Security is not fantasy, it is a political project: Security for Resistance through the ‘Women in Black’ Experience

In the 1990s, the gatherings in Belgrade of Women in Black against the brutality towards peoples of Yugoslavia provoked many men to reveal a sexism blended with ethnic nationalism and militarism. For example, a church official declared the protesting women to be ‘enemies of the Serbian people’. In 1991, a Serbian official explicitly stated that the Women in Black ‘can go to Croatia to be violated by the Croatian army’. Surely, these attacks against Women in Black in Serbia were not very different from anti-war and anti-violence women movements from Israel to Turkey. What is the reason for such demeaning attacks? What are these women doing that ‘justifies’, in the eye of some men, their ‘violation’ by the enemy? What makes them ‘the enemy’? The reason is that the resistance of women offers an alternative understanding of security, and through this, an alternative community, way of life, allocation of resources, or, simply put, a new type of power relations. Security is not a fantasy; it is a political project. Different ways of thinking and doing security are constitutive to what types of individuals we want to be, what types of communities we want to live in, and how political, social, and economic resources are allocated. In other words, how we think about security is intrinsically related to how we think about politics in local and global contexts. For this reason, security scholars and practitioners never solely deal with ‘security’; instead, they make a normative choice about what kind of political project they want to take part in.

Women in Black, which has a respectful history of transnational resistance, can be a useful example to show how global resistance movements can challenge violent, otherizing, dehumanizing, and discriminatory political projects. An alternative political project of resistance surely needs an alternative thinking of security. Indeed, the resistance of Women in Black became the target of sexist and nationalist violence because it offered an alternative political project by challenging what was presented as ‘security’. What steps did they take?

The first step of the protestors’ political project was to develop a holistic way of understanding insecurity through their own individual experiences, formed within the social structures during the preceding years of the war. An activist stated in 1994 that:

‘the institutional manifestations of the growing militarization are the increasing number of regular and paramilitary units, the enormous military budget, and the wartime economy, whereas the promotion of militaristic values, symbols and language, necrophilia, mystification of death, the strict division into female and male roles and the political marginalization of women are its ideological manifestations’.

Nationalist political projects to create ethnically homogenous nations were not simply achieved through materialist policies to ‘secure’ the ethnic group. The very ethnic group to be ‘secured’ had to be constructed through social policies where women (and men) were expected to play their part by adopting certain language and practices. A participant in a workshop organized by Women in Black in Belgrade, in 1997, highlighted the importance of the role of women in articulating security for nationalist political projects:

‘Militarization is performed via numerous institutions and mechanisms. The media and the entire educational system reduce women to the ‘weaker sex’, thus implying a need for us to be ‘protected’. They instill fear to control us more easily. Through us, women, the authorities strengthen militarism. We supposedly cannot face difficult situations, we justify all forms of violence and machismo: we justify the military in war and we justify the police because with their protection, we ostensibly feel safe from attacks by delinquents.’

In this political project, security was articulated as the protection of ‘what is valued’ most—the ethnic nation—against what was constructed as the ‘other’. Therefore, security was inevitably associated with threats, risks, fear of the ‘different’, and distrust. As a result, security became a fantasy in this political project where the state was always expected to secure the nation.

The second step to challenge the nationalist political project was to broaden the sphere of politics in Serbia. Women in Black tried to broaden the political arena beyond the Parliament and beyond the discourses and activities of dominant political elites. In 1997, they stated that:

‘We want to change what’s happening in Parliament, but politics is not only what’s happening in Parliament. In a certain sense, this is a marked change in the relation toward politics. Political parties believe that only they carry out politics, while everything else is social bodies. The feminist movement is indeed political.’

Through this step, female resistance aimed to politicize what was represented as ‘social’, in other words, apolitical. Squares, streets, and small cafés were respatialized as political spaces of resistance. Their bodies, wearing black, became their political message. They also had different ideas about how to conduct politics. They stated that:

‘politics is not only gaining power and winning elections. There are also new forms of communication. The way in which we exist is changing politics … the fact that we are here, that we are together, having crossed borders, encouraging one another, is indeed an attempt to change politics.’

By broadening politics, the protestors also rejected the role tailored for women in nationalist projects. This is the third step of the alternative political project. For example, to this aim, in August 1991 several thousands of mothers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia gathered in front of the General Headquarters of the Yugoslav National Army. In a speech, the women explicated their resistance to the identity and roles imposed on them by the nationalist elites. They:

‘rejected the traditional roles assigned to them by the patriarchal system: the martyr, who cries for her sons within the four walls of her home, with her neighbours, and at the graveside; and the heroine who sheds no tears, not even at the graveside.’

However, rejecting patriarchal/militarist/nationalist roles was not enough. The alternative political project was materialized through deconstructing what was presented as ‘the other’ against whom security was sought. The fourth step is understanding ‘the other’ through developing empathy. On the fifth anniversary of the first protest of Women in Black, it was declared that ‘we wanted to re-establish trust as soon as possible; through letters, small encounters, large international meetings. We attempted to create a space for stating and recognizing differences.’

Through workshops and seminars where women were invited from all over Yugoslavia, the resistance involved giving a human face to ‘the enemy’: ‘we know that every war destroys the conditions conducive to listening to the other’s story. By losing his/her individuality, the Other becomes a threat, responsible for the whole collective story rather than for individual actions.’ They brought refugees from all sides of the fighting to make the point that the pain and suffering of women and men does not change depending on nationality. Knowing the Other’s story is an assault against the nationalist political projects through the generation of empathy between individuals and groups.

Through these four steps, Women in Black proposed an alternative political project in which communal and individual identities were not constructed against the ‘other’. Security in this political project of resistance was not about fear, risk, and extermination of the enemy. In contrast, what was worth securing was the common life where differences could coexist equally. In August 1991, Jelka Imsirovic and Nadezya Cetkovic from Belgrade Women’s Lobby highlighted what was worth securing in Yugoslavia: ‘After this war all the ethnic groups, members of various religious groups, of different political choices etc. will have to live together in this land. The war will darken the future even for our grandchildren. Common life is possible. The differences between us are our richness.’ Another protestor agreed: ‘patriarchal fraternity pretends to value differences, while we women strive for equality within differences’.

For Women in Black, security was not a fantasy. Nor was it simply about threat constructions and physical and non-physical violence. They developed an alternative politics with new methods, and the security thinking for this new project was also different. Surely, this new thinking is not immune to criticism. However, it is an experience for global resistance movements regarding how they can challenge the status quo of insecurities. Equally, it is a reminder for security scholars that they make a political and normative choice about what type of political project they take part in when they ‘study’ security.

 

Notes

  1. This blog post is an updated summary of my published article: Ali Bilgic (2014) ‘What is good about security? Politics of Security during the Dissolution of Yugoslavia’, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, vol. 16 no: 2, pp. 260-278.
  2. The references for the accounts of members of Women in Black can be retrieved from the article.

Feminism as Humanizing Meta-Theory of IR

Can feminism be considered as a meta-theory of the discipline of International Relations? Meta-theories inform theories and their ontological and epistemological assumptions. For those who would answer ‘yes’ to the above question, the most likely justification of a positive answer would be that feminism is the only approach that reveals how knowledge about global politics is gendered. This means that most theoretical knowledge in IR reflects masculinized global politics by marginalizing and silencing what is constructed as feminized. True as it is, I believe that feminism can do more. It can be a meta-theory by serving as a reminder and warning signal for other theories. It can remind that, firstly, global political relations and structures are realized by human practices at a microlevel; secondly, whatever is studied as IR has implications for human beings; finally, if an IR scholar seeks change and transformation of the status quo, s/he should look at and become part of the practices of human beings in their localities, rather than looking for blueprints for change.

In other words, feminism as a meta-theory humanizes the discipline of International Relations. Whichever theoretical approach an IR researcher adopts – s/he does not have to self-define as feminist – the knowledge constructed can be given a human face. Maybe this way IR can be more effectively freed from the current situation which justifies and normalizes global politics that dehumanize global human society by turning its members into faceless numbers and costumers.

How can this happen? The feminist perspective enables IR scholars to delve into the fact that whether it is statism or capitalism, nationalism or socialism, liberal interventionism or neoliberal developmentalism, they all become political realities when they are practiced at the micro-level. The feminist motto ‘the private is political’ can be operationalized. The private, constructed as apolitical through feminization, cannot be considered as a sphere of personal freedom. It is the sphere where mothers are expected to raise citizens, soldiers, and nationalists, and fathers are expected to defend the private, if necessary. When individuals decide to spend their weekend at shopping malls that have become the centers of a neoliberal consumerist culture, especially in the developing world, this is not simply a free private choice. Can we consider an American flag hoisted at a suburban, presumably mortgaged, house during the operation in Afghanistan, when American soldiers were ‘saving’ Afghan women from Taliban, as a free private choice? Probably not. Global political structures and relations are produced and reproduced in what is considered as a private sphere. Human beings through their practices often normalize and justify what is presented as ‘right’.

Furthermore, feminism warns students of IR about the fact that whatever we are studying has implications on ‘real’ human beings. I have recently reread the memoirs of British pacifist Vera Brittain where she narrated her journey to pacifism. It remains an eye-opening work which shows that war does not simply concern a number of people killed, geographies changing hands, or capital accumulating. It touches on the human life. The spilt blood, rotting corpses, the terror of soldiers facing a violent death, the pain and fear of those who were left behind are all ‘real’. Feminism enables and sometimes even forces us to look at what we often choose to neglect because maybe we think that we are performing ‘science’; however, more often because we think that we write about people who are ‘out there’, far away. There is a big lesson for all IR scholars in Carol Cohn’s shock in the face of human fatalities when her male colleagues were discussing the ‘benefits’ of clean nuclear weapons. Although they were talking about human beings, it was almost impossible to remember that as a male ‘defense intellectual’.

Finally, the last reminder of feminism as a meta-theory is for IR researchers who are not happy about the current situation of world politics. The potential for change does not lie in our offices, certainly not in the ‘legitimate’ political spheres of liberal politics. Humans in their everyday practices challenge and resist global oppressive structures and their local extensions. Humans form solidarity networks; they learn about each other’s conditions and empathize with them; they develop their own peace models; and they produce an alternative life that is often considered by IR scholars as ‘utopian’, ‘unrealistic’, and ‘peculiar’. Furthermore, by virtue of its emphasis on humans, feminism does not let passivity and apathy rule our political and academic choices. It warns us about the dangers of fatalism about capitalism, neoliberalism, nationalism, fundamentalism, and militarism. It is a calling that all is not supposed to be this way, look at what people do in their everyday localities. Moreover, join them, if you can.

There is accumulating feminist scholarship on the points examined that can help IR researchers who do not do feminist research or identify themselves as such. The feminist meta-theoretical perspective is simple: when students of IR are performing their analyses, they can just spend some, even little, time on looking at their work from a feminist meta-theoretical prism. They will be surprised at the results. By focusing on humans, the micropolitical analytical agenda of feminism can offer a different picture about macropolitical relations and structures.

Sources used
Cohn, Carol. “Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals.” Signs (1987): 687-718.
Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth (London: Victor Gollancz, 1933)