Gender, war and peace: "We the people."

Feminism: a way of thought and a way of being that can and has made change. We must stand up for humanity now so that our children can have theirs.

Madeleine Rees
8 March 2016

I was asked to do a TEDx talk. Ten minutes.  The analysis of gender, war and peace in ten minutes.  I wrote it. I sent it. I was not happy. It was not what I had written, it was my belief in what I was saying that had begun to wane. In the face of what the world was doing to itself – we are doing that is – could I honestly stand up and claim that there was a majority who wanted change, and that we could do it?

Could I legitimately claim that the strands of the social and political movement that is feminism as a way of thought and being, was still alive and well and would lead to fundamental change?  It was personally devastating.  Lawyer I may be, but I did not feel I could present a case I was not sure I believed in, I was no longer sure I had sufficient evidence to persuade.

Two things happened; I saw the film Suffragette, it both reminded me and moved me. Working class women standing shoulder to shoulder with their more privileged sisters to change things. Of course their struggle was experienced differently, but the essence was that the discrimination, the misogyny and the extremities of patriarchy hurt all women. There was solidarity, a common purpose, a determination to make their world better, for themselves and for their daughters.  Feminism. A way of thought and a way of being that can and has made change. I spoke to a learned friend who reminded me of the power of sisterhood and how we needed it rekindled. I did the talk.

Gender, war and peace

In Europe there is a disjunction between the personal and the political. If you ask the question “are you happy in your private life,” chances are that most show contentment. Ask that question about the state of the world, and the answer is an overwhelming ‘no’. If the theory of common humanity is valid, then it should mean that we want to change this. If we do, we should look to how we understand gender and gender roles and the incredible impact they have on war and peace. 

The theory is borne out by evidence. Evidence of how systems and the institutions in place to maintain them absorb people, change values and become the ‘causes’ in themselves.  

The role of the international community in Bosnia exemplified this. So much of what happened was linked to choices that were made by individuals: systems, choices and humanity. Peacekeepers in the United Nations and other international organisations were sexually exploiting women who were trafficked. The United Nations chose to do nothing, or better put, people within a system made those choices to protect the institution, the institution more important than the women. Those who opposed faced consequences, as Kathy Bolkovac and others will attest, including me.

Choice is ever present - even when we think there is none. In 1915 American suffragette and activist, Jane Addams – no vote, no cell phone – brought 1.136 suffragettes to The Hague from all over the world to make known the root causes of war, and to protest the slaughter in the trenches. That was the beginning of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Those women chose to defy social norms to stand up against the horrors of war created by the geo-political system of the time.

WILPF centennial _0.jpg

WILPF's centennial peace conference, 2015, the Hague. Credit: Li Grebäck

One of the root causes they identified was inequality between people and between nations. Their ideas and analyses were right. So much so, that those in power were ‘afraid of them’. The British government tried in vain to stop the women from the UK contingent going by denying passports, but some still made it.

Suffragettes metamorphosed into feminists. An historical social and political movement with the stated aim of achieving equality and ending violence.

Over time we have used different methodologies to better understand and describe how inequalities are perpetuated. Political economy, and particularly the political economy of violence, has been attested to as a valid methodology in places of violent conflict. I have been to many such places including: the dirty war of Argentina, the revolution in Nicaragua, Ukraine, and of course Bosnia.

What it has evidenced is power: who has it, who uses it, and what is needed to sustain it. It permeates all aspects of social organisation, from the family to education, to employment, and into governance structures and security.

In almost all pre-conflict and conflict situations power is based on fear, and the consequent violence which is highly gendered. The evidence from all of those places of conflict was also stark: the majority does not  want violent conflict, but does not seem to have a choice as the power structures dictate the lines of division; ethnicity, political affiliation, class, religion … or combinations of the above.

In February during the attempt at Syrian peace talks, one of the women reminded me of that. “I have been talking with generals, ‘rebel’ fighters, Islamists…everyone that is now embroiled in this war. And they say the same thing. They just want to put their guns down and have a normal life,” she told me. Men and women are alike. They and their communities do not want violence; they simply want to live their lives without fear.

The Syrian women are doing incredible work to end violence, brokering local ceasefires, facilitating humanitarian access and trying to make peace. They are organising intelligently. Yet still they do not have real inclusion in the peace process.

In the midst of another war - in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Annie Matundu Mbambi, the president of WILPF in the DRC, runs a bakery. As women are baking bread together they are discussing how to get the guns out of their communities and women into decision making. Increasingly they discuss how to support the men who are transgressing their gender roles and wanting to deconstruct violent masculinities and work for peace.

These women are the equivalent of our WILPF women of 1915, but they  have not prevailed – not yet. It begs the question as to why it is so hard to create sustainable peace. It’s another of our choices.

One is reaction to difference. Feminists are diverse; different races and backgrounds, all colours shapes and sizes, but our diversity is our strength. It’s what makes us a brilliant though flawed species, and if we could embrace that thought it's what could build a serious and effective movement for change.

It’s not differences, but fear of difference, that causes conflict. We are taught to be afraid of ‘others’. Now we are ‘afraid’ of asylum seekers, migrants, Muslims…

And what do we do when we are made fearful? At first we become quiet, the rabbit in the head lights, then there is a rush for security and we think only of a militarised security which needs a particular type of masculinity to be elevated. It builds and needs a violent masculinity.

Most are not violent but they are not valued for it. Conscientious objectors are heroes, but they are denigrated. The men fleeing Syria want peace, do not want to fight but they are often vilified.

That system of militarised security needs weapons. The WILPF women of 1915 knew that expenditure on weapons would grow exponentially if we did not change the way we define security and they have been proven right. The world, that is our governments, spend on average one and a half trillion dollars a year on weapons for so called defense. Of us? Or of the system of power they have created in our name?

It’s a choice. Instead we could have used those trillions to realise the Millennium Development Goals which would have meant eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, mitigating climate change, and achieving gender equality. This could have been done several times over, and if you add the 7.6 trillion dollars sitting in off shore tax havens, then there is no shortage of money to bring equality and fundamental change. It’s a choice.

In 1945 the world decided to embody ideas for change in the UN Charter. It opens with “We the people of the member states of the United Nations” –  not ‘we the elite’ or ‘we the governments’ –  and the stated aim was “to save future generations from the scourge of war.”

It makes us the people responsible. It’s our choice.


Voting on the at WILPF 2015 Manifesto in the Hague. Credit Li Grebäck

Of course it was impossible in 1915 for 1,136 women to stop a war in full flow. But today we have International law which insists on equality for all. We have Security Council resolutions on Women Peace and Security, we have commitments to ensure women are part of peace processes. Yet still during the Syrian talks women had to fight long and hard just to become advisors to the mediator in February this year.

Most peace processes exclude women and nonviolent men and more than 70 % fail. Why? Because it’s not just about stopping warring parties. A peace negotiation on Syria may stop one war, but there are others and there will inevitably be more, unless, and until, we change our way of thinking; eschew militarism as a way of thought.

For many, trying to change the way the world is run looks too big, too distant, too beyond our ability to influence - but it’s not. Those who say they are personally happy probably have a decent level of material well being, but they also have, friends, family, they experience solidarity and support, empathy and decency in their lives. Feminists have always said that the personal is political. It is how you choose your way of being as an individual that can and will have broader influence and impact. You can choose nonviolence, choose to challenge gendered assumptions and stereotypes more broadly. It’s about bringing those values that make us happy into the spaces which make up our society, from the family to the education board, the local governance structures and onwards to the State and the multilateral system: “We the people.”

The global movement of Feminism has a vision; it’s an old one, but even more valid in our current state of the world: equality and an end to violence. It’s a jigsaw as to how we get there. Each of us has to bring our pieces to the table and look up to see how they fit to build that vision into reality.

If we do that, when our children ask us in 5, 10, 15 years time what we did when it seemed as if the world would implode, we can say with some degree of pride, that we stood up for humanity so that they could have theirs. That time is now.

This article stems from a Tedx talk by the author which will be aired later this month.

Read our series of articles for International Women's Day 2016

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