Feminist Security Studies Essay

This essay was written for the subject International Security, as part of a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne.

Critically identify and evaluate the contribution of feminist approaches to security studies.

Feminist approaches to security studies emerged in the late 1980s in response to a previously overlooked absence of female voices in the field, and across the discipline of international relations more broadly. Pioneering feminist security theorists, notably Jean Bethke Elshtain, Cynthia Enloe and J. Ann Tickner, sought to draw women’s unique security experiences and perspectives out of their perceived private realm and into the public security sphere, a space traditionally understood in relation to war and peace as played out between state actors and the men who make up their governments and armies. These early theorists attempted to locate both their own voices as women within a field traditionally dominated by “white men in ties” (Tickner in Sylvester 2002, p.9) and the voices of the countless women around the world whose threatened and compromised security could not continue to be ignored in security studies discourse if the discipline was to remain relevant to lived experience. Motivated by the belief that the inclusion of women’s security perspectives would enrich security studies by uncovering previously invisible insights and opening up pathways for new research and debate, pioneering feminist theorists challenged narrow, deeply entrenched definitions and notions of what constitutes security and whose security warrants consideration. The primary contribution of feminist approaches to security studies has been the broadening of boundaries around how security is understood and examined, in order to legitimise and prioritise the study of women’s unique security experiences as distinct from non-gendered, human security experiences. This essay will outline the achievements of feminist security theorists, particularly early theorists, in broadening and deepening the scope of the discipline by questioning traditional constructions of security, examining how women are affected by such constructions and investigating the real life security experiences of women around the world.

Since the emergence of feminist security studies in the late 1980s, theorists have approached the discipline through a range of distinct theoretical frameworks and lenses, intentionally and unintentionally imbuing their findings with unique personal insights and experiences in the process. There is no single “feminist way” to gather and analyse information about women’s experiences and needs, and as a result feminist security theorists have embraced a range of methodologies (Tickner in Narain 2014, p.187). It must be noted that resulting fragmentations and disagreements across feminist security studies do not invalidate the importance of the discipline, just as disagreements between theorists in other areas of security studies and international relations are not indicative of the irrelevance or shortcomings of those areas. Suggestions of this nature merely highlight the extent to which fearful security theorists seeking to maintain the status quo have attempted to silence and undermine the voices of pioneering women. While there is no single feminist security perspective, feminist theorists are united by the belief that women’s distinct experiences, needs, beliefs and voices matter to security studies. The location, examination and dissemination of these distinct, diverse and vitally important female experiences distinguishes feminist approaches to security studies from frameworks and theories that overlook or exclude the female position.

Feminist theorists have critiqued realism’s narrow state-centric definition of security for the lack of attention it gives to human (let alone female) perspectives. Although theories seeking to challenge realism’s narrow framework predate feminist security discourse, they give “virtually no attention to gender…as a category of analysis” (Tickner 1992, p.14). While feminist theorists acknowledge the widened scope of critical and human security studies as compared to traditional security studies, they note the continued gender blindness of these theories, which work to sustain violence towards women (Sylvester 2010, p.35). The inability of alternative security theories to serve the needs of women motivated early feminist theorists to bring women in by constructing their own inclusive framework.

In order to rationalise the need to broaden and expand the boundaries around security, feminist theorists highlight the shortcomings of existing security theories by applying gendered lenses in their analysis. While these theories frequently claim gender neutrality by avoiding the specification of distinctions between male and female security experiences, feminist analysis has uncovered the implicit gender assumptions that underpin such theories, privileging masculinity and relegating or completely ignoring women’s unique security position in the process. For example, realism primarily frames security in relation to the likelihood of war between state actors. These state actors are attributed human characteristics, in that they are said to “act”, and ideally “act rationally”, in order to protect their “interests” (Wadley 2010, p.38). While such anthropomorphism has permeated international relations and security studies discourse to the extent that it now goes largely unnoticed, little attention has been given to defining the gender of the humanised state. The absence of interrogation as to whether the state is understood as a man or a woman, and how this might affect the security of the actual men and women who populate states, is not necessarily indicative of the irrelevance of such questions, or of the genderless nature of the state. A belief that silence towards gender in discussions of “war, anarchy, alliances – all observably gendered processes – stands to benefit the most from the recognition that the key actors do not act without, or outside of, gender” (Wadley 2010, p.39) has motivated feminist analysis of gendered understandings of the state and how women are affected by this model.

Feminist approaches to security studies have refused to ignore the ways in which the functions of states are presented through gendered frameworks that privilege masculinity (Tickner 1992, p.42). For example, rationality and decisiveness, characteristics traditionally associated with men, have come to be idealised as characteristics to be expected of a strong, powerful state. This linkage infers a correlation between state security and masculinity, reinforcing the belief that strong, masculine states must act rationally to protect their vulnerable citizenry, who come to be understood as irrational females who are unable to defend themselves. Framing the state as a masculine guardian and the citizenry as vulnerable women reinforces the belief that war exclusively belongs to men. On this basis war is imbued with a noble and heroic quality, with brave men expected to go to war to protect women, the beautiful souls who stay at home and pine for their just warriors (Elshtain 1987). Feminist approaches to security studies have questioned the value of masculinised understandings of the state and the just warrior-beautiful souls dichotomy, scrutinising the extent to which these frameworks protect the security of women in war, beyond romanticised rhetoric.

While the need to defend innocent women and children has been used to justify warfare throughout its history, feminist security theorists have examined the ways that women are actually affected by wars that are fought in their name, often without their consent (Sjoberg & Martin 2007, p.18). Refusing to accept the moral correctness of soldiers being made to fight so that their wives and daughters do not have to do so, they have been mistrustful of the often convenient “strategic hoisting of the battered female body for international consumption” (Ni Aolain 2014) as a response to calls for justification of a state’s military intervention. If war protects women, who is protecting the security of the many women displaced as refugees by warfare, those who become victims of disproportionate sexual abuse and rape, or the women directly or indirectly forced into sexual slavery to service foreign soldiers? (Sjoberg & Martin 2007, p.9). In order to highlight the adverse and distinct ways that women experience war, feminist security studies theorists have relocated the emphasis of security from the state to the individual, and from the non-gendered individual to the woman.

Cynthia Enloe’s examination of the effects of military bases on the lives of women who live in and around them highlighted the previously ignored experiences of these women and the ways that their security was being sacrificed in order to privilege the security of military men. Historically, foreign military bases create or exacerbate prostitution, with local women who face poverty and a lack of employment options often directly or indirectly forced to earn a living by servicing military men (Enloe 1989, p.89). These women have a higher risk of transmitting sexually infected diseases than other women, as they have no protection against men who may refuse to use sexual protection. The introduction of AIDS to the Philippines in the late 1980s is an example of the arrival of a military base resulting in negative outcomes for local women (Enloe 1989, p.89). At the time of Enloe’s research, the problem of high rates of sexually transmitted disease around military bases was primarily presented as a threat to the security of military men. For example, female sex workers in the Philippines were made to undergo routine sexual health checks to ensure protection from disease for the men who used their services, yet their clients were exempted from the inconvenience and humiliation of equivalent checks. This unjust practice of prioritising the health of the men who choose to frequent sex workers over the workers themselves was an extension of the 19th century Cantonment Acts, which allowed British colonial authorities to perform physical genital examinations of women around military bases to protect men from contracting sexually transmitted diseases (Enloe 1989, p.89). This practice was an invasive and ineffective procedure that threatened the personal security of the women forced to endure it. Enloe drew attention to the injustice of these regulations and praised the work of activists in the Philippines who were demanding that American servicemen also undergo sexual health checks on the basis that the female sex workers deserved the same guarantee of protection from disease as their clients (Enloe 1989, p.89). Enloe highlighted the hypocrisy of a structure that left female sex workers vulnerable in order to serve the needs of the foreign soldiers who were meant to be offering security in the form of military power. By privileging examination of security threats faced by female sex workers around military bases, she validated the experiences of these women as a matter of international, rather than merely personal, concern. Her contribution is an example of feminist approaches to security studies bringing previously undervalued and overlooked female vantage points into the security dialogue. These approaches can be retrospectively applied to reframe understandings of the historic mistreatment and abuse of female sex workers in order to privilege military men, such as the Japanese army’s justification of the need for forced brothels, or “comfort stations”, as necessary to “enhance the morale of soldiers” (Varga 2009, p.290), with no regard for the morale of the traumatised women forced into slavery. Contemporary feminist security scholars continue to examine how local women are affected by their efforts to “protect the spirit of men who are meant to be protecting them with overseas military power” (Sylvester 2002, p. 35).

Feminist security theorists face a difficult task in attempting to highlight the negative ways that women are uniquely and disproportionately affected by war without reinforcing false dichotomies that position men as the capable protectors of weak women, strengthening claims that women are somehow inherently in need of saving. Feminist security theorists have examined the behaviour of individuals and groups of women whose involvement in war through activism, combat or as the bloodthirsty perpetrators of mass atrocities were previously overlooked in security studies, or not examined with specific reference to gender and sex. The behaviour of these women subverts stereotypes of women engaging with war and violence exclusively as either victims or pacifists. Gender-based research into the behaviour of convicted female war criminals, such as Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, who oversaw mass rape and genocide in Rwanda, and Biljana Plavsic, who was convicted for war crimes carried out during the Bosnian war (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2007), is not intended to glorify their role in masterminding and perpetrating horrific violence. Rather, a sex and gender focused analysis of these cases undermines the assumption that women are always victims in war and highlights the influence of sex and gender on an individual’s experience of violence and war.

In 1981 the actions of a group of female activists protesting against the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles at the US military’s Greenham Common Air Force base in Berkshire, England, reframed the security position of the base, from a source of protection to a threat to protection. In order to draw attention to the security threat posed by a US military presence that was meant to be securing the safety of the British people, the group established a physical presence by setting up camp outside the base. British policemen, civilian and government men banded together to suppress the women’s peace efforts, employing verbal taunts and physical force (Enloe 1989, p.79). The gendered nature of power relations between these groups was exacerbated by continuous references to the protestors as “irresponsible mothers, unwashed women, lesbians and hysterical political naïfs” (Enloe 1989, p.79), with the activist women’s refusal to fulfil conventional expectations of passive, agreeable femininity clearly as offensive to their opponents as their principal peace mission. By examining threats posed to the personal security of the Greenham Common activists, Enloe and other feminist security scholars prioritised personal, female security above the conventional, state security protection role supposedly filled by the base. The ease with which the Greenham Common women permeated and upset the function of the base through entirely peaceful means, such as pulling down fences and dancing on silos, drew into question the legitimacy of military bases as impenetrable symbols of power and security. Feminist security theorists examined the ways in which the Greenham Common women had challenged conventional security and had their own security challenged in the process, specifically on the basis of their sex. This analysis called for the broadening and deepening of traditional state and military based conceptions of security in order to legitimise the actions and experiences of individuals and small groups of women as relevant to the security discussion.

The feminist project of challenging existing security frameworks has motivations and implications that extend beyond the sphere of academic theory. The feminist security studies agenda has repeatedly responded to real world events and the need to find solutions to security issues that often disproportionately affect women, such as sex-trafficking, rape as a weapon of war and scandals surrounding the conduct of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers in times of crisis (Buzan & Hansen 2009, pg.212). For example, calls for prosecution of institutionalised rape in military conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the early 1990s was informed by feminist security studies, and also highlighted the urgent need to address threats to women’s security. Heightened regard for feminist security studies has also worked to reframe the way historic abuses of women’s security are memorialised, such as the Japanese armies use of military sex slaves in World War II. While the gross abuse of the so-called “comfort women” may have previously elicited pity, feminist security theorists have helped to reframe the issue as a war crime requiring international attention (Nozaki 2008, p.140).

Academic developments in the field of feminist security studies have been accompanied by the introduction and implementation of specialised programmes and policies designed to improve the security position of women in the international arena. The 2000 adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the first international, legally binding agreement to acknowledge women’s specific experiences of violence in international security (Brunner 2012, p.2) was a significant development in the prioritisation of women’s security issues in the mainstream international relations sphere. The influence of feminist security studies discourse on the passage of this resolution, and subsequent UN Resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1960, must be recognised. While acknowledging the symbolic significance of its passage, feminist theorists have rigorously examined the problematic nature of Resolution 1325’s underlying gender assumptions and emphasised the difficulties of implementation by outsider parties in areas of violent conflict. Specifically, Resolution 1325 has been critiqued for drawing regressive correlations between women, peace and security by justifying the need to bring women into the security dialogue in terms of their value as peacemakers (Cohn, Kinsella & Gibbings 2004, p.136). Framing the inclusion of women on such terms risks stalling the feminist security dialogue at “add women (as victims/peace builders) and stir” (Cohn, Kinsella & Gibbings 2004, p.138), while reinforcing the suggestion that women are implicitly more peaceful than men strengthens the proliferation of incorrect conceptualisations of womanhood that are not reflective of actual women. While feminine values privilege peace and security, the values of real women may not (Sjoberg & Peet 2010, pg.72). Criticism of the application of feminist security studies instruments in the international sphere, such as Resolution 1325, are an attempt by theorists to ensure the real world effectiveness of initiatives designed to improve outcomes for women’s security. Participation by feminist security theorists in the international relations security dialogue increases the potential for women to be directly involved when decisions about their security are made.

Feminist curiosity and critical thinking has often turned inward, provoking unbiased analysis of the success of feminist approaches to security studies in promoting the importance of women’s security across the discipline. It has not gone unnoticed that feminist security studies discourse remains underrepresented in leading security journals, glossed over or not included in prominent university courses and largely marginalised as a niche or secondary area of interest. Where feminist security studies are prioritised in the mainstream security discourse, they may unwittingly reinforce problematic gender assumptions. The constraints and limitations that continue to plague feminist security theorists over 25 years since the establishment of the field are indicative of the need for sustained, rigorous efforts to bridge the gap between how feminist and non-feminist security theorists define and approach security. The immense contribution provided by feminist approaches to security studies must be commended. Feminist theorists have unveiled the myth of gender neutrality in security studies as the truth of gender-blindness by interrogating the inherently gendered nature of security constructions and attempting to provide the women who struggle against such constructions a voice.

Early feminist security theorists worked to represent women’s security perspectives from the undervalued position of womanhood within the “man’s world, of power and conflict” (Tickner in Sjoberg 2010, p.1) of international security in the 1980s. Their unrelenting efforts have resulted in heightened prioritisation of women’s security perspectives based on an understanding that the voices, experiences and needs of women must be included in the security discourse if it is to remain relevant to human experience beyond the pages of academic journals. By pushing against narrow constructions of security that exclude women, early theorists have freed up their contemporaries to focus explorations beyond mere justification of the need for women’s voices to be included in the discussion at all. Their legacy continues to inspire a “collective future in which women and men share equally in the construction of a safer and more just world” (Ticker 1992, p.25), where both men and women are understood as deserving of security.

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