Women-against-NATO - Making a Feminist Case

In April 2009, as part of the mobilization against the NATO Summit in Strasbourg, No-to-NATO organized a two-day counter-conference, in the course of which some forty women from NATO member states held a workshop on ‘a feminist case against NATO’.[1] Some of us have continued to work together by e-mail, and we hope to mark the forthcoming NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, this November, with women’s protest actions.

What is our ‘feminist case’ against NATO? In many ways it’s the same case we make against militarism and war in general. That’s to say, we note the adverse ways they impact on women, and the damaging gender roles, active and passive, into which they draw both sexes. We point up the fact that gender relations, as we know and live them, are relations of power and inequality, founded in violence. They involve the social construction of masculinity as combative. Proper manhood requires a readiness to use force in defence of ‘honour’, while femininity is associated with passivity and victimhood. Women who want to escape the feminine stereotype have little choice but to imitate the masculine model. This dichotomous gender culture is one of the long-term, underlying, causes of war, because it predisposes our societies to see taking up arms as a normal and acceptable way of dealing with political conflicts. Consequently, feminist activists call for the transformation of gender relations as a necessary element of the movement to end war.

So how does this apply in the struggle against NATO? It’s important to stress that, for sure, all the women on our ‘Women Against NATO’ e-list are making exactly the same base-line case as all other opponents of NATO. Briefly, that NATO is a Cold War instrument that should have been closed down when the Warsaw Pact folded; that it is primarily a vehicle for the economic and military interests of the USA and to a lesser extent those of the post-colonial Western European states; and that its current strategy of enlargement and its increasingly ‘expeditionary’ mode make it a growing threat to peace on a global scale. Furthermore, NATO’s existence flouts international law and United Nations principles; it chimes with increasing militarization of the European Union; and it locks member states into the nuclear weapons and MDI systems on which the USA continues to insist.

However, beyond this general critique of NATO, we perceive the alliance in gendered terms. NATO is a massive military alliance of nation states. Nira Yuval-Davis and other feminist theorists have shown how the concept of ‘nation’ is gendered, how nationalism and patriarchy are interlocked, and how nations and nationalists use and exploit ‘women’. NATO is the product of Cold War thinking that saw the globe as divided into two ‘blocs’ of nation states, champions of rival ideologies. Some feminist contributions to the Strasbourg workshop talked about the ‘patriarchal logic’ of blocs, a brotherhood of nations in arms seeking out fantasy enemies long after the Cold War has ended.

Secondly, women have been making a feminist case against NATO’s military bases, installations and production facilities in our countries. Although, for the most part, these belong to the national armed forces of member states, they are in effect part and parcel of NATO resources in Europe. Several women wrote workshop papers about the damaging effect of military installations on the lives of women in neighbouring communities. They described women’s non-violent direct action outside the razor wire and security checkpoints, protesting against the toxic pollution, the danger of radiation, the noise and blighted areas entailed by the military use of land. Women also protest against sexual exploitation and violence against women by military personnel. In Bosnia and Kosovo, UN and NATO-led forces not only generated a massive sex industry, but individual soldiers – along with NATO contractors and UN police – were actively involved in the trafficking process, receiving trafficked women and girls at borders, smuggling them into military bases and acting as pimps. Although NATO adopted, in 2004, a Policy Against Human Trafficking, no suspected NATO traffickers have been prosecuted.[2]

Third, the persistence of the ‘NATO system’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union has prevented each European country cashing in ‘the peace dividend’ by reducing its armed forces and humanizing its international posture. It has required them to sustain a high degree of militarization that masculinizes and deforms everyday life. It has, what’s more, fostered the militarization of the European Union, so that an economic alliance we joined as a guarantor of cooperation and harmony is turning into yet another war-fighting machine. It has been argued that the EU is converting to this ‘hard’ image in response to the chiding of US policy-makers that Europe is a feminine, soft, civilian power. European leaders want to play ‘with the big boys’.[3] A commitment to contribute to a European force as well as to NATO calls for high military expenditures in EU member states. Feminists argue that this drains funds from the education, health and housing services badly needed by women, the sex that still carries a very high proportion of the burden of domestic life and care.

Finally, feminist antimilitarists make a case against NATO as a perpetrator of wars. The effects of war are dramatically gendered. There is a growing trend to civilian casualties, disproportionately women and their dependants. Women are the majority of the displaced and refugees, trying to maintain their families in impossible circumstances. Thousands are widowed, deprived of a viable existence. Sexual violence redoubles in and after war. We see all this in NATO’s war in Afghanistan.

Improbable as it may seem, NATO prides itself on ‘mainstreaming’ gender into its structures and activities. ‘NATO and its Partners’, they say on their website, ’are promoting the role of women within NATO-led operations and missions’ and increasing the knowledge and skills available on ‘gender and diversity’. Last year the Strategic Commands received guidelines for the integration into the NATO Command Structure of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on ‘Women, Peace and Security’. There is a NATO Office on Gender Perspectives, and gender advisers have been appointed. An implementation report is to be published in time for the Lisbon Summit.[4]

Given the implications for women of NATO’s campaign Afghanistan, the Alliance’s self-professed gender sensitivity can only deepen feminist cynicism about ‘gender mainstreaming’. Here is an alliance of powerful Western states exploiting the notion of ‘liberating Afghan women from oppression by the Taliban’ as one of its devious justifications for invading the country. Women’s insecurity is multiplied in the chaos and brutality of a decade of armed conflict. Then the intruders announce plans to make their escape by negotiating the re-entry to power of – the Taliban. Afghan women certainly have a feminist case against NATO. So do women in NATO member states.

Cynthia Cockburn
Women in Black, London


[1] A report of the workshop can be seen at http://www.wloe.org/The-workshop.555.0.html
[2] Sian Jones 'NATO and the Trafficking of Women'. The Broken Rifle No 81, February 2009
[3] Stephanie Anderson ‘From “soft” power to “hard” power: the militarization of the European Union as an attempt to shed its “feminine” identity.’ Paper presented to the 49th International Sociological Association annual convention, San Francisco, 26.3.08. http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p251752_index.html.
[4] From http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_56984.htm#Roles accessed 18.08.10.


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