A feminist perspective on the WMD Free Zone

Alice Filiberto*

The interpretation and understanding of nuclear weapons in modern society can be seen as two sides of the same coin: on one hand, there is the international narrative and belief that they assure safety, security and stability; on the other hand, there is the question raised by the majority of the population: how can weapons of mass destruction, which have the role and capability of destroying the Earth and humanity, be considered as protection? Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are a symbol of power, which re-enforce the structures and dynamics of a patriarchal system. This essay will demonstrate how weapons of mass destruction and patriarchy are deeply connected. Thus, a feminist perspective is needed in order to analyse the different dimensions where the former and the latter meet and influence each other, by shaping both society and the international system. To expand this argument, I will divide my essay into two parts: firstly, I will discuss what patriarchal ways of thinking and acting have brought to society and to the field of weapons; secondly, I will analyse the main elements of the feminist approach in relation to disarmament and international security, as well as their benefits, in order to deconstruct the patriarchal points of view.

Patriarchy is defined by the European Institute of Gender Equality as “a system of social structures and practices, in which men govern, oppress and exploit women” and this process delimits everything to two hemispheres: the male one and the female one, by subduing, as well as making inferior, the latter to the former and excluding anything that does not fit into these categories, such as non-binary people.[1] Thus, patriarchal structures and dynamics enforce the ideal of masculinity and the characteristics inherent to it, which usually are: strength, power, bravery, protection, strategy. This idea of what defines masculinity is perfectly linked with the idea of weapons of mass destruction; in fact, as Ray Acheson affirms in her article ‘A feminist critique of the atomic bomb’, on The Green Political Foundation, “this form of masculinity influences the possession, proliferation, and use of everything from nuclear weapons to small arms. This is a masculinity in which ideas like strength, courage, and protection are equated with violence. It is a masculinity in which the capacity and willingness to use weapons, engage in combat, and kill other human beings is seen as essential to being ‘a real man’”.[2]

All of this has increased the belief in society of ‘the harder the better’: hence, it does not matter how much something can bring violence, death or pain, as long as the ideal of the powerful and wealthy white man who protects his land is maintained. This narrative has increased the use, possession and expansion of weapons of mass destruction around the world. In addition, it has led to low participation of women in diplomacy and disarmament. Indeed, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research has affirmed, “women are frequently underrepresented in international forums concerned with peace and security”.[3] All of this has promoted a regime of privileges based on qualities, such as class, gender, religion, race and culture. In order to deconstruct this reality, it is necessary to apply feminist perspectives.

There are two main elements of a feminist approach applied to disarmament and international security: the first one is to promote gender equality and to improve the presence of women in the field; the second one is to implement a gender analysis when it comes to weapons, in order to understand how they are interpreted by society. The application of these perspectives in the field of weapons of mass destruction produces many positive consequences. First of all, it links power and gender; secondly, it reduces inequalities in diplomacy and disarmament and, finally, it analyses the damages caused by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on survivors. In fact, in this case, gender is strictly related to the issue of stigma, which has been reported by women survivors of WMDs, such as the Hibakusha: the people affected by the atomic bombs which hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The latter have been stigmatised as not worthy of marriage because they were contaminated by radiation: indeed, as Anne Guro Dimmen affirms in her piece ‘Gendered Impacts’, “it is often the case that women, rather than men, are those blamed for sterility or abnormality in offspring”.[4] Thus, gender analysis and feminist approaches bring to light important processes in society, which uncover the wrong narratives that impact the image of both weapons and survivors and prevent a global Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone from being established. Ray Acheson asserts, “A feminist analysis also offers techniques to overcome this. It provides space for alternative voices. It does not diminish care for human beings by associating it with weakness, but with strength. It offers a concept of security based on equity and justice rather than weapons and war. It means being guided by affected communities. By survivors. By those living in places and spaces that are marginalised and excluded from dominant narratives.”[5]

To conclude and summarise, I have argued that patriarchy and weapons of mass destruction are strictly related and, because of this a feminist approach in the field of disarmament is necessary in order to get rid of nuclear, biological and chemical arms, by deconstructing the perception society has of them, which has been installed by both patriarchy and international systems of governance. Then, I have explained the roles and elements which characterise a feminist analysis, as well as its benefits. Indeed, it highlights the inequalities present in the world of diplomacy and in society, but it also explores deeper the effects that the damages brought by nuclear disasters have had on the population. Finally, I have come to the conclusion that gender and feminist perspectives have a great role in disarmament, since they raise awareness that the world needs to be better and that it can be.

* SOAS, London, United Kingdom

[1] European Institute for Gender Equality, [online] available at https://eige.europa.eu/docs/28_HU.pdf

[2] Acheson, R. (2018) “A feminist critique of the atomic bomb”, The Green Political Foundation, [online] available at https://www.boell.de/en/2018/10/12/feminist-critique-atomic-bomb

[3] UNIDIR, “Gender Balance”, UNIDIR, [online] available at https://unidir.org/gender-balance

[4] Dimmen, A. G. (2014) “Gendered Impacts”, UNIDIR, [online] available at https://unidir.org/publication/gendered-impacts-humanitarian-impacts-nuclear-weapons-gender-perspective

[5] Acheson, R. (2018) “A feminist critique of the atomic bomb”, The Green Political Foundation, [online] available at https://www.boell.de/en/2018/10/12/feminist-critique-atomic-bomb