Listening to our conscience

A new anthology of women conscientious objectors reveals the extent to which rejection to military service is part of a greater movement for social change. Vanessa Alexander went along to the book launch

Vanessa Alexander
14 May 2010

I did not immediately understand the significance of women as conscientious objectors. I could relate to their desire to oppose war - but why not focus energies on peace advocacy rather than becoming conscientious objectors to war when women are so infrequently conscripted?

The answer became quite clear as I listened to Hilal Demir speak during the launch of the book “Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology” in London. Hilal is from Turkey, a place where women are not soldiers and certainly not conscripted. As she told her story with passion, but without vehemence, I found myself leaning in to hear every word. 

“When I was young, on children’s day they would put you in rows and make you march like a soldier. I was afraid. I felt fear, what if anything goes wrong in front of the generals who were watching? This is the reason I feel the need to raise my voice as a conscientious objector. The army is a symbol for the system of militarism that is played out in society as a whole.”

Hilal is part of a historically small but significant group of women whose stories about opposing war, either when conscripted or not, are recorded in the this anthology recently published by War Resisters International. They represent more than anti-war advocates, they oppose the very roots of war, even in so-called peace-time. In a world that accepts war as a just response to conflict, these women distance themselves from the viewpoint of ‘eat or be eaten’. They believe, as peace activist Bruce Kent does, “that ours is a culture of war, but cultures can change.”

The idea to record these stories came from a network of actors for non-violence, who sought to cover first the history of women COs during the second world war in Europe, and then to move into the present where women continue to reject the culture of war in militarised societies and make their rejection public through conscientious objection. While women COs make up a rather small proportion of total conscientious objectors, they represent a proportionally high number of “absolutist” COs, those who reject informal exemption from military service on principle, in order to have it recorded.

The women whose stories are documented in the anthology cover a broad spectrum of experience, ranging from those who have never signed up or even contemplated military service and object in an effort to “make visible the militarism which penetrates all sectors of social life”, to those who were once soldiers themselves before rejecting their membership in the military. What unites most of the women featured in this collection is that their conscientious objection to military service is based on their firm rejection of the notion of the warrior as the ideal, and how they see this playing out in the wider narrative of citizen-state relations reinforcing a multitude of inequalities in society. “South Korea does not have universal conscription” writes CO Jungmin Choi in her story, “since it is only men without money or power who are subscripted.” In addition to gender inequality, Jungmin’s story highlights poverty as another inequity perpetuated by war  - a thread that runs through many of the stories collected. The root of these inequities is the premise that the powerful rule the powerless, a message that is clearly reinforced by the military, but also a message that extends beyond the battlefield to permeate the whole of society. “Enlistment, as far as I’m concerned” writes Idan Halili, an objector from Israel, “means agreeing to be part of a system that is based on relations of power and control. Military service means contributing to a framework that systematically perpetuates the exclusion of women from the public sphere and construes their place in society as one that is secondary to that of men.”

Objectors from Israel, male and female, face a further obstacle in their effort build a more equitable society in the form of army service as a passport to citizenship. The story told by CO Talil Lerner describes how the “intense equation between the citizen and the soldier became more and more entrenched as the state and its institutions evolved … this is how Arab and ultra-orthodox Jewish citizens of Israel - who are legally exempted from military service- become second-class citizens.” 

Eritrea is an example of another highly militarised society where forced recruitment of women and men is an entrenched element to citizenship, yet goes much further in exposing how the military impacts the lives of women. Bisrat Habte Micael, from Eritrea, describes how she was conscripted at age 15, well below the legal minimum age, and was sent to a training camp in Sawa where there was little space for reflecting on feminist values, and where human life was treated with as little care as that of cattle at an abattoir, “Many girls were raped. Girls who didn’t comply, who rejected the men, were given the worst work or sent to the front".

In contrast with most of the stories in the anthology, those of Bisrat and her Eritrean compatriot Ruta Yosef-Tudla are singular in that they were unable to publicly question conscription and be heard by a tribunal or military court. They registered their objection by failing to complete their military service and fleeing to Germany. Both women now face the bureaucratic battle of asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected and who have no contact with their family. If they are returned to Eritrea they face long-term imprisonment, torture, or death for being military deserters.

“Patriarchal gender relations predispose our societies to war” writes feminist author Cynthia Cockburn and in so writing makes clear the message that I drew from this book - that it’s not just about conscription or violence, the message is much broader and can be understood as part of a greater movement for change. Cockburn in her article “Getting to Peace” laments the lack of connection between peace movements and other movements for change; that we fail to make the “connections between the explosive violence of actual war … and violence in everyday life and everyday culture”. Yet, this is precisely what women conscientious objectors are doing; each story in this collection speaks poignantly on its own, while contributing to the growing chorus of women conscientious objectors. It is evident that the writers were selected not because they are mothers or sisters of soldiers, but because they are women who as individuals and as feminists share a deep sense of injustice, not only for the sake of women but for society as a whole.

As Hilal Demir states in her declaration: “I don’t want to live in a world which is sexist, hierarchical, authoritarian, militant and patriarchal …I am rejecting all of these by listening to my conscience. And you?”

No. I don’t want that either, Hilal. I object too.






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