Seeing international security and disarmament through a feminist lens

Mayssa Issaoui*

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been considered as one of the most problematic regions in the world due to several political, social, and economic issues in the region. It has a history filled with instability; a present that does not seem very bright with the rising number of failed states and problematic relations; and a future that is expected to be dim if no actions are taken to redress these problems. Due to these reasons, establishing a WMDFZ in MENA is considered by many to be a crucial necessity in order to create a more stable region with a brighter future. The challenge is serious, and requires considering several factors. In this context, a feminist assessment of the question will be instrumental in achieving the zone through considering multiple factors in the creation of an all-encompassing, durable treaty, through a process sensitive to feminist perspectives in international security and disarmament.

Untangling and defining the difference between gender and feminism is necessary before delving deeper into the elements of feminist perspectives on international security and disarmament. Gender, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), refers to the “characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. (…) [It] varies from society to society and can change over time”.[i] Meanwhile, feminism refers to “the belief in full social, economic, and political equality for women”.[ii] Based on these definitions, one could deduce that a feminist perspective on issues in the world is one that believes in the involvement and inclusion of women in all decision-making as much as men.

A feminist agenda in international relations aims at shedding light on broader components of WMD disarmament. It focuses on the different human and environmental risks of WMDs, the current discourses on security, as well as the socio-economic impacts of international policies on gender stereotypes.[iii] Added to that, an inclusive, gender-sensitive foreign policy framework should focus on disarmament through intersectional inclusion. It should also prioritise the safety and the wellbeing of all individuals, ensure civil society integration, work on a dialogue-based solidarity, and promote empathy-based communities.[iv]

Applying a gender lens to arms control and disarmament, according to UNIDIR, is crucial as it is a means to perceive the issue from several angles. It tackles how people from different sexes and ages are impacted differently by weapons of mass destruction. It sheds light on the discrepancy in their access to medical and health care. It also focuses on the extent and the mechanisms by which people from different sexes and gender roles have participated in international relations as a whole.[v]

Scholars and practitioners have shown at length the heterogeneous (distinct) impacts of weapons of mass destruction on different gender and social categories including men and women, boys and girls. For instance, UNIDIR’s study of gender-differentiated outcomes of explosive weapons shows that men are more prone to death, while women are more prone to long-lasting and inter-generational health complications.[vi] The same goes for the impacts of chemical weapons, where women are more susceptible to toxins than men; and children more prone to exposure than adults.[vii] Gender roles can also exacerbate the impact of biological and chemical weapons on men and women, such as “in distinct experiences of social stigma for individuals exposed to chemical or biological weapons”.[viii] Research has also indicated that women can be more exposed to gender-based violence (GBV) in the context of arms trading.[ix] GBV refers to the phenomenon of “violence that takes place as a result of unequal power relations and discrimination in society on the basis of one’s sex or gender”.[x] It can be categorized into four groups, which are sexual violence, physical violence, emotional and psychological violence, as well as socioeconomic violence.[xi]

The different weapons of mass destruction, as mentioned earlier, impact women and girls more than men and boys, both biologically and socially speaking. Nevertheless, women’s involvement in arms control treaties has been little to non-existent throughout the years, due to traditional norms, described by Reshmi Kazi as “‘natural’ differentiation between the sexes [that] has permeated all aspects of nuclear policy making”.[xii] It is also interesting to note the gender-specific ways that women have been involved in different treaties and forums: women have been prominently involved in social questions rather than in political issues or peace negotiations. A typical example, the “UN body with the highest proportion of women was the Third Committee, dealing with social, humanitarian, and cultural issues”.[xiii] Women diplomats comprise only a third of participants in forums that discuss arms control and non-proliferation, and this drops to 20% in more specialized forums where the delegations are led by a majority of men.[xiv] Even in more local and regional issues, gender disparity is still prominent especially in Arab League States, which suffer from the most disproportionate share of male and female representatives (approximately 80% men). It is also noted that the more responsibility and power a position holds, the less women are involved, even in international and high-level political forums.[xv]

Feminist researchers tackling the gender disparity in international relations and in political discourses have asked the question “where are the women?”[xvi] Their efforts include calling for more inclusive discussions and forums where both men and women are equally represented. Significant steps in addressing this problem include UN Resolution 1325, a turning point that led to the creation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS Agenda) in 2000. The Agenda focused on four main ideas, summarized by: ensuring women’s participation in all international and political discussions in leading positions; preventing and protecting women from gender-based violence and all forms of violence; and relief and recovery, aiming to ensure that women’s and girls’ voices are accounted for.[xvii] Even given these efforts, equal participation of both men and women remains out of reach, especially in leadership positions, in decision-making in political discussions and in international security and disarmament treaties. The WPS Agenda itself has received criticism, for instance for failing to devote sufficient attention to the issues of disarmament and arms control.[xviii]

Applying a feminist perspective in disarmament and international security is part of the journey towards achieving a WMDFZ in MENA and creates the potential to shape a more nuanced and complete analysis. Considering all the elements that this paper raises, focusing on how to address them, and finally learning from them, could pave the way towards the creation of a comprehensive gender-inclusive treaty. Practitioners and policy-makers continue to work towards overarching gender equality in future and current questions related to International Relations. This will hopefully contribute to paving the way towards a MENA region free from all WMDs.

* Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tunis, Tunisia

[i] “Gender and health”, World Health Organization (WHO). Available online:

[ii] Burkett, Elinor and Brunell, Laura. “Feminism”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 27 August 2021,

[iii] Hushcha, Marilyin. “Might Feminism Revive Arms Control? Why greater inclusion of women in nuclear policy is necessary and how to achieve it”. International Institute for Peace. (2020)

[iv] Scheyer, Victoria & Kumskova, Marina. “Feminist Foreign Policy: a Fine Line between Adding Women” and “Pursuing a Feminist Agenda.” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 72, No.2, Dynamics of Global Feminism (2019): 57-76

[v] “UNIDIR: Gendered Impacts of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas”.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] “Factsheet: Gender and Chemical Weapons”.

[viii] “Missing Links: Understanding Sex- and Gender-Related Impacts of Chemical and Biological Weapons”.

[ix] Fact sheet on Gender in the ATT,

[x] Acheson, Ray. “Gender-Based Violence and the Arms Trade Treaty”. Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (2015).

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kazi, Reshmi. “Tradition, the Enemy of Disarmament”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (2014).

[xiii] Dwan, Renata. “Women in Arms Control”. Arms Control Today, OCTOBER 2019, Vol. 49, No. 8 (OCTOBER 2019), pp. 6-11. Published by: Arms Control Association

[xiv] Renata Hessmann Dalaqua, Kjolv Egeland and Torbjorn Graff Hugo. “Still Behind the Curve: Gender Balance in Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Policy”. UNIDIR (2019).

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Enloe, Cynthia. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. 2014. University of California Press.

[xvii] Myrttinen, Henri. 2020. Connecting the Dots: Arms Control, Disarmament and the Women Peace and Security Agenda. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

[xviii] Ibid.