Aggression in the cause of peace

By Charlie Levine

As Russia invaded Ukraine many of us are left feeling helpless, sad and wanting. Wanting for answers: How could this happen today? Why is war still an option? Where has humanity gone? How can I help? Imagine if….it was happening to my country, city, home?

As I doom scroll through social media the sense of right and wrong (in my social media bubble) seems evident. We have the Women’s Equality Party saying strongly “​​The events unfolding in Ukraine are grave and WE [Women’s Equality] stand in solidarity with all those affected. As world leaders respond to tumultuous events on the ground, here are a few things to keep in mind: The primary goal here needs to be de-escalation, not militarism, blustering aggression or an opportunity to fight out proxy wars…

The people of Ukraine must come first and cannot be further used as political pawns.”[1]

While Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has called for a clamp down on foreign investment in the capital’s property, leaving many empty housing units that ramp up living costs for everyone else. The article in Politics Home today quotes Khan as saying “For far too long ministers have turned a blind eye to the use of our capital’s homes as a safe harbour for oligarchs to park their cash, which is having a negative impact on both our international reputation and our local housing market. Now is the time to act,”.[2]

Which seems to be a EU and US consensus, to attack Russia financially, “As well as financial sanctions, the US and EU are also debating export-control measures to deprive Russia of sensitive technologies and curbs on the country’s energy sector. The US and EU also discussed ways to mitigate the fallout in Europe from the potential loss of Russian energy supplies to the continent.” [3] The’ hit them where they think it will hurt’ plan.

I was speaking to a friend who was in tears all day on Wednesday when she woke up to the news. She said, this would never happen if women were in power, which opened up a conversation. Would this happen if women were in more senior political positions? A very quick distinction we discussed was the use of Putin’s name, making him appear the sole person responsible for the actions of a nation. Though we know this isn’t true. This isn’t man — this is men. Although it may appear to give him sole decision making powers, he has also been backed by his cabinet and fellow decision makers. So it is not only about having women in the most senior position but also in the room when decisions are made, to offer other perspectives.

However, the idea that women would never go to war is also not true. Unlike the Ladyland in Sultana’s Dream where, when women are in charge war was eliminated, we have experienced in fairly recent years, women leaders going to war. Just think of Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland War. There is a great article by Josie Glausiusz in aeon called ‘Would the world be more peaceful if there were more women leaders?’ that talks about this more in depth.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets personnel aboard the HMS Antrim 08 January 1983 during her five-day visit to the Falkand Islands. (Getty Images)

In the article Glausiusz goes all the way back to the 15th century to explore how women leaders have dealt with conflict (war), but what this article is actually about is how women are more involved in creating peace. How, as Glausiusz says to conclude, in quoting Mary Caprioli, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, “‘Women leaders can indeed be forceful when confronted with violent, aggressive and dangerous international situations.’ But they can also be aggressive in the cause of peace.” Women are not placid and soft as many stereotypes would have you believe. ‘Femininity’ is not passive.

We see this in such organisations as Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) who have been advocating for peace for over 100 years (they were founded in 1915). They say:

“We see patriarchy, militarism, and neoliberalism as three inter-related causes that push us all towards more conflict.

It does not have to be this way. The antidote is feminism.

At its core, feminism includes the beliefs that women matter, that equality matters, and that gender is a construct: the product of unequal power structures. When those structures have been changed and patriarchy ended, then we can have real equality and the possibility of sustainable peace: a feminist peace.”

This aggressive approach to peace is not limited to WILPF, the UN also understands the power women can have when their energy is galvanised toward a more peaceful and humane society. In 2000 the UN Security Council initiated resolution 1325, a resolution that “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” [4]

1915 congress, LSE scaled, 8 April 1915, WILPF was established, courtesy of WILF website

This is not just about giving women a seat at the table, but also about having them have an equal say and actively contribute to decision making. And not just in countries of ‘power’ or who, on the whole, experience peace. But also in those countries that are ripped apart by war, or on the brink, and those countries that are still rebuilding post-conflict. It is important that the female voice is heard in the mess of patriarchal war decisions and outcomes.

Upon celebrating the 15th anniversary of resolution 1325, 55 countries had signed up to the agreement, therefore with a hope of diversifying the conversations and the decision making around war and conflicts. Imagine if women had been involved in the conversations all along. Imagine if the female perspectives of war were more visible and taken more seriously. Imagine if women weren’t ignored, silenced or seen as disposable. Imagine if feminists weren’t blamed for men going off to war and them not, while they stay home and to be raped by the opposition male army.

Photo from UN Women website, Lauren Rooney

There is still so much to do. As the UN Women’s group say, “In conflicts and atrocities across the globe, armed actors perpetrate gender-based crimes amounting to persecution as a crime against humanity in an effort to reinforce oppressive, discriminatory gender narratives. Rarely documented, perpetrators are hardly ever held accountable for these crimes. As a result, their crimes of persecution are often excluded from consideration by international and domestic tribunals, and in effect, are left out of history.” [5] How can you hold those accountable for on the ground crimes, such as rape and other sexual violent crimes, such as the abuse of children or the stealing of personal belongings, or murder, that happen in the space of ‘war’ but where there is no direct accountability?

In Section 4 of the UN Women’s document “Identifying gender persecution in conflict and atrocities: A toolkit for documenters, investigators, and adjudicators of crimes against humanity” there are some suggestion on accountability but with sadness I write they feel so abstract and still so far away. It feels like a (Sultana’s) Dream.

Update: I wrote this article Thursday but was hesitant to put it online. In part because I wasn’t sure it would positively contribute to the conversations around the atrocities happening to Ukraine and its people. However today, Sunday, as Putin has just put his nuclear weapons on alert, I have just read a brilliant piece by Mona Eltahawy entitled “Essay: The Feminist Response to War” where she clarifies something I was thinking but hadn’t quite formalised in my head and wanted to add and share:

“The feminist response to war is to incite sedition and treason; it is to demand, in the loudest voice possible, for mutiny–against patriarchy.”[6]

As I touched upon above, the idea that women are naturally passive and men are natural aggressors, as Eltahawy says “are essentially propaganda wrought by the patriarchy to keep things exactly as they are.” [7] The wars women fight on a daily basis are against the patriarchal systems that have been built to keep them down and out, while elevating their own male agendas — including war. Let alone trans women who fight extra battles daily.

War is not men against men fighting about the same but different ideals of power and money, it is also about their ideas of ownership, “Fighting patriarchy’s wars must not be our price of admission into full humanity and liberation. Too many times that is exactly the price that patriarchy demands of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, women, and queer people, for a dignified life.”[8]

So what can we do? In the short term here are details on how you can help those in the Ukraine. In the long term it is our duty to advocate for peace, to march when we can see people being silenced or injustice being put upon any fellow human, and to push our local governments to respond with humanity, care and peace — aggressively!

[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/CaXEJY-IpVK/

[2] https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/mayor-khan-russian-london-property

[3] https://www.ft.com/content/475d6954-ea9b-4ad4-a884-a4afb38cfc14

[4] https://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps/

[5] https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2022/01/identifying-gender-persecution-in-conflict-and-atrocities

[6] https://www.feministgiant.com/p/essay-the-feminist-response-to-war?utm_source=url

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

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