(In)Visibility of a Collective Threat: Women’s Issues under the Securitization Theory

Abhijeet Narayanan, Astha Wagle, Ria Totlani & Sonam Gonpo

Source: Setopati

“An analysis of the Securitisation theory reveals that it is necessary for agents to distance themselves from the gendered elements of their movement to successfully securitize an issue that disproportionately affects women.”

The picture showcases a stark contrast – on one side, Nepali activists protest the state’s inadequate response to the growing threat of sexual violence in the country, and on the other, an all-female unit of the police, representing this very state, monitors the proceedings. The activists are performing the piece, ‘The Rapist is You,’ first performed outside the Supreme Court of Chile by the feminist group Las Tesis on November 25th 2019 to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Hinsliff, 2020). Since then, the piece has found its way to 400 cities including Mexico City, Istanbul, and Kolkata, apart from spaces like the courtroom where Harvey Weinstein was on trial (Hinsliff, 2020). The performance piece embodies a universal language of protest that connects the experiences of survivors across the world. This essay will argue that female activists are agents rather than mere survivors in the way they navigate social circumstances before looking at the space (or lack thereof) occupied by issues of gender within theoretical International Relations through an analysis of the Securitisation theory.

Through significant intellectual and emotional labour, feminist scholars have pointed out the two traps that conventional analysis of gender minorities falls into. First, it singles out members of these groups as mere survivors of their circumstances, focusing largely on events happening to them rather than decisions made by them (Utas, 2005; Trisko Darden, 2015). Second, it disproportionately studies ‘exceptional’ cases which violate gendered stereotypes such as instances of violent women within conflict zones (Utas, 2005; Trisko Darden, 2015). ‘The Rapist is You’ demonstrations represent a fundamental exercise of female agency. The activists chose to engage in this particular theatrical performance due to its message that rape is weaponised by patriarchal structures to systematically suppress women, the ease with which it could be shared through social media and copied across the world, and the feeling that performing it gave them. Moreover, they prioritized this above the potential harm of state repression and backlash from patriarchal institutions — something the activists of Mexico, Turkey, and India faced in varying degrees. However, viewing this performance as an act of agency serves only as a starting point to examine this protest and the issues it raises within the context of IR theory.

Within IR, securitization theory stands out with respect to its view of social security. An issue can be successfully securitized only if the mass validates and supports the securitization move, recognizing the perceived existential threat to the referent object (Hirschauer, 2014). If we were to analyse this movement within the realm of the securitisation theory, women would be the referent objects, while women protestors would be the securitizing agent. The existential threat is systemic violence against women across different countries in multiple forms like an increasing number of femicide and rapes. Unlike other securitization, the protestors are demanding recognition of the constantly growing threat of violence against women, and for structural reform and legislation to address the issue. While some states such as Nepal did hear the voices of the protestors and mediated a dialogue, most states such as Turkey and Mexico saw the protesting women themselves as a threat that needed to be contained (DW, 2020). Why then, aren’t women’s issues successfully securitized within securitisation theory even when women across the world face a collective and existential threat?

There cannot be successful securitization if enough people do not support a cause even if it represents a case of collective security. Therefore, securitizing gender is difficult as not all women see the state structures as regressive and oppressive, or agree with the sentiments of the protest in the first place. Individual or even a collective of women is an amalgamation of identities. In India, while protestors were calling the Hindurashtra rapist, there were other women publicly disagreeing with the claim (Mitra, 2020). The nationalistic-Hindu identity subsumed gender. Second, some women might not be able to vocalise their concerns as part of a movement due to the consequences it may follow. The centrality of speech-act in securitization theory ignores the social sanction one may face through securitisation and other representations of threats such as a survivor’s body (Charrett, 2008). Third, identities are also subsumed by present roles and responsibilities. The picture shows the dual identities of the women police, who are the victims of state oppression yet represent the state in monitoring the demonstration. While the state may be seen as showing sensitivity in this case by deploying women officers to overlook an all-female protest, the state is able to convey a symbolic message by showing the women police as an antithesis of the female protestors at the site of the demonstrations.

Since women as a whole cannot be referent objects, securitizing the root of the problem rather than the end results could be a viable alternative. Nepali protestors are attempting to do this as one of their demands is the amendment of the existing definition of rape, currently only women and children can be victims of rape, and make the definition inclusive of all gender (Khadgi, 2020). Securitizing the root cause could lead to successful securitization as the movement would be able to attract support from individuals, irrespective of their gender. But in that case, would it still qualify as securitization of a women’s issue? This reveals a key paradox – that it is necessary for agents to distance themselves from the gendered elements of their movement to successfully securitize an issue that disproportionately affects women. While gendered issues could theoretically be securitised this way, this only reinforces the need for IR theories that directly consider the issues of social groups such as women.

The Chilean protest has led to a series of protests across the world with different agendas, but the instigative force remains that of violence against women. The agency of women has been undeniably strong throughout the protest. The transnational element of the protest proves that female activists across the world share a common political will to challenge oppressive social and state structures.

The state’s firm stature in ignoring the agency of women or trivialising women’s issues can be analysed through the problems associated with threat categorization within the securitisation theory. Having women as the referent object has made it hard for women’s issues to be successfully securitised as the identity of and the roles performed by women are far from homogenous. This culminates in an unfortunate prescription if female activists wish to securitise women’s issues – one that asks them to distance their identity from the threat as the best attempt towards successful securitization.


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