WAR: THE NEED FOR A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE
Updated: Feb 2
The phenomenon of war has often been studied through the lens of several theories, like realism and liberalism, but none of these theories can actually explain the causes and meaning of war; but the brutal consequences of war form a common ground among these theories. In the most popular sense, war is a conflict between two political bodies with considerable hostility. Another fact that contributes to this common ground between the various theories of international relations is the fact that all these theories collectively omit gender analysis as a part of the nature, cause, and consequence of war. Renowned American feminist scholar, Laura Sjoberg, argues that the omission of gender analysis is a grave error since the very nature of war cannot be completely understood without referring to gender.
Before we explain war from the perspective of feminists and gender theorists, it is essential to first understand the concept of gender. Just like defining war, defining gender is another challenge. We often consider gender as a box that we tick on college applications or government documents but gender is a social construct where we perceive the fact that we belong to certain biological categories. Moreover, these categories come with derived inequality where there is a perceived inequality of power between a male and a female which results in gender subordination in global politics (Connell, 1993). Furthermore, it should also be made clear that feminists do not identify with only women or people who promote women's rights at the expense of men. In fact, feminism stands for power equality between males and females and the feminist theorizing of war stems from this very concept of gender equality.
Going back to Sjoberg’s gendered perspective of war, gender is conceptually necessary to understand the nature and implications of war. Feminists, like Enloe [KB1] and Sjoberg, critically evaluate that there has been a systematic omission of gender analysis despite the continuous presence of women in conflicts and war.
(Credits: Ziyad Matti)
While realists attribute war and security to human nature and anarchy, and liberals attribute it to the international system- feminist theory “raises the question of what kind of politics and theory would be possible without the work accomplished by gendered logic” in war theorizing (Hutchings, 2008).
Feminists and gender theorists have worked for decades towards making sense of war through the perspective of women and equality of power. War is usually depicted as the function of masculinity but feminists beg to differ. Feminists argue that the traditional theories of international relations are short-sighted, masculine in nature, and partial (Sjoberg, 2013). On the other hand, they seek to deconstruct and understand war with the help of gender hierarchies in global politics. There are vast disparities in the making, carrying out, and experiences of war for different genders and this is being explored by feminists and gender theorists.
So what does gender hierarchy entail? In her book – ‘Gendering Global Conflict Toward a Feminist Theory of War’, Laura Sjoberg explains that gender hierarchy represents the idea that being male or female is not the indicator of gender; males can be feminine while females can be masculine. Males and females can be gendered; even organizations and systems are gendered based on societal perceptions of gender-based characteristics. In our study, war is often referred to as a masculine act. Hence, through gender hierarchy, feminists and gender theorists seek to specify that gender is fundamentally a social construct, it is an expression of power and the means for organizing war and political thought in general. (Sjoberg, 2013)
With these basic ideas of the feminist and gendered concepts of war, we can further explain the Iraq War from the perspective of feminists and gender theorists.
Iraq War through a feminist lens
Looking at wars from the feminist perspective makes us rethink the gendered history of civilizations and how males have always played a dominant role. Not only does it make us rethink world history but also the research that has been carried out in international relations. Research too has been gendered in a way and it took decades for feminists to voice their opinions and point out this grave omission of the impact of war on women. (Enloe, 2010)
The Iraq War began in 2003 with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States and this armed conflict continued until 2011. At a glance, the usual thought behind any war is that it affects the masses in general but what feminists draw our attention to is the interrelation between the personal and the political (McLeod, 2012). The renowned international relations scholar, Lene Hansen, has pointed out that paying attention to ‘how real living women are impacted by economic and security structures within and across state boundaries’ reveals the effects of the patriarchal state (Sjoberg, 2011).
The war in Iraq resulted in the unreliable supply of water and electricity which increased the workload of household chores on women. Due to the war, there was rampant unemployment in Iraq and this unemployment had certain gendered dynamics to it as well. Women were forced to stay at home and look after the household while the men went out in the search for new employment opportunities (Sjoberg, 2011). This decreased the presence and influence of women in key spheres including the Iraqi economy. This brings us back to the point put forward by feminists that war is essentially considered to be a masculine function.
The women of Iraq were not the only ones to suffer more as compared to the men. The United States of America deployed around five thousand military personnel and over four thousand troops in Iraq. The effects of the atrocities of the war resulted in a considerable increase in violence in the marriages of the American soldiers. There was a rise in male soldiers’ aggression towards their wives. On the other hand, 41 percent of United States female soldiers were sexually assaulted while deployed in Iraq and 29 percent were raped, the correlation between sectarian and sexual violence in Iraq (Sjoberg, 2011). Moreover, the gendering of war and militarism can also be linked to the fact that the U.S. military, just like most militaries around the world, depends upon the cheap labor of women for recruitment, logistics, and morale maintenance. (Enloe, 2010)
The rise in security in Iraq due to the presence of the military also led to an increase in insecurity among women. Furthermore, the end of the war brings in more problems with it. With increased political tensions in post-war Iraq, 40% of Iraqi women felt that their security situation worsened after the war. This is due to the differences in the perceptions of war and security by men and women. For Iraqi women, their sense of insecurity is bound by the safety of their children, the loss and detainment of their husbands, and the dangers surrounding their homes. (Enloe, 2010)
These disparities will only become evident when we begin to delve deeper and notice the unseen; gender theorists acknowledge these disparities and have redefined the core concepts of security, militarism, and war.
Feminists and gender theorists encourage us to see war from the perspectives of ordinary people. War is not merely fought between two or more countries, it is fought on and through people and these people are positioned differently based on gender.
Focusing on gender equality will definitely contribute towards positive changes in security and economic studies. Gender equality is also found to be correlated to the decrease in human rights abuses. Realism and Liberalism have failed to keep up with contemporary issues. Thus, looking at war from the perspective of feminists and gender theorists informs us of the realities of war and its actual effects on all the segments of society including minorities.
Recently in 2019, the United Nations Security Council adopted the title ‘women and peace and security’ under Article 41 of the Charter where it reiterated that when adopting and renewing sanctions, states must consider including acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence; and urged existing sanction committees to apply targeted sanctions against those who perpetrated and directed sexual violence in conflict. This shows that the feminist work and the perspective of gender theorists are slowly being recognized and rightly so.
Thus to conclude, the Iraq War or any war fought in the history of mankind cannot be accounted for without acknowledging the intricate web of gendered assumptions and hierarchies.
1. Connell, R. (1993). Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press.
2. Hutchings, K. (2008). Cognitive shortcuts - LSE Research Online. Retrieved 10 December 2020, from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/21648/
3. Sjoberg, L. (2013). Gendering Global Conflict toward a Feminist Theory of War.
4. Enloe, C. (2010). Nimo's war, Emma's war. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5. McLeod, L. (2012). Well, What is the Feminist Perspective on Iraq?. University Of Manchester.
6. Washington Post. (2020). Retrieved 11 December 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/01/11/invaders-allies-occupiers-guests-brief-history-us-military-involvement-iraq/
7. Frankel, J. (2020). war | History, Causes, Types, & Facts. Retrieved 11 December 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/war
United Nations Security Council. (2019). Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council.
Cover Image: Melissa MCfeeters
About the author: Ruchi is a post-graduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. Her main interests include economics, public policy, and creative arts like poetry.