To this day, militarism is widely accepted as a necessity and is culturally glorified in all its forms. Boys wear police uniforms and play with guns to feel like heroes; men pursue fulfillment and honor through serving in armies; and countries with the strongest, most brutal weaponries are hailed as leaders of the world.
From a feminist perspective, however, militarism is the clearest manifestation of toxic hyper-masculinity. It uses patriarchal tactics – like fear-mongering, incitement of moral panic, and dehumanization of certain groups – to create and maintain power imbalances that allow it to continue to dominate, control and exploit.
This article will not address the incalculable negative impacts of militarism on the lives of women and communities in all their diversity. It will, rather, look at how militarism – as an extension of the patriarchal system – exacerbates the biggest challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the world, and hence, how a feminist approach to peace and security is our only way forward.
Militarism is gender performativity by a nation or a militant group, whereby stereotypical hyper-masculine acts must be continuously repeated to maintain the illusion of a “strong” manly identity. Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the case of Russia. In his early political years, the current Russian president was celebrated as a leader who can “re-masculinize” the nation. Since then, he has continuously displayed himself and Russia as hyper-masculine through increased militarization. The president has recently even applauded his “like-minded” allies for their “real masculine character”.
This gender performativity is often coupled with homophobic and anti-feminist rhetoric. Following the military coup of 2013 in Egypt, feminists and members of the LGBTQI+ community were legally prosecuted and/or imprisoned. ln Lebanon, the misogynistic and homophobic political discourse was heightened by the recent speech of the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, a militant political party. While in the US, the authoritarian Hungarian president wowed the pro-gun-rights crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month by stating that we needed “less drag queens, more Chuck Norris!”.
The sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies – a main pillar of the patriarchal system - are also taken to the extreme in militarized contexts. Systematic rape, sexual violence, forced sterilization, and obstetric violence are, and have been historically, used against women to inflict shame on the enemy’s men, reward soldiers, and advance militarized interests.
All militarized activity is environmentally destructive. The production, use, and testing of weapons, as well as routine military drills, are all huge contributors to the pollution of air, water, soil, and animal tissue. Militaries are believed to occupy 5-6% of the Earth’s surface – roughly the size of China and Russia combined. Their physical presence disrupts landscapes, disturbs habitats, and blocks development opportunities. The readiness of armies also requires continuous disposal of damaging resources, such as surplus munitions. While intentional environmental damage is often used as a “weapon of war.”
The US military alone produces more greenhouse gas emissions than entire countries like Portugal or Denmark. It is reported to be the “single biggest climate change enabler” in the world. Yet, countries around the globe that have signed the Kyoto Protocol or ratified the Paris Agreement are still not obliged to report on the emissions produced by their armies, nor are they required to reduce them.
Many are well aware of the so-called military-industrial-complex through which war, arms production and military technology are continuously endorsed by decision-makers across the world due to their monetary profitability. The global arms production industry was worth a minimum of 118 billion US Dollars in 2019. The value of the law enforcement and military clothing industry alone was worth close to 3 billion US Dollars in the same year, and the fuel consumed by the US military during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq was worth 3 million US Dollars every single day.
Increased national military budgets often mean declining investment in public services. This translates to a higher need to privatize these services, with states claiming a lack of resources to provide them. As such, privatization exempts said states from the responsibility of providing basic needs to its citizens, allowing profit-seeking companies to dictate the terms for the provision of these services.
Even war has become increasingly privatized over the past two decades. Private military and security companies are used globally to fulfill militarized “security services” for a hiring entity. The industry is currently worth 224 billion US Dollars globally and has many serious issues of governance and accountability.
Suppressing social movements has become a core strategy within authoritarian contexts, one that cannot be implemented without militarism. Police, militaries, and armed groups are deployed worldwide to quell protests and violently intimidate activists who call for social or environmental justice. All across the world, from Germany to Sudan, and from Chile to Libya, such violent intimidation is being increasingly exercised and well documented.
Militarism across the world is also co-opting social movements to deflect any criticism against it, as well as to aid other oppressive systems in subduing these movements. From vegan soldiers to biodegradable bullets, and from planting trees on military bases to greening army vehicles, greenwashing has become a problematic common practice by armies. Militarized police forces and armies celebrate more women, queer folk, and racial minorities in their ranks as if that could compensate for the violence they inflect on these groups. Worst of all, it has become a Western trend to justify war as a means to liberate “oppressed” women in a blatant display of the white savior complex, creating an inherently anti-feminist branch of feminism dubbed “securo-feminism.”
The MENA region will be one of most negatively affected by climate change, it is plagued by socio-economic inequality, and most of its countries are suffering from authoritarian rule. These existential challenges do not exist in isolation, they interact with one another and are linked to global trends which, as shown above, are in many ways exacerbated by militarism.
The “security” card played by militarism can no longer be accepted as an adequate excuse not only for the human suffering and incalculable loss caused by war and conflict, but also for contributing greatly to imminent mass extinction, growing poverty, and intensified oppression. As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) puts it, the real “security” issues that we need to invest in are the eradication of “poverty, hunger, ill health and more.”
The definition of peace as the absence of war is insufficient, to say the least. Feminism offers a more holistic vision for sustainable peace – rooted in accountability, justice, solidarity and freedom. Feminist international relations and feminist foreign and development policy (FFDP) have the potential to aid in realizing this vision, but only if they are conceptualized and implemented with the true intention of eradicating power imbalances and structural violence. For instance, FFDP cannot co-exist with the production and sales of arms used in destructive wars, nor can it co-exist with colonialist mentality that portrays women from the Global South as passive victims waiting to be saved through armed means.
Using an uncompromising intersectional feminist framework allows us to look at how we can eliminate the overlapping structural drivers of war and conflict (i.e., patriarchy, capitalism, authoritarianism and colonialism) and to truly usher in secure and peaceful world for all.
Farah Daibes is a Senior Programme Manager at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Feminism programme in the MENA region.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.