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A weekend in 'dam: Women's Antiwar Strategy Workshop

Militarism and war have in some ways changed their nature in the last two decades. Or is it our perception of them that's changed? As women in Europe involved in groups opposing militarism and war we have found ourselves having to re-organise our resistance and re-think the alternatives we are calling for.

These thoughts prompted twenty of us to get together for a weekend workshop in Amsterdam at the end of January, an opportunity for in-depth discussion of women's current and future anti-militarist and anti-war strategies.

Some of the women at the Amsterdam workshop came from women-only groups. Some were active, as feminists, in groups with men. While some of us were more “specialised” in one kind of activism or another, women were commonly doing a bit of several kinds of things: non-violent direct action, camping at military sites, information and lobbying, campaigning, solidarity work and local interventions in countries at war. Even those of us who had chosen a local focus were likely to be simultaneously active at national or international level. There were women present from— among other groups and networks—the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Peace Brigades International, Women for Peace, Women in Black, For Mother Earth, and Aldermaston and Menwith Hill Women's Peace Camps.

In the Cold War period, peace activists had a rather clear focus. It was for nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, tension reduction, direct action against our own states and militaries, and involving ordinary people in a sphere diplomats and politicians wanted to keep to themselves. We tried to reach out to women on the other side of the Iron Curtain, without getting co-opted by the Soviet officially-sponsored peace committees and institutions. But with the collapse of communist administrations and the incursion of “the market”, sources of strife and perceptions of danger have shifted.

The armed wing of globalisation

We tried to identify the most important changes in our environment since 1989 (fall of the Berlin Wall) and their implications for action. Big power political and military strategies, and international relations generally, had shifted. An example was the militarisation of the European Union, which clearly implied a need for Europe-wide organisation on our part. The reach of capitalism was ever more global, and the power of international financial institutions growing. A global protest movement was also gaining momentum. We needed to be part of this, strengthening nonviolent methods, and demonstrating that “militarism is the armed wing of capitalist globalisation”. We were seeing changes in weapons systems, and these too had implications for resistance. Take the re-use of radioactive material in weapons used in civilian areas such as Kosova—a reminder of an ever greater need to link antimilitarist with environmental issues. There was the advent of Bush and his US National Missile Defence system—a reminder of the need for effective worldwide networking by antimilitarist groups to prevent deployment of this “son of Star Wars” technology.

There had been many social and cultural changes too, for instance the growth of religious fundamentalisms and aggressive nationalisms (outbreak of separatist wars), developments in international law, and in the functioning of the UN. Media representations had changed—or instance the justification of war through “humanitarian” discourse—and we needed to find our own language in which to contest them.

A well-theorised connection

Throughout the two days of the workshop we tried to draw out the gender significance of these trends, and particularly their significance for women. There had been a damaging backlash against feminism. Many women felt that the peace movement had fallen apart in the last ten or fifteen years and that young women (young people in general) were not alert to these issues. We felt women's peace groups to be weaker and fewer.

So we asked ourselves: what are the particular strengths of women, women's organisation and a feminist gender analysis in confronting militarism and war? Most of us felt that when we engaged in anti-militarism it was not in some way due to our “essential nature” as women, but sprang from a well-theorised connection between militarist, nationalist and patriarchal structures and cultures. We explored how we might spread this consciousness, particularly among younger women, and strengthen the links between the women's movement and the peace movement. And we discussed what specific alliances might be effective—for instance with feminist organisations addressing male violence and rape in war.