"Words like torches in a sea of fog"

Written by Stefano Cisternino

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17 June 2021

Meet Erik Melander: Exploring the feminist gap and stripping war of its glory

Erik Melander is a professor within the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. He has spent his career researching the construction and relation between gender, politics, and violence.

You never forget your first interview, and I was delighted to do mine with Erik. As I had attended his lectures during my student days at Uppsala, I was familiar with his position on the destructive role masculinity can play within society and how it might pose a critical obstacle to achieving sustainable peace – and I was looking forward to delving deeper.

We had planned to discuss his recent paper, which examined the relationship between gender equality and peaceful attitudes. It compared China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and the USA, and argued why collective feminist values might have a core role in securing lasting peace.

Erik greeted me warmly from his cosy Swedish office. And we immediately begin differentiating between the gender gap and the feminist gap, and their separate roles regarding long-lasting peace.

“There is a tendency, if you ask men and women about their views on foreign policy, defence spending and various other views on violence and militarism; then you usually find that women tend to have more peaceful views than men – as an average, and this is me generalising – but this is the so-called gender gap regarding attitudes to violence and foreign policy.”

While many other studies also conclude that women hold more peaceful ideas; this concept is used to argue polar-opposite policy implications.

One side argues that “this shows why it’s important to empower women, to include them in foreign policy decision-making – because they are more peaceful”. While the other states this is the exact reason why women can’t be included: “Because they are too soft, emotional, and they cannot be the hard political decision-makers, which is a necessity.”

The existence of these opposing ideas leads Erik to conclude that it is feminist values that divide the camps, rather than a simplistic man versus woman dynamic. He elaborates:

“This gap is explained by another gap. It is explained by “people’s attitudes towards feminist values”, meaning that both men and women who are more positive about gender equality, agree with various feminist statements and are more progressive also tend to be more peaceful – both for men and for women.”

This would mean the ‘gender gap’ (defined as a biological sex divide) disappears and is replaced instead by the ‘feminist gap’. A narrative which reconstructs perception that some men are peaceful too, and highlights that gendering peaceful values is not helpful.

Erik wrote in 2015: “Thirty-five years have passed since more than a century of bloody wars came to an end in East Asia. But problems over historical grievances – especially between China and Korea on the one hand and Japan on the other – and the ongoing power transition between China and the United States are two issues that threaten peace in East Asia.” As Asia has undergone a remarkable shift from being a war-torn to a relatively peaceful region, I wonder if a strong masculine culture or resistance to feminism could risk East Asia’s peace?

Consequently, I ask Erik how the concepts of feminism or attitudes to violence could help to secure a deeper and longer-lasting peace for East Asia?

Erik carefully notes the ambitious scope of my question. Then suggests that the first thing to do is demilitarise conceptions of masculinity. Meaning nationalism and war need to become less glorified.

“For as long as people still view war as something glorious, as a rational foreign policy, and that geographical expansion is a good thing, then military violence and force are legitimised. But if people start to think less in this way – and especially men. When domination roles in military service and war are no longer perceived as glorious or as a good thing; then a foundation for a deeper peace will be much stronger”

However, some parts of society are more likely to glorify war, which can sometimes be seen as a generational divide. Those who defend traditional values and roles of men and women typically being older. Perhaps they fear emasculation; a risk to their prominent role within the family or society. Whatever their reason, opposition to gender equality can sometimes incite backlash, which then prevents effective change and drives political tensions and violence. In extreme cases, fear may be exploited by radical movements, which respond with violent methods, contributing to further violence, imbalance and reduced security.

But even when a progressive step forwards leads to a backlash, that may cause two steps backwards, the big picture is still one of hope. Erik concludes:

“There are big forces that favour gender equality and more progressive societies generally. Such as increased life expectancy, reduced fertility levels, availability of contraceptives, and other things like this mean that, almost inevitably, women will start to play a greater role in all spheres of society compared to the least developed countries or where we were in Sweden 150 years ago.
These changes and the other great forces of society changes will favour a more gender equal society. Unless of course it is derailed by catastrophic factors like climate change, the general trend will continue to be towards a more affluent society – one where people have longer lives, have more freedom, and where gender relations become more equal over time.
But it is also important that war is less glorified and society perceives it as less useful.”

With this remark, I realise we have returned to our earlier conversation. Step one: strip war and violence from their glory. Step two: a gender-equal society? I hope it’s as simple as that.


Interested in learning more about Professor Erik Melander’s research? Read his research summary here.

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