Every week since February, Canadians have been inundated with reports of sexual assault and misconduct within the highest ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). At the time of writing, updates continue to trickle out through the media, painting a grim picture of who knew what and when, and still failed to act.
From politicians to establishment feminists to even progressive media outlets, the solution to sexual violence in the CAF has been consistently posited as a “fundamental culture shift.” But how do you shift a culture that is at its core predicated on the exclusive right to carry out state-sponsored violence?
In the liberal imagination, the military has been a battleground for gender (and then gay, and then trans) equality for decades. The issue of military sexual violence arose in the public consciousness in 1998, when Maclean’s ran a cover story on the topic, decrying a military culture that treats women as “little more than game for sexual predators.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Mary Deschamps’ scathing review, published in 2015, suggested that not much had changed. Six years after the launch of Operation Honour, aimed “to prevent and address sexual misconduct,” we still seem to be having the same conversations.
The revelations of this year can be understood against the backdrop of #MeToo and amidst six years of a particular brand of feminism touted by the Trudeau government. Less than a decade ago, feminism was a taboo word, yet here we are today, and not only is everyone and everything ‘feminist,’ much of the politicking about sexual violence in the CAF has devolved into proving or disproving politicians’ feminist credentials.
In these debates, feminism is positioned as an identity instead of a framework for viewing power structures in the world. This state-sponsored, corporate-funded, media-amplified feminism is based on the false premise of liberal equality—that women can earn, invest, spend, govern, and, in this case, kill, their way to liberation.
The problem with liberal feminism is not only that it is premised on accumulation as opposed to redistribution, but that it also completely lacks an analysis of the nation state, which, as feminist postcolonial theorists have long argued, views the Western woman as the sole subject of politics. That is why liberal feminists can acknowledge and even warn against the harms of police to women in sexual or domestic violence incidents in Canada, yet fail to apply the same understanding about military violence against women in the Global South.
Feminists are not the only group that can display hypocritical selectiveness in criticizing law enforcement. Today, as discussion about police divestment is now well within the mainstream, many in Canada support a radical rethink of the role of police in society (they may even criticize the Canada Border Services Agency or occasionally the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) but their resistance to state-sponsored violence ends at our borders.
Somehow, extrajudicial killings are unacceptable on Canadian soil but they are seen as only “collateral damage” elsewhere.
Because the military so often remains above scrutiny, the CAF sexual violence revelations have been characterized as yet another #MeToo story. Generally, for institutions, the #MeToo playbook unravels in a specific way: a very bad apple in the organization will be forced to resign, and other nefarious actors will be reformed through “systemic change,” which variously includes establishing a sexual harassment policy, strengthening HR practices, and creating “awareness” and “belonging.” The more “buy-in from the top,” the better—meaning, in a dramatic reversal of the history of the labour movement, it is the bosses that will be saving the workers through progressive measures of their own initiative and design.
While normally we should protest strongly against the oxymoron of “inclusive leadership” in favour of unionizing to fight these “leaders,” the military is not just any other workplace; it is, as Gerhard Kümmel and Paul Klein have written, a “social organization for the achievement of political aims through the threatened and actual use of armed force.”
Sexual violence in the military demonstrates the limits of liberal feminism. Indeed, while women have been permitted to serve in the CAF since 1985, their presence within the navy, army service battalions, and most air squadrons has not made the institution itself hospitable to them.
Calling for a “fundamental culture change” within the CAF, according to liberal feminists, includes tackling the masculinity of army culture, as though “masculinity” is an inherent, natural trait that leads men to commit acts of sexual assault, as opposed to being very much shaped and defined through violence external to gender.
As Elizabeth Mesok of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Basel writes, “By collapsing military sexual violence within a broader campaign for military women’s equality, rape is conceptualized as a violent action against women, rather than an act of gendered and militarized violence endemic to a hyperaggressive military culture.”
Liberal feminism has propogated the view that we can rid society of sexual violence if we all learn to ask for consent; if we all repeat “I believe you” enough times; if we all, one by one, participate in bystander intervention workshops.
To be sure, many are, rightfully, critical of the equity, diversity and inclusion industry, but we must also interrogate what I call the sexual violence prevention industry, one that promotes workshops and webinars that are supposed to educate people out of committing grave acts of gender-based violence. While these “educational” methods are dubious at the best of times, it is particularly delusional to think we can revoke the license to rape while maintaining the license to kill.
In our current neoliberal paradigm, we have detached means from ends in the service of the political and economic elite. Take a recent article in the Toronto Star, for example, where a trans soldier is quoted as saying that “the military is not benefitting from all of the talent they could be gaining from having a more inclusive workforce.”
Such appeals divorce “talent” and “skills” from the purpose they are put in service to. The more “diversity,” the bigger the “talent pool,” the better business will be. It is true for Big Law, Big Oil, Big Pharma. It is, apparently, also true in the case of the military.
This “knowledge economy”—the disposability of non-Western lives, and the limits of liberal equality—is the reason why the Canadian government has commissioned yet another investigation into sexual violence in the CAF without even considering to do the same about the victims of the CAF’s operations abroad.
It is why we can call for removing wellness checks from the purview of police departments but celebrate the military’s involvement in healthcare and vaccine distribution. It is why we can criticize MPs for interrupting survivors sharing their stories at the Standing Committee on the Status of Women meetings (as we should) without thinking about the women, men and children victimized by Canadian forces in Somalia, Afghanistan or Haiti, whose stories will likely never be told.
It is why we can appeal to intersectionality to push for an analysis of race and sexuality within the military yet, somehow, neglect to apply that analysis to Canada’s mission of liberating Afghan women from Afghan men. The CAF should have an independent body to deal with allegations of sexual violence, but will the victims of Canada’s warfare also be able to lodge complaints?
The lives lost in Canada’s wars are not collateral damage to Canadian women’s equality, not only because that is deeply unethical, but also because, even by liberal standards, women’s inclusion in the military has been a failed project. Survivors of sexual violence in the CAF, as well as disabled and traumatized soldiers, are also victims of Canada’s warfare. They deserve our support and justice. Yet, this justice cannot be contingent on glorifying militarism, supporting Canada’s foreign policy, or perpetuating the ruse of peacekeeping.
As it stands, we can expect that when we have a female Chief of Defence Staff—and we will—our media, progressive politicians, and establishment feminists will celebrate the shattering of a glass ceiling whose shards end up in the backs of Black and Brown bodies abroad.
The author would like to acknowledge the scholarship of Jasbir Puar and Chandra Mohanty on postcolonial and transnational approaches to feminism in informing her analysis in this piece.
Paniz Khosroshahy has a JD from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and previously completed her undergraduate studies at the Institute for Gender, Sexuailty and Feminist Studies at McGill University. Follow her on Twitter @PanizKhosro.