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Nuclear Weapons are a Feminist Issue


The devolved parliament in Scotland, elected through proportional representation, has undoubtedly attended too many of what are described as women’s issues. New legislation to protect women from men’s violence towards them and their children for a start.

Women within the movement for independence are deeply committed to ensuring that women are better represented, that their voices are heard and that they contribute fully to creating the kind of country where their needs are met and their aspirations are part of the plan.

Article first on Bella Caledonia


But in a country where women are twice as dependent on social security as men, devolution has not offered enough to allow the radical change that’s needed to really deliver equality.

In the UK, there is a low level of gun crime, and it’s even lower in Scotland. It was two women who initiated the Snowdrop petition that eventually gained a million signatures, but it still required a change in government to achieve its aim: to ban handguns.

In contrast with small arms, light weapons, knives and football results, nuclear weapons can seem to be something that women do not need to worry about. Nuclear weapons don’t seem very visible in the high street, let alone in people’s homes. They are complicated, technical, they require training to use and they are obviously hugely expensive.

Maybe there’s a problem with the radioactive waste, but how would you know? They are not seen to be one of the ever-present daily dangers that affect how women live out their lives and do what is needed to protect their children.

Yet, ionising radiation has twice the impact on women’s bodies as it has on men’s; it has more effect on soft tissue and makes the growing body even more vulnerable to cancers. Consider children and pregnant women at this point.

Hearing the evidence of women’s marked vulnerability to ionising radiation described in evidence-led scientific reports at the UN negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted in July 2017, was new information, shocking in the extreme for some young Scots women campaigners on Scotland’s civil society delegation.

The side event they were attending was hosted by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, and the panel there continued with evidence from across the world about the social stigmatisation of nuclear/radiation victims, from Chernobyl to Fukushima, in addition to the experiences described by survivors from the US attacks on Japan in 1945 and their descendants, collectively known as Hibakusha.

Fukushima women are subjected to the cover-ups and lies that have left them not only exposed to radiation, but after that they were abandoned to the double shift of childcare and earning. Evacuation without their husbands was followed by the withdrawal of government allowances while authorities argued over whether or not it was safe for the women and children to return to communities that, somehow, had missed out on any so-called clean up.

Marriage break-down had become common enough to be called “atomic divorce”, and women were shunned as tainted because they had been exposed to radiation. Years earlier, the same stigmatisation led to many Hibakusha fearing to speak out after their ordeals at Hiroshima and Nagasaki until they were old women.

In the documentary film made by Adam Jonas Horowitz, Nuclear Savage, the intersectional elements of racism and patriarchy are played out in the true and horrific history of a Pacific paradise and its people being utilised for three decades as a laboratory.

The Marshall islanders were exposed to nuclear fallout and consequent tumours, cancers and appalling birth defects are all justified by the race for the most destructive weapon that could be devised.

Although women, including the young women at the UN for the TPNW negotiations, may have protested the development, testing, deployment and possible use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima, paradoxically this has often been without considering the particularly disproportionate impact on women.

Nuclear weapons possession is predicated on maintaining a culture that prefers strong, capable, unemotional men to take charge over impulsive, emotional, nurturing women whose task it is to facilitate their work and clean up after it.

These roles have nothing to do with the sex of the people performing them, but a great deal to do with the roles assigned by our social conditioning by gender.

Detailed, focused attention on the human impact of nuclear weapons is off limits in discussion among security professionals. If one of them stumbles into allowing it to occur, the speaker is discredited, because it is seen as weak, feminine talk (i.e. irrational, emotional and unrealistic).

Women are usually debarred from the conversation, but any men foolish enough to speak from the “women’s perspective” will be ridiculed or, at best, disregarded. Try it.

THIS is not an issue about the gender of those in charge of these weapons, but the way that society assigns roles. There is also a vocal minority of women who will claim that the issue is best understood by their (male) leaders and power brokers, so even though they may feel a bit squeamish about it, the “right” thing to do is support the (brave) (male) military leaders who understand the issues.

Nikki Haley is an American politician who served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2018. She infamously pulled a stunt involving a mock “protest” outside the TPNW conference to which all the nuclear-armed states had been invited, but refused to attend.

She declared that her support for the US nuclear weapons programme and the US refusal to consider disarmament was because, she said, “I am a mom, I understand that my family need to be kept safe”.

Lack of female participation and neglect of women’s voices denies the majority of women a say in issues that heavily impact their lives.

UK nuclear policy does not engage with women’s perspectives and narratives, and this pattern is repeated across nuclear-armed states throughout the world.

The social costs of hosting nuclear weapons are often at the expense of meeting the basic needs of shelter, food and water, electricity, health and education. While the task of looking after the daily needs of children and the elderly or vulnerable is generally left to women, absence of the required resources will hit women the hardest and women often sacrifice their own needs in order to fulfill the expectation that patriarchy places upon them.

Trident replacement costs continue to spiral astronomically, while the UK Government’s austerity measures leave university graduates scrabbling in food banks, and cuts to public services impact on the most vulnerable groups in our society.

That’s to say on women, single parent led households and everyone else who is surviving on lower incomes, such as the elderly, those with enduring health issues and the severely impaired, the majority of whom are reliant on women for care and support.

Recent changes to Universal Credit have affected all single parents – 9 out of 10 of which are women. Even if nuclear weapons came free in your cornflakes, the UK’s policies of denying WMD to others implies maintaining the current international balance of power, in which the UK and the US are privileged, politically and economically.

As Scots and feminists, we oppose the extreme inequality inherent in the current world order, and actions which endorse it. It’s not our kind of Scotland.

Many of us welcomed the opportunity that the independence referendum gave us to really seriously consider the concept of the early days of a better nation, to allow our hearts to beat a little faster, our aspirations to rise a little higher, our common sense to gar us grue the UK state’s aggression towards folk we had no quarrel with, and the nuclear weapons foisted on the Clyde are just what we wanted rid of.

In 2003, in their working paper on ethics and WMD, Carol Cohn and Sara Ruddock noted the dominant attitude. A woman participant at the biological weapons treaty negotiations noted that what counted was “reason” and that “emotions” were excluded. Concerns about the effects of a vaccine on troops were “emotional” and described as “complaining”, “whining,” or “carrying on.”

More than a decade later we should know better. Excluding the emotional response and not considering vulnerability when processing information and assessing the impact is incomplete. And not fully human.

The power of the kind of gendered discourse described excludes what is still coded as “feminine”, but it can be reduced if sufficient women are present. Women and men who are respectful enough of each other to fully listen can work together to prevent us from accepting that there is any acceptable use for nuclear weapons.

This acceptance includes recognition that nuclear weapons are a women’s issue when social service is inadequate because the economy is dysfunctional.

Nuclear weapons remain a women’s issue because of the disproportionate harm they do to women’s bodies – even when they are not used.

Nuclear weapons will continue to be a women’s issue as long as we maintain a power dynamic that prevents women from contributing their expertise and skills in conflict resolution, and does not protect them from harm. And until nuclear convoys carrying fully armed nuclear warheads cease to be driven past Scottish (or any) primary schools and hospitals.