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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


Naming security - constructing identity: ?Mayan-women? in Guatemala on the eve of ?peace?
Maria Stern

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005
223pp HB 55 ISBN 0 7190 7116 X


This book in the ?New Approaches to Conflict Analysis? series presents a fascinating account of the connections between security, subjectivity and identity and a valuable insight into the lives of a very marginalised group, Mayan women in Guatemala. Maria Stern draws from the narratives of Mayan women to focus our attention on what security, and the corresponding insecurity, means to these women and presents a core argument that challenges dominant understandings about insecurity. Through a powerful analysis, she reminds us that these women, who describe themselves as accordingly: ?We are women, poor, indigenous; we are ?triply discriminated against? (3), struggle to resist the violence they experience and to improve their security. The book does not provide definitive answers, but rather seeks to encourage others to rethink the connections between security and identity and to be more inclusive in our analysis.

The book is beautifully written and structured and begins with an analytical section on rethinking security studies that addresses two issues: first the fact that marginalised groups are rarely included in the security studies literature and second that security presents a conundrum or paradox. I particularly liked the very valuable section (Chapter 3) that describes the innovative methodology used by Maria Stern. Eighteen interviews were conducted with women who were members of the most widely known and influential nationally based organisations as well as internationally. The common denominator in all of the interviews was that the narrators explicitly identified themselves, and acted politically as Mayan women. The narrators were asked to tell the researcher about their ?struggles as Mayan women? and to tell their partial life history around this theme. Initial interviews were followed in some cases with a second interview and where possible, the women received a transcription of the texts. The author is upfront about the quandaries she faced in this study ?informed by feminist theorising with the theoretical and methodological tool of a discipline IR [International Relations] that has paid little attention to questions of gender or to the multiple violences implicated in practices of security? (12).

The second section is entitled ?Reading Mayan women?s narratives? and this is divided into spatio-temporal context: family/community; Ladino- Mayan relations; organisations/movements; political economy; and Mayan women as citizens. Each context is sensitively presented and through the often harrowing individual accounts, the reader gains a valuable insight into the detail of these women?s lives, what motivates them and supports them and their deep desire to be included and valued in their society.

?The violence leaves you with memories, fears. The people of my pueblo had to choose: leave all of this and try to change it or stay, more because of fear than because of conviction. The ability to leave my house, to work and to value myself for myself permitted me to construct in some way my own identity [?] The moment arrived when I said, ?well OK, I?ll work for this, because I believe contributing to changing the conditions of life of the people?? (Manuela) (94).

This book is an important contribution to the security debate and will be of interest to scholars of security, identity politics, feminist theory, Latin American studies and those interested in methodological and ethical issues.


Professor Gillian Robinson, INCORE Director, University of Ulster.



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