Presentation on gender, weapons, and power: the importance of feminism for disarmament

The following is a presentation delivered by Reaching Critical Will’s Director, Ray Acheson, at an event hosted by the London School of Economics' Centre for Women, Peace and Security on "Women and Weapons" on 13 December 2018. The audio of the full panel event is available on Soundcloud.

Today, I want to talk about the concept of violence, and how weapons and violence, and the interrelation of these two things, are so highly gendered, and how this impedes disarmament. I want to talk beyond the participation of women in disarmament processes. I want to get into gender dynamics and gender norms, and how these can affect how we operate in disarmament processes—what we’re allowed to say, what seems credible, and what kind of policy decisions we can therefore take.

Just a caveat: when I’m talking about gender, I’m not talking about all men this, or all women that. I’m talking about gender norms, about how we’re expected to behave as men and women, and how any kind of other identities—queer, non-binary, trans identities—are left out of discussions.

Looking at gender in the context of disarmament is not just an academic exercise. It is directly related to weapons policies. We’ve seen throughout history how armament policies and practices are closely interlinked with notions about power and strength. And these notions are highly gendered. Whether it’s small arms in communities or whether it’s nuclear arms at the state level, this idea that weapons afford security is built into the conception of a very dominant violent masculinity, a belief that men need weapons to protect their women, to protect their communities, or to protect their countries.

We should think about this when we’re addressing disarmament on a community level with small arms, trying to reduce gun violence, or trying to impose restrictions on the possession of firearms; and when we’re addressing the international arms trade or nuclear weapons. In my mind, it all comes down to the same thing. You can see the same dynamics play out time and again, whether it’s diplomats at the UN, or folks working on community based disarmament activism. You can see the inherent masculinities, this conception of power and dominance through the use of weapons and violence.

You can also see the ways in which those who equate weapons with power and security push back on alternative viewpoints. There is a process of belittling, a sense that anyone calling for disarmament or calling out the dangers of weapons, or the excessive accumulation of weapons, is naive. We’re told: “This is the way the world is. We need these weapons because we have to protect, we have to deter.”

There’s also a highly gendered aspect to how the push back is delivered, too. The term gaslighting is relevant here. This term comes from a play in 1938 about psychological abuse. A man deliberately makes his wife go insane by denying her lived reality. The term is applied to politics to give a description to the situation we largely find ourselves in now, where political leaders are just outright lying to us, denying our lived reality. We see this a lot in the disarmament field. We listen to the nuclear-armed states, for example, say that “nuclear weapons aren’t dangerous—they are not meant to be used. They keep us safe. They keep the world stable and secure.” Meanwhile, the countries possessing nuclear weapons are surrounding each other with more and more weapons, they are accusing each other of violating treaties, they are walking away from agreements that they’ve made. We’re seeing this attack on the so-called international order by the states with the most weapons, and they’re saying that they feel insecure so they need to keep their weapons.

You see the catch-22, and the denial for the rest of us of our lived reality, living under the fear of nuclear weapons, living with massive accumulation of conventional weapons, the development of new technologies of violence like autonomous weapons. This idea that nuclear weapons have prevented an outbreak of war and conflict is not the reality of those living right now in war and conflict. Ask them how safe they feel. How stable the world is for them. But their reality is not brought into the discussion on nuclear weapons. The reality of survivors of nuclear weapon testing and use is not brought into these conversations. Many of those affected, living with a reality of violence and war, are people of colour, indigenous populations, marginalized segments of populations. But they are not allowed to speak in the forums where men with bombs are saying that they need these weapons to be secure.

This is why a feminist discourse on weapons is so imperative. It compels us to take a new approach to disarmament.

Feminism is not just about adding women and stirring. Having more women at the table does not automatically translate into different actions, because operating within this patriarchal situation, a constructed on the basis of violent masculinities, means that once women get to the table they often have to conform to the ideas that are already there. They have to play the game that’s set up for them.

We need real diversity. We don’t want to play on the stage that’s been set for us. We want to rewrite a new script entirely. To do that, it’s not about just about adding cisgendered white women into the conversation, it’s about also having queer perspectives, having people of colour involved, making sure there is a class analysis. I’m talking about an intersectional feminist approach to disarmament.

The conversation about disarmament has to be fundamentally different than what it is now. Since 1945, the so-called international community has built up treaties and arrangements, and that has worked to a certain point. We’ve seen successes around banning nuclear weapons most recently, banning landmines and cluster bombs, there are campaigns on now to ban the development of autonomous weapons and to try and prevent the weaponisation of cyber space, outer space, to try and end the bombing of towns and cities, to stop arms transfers that lead to humanitarian disasters, etc. There are all these efforts being made at the international and national levels, but it’s largely still happening in these closed boxes of highly masculinized state-oriented power. We need to break that open. We need to start thinking of new spaces in which we can operate, new ways in which we change the perspective of what’s seen as credible, of what we’re allowed to say and do. Feminism is essential to this.

We can sit here and chat about what this “new way” would look like; everyone always wants the answer of what that looks like. We can toss around seemingly radical ideas: abolish the UN Security Council, stop using sanctions, eliminate arms industries, cap military spending. We can talk about these ideas and many, many others but right now they might sound completely ridiculous, because of what we’re taught is possible and what we’re taught is a credible approach to international security politics. This needs to change.

The bottom line is rejecting an attitude that change isn’t possible. That’s the fundamental problem that I see in my work as an activist engaging at the international, multilateral level, working with diplomats, as well as with students and grassroots organisations. At all levels, there is generally held attitude that we can’t do things differently, that this is how it is, this is what the international security environment is, this is how politics works, this is how things get done. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to behave like this, you have to dress like this, you have to look like this. The more all of us can challenge this attitude from an academic perspective, from an activist perspective, from a diplomatic perspective—that’s where change will happen.

When we were working for the last several years on developing the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, where we had success was with governments that were fed up with the status quo, and individual diplomats that were willing to take risks within their own systems. They put their own careers on the line, but they are cared a lot about it. This process was led primarily by diplomats from the global south. It was led by many, many women. We had great queer representation and many survivors leading within the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. There were new perspectives, new voices, and a determination to do something that we were told could never be done.

Having that attitude is absolutely essential. It’s how we break down the classic barriers that still stand before us. Of which there are many. None of this is easy. But it’s where I’ve seen the possibilities for change. Feminism, queer politics, racial and economic justice—these are the orientations and perspectives that will help facilitate effective disarmament, sustainable peace, and true security for all.