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Military masculinities

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Peace and Gender

Peace and Gender is a podcast about the people behind research and action on gender, peace and security. It is produced and presented by Monash journ 
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Andrea Thiis-Evensen meets Dr Claire Duncanson, a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, who talks about her studies of military masculinities, and the importance of looking at the political economy of building peace. 


Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Hey, my name is Andrea Thiis-Evensen, and welcome to Peace and Gender, a podcast about the people behind the research on gender, peace, and security. Who are they and why do they research these issues?

Claire Duncanson: You know, there is a real temptation to talk about women as being an alternative to men. The kind of idea, oh, well if women were in charge then we wouldn't have so many wars.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: In this episode, you will meet Claire Duncanson.

Claire Duncanson:  I'm visiting here from the University of Edinburgh. I am a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Today, Claire will be talking about her studies on masculinities in British militaries and her focus on women and the political economy of building peace. In this episode, I am trying to figure out if there is a link between peace and gender.

[Music playing]

Claire started with a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and History. Then she did a Master in Peace Studies. After this, she started thinking about her PhD.

Claire Duncanson: I knew I wanted to combine my interests in gender and feminism with international development, human rights and international politics. I suppose initially I was thinking I would do something about the impact of international interventions, war, humanitarian intervention on women. But at the same time, I was aware that the world didn't necessarily need another white middle-class feminist going into war zones to try and tell that story. There were lots.

So, at the time - this was early-2000s - there were lots of the so-called new wars from the 1990s, lots of researching coming out of them about the gendered aspects but written by feminists from those parts of the world, which made more sense to me. So, I thought rather than do that, I would try and focus on the masculinities of those who were doing the intervention. You know, the masculinities of the interveners.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Claire decided to study changing masculinities in the British military.

Claire Duncanson: So, I was particularly interested in the question of whether militarised masculinities change when militaries and their operational environment changes. So, as militaries turn to focus, as many have, onto peace operations, peace support, humanitarian intervention, then what kind of impact does that have on militarised masculinities? Because for a long time the archetypal military masculinity has been associated with combat and force, the idea that war makes men and men make war. That has been thought to be one of the factors that have enabled recruitment of men to the military. You know, it's a chance to prove your toughness and your manhood.

So, I was really - yeah, in my work on the British military, in particular, it was really interesting, I think, that when you - so I did some interviews, some focus groups, but also spent a lot of time reading the autobiographies of British soldiers and military doctrine and training material. It seemed to me that when militaries are focused more on peace support in some ways soldiers find that very frustrating and emasculating. It's like this isn't why we joined up. We wanted to be the tough guys and yet we're tasked with doing this peace support stuff. Quite a lot of explicit reflection on how this was emasculating.

At the same time, that wasn't the only discourse you can see. You could also see a discourse where soldiers and the British military, in general, were constructing peacekeeping or peacebuilding as manly activity in the sense that anyone could be the tough guy but actually, it takes a real superior masculinity to be good at this peace support stuff. You need to be touch but also show restraint. You need to also have the kind of intelligence and communication skills, so it involves a bigger range of skills. I think in those defences of the peacekeeping role you saw this attempt to carve out maybe a superior military masculinity.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Claire argued that military masculinities have changed over the years and a new form of hegemonic masculinity has been created called the peace-builder masculinity. But this new emerging peace-builder masculinity that may sound very progressive brought with it some problems.

Claire Duncanson: Sometimes in the construction of this peacekeeper masculinity or peace-builder masculinity there are other problems because what tends - what you tend to notice is that those masculinities are constructed by subordinating the masculinities of other men. So, the western peacekeeping masculinity is advanced and civilised and humanitarian, the bearer of these civilizational goods because the Iraqi or Afghan or Balkan warlord is a - resembles the traditional masculinity of the kind of barbaric hoards that don't know how to control their emotions. They only know how to fight.

So, although there is - so, there is this tension. Although in some ways it seemed like this is quite progressive, this peace-builder masculinity, on the other hand, it's constructed through a kind of neo-colonial, racist discourse that really is problematic.

So, that was my main finding in the research on military masculinity. Yeah, complicated.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: So, why is it important to study militaries and masculinities?

Claire Duncanson: The traditional military masculinities - I think lots of feminists have been correct to point out that this has been one of the underpinning dynamics that makes war more likely. So, the perpetuation of the war system is caused by this mutually reinforcing dynamic between militarism and masculinity. So, it's really crucial that feminists pay attention to gender, the gender order that underpins war and militarism. So, that's why initially I was excited by evidence that, yeah, we are seeing a change in military masculinities. You know, that's, as you say, what you might think would be progressive.

Yet the situation is a lot more complex than that. Like so much with feminism, it's a case of with every step forward, potentially there is backlash and there is complexity and it's very - you know, progress doesn't happen in that linear way. But that doesn't mean we need to always be sceptical or pessimistic because I think as well as the - finding that, yes, often a peace-builder masculinity would be constructed in relation to a subordinate hypermasculine, belligerent, backward other, I think there are also cases where you see masculinities being constructed in ways that maybe are more progressive.

I guess the general answer is that you need to pay attention to shifts in the gender order, shifts in the constructions of masculinity and femininity, because traditionally they have been so important in perpetuating militarism and violence and war.

[Music playing]

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Listening to Claire talk about her studies on gender and militaries, I started thinking about my own experience as a woman trying out for the military myself when I was 18. I was met with a lot of stereotypical comments such as why would you try out for the military, you're a girl. Or do you think you are strong enough to be in the military? So, although we have come a long way, there are still a lot of stereotypes surrounding genders and militaries. But is there a link between peace and gender?

Claire Duncanson: So, I don't think there is a natural connection between women and peace. There is nothing inherent or innate to women that makes them more peaceful. You know, there is a real temptation to talk about women as being an alternative to men. The kind of idea, oh, well if women were in charge then we wouldn't have so many wars. But it's actually probably not that helpful because it reinforces those stereotypes that women are innately more peaceful, that women are inherently more likely to compromise, and so on and so forth, that it actually can undermine women's ability to be taken seriously in public life.

So, that's one problem. But even, I suppose, phrasing it as there is a connection between gender equality and peace can be problematic because, I guess, there are lots of different definitions of gender equality and we see a fair bit of research that tries to prove this kind of causal connection between - if a society is more gender equal then it will be more peaceful. But it's quite hard to prove these causal connections because what is the measure you're going to use for gender equality and what is the definition you are going to use for peace?

You know, those - the research that draws those conclusions, I think, is useful but I don’t think it's all that feminists should be focused on because we can't always reduce gender equality and peace to the kind of hard and fast definitions that make it possible to prove causal connections.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen:  Claire argued that there have been changes in the diversity of militaries over the last years when it comes to women and LGBTQI people. But once again, with positive progressive changes, new problems come to light.

Claire Duncanson: I can say some things, I suppose, about the question and the debate of whether, with the increase of more women in the military and with changing policies around diversity, around equal opportunity, around inclusion - not just of women but of LGBT personnel - that there are definitely changes. But, as I was saying before in the context of something else, those changes are not linear. You know, you are not seeing an uncomplicated tale of progress.

Certainly, in militaries like the US and the UK, where you've seen the lifting of the combat exclusion and you have seen a whole bunch of policies around recruitment, retention - so efforts to make lives better for military women - that the results of that are hugely complex because we don't tend to see a drop in rates of sexual harassment and violence. So, that indicates either that the climate is changing such that women are able to report those things, so that might be one explanation, or - and I think probably both these things are true - you are also seeing a backlash.

As you see things get better for women in the military in some ways, you are also then getting the reaction of those who are having their privilege disrupted. So, you're seeing a violent backlash as well.

There is definitely change happening, but whether one could say we're seeing real progress towards militaries being a happy and fulfilling career option for women and LGBT personnel, it's not as simple as that. Yeah.

Andrea: Claire's focus has shifted from masculinities to a different issue regarding gender and war, which is women's economic empowerment.

Claire Duncanson: I think, as I mentioned, the Women, Peace and Security Agenda is hugely inspiring and there has been so much positive about it, but the focus has very much been on the protection of women and girls in armed conflict from egregious crimes, particularly sexual violence. There has been secondary attention to trying to increase the participation of women in peace processes. These two things are massively important, but it seemed to me that that meant there were huge questions that were being ignored or marginalised in the agenda because, obviously, sexual violence isn't the only harm that can be done to women in war.

Sometimes, when people have spoken to women in war zones they might talk about the fact that they have lost their livelihood, that they have lost their shelter, that their children have been taken from them, that they have lost their husband - there are so many gendered harms in war.

I am particularly interested in the material dimension. In the way that it's often women's economic security that has been jeopardised and undermined. How it's that poverty and exclusion that can be just so devastating. Because that's so mundane, in some ways, it's not so exciting an issue to focus on. It's not as dramatic to talk about lack of access to food, lack of access to water, but these are the really gruelling things that make life impossible.

So, I am really interested in how we can construct, in the post-war context, economies that would make life - that would work for women and for all, instead of an economic model that really just increases the wealth and power of the one per cent at the expense of the 99.

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: As I have mentioned in previous episodes, many people have a life project in their academic world, and so does Claire.

Claire Duncanson: My academic life project would be to try and relink the feminists who focus on international security with feminists that focus on political economy because I think it was one of the inspiring things about feminist international relations, when the first scholars started carving out this field of feminist international relations, was seeing them as being interconnected. Seeing security as having to involve economic security as well as physical security.

So, to me, it's a shame that those fields have become somewhat separated. I don't want to exaggerate that, but somewhat separated, such that feminists interested in the Women, Peace and Security Agenda don't often pay attention to economics, and feminists who are interested in, for example, the global financial crisis, don't always pay attention to conflict-affected areas. So, trying to bring those back together, I think, is really important if we're to see social justice and improvement in the prosperity and security of women.

[Music playing]

Andrea Thiis-Evensen: That was Claire Duncanson. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Peace and Gender. My name is Andrea Thiis-Evenson and this podcast was produced for Monash Gender, Peace and Security and Mojo News.

Music: "Solitude" by Broke for free –  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License

Artwork: Shayla Rance



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