Without Systemic Rethinking, Inclusion is Cooption: On the Need for Feminist Perspectives in Security and Defense Sectors

by Saskia Basa

There is no question that the push for inclusion of women in security and defense sectors is gaining traction. In the 21 years that followed the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, over 80 countries have released national action plans to increase representation of women in peacebuilding and security sectors. Despite great evolution in the Woman, Peace and Security agenda, it has not escaped criticism over the omission of an intersectional perspective, which recognises how gender interacts with other identity markers such as sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, skin color and ethnicity.

MEP Hanna Neumann has been leading attempts to advance this perspective at the European level, launching the second edition of the Shecurity Index in coalition with a group of civil society organisations, looking at the representation of women in security and defense sectors. In its 2021 edition, the index featured women of color and LGBTQI+ women, revealing stark underrepresentation of these groups due to additional barriers and obstacles. Despite attempts to move ‘beyond representation’, the focus of the index still relies excessively on quantifying the presence of women in security and defense sectors, making demands that are primarily based on representation: “Peace needs women. More and fast.”

While these efforts to increase representation are welcome, we should be cautious to rely exclusively on representation politics to articulate our demands. We need more and diverse women in the peace and security sectors, but most importantly we need feminist perspectives. By feminist, I mean intersectional perspectives which help us imagine new peace and security systems that support the emancipation of all from the moral tyranny of war, irrespective of gender, class, race, sexual orientation or identity. As QCEA states in its guide on Gender & Inclusivity in Peace & Security, gender matters to peace and security because of its transformative, rather than reformative power.

More women peacemakers, and peacekeepers and peacebuilders are needed, yet we should be careful in collating peace, security, defense and foreign policy together. Albeit at times these sectors work hand in hand and have overlapping instruments, they have quite distinct mandates and thus the ability of women leading transformative change in these institutions differs greatly. While it is valid that women, racialised, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex persons demand fair representation in ‘enforcement’ institutions including the security forces, the military or the police, history teaches us a thing or two about the cooption of oppressed groups to legitimize existing power imbalances.

Feminists have learned this the hard way, watching a coalition of western powers frame the military occupation of Afghanistan as a feminist imperative, a necessary move to ‘save Afghan women from Afghan men’. This is just one example of how feminist claims can be instrumentalised to further advance the power of the state and the impunity of their operations abroad. These strategies are popularly known in feminist thought as purplewashing. A related term, pinkwashing, was coined to describe how states legitimise military intervention and oppression of marginalised groups in the name of LGBTIQ* rights, with homonationalism being the framework that allows them to do so. Homonationalist discourses are already visible across the EU, with LGBTIQ* persons being increasingly included in political parties, institutions and social movements that endorse xenophobic, islamophobic or anti-immigration policies.

We should be wary that homonationalism increasingly makes LGBTIQ* claims vulnerable to cooption, and by simply asking for more representation of women, LGBTIQ* and people of color, we might inadvertently be legitimising institutions that operate at the expense of marginalised communities. Particularly, one should reflect on whether it is helpful to demand representation in institutions such as the military, which often works to the detriment of peace, fueling conflicts that primarily victimise black and brown populations, especially women of color and LGBTIQ* people living in the Global South. The example of Israel, a country that prides itself of having the most inclusive military for women and LGBTIQ* persons, shows that rainbow militaries would not necessarily bring us closer to peace. On the contrary, they would reinforce a system in which militarised responses to conflict gain territory over civilian-led, regenerative approaches. Under the pretext of promoting more diverse military forces, resources may be diverted from civilian responses towards militarised ones.

The bottom line is that we need more women in security and defense sectors insofar as this representation leads us to radical systemic rethinking, to profound transformation. Otherwise, women, LGBTIQ* women and women of color will continue to be used as tokens to perpetuate the status quo. Looking forward, it is essential that we reimagine security and defense so that they truly serve communities everywhere. A new horizon and way of thinking has already emerged, with a number of groups attempting to articulate a new concept of security not based on militarisation, zero-sum games or realist geopolitics, but on what truly makes people feel safe, protected and free of fear. We will only be walking the path towards lasting peace when we come to a shared understanding that providing robust social services for all is the best conflict prevention tool, and that nonviolent, civilian responses to conflict should always be prioritised.

About saskiabasaqcea

Saskia is the Peace Programme Assistant at the Quaker Council for European Affairs.
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