Editorial: The gender dynamic

IssueJune - August 2001
Comment by Cynthia Cockburn

War and militarism are highly gendered phenomena—they are difficult if not impossible to understand without reference to gender.

In the first place, national leaders who want to shape our ideas so that we favour fighting a war often address us in gendered terms. They appeal to the nation's manhood to stiffen its spine, recall its heroic past and protect its women-and-children. They represent warriors as manly; draft resisters as wimps and sissies. The technologies of war fighting are wheeled out like monumental phalluses (remember those half-erect Soviet missiles on parade?) Women are urged to play their familial part, be turned on by a man wearing a uniform (iron it and sew the buttons on too), and bear more sons for cannon-fodder. It is, in fact, the grotesque gender imagery of militarist discourse that permits the anti-war movement so easily to ridicule it.

But beyond the words, there are also gendered practices in war. In part these add up to what you could call a “sexual division of violence”. In the same way that society organises women and men into different jobs (the sexual division of labour) so we get organised into different relationships to violence. Thus, the great majority of war-mongering politicians, military leaders and their soldiery have been male—and not just “as it happens”. Civilian casualties, particularly rape victims, particularly refugees, have been disproportionately female. The violence of wars ranges from nuclear blasts down to individual cut and thrust, and at the latter level sexualised violence by men against women (and other categories deemed less-than-men), has created a continuum between war and the supposed “peace” of everyday life in home and street.

Sexual division of violence

It is against the background of that rhetoric and that undeniable, repeatedly observed “sexual division of violence” that the articles in this issue of Peace News discuss contemporary resistance to militarism and war from a gender perspective. The first thing we hope they make clear is that very often the rhetoric is ignored by the people it is meant to convince, and that the sexual division of violence is never statistically complete and never sufficient to tell you what is going on. There is always a percentage of females in military structures, females doing violence, male victims and male refusers. Taken together, these articles delightfully complexify the notion of gender. They demonstrate why it is not a tatty worn-out issue but a worthy problematic for thinking antimilitarists. Two articles here deal head-on with gender relations as a social process and as a domain of power. Anu Pillay, co-ordinator of the African Women's Anti-War Coalition, argues (p12) for a shift from the “woman” perspective to the “gender” perspective, to bring into our sights “the entire culture that creates current conceptualisations of masculinity and femininity”.

Bob Connell is an long-time exponent of gender analysis. As an academic with an accessible writing style, he has helped a good many of us in the past with his books on gender and power1. In his article (p14-16) he reasserts the endemic association of masculinity with violence. He states unhesitatingly “a strategy for peace must include a strategy of change in masculinities”. But there is the key: there is not one form of masculinity but many. One may be hegemonic (he suggests “transnational business masculinity” has that status currently). But masculinity is actively produced, in variant forms, in collective processes in institutions and cultures. So our struggle to reshape gender relations has to be collective too. Beyond appealing to individual men we have to tackle institutions. We must look to strengthen some expressions of masculine identity while marginalising others.

That does not mean, necessarily, marginalising men. There are several articles in this issue that show men working in partnership with women, analysing gender practices and looking askance at gun-toting masculinities. The Zapatista movement in Mexico, Trident Ploughshares in Western Europe, and Israel's New Profile, all mixed-sex, nonetheless have slightly different takes on gender relations.

Conscious or absent-minded?

“A feminine movement” is what Nicole Blanc, Gustavo Esteva and Beatriz Ramirez call the Zapatista movement. It is feminine, rather than feminist, they say, because it is not “organised mainly, exclusively or expressly for the defence of women's rights”. In passing we should note that others might well disagree, on the grounds that a feminist perspective rightly takes not just women's issues but the whole world as its subject—see for instance the Amsterdam workshop (p17). The Zapatista movement, the three authors say, gives importance to “presenting the movement's proposals, in critical moments, through the voice of a woman”. Their policies, as in sometimes sending out delegates as “couples”, a man and a woman working together, show an acute consciousness of gender differentiation and complementarity. By contrast, Trident Ploughshares do gender absent- mindedly, but to the satisfaction of both women and men (or at least of one of each). Angie Zelter and David Mackenzie (p26) say they have achieved it by a combination of having a majority of women, some single-sex subgroups, and by having got the organisational process right (inclusive, honest, pragmatic).

Finding common causes

New Profile (p29) calls itself a feminist organisation in which men are welcome. They find common cause in the struggle to demilitarise and civilise Israeli society. A key issue is the right to refuse military service on grounds of conscience. The connection between family and state stands out clearly in this Israel case, in a way that has resonance with the Zapatista women— who see themselves as defying the authority of “two governments, that of our men and that of the state”. The Israeli state selectively enlists citizens for its armed forces using both gendered and familial criteria— a wonderful demonstration of the interlinkage between nationalism, militarism and patriarchy. Ruth Hiller writes as the mother of a young draft resister. It is as a family that they fight back against the state, supporting him in his decision to be a conscientious objector as “son, brother and Israeli”. Sergeiy Sandler, himself a CO and member of New Profile, explores the meaning of refusal in terms of masculinity.

In Israel, military conscription prevails and service currently involves action in what many would say is an unjust war. In the Netherlands by contrast the army is now fully professional (no conscripts) and is re-imagining itself as exclusively a peace-keeping army. Like the Israeli Defence Forces, the Dutch military have a recruitment problem: young men of the kind they prefer are less and less keen to hold a gun. So the military hierarchy have turned to women—of both majority and minority cultures, and to ethnic minority men. The tortuous manoeuvres involved as army personnel policy simultaneously tries to attract these flaky elements (they're nice to lesbians and gays too) while preventing them from subverting proper masculine military culture—well, it would be funny if it weren't so sad.

So—a troubled mulling over whether men can contribute to feminist programmes and work in feminist, or feminine, organisations is evident in this gender issue of Peace News. Bob Connell is very clear that “the democratic remaking of gender practices requires persistent engagement with women”. Fair enough. But what if feminist women don't want to come out to play with the boys? Do some women have to sacrifice themselves to mixed-sex working in the interests of making-over gender? Thus, the corollary to the question “should men join?” is “should women do it alone?”. This is implicit or explicit in most of the articles.

Women in Black (p22-25) say, yes, sometimes that's productive. A surprise factor is activated when women, who are supposed to embody the private, choose to stand in public places and make public statements. Being women-only, they say, enables us to develop forms of action we are comfortable with. When men are present the media often give them a high profile—and sometimes men play into that. Organising separately as women gets women's voices heard. (The Women's Peace Archive, p34, institutionalises this position: recording what women do, telling women's story.)

Acquiring social courage

A feature of the Women in Black network is internationalism. Their strength is bridge- building between women in different conflict situations, and also between women on different “sides” of conflicts. Women are demonstrably good at this kind of transversal politics—a term invented by feminists2. We can see it in the women in Cyprus, and in the women from Ireland, Bosnia and Israel who went to talk with them (p25). It doesn't mean they were born to it. Just that women's characteristic life experience, which involves maintaining links within families, and networking in localities and between communities, can give some women the kind of social imagination that makes it thinkable. Perhaps we should see women as sometimes acquiring a particular kind of social courage, too, because bridge building often means border transgressions involving emotional and physical risk.

I sometimes think that as feminist women we are beset by two fears. On the one hand, we are afraid that our arguments for equality for women will lose their legitimacy when it is shown that the sexual division labour is not 100% complete —women can and do perform the managerial and specialised work that is commonly conceived of as men's work. Likewise, we are sometimes afraid our arguments for justice will be undermined by the revelation that the sexual division of violence is incomplete, that women actively share in the violence of violent cultures. What right have we to complain? What's left to value in women?

On the other hand we are also afraid to single out women for a specially close look in our analyses, or to engage in women-only action and organisation, in case we fall hostage to the limiting old stereotype. It might lay us open to criticism for essentialism (peace flows from the milk in our nurturing breasts) and better-than-thou womanism (pointing a finger at “the beast in men”).

A luxury we can't afford

But there is a compelling argument for feminist thinking (by women and by men) and feminist organising (both with men and apart from them), and it is: regardless of whether we identify as women or men, and whether we identify as feminists or not, war and militarisation cannot be prevented or resisted without a feminist programme. In some ways the debate over identity is a luxury we can't afford—least if it means we lose the programme in the process. We want constitutional change, new economic arrangements and new political movements? We won't get far in that direction unless we recognise that patriarchy is intrinsic to these structures and cultures we want to transform. It's the great survivor, century on century, supplying the dynamism that foils our efforts to change the system, and even corrupting our own organisations. Feminism is a necessary antidote to militarism.

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