Masculinities, Conflict and UNSCR 1325

Members of the British Coldstream Guards display a very different kind of military masculinity when parading in front of Buckingham Palace in bearskin hats compared to when on patrol in Afghanistan

Paraphrasing Robert Morrell, the history of conflict has mostly been written as a history of men, but with men being mostly absent from this history – as men. In a sense the coalition of movements which led to the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000 changed this – women and girls have begun to become part of the narratives of conflict, conflict-resolution and peacebuilding. I would however argue that still men and, to an extent, boys, have tended to remain absent – as men, as boys, as gendered social subjects enacting their masculinities.

At the risk of repeating trite arguments, I would like to make the point, in order to avoid any misconceptions, that raising the issue of masculinities, of men and boys, should not be seen as a zero-sum game in which more attention to men automatically means less attention to women. Femininities and masculinities – and for that matter other enactments of gender beyond this traditional dichotomy – need to be seen as forming a social whole; focusing on one or the other leads to a partial view of this social reality. While UNSCR 1325 has been ground-breaking and extremely useful in many ways, especially on the theoretical and policy levels, it does not overcome this dichotomy. Not once are men or boys mentioned in the resolution. While this on the one hand is helpful in keeping the focus on the long-overdue message for the pressing need for an increase in women’s participation in security issues, it can easily lead to this form of a partial view of social processes of conflict and conflict resolution. A fuller – if more messy and ambiguous – understanding of these processes is only possible by taking on the challenge of seeing issues of gender, peace and security in all their breadth, taking into account local and historical conditions and crucially listening to local concerns of all involved.

Though there has been increasing interest in the issue over the role played by masculinities in conflict situations over the past few years, much of the debate on gender and conflict remains focused on what Cynthia Enloe has termed “womenandchildren,” leaving men and masculinities outside of the framework of the debate. This is somewhat intriguing, given the central roles that men and their displays of masculinities tend to play in conflicts worldwide. When men and masculinities in conflict are discussed, it is often in a caricatured, simplified manner, be it as hypermasculine, militarised ‘Rambos;’ as the crazed, drugged-up hooligans of the post-Cold War ‘new wars’ of the Balkans and Sub-Saharan Africa; as misogynist fundamentalists or as benevolent and protective (and mostly western) peacekeepers. There is also an on-going, if not necessarily helpful, debate about who suffers more in conflicts – men and boys or women and girls.

The reality is, in my mind, much more complex. Even the global chiffre for the macho fighting machine, the fictional movie character John Rambo, has a more nuanced ‘life history’ than is often recognised: the flip-side to the muscular, hyper-efficient killer is that of a reclusive social outcast traumatised by the experiences of violent conflict and whose masculinity is put in question by the male representatives of the powers that be. While stereotypes and generalisations can be useful in raising pertinent questions about gender and conflict, finding peaceful solutions to conflicts requires a deeper understanding of the issues.

At the risk of stating the obvious at a gender conference, masculinities and femininities need in my opinion to be seen as complex, shifting and often contradictory constructs that are dependent on the particular personal, social, cultural, political and economic parameters in a given time and space. In resorting to gendered stereotypes of, say, the ‘militarised male,’ this fluidity and complexity is often lost. A murderous paramilitary commander can also simultaneously be a loving father of four and professional soldiers can abhor violence outside of the realm of their job. Nor are military or militarised (1) masculinities homogenous – a logistician’s display of masculinity on the job may well differ from that of a fighter pilot or a sniper. The displays of military/militarised masculinities also depend on the context – members of the British Coldstream Guards display a very different kind of military masculinity when parading in front of Buckingham Palace in bearskin hats compared to when on patrol in Afghanistan. The enactments of militarised and military masculinities also do not take place in a vacuum. They are meant for an audience which includes the opponents, the surrounding civilian population, the home front, one’s own family and loved ones, one’s comrades and importantly one self. Military or militarised enactments of masculinity are also contingent upon the social, moral, political, personal and economic support and space given by other men, women, girls and boys.

How do these theoretical considerations come into play when reflecting upon 10 years of UNSCR 1325? The implementation of the resolution has also mostly meant a technical focusing on including women’s groups in conflict resolution processes, increased (though still on the whole somewhat unimpressive) recruitment of women into peacekeeping forces and efforts at setting up gender mainstreaming workshops for peacekeepers. What has not really happened in any concerted manner has been to question masculinities and their multiple roles in conflicts, nor of looking at the interaction of men, women, girls and boys at creating social spaces for violent conflict – or for the peaceful solution of conflicts.

One of the key frustrations in my personal experience has been the disconnection between the three levels of the debate – of the theoretical level, the policy level and the practical level. On the theoretical, academic, or activist level, UNSCR 1325 and its implementation, in their lack of a comprehensive view of gender, of piecemeal approaches and compromises for the sake of the do-able fall well short of the desirable. In the few debates which I have had the chance to follow at the policy level, the academic or activist level has often been seen as unworkable and the multiple nitty-gritty concerns of the practical level as unhelpful. And thirdly, on the implementation level, the concerns of the theory and policy levels are often seen as irrelevant – either because they are seen as unattainable or, in some fortunate cases, as already been superseded by what has happened on the ground. Whether or not that disconnection can ever be bridged remains to be seen.

(1) The differentiation here being between ‘regular’ military in the sense of members of a standing military force and more ad-hoc and irregular ‘actively militarised’ members of guerrilla or paramilitary forces, or members of private military companies for that matter. The line is not always a clear one.