Prajnya Gender Talks, September 2021 || Feminising Security – Resisting militarization of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda by Rita Manchanda

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September 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the speaker

This Gender Talk on “Feminising Security” was held in recognition of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with Professor Rita Manchanda, a feminist scholar and author, and an advocate of human rights and peace in South Asia. Professor Manchanda’s work on defending the rights of women, ethnic minorities and forcibly displaced persons is located at the intersections of gender, peace and security. She has written seminal texts such as Women, War and Peace in South Asia and Women and Politics of Peace describing difficult encounters with the women and peace agenda in South Asia. Professor Manchanda, who serves as the General Secretary of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, has also authored a five-volume series called Human Rights Audits and Peace Processes.

Why do we need to Feminise Security?

Professor Manchanda starts the talk by highlighting the religious nationalism that currently dominates South Asia. It has been 20 years since 9/11 and Professor Manchanda asks us if women feel more secure or less secure than before. Research shows that Indian women are at increased risk of violence and forced labour, substantiated by daily reports of gender oppression especially in marginalised communities, through both direct and structural violence. There is also a continuum of violence, which suggests a causal link between domestic and interstate violence, and shows us that we cannot separate security from gender equality. Violence at home plays a crucial role in creating conditions of violence, wherein state narratives of security use hyper-jingoistic rhetoric to consolidate state and regime stability. This is merely elites jostling power.

Professor Manchanda then describes the impact of these violent conditions on the public. Religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism get exaggerated to be extremist terrorism, and peaceful democratic struggles are positioned as anti-nationalism. For example, the media has to relabel militants as “terrorists” in Kashmir as per state directives. Such actions arrest dissent and are visible both locally and globally. Parallelly, hyper-securitisation of migration and public health gains clout. This roll-out of authoritarian policies, punitive measures and gag orders against transgressors, health care workers, journalists, and migrants leave long-lasting baggage.

What is the Dominant Paradigm of Security?

It is nothing but the states competing for power, to maintain a balance that would prevent anarchy. However, the need for a different and resonant paradigm for the new realities that exist due to new internal conflicts (interstate, inter-group etc) began to shift focus from the state to the people. This was consolidated in the UNDP report on human security in 1994, which recognised a widening concept of security (for livelihood, environmental, food security etc); this concept was also included in the world conferences for women’s and human rights in the late 90s and early 2000s. 

Professor Manchanda points out that women’s groups were the first to argue for peace and security. Feminists argued that missing in the human security discourse was gender since women’s experiences and gender discussions did not factor into the articulation of the dominant security discourse at the time. In response, feminists emphasised that women’s security was central to human security and cannot be ignored any longer. 

One breakthrough was the increased feminist scholarship on women in conflict zones as a crystallisation of the analysis by and of women facing conflict themselves (e.g. the Balkan conflict). Finally, in 2000, the UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) was passed, which was the first ever global recognition that women’s security is relevant to human security.

What is the Trajectory of the Women, Peace and Security Discourse?

It was women’s and NGOs’ grassroots level work, and of course, interventions by northern NGOs such as the Women’s International League for Freedom that dictated the WPS discourse. However, the role of the second world (i.e. the socialist world) in the coproduction of the WPS discourse was almost entirely written out. The southern feminists worked with the north but while the north’s objectives were fulfilled, the south’s expectations were disregarded. The south – obviously – could not lobby the same way as the north. Nor did it want its WPS agenda to be a part of the UN’s since this would have led to state-centric policies and actions, and the south believed that impact was possible only if WPS discussions were to happen in civil society. The state was driven by imperialist powers and decidedly not a comfortable space for disempowered people and women. The north saw things a different way and attempted to persuade the south that agencies like the UN were the ones who wielded the power to make decisions.  

What were the Gaps in the WPS Discourse?

The resolutions entirely removing demilitarization from the WPS agenda was a key concern since women view militarization as a big security threat. Gender perspectives were also missing, and gendered social roles that led to passive feminism and toxic masculine militaries were not discussed. 

The structural reasons for conflict – the unequal power relationships that enable war – should have been considered by the Resolutions. Their one-size-fits-all policy also disappointed, having failed to recognise that women in conflict areas have a very different understanding of security than women in non-conflict ones. Resolutions merely call for protecting women from sexual violence but this emphasises the dialectic of victimhood and wipes out their agency. 

Professor Manchanda also discusses the problems with the three pillars of the Resolutions. The first pillar, the participation of women in all areas of conflict, was never measured properly. The apparatus was not in place to do so leading to the proxy and misleading numbers. The second pillar, the over-emphasis on sexual violence, fostered the culture of “looking out” at violence than looking in (e.g. India would focus on violence at its borders with Pakistan than deal with internal violence). The third pillar focuses on preventing direct violence against women rather than on demilitarization i.e. it merely attempts to make war safer for women rather than doing away with war entirely

So what is the status of gender in the WPS discourse? Nations striving for gender equality in the armed forces further promote militarization. Leaning on motherhood politics reinforces female passivity and victimhood. White men descend to save brown women from brown men (to quote Gayatri Spivak), using this moral patina to justify their revenge attacks (e.g. US saviourism in Afghanistan and Iraq). And white women join forces with them distorting indigenous feminisms. 

Professor Manchanda asks the audience, “By folding more women into militarised institutions and culture, are we increasing security or insecurity?” She concludes that we need to redefine our understanding of security if we are ever to achieve global peace.