Women’s Conscientious Objection as a Strategy Against Militarism

Many women have been active in peace work, both in women-only and mixed groups. Very little attention has been given to the women who have become conscientious objectors as a protest against militarism. War Resisters’ International (WRI) decided to publish “Women Conscientious Objectors – An Anthology” to give the women who declare themselves conscientious objectors a voice. Most of the texts in this book are written by women from different places in the world, and who have made a public declaration of conscientious objection. Together the contributions cover a wide span when it comes to both geography and time, ranging from pre WWII Sweden and WWII Britain to Turkey, Korea, Israel, Eritrea, Colombia and Paraguay and the US today. Also the themes the women have chosen to focus on varies a lot.

Refusing on feminist grounds

Most of the women contributors argue for a broad understanding of conscientious objection. They see militarism as a contrast to feminist values and a contradiction to women’s interests in society. Idan Halili was the first woman in Israel openly refusing on feminist grounds, which led to a prison-sentence. Her argument was that the feminist approach clashes with violent ways of solving problems. The military system harms women both within the army and in the society at large. She claims that enlistment means agreeing to be part of a system that is based on relations of power and control. It systematically perpetuates the exclusion of women from the public sphere and constructs their place in society as secondary to men. She doesn’t want to serve ”just like a man”, since she is not looking for a kind of equality which reinforces the privileges enjoyed by men.

The other contributors argue in the same way, even if their background and situation vary. They link the military culture with the current hierarchical power structure and patriarchy. They take a broad stand against militarism, pointing at the damage it does to women and society as a whole. In Turkey, Ferda Ülker describes the traditional view of women in relation to the military as mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends of the soldiers. Hilal Demir, also from Turkey, adds that there’s a risk of becoming “masculinised”, with the effect that the feminist perspective is overlooked in the mixed conscientious objection movement. This has to be seen in the context of the Turkish society which is highly militarised, and where women are marginalised. Likewise the Paraguayan and Colombian women declare themselves as conscientious objectors, seeing the armed forces as promoting a violent culture. The military uphold the structures of injustice, human rights abuse and exploitation of resources that result in poverty for the majority of the people.

Conscription and radical feminism

The women’s stories prove why conscription of women is incompatible with radical feminism. The Israeli contributions raise this question when they mention Alice Miller, a woman soldier who was the first to demand the same rights for women as men in the military when she wanted to become a fighter pilot. She argued that access to the most important combat roles, is often a precondition for other high rank positions in the military, and would give women access to other influential positions in society, which again would reduce oppression of women. The stories of Ruta Yosef-Tudla and Bisrat Habte Micael from Eritrea discredit arguments that military service endows a high degree of liberation for women, although women became involved in the army in the name of gender equality.

In the anthology women are also pointing to sexual harassment as the norm in the military. Both the stories from the US and Eritrea tell of sexual abuse. In the US, women have openly reported sexual harassment and rape by their male colleagues. Introducing the US section, Joanne Sheehan notes that, while many women have had traumatic experiences of sexual assault, only very few want to talk about this — it is just too painful.

Why women conscientious objectors?

The question of why women declare themselves conscientious objectors when they are not subject to conscription is central to the anthology. We think that the answer lies both within the women’s own organisations, their effort to confront militarism, and their understanding of the wider society they are part of. The stories indicates that it is women in mixed peace groups who primarily declare themselves conscientious objectors, not women who are active in women-only organisations. They choose other ways than conscientious objection to express their resistance to militarism.

The women in mixed groups have had a need to find their own place as women, based on their understanding of militarism and their experiences as women. A declaration as a conscientious objector became one of the answers. WRI was mostly based on men’s conscientious objection and total resistance. Women wanted to be part of the peace movement in their own right. From this ground women in WRI declared themselves as total resisters in 1980. The women were active at international WRI meetings, insisting that women’s work and women’s resistance to war were not only about helping the conscientious objectors. Many women have experienced invisibility among a majority of men. Their need for a space of their own and for raising issues from women’s perspectives have in many cases, not been respected. The feminist analysis shows that war and militarism affects women in a variety of ways, and often is different from men’s experiences.

Hilal Demir says that many think that the term “objection” is invented for legal situations created by compulsory military service. It follows from this reasoning that, if women don’t have to do military service, they cannot object to it. She distinguishes between a legal framework and a broader understanding of conscientious objection. As Hilal says, women can change the meaning of terms by developing them. The question is whether the conscientious objection platform is the right place.

A strategy against militarism

As we have seen, reactions within the movements where women participate vary a great deal. But internal dynamics is only one explanation for why women decide to become conscientious objectors. It is primarily a strategy of action directed towards the wider society. This raises the question of whether conscientious objection is a good strategy for women’s confrontation with militarism. Is this an effective method of reaching out to other people to explain what antimilitarism is all about? Or do the resisters run the risk that the lack of comprehension will remain? Are the opportunities for communication lost because the women distance themselves from the mainstream peace movement? The contributors to this anthology obviously have found stronger arguments in favor of declarations than against. The Turkish women have argued that the questions that women’s conscientious objection raise, has been a good opportunity to enter into dialogue about antimilitarism. Korean women say that people outside the conscientious objector movement don’t understand why women engage in military issues. They are not declaring themselves as conscientious objectors, but have chosen a strategy together with the men to show the suffering, not only to the conscientious objector, but also to the network around him, including the women.

We find that the contributors make strong arguments as to why they declare themselves conscientious objectors. Cynthia Enloe in her preface points at how women are openly investigating patriarchy’s daily operations within national and international conscientious objection movements. These movements have helped to persuade many men considering conscientious objection to seriously confront their own behaviour in particular forms of patriarchal masculinity.

Most of the examples of women declaring themselves conscientious objectors seem to happen in highly militarised societies. Does this reflect the fact that it is “easier” to take a stand against militarism when it is visible, than when its effects are more subtle? Or is it just a coincidence? We don’t know, but we suspect this might be the case. Since militarisation of our societies is damaging to both men and women, we hope that this book will inspire more women to become conscientious objectors as part of a strategy to confront militarism.

Ellen Elster and Majken Jul Sørensen, War Resisters' International