Cynthia Enloe

Sustaining Feminist Curiosity for the Future of Women, Peace, and Security: Q&A with Cynthia Enloe

Dr. Cynthia Enloe, a research professor at Clark University in the United States. (Source)

Twenty years ago this month, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1325 focusing on the ways in which women and girls impact and are impacted by armed conflict, marking the beginning of the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda. There are now a total of ten WPS resolutions, yet many of the initial goals of 1325 have still not been met. “The resistance to both the analysis and the effective implementation to 1325 still runs deep,” said Dr. Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University in the United States.

As part of the Global Observatory article series marking the twentieth anniversary of resolution 1325, Dr. Phoebe Donnelly of the International Peace Institute spoke with Dr. Enloe about the state of the WPS agenda, how to ensure it is not overly-simplified and narrowed, and how its advocates can continue to remain hopeful and curious feminists.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In your latest book, you discuss the ways in which patriarchy adapts and modernizes over time. In what ways do you see patriarchy adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic? How can the WPS community adapt in response?

Cynthia Enloe: It’s always good to place ourselves within particular moments in gendered history. Feminists—as researchers, practitioners and activists—have learned that none of us stands outside of history. It matters, for instance, that today we have dug deeper into the gendered politics of security than we had in, say, 1980. As a result, we now are quicker to see through the false walls that patriarchy erects between “public” and “private” spaces and so can name violence against women perpetrated by male domestic partners as a crime and a violation of human rights. That’s the good news. Nonetheless, dismaying evidence is pouring in today that indicates that the pandemic shutdowns, combined with state cuts in public services, are creating new conditions enabling violent men to escalate their physical abuse of women inside their more isolated households.

Or take another example of patriarchy’s sustainability during this pandemic. It’s true that today we are more likely than we were in 1970—not because we intrinsically are smarter, but because of all the hard, grinding work that feminist investigators and activists have done over decades—to keep our eyes on the patriarchal dynamics swirling around “expertise.” That’s why I sat up and took special notice when this transnational group of women scientists detailed how this pandemic is being treated by too many male scientists as a chance to push aside their increasingly numerous and knowledgeable female scientific colleagues in order to re-claim their own masculinized privileged status as “experts.”

So, first, for all of us who are committed to the full implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, this means that, unless we take explicit steps today to ensure that no public health directive is ever designed or implemented based on the faulty assumption that “home” is equally safe for women and for men, we will be complicit in perpetuating patriarchy.

Likewise, unless we collect gender-disaggregated information on who it is that governments and media call upon to serve as experts and then speak out about any gender distortions we find, we again will be leaving the doors wide open for those who seek to re-masculinize authority during any crisis.

A theme throughout your work is that feminist curiosity is necessary, but can be uncomfortable. Can you share a point during your work within the WPS space that your feminist curiosity has made you feel uncomfortable?      

Cynthia Enloe: My list of discomforting experiences is long, but one instance especially comes to mind that perhaps sheds light on how doing serious research on the interactions between security, women, militarism, and peace takes extra candor and stamina. I was based in Tokyo as a professor at Ochanomizu University, and I decided to take the train to Hiroshima. Although I had been to Japan several times, this would be my first visit to Hiroshima. As an American and as someone who’d spent decades trying to expose the steps by which anyone can become militarized, I think I felt a special obligation to visit this city.

My friends knew I had studied Japanese militarization, could see the guilt-threaded mood in which I was setting off on my trip, and knew the power of visiting Hiroshima. So they wanted to make sure I visited both wings of the Hiroshima museum in the Peace Park. As Japanese feminists, they were dedicated to preventing Japan from remilitarizing society and foreign policy. For them, this meant being very wary of any narrative that positioned their fellow Japanese as solely victims. They had been among those Japanese anti-militarist activists who had campaigned for Hiroshima’s city council to build this newer wing, a wing dedicated to showing how the war-waging government of the time had turned Hiroshima into a militarized city.

They were right. To visit Hiroshima was a powerful experience, not only intellectually, but emotionally. I indeed was horrified. As I rang the beautiful peace bell, as I looked at the grass growing peacefully now where once a schoolyard rang with children’s laughter, as I made myself look squarely at the photos of horribly burned survivors, the sense of guilt did run deep. With my Japanese feminist friends’ caveats now in my head, though, I made a point of spending time in the museum’s newer wing, absorbing the information in its exhibits.

The discomfort? I was worried that my becoming more curious about the complicated full story of Hiroshima would dilute my personal sense of the injustice of the atomic bomb attack. The challenge for all of us, I think, is this: not to depend on simplistically unrealistic narratives of victimization in order to stay responsibly curious about full accountings of any militarization’s gendered processes and costs.

Have there been any areas of the WPS agenda in its 20-year history that you think have become militarized or have been in danger of being militarized?

Cynthia Enloe: You know, one of the things you and I have talked about over the last few years is how malleable militarizing processes are. It turns out that militarizing people can militarize almost anything if they can turn it into something that depends for its appeal, social acceptance, contract, economic survival, legitimacy, or sense of belonging on its appearing to serve masculinized military purposes. Nothing is automatically immune. This could be really depressing, but realizing militarizing processes wide reach also can sharpen our feminist analytical awareness and inspire us to call out any hint of militarizing change before it gets too far down the proverbial tracks.

Since 2000, I’ve learned from listening to feminists who’ve been closely monitoring implementation of 1325 that those patriarchal resisters in the UN or member state officials will usually undermine any gender equity gain by shrinking its meaning, meaning they are least uncomfortable with the narrowest interpretation of 1325.

Scholars who have investigated how and why resolution 1325 managed to get passed by the Security Council tell us that both of the key assertions at the resolution’s core—that women’s experiences of, and losses in armed conflicts are distinct from those of men and thus need to be explicitly tallied, and for any peace process to succeed, women need to be significant players in that process—were mightily resisted or arrogantly dismissed. No longer could “lootpillageandrape” be casually spoken of as the unavoidable collateral damage of war. No longer could women be imagined as merely the passively protected, grateful for any manly protection.

Today, twenty years after its passage, we forget how astounding it was for those women thinkers, researchers, and activists to have succeeded in getting Security Council delegates to vote for this groundbreaking resolution. In fact, we may be slipping into a casualness when referring to “womenpeaceandsecurity.” That’s risky. It underestimates the past and present resistance.

The resistance to both the analysis and the effective implementation to 1325 still runs deep, even if most official spokespeople know how to perform their public support. Again, patriarchal people may be stubborn, but they can be surprisingly agile. For many of those who are skeptical at best, strongly opposed at worst, the best strategy to insure 1325 does not upset the international masculinized political applecart is to militarize it.  That is, to turn its assertions and commitments into practices that are digestible, yet appear as progress.

The first strategy adopted by the 1325 skeptics, my wonderful feminist tutors who are monitoring 1325 tell me, is taking the first core assertion in 1325 and trying to turn it into a remake of women-in-war-are-mainly-silent-victims. This is a brand of militarization in that it presumes that women in wartime are only of interest to influential people if they can be categorized as victims of violence. If they can be, then masculinized concern can just be an extension of the patriarchal assumption that men are the natural protectors of women.

A second patriarchally digestible strategy—one that is also satisfyingly quantifiable—is adding more women to the country-authorized UN peacekeeping uniformed forces. This too shrinks the actual meanings of 1325’s core assertions. This just-add-women-to-militaries maneuver is one that feminists have been assessing for years—at least since the mid-1970s—in their own countries. Feminists have had to ask: when a government increases the proportion of women in its active duty military from, say, 2 percent to 15 percent, does that increase represent genuine progress for all women? Or, when governments go further and expand women’s roles inside a given military, feminists have had to ask: should successfully pressuring a state to lift its ban on women in military combat roles count as a step toward gender equity? Both of these state changes have been the result of persistent, organized women’s pressure. Neither has come without a political tussle. But how should we measure these gains against wider feminist transformative goals?

In the implementation of 1325, neither getting officials to pay more attention to men’s sexual assault on women in wartime, nor getting them to increase the percentage of uniformed women in any contributing country’s peacekeeping force has been easy. So that means any success feels substantial, even though neither has been yet fully realized. But even if those changes can be achieved, is that really moving us all toward fulfilling the most serious 1325 commitment: to reimagine security by taking seriously diverse women’s lives and their policy ideas?

What has kept you inspired to continue work on and write about WPS issues?

Cynthia Enloe: I think for most of us, working with other feminists—diverse feminists in all sorts of spaces—has been the key to staying energized. It can be disheartening when you see how patriarchal mindsets are so entrenched, when you watch people making merely tokenist changes, when you see the careful investigations our colleagues do in warzones get put on the shelves to gather dust, when patriarchal militarized ideas morph into their updated forms. So we do need to keep crafting ways to maintain our collective feminist stamina.

I think, for me, it’s also energizing to keep learning new things, such as reading an eye-opening piece of gender-smart journalism. Or it’s exciting to read a new journal article or book or NGO report that provides the nitty gritty details of women’s organizing in war zones. No day is ho hum!

Sometimes what keeps me engaged politically and intellectually is imagining who will take comfort if I do pull back, if I do get discouraged, or worst of all, if I slide into cynicism. My own little change in attitude, of course, is just a pebble tossed into a wide ocean. But, still, I think that if I wind down, it’s mainly militaristic patriarchal people who’ll benefit. That thought revs me up again immediately!

In what ways would you like to see WPS expand or change in the future? Are there questions or issue areas policy experts and researchers should be more curious about right now?

Cynthia Enloe: This may seem a bit odd, but one of the changes I’d like to see is our avoiding referring to “WPS”! I know it’s handy and that using “WPS” can give us a sense of community, which is positively supportive. But relying on this shorthand makes me worried. It can serve to unintentionally shrink what are in reality complex, always-in-motion dynamics between diverse women, the myriad understandings of peace, and the always-contested notions of security. When we shrink anything down to a convenient acronym, we risk underestimating the lived realities lying beneath that short acronym.

I also worry that, while referring to a “WPS community” can supply us with a confidence-building sense of collective effort, it might also unwittingly suggest insiders and outsiders. In reality, though, hundreds of young women and some men in scores of different societies right now are thinking their own new thoughts, crafting their own new curiosities about how diverse women experience insecurity, what lasting peace should look and feel like, how perhaps they themselves have been complicit in local militarization. I hear from people asking these fresh questions almost every day. They’ve never heard of “WPS”. They haven’t seen the institutionalization of this set of campaigns and investigations. So I just want to be sure that they never feel like outsiders, knocking on some newly-painted door asking to be let inside. I definitely don’t want any of us to imagine ourselves as being behind this shiny door deciding who is worthy of being letting in.

For areas to investigate, because I’m so interested in how patriarchal resistance and tokenism as well as feminist-inspired genuine transformation actually happens, I wish we could have more feminist-informed—that means, with an explicit investigation of power—gender studies of particular organizations, political parties, or government ministries that play influential roles in shaping the relationships between peace and women and security in actual circumstances. For instance, do we have a feminist-informed gender analysis of the UN Security Council? Of the UN peacekeeping? Wouldn’t a feminist-informed full gender analysis of the UN peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Chad, or Haiti be valuable? I’d love to read a gender investigation of Oxfam, the UN Refugee Agency, the UN Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the UN’s CEDAW Committee, or Doctors Without Borders. Or, for example, a feminist-informed gender analysis of the post-war ruling parties or government ministries in Colombia, Timor-Leste, Liberia or Cambodia. Each study would shed needed light of the inter-workings of peace or remilitarization, security or insecurity, and diverse women’s lives.