Women, Security, South Asia - A Clearing in the Thicket
B. Rajeshwari ·       

The inability of the existing discourses of international relations theory to include within their fold gender concerns of security and therefore the need for engendering the security discourse has been argued by feminist writers from time immemorial. The fact that the Realist and the Statist perspective of security has failed to grasp the "non-traditional" concerns of the marginal groups within a State is now an accepted reality. This hiatus has perhaps what has made feminist writers to take shelter, as Cynthia Cockburn suggests (in The Spaces Between Us), under the domain of Peace and Conflict Studies. Swarna Rajagopalan and Farah Fiazal's book fall under similar genre of books that have questioned the Constructivist approach to security. The editors have presented the narrative of security through the concerns of women in South Asia. It brings forth to the readers the reality of everyday insecurities in the lives of women in South Asia, the narrow concerns of security under which the States in South Asia operate, and the myth about gender equality within the armed militias; the book above all advocates for a new 'inclusive' paradigm of security.

The entire subaltern studies comprise of similar endeavors questioning the limited definition of identity, nationalism and security. In the West a critique of the traditional approaches to security have been expressed by feminist writers since the time Mary Wollstonecraft evolved the phrase "private is political" in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Indeed, as Swarna writes in the introductory chapter, gender and international relations have grown apace since the publication of resourceful and seminal work in the special issue of Millennium (Vol. 17, No. 3, Winter 1988) on the issue. It brought forth a number of broad issues related to lacunae within the Realist paradigm of security in international relations. They questioned the definition of security, which designated women to the domestic sphere and men to the public sphere. In one of the most influential articles of the issue, Ann Tickner establishes the missing element of gender in the six major principles on political realism by Hans Morgenthou. Similar views like mainstream International Relations presents itself as gender blind and a critique of the view that "men" have coherent homes in International Relations while "women" are suited for other places are expressed in Christine Sylevster's Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Post Modern Era (1994). Sylvester would argue that all three mainstream approaches to International Relations - Realist, Idealist and Neoliberal - have not been sensitive to gender issues. Taking the lead from such works, the book under review argues for an approach on security which would deal with the problems and issues within, across and between states.

In arguing for such an approach to security, the book, through a collection of contributions, provides a glimpse into day-to-day security concerns of women in South Asia. The introductory chapter tries to seek an answer to the question: Where do women feature within the discourse of security in South Asia? Taking from Rebecca Grant, Swarna also tries to argue that the definition of what constitutes security for a State does not necessarily reflect the concerns of all the State's population. This, she states, is clear from the fact that within the security agenda of the State in South Asia, the issues related to dowry deaths, female infanticide, starvation deaths, rape, and child abuse rank lowest. At each level - personal, public, and work place - majority of women in South Asia face insecurities. This does not mean that an increase in the number of women in the level of decision-making would make the vital difference as it has been observed that women holding vital position within the decision-making structures also end-up pursuing the State-centric approach to security. The need therefore, according to this feminist approach, would be to ensure that one set of security is not addressed in isolation with the other set of security concerns. In raising these broad range of issues the book tries to answer two vital questions that have plagued feminists all over the world: Is the understanding and definition of security that women envisage is different from that of men or are they animated by the same concerns of state and national security? Also, if feminists decide to take up the agenda of security policy and research, then would it be substantially and substantively different from the present agenda?

The answers to these two vital questions in the book can be located in different chapters on each of the South Asian countries along with the main introductory chapter where Swarna clearly states that the State cannot keep moving towards territorially securing itself without addressing the fundamental survival issues of its population. The chapter by Farah Faizal on the societal insecurities of Maldivian women provides an insightful understanding of the paradoxical relationship of the Maldivian women where they do not face societal constraints with regard to divorce and remarriage but at the same time are bound by covert and invisible constraints which have restricted their freedom. The chapter rejects the common myth that it is open conflict that could create insecurities for women and "peaceful" societies are able to better address the insecurities of women. Faizal argues citing Maldivian case that in the absence of open threat the vulnerabilities that undermine the position of women are hidden and latent.

The obsession of the State in securing its boundaries gets reflected in the policies of the State on migration and refugees. The insecurities that are created among various identities and at various levels as a result of this approach to security taken by the State are perhaps best argued in Ranabir Samaddar's The Marginal Nation - Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal (2003). Saba Gul Khattak in the chapter on Afghan women refugees in Pakistan makes similar arguments. Though refugees in general suffer as a result of their uprootedness, women among the refugee group in particular suffer from insecurities both as a refugee and as a woman. In the case of Afghan refugees, because of the uncertainty of their legal status women undergo mental and psychological pressures. Under such circumstances more than the question of resistance the question of survival becomes vital for women.

Unless the dichotomies of public and private, high politics and low politics, national security and social security are diminished, women would continue to feel insecure across boundaries and cultures. The gendered character of the State in silencing the voices of women in the construction of nationhood in Bangladesh and the failure of the State to address the problems of the women victims after the 1971 Liberation movement was because of the presence of such dichotomies in the understanding of security within which the State in Bangladesh operates. Amena Mohsin provides this argument in her study on Bangladesh and negates the idea that liberation of a Nation and formation of secured boundaries automatically gets transcended into security for all the population within the Nation.

The chapter on women militants in South Asia by Sudha Ramachandran breaks the prevalent myth that women are for peace and men are for war. Sudha also provides that though during times of conflict the security concerns faced by men and women might not be very different the insecurities faced and the impact of conflict is certainly different for men and women. Also the presence of women as part of armed militias in conflict-ridden areas of South Asia does not mean that they are treated equally and are more empowered. In another book titled Women and The Nation's Narrative (2001) by Neloufer De Mel, she makes similar arguments and provides a clear understanding that even in moments of greatest empowerment for women in the liberation movements like the LTTE in Sri Lanka, there are demarcations and containment on the freedom of women.

The last comprehensive chapter of the book on the role of women in track-II diplomacy by Ilmas Futehally takes up another dimension of security where women have tried to make inroads but have witnessed difficulty. The role of women in negotiations and peace initiatives particularly in situations of armed conflict is extensively researched in a recent publication titled Women, Armed Conflict and Negotiation (2004) edited by Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dilrukshi Fonseka. Their work also provides similar concerns of the absence of a gender concerns and of women in general in negotiating peace settlements.

The book under review is an important contribution for security studies in South Asia in two ways. Firstly, it is perhaps one of the few contributions that has been attempted to deconstruct the constructivist theory in the context of gender issues in South Asia. Secondly, it has brought within its ambit a range of insecurities faced by women in South Asia at all levels. Though similar attempt has been made by Rita Manchanda (in War, Women and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency), as rightly pointed out by Swarna in the introductory chapter, this book goes beyond providing a critique of the existing paradigm by pointing out what would a feminist vision of security in the South Asian context entail. The extensive bibliography and references provided in the book is particularly useful for those interested in the subject. It is important that the security studies in South Asia is not bound by binaries like traditional and non-traditional security but evolve a new discourse and definition of security where there is scope and space for different types of security concerns. Women, Security and South Asia is certainly an important step in evolving this new discourse.