In her November 2001 radio address, the then First Lady Laura Bush announced the war on terrorism ‘to be a fight for the rights and dignity of women’. Indeed, there were moments before the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan when the Bush administration and other Western governments alike appeared to care about hardly anything else as much as about women’s rights and their worldwide enforcement. Both wars in particular have been marked as a fight for women’s liberation, framed by photos of women in burqas as a symbol of oppression and the goal of helping girls go to school. Not only have women been portrayed as helpless victims – an image that does not live up to today’s complex conflict settings – moreover, the discourse on their rights has been used to legitimize war.
The use of women’s rights in order to justify intervention is not new. Moralizing colonization, already British colonial rhetoric presented female emancipation as a normative ambition of the project of empire. However, since the prominent role of women’s rights was used to justify military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, gendering war has been referred to with the particular term of embedded feminism. Based on the US Department of Defense strategy of embedded journalism, the concept describes the development; that women’s rights discourse and feminist claims are more and more included in politically justifying military intervention.
In fact, politicians have frequently addressed women’s rights when seeking public acceptance and consent for military intervention. In Western democracies, the legitimization of military intervention is closely linked to the concept of human security and notions of humanitarian intervention. The violation of human rights, often exemplified by women, plays a decisive role for justifying interventions in public. To win the Western voting public, moral values are emphasized. Integrated into respective media coverage, women’s rights, in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, embedded feminism actually worked to gain feminist support and the ideational backing of other human rights campaigners.
But while the promotion and worldwide implementation of women’s rights without any doubt needs to be at the forefront of government’s international human rights politics – should they qualify for justifying military intervention?
From the perspective of international law, two resolutions are crucial in this regard: Adopted in 2000, UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security demands that women should be adequately represented and fully involved on all levels in peace-building processes and efforts in peace and security. Additionally, it requires parties in a conflict to take measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. Another important step was taken in 2008 with the UN Resolution 1820, which states that all forms of sexual violence ‘can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide’. Furthermore, it declares that sexual violence against civilians opposes the ‘restoration of international peace and security’ and is therefore part of the UN’s area of responsibility.
Both resolutions are rightly seen as groundbreaking documents for women’s rights and demands. But then again, they should be seen as two resolutions among others dealing with human rights. Though women are heavily affected by gender-based human rights violations they do not make up for an exceptional human rights case regarding less justification. Human rights are indivisible and should be promoted with integrated approaches for the realization of all civil, cultural, economic, social and political rights, including women’s rights.
Observers who warn of the misuse of women’s rights to justify military intervention are right for a second reason: Women’s rights cannot be enforced by military means. Therefore they cannot serve to justify military intervention. Most past interventions have done women more harm than good. Apart from widespread prostitution, sexual exploitation and trafficking in women that came along with mostly male troops, the obvious embedding of feminism additionally leads to losing sight of the complex causes of discrimination and violence against women. Merely seen as the recipient of relief, women’s long-term demands for political empowerment and economic participation are hardly ever considered or realized.
Of course, politicians are right in pointing to the disastrous situations of women in far too many countries. Massive violence against women remains an ongoing, global problem – including and especially in conflict situations, where mass rape is a calculated weapon. There can never be enough attention drawn to these human disasters and in line with other arguments women’s rights play a supportive role in justifying international pressures. Just as embedded journalism in its conceptual origin has been criticized of being part of a propaganda campaign in order to shape public perception so too should embedded feminism be seen as an abuse of women’s rights. What the enforcement of women’s rights needs rather than military intervention is a strong political will that starts at home. More than anything else, the effective implementation of the global women's rights treaty (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW) would underline government’s commitment to women's rights at home and abroad. But while the treaty has been ratified by 186 countries, seven countries - the United States, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Nauru, and Tonga - have not.
Consequently, as regards embedded feminism as a concept it might be reasonable to add a rather different emphasis to the expression and to re-embed feminism in terms of a greater involvement of women in security policy decision-making processes. This interpretation of embedded feminism is not only justified for normative reasons: Greater gender equality in the area of international security can only be beneficial for dealing with the complex challenges in the area of peace and security more effectively. This would have an overall positive impact on lasting conflict resolution.
Svenja Post is a PhD candidate at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg (Helmut-Schmidt University), Germany.
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's
competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides
with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an
increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The
contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public
You can read more submissions from the competition here.