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The War in Ukraine Through a Gendered Lens

The War in Ukraine Through a Gendered Lens

As predicted, Russia’s new offensive in Ukraine appears to have begun. The US and Europe have recently pledged renewed support of sophisticated training and military equipment to Ukraine. However, there seems no end in sight of this brutal war that has killed and uprooted thousands. Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as one of the strong leaders who had the courage to stand up to a bully like Putin of Russia to defend his state and his people. Many people underestimated Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian attack or the extent of Zelensky’s courage and commitment. Few experts seriously considered compromise as an option, not just because a country’s security is not up for negotiation, but also because most believed that Putin’s goal was to restore the Russian empire and could not be trusted.

Examining the war through a gendered lens can highlight a different perspective. Feminist theorists argue that international relations (IR) as a discipline is biased because most knowledge in history and politics is written by men. The field itself is gendered in the sense that male experiences are said to represent human experiences. The role of women and gender was ignored until recently in the guise of the field being neutral, objective and value free and therefore, gender neutral. However, feminists argue that socially and culturally constructed characteristics of what men and women ought to be in society affect international relations as much as domestic politics. Women have been generally outsiders and excluded from historical processes that frame contemporary life and thus supposed gender differences have been institutionalized in international relations theory and policy practices.

According to feminists, the world operates in terms of oppositional hierarchies where some ideas are privileged and others marginalized that creates inequalities by determining who gets what and why in the world of politics. Politics in general favors what we broadly consider masculine characteristics like power, strength, autonomy, rationality, war, protector, science, over what are considered feminine qualities including weakness, dependence, culture, appeasement, negotiations, protected. This limits the set of choices that are available to a leader. Thus, leaders are more likely to claim loudly that they are not afraid to go to war rather than highlight their negotiation skills.

Female candidates like Hillary Clinton, in particular, have to showcase their war capabilities. In other words, while leaders may be willing to negotiate or even perceive that to be a better option, they know that their real appeal as a strong leader will come from their ability to go to war. Rallying around the flag is never more apparent than during the time of war and therefore, many incumbents when faced with losing elections fall back on an international crisis and war will definitely ensure their victory. Much of the legitimacy of war is based on the cultural construction that men fight wars to protect vulnerable people yet women and children constitute a majority of casualties of wars.

Militaries are often threats to individuals (particularly women’s) security and competitors for scarce resources on which women may depend more than men. In many instances, wartime rape has been used as a deliberate military strategy mostly targeting women. In that sense, IR feminists argue for politics that is based on human security (food, health, environment, economic) rather than just state security. Almost every government in the world justifies a large defense budget in the name of state security and has no hesitation in cutting welfare budgets that provide education, healthcare, and other support to its people. Increasingly it appears like the people exist for the betterment and survival of the state rather than the other way around. But what if we thought of global politics as if people mattered.

In the case of the war in Ukraine, negotiations and compromise would definitely have been a better policy choice for both sides. What if the leaders had considered the interests of their people over territorial state interests. When faced with a non-crisis like Ukraine’s admission into NATO, Putin did not show Russia’s obvious strength by announcing that while Russia and Ukraine had historical and cultural ties, Ukraine and its people had the right to make their own decisions. Similarly, Ukraine did not respond to Russia’s threat by arguing that while it had the right to choose its own alliances, it was unwilling to go to war over a treaty that would put its people in danger.

The decision not to go to war obviously would have saved thousands of Ukrainian lives and damage to property, not to mention the emotional scars borne by loss and separation of families. For Russia, not going to war would also have been strategically a better choice. Russia had the option to withdraw its troops from the border in December of 2021 or when Russian troops reached the city center of Kyiv in February of 2022. Putin would’ve shown that Russia had the power to take over Ukraine but did not want to engage in war with his fellow Serbs. At that point, few believed that Ukraine would be able to stand up to Russia.

Subsequent events have clearly shown Zelensky and his people’s ability and resolve to fight the Russians which has seriously jeopardized Russian military reputation. At the end of the war, Russia might gain some territory, but Putin has ensured that Ukraine will be aligned with the west from now on, which was not a given before the war. Further, hitherto neutral countries like Finland and Sweden have also moved towards NATO alliance.

Some argue that Putin is an irrational leader and would’ve done anything to restore the Soviet empire. While others view his action as rational based on geo-strategic interest. Either way, the response of the western nations has been predominantly to support the Ukrainian military action. Unfortunately, negotiation and compromise don’t generate confidence and courage that apparently war automatically bestows in our gendered world, however, for the sake of current and future generations it is imperative that negotiating an end to the Ukraine war become a priority for the global community.

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