The sexes, the state, and nuclear arms

By Salma Malik, June 23, 2014

When I sought reactions from colleagues to my first essay in this roundtable, I was struck by one variety of response: that nuclear weapons are non-negotiable national assets and therefore should not be viewed from a gendered perspective. If people are patriotic, the reasoning seemed to run, their views on national issues should be the same no matter whether they are women or men. Taken further, the implication seemed to be that a low appetite for war, or a preference for peace constituencies over war machinery, calls into question one’s patriotic fervor.

Perhaps this point of view is particularly prevalent in South Asia, where nuclear weapons symbolize national pride and are presented as a sort of magic potion that can cure all the ills that beset the nation. But patriotism has displayed gendered characteristics in many places and times. The Brazilian political scientist José Eisenberg has analyzed the relationship between gender and political entities from Aristotle to the present day. He writes that, according the mainstream democracy theories of the twentieth century, "[L]oyalty to the republic is presented as a paternal relationship, made up of civic duties and loyalty to the sovereign; … loyalty to the nation is represented as a maternal relationship, constituted of the right to reap the fruits of the nation-state’s riches and culture." From this point of view, it is easy to see why some (male) patriots perceive their support for nuclear weapons as a virtuous exercise of duty—and perceive skepticism about nuclear weapons as an impulse less worthy of respect.

Meanwhile, the gender and security scholar Carol Cohn, in her famous essay "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals," has described her experience among "white men in ties discussing missile size" who used "clean language" to discuss "clean" nuclear bombs—while avoiding consideration of civilian deaths and what Cohn calls the "emotional fallout" of nuclear war. The intellectuals whom Cohn described would certainly have considered themselves patriots, and they thought nothing of discussing nuclear weapons and war in (sometimes comically) sexist language.

Of course, sexist language and imagery are not exclusive to the nuclear domain. They have probably been an element of warfare since warfare began. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that sexist, patriarchal imagery—and a gender-based sense of patriotism—often turn disarmament and nonproliferation into something "soft," feminized, or downright emasculated. This not only hinders disarmament but also makes it very, very difficult to establish a credible feminist approach to hard-core strategic studies and policy making.

All this is rather depressing, but I’d like to close on an optimistic note by recalling an incident from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, believing that his nation was facing an existential threat, advocated carrying out a demonstration of Israel’s nuclear capability—but, according to the nonproliferation expert Avner Cohen, Prime Minister Golda Meir (known as the "Iron Lady" long before the term became associated with Margaret Thatcher) told Dayan to "forget it." Apparently her notion of patriotism did not include a nuclear detonation that could have had the direst consequences for the Middle East. And perhaps, as more women gain influence over nuclear weapons policy, the world will learn to "forget" nuclear weapons entirely.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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