Victim-Warriors and Iconic Heroines: Photographs of Female Combatants in Aceh, Indonesia

TitleVictim-Warriors and Iconic Heroines: Photographs of Female Combatants in Aceh, Indonesia
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsDrexler, Elizabeth F.
JournalCritical Asian Studies
Date Published07/2018

Analyzing photos and narratives of the “widows’ battalion” in Aceh, Indonesia that appeared in international and local print media between 2000 and 2002, this article traces how images of female combatants initially provided evidence of a uniformed, armed ethno-nationalist movement motivated by past state violence and linked to historical legends of women involved in armed resistance to colonialism. Subsequently, the heroines were recast as immoral young women pursuing inappropriate sexual relationships with the occupying military. The problems of intelligence gathering, double agents, and the indeterminate zone of overlap in which male soldiers collaborated in the past were rewritten as a problem of sexual or intimate relations that violated religious and cultural norms. In Aceh, the affective power and complexity of women’s positioning as both victim and combatant is fueled by the invocation of the iconic heroines of the anticolonial resistance and ideas about international human rights. Images and narration of the widows’ battalion appear to champion female combatants past and present, but in fact, contribute to the consolidation of the power of male commanders and combatants in the resistance movement. Analyses of human rights photography must consider the affective power of images beyond engaging the empathy of distant spectators to consider their role in conflict dynamics.

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