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Feminist Critiques of the Traditional Just War Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 2650 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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  1. Introduction

“Feminism is the belief that women are of equal social and human value with men, and that the differences between men and women, whether biologically based or culturally derived, do not and should not constitute grounds for discrimination against women” (Reardon 1985, 20). This definition best summarizes the core concept of feminism. From this simple belief, feminism has developed into social movement and further, a political theory with the question of how society and gender affect each other. As one of the critical theories of international politics, feminism contributes to the field by criticizing other theories, pointing out how they are blind to gender issues, and therefore worsening the gender inequality. Moreover, feminism’s main interests are ‘the marginalized’. So, feminism aims to bring everybody, regardless of their social, political, or economic power, to the table and give them voices, while aiming ‘emancipation’ (Whitworth, 2008).

There are various perspectives of just war theory; the traditional and the revisionist view. Feminists argue that these theories are gender-biased, and blind to the impacts war has on women and other marginalized men. Especially, feminists provide critiques on the abstractions traditional just war theory holds that make war more likely. This is what the ‘feminist reformulations of just war theory’ are, and they provide a superior basis upon which to make judgements about war when compared to the traditional just war theory. This paper will introduce the critiques feminism makes on the traditional just war theory, and specifically focus on jus ad bellum and jus in bello to argue why feminism provides a superior basis.

  1. Feminist Reformulations of Just War Theory

The terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in feminist discourse refer to masculinity and femininity, which are the culturally constructed concepts of ‘gender’, not exactly coinciding with the biological sex. Putting gender as the main interest, feminists indicate some flaws of traditional just war theory and suggest ‘empathetic cooperation’ as an alternative. The first feminist reformulation of just war theory, according to Sjoberg (2006a), claims to consider war as continuum. Second, the concept of independent, autonomous state is in itself gender-biased. Third, feminist reformulation puts emphasis on ‘people’, rather than states. Fourth and the most significantly, it criticizes the ‘immunity principle’, which is both theoretically gendered and impractical. Feminists argue that these abstractions make war more likely, which is the exact opposite of the aim of just war theory.

  1. Superiority on jus ad bellum

In terms of jus ad bellum, feminism provides the universal frame of war-making, in contrast to the traditional just war theory which argues that states wage war with their own will based on the calculation that varies from case to case. In other words, feminists argue that waging war is not a rational decision of states, but rather, the continuum of already-prevalent violence, which is a more reasonable interpretation of jus ad bellum. According to traditional just war theory, the only actor with the authority to wage war is states (Walzer, 2006). The independent, autonomous states decide whether to wage war based on the calculations of the categories of just ad bellum; the just cause, proportionality, last resort, and the chance of success. These calculations differ from case to case because of historical and social contexts, and this leads to the higher possibility of political leaders to distort or interpret them in a wrong way to make the war ‘just’.

In contrast, feminism considers war as continuum, not a discrete event with a starting gunshot and ceasefire. Conflicts have always existed, and war is the product of constant tension. “The spatial metaphors used to refer to war as a separate, bounded sphere indicate assumptions that war is a realm of human activity vastly removed from normal life” (Cuomo, 1996, 30). This expansion of violence has resulted from the masculine nature of the international politics (Reardon, 1985). However, traditional just war theory isolates war from the daily violence, which blurs the impact of war on people. So, feminists focus on the human security issues that continue before, during, and after “war” (Sjoberg, 2006a). Considering war as continuum of violence can be applied to every case of warfare, which makes more sense when understanding the background of war-making.

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In addition, feminists point out the masculine feature of states and underlying gendered narratives of war-making. They believe that regarding states as the only authoritative actor to wage war is gender-biased. This is because women are excluded from the formation of states historically, and most of the political leaders are male (Sjoberg, 2006a). This results in the foundational characteristic of states being ‘masculine’. Furthermore, it contributes to the underlying gendered assumptions of jus ad bellum that states claim when deciding to go on war. Masculinity represents features such as powerfulness, chivalry, not-compromising. Contrarily, femininity refers to weakness, pacifism, and passivity. Also, “masculinism is the ideology that justifies and naturalizes gender hierarchy by not questioning the elevation of ways of being and knowing associated with men and masculinity over those associated with women and femininity” (Hooper, cited by Sjoberg 2006a, 33). These characteristics are based upon the socially constructed gender roles, and they lead men to feel the need to protect women, who are weaker and therefore, need protection. In this case, men are the ’just warriors’ and women are the ’beautiful souls’. Just warriors fight wars for women, without their consent and even when it is not their primary goal (Sjoberg and Peet, 2011). Just warriors represent masculinity, and just war works as a heroic tale and a proof of masculinity by protecting women. Therefore, gendered narratives of jus ad bellum of traditional just war theory make it easier to legitimize war under the justification of protecting ‘women’. This critique explains the universal context of war-making considering the fact that the most common cause of war is ‘defense’, and especially, that of the innocent, such as women and children.

The concept of ‘Just warriors’ and ‘Beautiful souls’ is even more reinforced when combined with nationalism. Women are not only the symbolic beautiful souls that need protection, but their socially constructed roles also contribute to the gendered narratives of just war theory. Women’s biggest role in a nation has historically been ‘mothers’, who reproduce the next generation of just warriors (Sjoberg, 2006b). This capacity of reproducing the nation biologically and culturally has established the concept of femininity and intensified the gendered notion that just warriors, or masculinity is superior and therefore should protect the beautiful souls for the sake of their nation. This acts as the rationale to easily wage and legitimize war, which is not a desirable consequence. These critiques on the gendered assumptions of traditional just war theory provide a more universal frame and foundational understanding of jus ad bellum, since they always exist despite the contexts of individual wars, and judging them without gender-neutral perception does not add to the validity of the theory.

  1. Superiority on jus in bello

Feminist reformulations also constitute a superior basis of judging war in terms of jus in bello. This is because feminism puts an emphasis on human security, considering the fact that the real actor of warfare is people, rather than intangible states. One of the most significant elements of traditional just war theory is the ‘non-combatant immunity’. Distinguishing combatants and non-combatants, and ensuring the security of civilians are important for just war theorists. However, they regard the damages caused by the ‘double effect’ collateral. In other words, as long as the ends are good, some degree of evil means is acceptable (Walzer, 2006). Also, some collateral damage on civilians are considered inevitable for the sake of victory.

Feminism argues that the immunity principle is practically ineffective and theoretically gendered at the same time. Traditional just war theory ignores the impact people get by underestimating the hardship of distinguishing combatants and non-combatants, and characterizing some harms ‘collateral’. So, feminists focus on the story of individuals and their experience of the ‘marginalized’ harms. Despite the term ‘immunity’, it is impossible for anyone to be completely immune during war because its impacts are so far-reaching (Sjoberg, 2006b). Putting aside the chance of getting killed or injured, especially women are the target of collateral damage, such as the destruction of infrastructure and sexual violence. As women are socially assigned the role of care, the destruction of infrastructure during war is lethal to them because they should take on additional household responsibilities as the resources become more scarce (Sjoberg, 2006a). Moreover, sexual violence such as rape happens in a huge scale and is more severe in wartime, but it has not been considered as serious as other civilian damages, since they are regarded as a tactical option. This is because women, as beautiful souls, are the main motivation for war, and eliminating the virginity of them can prove one’s masculinity over the enemies’ femininity (Sjoberg and Peet, 2011). What is more serious is the long-term effects of these marginalized harms. Forced pregnancy and destroyed infrastructure cannot be compensated shortly. The ineffectiveness of the immunity principle and traditional just war theory’s ignorance of these marginalized harms put women in more danger, and claims on  jus in bello with the omission of these impacts cannot be counted reasonable.

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Additionally, the chivalric interpretation of the immunity principle shows that it is theoretically gendered. The non-combatants, or civilians just war theory aims to protect are usually women and children. This gendered conception continuously reproduces the notion that women are helpless, which starts the vicious cycle that begins with the need to protect the ‘beautiful souls’ (Carpenter, 2003). This assumption that equals civilians to women comes from the gendered expectations that men and women will play certain social roles. So, the immunity principle “constitutes and is constituted by the cultural images of males and females that are predominant in the contemporary world” (Sjoberg, 2006a, 96). In conclusion, the civilian immunity principle “reifies expected gender roles in conflict situations while failing to protect civilians adequately” (Sjoberg, 2006a, 94). Feminism pointing out these gendered flaws of the immunity principle that actually endangers women, sheds light on emancipation which should be considered when judging war.

In response to this, feminism suggests ‘empathetic cooperation’ as an alternative. “Empathy is the willingness to enter into the feeling or spirit of something and appreciate it fully – to hear others’ stories and be transformed by our appreciation of the experiences” (Sjoberg, 2006b, 904). It can be the starting point of solidarity, in which individuals can be heard and understood. By standing in others’ shoes, one can think about the truth of war and the impacts it will bring to the everyday life of people. Keeping in mind that it will be no one else but individuals themselves that fight and live in war, it is significant to put an emphasis on human security as feminism does when judging war.

V. Conclusion

The ultimate aim of just war theory is to minimize the occurrence of war, not promoting it. However, the gender-biased narratives of traditional just war theory result in an easier decision of waging war, and the absence of attention on people. So, feminist reformulations of just war theory enlighten us to pay more attention to the hidden assumptions and unheard voices, and also provide a chance to rethink about the true meanings of just war theory, therefore constituting a superior basis upon which to make judgements about war. However, this does not necessarily mean that just war theory or the concept of war itself should be abandoned, since that could result in ‘the weak’ having no opportunities at all for a better life. Rather, feminist reformulations of just war theory call for a more people-friendly way of thinking when making decisions and judging war. This is for the just war theory to be interpreted and applied in a rightful way, leading to the true realization of its essentials.


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