Q & A with Annick T.R. Wibben: Feminist Security Studies and Today’s Challenges

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Annick T.R. Wibben is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, California and an expert in Feminist Security Studies. She has written extensively on feminism and security and has published a very influential book on the field of Feminist Security Studies, ‘Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach’. On the first Q&A Session of The Globalized World Post she talked with Marianna Karakoulaki, editor of the magazine, about Feminist Security Studies in general as well as specific issues that have been under discussion recently. The discussion began on a more theoretical level but then moved to more specific issues, from the importance of specific UN resolutions to rape as a weapon of war, from the gang rapes in India to third wave feminism, and finally to women in combat in the USA.

Marianna:  Could you explain in a few words what is the field of Feminist Security Studies?

Annick: Describing the field of Feminist Security Studies in a few words is extremely difficult (as you know I’ve written a whole book about this), but let me try. To begin, as far as I am concerned, it is located at the intersection of security studies, feminist international relations and feminist theory more generally. To me, and there is some debate about this[1], it is not supposed to be simply a subfield of security studies which would limit it to the research questions that are acceptable within security studies. The Feminist Security Studies that I am interested in draws on a variety of disciplines other than political science, such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, even linguistics and more, that can help us understand the issues that are affecting women internationally – during peace and war, in relation to conflict, involving violence, etc. Additionally, Feminist Security Studies, like all feminist projects, is inherently political.

M: In what ways can Feminist Security Studies contribute to the way we study and analyze security?

A: Feminist Security Studies, as I have argued before, makes its important contributions by taking feminist methodological commitments seriously. The most important among them is to study feminist questions, which are research questions that arise from women’s everyday experience. Sandra Harding, a philosopher at UCLA, has pointed out that a main way in which bias (whether sexism, racism, classism, or ethnocentrism) enters into science is by the questions we ask. Thus, in my view, one of the most important contributions feminists can make to security studies is to ask feminist questions. If feminists develop their research based on women’s experiences in all their particularity, then they can pay attention to the ways in which women’s experiences are marked by a matrix of power where gender intersects with class, race, nation, religion, sexuality and other factors that produce particular subject positions within which or from which women (and men!) experience the international. These particular subject positions are often the reason why women – on whose experiences feminists tend to base their research – are finding themselves in situations that might be described as being a situation of insecurity or security. Cynthia Enloe is one of the people who has written a lot about this; she constantly asks the question ‘where are the women?’ and then really looks at how the women that she is talking to and talking about are located in particular spaces and how this shapes their experiences of the international. When you focus on particularity and context, rather than deal in abstractions like traditional security studies tend to, you can see security, insecurity, violence and so forth in all its different forms – and that is where Feminist Security Studies is making a crucial contribution.

M: Security Studies are generally considered to be a sub-field of International Relations. Would you say that Feminist Security Studies are marginalized, and feminist scholars are somehow discriminated against, in the International Relations academia?

A: I probably spent more time thinking about this earlier in my career when I was worried about where was I going to land. At this point, I believe feminists are making so many great contributions that it is really the people who are not reading feminist work who are missing out on some very valuable insights. I can understand why International Relations and Security Studies scholars would be concerned about feminist challenges since feminists have an openly political project. Although a lot of the more traditional thinkers in International Relations say that their claims are not political, I would argue they actually are political – they are just conservative in that they promote the status quo (and you can look at the work in Critical Theory for background on this, (e.g. Robert Cox provides a nice summary of this position). Feminists go out there and say ‘I have a political project, my political project is to work for a better world for women’ and that scares people. The other thing that happens in the process of bringing feminist theory and feminist insights to bear on any field is that feminists tend to question the very foundations of that field. Consequently, if people are already invested in those particular fields and have spent a lot of time training and making themselves familiar with those fields then it may be scary, perhaps, if somebody else is saying ‘you got it all wrong and we have to start again from a different perspective.’

M: I would like now to move from theory to more practical issues. In recent years the United Nations has placed emphasis on sexual violence and rape in war (UNSCR 1820), and has appointed a Representative on Sexual Violence (UNSCR 1888). Do you think that these initiatives can play a significant role in fighting this problem; or are they just two more UN resolutions that no one (policy strategists/governments) really cares about?

A: I think it is a “both/ and” situation. It is very important for the UN to recognize that these are issues that need to be addressed on the international stage, and passing the resolutions is part of the process of recognition. I know that a lot of work, also by feminist scholar-activists, has gone into making this possible. Passing the resolutions sends a signal that those issues are actually being taken more seriously. But – and this is a big but – although the resolutions are wonderful, unless there is political will to actually implement and enforce them, they remain a token. For example, there were some discussions recently at the UN, co-hosted by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, and the activists were stressing this exact issue: We don’t need more studies or resolutions; we know the problems. What we need is political will to take action. Meanwhile, one of the things that the resolutions allow us activists to do – all around the world and in particular locations, is to point to them and to our governments ‘look the UN has said that these are important issues, let’s make sure our own processes follow these guidelines, let’s make sure that we actually implement these international agreements.’ This is relevant whether it is these particular resolutions that you are referring to or other treaties, resolutions, and human rights instruments developed over time, many with direct input from feminist activist-scholars. An example here is the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which most of the world has actually ratified but then there are a few countries like the US have not. So we need to wonder: What kind of signal does this send? Overall, I think it is valuable to have these resolutions and it is up to activists to constantly keep pushing these issues. In the end, and we know this from feminist research actually (if people actually read feminist research) it is only when the social movements really push the issues that change actually happens. So, the resolutions are great but they are only one part of the puzzle.

M: On a different issue, I would like us to talk about rape being used as a weapon of war. It is known that rape has been used as a weapon of war and as a form of intimidation, we have seen it in many cases in the past – Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia to name a few, and we see it now in Syria. What do you think the international community – we – can do to change that (apart from the UN resolutions we have already discussed). Is it even possible to chance it?

A: This is a really complicated issue, because like in our discussion of UN resolutions, I think it is really important that we are paying attention to rape in wartime; and the terminology of ‘rape as a weapon of war’ is being used in the mainstream media, so I think it is really important to have this on the agenda. The problem that I see with framing it this way, is that it singles out rape as a weapon of war and separates it from the everyday violence that women experience and it does not make the connections feminist research has pointed to. Feminist research on violence against women has pointed to the fact that there is a continuum of violence; there is a continuum of violence from the personal/ domestic to the international; there is a continuum of violence before, during and after wars. A problem that arises in some of the ways which ‘rape as a weapon of war’ is now talked about, is that it separates it from sexualized violence that happened before and after and what the situation of women is more generally. Often women are raped not only by the enemy (which in any case can be a complicated concept in a war with multiple actors), and rape is not only used as a weapon of war (Maria Stern and Maria Eriksson Baaz have written a number of pieces, like ‘Why Do Soldiers Rape? Masculinity, Violence, and Sexuality in the Armed Forces in the Congo (DRC)’ and ‘Making Sense of Violence: Voices of Soldiers in the Congo’, complicating these issues). The same women might actually being getting raped by their husbands or their partners – so is one rape worse than the other? I don’t think that is necessarily the case. There is some excellent feminist work that further examines these issues, for example Inger Skjelsbæk recently published a book on war rape and the Women Under Siege Project is doing some excellent work too. So, while we need to study and understand the particularities of sexualized violence in women’s lives in all these different contexts, we also need to be aware that these are not separate issues (see e.g., Cynthia Cockburn’sFrom Where We Stand). If we actually want to address them, we cannot focus exclusively on what happens during wartime (and as part of the war effort) but we have to think about the continuum of violence that women face every day.

M: There was an article in Gender in Global Governance Network by Swati Parashar arguing that feminism and feminist scholars are silenced with regards to the gang rape in India (a non-western state with non-western/white victims). Do you think that this statement stands, and if so could you suggest a few reasons why?

A: I think Swati put her finger on something important, though I may not actually agree with all of her assumptions. I think that what she has pointed to, and I find myself engaging in a variety of social media conversations around these issues, is that there is a way in which feminists both get silenced by other feminists and also self-censor for fear of being called racists, classists or ethnocentrists. In my view what Swati is trying to do is push feminists, and particularly feminists in the IR community, to reconsider feminist commitments, to say ‘Didn’t we get into feminism because at its heart it has a political project – at its heart feminism is about making a change? Isn’t at the heart of the project to make the world a better place for women, starting from women’s lives? So if there is a woman in India that is getting raped then isn’t that just as important as paying attention to a woman anywhere else in the world?  And shouldn’t it be a fundamental aspect of feminist solidarity to say that this is wrong?’ The difficulty that I see for feminists trying to answer her call is: People do not know that much about every place in the world. For example, I do not actually know very much about India, and in particular about the situation of different castes and classes; I did not think about how prevalent everyday violence, sexism, and harassment is in India until recently. Now I know more, partly because I have been reading more about this including Swati’s pieces, but still not nearly enough. So for me to comment beyond saying that ‘as a feminist I will not stand for this kind of violence against women anywhere’ – it is really hard to me to make a coherent and useful statement that would move the conversation forward and that might stand scrutiny on social media.

On another point in her post, I too have a problem with the idea (this is similar to what we talked about with regards to rape as a weapon of war) that we should talk about gender based violence rather than violence against women. For me, it takes us too far away from feminist political commitments. It also obscures the fact that actually most violence is perpetrated by men (and much of it against women, though of course also against others) – so I made a political decision to sticking with the term violence against women. Jacqui True makes a similar point in her recent book on the Political Economy of Violence Against Women: The term gender based violence does capture more forms of violence, it hints at the processes of gendering violence, and it may be more accurate in particular circumstances to use that term – but it also obscures the reality of many women’s lives.

Finally, I should also say that Swati’s point about needing to speak across global (and other) divides is crucial. Indeed, I would point to some of the feminists that long ago asked us to put our attention to the intersections between gender, race, class, sexuality and so forth. For example Audre Lorde, the awesome African American lesbian poet, did not say that we can no longer speak to each other. In Sister Outsider, she said that doing so would be to ‘rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.’ Instead, she urged, ‘We can learn to work and to speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and to speak when we are tired’ (p. 44). We have to take our differences seriously, we have to talk about our differences and negotiate them, but we cannot let them silence us. I think that is what Swati is saying in so many words also – and I think this is a challenge that feminist IR really needs to take on at this point.

M: Sticking to that question would you say that Swati is, in a way, trying to challenge Third Wave Feminism?

A: I find Third Wave Feminism not to be a useful category for organizing feminist thought. Just like the term post-positivist IR it is a catch-all phrase for a lot of stuff that is not necessarily coherent. So what kind of feminism does Third Wave Feminism refer to? I am not actually all that sure. I know it is meant to be used as a term to move beyond the troubled history of Second Wave Feminism (in the U.S.), and I think most of us at this point agree that Second Wave Feminism had some serious problems (that unfortunately continue to be found in some feminist circles). But is Third Wave Feminism a better term (especially when we are thinking about feminisms globally)? I think what Swati is questioning is the way some feminist identity politics have led to a form of activism where it becomes really important to mark the boundaries of your own group and you are no longer looking beyond that. I have written about this in my book Feminist Security Studies as well as elsewhere: The problem with that notion is that this is a feminism of political correctness and not a feminism that actually engages in solidarity among women. To me, an interesting aspect of this debate is that scholars that some might associate with the feminist critiques bundled by the term Third Wave Feminism do not actually endorse this position at all. I am thinking of feminists like Chandra Mohanty or Uma Narayan,[2] among others, that have often pointed out that this is not what they were talking about when they were criticizing Western feminists for homogenizing Third World women; that actually a feminist identity politics that no longer can engage in conversations and concerted action is profoundly unhelpful.

One of the issues that I would like to come back to is that of the role of the social media, because I think we have a little bit of a problem in the social media sphere: Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other forums flatten the world in a way that poses problems for feminism. Feminism/ feminist activism usually arises from particular situations; arises in response to a grievance that a group of people have in their particular location in the world – and that specificity does not translate easily on to social media. Thus it creates a tension, on the one hand, of what Swati asks us for: A global sisterhood where you are supporting each other in your campaigns; and, on the other hand, the contexts of particular locations. Take the example of the U.S. where the intersections of race, gender, and class are a very particular – marked by the history of the U.S., including the colonization of Native Americans, slavery and its aftermath, and the violence targeted at Asian Americans (just to name a few). Thus, conversations that take place in U.S.-dominated social media spaces are particular to this context. For others to try to insert themselves into them, to have conversations between feminists in these different places who are not necessarily familiar with the contexts within which the conversations arise, just the way that I am not familiar of the particularities of India, can be really problematic. It leads to a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunications, and there is not a real, genuine dialogue and conversation. One of the commenters of Swati’s piece in the Gender in Global Governance Network, Sarai Aharoni, also pointed out (and I am paraphrasing here) ‘how can we have this kind of dialogue when we are not really listening to each other’s positions and trying to understand them and then move forward?’  I think this is a really important challenge and I do think social media could be a tool for having such conversations, but at this moment they actually tend not to be – instead there is a lot of policing and thrashing.

M: As a final question I would like to focus on the United States, and more specifically on the decision by the U.S. Department of Defense to allow women to serve in combat, which has been much debated since then. What is the importance of this decision, and would you say that it is a step closer to gender equality in the USA?

A: I have followed the debates quite closely and the announcement took me by surprise, I did not expect it to happen at this moment. However, I was also following a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had filed on the behalf of women who have served in combat and Servicewomen Action Network (SWAN), and I know that the decision in the lawsuit was due to be made within a week of the announcement, so  this activism by servicewomen themselves seems like that was important piece of the puzzle in making the decision happen now (there were some others, as Megan MacKenzie pointed out). Those of us who study this have known for a while that eventually this is going to be challenged and, because it is clearly unconstitutional, it was going to have to come down.  The fact that the decision was made now; is it coincidental? I think it is overdue; we know that U.S. servicewomen have been in combat for several years now (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and it is clearly discriminatory not to give them the same benefits as their male colleagues who are doing the same work. So, while long overdue, it is very welcome.

Yet, while it is clearly been part of the feminist agenda to fight for women to have equal rights and benefits when they are doing the same job as men, some feminists are worried about the further militarization this might signify. Cynthia Enloe, for example, wrote an interesting piece on this, where she points out that while equality in the workplace is very important questions remain, particularly given what feminist scholars have learned about militarism and its effects, about whether we necessarily want to support more women going into the military and more women fighting wars whose goals we may not agree with; wars that are leading to the kind of insecurity and violence that many feminists are trying to work against.

Another issue with the removal of the combat exclusion policy that I am really concerned about is that this comes at a time when the U.S. military faces an epidemic of sexualized violence among its ranks, an epidemic of sexualized violence against women but also against men (actually in larger numbers). The film ‘The Invisible War’, which documents this epidemic, has gotten a lot of attention – even the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, began paying more attention to the issue and changing some of the policies after watching the film; so there is some movement (thought the film has some flaws as it focuses mainly on white women, even though many survivors are men and certainly not all are white). Meanwhile, though, I have seen some people argue that lifting the combat exclusion and moving towards more gender equality in the U.S. military is going to help address this epidemic of military sexual assault – I think that is a faulty assumption. Of course generally, when a society or an institution is becoming more equal this also affects levels of violence, including sexualized violence, within it; but this epidemic is not going to go away without some concerted effort on behalf of the women and men who have been affected by violence – and the culture of impunity in the U.S. military that has been documented again and again. This harks back to another issue we previously talked about, because the role of social movements and feminist movements in particular is crucial here. Dealing with violence requires making changes in the culture of the U.S. military which is highly masculinized – and we know about the relationship between (hegemonic) masculinity and violence from feminist research. So I think that the assumption that lifting the combat exclusion ban alone is going make a huge difference on the military sexual assaults is fundamentally flawed – change is only going to come because activists  mainly servicewomen (and men!) themselves in this case, are continuing to press for it.

You can follow Annick T.R. Wibben on twitter @ATRWibben and follow (and contribute to) the developments in the field of Feminist Security Studies by using the #FemSecSt hashtag on Twitter.


[1] For example see the essays on The State of Feminist Security Studies: A Conversation, Politics & Gender, 2011, Volume 7, Issue 4

[2] For example see: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience’, in Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates, ed. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips (London: Polity, 1992) 74–92; Uma Narayan,  Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions & Third World Femnism (New York: Routledge,1997) and her chapter “Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A feminist critique of cultural essentialism” in Decentering The Center edited with Sandra Harding (Indiana University Press 2000)

2 thoughts on “Q & A with Annick T.R. Wibben: Feminist Security Studies and Today’s Challenges

  1. Pingback: Interview: Feminist Security Studies and Today’s Challenges: A Q&A Session with Annick T.R. Wibben | Irrationally Bound

  2. Harter Stoff Schwesterherz. Aber wer sich durchbeisst ist hinterher tatsächlich schlauer. Nun habe ich auch eine ungefähre Ahnung, woran du gerade arbeitest. Weiter bitte.

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