Dateline Islamabad

Gendering Strategic Discourses: Women as Opinion-Makers

28 Jun, 2016    ·   5070

Prof Salma Malik writes about the role of women and the importance of including gender as a component in strategic policymaking

Speaking recently at a UN plenary on the subject of ‘women in disarmament’, it was indeed a matter of great pride and honour as the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva was presided by a woman ambassador who happened to be Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN. Interestingly and not surprisingly, her counterpart in New York happens to a lady, who enjoys an equally stellar reputation.

Fortunately, for us in South Asia, there is neither a dearth of such female role models nor a lack of women as policy and opinion-makers. At least half the regional countries have had female heads of government, very strong and influential women with very powerful voices. If we search for women policy and opinion-makers, again they stand tall and formidable, prove their strength and lack of higher numbers through their excellence in performance and honest hard work.

Yet, in key decision-making, the masculine perspective and prevalent predominant order ultimately prevails. This bring us to the key questions: does a woman’s voice matter? Why is it so important to highlight the concerns and perspectives women bring to the disarmament debate? How do women effectively voice and establish their nuanced perspective? What should matter more: numbers, mere empowerment, or the quality of debate? How do women perceive and want to perceive themselves – as vulnerable victims or as active agents of change and stakeholders, when it comes to decisions regarding conflict, peace and security?

During interactions, this author often comes across confident, energetic young women who are highly knowledgeable about the subject matter. Their voices and perspectives have been highly appreciated and heard, yet none speak with a gendered bent. This trend is reflective in the developing world, and the region we represent, where the numbers of female students seeking degrees in security or defence studies is increasing over time. Several female students concentrate on nuclear issues. However, these students do not seem to focus on disarmament – or, in general, on the alternative perspectives on nuclear issues that might cause established points of view to be seriously challenged.

This may be due to several reasons, including the predominately masculine discourse and environment in which they learn and seek knowledge. If these young women are asked about their mentors, hardly any will name another woman. Security studies and policy-making are cut-throat worlds, where women are already disadvantaged by being fewer in number. Thus, they are always struggling to create a space for themselves, to make themselves heard, to be taken seriously, to be credible enough to receive respect. And though women are very scarce in policy circles, especially at the highest levels, the situation may be even worse than it appears – it is doubtful that women exert influence even to the extent that their low representation suggests they should.

Many women, perhaps most, therefore approach issues such as disarmament, policy-making, and science and technology from established, male-dominated perspectives, rather than trying to develop alternate perspectives. The task at hand for women who want to effect a change is by no means simple or short. Women in the policy world must not only demonstrate their competence but also struggle to rise above stereotypes. They must prove that they are equal to their male counterparts – or, at the least, must strive to sound gender-neutral. Consequently, women often take on personas that are stern, hawkish, and ‘masculine’.

Women also need to carefully choose areas of expertise, giving preference to ‘hard’ research areas such as nuclear policy-making, missile proliferation, arms races, and now cyber warfare, over ‘softer’ issues such as gender and security, women's rights, post-conflict reconstruction, and activism, which are stereotyped as more feminine or in undertones ‘weak’ policy reflections. Women are not well represented in the ‘hard’ issues; and when they do work on these issues, they tend to produce work that is not gendered, which largely reinforces the dominant (male) narrative. Women are better represented when it comes to ‘soft’ issues; but the issues themselves are considered less important, as it makes them appear irrelevant and weak.

Furthermore, in terms of lasting discourse, academic contribution and formal policy debate, women produce relatively very little work. This is probably because in the developing world, strategic issues are very much wedded to a nation-building narrative. Despite having moved well beyond the initial stages of nuclear learning, the discourse on nuclear issues remains, in effect, state-owned and state-directed. For any opinion-maker, man or woman, gaining credibility and acceptability depends on creating a niche for oneself that reinforces the nationalist discourse.

There is a strong presence of women in policy-making positions, but where they leave a personal legacy of strong work ethics and approaching their work with no half measures, their imprint or official legacies, most of the time, are no different than that of their male counterparts, as they occupy ‘genderless’ spaces, which must prove them stronger women than weak. The ongoing conflict in West Asia has a strong imprint of powerful and empowered women, opting for a legacy of complex conflict than accommodation to prove their power and strength.

Is there really any reason to think that a gendered approach to disarmament would result in quicker abolition of nuclear weapons? Even today, in many countries, governments have to pass and enforce legislation requiring equal opportunity and female-friendly workplaces. Quotas or special allocations might sometimes be required to ensure that qualified women get the opportunities they deserve. Women’s empowerment also means a strong shift in attitudes and mindsets across genders. Baseline change needs to be effected from the primary reference group.

In traditional societies, it is the family that defines and assigns gendered roles. As a primary group, the family, and then social reference groups, must change their attitudes and preconceived notions regarding gender. Women can be ‘soft’ – but soft does not automatically translate to weak. Religious and thought leaders have to be roped in; and story-telling, in which heroes are always men – sons of brave mothers – needs to undergo revision. Curricula must be reviewed, modified and adjusted. Women can take control of their destiny and change this mindset, not just by donning the ‘masculine’ avatar but by being women with ‘soft’ but strong voices.

Simultaneously, men need to be sensitive to, create space, and accommodate, gender concerns and perspectives. Often, gender champions are not women alone, but men as well, and for which those men must be appreciated. Over time, these steps would expand the pool of women policy-makers and experts and enhance women leaders’ credibility. Even so, chances are that the glass ceiling would still exist in some way, one that they would have to break through. Doing so will not be easy, but for women, things have never been easy.