Occasional Paper 14: Women's Teach-In - Antimilitarism, Fundamentalisms/Secularism and Civil Liberties & Anti-Terrorism Legislation after September 11th 2001

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November 2003
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Papers from the 'teach-in' organised by Act Together, Southall Black Sisters, Women Against Fundamentalisms, Women in Black (London), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and WLUML, held on 8 September 2002 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK.

by Cynthia Cockburn

At the moment when two amateur pilots flew their planes into the shining glass-clad walls of the twin towers in New York on 11 September 2001, many women of the antiwar movement in London were demonstrating outside an exhibition centre in Docklands, London. The focus of their attention was an arms trade ‘fair’ where the UK government was sponsoring weapons manufacturers to sell their products to the representatives of the world’s states, militaries and paramilitaries. We were demonstrating, as women, against what we saw as a distinctively masculinist system, careless of human life, promoting and profiting by violence.

When we got home and watched that endlessly repeated clip of film on TV, the impact, the flames, the crumbling structures, the pilots’ action too, as the news unfolded, it emerged as an extraordinarily violent act by a team of disciplined men. But what were we thinking when we felt, ‘There is something masculine about that?’

I think that most of us did not mean ‘women couldn’t have done that.’ We know they could, because elsewhere we have seen women suicide bombers targeting civilian lives. Rather what we did mean is that among the many different masculinities that might, in theory, be available to growing boys, the masculinity currently most highly valued in the world’s power systems, energetically produced by cultural means, is one that embodies physical and psychological force and seeks to create by destroying. Such masculine cultures prevail in important segments of Western, Christian, Arab, Muslim and other domains, and among their products are the arms trade, as featured in Docklands; military structures, as symbolized in the Pentagon; global capitalism, as featured in the World Trade Centre; and politico-religious fundamentalisms, the driving force in the minds of the men who crashed aircraft into these structures.

It is this perception of the violence inherent in certain masculine cultures that has given rise to the women’s antiwar and antiviolence movements in many countries. The feeling is that women, based on their gender specific experiences, can sometimes bring a social change that men cannot bring, but also that feminism as theory, can explain certain connections and clarify strategy, while feminism as practice can mobilize women and - very importantly – men, to model the transformations that might yet save us all.

In the weeks immediately following 11 September 2001 some of us, as members of several different women’s organizations, began talking about how we should and could respond to the terrifying up-scaling of armed conflict and repression that September 11 seemed to threaten. The organizations, or branches of organizations, were: Women in Black against War (WiB), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), London women of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Women against Fundamentalisms (WAF), Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and, finally, Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq (a group of Iraqi and other women in London, opposing Western aggression and UN sanctions against Iraq).

That combination of interests and expertise was significant. We quickly organized a meeting at Friends House in London. What, from our various perspectives, we foresaw unfolding from September 11 was several linked processes. First, there would be a strong impulse in the USA (and in the UK, the state most closely allied with it) towards vengeance, the recovery of national self-respect by means of a violent attack on some target as surrogate for the elusive Al-Qaeda. This would probably unfold, as in fact it did, into a prolonged and ever wider ‘war on terrorism.’ The new events would reinforce the use of military action as an acceptable vehicle, indeed a routine mechanism, of US-led foreign policy.

Secondly, we saw that the attack of September 11 was inescapably linked to the poverty and deprivation, injustice and exploitation, manipulation, force and neglect experienced by people in poorer countries because of domestic and foreign policies that they perceive to be hypocritical. All of this can fuel extreme and violent attitudes. What began to evolve then and there, and which formed the basis for our subsequent campaigns was the theme that only human rights, equality and inclusion can bring peace.

Third, in the media we already saw an increased tendency, that would certainly increase further, to label people by ethnicity or religion. The space in which one might define, express and live one’s own subjective identity – be and be known as a complex ‘I’, a particular one of many kinds of woman or man, in relation to many possible versions of national belonging or ethnic name - would close down yet further. If we were presumed ‘Arab’ we would be presumed ‘Muslim’, if we were presumed ‘English’ we would be presumed ‘Christian’. The already tiny space for a secular identity would shrink to vanishing point. We would have to struggle to validate ourselves as secular – whether as non-believers, or as believers - for whom belief is a personal and private matter, not one of adherence to institutionalised religion.

Fourth, we foresaw an imminent racist reaction against any individual or community who might thus be identified as Muslim, Arab, or even merely ‘foreign’. We feared the reaction would occur at an individual level, in racist slanders and violence against, not only new entrants to the UK, (‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’), but towards British Muslims, Jews and various visible minorities. And we feared the government would act, as it did, to bring in legislation in the name of ‘security,’ curbing the asylum rights of people deemed ‘other’ in the context of September 11 - that is to say people appearing to be ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ – which would also prejudice the rights of all people from many countries resident in the UK, and those diverse people who hold British citizenship. This “antiterrorist” legislation has, in fact, crushed the civil liberties of all people in the UK.

That first meeting in September 2001 was important to many of us in guiding the steps we took in the following year. We saw that we would have to work in several modes simultaneously: in a feminist mode, an anti-racist mode, a secular mode and an anti-militarist mode. The ‘coalition’ was reactivated, on 8 September 2002, at a ‘teach-in’ we organized together at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. We called it Women’s Teach-In: Antimilitarism, Fundamentalisms/Secularism and Civil Liberties & Anti-Terrorism Legislation after September 11th 2001.

The ‘teach-in’ was attended by some 300 participants. The papers gathered together here were given on that day and formed the basis for subsequent panel discussions. Sian Jones and I, in our different ways, addressed the relationship of gender, feminism and the opposition to militarism and war. Nira Yuval-Davis and Nadje Al-Ali set out to clarify our thinking about fundamentalisms and secularisms. Liz Davies and Gita Sahgal discussed the assault on civil liberties in the pursuit of a ‘war on terror’. Gita’s paper, sadly, is missing because it was not written it down at the time and it has proved impossible to reconstruct it since.