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Feminism and firearms: a response to calls to arm women

Opinion piece by Ray Acheson and Madeleine Rees, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Why is there an assumption that “true feminists” would rejoice at the sight of women with guns participating, on a pretended equal footing with men, in the joys of war? It was evident in the photo exhibits promoted by the UN in the Ukrainian conflict—basically a Miss Warrior competition—and now Nick Cohen believes we would be “delighted” that women fight in the Peshmerga. We are not. 

In an article in the Comment section of The Guardian on Saturday, 16 January 2016, “The Kurds should not be denied our support,” he argues that the UK should provide weapons to Kurdish troops fighting Isis. In particular he identifies the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan of being deserving of British arms.

In making this argument, he cites the Peshmerga’s supposed feminism. “To the delight of true feminists everywhere, Kurdish women fight in the Peshmerga. In Iraq, an Isis misogynist will not find 72 virgins but armed and exceptionally dangerous women.” This may sound amusing on the surface, but what it actually means is women being deployed to kill people and be killed equitably along with men. The idea that this is “true feminism” is a militarist trope that feeds the idealism of war rather than the struggle for gender equality. “Allowing” women equal opportunity to kill in war does not amount to genuine liberation. It is rather a militarisation of women’s liberation. In an article written when the US government lifted the ban on front line combat roles for women, feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe explains, “Militarization happens any time that the protection of women’s rights is either justified by appealing to military necessity or measured in terms of women's participation in war-waging.”

Feminism is not single issue in any case. Take a look at the experience of women in Kurdish society at large. Women in Iraqi Kurdistan face genital mutilation, honour killings, forced marriage, child marriage, and domestic violence. On International Women’s Day last year, the Free Women’s Organisation of Kurdistan issued a statement claiming that in 2014, 6,082 women were killed or forced to commit suicide over “honour” in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is almost the number of Pershmerga killed fighting Isis. 

The argument for arming any group is problematic. It perpetuates the belief that military solutions are feasible and that transferring ever more weapons into regions of ongoing conflict is a rational strategy. Have the last decade and a half of continuous war, the looting of arms caches by Isis and other armed groups, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by all sides, and the refugee crisis not shown us that more weapons are not the solution to this situation?

“True feminism” would include inviting women from all sides of the conflict to participate equitably in the Syria peace talks and other gatherings aimed at ending the fighting. So far women have been excluded from any form of meaningful participation in these processes. It is civilians who are most affected by conflict and it is women who are most engaged in holding communities together, doing relief work, negotiating cease fires—the list of their activities is long and ongoing. Their presence is absolutely vital to achieving sustainable peace. Women will not singlehandedly build peace in the region, but peace will not be achieved by putting more and more weapons into the hands of more and more fighters no matter what their sex.