Framed Out: What Place for Women in the “Anti-war Movement”?


Three years ago, the Women of Color Resource Center released a statement about the War on Terror that’s still relevant: “Women, Raise Your Voices!” They listed ten reasons for opposing the War on Terror, chosen to illustrate the gendered effects of militarism and imperialism.

Today, deep into the quagmire of the unjust and brutal occupation of Iraq, segments of the anti-war movement continue to point out connections between war, and patriarchy or domestic inequality. For instance, these marginalized parts of the anti-war movement draw attention to the U.S. military as not only a racist, but also a misogynist institution; or to social budget cuts which disproportionately impact women and communities of color. But a gendered analysis – an understanding of the connections between imperialism and U.S. patriarchy – is hardly an integral part of a movement which only recently began taking the racist poverty draft seriously, and which is still struggling to rebuild itself after the invasion.

As the anti-war movement grapples with how to grow from its diminished state, there is a trend which seeks to build the movement by focusing it on a “lowest common denominator”: ending the occupation of Iraq and bringing the troops home now. In the activist circles I’m a part of in Boston, some advocate presenting this LCD to the exclusion of other issues, as the unifying ‘slogan’ or focus of events, rather than building events around multiple, related issues. When I raised the possibility of adding a reference to the military’s misogyny or homophobia in an advertisement for a counter-recruitment protest, this was dismissed as too potentially divisive, a dilution of focus – even if such information is perfectly relevant to potential women recruits.

At the same time, these activists’ purported adherence to the LCD is somewhat disingenuous, because the same individuals are willing to pair it with other slogans exploring militarism’s economic impact – “Money for Jobs and Education, Not War and Occupation” – and more recently, the “racist poverty draft.” Even while arguing for the need to focus on an LCD, they convene several directions of analysis. Apparently these activists have made a decision about which issues they think will have the most (white male) mainstream appeal, to build the biggest movement as fast as possible.

But activists play a dual role – in both building an inclusive and growing movement, as well as helping raise the political consciousness of this movement. Some argue that allowing a variety of speakers, workshops, and literature at events can cover the role of expanding people’s consciousness, even as the movement strives to preserve a limited, uniting focus. While I support having these spaces for exploring a deeper analysis of the war, slogans, advertisements, the very way a movement is framed , are also important vehicles for introducing new ideas to people – as well as creating a movement that is truly inclusive. An inclusive movement does not just use the footwork and labor of minorities, but prioritizes their interests in a deep sense by trying to challenge the complex ways they are oppressed and exploited.

At stake is the position of minorities and women in “the movement.” Will concerns which affect them remain at the margins, or will the movement strive to make these more central? Will the average non-activist who lives in a neighborhood of color, who lacks healthcare, affordable housing, decent work, who has perhaps faced sexual violence, feel this movement is actually relevant to her immediate life – will she know the power of struggling in a movement closely connected to the concerns directly affecting her, or will she have to choose between priorities due to the movement’s myopia? People’s lives do not operate around a single, de-contextualized issue.

The unwillingness of anti-war activists I have met to even be open to exploring ways of deepening this movement’s framework, only appears evidence of the kind of exclusion that feminists of color are up against within leftist organizing. Perhaps I can only say that my experiences left me enervated and discouraged. How this movement is built around an LCD will have important ramifications for minority activists and communities of color.

Some anti-war activists have blamed ‘multiple issue’ agendas as the reason for ANSWER and UFPJ’s decision to cease working together and host separate same-day protests in D.C. this September. I see this split as more a matter of the lack of joint input, mutually respectful collaboration, and involved decision-making. Ideally, democratic decision-making would help facilitate collaborations, and the identification of common ground, between different organizations.

Multiple issues can still revolve around a central focus or set of priorities! Rather than condemning every case of ‘multiple issues,’ the task of anti-war activists should be to figure out how various analyses can be introduced to audiences in ways that meet them at their level of consciousness – both including the converted, and

pushing people to make new political connections. For example, few in the general public may understand a reference to patriarchy, but most people are against rape. We can speak out against misogyny in the military without resorting to obtuse terminology.

The organization Global Women’s Strike coined the slogan, “Invest in Caring, Not Killing,” to draw attention to connections between the undervaluing of women’s unpaid labor – such as through public cutbacks in welfare and healthcare – and militarism. I have been told by certain activists that this term is too “abstract” to actually use. Would it be so incomprehensible if paired next to our favorite old line about public versus military spending? (Or is “caring” just too touchy-feely for masculinist tastes?)

As soldiers returning from the front speak out against the war in growing numbers, and inspiring struggles against military recruitment increase, it will be a challenge for us to keep the full spectrum of who is impacted by imperialism – not simply our boys – in the movement’s radar.

Third world feminists, anti-racist, and immigrant rights activists potentially have an important anti-imperialist critique to offer this movement. We can position ourselves to demonstrate the links between foreign and domestic policies in ways that implicate not only class exploitation, but a racialized and gendered economic system. Moreover, we can be vigilant about grounding this movement in the local struggles of immigrants and people of color.

Yet it is only by actively organizing around issues that affect immigrant women and women of color, in connection to the war, that we can raise them to prominence and ensure they are not dropped from a national anti-imperialist agenda. We must ensure that a movement against the occupation of Iraq seeks to link the issue of U.S. foreign policy to our local community struggles, and honors those affected by gender oppression and sexual exploitation. But furthermore, perhaps we should go beyond this to create an anti-imperialist movement that actually enriches rather than marginalizes these community struggles.

The anti-war movement is in a period of soul-searching as it grapples with how to build and grow. The time to act is now. We must create our own radical feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist organizations, when others neglect this agenda.

 

The Women of Color Resource Center’s statement is online at http://www.coloredgirls.org/content.cfm?cat=publication&file=antiwar. Of use to future organizing is a detailed brochure, “The ‘War of Terror’ Intensifies Violence Against Women of Color, Third World Women, and Our Communities,” produced by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence – a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and their communities.

– Huibin Amee Chew, 23, is a recent graduate of Harvard University. She is active in local anti-imperialist, immigrant, and feminist organizing. She can be reached at [email protected].

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