War Studies’ “Gender Week” is Part of the Problem

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Credit: the International Press Telecommunications Council

Roar writer Anoushay Okhai on War Studies’ “gender week”, and why it is an inadequate solution to the lacking role of gender in the department’s modules.

The KCL War Studies department has long striven to provide equal opportunities in a sector rife with sexism and female underrepresentation. One solution of theirs is “gender week”, a week set aside in compulsory first-year modules to specifically introduce women’s place in war and security.

Though it gives a much-needed platform to gender discourse in warfare, the way in which gender week is handled ultimately risks being counterproductive. The limitation of a single week, the restriction of the subject, and the treatment of gender as an isolated issue tokenises and trivialises the topic, ultimately jeopardising security studies as a whole.

First-year War Studies gives a broad overview of the discipline’s fundamental topics. Compulsory modules such as Causes of War, Experience of War, and Contemporary Security Issues (shared with International Relations) span topics such as historical warfare, modern security threats, and the impacts of conflict on those engaged. Gender, somehow, is treated as a separate issue from all of these themes. Women’s experiences and involvement in combat and policy are restricted entirely to the allotted week. Despite valuable gendered elements to themes like insurgency or various historical conflict narratives, there is minimal intersection.

With only one week devoted to the subject, the content covered in each module is limited. Causes of War, for instance, largely focusses on sexual violence and gender theory. Though both are important subjects, there are several issues with making these topics the basis of this part of the curriculum. Sexual violence, for instance, is a triggering and therefore inaccessible topic for many more people than one would perhaps expect. Additionally, it contributes to the constant portrayal of women as submissive. The majority of the discourse portrays women as victims of war.

This perpetuates the misogyny that gender week aims to fight — future members of a male-dominated sector will enter into an education that exacerbates the view of women as a dependent monolith. As War Studies student Alicia Jenkins added, “Focussing on ‘victimhood’ for discussion implies that that’s the only role for women in war.”

This could have serious consequences for security as a whole. Contemporary Security Issues also focusses largely on sexual violence, but also on women’s roles within ISIS. It is only upon independent further research that one learns women were tasked with rebuilding the caliphate in 2017 and are largely responsible for recruitment. The policies crafted paid no attention to this vital information; resultantly, 550 women slipped through proactive strategies and joined ISIS in January 2015. The problem with teaching students to only associate gender in conflict with female victims is that, in future, they likely won’t formulate adequate strategies.

War Studies and Philosophy student Sam Light is one of many who thinks gender week wouldn’t exist unless it were mandated. He added that it always felt like the week the GTAs were least enthusiastic about, regardless of their gender. Our GTA in particular was notably disdainful; she found the heavy focus on theory incredibly difficult to teach, and we found it nearly impossible to analyse productively. This difficulty spans multiple modules; Chloe Temple, studying War Studies and History, relayed how her lecturer told personal stories of her time in the army rather than anything functionally academic. These are not isolated incidents; when much of the literature is dated analyses on the existence of sexism, it is difficult to impart anything new. All of this amplifies the inaccessibility of gender week; despite being keenly interested in gendered representation, it hindered Chloe and many others from being able to engage in that week.

Gender week does not take women’s issues seriously enough – its subject matter is seen solely as a diversity requirement instead of a legitimate, impactful topic. Fascinating and important gendered war and security topics exist, but they are currently uncovered by independent researchers. Women are overwhelmingly the ones who choose to do so; men, however, hardly ever take an independent interest. Sam Light suspects that “‘male’ is seen as the default identity, so any deviation is labelled as a sign of difference”. This makes sense: when the only compulsory gender education is a week of studying women as “others”, it’s a logical conclusion for men to reach.

In viewing women as a token subject, the department continues to be part of the problem. It has an opportunity to promote more widespread recognition of women’s issues; their contributions to war and policy-making, and how those function in prominent security threats. Instead, the subject is treated as a politically correct requirement, thereby diminishing its value. So how could it be better?

There’s the alternative of making gender week more wide-ranging. Last year’s required articles for Causes were focussed entirely on renowned sexist Van Creveld’s piece on how women fighting creates the illusion of feminism; around half of the lecture spoke about gender roles. War Studies is a fascinating course; if it were less theory-heavy, and focussed less on academics who don’t value women, this would be far more interesting and useful.

The best option, though, would be to do away with gender week altogether. Instead, it should be integrated across the course and allowed to overlap with broader sub-themes. If gender and its associated concepts were interweaved throughout the course, it would be seen as legitimate and comprehensive teaching rather than isolated specialisation. Students and staff would be able to go beyond surface-level, monolithic studies, and be encouraged to incorporate gendered thinking throughout security studies as a whole. Women are people, not requirements; it is not acceptable to treat them as such.

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