‘Embedded Feminism’: Women’s rights as justification for military intervention?

3 Women at the Security-Council Women, Peace and Security


Good evening and thank you very much for inviting me to take part in this discussion. ‘Embedded feminism’ is in fact an enigmatic and challenging concept and I would like to examine the reality of this concept in my presentation.

However, allow me to precede this with two fundamental observations in order to place this subject in context, which I would like to make primarily with reference to our political framework conditions in Germany.

The first observation relates to the subject of legitimacy. Armed military intervention requires a very sound legal and political rationale, more than in the case of most other political issues and decisions. A government is able, for example, to push through a budget with a one-vote parliamentary majority. Deploying troops on an armed mission or into a war with a small parliamentary majority would be very precarious in political terms.

This couldn’t happen without solid legality and legitimacy or without a broad political consensus. This is important primarily for politically moral and legitimising reasons, but is also hugely important for the soldiers, who are ordered to engage in life-threatening missions where they, as in Afghanistan, have to fight in a civilian environment against extremely brutal, armed military units, which, moreover, engage in combat wearing civilian clothing.

My second observation relates to the term ‘military intervention’. I would like us to remember that the armed forces are a political instrument and that military intervention is always preceded by a political decision, where a clear political purpose is or should be provided. It is equally important to me that the primacy of politics continues during a military intervention. Policy makers and/or the political leadership remain responsible throughout a military intervention. Military leadership is responsible for military action in the knowledge that individual military campaigns can have a direct impact at the political level.

So, let me now come to the theory of ‘embedded feminism’ claiming that women’s rights are virtually abused in order to justify military intervention. Politicians have in fact repeatedly addressed human rights and women’s rights when justifying and seeking approval for military intervention. I would like to quote President Obama, for example, who, when presenting his new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy in a speech on 27 March 2009 in Washington, made the following statement:

“As President, my greatest responsibility is to protect the American people. We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists”

He also formulated a sentence where women and girls appeared:

“For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people -- especially women and girls”

I would like to examine the way Obama refers to women’s rights here. He uses a string and even a hierarchy of arguments, where the protection of the American people is on top of the agenda. Women’s rights in Afghanistan are mentioned at the end of the string of arguments just in a supportive role. They are by no means at the forefront. As far as I recall most references made by politicians to women’s rights in the context of military interventions are given similarly low priority here in Germany, too. Certainly, many mistakes have been made in Afghanistan on the part of the international community since 2001 and we are still far from implementing women’s rights there. Nevertheless, President Obama is right in stating that their situation would be disastrous under a new Taliban regime because then the progress that has been achieved to date would be undone.

Crucial to military intervention on the part of the international community of states in Afghanistan in 2001 were the terror attacks that took place on 11 September 2001. To my knowledge, no one mentioned women’s rights then in order to justify the attacks on Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Taliban regime had been ousted the task of political and social reconstruction in Afghanistan arose. Consequently, there was a change from a primarily military to a primarily civilian task involving military protection. And in this context women’s rights were also mentioned, prominently for the first time in the Petersberg Declaration in 2002. In this context, the mention of women’s rights appears to be fully justified.

What does this appraisal mean in terms of the theory of ‘embedded feminism’?

I think it affects reality only in a very limited way, at least in Germany. I don’t know of any political statement where women’s rights have been directly emphasised in order to justify the presence of the German army in Afghanistan.

However, I would like to take this a little further. I would advise politicians and their speech writers when legitimising military interventions to always only cite strong grounds for such interventions, which also predominate during internal debates. Otherwise credibility gaps will appear at a time when political credibility and trust have already become a scarce resource. In other words, declaratory and operational security policy should be identical as much as possible.

We should distinguish between the direct reasons and justifications for military intervention and the services that are provided following an intervention as part of a reconstruction programme. A positive example in this context in my opinion is the German Foreign Office. A clear differentiation is made on its website, for example, between the questions of ‘Why are we in Afghanistan? and ‘What have we achieved?’ Only in the case of the latter question is mention made of services provided for women in terms of education and health care. It seems entirely legitimate to me to allude to the gradual improvement of women’s rights in a performance review; I don’t see ‘embedded feminism’ in this.

Allow me to finish by attaching a rather different meaning to the term ‘embedded feminism’ in the sense of a more balanced involvement of women and female security experts in decision-making processes, i.e. greater gender equality in the area of security policy, but not simply for normative reasons. According to my observations, one core problem in terms of international security policy is that governments find it extremely difficult to get to grips with the complexity of conflict situations and to generate and implement suitable solutions which take that complexity into account. I believe that the greater involvement of women in security policy decision-making processes would bring a wider range of perspectives into the proceedings, which can only be beneficial for the development of effective solutions.

However, this is only a suggestion for interpreting the term ‘embedded feminism’ in a completely different way, in the positive sense of dealing with the complex challenges in the area of peace and security more effectively.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to the discussion.

Presentation in the context of the international conference held by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, ‘Coping with Crises, Ending Armed Conflict - Peace promoting Strategies of Women and Men’.