Thinking About Gender and Security Studies at ISA

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Among events I attended last week at the International Studies Association Annual Conference: an informal discussion on the relationship between IR feminist theory and security studies, organized by my Duck of Minerva co-blogger Laura Sjoberg. Some of the questions posed to the participants in advance: What (if anything) can feminist theory teach security studies? What (if anything) can security studies teach IR feminism?

My key answer to the first of these questions has typically been: feminist theorists can show security folks how a gender lens can help solve problems that matter to security studies.

The foreign policy community and defense establishment gets this, I think. The US Army has recently begun requiring all soldiers, male and female, to undergo resiliency training so they can learn to “talk about emotions” as a bulwark against morale problems, suicide, domestic violence and divorce. Top Pentagon brass are urging the Obama Administration to repeal the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy not just because “it’s the right thing to do” but because the discharge of numerous gay and lesbian servicemen and women has deprived the military of key assets.

What the foreign policy establishment often doesn’t get is how to do "gender" well. This is because their efforts to craft more gender-friendly policies are themselves so based on gender assumptions rather than gender analysis. So for example, the State Department has seized upon “women’s empowerment” as a benchmark for its democracy promotion efforts – with mixed results. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity right now for feminist IR scholars studying gender dynamics in post-conflict zones and the roles of gender discourse in national identity and international negotiations to have an important effect in creating sounder policy options.

The key to having that effect, though, is to speak to the interests of those states involved. The US interest may not be “Iraqi women’s betterment” in and of itself; it may be “effective stability operations.” But if you can make the case that protecting Kurdish women from honor killings or ensuring Shi’a women equal protection under a national constitution supports the broader goal of the “nation-building” then you may have a much better chance of harnessing the support of powerful actors for feminist ends than if you limit yourself to "critiquing the hegemonic discourse."

And this is where my answer to Question Number Two comes in: Security Studies can teach IR feminists how to communicate with the defense establishment more effectively. As I pointed out at the discussion, very few IR feminists I know – (and I am obviously poking fun at some of my own writing here as well) – can utter the sentence “the US needs to revamp its force structure to ensure power projection in anti-access environments” without snickering much less talk or write seriously about the kinds of issues raised in the QDR that was released last month – on terms that are actually likely to be taken seriously by military bloggers, defense intellectuals, or men and women in uniform. Certainly most of Laura’s posts at the Duck do not.

I think this is a shame and that it could easily be changed if IR feminists accept the validity of a genuine exchange with security studies on its own terms, rather than on some asymmetric cross-paradigmatic battlefield.

P.S. Peter Feaver from Shadow Government crashed this discussion and made a few choice points. I hope he blogs about them...

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]


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