Does work on masculinities undermine feminist approaches?

Two blue helmets on a bridge.


Feminists have analysed patriarchy for centuries. Mary Wollstonecraft said in 1790, 'Men have constructed the world for themselves as a place where brutal force reigns'. Dealing with masculinities and primarily their devastating consequences for women and girls is part of the work involved in the struggle for greater gender equity.

Further research on masculinities is indispensable - particularly effective in this respect is an inter-sectional approach demonstrating an awareness of diversity and complex balances of power as practiced by Paul Higate and others.

The aim of masculinity studies must be to promote equity for both genders. It has to be pro-feminist so that the research ultimately has a positive impact on the situation of women in conflict areas and in post-conflict countries, i.e. the aim must be to prevent and combat violence against women and the outcome must be a reduction in violence. What we definitely do not need is masculinity studies that are purely an end in themselves . What would be advisable is a modicum of modesty on the part of men that acknowledges the contribution women have made to analysis and education for decades.

Feminists have internalised the insight that science is not objective. Through self-awareness and self-knowledge their own conduct must be reflected upon when working scientifically.

Researchers must ask themselves the question whether they challenge themselves, too.

medica mondiale has been calling for years for there to be some sort of complementary work for and with men as part of the work of medica mondiale. Men's awareness of wrongdoing needs to be developed, i.e. a change of paradigm achieved in their patriarchal attitude.

Masculinity studies, which analyse the power and hierarchies between men and take a biased stance denying violence against women (and also between men), also has, in positive cases, a critical effect on mainstream research. Together with emancipated women/female gender researchers it could throw down the gauntlet to mainstream research on peace missions, security policy, overlapping of military operations and development cooperation. They could hold a mirror up to mainstream research, which completely masks masculinity in the actions of warlords, heads of state, diplomats, UN and NATO commanders.

The critics have set their sights here not only on some military historians, political scientists and security politicians, who deal starry-eyed with tactical campaigns, certain military service branches and their deployment, with allegedly 'clean wars' and armament issues.

What are the risks that arise from a female activist's perspective as a result of working with masculinities?

Naturally, there are concerns about finance, that the already sparse resources have to be shared, or will even be withdrawn.

Naturally, there is also the concern that women's organisations and their work will be suppressed, reduced or manipulated into taking another direction. Women's organisations are already having to justify more and more whether their work is really necessary! If men are included in women's projects, there is the risk that they will be given the power and that the women in the projects will be marginalised.

What do women gain by dealing with masculinities?

Very clear: We gain comrades-in-arms for the creation of another global social structure where gender equity is the benchmark in all areas of politics and life. To all intents and purposes, a further gain for women may be obtaining greater awareness of our own contribution to the construction of masculinity patterns!

The likelihood that something will change in favour of women is also greater if men showing solidarity are on board and hence political power will be greater, too. Consequently, it is definitely wise in strategic terms to include men who show solidarity!

Patriarchy has one thing in common worldwide: the ability to exercise violence against women without respective sanctions, particularly in conflict and crisis situations. Military engagement is generally based on masculine values of power and hierarchy, and an affinity to violence and individual brutalisation are inherent in their implementation. However, this awareness is virtually always lacking in military structures. It is a proven fact that militarisation generates an increase in acts of violence towards women and girls (see also medica mondiale 2007 position paper: human rights work during military interventions).

The preoccupation with masculinities is therefore more important than ever - gross inequalities, gender-specific acts of violence, sexual exploitation due to neo-liberal globalisation policies and conflicts have intensified worldwide. Unfortunately, most UN peace-keeping missions have not led to greater equality for the female population in post-conflict countries either, often even quite the opposite.

It is also about disclosing that masculinity is shaped by UN peace-keeping missions, i.e. shaped through the military and martial training of soldiers for combat operations, to say nothing of employees of private security firms. This basic concept of ensuring peace through fighting and the use of violence could be radically challenged through research. Drilled blue helmets (UN, NATO etc.), who view contempt for women and excessive martial virility as part of the corporate and indoctrinated self-image, simply do not appear as caring peace angels even though propaganda would like us to believe that. Gang rapes and abuse bond soldiers together, a fact identified by masculinity studies on the military, which mainstream researchers and politicians should ultimately take seriously.(Moreover, psychological explanations can be easily understood, which indicate that the fear of death is covered up with excessive demonstrations of virility). Mind you, anyone who doesn't take part is treated with hostility and labelled as homosexual or feminised. How do traumatised soldiers fit into this picture?

Violence is an instrument of power to maintain and safeguard dominance. All those who trivialise gender-based violence and, for example, only consider violence on ethnic or religious grounds and reduce everything to this, can be countered using this argument. The danger with violence is that it stabilises dominance. Consequently, it is all the more important to disclose, combat and reduce it because otherwise patterns of power, forms of dominance and acceptance of violence as a means for implementing interests in public and private life in post conflict countries will not change.

The basic question for UN peace-keeping missions is whether 'regular' soldiers are even suitable for such missions. Many female soldiers have also been overly accepting of these patterns in order to be particularly good soldiers and to be recognised by their male counterparts and senior officers. A completely different basic perception of security is needed for peace missions (male and female security, protection against rape, sexual harassment and humiliation), peace, human dignity and respect, which are not compatible with the current perception of soldiers.

In order to change this, targeted masculinity training courses for male and female UN soldiers and their transparent evaluations would certainly be an important step. What role could reflective male UN soldiers assume in order to demilitarise masculinity in post- conflict societies - could they be role models?

The Indian UN police women in Liberia are already role models - Liberian women have recently enlisted in the national police force in large numbers! These Indian women are highly motivated to establish security for women and girls - in spite of their arduous mission a long way from home they are cheerful and appreciative of beauty: women are not the problem, they are part of the solution!

Input on panel discussion with Paul Higate, Department of Politics, University of Bristol, U.K., and Henri Myrttinen, International Affairs Consultant and Contractor, Germany, on 29.10.2010.