Through its Initiative 2020, WIIS Brussels set out to develop a platform to broker new informal ways to address security issues in a polarized world. In 2021, and throughout the pandemic, the Association consulted with its members in Brussels listening to personal stories and exploring new ideas on creating the conditions for enhanced security, beyond old concepts and structures. We have navigated a complex reformulation of security, taking account of human, economic, health, mental, and regional security.
2022 brought us closer to women in conflict zones to better understand our respective contexts and learn from our diversity, but also to strengthen our connections and enable us to relate and support each other. This “off the record” Consultation on Women and Security among security experts and practitioners offered a path to explore what security means to us individually and collectively, beyond the rituals of “official Brussels”, the rules of engagement, agreed language, and cultural biases. It allowed us to debate security putting people first, as well as justice and equity.
Throughout this WIIS Consultation, we have learned that it was less important to define exactly “what” we were exploring through security, than it was to focus on “how” to approach security as members of wider communities. We came to appreciate each other’s perspective without judgement, but with heightened sensitivity to address diverse security challenges as perceived.
We experienced the art of balancing. We witnessed how one dominant approach of security often prevails in society, embedded in existing structures. Arguably, it is meant to safeguard against the unravelling of a system which could result in total disruption and lead to exploitation of our system by rival forces. Through our Consultation process, we have encouraged instead a more diverse approach to security, which yielded five main lessons.
From consultation with women from Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Ukraine, we first experienced the impact of listening intently without seeking to influence others’ perception. Second, we experimented the value of creating a “relating field” (a field where we can all relate to each other) rather than developing a normative approach (binding people by the same norms). Third, we realized the need for healing at both individual and societal level to overcome collective traumas and avoid seeing security structures reproduce patterns of insecurity and injustice. Fourth, we witnessed how resilience took over from women’s concerns over security in countries at war, wondering whether the social contract between states and society was not de facto being redefined, as women find their role in war-torn societies. Lastly, we experimented with the creation of a safe and open space for exchanges between women from different social backgrounds, cultures and geopolitical realities to generate greater connections and networking for a sustainable and multifaceted security for all.
Women from Yemen reminded us that despite significant economic, cultural and geographical differences in the four governorates of the country, the gender gap has been wide in all of them. Human security was yet discussed and often associated with an existing “culture of peace” calling for social tolerance and co-existence with “the other.” In some governorates, however, the role of women in society was often underrated in spreading the culture of peace. Women had lost all form of state protection and often family support due to societal pressure, and were even at risk of losing their protective networks in their various roles in civil society and peace building. Despite being disproportionally affected by war, women were not to be found around peace negotiations and were excluded from decision-making positions. Even more disturbing, women often feared kidnapping, exploitation, harassment or physical harm.
While some shared also positive stories of women-led local initiatives in resolving conflicts, it became evident that women needed more comprehensive and legal frameworks to be both visible and protected in society beyond the local level, irrespective of country or region. Yet traditional perceptions of women’s roles in family and the household, possibly as teachers, doctors or political leaders, were dominant among men with official and religious roles, especially in rural areas. Women from Yemen and Libya were particularly interested in networks and women gatherings to overcome structural gender challenges at home. WIIS Brussels with its organic approach to consultation on security, and the absence of organizational structure in the way it functions as an international network, offered a different and comforting safe space to discuss and share openly vastly different perspectives.
We heard from Iraqi women about the importance to encourage the establishment of women’s networks or coalitions, which could include female activists, and parliamentarians to apply pressure on the government and parliament to formulate policies and enact laws against discrimination and violence towards women. In that sense, the role of the international community and civil society in strengthening and ensuring a sustainable civic space for women everywhere, holding decision-makers accountable and ensuring women are sitting around the decision-making table remains instrumental to sustain efforts and anchor results. Providing capacity building programs for women to enhance their chances to become independent and vocal is also critical for equity and security in society.
However, perhaps one of the most meaningful comments we heard from our interlocutors from the MENA region was, at the end of our successive consultations, how they felt heard. We learned about the meaning of creating a “relating field” for women to be seen and heard beyond their expertise to allow for “care communities” to develop beyond assumptions and borders, listening to each other and allowing for our differences to be a strength rather than a weakness in community.
Despite all international conventions and processes to guarantee the principle of equality and the elimination of all forms of violence and discrimination against women, the historical exclusion of women and gender inequalities continue worldwide and affect the field of security and the viability of peace in the long term. Listening to Iraqi women, we understood how the role of women may be used for political wins in Iraq. For instance, women’s quota provided by laws and measures enshrined in the Constitution was a means to win seats in areas where it was difficult for a man with limited votes to win a parliamentary seat. Similarly, women leadership was often confined to issues of women and family affairs within existing political structures. Yet, the role of quota, albeit used and abused, has been instrumental for women to participate in political life.
Iraqi women often face a lack of trust from political forces in society. They are likely to be requested to abandon their feminist political agendas, and endorse patriarchal standards of political activities. They also tend to lack economic resources to access positions of power. Moreover, women in Iraq face challenges related to gender disparities, for instance restrictions in their ability to travel alone and going out without an escort. Finally, they face multiple forms of gender-based violence, from psychological violence through mockery to the threat of scandals around their personal lives on social media. Technology is often used against women with fabricated evidence to undermine or blackmail them.
From government structures to political parties, from civil society to the international community, women seek a safe civic space were dialogue and proper consultation can take place, where women stories and expertise can freely contribute to an equitable and sustainable environment. Without it, building trust and ensuring that the future structures offer equal opportunities to women in both the public and private spheres, including the security apparatus, will remain challenging.
As WIIS Brussels, we stand ready to pursue our Consultations on security and nurture dialogue with women networks interested in redefining security for all in today’s fragmented international environment. We are committed to offering a “relating field” to build genuine “care communities” refraining from a normative approach telling others how to do things. Yet, invariably, we face a desire from women in our consultations to take this dialogue beyond our meaningful exchange and translate it into further tangible action. Much healing is yet needed. Collective trauma begs for a human-centered approach with compassion, beside conventional action plans and result-oriented approaches. Furthermore, supporting a homegrown healing process may allow for a broader and deeper sense of security to take root.
From Ukrainian women we learned a lot as well. We heard Ukrainian voices who responded “yes” when asked whether they felt secure in their country. We got to appreciate how for them the feeling of insecurity was greater before the 2022 Russian invasion. With the invasion, Ukrainians women who stayed in the country moved into resilience building and felt empowered, teaching each other how to face the aggressor, building a new and different defence sector to act and go beyond their feeling of despair. We also listened to the contrasting experiences of Ukrainian women outside of the country. These women often experienced an inability to step into action facing extreme feelings of helplessness, even numbness.
Ukrainian women also spoke about “resilience taking over security” in the country, and about citizens renegotiating their social contract with the State, as a traditional provider of security. The initiative from some women staying in Ukraine to face the Russian aggression, and confront their own physical and psychological security needs, has had far reaching consequences.
The type of security threats that exist in today’s environment where people are faced with war, but also unconventional challenges, from pandemics, climate change, terrorism, information manipulation, to scarcity of resources means that the usual providers of security – States, Alliances and International Organizations – may have to candidly accept that they may no longer be able to provide absolute security to their citizens. People may have to settle for relative security from traditional providers, and seek additional, more personal means to feel safe.
As WIIS Brussels embarked in various consultations with women from conflict zones, we wondered whether our reflection would differ from that of women from other countries and regions, faced with very different settings from our own. So far, we have learned more about our ability to connect than from our differences.
Whatever their countries of origin and their security circumstances, the women we consulted throughout 2022 helped us identify what we had in common. Together we created a safe space to network in a meaningful way. Embracing our diversity, we connected nurturing an open exchange, listened intently, related beyond expertise, focused on healing before acting, all while building resilience and developing compassion. Diversity can lead to peace rather than friction if it is met with compassion, kindness and deepened understanding. The approach we take is just as important – if not more than the result we seek.
As our approach to security is fast evolving, our ability to feel secure is becoming ever more complex. Responsible policy making and traditional security providers will continue to play a key role towards a more secure world. Nevertheless, the role of communities and networks is transformative. It calls the status quo into question in a complementary and peaceful manner. As WIIS Brussels, we are seized with this opportunity. WIIS Brussels Consultation on Women and Security will continue in 2023.
 In 2020, WIIS Brussels choose to lead with a new initiative putting people first, and focusing on two pillars: “community” leading with compassion, and “connectivity” among people harnessed by technology. The Association focused its activities with three clear priorities: training and mentoring the next generation; developing a new platform with WIIS Voices – its podcast; and establishing a new “creative security table”.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities they represent.
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