How competing masculinities inform Pak-India escalation

Devaluing the other in gender hierarchies often takes place through feminisation. Last month, tensions reigned high between neighbouring nuclear powers that share an ugly history of separation and bellicosity. Once more, India and Pakistan seemed to be at the brink of war. Airports were shut down, the Line of Control was violated, and de-escalation — […]


Pakistani Wing Commander Bilal (6L) presents sweets to Indian Border Security Force (BSF) Commandant Sudeep (5R) on the occasion of Eid al-Adha at the India-Pakistan Wagah border post about 35km from Amritsar on August 22, 2018. Muslims across the world are celebrating the annual festival of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice in commemoration of Prophet Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son to show obedience to God. / AFP PHOTO / NARINDER NANU

March 21, 2019

Devaluing the other in gender hierarchies often takes place through feminisation.

Last month, tensions reigned high between neighbouring nuclear powers that share an ugly history of separation and bellicosity. Once more, India and Pakistan seemed to be at the brink of war.

Airports were shut down, the Line of Control was violated, and de-escalation — especially in the newfound absence of dedicated third-party intervention — looked out of bounds for the most part. War-mongering through media outlets prevailed while fake and selective news circulated in this situation of crisis.

Yet, it is baffling — if also not amusing — that even in such delicate moments, rhetoric of ‘putting them in their place’ was omnipresent on both sides.

Similarly, a few months ago, when Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted his disappointment regarding peace talks with India, he chastised that he had encountered “small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture”, positing at the same time his position and vision as that more suitable to a bigger man.

This pattern of relying on a masculinity-centric discourse while addressing international relations isn’t one that is exclusive to moments of crisis. Instead, it is what dictates the axis of communication between countries and leaders.

The question, however, remains — why this invocation and comparison of manhood when negotiating peace and world affairs?

This particular instance of ‘manning’ through international relations and conflict is neither new nor isolated. While men in political power decided when to go to war, men in academia decided why states went to war.

For decades, feminist security studies has written about the hypermasculine nature and overwhelmingly male composition of the international relations world and spoken about how “social expectations about masculinities and femininities influence the constitution, processes, and structures of global politics”.

Read next: Never marry a poet or join a leftist party ─ and other lessons from Pakistani feminists

In 2000, when the Security Council adopted the landmark resolution Women, Peace, and Security or Resolution 1325, the international world collectively affirmed the role of gender as a productive and relevant category when thinking about international security and conflict.

In many ways, this unanimous acceptance to “increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts” marked the fruition of decades of labour done by feminist security studies scholars.

In adopting Resolution 1325, the United Nations and its global stakeholders were admitting that the pre-1325 security environment as one that was gender-blind as well as lacking in women’s presence, consequently validating the previous order as overwhelmingly male and masculine.

Resolution 1325 was the culmination of the labour of feminist security scholars and lobbyists who strove to address this gap in representation and perspective when it came to global conflict.

From calling out this masculine paradigm to challenging realist thought’s proposition of an anarchical international system where conflict is inevitable, feminist scholarship on security widens the discourse by offering alternative and more nuanced understandings of how constructions of gender inform international relations theory and security analysis.

It seeks to ask basic questions not only about what informs security, but also questions about who security is for? Who are we protecting and at whose expense?

Both India and Pakistan, with significantly high ranks in being dangerous environments for women, have not implemented National Action Plans for Resolution 1325 which further emphasises the significance of bringing this discourse to the forefront.

Feminist insights

Laura Sjoberg continues the work of feminist scholars in her groundbreaking book, Gendering Global Conflict: Towards a Feminist Theory of War, and argues that the gender hierarchy is a “structural feature” of the international system.

As political scientist John J. Mearsheimer explains, the security dilemma in international relations states that a country’s willingness to increase its security does so at the expense of another state’s security. The other country is then prompted to maximise its security which threatens and instigates other countries to do the same as well.

While realism explains this stately competition as a quest for power to ensure survival in a state of anarchy, Sjoberg complicates it as a “competition for masculinised dominance in which states, as gendered actors in a gendered system, are out to dominate rather than survive.”

Simply put, it upholds that states are in constant competition to prove their masculinity and deny their femininity because the system “consistently valourises characteristics associated with (hegemonic) masculinity over characteristics associated with (subordinated) femininities”.

By gendering the system of power, where the powerfulness of one state must equate to the weakness of another, not only does international relations institutionalise the masculine-feminine binary, it also takes advantage of this simplistic division by displaying what states should mimic (i.e masculinity) and what they should forsake (i.e femininity). This sends the message that states must aspire to masculinity for their survival.

Related: Pakistan downed an Indian jet — but the economy is the real battleground

But not all iterations of masculinity enjoy equal footing. Instead, there are ‘competing masculinities’ that operate under the umbrella of an overarching hegemonic masculinity that trumps over femininity.

These masculinities vie for primacy and are ever-evolving with time. For example, a chivalrous masculinity would have incentive to maintain both toughness and tenderness depending on the situation.

Like masculinity, international relations also assigns a premium on brawn; in this case, physical strength mutates into military strength. Those with nuclear arsenal are stronger, more powerful, while those who aren’t are weaker states.

This dichotomy easily translates onto the masculine-feminine complex where state actors in either category are expected to take on the respective characteristics that come with their masculine or feminine categorisation.

However, this uneven power dynamic isn’t always the reality. According to power transition theory, states can also reach power parity.

T. V. Paul discusses the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan as one that shares a power asymmetry whereby local and global factors are strategically balanced by both parties to prevent a regional hegemony.

Especially since both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers that developed their nuclear capabilities tangentially, it is difficult to map the masculine-feminine dichotomy neatly onto the pair.

Both sides consider themselves to be the stronger of the duo; this is achieved through tactical indoctrination as well as an inflated reputation of the respective armies.

Even at this regional parity, both countries maintain stakes in using competing masculinities to establish their dominance as the more powerful state.

Competing masculinities

A tougher expression of masculinity does not necessarily have to be the successful expression. This is what happened between India and Pakistan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently adopted a hard-line, violent stance in speaking about those responsible for Pulwama.

Modi remarked, “it is our principle to kill them [terrorists] by barging into their houses.” That his willingness to go to any extreme is rhetorised using the image of the ‘house’ — the domestic space — is also telling of how masculinity is expected to act.

Discourse around sovereignty utilises the same vernacular, using the principle that masculinities are most threatening and most threatened when the ‘house’ is attacked because it is what masculinity has to protect.

While New Delhi adopted an aggressive approach of retaliation, Islamabad focused on cultivating a defensive, mature outlook while still maintaining their macho — having shot down fighter jets and capturing a prisoner of war.

Had it not been the case, had Pakistan not reaped any war spoils, it would be interesting to see if they would have still maintained a patient approach to de-escalation.

Even with this much-desired focus on de-escalation, there is an emphasis on declaring explicitly a winner and a loser in the situation, making it clear that even in expressions of magnanimity, masculinity must be performed and strength displayed.

Pakistan is ‘taking the higher road’ is the international image that was projected but, at the same time, it was made clear that Pakistan has no intention of compromising on its display of strength.

Also read: Modi didn’t create Hindu majoritarianism, he only stoked the simmering embers

According to Sjoberg’s analysis, this image perpetuated by Pakistan of a refined, mature masculinity that is secure in its strength in comparison to a more impassioned, aggressive version displays the ever-evolving nature of state masculinities and how states develop them to gain dominance against one another.

On New Delhi’s end, Modi’s claim of destroying a militant camp is still being held to truth in Indian media even after international third-parties have falsified the claim.

This reluctance, on a national level, to forgo the stance of victorious masculinity shows the extent to which states will go to protect their competing masculinity as the more dominant form in a system that “consistently valourises characteristics associated with (hegemonic) masculinity over characteristics associated with (subordinated) femininities”, as Sjoberg puts it.

The Indian state is not only sanctioning but producing fake news to save face. It refuses to be feminised — meaning subordinated — by Pakistan.

Modi has further claimed that asking for proof is “demoralising” for the armed forces, insinuating that asking for evidence is emasculating for brave armed forces.

The question of “Do you support our armed forces or suspect them?” put forward by Modi to his own opposition as well to those rightfully questioning the ‘Balakot terror camp’ claim have been indicted as anti-armed forces.

Modi is able to play on this rhetoric because the idea of a non-accountable military is deep set in the notion that those with power and/or brawn cannot be challenged.

The message lauded here is that the military as the supreme hypermasculine institution cannot be wrong, even if all indicators point to it.

The military-masculinity complex

As Raewyn Connell wrote, “Masculinities are not equivalent to men; they concern the position of men in a gender order”.

However, since masculinities impact and interact with men the most, that war is overwhelmingly masculine and male is also an area of concern for gendered security analysis.

Sjoberg also mentions that “masculinised warrior-hero narratives” are targeted specifically to boys and young men while women and girls also internalise and perpetrate this.

Women too perpetuate it onto men; the symbol of the grieving widow and/or mother is widely co-opted by state-sponsored valourisations of martyrdom on both sides of the border.

On both sides of the conflict, the military forces are overwhelmingly male. Unlike other parts of the world, discourse of and around women’s changing roles in the security landscape have not even entered the national sensibilities.

In general, military service carries a valence of honour across the globe. Sjoberg writes, “Because manhood is an achievement rather than a pre-existing status, war heroism is a way to make men and achieve manhood”.

In order for these young men to look to the military as the tool that will aid their attainment of masculinity, state militaries must project themselves as paragons of masculinity as well.

This evolves into the military-masculinity complex; a heavily interdependent relationship where each counterpart draws validation from the other.

The military cannot sustain its operation without the indoctrinating value of masculinity and masculinity draws sustenance from the respectability politics that come with associating with the military.

Analysis: Is Pakistan’s detention of the Indian pilot violating international law?

The way the story of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthamnan’s capture by Pakistani forces and return was reported in the media is a good example to study this achievement of manhood in practice.

The narrative lauds a group of young boys who practiced bravery and patriotism, the ultimate performance of masculinity, in order to capture.

One quote by the local captors reports, “Our boys were angry and continued to force their way closer to him to punch and slap him, though some of them tried to stop the aggressors. I also told them not to harm him, to leave him alone until the army officers arrived.”

Varthamnan was considered a brave man on both sides because both India and Pakistan utilise the same vocabulary to militarise masculinity and create an ideal manhood.

For a while, elevating him as a war hero became the only point of commonality on both sides. It didn’t seem to matter for Pakistanis that he was an Indian — only that he had perfected his patriotism and valour for his respective nation state, a stance understood and commanding of respect by all.

Upon his return, Varthamnan even sparked a mustache trend — a fact that renders his central position in the military-masculinity complex even more apparent.

Sjoberg further articulates that gendering in international relations also includes “devalourising the other in gender hierarchies often takes place through feminisation”.

We also witnessed this in the interaction of the two states, the most direct example of this blunted by Imran Khan in his decree on small men.

There were other subtler instances of this as well. The comparison of the quality and capability of fighter jets on both sides alludes to this competition for domination.

Substantial feminist work analysing the discourse around proliferation and defence building, especially during the nuclear arms race, establishes strong linkages between masculinised ideas of security building.

One such example was the Cold War where one United States Pentagon official referred to the race as a ‘pissing contest’ and similar vernacular gave way to a Freudian theory of ‘missile envy’ as well nuclear disarmament as emasculation in relevance to the nuclear arms race.

The same can be applied to India and Pakistan as well.

The need to ask better questions

Dr Charlotte Hooper makes an important critique that the “discipline of international relations is heavily implicated in the construction and promotion of Anglo-American models of hegemonic masculinity”.

As international relations developed as a discipline in the wake of American hegemony in the aftermath of the Second World War, its foundations are naturally informed by an era of Anglo-American dominance at a time when the Global South could not even think of competing on an international stage.

In what ways is the post-colonial system simply mimetic of those same power dynamics? It’s even worse to think that the same powers that influenced the study of international relations are the ones that sell arms to both India and Pakistan.

Those who resist any evaluation of the military complex, or worse, placate it into simplistic “pro-military or anti-military” binary schools, will be tempted to dismiss the provocations of this piece.

I contend, however, that the incessant, and often alarming, nature of the Indo-Pak conflict itself as well as Pakistan’s internal display of hyper-masculinity is enough to support the demand for better questions.

This call for re-analysis is an invitation to both innovate and investigate our own premonitions about the war complex and the frameworks in which we view it, as well as the receptacles (whether those are state-sponsored or culturally ingrained, inherent or foreign) in which we receive and internalise these frameworks.

Feminist security studies scholars, who are committed to the labour of innovating in the academic space of conflict and international relations theory, provide such an alternative way of thinking about the precariousness of the war puzzle.

As Dr Shweta Singh points out, the space for such alternative thinking in the South Asian region is even more limited and, I would argue, all the more necessary.

Explore: Who are the real victims of India-Pakistan tensions? It’s Kashmiris

This article is only a minuscule attempt in encouraging an engendered understanding of Indo-Pak tensions as well as the Kashmiri occupation. Profound scholarship on this topic exists with Cohn, Enloe, Sjoberg, Tickner and Zalewski being only a few names that have done work on feminist international relations theory.

This recent article by Amya Agarwal that offers an analysis of competing masculinities of the Indian state and Kashmiri resistance is one such valuable contribution to the study of the conflict that deserves attention.

Gender-curious analyses have always attempted to locate sites of disparity when it comes to human cost and benefit. Academic Dr Swati Parashar identifies Kashmir’s role as “a site for competing and conflicting masculinities, embedded in a history of emasculation and anxieties of postcolonial nation-state building experienced by all sides”.

There is no doubt that more feminist interrogations such as Parashar’s into the study of the occupation and militarisation of Kashmir as well as tensions between India and Pakistan can bring fresh insight to the table, and I hope that current and future scholarship on the matter will be treated with greater significance in working towards sustained conflict resolution.

As for now, we can begin by asking ourselves a simple question that Cynthia Enloe posits: do the politics of masculinities and the politics of femininities matter for the ways in which people experience international politics and the way that people with power try to shape international politics?

I maintain that the answer is a resounding yes, and that further explication is necessary for the vitality and possibility of prolonged and agentive peace for all.

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