Antimilitarism and gender – the challenge of integration

Talk by Andreas Speck, staff at War Resisters' International, at the launch of Cynthia Cockburn's book ‘Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements’ at Housmans Bookshop, 21 April 2012

First of all I want to thank Cynthia for giving me the opportunity to say something today, although I haven't read the whole book yet.

I am familiar with her research, as WRI is one of the organisations which were part of her research. I think we very much welcomed it when she approached us a few years ago, and we are thankful for the challenge this posed, and for being pushed to reflect on the challenges of integrating feminism and gender into our antimilitarist practice. When Cynthia called me earlier this week and asked me to talk today, it had a similar effect again.


I don't really want to talk about the book itself, as I haven't yet read all of it, but want to take up some of the challenges I feel are important for us as an antimilitarist network and organisation.


Personally, I think her description of WRI is pretty fair - there are openings for integrating a feminist analysis into WRI's work, but challenges are not only strengthening the participation and leadership role of women, but also - and maybe much more - integration of gender issues and a critical reflection of patriarchy in the "normal" work - be it work on conscientious objection or nonviolent direct action (NVDA).

I want to give some examples to clarify what I mean.

In some way the easiest part of it is to include a gender perspective when talking or writing about issues. Often, when I talk what CO means to me, I include that for me it also means a rejection of partriarchy, of accepting hegemonic forms of masculinity and heteronormativity, because partiarchy is one important cause of war and militarism. I can also talk about my personal experience of conscientious objection, and the role – at that time unconsciously – my unease with the masculine military environment played. But that's the easy bit.


Conscientious objection

Yes, conscientious objectors (COs) are mostly blokes, as Cynthia quotes Howard in her book, but that's not the main problem. I think the problem lies for example in how we approach support for individual COs, especially when they face potential imprisonment. For myself at least I can say I avoid presenting COs as heroes, as brave, or exceptional. Most are men, but they are ordinary men, who made a choice against violence, they are no heroes. But we are only one actor in the field, and the public, the media, and others might still represent COs as alternative heroes, bringing back the values of toughness, bravery, etc so closely related to (military) masculinity. And unfortunately, CO groups often contribute to this perception too.

Then there is certainly - and here it is a problem that most COs are blokes - the local support work for individual COs, and most of it rests on women - mothers, (girl)friends - sometimes boyfriends - and often just the women in the group.

But conscientious objection – at least in the understanding of WRI – is not just about men and women refusing military service. The refusal itself is only one act, which is part of a whole range of activities of a movement – or should be. There is lobbying and campaigning for the right to conscientious objection, there are actions to highlight militarism, and there is the impact military service has on the entire society – men, women, gays, straights, children, old people, etc – not on just on those who are called up to serve.

Seeing a CO movement from this broader perspective is an important part of avoiding male dominance in the movement. Yes, there is still the tension about support for those facing repression for action, who will be mostly blokes, but this certainly should not result in a hierarchy of decision making. Support roles in an action are equally important roles, there is no hierarchy, which means that women, even though they don't go to prison, should be equally involved in decision making, leadership, and public representation of the movement. Unfortunately, this often isn't the case, and COs can - although they refuse one form of violence - be quite patriarchal.


Nonviolent direct action

Cynthia highlighted the importance of NVDA for War Resisters' International, and I very much agree with her that it carries the risk of macho behaviour. And it carries the risk of hierarchy of roles, and when we organised an international action at AWE Aldermaston in February 2010, few international participants felt it worth being in a support role, after having travelled that far. Luckily, this was harshly criticised in internal evaluations of those involved later back at home.

But there are other potential problems with NVDA, such as: What images do we produce? Do we reproduce images of women as passive victims, willing to suffer voluntarily, and men as actors? Or do we reproduce images of bravery and heroism?

I do think that NVDA has a great potential for empowerment and social change, and I think in a lot of NVDA we do not reproduce patriarchal gender divisions and heroism. For me, successful NVDA needs empowerment, which relies on developing "power-with" others, not power over - collective action based on trust and mutual understanding. It requires talking and working through ones fears, and being aware of ones limits. But NVDA too often has turned into just a publicity stunt by hard-core activists, and then it looses its empowering potential and begins to reproduce patriarchal structures - the heroic Greenpeace activist on a crane high up there. We don't need that, and we don't want that, because this is not how we empower ourselves, and change structures in our society.


Countering militarisation

In her conclusion, Cynthia talks about violence reduction as what unites us. I think she makes important points here, and I very much agree that we need to break the hegemony of violence, and need to get across that violence is a choice and not a necessity. As is masculinity, or what form of masculinity I live and represent.

Because of the changes in military recruitment - the move away from conscription to so-called "volunteer" armed forces - WRI is developing a new part of it's right to refuse to kill work, which we presently call "countering the militarisation of youth". It started off under the term counter-recruitment, and that's a big part of it, but we realised that a militarisation of minds needs to happen to create a social environment that is not only favourable to military recruitment, but to war and violence in general. We are very clear that we cannot talk about militarisation without talking about patriarchy and masculinity, and I hope in developing this new aspect of our antimilitarist work, we can build a strong gender perspective into its foundations.


In this project, we try to analyse how militarisation works, to develop strategies to counter this militarisation - you could call that strategies for violence reduction.


A lack of integrated practice

I think for me one big problem is a lack of existing tools which really integrate a gender analysis in different aspect of antimilitarist work. When we organised international CO day in Paraguay in May 2010, the original idea was to have a training on gender and militarism, including a reflection on gender issues within our own movements.

However, this got changed for some reasons I still don't know, and we were then asked to do a nonviolent direct action training from a gender perspective.

Honestly, we were at a loss what to do. In the end, we did the usual thing - we did two days of "traditional" NVDA training with a day of gender issues in the middle. Not ideal, but "something".


Just recently, after being released from detention following another NATO Game over action in Brussels, I was asked by a female queer Swedish activist whether I knew of tools to integrate gender issues in an action training. I only could answer no, but that it would be really good to start a discussion on this among trainers.


In our training repertoire, we lack integration, And that's not just WRI, that includes the Women's Peacemaker Team, as my colleague Javier recently related to me from Isabelle Geuskens. Yes, there are trainers on dealing with gender issues, on conflict issues, on men & masculinity, on NVDA, on strategic planning. But all of that happens side by side, not integrated. I think we will make a big step forward once gender is not one session in a longer training, but an integral part of everything. This will also make it more difficult for those who try to not deal with these issues - mostly men - to avoid them, because it will be everywhere.


It is interesting that this issue came up twice completely independently within just two weeks, and maybe that shows that it is an issue which is now ripe for tackling. It certainly is an issue which should be on the agenda of a training exchange WRI is involved in organising, and I'm confident it will be.


I think we are still facing huge challenges in really integrating gender - and issues of sexuality - into our antimilitarist work, and for me as a gay man who identifies with queer perspectives, even in our work on gender and sexuality we still face the challenges how to integrate queer perspectives and overcome binarisms of gender and sexuality. And this is again another link to militarism, because militarism simplifies the world into binarisms - friend and foe, we and 'the other', men & women, gays and straights. The real world is much more complicated, but also much more fun than that.


Again, I want to thank Cynthia for challenging us, for challenging me here today, and I hope that the book will also challenge the readers to engage with gender, sexuality, and militarism. We need it.