We won't fight your ******* wars... or will we? Feminism and anti-militarism, where next?

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Sian Jones

Peace News 2443 (Gender and militarism) began to open the door of a debate within the antimilitarist movement on activist responses to the changing military landscape. As western military forces adapt to new roles, how does that movement respond to the feminisation of the military, as seen in increasing numbers of women in the military, and in the deployment of armies in peace-keeping operations. How too, do we respond to the military's co-option of the traditional - and often oppositional role - of women as peacemakers?

Internationally, the mainstream women's movement has advocated the inclusion of women in peacemaking and in peace building. A measure of their progress can be seen in the 2001 UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which called for an increased role for women at decision-making levels in conflict prevention and resolution; training on the rights and needs of women for military and civilian police and as peacekeepers, and peace agreements to address the human rights of women and girls in post-war institutions. At the same time, women's role has expanded in UN civilian interventions and in military peace-keeping operations.

For opponents of war and militarism, armies are hardly the ideal candidates for keeping and building peace, yet antimilitarists have yet to engage with and respond to these contradictions.

Women in the Military

Since the 1960s, following the virtual end of conscription, western armies have faced problems recruiting sufficient men, but, assisted by equal opportunity legislation, have devised new strategies and encouraged both the recruitment of men from ethnic minorities, and the recruitment of women.

For many feminists, women's participation in all aspects of the military - including active combat - is about equal right to employment and, in some states, access to “full” citizenship through military service. In 2000, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the complaint of a female engineer, rejected by the Bundeswehr, ruling the prohibition against women bearing arms in the German army unlawful. In the 12 months following the ruling, some 2,000 women signed up, pushing the total of women in the German military to 7,000, about 3.5 percent of its forces, just half the NATO norm of between seven and 10 percent.1

Ironically, while antimilitarists were engaged in challenging states' rights to conscript young adult males, and supporting conscientious objectors, the unintended consequence of their action was to open the doors to women's participation in western military forces. In almost every European country, the end of conscription has seen - or, as in Spain and France, is expected to generate - a significant increase in the recruitment of women. Meanwhile, where compulsory military service survives, as in both Norway and Turkey, the conscription of women is debated.

With 228,000 women in NATO forces, as compared to 30,000 in 1961, women comprise 14% of the US military (where combat roles are closed), and 11.4% of Canadian forces, (although only 1.9% of the infantry, and engineers).2 The exclusion of women from combat roles in western militaries persists, although Norwegian women were “allowed” into combat roles in 1985, and Denmark opened all units (except for paratroopers and marine commands) to women in 1988. In April 2002 the British government firmly rejected front-line women. The masculine role of “warrior” remains largely closed to women, and - crucially - so do the ranks where power and authority are held and maintained.

An agenda set by feminists advocating equal rights, aiming to conquer the last bastion of masculinity, has seen the absorption of women into the military project. The location and gendering of power remains. How do feminist antimilitarists engage in this debate? The military- governmental complex survives, like other long-lived institutions, by adapting to external change, but simultaneously maintaining its core. And as western armies decreasingly engage in combat, adapting to new roles is made much easier.

Keeping the Peace

As western military forces were increasingly deployed in peace enforcement, peace-keeping, and peace building, it suited the military to recruit women, when traditional masculine militaries were so woefully equipped for their new role. In a US Army report on the conduct of US troops in Kosova, one soldier reported: “I don't think we were prepared for what we came into.... We expected to get fired at and things like that. We didn't expect things to be so calm and laid back.” With “overly aggressive tendencies” and a lack of adequate training in peacekeeping tasks, some soldiers “experienced difficulties” tempering their combat mentality for adapting and transitioning to peacekeeping duty.3

It is thus not surprising that a significant percentage of women recruited to NATO forces have found themselves deployed on peace-keeping missions, where essentialist assumptions about gender have assumed - despite their military training - that their innate feminine qualities will uniquely suit them for peace-keeping.4 Similar arguments for the inclusion of women have also been highlighted as “talking points” in educational packs produced by peace organisations: “Women are better able to control violent tendencies. Women are seen as less of a threat, so are less likely to provoke violence. Women seem to be more willing to look for reconciliation in disagreements, rather than use force. Male soldiers are more likely to control aggression if women are present.”5

If women are the antidote to the military's inability to construct a real peace, how do antimilitarists address a feminised, militarised peace?

“Women are allowed to wage peace but not to decide for peace”6

Donna Pankhurst has characterised the exclusion of women from post-war peace-processes as a “gendered peace”, where those in power decide on a peace which either marginalises the post-war needs of women, or actively limits or restricts their rights.7

Advocates of an increased role for women in post-conflict peace-processes are not naïve about the barriers that they face or the history of the repeated marginalisation of women in such processes. Despite the confidence built by women in war, holding families and societies together, and - in the absence of men - adopting or undermining traditionally masculine roles, women have almost inevitably found themselves excluded from the peace.

International organisations are also recognising the role that women play in preventing war and sustaining peace, and - as expressed by the aspirations of UN SC Resolution 1325 - advocate that women make that final shift from peace-makers to peace builders.

If women get to the peace talks, is an acceptance of militarisation the inevitable consequence of their participation in building the peace that follows war? Given the relocation of power that both feminism and antimilitarism demand, can we propose non-militarised alternatives to peace building, inclusive of women's rights and acknowledging their agency?8

Women redefining security

One solution lies in redefinitions of security which articulates the security needs of individuals and communities, rather than the security concerns of states. Along with NGOs of the south, some women's NGOs have redefined security - where the military is longer a player. Significantly, they also reject the security offered to states who agree to participate in the project of globalisation.

On the eve of the 2000 G-8 meeting, members of the East Asia-US Women's Network Against Militarism challenged G-8s ideas of “national security”: “These economic policies can never achieve genuine security. Rather, they generate gross insecurity for most peoples of the world and devastate the natural environment. Economic policies are inextricably linked to increasing militarisation throughout the world. Militaries reap enormous profits for multinational corporations and stockholders through the development, production, and sale of weapons of destruction. Moreover, militaries maintain control of local populations and repress those who oppose the fundamental principles on which the world economic system is based.”

Even the UN has accepted redefinitions of security, which presuppose the allocation of resources for peace away from the military, but this security relies on the participation of states in IMF and World Bank programmes. The project of redefining security is subsumed to the interests of militarised industrial states. In the real alternative, security is access to basic rights and resources, and the reallocation of power from the military and those institutions which derive their power from continued militarisation. A gendered redefinition of security alone challenges the power of the military, and sets the stage away from war.

A gendered antimilitarism

“Violence against women is not an accident of war: it is a strategic weapon of war that has been used for the purpose of spreading terror, destabilising societies and breaking resistance, rewarding soldiers and extracting information. Violence against women, including torture, forcible displacement, sexual assault, rape and murder has also been used a method of ethnic cleansing and as an element of genocide.”9

“Make this pledge” - subvertising a WW2 propaganda poster encouraging women's complicity in the war.


However they attempt to re-gender the military, women - and their children - remain the primary victims of war; and violence against women rarely ends when war ends, but continues in the community, in the home. That violence will only end when security is defined by social justice, and not through the barrel of a gun.

New strategies against militarism have to acknowledge that the traditional binary oppositions of “women and peace” and “men and war” have shifted, blurring the boundaries between the (fe)male warrior and his(her) weeping mother (father). How does the antimilitarist movement engage with this changed, and still changing landscape? Do we develop our own critique and responses, or do we stand outside these processes, return to a more active seizing of the old binary divisions - a return to the feminist antimilitarist discourses of the 1980s - positioned outside of these debates, outside of the systems that seek to accommodate, encompass and co-opt women as peacemakers?