The politics of alliances: feminist peace action, drones and Code Pink

Meredith Tax raises significant questions about feminist activism, political alliances and fundamentalism, but her attack on Code Pink's campaign trip against the use of remotely-controlled drones in Pakistan is misplaced, says Rebecca Johnson. 

I welcome Meredith Tax’s article Code Pink, the Taliban and Malala Yousafzai for provoking an important debate in openDemocracy, and among feminists and peace activists on various discussion lists, including Women in Black.  She raised significant questions about feminist activism, political alliances, fundamentalism, and the nexus between working against militarism and working for the rights and protection of women and girls.  But her attack on Code Pink was largely misplaced, and opened the door for others to vent ugly, sexist hostility upon one of the most active and inspiring peace and justice campaigns to emerge from the United States in a long time.  Code Pink was founded on the eve of the Iraq war by a group of women who recognised the need for direct, imaginative, nonviolent activism to go beyond the staid speeches and marches of the mainstream antiwar movement. They might not get everything right, but they are far more thoughtful and effective than the caricature that Tax painted.  I am wading into this debate because I agree with some of her concerns, but believe that Code Pink have an important part to play in our collective endeavours to build peace and justice.

Men and Women surround a pink 'Stop Killer Drones' banner Code Pink delegation in Pakistan.
Photo: Katie Falkenberg, 23rd Studios

The Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafzai and two other girls on their school bus was a brutal act of misogynist religious and political fundamentalism.  On that we can all agree. The Taliban intended to murder a brave young voice and intimidate a generation of girls and their families from pursuing female education, rights and security.  In the name of an extreme and self-serving version of Islam that is condemned by most Muslims I know, the Talban have said they will keep targeting girls like Malala until they give in and become quiet, submissive chattels and breeders, emptied of knowledge, curiosity and ambition – that is, crushed, silent wives to fit stupid, brutal men.  The Taliban will maintain their war against women unless and until they are stopped.  How best to stop them lies at the centre of this debate.

The danger with framing the arguments through an attack on Code Pink’s campaign against the use of remotely-controlled drones in Pakistan is that it sets up a false dichotomy – opposing the drones versus supporting women’s rights.  Tax characterises Code Pink as acting as if ‘Drones are suddenly the greatest source of evil in the world’.  Reading Code Pink’s website and other communications, it is clear that they do not subscribe to such a simplistic position. Their work on drones – and trip to Pakistan – is an integrated part of their much broader range of antiwar, peace and justice work, which also includes mobilising for next year’s Billion Women Rising campaign to stop rape and violence against women.   Implying that Code Pink’s campaign to ban drones is somehow condoning the Taliban’s terrorism against women and girls is a kind of zero sum thinking that I thought feminist peace activists had shaken off in the last century.  Back then, we were accused of advocating murder when we campaigned for reproductive rights, and of condoning Soviet human rights abuses when we  campaigned against nuclear weapons in our own countries. Of course we rejected these binary  “either-or”, “enemy-friend” simplifications and campaigned against Soviet nuclear weapons as well as American and British, and for dissidents on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  When a handful of academics denounced the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s as selling out feminism because we claimed a women-only space on what they considered to be a ‘male’ issue like nuclear weapons, they were the ones that seemed left behind. As many writings from Greenham, Women in Black and Code Pink make clear, feminist action against war isn’t about weapons instead of women’s rights, but about both. We of all people should understand that war is incompatible with women’s rights and needs. Women are first in line to lose their rights, security, sexual autonomy and lives when the violent manifestations of patriarchy such as weapons and war are left in the hands of male ‘defenders’.

Juxtaposing these connected priorities as if they were opposites is a popular tactic among our patriarchal opponents to divide and rule.  Of course we must unequivocally oppose terrorism, violent extremists and religious and political fundamentalists, but we must also oppose weapons, war and torture. As others have noted and history confirms, terrorists thrive where their opponents also use cruel and unjust means. We also need to be critical of antiwar spokespeople that appear  to play to fundamentalist galleries and push women aside as they cosy up to violent men.  Tax was right to condemn those attitudes, but she misrepresented Code Pink’s position when she implied the same of them, as Medea Benjamin has made clear.

The use of drones is increasing in warfare, with deeply worrying consequences. Politicians and their militaries like them on the expedient grounds that they can be specially targeted against individuals while keeping US and British troops at a safe distance.  As feminist peace activists we should reject such justifications for extra-judicial murder in the name of war. If we turn a blind eye now because drones are targeted at “terrorists” or “Taliban”, who will be targeted next, and with what?  Technologies to make even deadlier killer robots  are already in the pipeline.  In the last few years, drones have killed some 3,000 civilians, in Pakistan, including many women and children.  Compare the military justification for using drones with the Taliban’s justification for ordering their human drones to to murder Malala because, they said, her campaign for girls’ education was a threat to Islam.  As feminists we must empower and protect every Malala, but also speak for the hopes and dreams of the 14-year old girls who are in the wrong place when a drone blows up their home because some distant military analyst thinks someone nearby is a legitimate target.

So I think Code Pink are right to campaign for drones to be banned. Most of their activities on this have been focused in the United States, which arms, targets and funds nearly all of the drones used in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  There is a difference between what Tax labels “imperial narcissism” and taking political responsibility to change the militaristic and war-mongering policies and actions of our own elected governments, as Women in Black, Greenham women and other feminists have done.  That Code Pink was prepared to confront their own politicians and military officials was something I have liked and admired over the years since I first encountered them in Washington DC, on one of their very first demonstrations against the war on Iraq, timed to link with International Women’s Day, March 8, 2003.  As a Greenham woman, I loved Code Pink’s energy, feminist challenges to patriarchal norms and oppressions, nonviolent actions, serious anti-militarist responsibility and an irrepressibly imaginative and funny deflating of military pomposity and fear-mongering.

The major challenges in Tax's article concerned the political wisdom and implications of joining a coalition led by Imran Khan, and whether Code Pink contacted progressive women’s groups in Pakistan before going.  I do not have enough direct knowledge or information about Khan’s links or positions, but agree that non-imperialist activism in other countries requires us to consult first and foremost with like-minded civil society representatives on the ground, to listen to what they are telling us about their situation and what they would see as useful (or not useful) for us to do.  Taking part in coalitions can be an important tool to amplify effectiveness on a specific shared objective, but the politics of such alliances need to be carefully evaluated, including whether the views of others in the coalition will undermine our broader political aims and identity, and whether it would be valuable to raise awareness of problems or abuses inside as well as outside the coalition.  Avoiding coalition politics may keep us ideologically pure, but at the risk of becoming marginalised, isolated and irrelevant on at least some of the issues where we could make a difference through collective action. Choices have to be made, and they should be as informed as possible.

If Khan is as bad as Tax writes, and was using Code Pink’s participation for his own political ends, consulting with Pakistani feminist groups would have enabled Code Pink to avoid such a trap and plan a strategy that would support feminist civil society objectives and avoid being co-opted for the political interests of others.  Benjamin has said that they met with many women’s groups and activists once they got to Pakistan. If they didn’t do so before, then this is an important lesson worth learning: connecting with women on the ground is not only a principle and a basic courtesy, but also important for getting the strategies right.  Yet I can’t help thinking that by the same feminist principle,  Tax should have talked to Code Pink early on to raise her concerns about their anti-drone actions and alliance with Khan.  Her response that she didn’t have to consult with Code Pink because the debate should be in the open begs several questions.

Talking to women on the ground in advance of taking action does not necessarily mean changing or halting what you are doing if they don’t like it.  As a long-time activist with Women in Black and other feminist peace networks, I am aware that different women’s groups and activists are influenced by countervailing political factors and may give conflicting advice and appeals. For example, some Israeli feminists and activists opposing the Occupation support an academic boycott, while others reject this tactic: both have strong, credible arguments to back their positions. Consulting and connecting with women on the ground means respecting and listening to their experience, knowledge and views, and taking those into account in our own actions.  It does not necessarily mean doing what they ask.

As feminist activists – particularly from countries that arm or attack one (or more) sides in military conflicts – we still have to assess the complexities and challenges for ourselves, and decide what we think is the best course of action for peace and justice.  We may get it wrong, but at least we will have paid attention to the views of those most directly involved, and our actions would be better informed. If Tax had talked to Code Pink about their strategy and actions she could still have decided to take her concerns into open debate, but at least (we hope) she would have been better informed about their thinking, aims and choices.

This debate has served to highlight the intersecting roles and responsibilities of feminist activists and writers. Both seek to turn complex realities into simpler more accessible arguments and images to inform and persuade, and both have responsibilities to speak truth to power and listen to others.  We come from many different backgrounds, with different experiences, analyses and baggage. We have much to learn from each other in open debate and exchange.  But we undermine each other – and our own credibility – if we use tactics of oversimplification and condemnation when disagreeing with the actions of others. It was no doubt an unintended consequence – but should have been foreseeable – that various defenders of the patriarchy and militarism siezed on Tax's criticisms as an opportunity to uphold drone warfare and dismiss Code Pink’s peace and justice activism across the board. While questioning is important for our growth and effectiveness, we must be careful to support and listen as well, and do our utmost not to undermine each other. After all, there aren’t yet enough brave, committed, irreverent, determined, nonviolent feminist activists to change the world.