13, 2011.

Women, War and Peace, A Five-Part Special Series on PBS (Full Episodes)

[1] PBS, Women, War and Peace: A Five-Part Special Series on PBS. Featured from Oct. 25 to Nov. 8, 2011.

[2] The Economist, January 13, 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luce Irigaray. Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. (New York: Routledge, 1993) 57.

[5] Luce Irigaray. Key Writings. (New York: Continuum, 2004), vii.

[6] The Economist.

[7] Irigaray, Key Writings, vii.

[8] Ibid, viii.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., ix.

[11] Youth Advocate Program International, Inc. ,

[12] UNICEF, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.

[13] Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman, (New York: Cornell University Press), 133.

[14] Elizabeth Hirsh and Gary A. Olson, Je—“Luce Irigaray: A Meeting With Luce Irigaray,” from JAC Online Journal, Vol. 16. 3 (2009): 348,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Judith Butler, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1984) back cover.

[18] Charlene Spretnak. Relational Reality, 2011.