What’s Wrong with FETs? Thoughts from Gendering Global Conflict

16 October 2013, 2054 EDT

(Note: This post is cross-posted at the Columbia University Press Authors’ Blog

Over the last couple of years, the US military has begun to employ FETs (Female Engagement Teams) in Afghanistan, characterizing their purpose as “to engage the female populace” of the country. The mission of these groups of female soldiers seems to be divided between victim services, trust building, influence seeking, and intelligence gathering. Many feminist scholars (e.g., Keally McBride and Annick T. R. Wibben) have expressed their deep concerns about both the effectiveness of FETs and the ideas about sex, gender, and warfare that their deployments suggest the US military holds.

My recent book, Gendering Global Conflict, is not about FETs specifically, but it does provide insight into this (and hopefully a number of other) problems of sex, gender, and war. It argues that, in order to understand fully how something like an FET became possible, we have to be able to see gender subordination and war-fighing as mutually constituted. Understanding that, it argues, provides insight into a number of other policy choices and theoretical assumptions in the security sector that might initially appear paradoxical when approached from a feminist perspective. The rest of this post discusses that with regard to FETs.

Like many of the other examples in the book, I approach FETs with what Cynthia Enloe calls a “feminist curiosity” – looking for what assumptions about sex and gender a policy, idea, or interaction has to have in order to become what it is. Using a feminist curiosity to look at FETs, I think, is initially confusing. On the one hand, it is not only including women but utilizing skills they may be better at than men to a military advantage. That is a radical turn from a US military with a long reputation for sidelining women and femininity, and was perhaps a precursor to the lifting of the combat ban. This seems to suggest that the US military is becoming more open to women’s participation. The stated policy goal of FETs also seems woman-friendly: to interact with Afghan women without violating the sex and gender norms of “Afghan culture,” it is necessary to have women interact with women. This expresses a concern for both American and Afghan women.

At the same time, a feminist curiosity has to ask – what is it about being a woman in this discourse that makes the people who serve in FETs different? What assumptions about sex and gender do they make? Characterizations of FETs that talk about women soldiers doing victim services work assume that women soldiers are more sensitive than, and less dangerous than, male soldiers. Discussions that women’s ability to penetrate discussions in Afghan women’s homes make both culturally essentialist suggestions about Afghani women and gender essentialist assumptions about American women’s ability to have and communicate care and empathy. Policy statements which relate FETs to a “softer side” of the US military imply that the presence of women makes the US military somehow less violent or threatening. All of these assumptions share the idea that women are different than, and more peaceful than, men. They also share an understanding that men (as masculine) and women (as feminine) serve differentiated roles in war.

It is not only the American men and women that the deployment of FETs makes assumptions about, however. Their deployment is framed as much as an intelligence mission as it is a diplomatic mission – many of the official military statements suggest that Afghan women know things, and that they will only open up to other women. Helping Afghan women, then, becomes instrumental to gain their trust. Feminist scholars have for decades been suggesting that it is important to see and understand people whose lives are traditionally left out of war stories – women, children, and minorities at the margins of global politics. But this suggestion has always been about the value of those people for their own sake, rather than about co-opting their knowledges for the purposes of traditional warfare. The deployment of FETs seems to make Afghan women visible in war – but, cruelly, only as subjects and objects of influence-spreading and intelligence-gathering.

For these and many other reasons, the deployment of FETs seems on-face ridiculous to me as a feminist scholar – women are not to be essentialized or instrumentalized; the idea that men are masculine and women are feminine is oversimple; this is a move to reify the gendered nature of war rather than to relieve it. To me, though, these are the simple questions and the easy answers. The hard question – and the one engaged in Gendering Global Conflict – is how this policy came to look like a good idea to the United States military, and how the military can claim its “success.”

Gendering Global Conflict suggests that it is impossible to accurately think about the existence, constitution, causes, and consequences of war and conflict without thinking about gender. By “gender,” I mean the assumptions about men and women, masculinities and femininities, and sexuality that overlay military discussions from who makes war against who to how peacekeepers treat civilians. I argue that logics of gender domination (looking to achieve idealized masculinity) and gendered protection (looking to find that masculinity by protecting feminized others) are a condition of possibility of war and conflict, and reverberate through war decision-making across the levels of analysis (the system, dyadic relationships, state decisions, and individual action) as well as across the parts of war (policy decision-making, strategy, tactics, and logistics). Chapters on each of these levels and parts explore in-depth the entrenched nature of gender norms about people and about states without which war as it currently exists would be unimaginable.

So what does that have to do with FETs? It means that FETs are not just a poorly calculated decision by people who do not understand gender politics. In fact, given the gender norms under which the US military operates, they might even be a well-calculated decision by people who understand how gender politics play out “on the ground.” Looking for the problems with FETs in the decision to make and deploy them, I argue, is short-sighted. All of the inaccurate assumptions about sex, gender, and war that go into that decision were always and already present in the militarist structure of the American state – and its not just the US.

That is why, whether it is the deployment of FETs or the phenomena of wartime rape, it is important to see the operation of gender norms and gender subordination in the logics of war, as well as in its practices. As Gendering Global Conflict concludes, it is only then that it will be possible both to make sense of and to fight against gender injustice, both in war and outside of it.