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By Cynthia Enloe

Central bankers. The very idea of central bankers has become so deeply masculinized that most of us don’t add a gendered adjective. We don’t say “male central bankers”. We only add a gendered descriptor on that rare occasion when a woman has been appointed to head the country’s central bank. Then we feel compelled to say “female central banker”. The same holds true today with other categories of actors — 747 pilots, football stars, hedge fund brokers, police chiefs, bulldozer operators, gangsters, firefighters, finance ministers. The good news — a sign of progress — is that nowadays there are women here and there who have broken into these masculinized ranks. “Woman pilot” no longer sounds like a total oxymoron. Thanks to organized political pressure and their own sheer grit, there are today handfuls of women in each one of these masculinized roles, but they remain so unusual that we usually feel we need to say “woman finance minister” or “woman firefighter”. Otherwise, when talking just about an “ordinary” finance minister or firefighter, we drop the gender reference. No need. Everyone knows that they usually are men.

Much the same is true for how most of us think about conscientious objectors. An “ordinary” conscientious objector is presumably male. You presume it. I presume it. So, no need for either of us to say “male conscientious objector”, to distinguish a particular male resister from a female resister. It is our own habit of masculinizing not only soldiers, but also those who resist soldiering, that has made this new book so important for its contributors to create and for us to read.
Yet there is more to this book than just making visible — de-exoticizing — women conscientious objectors. In addition, this book, read cover-to-cover (not just cherry-picked), reveals how loosening the ropes that tie masculinity to soldiering, and masculinity to resistance to soldiering, makes us smarter about both the subtle workings of masculinity and of militarization — and to the reliance of each on the other. Any analysis that exposes reliance of one thing on another serves to make each more vulnerable, each more open to challenge and to potential transformation. The contributors to this collection shine bright lights on the root system of militarization that stubbornly sustains militaries, soldiering, and the preparation for and the waging of wars.

It has been feminist-informed women — ie women who openly investigate patriarchy’s daily operations — within national and international conscientious objector movements who have helped persuade so many men considering conscientious objection to seriously confront their own stakes in particular forms of patriarchal masculinity. They have shown us that conscientious objector movements, whose participants imagine that focusing on class inequalities, colonialism, capitalism and racism — each indeed crucial to candidly explore — is sufficient, turn out to be conscientious objector movements which stop at the water’s edge. They are anti-war movements whose leaders and supporters hesitate to wade into the strong tides of patriarchy. In fact, in their reluctance they may actually reinforce it, reinvigorating patriarchy’s privileging of masculinity. The result of these personal and collective political and personal hesitations too often is that one of the key dynamics sustaining not only the privileging of soldiering, but also the deeper structures of militarism, is left securely in place, ready for service in the next war.

Only recently, I confess, have I become aware of the mind-changing, movement-altering work of women as conscientious objectors. While I have been taught by several generations of feminist colleagues to pay close attention to the histories of women as peace activists, I still too often thought of those women active in specifically conscientious objector movements — in World War I Britain, in apartheid-era South Africa, during the Vietnam War years in the US — chiefly as supporters. These were the women, I imagined, who gave backing to brothers and boy friends who had chosen to resist the government’s compulsory male military conscription; these were the women who had become activists within male-led, male-conceptualized anti-conscription movements. My imaginings of these women were limited by my own insufficient feminist curiosity. I didn’t ask enough about how a seemingly righteous cause might be infected with its own brand of patriarchy, how its seemingly courageous participants might be reliant on women remaining comfortably (for them) feminine, nurturing and supporting the masculinized cause, but not shaping its strategies, much less its understandings. In fact, feminists active inside conscientious objector movements had more than nurturing support to offer; they had fundamental insights.

Three recent experiences opened my eyes, enlivened my feminist curiosity. They all came quite close together. The first came as I read the work-in-progress of a friend, the South Korean feminist scholar/activist, Insook Kwon. Insook, who already had explored the surprisingly militarized internal dynamics of South Korea’s 1980s pro-democracy movement which succeeded in ending decades of military rule, now turned her keen intelligence to the country’s continuing male conscription system. She asked questions flowing from her feminist curiosity. She made explicit the workings of both femininity and masculinity inside the legal system and the country’s wider political culture that supported South Korea’s conscription processes. She reminded me that male military conscription was a feminist issue.

The second experience came soon after, during a trip to Israel in which I was asked to speak to — and, more importantly, listen to, learn from — Israeli Women’s Studies scholars and feminist activists who were charting and questioning their society’s profound militarization. New Profile was one of the groups whose work I’d followed for several years. Started by a group of Israeli middle-aged women, some of whom had themselves done military service, most of whom had had sons and daughters eligible for military conscription, New Profile’s members had come together to share with each other their concerns about — and to figure out how to take responsibility for — militarization’s myriad strands in their lives.

By the time I visited New Profile’s activists, they had launched a youth group, bringing young women and men into their discussions and their actions. Military service — its rationales, its consequences for both young people and their mothers and fathers, and its connecting links to other cultural and economic dynamics in society — always was on the agenda.

During my short visit Idan Halili was making a public stand against her military call-up. Her friend and supporter Tali Lerner brought Idan’s ideas into the New Profile conversations. Idan cited Virginia Woolf as she explained how, step by step, as a young girl and then as a teenager she had come to her own decision to reject the government’s military call-up when it came. Later, at a lively inter-generational gathering in Tel Aviv, Idan went on to explain why she did not want to be seen as a “hero”. She did not want her enduring a prison sentence to be thought of by any peace activists as particularly courageous. Doing either, she warned us all, would be encouraging a sort of privileging that, even when attached to a young woman, would feed masculinized hierarchies.

During this same period, I was invited to spend time in Turkey. Thanks to the welcoming guidance of scholar/activist Ayşe Gül Altınay, I met scores of Turkish feminist intellectuals and activists, among them Ferda Ülker. Ferda was part of a group of women in the coastal city of Izmir who recently had decided that women active in a local mixed-gender group supporting those men resisting military conscription had reached the point in their own on-going journeys toward awareness where they needed to have their own space. They wanted to dig deeper into the connections they were beginning to see between masculinities, femininities, conscription, militarization and anti-militarization — both as those connections operated inside their conscientious objector organization and within contemporary Turkish society as a whole. They generously asked me to join one of their lively dinner conversations. It was out of conversations such as these that Ferda and other Turkish women later crafted their own “I Reject…” declaration.

Stories. These three stories remind me that this is how a new consciousness comes about. In this instance, my own. While women within conscientious objection movements can appear as a collective phenomenon, their experiences and the new curiosities, new investigations, and new awarenesses often are best understood by telling stories. So, as we read the eye-opening chapters that follow, it will help, I think, not to lose sight of the stories of individual women — in Colombia, Eritrea, Israel, Korea, Turkey, Britain, the USA and Paraguay — crafting a new politics out of telling and reflecting upon their own particular stories. Out of a convergence of stories comes a movement. Out of a reflection on the messiness of women’s individual stories, their twists and turns, their surprises, their loose ends, comes a movement that is sustainable and vibrant in its challenging patriarchy’s sneaky ways of infecting both militarism and efforts to challenge militarism.

Cynthia Enloe is professor in the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University, Worcester, USA, and Director of Clark University’s Women Studies program. She is the author of many books on feminism and militarism, among them: Bananas, Beaches and Bases. Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, London, Sidney, Wellington, Pandora, 1989, and Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives, University of California Press, 2000.

Published in: Women and Conscientious Objection - An Anthology


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