Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century

By Emily Jones 

Technology is vastly changing contemporary conflict. While there has been a lot of recent focus by international lawyers on topics such as drone warfare and autonomous weapons systems, very little has been published on these issues from a gender and law perspective. Seeking to bridge this gap, I recently co-edited a Special Issue for the Australian Feminist Law Journal on Gender, War and Technology: Peace and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century alongside Yoriko Otomo and Sara Kendall. The issue brings together a wide array of voices. Several different technologies are discussed; from drone warfare to lesser known technologies being used in conflict settings such as evidence and data collection technologies and human enhancement technologies.

As the introduction to the Special Issue notes, gender is used throughout the Special Issue in multiple ways, highlighting women’s lived experiences in conflicts as combatants, victims, negotiators of peace agreements, military actors and as civilians, as well as being used as a theoretical tool of analysis, ‘considering issues of agency, difference, and intersectionality, and contesting gendered constructions that presuppose femininity, ethnicity, and passivity.’ Intersectionality is also a key theme throughout the issue, with articles also ‘considering issues of race, colonialism, ability, masculinity and capitalism (and thus, implicitly, class).’ War is understood in light of feminist scholarship on conflict, noting how war and peace work on a ‘continuum of violence’ with neither war not peace being as easy to define as legal categorisations suggest.

One key theme which emerges throughout the Special Issue is a focus on the posthuman, with three of the articles bringing posthuman theory to the law. These articles overlap and use posthuman theory in slightly different ways to analyse different technologies. The Special Issue begins with one such article; Matilda Arvidsson’s ‘Targeting, Gender, and the International Posthumanitarian Law and Practice: Framing the Question of the Human in International Humanitarian Law.’ Using feminist posthuman theory, Arvidsson calls into question the central human figure of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) through drawing on examples of the gender and racial bias present in drone targeting decisions, thereby analysing and challenging the particular form of humanitarianism at the heart of IHL.

Also drawing on feminist posthuman theory, my own article, ‘A Posthuman-Xenofeminist Analysis of the Discourse on Autonomous Weapons Systems and Other Killing Machines,’ uses both feminist posthumanism and xenofeminsim to analyse current debates on autonomous weapons systems. Drawing on examples of existing weapons systems such as the Samsung SGR-A1, as well as on trends in emerging military technologies towards enhancing the human (from exoskeletons to brain augmentation), I call for an understanding of these technologies which problematises the idea that autonomy is distinct from automation and sees, instead, the ways in which the human and machine interact in making life-death decisions.

The third article to draw on posthuman theory in the Special Issue is by Gina Heathcote in her article entitled ‘War’s Perpetuity: Disabled Bodies of War and the Exoskeleton of Equality.’ Focusing in on exoskeletons, Heathcote notes how debates around exoskeletons and their use by military personnel are used to promote ideas that “women can be as good as men on the battlefield.” Heathcote challenges the gender equality debates underlying such arguments, showing ‘how these technologies work very much within gendered and ablest norms, both being limited by and perpetuating them.’

Helene Kazan’s article, ‘The Architecture of Slow, Structural and Spectacular Violence and the Poetic Testimony of War,’ takes a slightly different theoretical turn, focusing in on the impact of conflict on human lives and lived experience, looking at who is impacted by conflict and how that is expressed. Kazan focuses on ‘the affective experience of both human and architectural structures in the context of Lebanon’s civil war’ via drawing on her own lived experience of conflict. Thus ‘Kazan, in the mode of écriture feminine, describes how Lebanon and its inhabitants become sensors of ‘slow, structural and spectacular’ violence,’ seeking forms of reparation for these inhabitants and proposing a possible turn to tort law as a means through which to create accountability.

Taking a slightly different approach to gender, focusing in on masculinities, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik’s article, ‘Technology, Dead Male Bodies and Feminist Recognition: Gendering ICT Harm Theory, outlines the ways in which data collection and big data is being used in drone warfare and in the regulation of the human refugee consequences of conflict. Sandvik shows how such data collection is used to invisibilise male refuges, the vast majority of which are brown men. Thus, ‘Sandvik’s paper highlights the ways in which certain men are deemed more targetable or less worthy of saving by nature of their perceived hegemonic masculinity.’

Another approach is used in Christiane Wilke’s article, ‘How International Law Learned to Love the Bomb: Civilians and the Regulation of Aerial Warfare in the 1920s.’ Wilke provides a historical account of attempts to regulate weapons, noting how such efforts are based upon ‘presumptions about which populations are worth protecting, a thoroughly racialised biopolitics bound up with a colonial framework.’ Wilke’s article thus asks questions about who is being affected and how these people are seen and through what biases, noting how the frameworks of international law in this area which were created in the colonial period still structure current frameworks.

The Special Issue thus ends with a praxis piece by Clare Brown of Legal Action Worldwide. In her article ‘The Use of ICTs in Conflict and Peacebuilding: A Feminist Analysis,’ Brown provides a practitioner’s perspective on the use of ICT’s such as messaging and data collection technologies in conflict and peacebuilding. Noting how many of these technologies are being developed to respond and record evidence in conflict situations, Brown highlights how these technologies have been developed without account either for women’s lived experiences or for feminist perspectives.

As the introduction to the Special Issue notes, ‘Beyond this special issue, the field would benefit from analysis of the broader range of intersectional concerns that emerge from recent technological developments in warfare.’ The use of technologies in conflict settings is only set to increase. Intersectional gender perspectives on this area are therefore required now to shape the development and use of these technologies as they are being deployed and developed. I hope that this Special Issue will be the beginning of an area of scholarship which I hope will continue to grow.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone

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