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COVID-19: “Waging War” Against a Virus is NOT What We Need to Be Doing

As towns and whole countries shut down in order to “flatten the curve” of outbreaks of the coronavirus, we are at risk of choosing the wrong analogy for what we collectively need to do in these perilous times. “Waging a war” is the most deceptively alluring analogy for mobilizing private and public resources to meet a present danger. We should, however, resist that allure.

Image credit: WILPF
Cynthia Enloe
23 March 2020

We asked Cynthia Enloe, feminist writer, theorist, and professor known for her work on gender and militarism for her contributions to the field of feminist international relations to share Some Feminist Thoughts on Coronavirus. Cynthia Enloe is a member of WILPF Academic Network.

Read this article in Japanese or in Turkish. Leer este articulo en español

As towns and whole countries shut down in order to “flatten the curve” of outbreaks of the coronavirus, we are at risk of choosing the wrong analogy for what we collectively need to do in these perilous times. “Waging a war” is the most deceptively alluring analogy for mobilizing private and public resources to meet a present danger. We should, however, resist that allure.

We have learned – feminist investigators have taught us repeatedly – that in myriad countries and across generations war waging has fueled sexism, racism, homophobia, autocracy, secrecy and xenophobia. None of those will prevent a pandemic. They will never promote trustworthy science and functional medical infrastructures. They will not protect the most vulnerable among us. They will not keep us all safe. They most certainly will not lay the groundwork for post-pandemic democracy.

War waging, nonetheless, is such a tempting analogy precisely because so many of us and so many of our cultural and political leaders cherry-pick their wars and cherry- pick what they want us to remember about each war.

Most Americans anxious about the coronavirus today did not experience World War II. Maybe that makes this allegedly “Good War” the go-to analogy for rosy war waging.  As taught in too many schools and as narrated in too many movies and commemorated in too many public ceremonies, World War II was a time when “all Americans pulled together,” when “everybody sacrificed.” It was the war that gave us a “common purpose.” We all supported “our boys.” We faced a “common foe.” The foe was unarguably “evil.” On the Home Front, “GI Joe” and “Rosie the Riveter” were model citizens. As icing on memory’s cake, Americans became in waging that war the “world’s saviors.”

As anti-militarist feminists thinking about how best to address the serious global and local challenges presented by the coronavirus, we try to craft approaches that enhance social justice, gender equity, and sustainable peace. We may imagine that that inspiring triad is the polar opposite of war waging. Yet for the many Americans who sentimentally and selectively remember World War II, their favorite wartime promoted all three. Their romanticized version of Americans’ World War II is a version in which war “brought people together,” in which “everyone pulled their own weight,” in which “peace was won.”  GI Joe got to go to college and to buy his dream house. Rosie got childcare and decent pay – temporarily.

In other words, while feminists may think of war waging and feminist peace building as opposites, the most militarized among us are likely to think of waging the “good war” as promoting solidarity, justice and women’s expanded opportunities in the name of winning the peace.

As happens in so many countries, this rosy picture of the cherry-picked war memory depends on cherry picking which experiences of that war are remembered. For example, Americans who are sentimentally imagining that today we could wage a “World War II- type war” against the fast-spreading coronavirus, it is proving convenient to forget about the 1940s wartime internment of law-abiding Japanese Americans. It is likewise uncomfortable to be reminded that the ranks of the US Army and Navy were racially segregated during the fondly remembered Good War.

Over the past forty years, American feminist historians such as Blanche Weisen Cook, Mary Louise Roberts, Brenda Moore, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Maureen Honey and Alison Bernstein have done the careful research it takes to rub the rosy tint off our collective glasses. These researchers have revealed that Americans waged the so-called Good War by promoting prostitution, by enforcing racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic practices, and by making of false promises to women.

Today, one can imagine that waging “a World War II-type war” against a fast-spreading disease is a desirable strategy only if one willfully ignores the findings of feminist historians and refuses to absorb the crucial political lessons they have taught us about the actual costs of turning any collective civic effort into a “war.” To mobilize society today to provide effective, inclusive, fair and sustainable public health, we need to learn the lessons that feminist historians of wars have offered us. To do that, we need to resist the seductive allure of rose-tinted militarization.

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Cynthia Enloe

Dr. Cynthia Enloe is a world-renowned scholar on gender and militarism and is a member of the WILPF academic network.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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