Author: Sara Meger

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Instrumentalizing Women’s Security in the Counterterrorism Agenda

The UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has become the dominant international legal and discursive framework for addressing gendered violence in international relations. The United Nations made its first great strides towards recognizing violence against women as an issue of international security in its landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. For many, the securitization of gendered violence through 1325 and the subsequent resolutions that now make up the WPS agenda has been a decisive win, elevating to the ‘high politics’ of security the long-expressed concerns that the effects of war, armed conflict, mass violence, and other forms of international insecurity have distinctly gendered effects on men and women. However, as the WPS agenda has developed, the increasingly instrumentalist and reductive view of ‘gender’ and of ‘violence’ employed therein has had unintended impacts on structural, cultural, and economic forms of violence against women.

Since the adoption of SCR 1325, the development of the WPS agenda has been divergent and highly contested. Many feminists have noted with concern the practical bifurcation of the agenda into two parallel, and rarely integrated, concerns: protection versus participation, with ‘protection’ afforded greater attention and institutional support within the UN and other agents of global governance. This prioritization of ‘protecting’ women in times of conflict and insecurity has problematically both relied upon and reinforced gendered logics of protection that reproduce stereotypical ideas of women as passive, weak, and victims, in need of saving by rational, heroic, and militarized men.

When, in 2015, the UN Security Council passed a new WPS resolution, 2242, on countering terrorism and violent extremism, some optimistic that it finally represented a shift in perspective from seeing women only as helpless victims of men’s violence in armed conflict to also being active agents whose inclusion in political peace processes is central to advancing our peace efforts. Yet, the move to incorporate countering violent extremism (CVE) into the WPS agenda has largely focused on women’s roles in preventing radicalization and extremism, further instrumentalizing women’s security towards conventionally statist priorities. Key stakeholders in the implementation of both CVE and WPS measures have tended to operate in a way that seeks to fit women and their concerns into existing militarized prerogatives for addressing international security, rather than considering the social conditions that make such insecurities possible. In this way, the incorporation of gender into the CVE agenda may further represent how gender and gender-based violence has become securitized through the WPS agenda.

What has not been systematically addressed in this ‘gender mainstreaming’ paradigm for CVE are the multiple ways that terrorist groups use highly gendered narratives in their recruitment campaigns to bolster their appeal both to men and women, and how such narratives resonate with their target audiences. For example, ISIS’ recruitment narrative relies on hyper-masculinized and violently militarized motifs, portraying their jihadists as ‘real men’ who are rewarded for their service with promises of a home, monthly allowance, and a wife. The reliance on conventional gender norms and exploitation of gendered anxieties regarding the capacity to fulfill said norms are critical to understanding the appeal of extremist groups.

Yet, within the CVE frameworks, gender remains narrowly understood as relevant only to ‘women,’ and the interest in gender instrumental to the security of states. Rather than rendering the global security regime developed to combat the threat of terrorism a “gender-friendly” space, global policy on terrorism and counterterrorism “show the continued dominance of a masculine paradigm in those arenas central to international security.”

 

How the WPS-CVE Nexus is Failing Women

In July 2018, thousands of women are being held in Iraq and Syria on terrorism related charges on accusations of their links to Islamic State. Known as “jihadi brides” or “sexual jihadis,” these women are being denied basic provisions of human rights and facing punishment on the mere suspicion of their links to IS militants. Facing death sentences for their links to terrorism, the implementation of CVE measures in this case has exacerbated gendered abuses.

Captured in 2017, many of the women are being held in detention camps in legal and political limbo, as their home countries refuse to repatriate them, fearing the spread of radical Islamism. While many of the women are from neighbouring Gulf States, a number also come from Western countries including Germany, France, Russia, and the United States. Others have already been charged with terrorism-related offences and are now facing 10-minute death sentence trials under the Iraqi judicial system. Accused of entering the country illegally and supporting ISIS by living in the caliphate, the thousands of women are facing punishments to the full extent of counter-terror laws in Iraq. Iraqi officials speaking to the New York Times explained:

“These Islamic State criminals committed crimes against humanity and against our people in Iraq, in Mosul and Salahuddin and Anbar, everywhere,” said Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Iraqi joint operations command. “To be loyal to the blood of the victims and to be loyal to the Iraqi people, criminals must receive the death penalty, a punishment that would deter them and those who sympathize with them.”

According to critics, one of the most egregious outcomes of these women’s being swept up in the counter-terror proceedings is that it has also impeded political will to investigate gender-based crimes perpetrated by ISIS, including the systematic use of forced marriage, sexual slavery, and strict curtailments of women’s rights. News reports suggest that the lives of ‘jihadi brides’ were strictly monitored and controlled, with women facing harsh punishments if they behaved in a way considered un-Islamic.

The example of jihadi brides underscores the tensions between the two available subject positions of women in armed conflict. The narratives of these women as dangerous terrorists is premised on the fact that their active participation in violence runs counter to the idealised feminine role we expect of women, ultimately characterizing them as gender deviant. On the other hand, to characterize them solely as unwitting or unwilling victims, subject to the will of their male protectors and guardians, reinforces gendered stereotypes and deny any agency or attachment to political ideals that the women may hold. The explicitly sexual connotation associated with ‘sexual jihadis’ implies a sexual deviancy and suggests that the women may be getting what they deserve for allowing themselves to be ‘seduced’ or ‘lured’ into ISIS in the first place by men more powerful or more clever than themselves.

Yet, even where attitudinal shift has taken place towards women who have been associated with ISIS from seeing them only as victims to also seeing them as active agents of terrorism, the focus has remained on how to instrumentalize women towards operational effectiveness in preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism. For example, in March 2016 at an event on Gender and CVE, the US Under-Secretary of State Sarah Sewall stated that “empowered women provide powerful antidotes to violent extremism. They are able to refute extremist narratives and nihilistic visions with independence and authenticity. Societies that respect the rights of all and fully engage the participation of all have no room for violent extremism. So women’s empowerment is not only essential for defeating violent extremism; defeating violent extremism is essential for women’s empowerment. The two go hand-in-hand” (qtd in Chowdhury Fink and Davidian 2018, p. 163). These sentiments are echoed in SCR 2242 itself, which calls for ‘the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism.” Such sentiments have sparked concern amongst scholars and civil society activists regarding the co-optation of the WPS agenda in service of counter-terrorism policy and the retention of a problematically narrow scope of concern for what constitutes ‘violence’ of relevance to international peace and security. Women’s unfeminine, unruly behaviour is interpreted as a warning sign and thus efforts to address women’s participation in terrorism, or to empower them to join efforts in countering terrorism and violent extremism, still stem from assumptions that women are not independent, political agents.

 

Gender in the CVE Agenda

Both narratives, while exploiting stereotypical assumptions about ‘femininity’ and appropriate roles and behaviours of women in relation to violence and armed conflict, work to downplay the significance that politics may have in women’s participation in organized violence, including terrorism. Much like the label of ‘terrorist’ has succeeded in securitizing, and thus de-politicizing, the social and political grievances that lead to violence, or that make participation in a terrorist group attractive. A 2017 report issued by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) showed how reductive the ‘jihadi bride’ narrative has been, and how far it went towards constructing women in terrorist groups as passive, manipulated, and brainwashed. Contrary to this prevailing narrative, the study found that many women, particularly those coming from Western countries, were drawn by a sense of ‘empowerment’ offered by ISIS, and were thus “deliberately seeking to challenge both traditional and Western-imposed gender norms, by seeking a new identity for themselves”. The report also suggests that exclusion and marginalization from wider Western society were compelling ‘push’ factors for women to join ISIS. Yet, prevailing efforts to account for women’s role in terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies ignore the structural social, political and economic roots of their own involvement, as well as the unique ways that women’s social positions may present alternative reasons or pathways for radicalization than their male counterparts.

Thus, while SCR 2242 and the focus on women in combatting violent extremism does, for the first time, shift the prevailing discourse of the WPS agenda from one of protection to one of participation, the scope for participation is restricted. Women’s agency and capacity for empowerment is discussed in complete isolation from the underlying social dynamics that both shape their social, economic, and political positions and that underlie the political economic dimensions of violence, armed conflict, and terrorism in the first place. Much like other global initiatives aimed at ‘empowering’ women, the discourse is designed to ‘sell’ women’s empowerment as good for the economy (or, in this case, good for political stability) rather than as a good in and of itself.

Because international security regimes enabled through processes of securitization enable states to use extraordinary means of force to eliminate threats outside of the oversight of democratic processes and civil society, the marrying of the WPS agenda to national security prerogatives, including the securitization of terrorism and violent extremism, may have quite serious implications for gender and gendered forms of violence. As feminists, we ought to be critically interrogating the extent to which gender-based violence and gendered vulnerabilities are best resolved through their formulation as acute existential threats that require such exceptional responses.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

When is Terrorism Not Terrorism?

When the political motivations are misogyny, of course.

This week, Canada was rocked by a devastating mass killing, when 25 year-old Alek Minnasian drove a rented van into dozens of people on a busy Toronto street. By the end of the ‘van rampage,’ 10 people were killed and at least 15 more injured. And although the means and mode of attack very closely resembled some recent ‘van rampages’ in Europe that have been connected to terrorism, in Canada it shall not be named so.

Minassian’s 10th grade yearbook photo, (c) the Toronto Sun.

The carnage was reminiscent of deadly attacks by Islamic State supporters using vehicles that have shaken up Nice, France, Berlin, Barcelona, London and New York. But late Monday, Canada’s public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, said this time appeared to be different.

“The events that happened on the street behind us are horrendous,” he said, “but they do not appear to be connected in any way to national security based on the information at this time.”

It did not take long, though, for media reports to begin digging into Minnasian and discovered the likely motive behind his ‘rampage’:

While the police did not disclose a motive for the rampage, interviews with former acquaintances of Mr. Minassian, witnesses and others, and his now-deleted Facebook account, portray a troubled young man who harbored resentments toward women, had a penchant for computer programming, served briefly in the military last year, and appeared determined to die.

In a Facebook post made minutes before embarking on this rampage, Minnasian apparently wrote:

“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” the posting stated. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

While Toronto Police declined to comment on the sex of the victims, it has now been reported that the majority were women.

According to internet culture, ‘incels’ are ‘involuntary celibates’, a group of extremely misogynistic men’s right’s activists who rabidly hate women and blame feminism for, essentially, making women not want to have sex with them. According to researcher Arshy Mann, self-described incels are:

“almost entirely men who are laser-focused on their inability to have sex & blame women. Of the manosphere communities, incels are the most virulently misogynistic.”

Amongst this subculture, Elliot Rodger is worshipped as an almost deity. Rodger’s own manifesto, the insight into his motive for killing six people on a college campus in California in 2014, expressed frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as “retribution”.

And again, as we saw in the aftermath of Rodger’s ‘rampage,’ this violence is not being called ‘terrorism,’ but rather the unfortunate effects of one man’s ‘mental illness.’

Yet, by individualizing the problem of men’s violence – especially, in such overt and extreme forms – we lose focus of the way in which through its everydayness, the persistent threat of violence against women is in and of itself a means of terrorizing women. In their provocative book Loving to Survive, Dee L. R. Graham, Roberta Rigsby and Edna Rawlings argue that men’s violence fosters in women an omnipresent, and therefore often unrecognized, terror. This terror manifests in protective measures women take against the potential for rape, represented in any strange man she encounters, as well as strategies to reduce their risk of angering men. This omnipresent threat of violence can be theorized as a form of patriarchal terrorism. 

Unfortunately, within our existing legal and humanitarian frameworks, we haven’t the capacity to even conceive of men’s violence as terrorism, namely because this jurisprudence rests on the assumption of 1) an ideological agenda and 2) a community targeted as such. In both domestic and international law, women’s experiences have been largely trivialized, overlooked, or relegated to the private sphere of concern because the law has been grounded in the experiences of men.

As with the laws governing crimes against humanity and genocide, a core component of labelling an act of violence as ‘terrorism’ is the ability to show the offence to be directed against a community and not an individual. That is – is the violence discriminate or indiscriminate? Strangely, though, for all of international legal history, ‘women’ are not considered to be a community or recognizable group in and of themselves. Rather ‘community’ is defined strictly in ethnic, racial, religious, or political terms.

As MacKinnon once argued with regards to ‘genocidal rape’:

The acts of sexual violence perpetrated as an act of genocide are “routinely done to women everywhere every day on the basis of their sex. All the sexual atrocities that become genocidal in genocides are inflicted on women every day under conditions of sex inequality” and are inflicted upon them as women because they are women (MacKinnon 2006: 225).

The exclusion of sex as a ‘community’ against whom the rape may be used instrumentally may be a deliberate choice by the international community as it would open the door to understanding all rape as political and instrumental. As women are not considered a people, sex has not been included in the legal definition of a group that can be destroyed.

Recognizing this absence, Andrea Dworkin coined the term gynocide to “designate the relentless violence perpetrated by the gender class men against the gender class women” (1976: 16) to express the terrorizing of women through gender-based violence committed world wide at times of war and times of peace. However, it is only when the very same acts perpetrated against women daily are directed against a group of people on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, it is recognized as destructive.

Thus, despite overwhelming evidence that not only was Minassian’s motive ideological, and that his violence was used in the pursuit of a political aim (read: textbook definition of ‘terrorism’), and that his target was women, as such, the rhetoric remains one of maladjustment, personal trauma, and mental health issues. Despite overwhelming evidence we now have in the West that these ‘lone-wolf’ mass murderers nearly all have a history of violence against women, we are loathe to consider how that violence may be, in and of itself, political.

David Futrelle has been researching this virulently misogynist online movement through his site We Hunted the Mammoth, and explains both the breadth and depth of the ‘Incel’ phenomenon. In his post on Minassian, Futrelle includes screenshots from one forum user, BlkPillPres, who advocates more effective mass violence in pursuit of the ‘Incel Rebellion.’ To him, mass shootings are ineffective. He says:

“What I can’t wait for, the one I know is really going to fuck with normies, really punish society, is when the first incel mass rape/serial rape takes place, when a guy leaves a manifesto after killing himself detailing all the rapes he’s done, that will be the best ER ever, because his victims don’t just get to die, and their families don’t just get to ‘move on’…”

Futrelle warns that these are not isolated sentiments, but warnings of a larger subcultural movement that could have very serious social repercussions. In a piece written for Elle, he warns:

“[The Incel movement] has transformed young men dealing with depression — or simply the ordinary unhappiness of life — into a veritable underground army of angry, bitter misogynists who feel they have nothing to live for and have no hope of improving their lives in what they see as our “gynocentric” society.

If these young men aren’t stopped, there will be more horrors like what we saw this week in Toronto, if not worse. In the forums on incel hangout Incels.me, some are already hailing Minassian as a hero, and looking forward to the next wave of incel terror attacks.”

In Australia, recent receptivity on the parts of the Victorian Police, for example, towards feminist arguments about the sociopolitical basis of men’s violence may be bucking this trend. Late last year, the Victorian Police announced that they would be treating domestic violence perpetrators like terrorists. In a statement, Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, argued:

“The ramifications are the same in the long run. We have death, we have serious trauma, we have serious injury and we have people impacted for the rest of their lives.”

Intimate terrorism will now be investigated as major crimes by specialized police units. One of their priorities will be to target repeat offenders and work to predict violence in order to intervene before women and children are injured or killed.

Yet, we should temper our enthusiasm, since only a couple of short months after this initiative was announced, the Victorian government also announced a new A$31.6 million centre to prevent and combat terrorist and lone-actor attacks. The centre, problematically, includes no experts on domestic violence or violence against women. This suggests we have a long way to go towards politicizing men’s violence against women not only as acts of terror in and of themselves, but also as ‘warning signs’ of the potential for public forms of large-scale violence.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Aid Work

The internet is abuzz this week with the breaking news about revelations that Oxfam workers paid for sex with women and children in Haiti in 2011, while deployed to the country in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, from which the country is still recovering.

The 2010 earthquake killed 200,000 Haitians and caused more than 1.5 million people to become homeless, as well as devastated the national economy. For years, people have lived in tent cities, supported by numerous international aid organizations, including various UN agencies.

As numerous studies have now pointed out, women are made especially vulnerable in the wake of crises, such as that which rocked Haiti in 2010. Because of pre-existing social, political, and economic inequalities, which mean women pre-crisis have limited material means to support themselves or families independently combined with a high burden of care responsibilities, both the effects and costs of natural disasters and other acute crises often gravely magnify women’s subordination.

It is precisely because of Haiti’s already starkly stratified society, wherein gender intersects with class-based and racial inequalities, that not long after the quake, reports began to emerge of systematic sexual exploitation and abuse occurring in the country. One of the early scandals involved reports of troops belonging to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti – MINUSTAH – gang raping (or, in the industry lingo, perpetrating ‘collective rape’ against) an 18-year-old Haitian man, which was caught on video. However, long before this incident, reports were indicating an alarming extent of rape and sexual violence against women and children as young as 2 in the tent cities. Further reports allege sexual exploitation of women and children in ‘exchange’ for food, money, or other consumables. The Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Haiti noted how common the “sex-for-food” exchange was in camps in Haiti, saying:

 “In particular, young girls have to negotiate sexually in order to get shelter from the rains and access to food aid.”

But even before the earthquake, UN aid workers were implicated in systematic sexual abuse of female children (resulting in the expulsion of over 100 Sri Lankan troops from Haiti in 2007), and of ‘rampaging’ in Port-au-Prince, firing 22,000 rounds of ammunition, killing 23 people. Thus, these new revelations must be placed in a longer history of (neo)colonial violence and exploitation that has characterized the international community’s engagement with Haiti for over a decade.

80 percent of Haitians live in poverty. Before the earthquake, the country was one of the lowest-ranked in development indicators by the UNDP (149th out of 182), a situation only exacerbated by the adoption of neoliberal economic policies as a condition of receiving US and international assistance for decades. These policies, combined with foreign aid policies, have “for decades undermined the capacity of the Haitian state to meet the needs of its citizens” (Horton 2012: 299). Thus, the social support that should have been available to vulnerable populations has long been absent, or problematically tied to funding priorities of external agents. These conditions have made women affected by the earthquake even more dependent on international agencies for what life-sustaining provisions they may offer. Two years after the earthquake, it was largely poor women who remained as the primary residents of official and unofficial tent camps.

A situation, obviously, rife for exploitation.

According to researchers, post-earthquake societal and camp conditions have facilitated sexual exploitation of women and girls through various means. In some camps, male-dominated committees are responsible for the control and distribution of aid, and women have reported being forced to negotiate sex in order to obtain access to vital supplies. Women community leaders have repeatedly linked women’s economic situation post-earthquake with a rise in the number of women and girls engaging in ‘sex work.’

But to claim that these girls and women are exercising agency in exchanging sex for food, or money, or protection may be misguided. Before the earthquake, a 2005 study by the IOM found that, while some cited poverty and lack of opportunity as the reason they engaged in ‘sex work,’ others were trafficked against their will.

Of course, with the most recent revelations brought forward regarding Oxfam, accusations are being levelled against the organization’s toxic and masculinist environment and lack of moral leadership. The UK International Development Secretary is threatening to cut aid funding in the wake of the scandal.

What is not being talked about is both the link between peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse and aid worker sexual exploitation and abuse, and the systemic structural conditions that make exploiting vulnerable women around the globe both thinkable and actionable for renegade aid cowboys. While one quite decent analysis rightfully points to the economic disparity between aid-recipient states and deployed rich, Western humanitarian workers as an obvious source of the problem, nowhere does the author or other commentators note what gender is doing in this equation.

In a global and historical perspective, we know that rampant sex-based economies that now characterize countries like Thailand and the Philippines were born of the sexual exploitation and abuse of women by foreign (US) militaries. Prostitution industries have more or less formally been established around military bases throughout the 20th century, and laid the groundwork for prostitution becoming a considerable market sector for host countries. As Jeffreys puts it:

“military prostitution caused the industrialization of prostitution in a country” and “local women and girls became the raw materials of the global sex industry, not only prostituted within local and sex tourism industries at home but trafficked into prostitution worldwide.”

Underpinning this system is the widespread expectation that rich(er), (more) powerful, (white) men are entitled to extract sex from women and girls over whom they can exercise control. That patriarchal systems not only enable the expectation of women’s sexual availability and men’s entitlement to it, but should also be understood as intimately tied to male dominance as a systemic feature of society. To quote MacKinnon, the exceptionality of these acts as especially exploitative overlooks the extent to which “men do in war what they do in peace.”

Consider these revelations of abuse in the context of a recent study by Promundo which found that 26% of British and American males agree that “A ‘real man’ should have as many sexual partners as he can,” while 40% believed in men’s economic primacy over women. Furthermore, men who expressed such sentiments were six times more likely to have reported sexually harassing a woman or a girl.

Given that the industry as a whole is fraught with power relations inscribed in patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalist class relations, I’m happy to see that this scandal has raised questions about the durability of the aid industry as a means for addressing post-conflict and post-crisis societal issues. But to represent sexual exploitation and abuse as an isolated (to an organization, geographical region, or industry) phenomenon overlooks how the abusive relationship engendered in this scandal is made possible (probable!) by wider power relations in which the various agents of this story sit.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Why Feminism is Integral to Understanding ‘Conflict Related Sexual Violence’

Last year, I was invited to participate in a couple of workshops on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). One was academic, with a specific focus on how we can know something about sexual violence in war and the methods used by researchers to come to know this violence. The other was more practitioner-oriented, and was attended by some of the key players of international policy-making on CRSV. While both were invigorating and inspiring events, what struck me from discussions in both is how far removed the study of wartime sexual violence has come from its feminist roots.

In recent decades, academic and policy interest on sexual violence in war has grown exponentially. Far from its origins on the margins of studies of war, sexual violence is now a central topic and efforts to understand its causes and consequences span the disciplines interested in armed conflict, political violence, international security, and humanitarian crises. However, as the issue has become mainstream, much of its early feminist-informed analyses have been lost to increasingly positivist socio-political and scientific approaches to understand this violence.

But much is lost in this maneuver. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the harmonized ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative that has been produced through the elevation of sexual violence to the international security agenda “has produced an unsustainable and ineffectual paradigm that is based ultimately on the fetishization of this violence.”

While early feminist analyses of rape in war contributed to this amalgamation of all forms of CRSV as a single, coherent phenomenon, recent corrective efforts by critical scholars to disaggregate and contextualize CRSV has resulted in a near abandonment of feminist frames for understanding this violence. While feminists have pointed out that rape in war, like rape in so-called times of ‘peace’, cannot be understood except through an analysis of patriarchal power disparities between the sexes, some have argued that because patriarchy is a constant structural feature of societies, it cannot be causal or independently explanatory for sexual violence.

But if we throw the baby out with the bathwater, as we have seen done in not only scholarship, but also policy and advocacy on sexual violence in armed conflict, we end up with the explanation that either men are animals who can’t control their insatiable sexual urges, for which war provides the convenient breakdown of social barriers to their animal impulses; or, that rape and sexual violence is genderless, equivalently perpetrated and experienced by members of both sexes, and thus understandable only as either an innate human quality or the result of a few ‘bad apples.’

The value of sexual violence must be seen through the lens of sexual politics. That is, the recognition that (the physical act of) sex and sexuality are deeply set within human social relations and comprehensible only in relation to “the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes” (Millet 1970, 23). Such a perspective invites us to critically interrogate the ways in which sexual violence is enacted within a system of sexual domination, which simultaneously inscribes meaning and power to violated/violating bodies and to the act itself. This meaning and power is not isolated to CRSV, but visible also in the typical link between cruelty and sexuality in our everyday ‘peacetime’ societies, as well.

That is because sexuality is a social construct borne out of patriarchal relations. As such, sexuality is made meaningful as a relation of dominance and submission, gendered through dichotomous symbolisms that associate dominance with the masculine and submission with the feminine. In this way, the gendered nature of sexual violence comes from its construction within a system of patriarchy, while the gendered effects are not limited to the biological sex of either the victim or perpetrator.

Ultimately, the study of sexual violence in armed conflict requires feminism in order to understand how power and sexuality are mutually constituted in ways that make sexual forms of violence particularly egregious and humiliating, reaping for the perpetrator personal, social, political, and/or economic dividends.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Sex and Death in the Irrational World of Nuclear Defense

The blogosphere is a-Twitter with Donald Trump’s recent reaction to a speech made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as part of his New Year’s address to the nation. In the speech, he stated:

“The US cannot declare war against us. The entire US territories are within our firing range and the nuclear missile button is right there on my desk,”

“We have secured powerful deterrence against the nuclear threat from the US.”

His speech was followed by a series of social media posts flaunting his nuclear capabilities:

In response, Donald Trump, in usual fashion, responded via social media with a tweet now heard ’round the world:

While many have noted this tweet as the latest in a series of misguided, reactionary social media responses to global political issues that have come to define Trump’s presidency, the obvious analogy to penile (dys)function has been less commented on.

In 1987, Carol Cohn published what has become one of the germinal works of feminist theory in international relations: “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” The piece is an auto-ethnography and participant observation based on her time at a university center on defense technology and arms control, “The Center.” She sheds light on the gendered language through which unfathomably destruction and mass death becomes rationalized, palatable, and even funny in The Center. The ‘technostrategic’ language used by Defense Intellectuals obscures the physical realities of these weapons and instead  is “abstract, sanitized, full of euphemisms…sexy and fun to use.”

In particular, she notes the sexualized vocabulary of the nuclear standoff during the Cold War found the language used by defense staff suffused with sexual, mostly phallic imagery that creates a sexualized intimacy between the developers and handlers of the weapon and the weapon itself. She notes: “homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group.” The association of nuclear power with male sexual prowess, she finds, mirrors the famous US Marine Corps chant: “this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing the other’s for fun.”

How does feminist theory help us understand Trump’s reaction to Kim Jong-Un? Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, notes:

“In Trump’s mind, the first, second and third most important measures of success are size. Everything he is involved with must be the biggest, the tallest, the most well-attended, the most expensive, the best.
A bit of armchair psychology would suggest that relentless focus on size is born of insecurity.”

Yet, we cannot understand such insecurity manifesting through obsession with size without feminist analysis. As Penny Strange wrote about the arms race, in 1989,

“striving for mastery and superiority [is] a striking feature of a male-dominated society; we see it as not only widespread, but also admired, desired and cultivated in half the human race, and an acceptable mode of political discourse and international relations.”

This is only made possible because international relations exist in a global system of patriarchy, wherein the physical ability to subjugate someone or something “becomes necessary proof of manhood.” That subjugation need not be only physical, but economic, political and social as well. Each is merely an expression of the same underlying drive for dominance and “are convertible one to the other.”

Of course, Trump (nor Kim Jong-Un) would be the first head of state to act out of masculine anxities. David Halberstam accounts for the behaviour of US leaders in the Vietnam War, noting that:

“President Lyndon B. Johnson had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job…. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were the activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals who sat around thinking and criticising and doubting instead of doing…. Hearing that one of the administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said ‘Hell, he has to squat to piss.'” (Emphasis added).

What these analyses point to is the limited scope we have for de-escalation when one’s willingness and ability to “push the button” is so tied up to their self-conception of worth constructed within the norms of masculinity under patriarchy. But also, that a simple change of leadership may not be sufficient, when those leaders are in many ways reflective of wider societal expectations of manly behaviour when at the helm (or fingertips) of the nuclear ‘button.’

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

Discerning the Truth in War

“The first casualty when war comes is Truth.”  — Hiram Johnson, 1918.

Since the 2016 US Presidential election, political analysts, scholars, and pundits alike have lamented the death of truth and the ushering in of an era of ‘post-truth’. But as a researcher interested in war, I began to wonder what the era of ‘post-truth’ meant for knowing war.

Has war ever been knowable

Throughout history, war has been fought not only in the trenches, between the armed troops, but most importantly in the ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilian populations who provide the monetary, logistical, and reproductive support for the war effort. Convincing risk-averse people to risk life and loved ones for abstract political agendas has long required propaganda and black-and-white narratives of the moral superiority of ‘us’ versus the explicit evil of ‘them.’ These narratives circulate as part of the affective economies of war that make war conceivable and acceptable for the human labourers needed in the efforts.

As I write this, I am in the field conducting research on the conflict in the region (formerly?) of eastern Ukraine known as Donbass. Since 2014, a very conventional style of war has been waged over control of the region after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution polarized the country and germinated a separatist campaign in Donbass. A group advocating separation held a referendum in May 2014, to which the Ukrainian government responded by sending in the armed forces.

But even that description is largely problematic because, at the time, the Ukrainian armed forces were in disarray. By some accounts, they were non-existent. The Euromaidan revolution saw massive lustrations carried out throughout the institutions of the state, including defence institutions. Thus, many of the militants who descended on Donbass in the lead-up to and following the referendum were not formally with the armed forces, but were rather gangs of ‘hooligans‘ and far right-wing activists who had taken it upon themselves to defend the nation from internal and external threats.

When I began this research, I sought to discern Truth in this war. But the accounts from each side are so diametrically opposite. My Ukrainian respondents all spoke with certainty that this was not a civil war, but an invasion. Some recounted first-hand their evidence – that they had personally seen or taken captive Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. My separatist respondents all emphasized the grassroots nature of their movement and that the fight was not just for autonomy in the region, but fundamentally a fight against fascism.

On both sides of the conflict, both fear and love play important roles in the affective economy of this conflict. The fear is deeply ideological. For Ukrainian nationalists, it is a fear of losing their short-lived independence to a Russian neo-imperialist agenda. For the separatists, it is a fear of nazism and loss of political, social, and economic freedoms. While both sides are deeply tied to their ideological standpoint, neither is open to the idea that the other side is genuine. The Ukrainian nationalists believe that the narratives of independence, self-determination, and social improvement are a smokescreen of Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, the separatists believe that the neo-nazis are misinformed puppets of capitalist oligarchs who seek integration with Europe not as a means of improving the living conditions of Ukrainians, but as a way of further forcing down the cost of labour and exploiting the working classes.

One respondent puts it this way:

“Now, in the era of the information revolution, when all the information is available and everyone produces the information that he wants, people are not accustomed to reading about one piece of news from two, three, four sources and drawing a conclusion for themselves. They are accustomed to reading either the first thing they encounter or what someone advises them, and they tend to believe it. They believe that they have made their own conclusion and that this opinion is their conscious decision. But there is no culture of information processing. There is information, but people do not know how to process it. I made a decision for myself ten years ago that I need to read the same piece of news on five or six different resources to draw conclusions for myself. However, there are no independent resources, unfortunately; all of them are biased.”

Another, very much a veteran of the war, who has been fighting on the front line since December 2014, confided in me: “This is no longer a military or economic war. Now, it’s an information war.”

The challenge, as a researcher, is not only in discerning the Truth in war, but, perhaps more so, the politics and circulations of different versions of the Truth that give meaning and value to violence. While I cannot hope to determine the geopolitical strategies that lay behind various countries’ (in)action in response to this war, one thing I feel confident in concluding from this research is that no matter where the Truth ultimately lies, the versions of truth circulating here form an integral element of the affective economy that drives this war.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.