Young people show compassion with @letshelpdirectprovision
15th October 2020
Young people show compassion with @letshelpdirectprovision
15th October 2020
OPINION + WOMEN
Women and the Military: Could pushing female representation do more harm than good?
2nd October 2020
From female CEOs to LGBTQ+ visibility in films, the participation of under-represented groups in powerful institutions has been widely praised as both a reflection of and a catalyst for, social progress. However, to what extent individual representation should be prioritised is a matter of serious contention within social justice movements. In the age of tokenism and performative allyship, many are now asking: how useful is representation in and of itself? If individual members of marginalised groups are in positions of power, will the necessary changes for their community be achieved, or do we need a collective movement of oppressed groups to attack systems of inequality from the outside? These questions have been particularly divisive in feminist discussions on women and the military.
Some women’s rights advocates argue that in countries such as the U.S. and Britain, the army is an instrument of patriarchy and imperialism that cannot be participated in from a feminist perspective. However, the argument generally put forth by liberal feminists is that progress in this area cannot be gained without female representation in the military. For instance, when all U.S. military positions became open to women in 2015, the move was praised by some as a victory for women’s rights; but some left-wing feminists argued that this development widened the reach of the American military, an institution that ultimately perpetuated violence against women of colour in other countries. In Britain, there was a similar discourse about whether the opening of combative roles to women should be interpreted as a feminist milestone. Today, the use of feminist language in British Army PR campaigns has raised scepticism again. When Laura Whitmore defended her appearance on the British Army podcast, she argued that “every industry and body is bettered by… a balance of all sexes”. While this is often true, is possible that the push for female recruits may do more harm than good for women’s rights?
Every industry and body is bettered by equality and a balance of all sexes x
— Laura Whitmore (@thewhitmore) August 4, 2020
There are undeniable benefits to promoting female representation in many contexts. Increasing the number of women in decision-making roles can lead to more gender-sensitive policies being adopted and improve institutions as a whole. For instance, when women are involved in negotiating peace processes, this not only increases the likelihood of gender provisions being included in peace agreements but also increases the sustainability of peace in general. The importance of female representation in influential roles is often discussed in the context of critical mass theory. This theory argues that having a very small percentage of female decision-makers is unlikely to progress gender equality. However, once a critical mass of female representation is achieved, usually estimated at 30%, women’s interests are more likely to be defended. This theory can be applied to boards of directors, political offices and any position involved in policy-making. However, does it apply to army recruits?
In considering this, it’s important to remember that the advancement of women’s rights through representation can only happen when women are actually given decision-making power. Entry-level cadets and lower-ranking members of the military have no say over the rules they follow. Moreover, even the highest-ranking members of the military ultimately do not determine their nation’s foreign policy agenda, and how it may impact female civilians. Therefore, when the army pushes for female recruits, be it through making more positions available to women, or using feminist talking points in their recruitment campaigns, this does not necessarily present an opportunity for women to shape military policy. Of course, it could be argued that a higher level of female participation at entry level will eventually lead to more women in higher ranks. However, gendered barriers and widespread discrimination make it unlikely for a critical mass of women at the top to be achieved through the normal course of promotion. If the British military actually wanted to include a female perspective, they wouldn’t be using media campaigns – they would be adopting targeted internal policies such as quotas for high ranking positions. Given that the army has only recently allowed women to even apply for all roles, it seems unlikely that affirmative action is on its way any time soon.
“If the British military actually wanted to include a female perspective, they wouldn’t be using media campaigns – they would be adopting targeted internal policies such as quotas for high ranking positions.”
However, even if there was a large minority of women in the higher ranks of the military, recent research suggests that this would not actually guarantee the progression of women’s interests. While some studies show that increased female representation will lead to more gender-sensitive policies when over 30% of decision-makers are women, other studies have shown the opposite to be true. Increased representation sometimes hinders women’s interest; while a small number of women may be accepted within an establishment, a large minority can be perceived as a threat to male dominance and thus face a negative response. This kind of backlash could be of particular concern in the military, where there is a long history of male dominance and ongoing issues of discrimination and abuse against women.
A lack of understanding of civilian women in war is another reason why female participation in the army might not be effective in bringing about change. The reason female representation at the top can sometimes advance the position of women more broadly is not that every woman is necessarily committed to feminism – but because female leaders often have shared experiences with their female subordinates, and can understand and empathise with what it means to be a woman in their institution. However, servicewomen in the British Army are unlikely to have experienced the gendered impacts of war or understand the experiences of female civilians in conflict. Furthermore, the disproportionate effects of conflict on women are often indirect and may not be witnessed first-hand by foreign soldiers. Because of this, increased female participation might lead to some advancements in the internal workings of the military, but is unlikely to make war safer for female civilians, the most vulnerable group in this context.
British Army recruitment campaign targeting women (Ministry of Defence, 2020)
Overall, the British military pushing for female recruits could lead to improvements for servicewomen at some undefined point in the future. However, these benefits are ultimately uncertain and indirect. Unfortunately, the harms of this kind of campaigning are more concrete. When the British Army uses feminist rhetoric to sell militarism, it is intended to sanitize their public image and make war seem more palatable to those who value women’s rights. This situation can be described as “woke-washing”, and serves to drown out concerns about the oppressive impact of militarism on female civilians. In practice, this means that the lived experiences of marginalised women are shoved to one side, while images of the military as a driving force for empowerment circulates mainstream media. This situation could make people being less likely to fight for justice because there has been the illusion of progress but no meaningful change. From the army’s perspective, if they can reap the benefits of being perceived as feminist either way, there is no incentive to acknowledge women’s rights abuses in the past or to work towards change in the future. These damages exist even if the military is unsuccessful in recruiting more women because the affiliation of the army with feminist talking-points is powerful in of itself.
“Prioritizing the individual ambitions of white women over the collective needs of women of colour is a defining feature of “white feminism”, and yet another issue with the military co-opting feminist language”
On the other hand, if this kind of campaigning does attract more women, it means that the army can expand its reach and power. If history is anything to go by, this looks like a greater capacity for unnecessary military interventions that disrupt civilian lives and perpetuate gendered violence. It is of course true that some women may find military service empowering and want the chance increase to improving conditions for servicewomen. While everyone should be free to choose their career path, praising these cases as a win for feminism is misguided. An increase in female recruits could someday benefit the predominantly white population of British servicewomen, but these gains would ultimately rely on an institution that oppresses and kills women of colour. This is particularly problematic given that servicewomen choose to be in the army, while civilian women don’t consent to how their lives are impacted by military intervention. Prioritizing the individual ambitions of white women over the collective needs of women of colour is a defining feature of “white feminism”, and yet another issue with the military co-opting feminist language.
For as long as civilians shoulder the cost of imperialism, and empty rhetoric is used in place of real change, the military will continue to be a patriarchal force. As feminists, this is not a system we should strive to participate in or strengthen, but rather something we should refuse to accept. Whether it is in the ballot box, in the streets or in the media, feminist action needs to incorporate an anti-war perspective and raise the voices of civilian women in conflict throughout the world.
Remembering John Lennon and Matthew Shepard on the anniversary of Shepard’s death
11th October 2020
Today, October 12th, 2020, marks twenty-two years since Matthew Shepard’s murder, three days after the 80th birthday of John Lennon, international peace and human rights activist and icon, who was also murdered and lost to the world at an unbearably young age.
Why is it important to remember their lives and what they stood for today, in 2020? It is important because their lives and deaths symbolize the fragility of the global fight for human rights. The victims of hate and violence, such as Lennon and Shepard, are among the people who made it possible for us even to begin to talk about human rights and pie-in-the-sky notions such as world peace. Additionally, many young people do not know who Matthew Shepard was.
In the next few weeks, we will march into a time of intense vitriol and polarization. The progress on which we have been riding will be renegotiated and redecided at the ballot box by over 300 million people. During this period, we must remember the sacrifices of people whose work and memories have formed the basis of the human rights movement, which is at a critical stage in its progression. Matthew Shepard and John Lennon are two of those people.
John Lennon was shot outside of his apartment building, the Dakota, in New York City on December 8th, 1980. Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and left to die on the Wyoming prairie and died on October 12th, 1998.
Shepard’s mother described his final moments in his hospital bed this way:
“Bandages and stitches all over his face,” […] “and bandages around his head where the final blow had crushed his brain stem. His fingers and toes were curled in a comatose position already. Tubes everywhere enabling his body to stay alive. One of his eyes was partially open so you could see his blue eyes and the tubes in his mouth. You could see his braces, so of course it’s Matt. His face was swollen, actually kind of unrecognisable till you got closer.”
Lennon was a political target not only due to his support for the peace movement but because he was married to a Japanese woman, with whom he eventually had a son, Sean. In the 1960s and 1970s, inter-cultural marriages, which is one way of putting it, were not easy affairs. Lennon’s personal decisions were political. Significantly, Lennon’s professional decisions were also political: Ono was only named as a co-writer of Imagine in 2017.
Lennon was also a baby boomer, of the same generation as my parents. His parents would have involved in or at least affected by, the war that undoubtedly left Ono’s childhood with deep, indelible scars and trauma. Their martial and professional union literally spanned the globe, cultural borders, and historically disparate human civilizations. Lennon would have grown up among the first generation in human history, probably, to be educated about concentration camps and the evils of mass murder, or the international crimes that comprise the basis of the jurisdiction of a human innovation formed after his death: the International Criminal Court.
Their lives and deaths are clear, strong reminders of the work that is left to be done for all vulnerable people, including women, not just to be able to physically survive in the world, but to thrive. In the coming days and weeks, many of us will have a critical choice to make that will influence the world. We will continue to have micro-choices in front of us on how we implement our commitment to human rights and feminism in our daily practices.
This brings me back to the context in which I introduced this topic: The future is ours. The question is: what will we do with it? I hope that we will choose to “Give peace a chance, not shoot people for peace. All we need is love. I believe it.”
Climate Migration: Effects of COVID-19 lockdown measures
Lydia Howard Chevalier
6th October 2020
Unfortunate, though it may be, the initially positive reactions of eco-activists after the introduction of strict lockdown measures may have been premature. Online reports of crystal-clear water running through the canals of Venice and visible starry skies in China proved to be the glimmer of hope we were all desperately searching for in the midst of these unprecedented times. That sense of hope was short-lived, however, and data soon emerged showing that although levels of carbon emissions declined somewhat thanks to lockdown measures, this was merely a temporary slowdown – and environmental damage from the burning of fossil fuels is continuing, unabated. Indeed, pandemic safety measures, such as the wearing of PPE, is contributing even further waste – non-recyclable face masks and gloves can be found discarded carelessly on our streets and in our landfills. Whilst our attention has been almost exclusively focused on COVID-19 during these past few months, we must not forget that nothing on our planet exists in a vacuum – climate change is inextricably linked with public health as well as with migration.
In 2019 alone, extreme weather events displaced 24 million people within their own countries – an alarmingly high number, serving as a stark reminder that we must not ignore the seriousness of the issue. Climate change is likely to result in even more frequent and intense weather events in the future, which will inevitably lead to a dramatic shift in the demographics of our planet. The displacement of large numbers of people is a high-risk scenario, particularly during a global pandemic – how can migrants obey stay-at-home orders when their homes have been destroyed by hurricanes, bush fires and major floods? Can we reasonably expect social distancing in cramped refugee camps or frequent handwashing in places where soapy water is often unavailable due to damage to infrastructure? Consider the example of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti; survivors in crowded camps were often forced to drink water that had been contaminated by flooded rivers and latrines, resulting in a serious cholera outbreak, killing many of those who already displaced. If we wish to suppress the spread of COVID-19, we must also simultaneously address climate change.
Hurricane Matthew: the impact on housing in Corail and Jeremie, Haiti (BBC, 2016)
Migration due to environmental change is not a new concept; however, the levels of climate migration have increased dramatically in recent years. According to the Migration Data Portal, in 2019 alone, nearly 2,000 disasters triggered 24.9 million new internal displacements, the highest number since 2012. These were mostly the result of tropical storms and monsoon rains in South Asia and East Asia and Pacific. While it is difficult to measure exactly how many have fled their homes as a direct result of climate change, it is categorised as a “threat amplifier”: something which exacerbates an existing situation, such as conflict or competition over scarce resources. Those who are forced to flee their homes as a direct result of sudden-onset weather changes face a complex legal situation when attempting to access assistance or seek asylum; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) currently refuses these migrants refugee status, designating them merely as “environmental migrants” and leaving them out in the cold without legal protection.
Unlike the measures introduced to tackle the pandemic, there is no organised effort to monitor the migrant population, and the UN lacks the resources to address their needs. The Sustainable Development Goals mention climate action and the urgent need to address it; however, the refusal of the US to adopt the Global Compact and its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement are not very encouraging signs of a commitment to future action. The Global Compact on Migration represents a unique opportunity for the international community to understand the climatic drivers of migration as well as the impact of migration on the environment, while the Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to climate change by setting out goals involving carbon-emission mitigation, new technologies and the reinforcing of countries’ adaptive abilities in the face of severe weather events.
How a situation is perceived is critical when planning an effective response. Too much doom-and-gloom on the news can lead to “crisis fatigue” – a phenomenon many are already familiar with, watching the ever-rising death toll on television every night. This can lead to a sense of hopelessness, which is only amplified when the population also views extreme weather events as “acts of God” over which they feel no sense of control. Utilising a crisis-narrative inhibits effective action, as crises are typically short-term, unexpected events of which we could have had no prior knowledge or indeed, any level of preparedness. This can be applied to both COVID-19, which proved to be the “Disease X” public health experts have warned us about for many years, as well as climate change, the effects of which we have long been aware of. We cannot keep burying our heads in the sand when faced with mounting evidence of the effects of both of these threats.
COVID-19 and climate change pose immediate and long-term challenges to our well-being and everyday survival; the New York Times estimates that in South Asia alone, the living conditions of 800 million people could dramatically diminish due to climate change. Therefore, both must be addressed with an equal amount of urgency, long-term planning and multilateral cooperation. One significant difference must be acknowledged, however: flattening the curve of climate change will take many years, as opposed to mere weeks, and will require effective, pre-emptive intervention. International organisations such as the UN should specifically target the most vulnerable populations when planning to provide assistance and support, as it is often the countries with the lowest adaptive capacities who suffer disproportionately from the effects of flooding, droughts and desertification.
“The lockdown measures we have all recently been subjected to has offered us a brief insight into the impact on human wellbeing of restrictions on mobility.”
The idea that closed borders represents safety while open borders bring chaos and danger is a flawed and dangerous one that right-wing populists across the developed world have capitalised on throughout both the 2015 refugee crisis and the current pandemic. The lockdown measures we have all recently been subjected to has offered us a brief insight into the impact on human wellbeing of restrictions on mobility – a mere snapshot of what it is like for those fleeing parts of the world rendered uninhabitable by the devastating effects of climate change. Whilst all public health experts recommend travel and border restrictions as a necessary part of the pandemic response, they emphasise that this must be done on a test-and-trace basis, instead of an all-encompassing blanket ban. Such measures could lead people to fear “outsiders” or “foreigners” as potential sources of infection, a fear which could translate into a long-term policy if we are not careful. We need to remember the opportunities and benefits of welcoming migrants into our communities: many societies are experiencing a demographic decline and ageing populations – a fresh injection of migrant workers can provide a significant boost to local economies, a much-needed necessity in many post-COVID nations. The irony seemed lost on U.K. politicians recently when many applauded and expressed gratitude to the NHS for saving lives throughout the pandemic, despite the fact that many of its healthcare workers are migrants living in a nation whose Home Office is fighting to maintain policies that promote a “hostile environment” for such workers in order to deter any future influx.
And so, we have arrived at our current situation, through a combination of denial, ignorance (politically motivated or otherwise) and a preference for short-term gain, all whilst ignoring the true long-term pain. This myopic attitude must change if we are to ensure the survival and quality of life of the inhabitants of this Earth. We cannot simply relocate the problem, irresponsibly dispose of our waste in developing nations, and perpetuate an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The evidence is clear: the developed world may be more capable (but perhaps not always willing) to prepare for and manage the effects of extreme weather events, while many in underdeveloped nations lack this capacity. Yet as true as it is that we will all suffer through our own inaction, this conversely means that we will surely all benefit through positive, coordinated action.
To learn more about ‘Climate Migration’ check out STAND’s online student festival taking place between the 12th – 24th of October 2020. To register for online workshops, creative events and panel discussions, click here!
The Far Right Rises – yet another anti-mask protest in the capital
4th October 2020
If you have wandered through O’Connell Street in the past number of weeks, you may have noticed certain groups protesting outside the GPO. Upon first glance, it may have been difficult to identify exactly what was being protested: some raised placards call to “Protect Our Children”, and Irish tricolours are plentiful. Then, however, you may see the signs that beg you to “take off your mask”, claiming that “it’s only a common cold”. It becomes clear that the demonstration in question is an anti-mask one, protests that have been ongoing in Ireland since July.
The latest in these strings of incidents took place yesterday afternoon, October 3rd, as hundreds of anti-mask campaigners held a sit-down in the middle of Grafton Street as part of a protest in Dublin city centre. The protesters started with a rally outside the Custom House before marching to Grafton Street chanting “no more lockdown” and “no more masks”. While Gardai are investigating the organisation of the protest, it was believed to be linked to the group Yellow Vest Ireland. Yellow Vest is a populist movement that was founded to imitate the French Gilets Jaunes, describing itself as a “people’s movement” that is “not aligned to any political group, organisation or politician”. It has protested on a range of issues in recent years, like vulture funds, property taxes, the banking system and the immigration system. Their most recent activism has been aimed towards the anti-face-mask movement, however, with no social distancing and, of course, no face-masks, present at the event. Some of these demonstrations’ attendees may merely be believers of conspiracy theories about the virus, while others might simply be of the opinion that Government restrictions have gone too far. But is there a more sinister edge? It has come to light that such issues like direct provision, child protection, and most recently, this opposition to measures taken in response to Covid-19, have brought a growing far-right movement from existing almost entirely online, onto the streets.
Never a dull moment on Grafton Street! A protest happening right now – view from @cardgallery_ie.@IrishTimes @Independent_ie @thejournal_ie @rtenews @rte @newstalk @DublinTown #graftonstreet#dublin #protest #Dublincity pic.twitter.com/BWDD1014QG
— Card Gallery (@cardgallery_ie) October 3, 2020
The Yellow Vest protest was led by a formal “colour party”, comprising members of a Donegal-based far-right group named Siol na hÉireann. Its founder, Niall McConnell, spoke at the protest, rallying against “LGBTQ+ propaganda” and equating immigration to plantation. Earlier on the 12th September, veteran LGBTQ+ activist Izzy Kamikaze was struck in the head with a piece of wood wrapped in an Irish Tricolour at an anti-mask demonstration on Kildare Street that she was counter-protesting. The masked man who assaulted Kamikaze was part of a smaller group of protestors wearing badges that read “Antifa Hunting Permit. Open Season. All 58 Genders”. Antifa is short for Anti-Fascist, which is a decentralised left-wing protest movement that gained prominence in the U.S. recently for aggressively protesting against the far-right. And on August 22nd, a small number of far-right protestors, wearing face-masks and surgical gloves and armed with weapons such as iron bars and batons, attended a large anti-mask protest outside Custom House. These protestors were believed to be members of the Irish branch of Generation Identity, a thought-to-be deplete white nationalist organisation focuses on street activism and thought to have attended combat and survival training courses abroad.
“Opposition to measures taken in response to Covid-19, have brought a growing far-right movement from existing almost entirely online, onto the streets.”
Gardaí have been concerned about the expanding far-right in Ireland for many months now. In November, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris expressed that he is “concerned about right-wing extremism. We can see evidence of it on our shores as we have seen it spread across Europe.” In June, Europol warned of a meaningful escalation in far-right activity in Ireland. Dr Eileen Culloty, a disinformation researcher at DCU, explained that far-right activity has merely accelerated since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures taken. “Back in March, they were mostly scapegoating minorities for breaking the lockdown rules, even though minorities are making up a large proportion of the key workers keeping Europe open. Then over the summer, it moved towards exploiting people’s frustration over the restrictions and claiming Covid was a hoax. And then, in the last month or so, it has culminated in these anti-mask demonstrations that are popping up around Europe.”
Opposition to lockdown measures is merely the latest cause commandeered by the far right. This is clearly seen in the case of McConnell and his far-right ideals infiltrating the supposedly non-political Yellow Vest protest. Yellow Vest leaders later spoke out against McConnell’s speech, claiming that all were welcome at their protests – and it is true that the far right is just a tiny minority of the attendees at such protests. But they are present. They are able to utilise the platform to advance their own agenda. They have an audience, willing to listen and capable of being persuaded. This is where the danger begins.
Featured photo by Paul Dunlea
OPINION + WOMEN
Women and the Military: The unequal burden of war
4th October 2020
In recent years, the relationship between women and the military has become topical in countries such as the UK. In 2018 all positions in the British Army became open to women for the first time, and since then the army has been using increasingly feminist rhetoric in their PR and recruitment campaigns. However, during the same period, government reports and individual testimonies have shed light on the level of discrimination, abuse, and sexual harassment experienced by women in the British armed forces. These issues have fuelled important discussions on the compatibility of feminism and the military – or lack thereof. These discussions have been largely focused on the experiences of female soldiers, questioning whether army service can be empowering to women on an individual level. However, the stories of female civilians (the group that has historically been most affected by war) have been consistently left out of the discourse. Women who have witnessed the reality of imperialist military intervention and shouldered the true cost of war should be at the forefront in discussions about gender and the army. Instead, both historically and in the present day, female civilians in conflict have had their voices spoken over and their stories twisted and misused, for the benefit of imperialist powers.
As we can see in the British Army’s current PR campaign, particularly in their podcast episode with Laura Whitmore, feminism is being appropriated in order to paint military service as empowering to women. Another, perhaps even more dangerous way in which feminism has been misused is in the portrayal of Western military interventions as liberatory to civilian women. Both of these narratives are used to expand the military reach and both erase the lived experiences of women who have suffered at the hands of militarism. The image of Western military powers as an emancipatory force for women has been promoted for over a century, yet ultimately could not be further from the truth.
Historically, Britain and other European powers have attacked the rights and undermined the autonomy of women in colonised countries. In the process of colonisation, the social, legal, and economic structures of patriarchy were often forced upon native societies. For instance, in pre-colonial Canada, indigenous society generally valued women, and indigenous women often held leadership and decision-making roles. Furthermore, because of strong kinship systems, women were not economically dependent on men. However, colonial settlers ignored the position of women in indigenous culture, refusing to engage with female spokespersons and enforcing the patriarchal norms that had been well-established in Europe by that time. The lasting impact of patriarchal colonialism can still be seen in Canada today, where indigenous women face the highest rates of violence, poverty, and poor health.
“The image of Western military powers as an emancipatory force for women has been promoted for over a century, yet ultimately could not be further from the truth.”
The colonisation of Africa also saw the European ideals of patriarchy imposed on native women. The arrival of cash crops and the exclusion of women from the marketplace meant that African women generally lost power and economic independence during the colonial period. Because colonial authorities relied on the testimony of men to establish customary laws, the legal systems that developed under colonialism disadvantaged women. Furthermore, the pre-colonial political activity of women was largely disregarded and colonial agents worked exclusively with men in establishing political offices. For instance, in many parts of West Africa, associations run by and for women had deciding authority in disputes related to markets and agriculture. However, because these institutions were completely disregarded by European colonisers, they tended to lose power after the late 19th century. Overall, Britain, alongside other imperialist powers, has a long history of reversing the rights and freedoms of civilian women in colonised countries.
Despite this reality, the subject of women’s rights was used to defend British imperialism. This phenomenon relied on the portrayal of women in the Global South as victims, who need to be saved from their own culture by “civilised” Westerners. This paternalistic and racist narrative has been used time and time again to justify devastating wars and exploitative invasions, particularly in Islamic countries. As scholar Leila Ahmed discusses in her book Women and Gender in Islam, the late 19th-century British coloniser Lord Cromer used the veiling of women in Islam as evidence of the inferiority of Islamic civilisations, and ultimately as justification for the colonisation of Egypt. Lord Cromer actively opposed women’s suffrage in Britain and hindered the progression of women’s liberation in Egypt – yet none of this stopped him from using women’s rights as a pretext for his colonial endeavours. Disturbingly, a similar pattern is still playing out in the 21st century.
Since the early 2000s, Britain and the United States have used “feminist” rhetoric to help justify imperialist military invasions in the Middle East. In 2001, George Bush pushed the idea that war in Afghanistan would free “women of cover ” – reverting to the same patronizing portrayal of Muslim women that was used to defend British colonialism over a century prior. Concerningly, women were also complicit in promoting this storyline, with both Laura Bush and Cherie Blair being wheeled out to speak on the plight of Afghan women in the lead up to war – as though Western military invasions and bombing raids would somehow help liberate them. Yet in 2011, ten years into the war, Afghanistan was named the “most dangerous place in the world to be a woman”, with ongoing conflict and NATO airstrikes among the primary reasons cited. In a similar fashion, the narrative of rescuing women was used to legitimise the Iraq war. Bush repeatedly made vague, non-committal statements about women’s rights in the lead-up to the invasion. “Respect for women can … triumph in the Middle East and beyond”, he said in a speech to the UN in 2002 in which he urged action on Iraq. While Iraqi women were granted some benefits on paper during the war period, in reality, they were disproportionately harmed by conflict and left with less security and economic autonomy than before. The vast suffering of female civilians at the hands of British and U.S. military action highlights the utter emptiness of feminist language in this context.
George W. Bush gives a speech on war in the Middle East, focusing on the rights of women (videocafeblog, 2008)
The trend of world leaders appropriating feminism to sell militarism ultimately contributes to public ignorance about what war really means for women. According to the United Nations, war and conflict exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities and leave women at a heightened risk of human rights violations. During conflict, women and girls are increasingly targeted through the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war. In late 2019, the British government and army were accused of covering up war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including sexual abuse. As well as a serious increase in the risk of gender-based violence, women are also disproportionately impacted by unstable access to essential services. Access to healthcare, including sexual and reproductive healthcare, can often be disrupted during conflict, leaving women and girls at risk of unplanned pregnancy, maternal mortality and STI’s. Furthermore, due to additional domestic responsibilities and fear of targeted attacks, girls’ right to education is disproportionately threatened during war. Continued instability in post-conflict periods means that the threats posed to women’s rights can last long after war officially ends. These issues, and the immense suffering they cause, are too often swept under the rug in discussions about gender and the military.
In conclusion, despite the empty words of political leaders and the vague sentiments of military PR campaigns, war poses a threat to women’s rights throughout the world. The suffering of civilians has always been inherent in the military action of countries such as Britain and the U.S., and women have shouldered the brunt of this injustice. The use of feminist rhetoric in a pro-war context is not only hypocritical but serves to erase the experiences of civilian women in war, including those who have lost their lives.
Stay tuned for episode 3 of this series which will explore whether or not gender representation in the military actually promotes equality.
Featured photo by USA Today