Working Together


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Throughout this book, readers will find there is a particular focus on ‘gender’. But why is such a focus pertinent? Dr. Cynthia Cockburn is a feminist researcher and writer, living in London, where she is active in Women in Black against War, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She holds honorary chairs in the Department of Sociology, City University London, and the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, University of Warwick. Here, she addresses this question.

Why Gender?

The clear conviction of authors and editors that 'gender matters' is a welcome feature of this book. But why does it matter? What do we gain by employing a gender analysis in the study of conscientious objection, the movement of those who refuse to be enlisted into the state's preparations for war? The answer to this question, I think, may come in three parts.

First, just as it is impossible to fully appreciate and understand any social matter – and war is nothing if not profoundly social – without an analysis of economic class relations and the ethno-cultural and 'racialised' difference structuring populations, so it calls for a gender analysis, since all aspects of the social are gendered through and through, even if it has taken a couple of centuries of feminist persistence to bring this to the forefront of the sociologist's mind. Practising war involves the mental preparation and orientation of populations to commit to increased government budgets on armed forces and weaponry at the cost of spending on other public services, and to the death, destruction and loss of wellbeing the war will involve. Those populations are made up of individuals variously related to power, with complex belongings and needs. People differently situated by class, gender and ethnicity pay an unequal price for war readiness and war fighting. Leaders know well to appeal to class and ethnic solidarity – migrants often gain legitimacy by enlisting – and in their call to arms they often appeal to manhood to 'protect women and children' against the putative aggressor.

Second, a gender analysis is important because it alerts us to matters in militaries, militarism and militarisation of which we might otherwise not be fully conscious. For example, it reminds us to notice, and to question, the current trend to recruit women, even into combat roles. A gender lens applied to militarism, as ideology, a mindset that values armament and warfare, shows this orientation often expressed differently by women and men – but it can also disabuse us of prejudices. For instance, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher surprised many by proving to be, 'despite' being female, a keenly militarist politician. Applied to militarisation this same lens reveals, as Cynthia Enloe has so strikingly shown, not just the enlistment of men into militarising practices, but the shaping of many aspects of the domestic economy and family life as well.1 Third, a gender analysis of things military in turn tells us a great deal about the relationship between femininity and masculinity. It has a lot to say in particular about men and masculinisation, features we might otherwise be liable to underplay. For instance, the apparent reluctance of educationalists to counteract the stereotypically 'rough and tumble' culture of boyhood, despite the well understood detriment to women and girls, may be explained by the state's perceived need for masculinity in each succeeding generation to maintain a readiness for combat. Men as men, too, have an interest in this. As Ayşe Gűl Altinay puts it, 'the military is as much a site of (masculine) national desire and production, as it is a force of coercion'.2

Conscientious objection, an individual's refusal, for various reasons, to participate in military service, even when this is a legal obligation, is a dramatic moment of fusion in relations of power, in several dimensions. Military service in premodern times was sometimes voluntary, sometimes enforced by the ruling classes, and at times 'mercenaries' were paid to fight. With the consolidation of the nation state system in 18th century Europe, the practice developed whereby the state obliges males of a given age to serve in its national army. Conscientious objection developed in parallel, a critical instance of relationship between the male individual and the state, wherein responsibility – his obligation to serve as the state's soldier – became associated with rights: the state's obligation to reciprocate with citizenship. Sometimes the conscientious objector is obliged to flee his state, on pain of prosecution and imprisonment, and then finds himself in the 'no man's land' of statelessness. That, in most cases, only males have been the subject of military conscription has been one cause of women's inferior rights as citizens. Thus the importance of a gender analysis is not diminished, as might be thought, in the till-now rare circumstances in which a state (as Israel today) extends conscription to women. On the contrary, it is all the more necessary if the trajectory over time of that society's power relations, the deeply intertwined systems of nationalism, militarism and patriarchy, are to be understood in their specificity.

Conscientious objection is of course scorned and despised by those who value and promote a militarised model of manhood and citizenship. On the other hand, within peace movements, where on the contrary refusal to kill is respected, the conscientious objector may be represented in two rather different ways, both of them gendered. On the one hand he may be represented as a kind of alternative masculine hero. Just as the soldier is heroised for his willingness to 'be a man' and die for his country, so a conscientious objector may be praised and admired within peace movements for 'his' heroic preparedness to suffer trial, subjection and imprisonment for his antimilitarist beliefs. He becomes an alternative masculine role model. Alternatively, a man's act of refusal may be a progressive move within two kinds of power struggle – not only that between the individual and the state, but that which characterises relations between women and men, feminine and masculine qualities and values. This occurs when the conscientious objector refuses both of the two readily available masculinities, the one macho and heroic, the other shamed, degraded and de-masculinised by evasion of military service. This conscious stance of 'neither/nor' is an anti-patriarchal choice that can only be made if gender is made fully visible in the social field of militarism and war.

When women are subject to obligatory military service, as they are in Israel, of course conscientious objection, as refusal to serve, becomes a choice available to them as well as to men. However in most states, it continues to be only men who are conscripted. And in this case conscientious objection implies a different set of strategies for women than for men. At the very least, the situation is one in which women, often including friends and family members, are likely to engage 'in' conscientious objection by supporting male conscientious objectors who are known to them. But in some countries, women have extended the meaning of the concept to include many other kinds of antimilitarist, anti-state, activism. They may withhold 'defence' taxes, protest against military involvement in schools, or the rampant militarism of many video games and films. Women applying a gender analysis to the situation are likely to perceive a connection between the legislated violence of the state against 'the enemy', and the all-too-habitual violence of men, whether militarised or civilian, against other men and above all against women, in domestic contexts and in sexualised forms. Such women's feminist perception of the continuum of gendered violence is likely to precipitate them into activism of more extensive scope than 'mere' direct support for conscientious objectors. It will shine a light on the malign intersectionality of nationalism and militarism with patriarchy, aligning the movement of 'women against violence' with the movement of 'people against war'. At best it will help mobilise a society wide awareness in which antimilitarist men join in alliance with the women's movement and in partnership with (and as) lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans activists, to subvert the contemporary relations of ruling.

A Note on the Intersectionality of Gender3

Ideas about male and female behaviour, of masculinities and femininities, interact with and change depending on other social categories such as race, age, ability, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, and also vary over space and time, but affect and influence all of us our whole lives […] The gender identity we are assigned to and that we ourselves and society form us into, gives us a very different amount of power over our lives and the decisions that affect them. However, our access to power and privilege also relies heavily on other social categories (such as race, class and age, among others), which means people get advantages and disadvantages from gender privilege in very different ways.

1. Enloe, Cynthia 2000, Manoeuvres: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press).

2. Altinay, Ayše Gūl 2004, The Myth of the Military Nation: Militarism, Gender and Education in Turkey, (New York & Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan), p3.

3. Cattis Laska, ‘Gender and Nonviolence’, in Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd ed. (London: War Resisters’ International), p23.


Go to next chapter: Women and Conscientious Objection: Ferda’s Story


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

1 + 2 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.