19 November 2006

Venus ascending?

By Marguerite Finn

"You can't kill the spirit / She is like a mountain / Old and strong / She goes on and on …"

(Greenham Women's song)
Doing some research recently on the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), I came across some ancient photos of women campaigning for peace.

Back in 1922, this required courage and it shines out of the faces of the women as they stare at the camera from underneath a range of hats that would put Ladies Day at Ascot to shame. Heavy coats, long black skirts and the occasional fur collar didn’t stop these women posing for a picture, each holding up a poster proclaiming "No More War".

Yet war continues to dominate our culture. When we are not being treated to images of death and destruction on our televisions, we are told that the arms industry guarantees our economic growth and stability. What does that say about us – if our 'success' depends on developing ever more efficient ways to kill others? There must be another way.

Women are on the case. Reaching Critical Will (WILPF research and information project) is developing an alternative way of seeing the world, taking people as its point of reference, rather than focusing exclusively on the security of territory or governments, shifting the disarmament and security debate away from national security towards a framework predicated on human security.

Unlike traditional 'patriarchal' concepts of security, focussed on defending borders from external military threats, human security is concerned with the security of individuals.

A strategy for human security would start with an equitable distribution of resources, human rights, racial justice, decent working conditions, environmental sustainability and the infrastructure for the proper provision of healthcare, housing, education.

There is nothing new about women protesting against war. In 400 BC, Aristophanes wrote a play, Lysistrata, in which he imagined women of Sparta and Athens going on strike – refusing sex with their husbands – to bring an end to the 27 year war between the two city states that had become a way of life for the men.

In December 1982, approximately 35,000 women assembled at RAF Greenham Common to protest against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Britain. They surrounded the nine-mile fence to 'Embrace the Base'.

On 10 December 2007, a new generation of women plan to recapture that energy and surround the US spy-base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire – where international telecommunications are intercepted from all over the world.

Today, sixty years on from the dawn of the atomic age, the threat of nuclear devastation still hangs over us. Nuclear proliferation is not only a detriment to our health, our environment, our future, it also creates a dangerous lack of faith in multilateral processes. Negative nationalism, militarism, competitiveness and continual warfare are all key components of a patriarchal society - but look around the world: from Afghanistan to Iraq and Palestine to the Lebanon, war is not working. Militaristic societies like ours celebrate war, enjoy violence in films, sport and children's games, subsidize the international trade in arms, and fund our universities with military-industrial research. But violence sanctioned in conflict, becomes violence in the home and in the community.

Anti-militarist women want an alternative model that is inclusive, co-operative, consensual and non-confrontational which seeks to establish real human security.

This is no 'pipe dream'. The Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia has produced a report, part-paid for by the UK government, which charts the demise of wars between states and the rise of 'irregular warfare' - against which vast armies and sophisticated weaponry (e.g. Trident nuclear submarines) are ineffective. The report argues for the switch from the security of the state to that of the individual. This coincides with the success of several women's NGO's campaigning for a strong, new, independent women’s agency at the UN – which has now been agreed.

On 10 November, UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, acknowledged "the world is starting to grasp that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women and girls".

Setting up a new WILPF group in Norwich recently, we were asked, "Why women – why now?"

There was never better time for women's groups to urge their governments to agree a timetable for the establishment of the women's agency, to adopt a 21st century approach to security, to challenge current strategies grounded in the idea of military superiority and the threat of force.

Norwich WILPF meets on 10 January 2007 (Friend's Meeting House 7.30pm) to discuss campaigning priorities for 2007. Join us! (details:01603-722880). Meanwhile, I am going to buy myself a hat and a long black skirt – just in case!