Be Curious, Do Research: An Interview with Professor Cynthia Enloe

Be Curious, Do Research: An Interview with Professor Cynthia Enloe

The following is an edited version of a conversation with PRAXIS

How do you define human security?

I have a really broad notion of security. Something I’ve learned is that people are very insecure in a lot of different ways. One really has to be curious about what makes somebody feel insecure, or what makes somebody feel secure. I think unless you’re curious, you won’t actually know what that person’s sense of security is because you don’t know what their insecurity is like. So, the first thing about human security is that one has to really listen to people to find out what makes them feel secure or insecure. It’s not a given.

The other thing to think about is about the word ‘human.’ There are some things that all humans share. Still, women and men can experience security and insecurity so differently. As a feminist, I never take “human” as my starting point. I’m always interested in a more intersectional and especially an intersectionally feminist curiosity about what an individual human person is experiencing. So, curiosity, I think, is where I start when I investigate both “human” and “security.”

At your panel at Fletcher’s November 2019 Conference on Gender and International Affairs, I remember your saying that, “patriarchy explains the working of power that foment certain kinds of violence against certain kinds of people.” How do you believe this relates to human security?

If somebody feels they are threatened or intimidated by any kind of violence, including psychological violence, then they cannot feel secure. Feminists who work on issues of domestic violence have taught us that you can feel profoundly insecure in the place called your “home.” Non-feminists, people who don’t think about patriarchy, are very likely to slide, I think lazily, into the presumption that home is a naturally secure place. It’s not secure, though, if you’re a woman who is living with a violent partner inside that home.

So, I think, we need to ask: “To what extent is the person whose security we’re trying to assess subjected to the intimidating or limiting processes of patriarchy?” This could mean that person is non-binary, or a gay man, and almost certainly, someone who identifies as a girl or a woman. Patriarchy has to be talked about, has to be assessed and monitored. The existence of patriarchy shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it does have to be investigated in order to understand violence—both its looming presence and its actual existence. A woman who has been hit once by a partner, for example, is likely never to feel totally secure again in the same space as that partner lives. Without talking about patriarchy, I think one is really naive about security and insecurity. That’s what I’ve learned.

I didn’t used to ask that question. I wasn’t always a feminist. I was pretty naïve when I wasn’t a feminist, but now I do always ask: “How is patriarchy operating here?” Patriarchy depends on and perpetuates inequalities of power. If you find it, you are looking at the ripe potential for intimidation.

Policymakers who work on human security issues often talk about empowering women. I am interested in your perspective on this rhetoric, what genuine empowerment of women around human security might look like, and whether empowerment is even the right word.

“Empowerment” may not be the right word. In fact, one should start with security. If you’re not genuinely secure, it’s very hard to have a voice, it’s very hard to be genuine in your expressions of your own assessments, and it usually means you don’t have the resources to even investigate the causes of your insecurity. That doesn’t mean a woman has to wait until she’s fully secure to speak up, to insist that she be heard. But it does mean that speaking up when your security is so tentative, so fragile, takes enormous courage. However, many of my friends and colleagues who work on gender empowerment for big organizations say that people at the top talk the talk, but at the middle and the bottom, where it matters, they don’t walk the walk. I also don’t think many of these people in organizations realize that increasing all women’s empowerment will lessen their own authority.

What do they think empowerment looks like?

Oh, often it’s imagined to be something that will not effect them, their organization, their status, their budget, their reputation. Take the commonly sought goal of creating more equal household relationships among poor farmers in rural areas, for instance. Too often, development organizations’ leaders and staff people think that achieving that increased intra-household gender equality will have no upward, reverse trickle effect. Perhaps many development workers and their supervisors have learned to talk the talk, but they don’t really know what empowerment looks like in its full repercussions. When they do face it – that is, when marginalized women become more confident, less deferential, less patient – for instance, as a result of a local #MeToo Movement or a local reproductive rights movement, or during a garment workers’ or electronic factory workers’ strike – it can be a rude awakening to outside empowerment advocates, and they may not like it.

These same empowerment proponents, perhaps, have a very “pastel” understanding of empowerment because they’ve never really been curious about what it will actually produce. That’s not true of all proponents, but there are too many in large development, banking and humanitarian organizations who seem to imagine that their own lives won’t change if their mission to empower the most vulnerable women is fulfilled. They imagine that they won’t have to think differently about how they run refugee camps, that they won’t have to re-distribute their very tight budgets, and that they won’t have to re-imagine their own place in the organization. If they imagined any of those outcomes, they might not even talk the talk!

It’s because too many people working in empowerment projects think they can talk the talk without any of those repercussions that they are willing to put ‘women’s empowerment’ on their checklist. That sounds very cynical, and I don’t mean it’s true of every organization. Still, practitioners need to candidly assess whether they talk the talk simply in order to win the next contract or to sound good to future employers or donors. To walk the walk, one needs to be pretty harsh on oneself, and probably needs to have a good feminist friend who will warn you, “Hey, look out. I think you’re beginning to just talk the talk.”

At last November’s Gender Conference, you mentioned that scholars and practitioners must be constantly self-reflective. How might that apply to those of us working on human security issues?

That brings us back again to what we’re not curious about. I’m struck by what I’m not curious about. Usually, somebody has to wake me up, make me realize what I’ve never bothered to ask. For example, I am realizing now that I’ve gone too long not asking questions about environmental insecurity – and how it’s gendered.

When the phrase ‘Human Security’ was first introduced, it didn’t sound serious, because it was anchored to militarized calculations. But now, all of you who study human security aren’t called flakey, you are at a point in history where you don’t have to explain the phrase. That can tempt you to not critically assess your understanding of it. In the early phase of any new concept, you have to justify it, so you’re more likely to assess it yourself. Now that “human security” has become a more established field, it’s a dangerous time. People in the field—or who aspire to be in the field—may not be as self-reflective, as tough on themselves and as curious as they should be about the assumptions underneath “human security.” Being curious should make us uncomfortable.

And where do we go with this discomfort?

Well, we should start sharing that discomfort with other people. We’re all working in organizations, so we really need ask our colleagues—and our superiors, though that’s harder—to wake up to what they – and we – haven’t been asking, haven’t been rigorously measuring. Sometimes that means seeking funds for gender research that the organization never thought they (we) needed to do – on sea rise, on bus transport, on radio listening, on caring for post-war wounded.

That research on gender assumptions, criteria, and impacts needs to be done by somebody with gender analytical skills, not just by the woman in the organization, the typical fallback. I’ve talked to a lot of women in big organizations who have been assigned to be the gender officer despite their lack of training in gender analysis.

Most superiors don’t want to hear that we need more research before we go forward because more research requires time, person-power, and money. But I think we do need to know more about what we face and then, later, what gender consequences (often not predicted) our work produces.

I want to come back to something you said earlier about how once you ask these questions, if you’re in a big organization, you have to be prepared to take steps that the research findings point to – for instance, to change how you are structuring refugee camps. I’m interested in why organizations are so resistant to doing the sort of questioning that might prompt new approaches.

Most organizations are pretty set in their ways. Their leaders and staff people like missions that allow them to look good – especially to their donors. So they select the matrixes and the assessment criteria that make them look as though they’ve reached their mission goals. If you, equipped with your new feminist-informed questions, come along and say that those matrixes make invisible how girls are fairing compared to boys, and thus the organization needs to change its evaluation criteria, the people at the top will tell you that donors love the results the organization shows – for example, about the organization’s programming for poor children.

In your fresh, gender-explicit assessment, you’ve eschewed the common merging of boys and girls into the category of “children.” Thus, your gender-explicit assessment no longer hides any inequalities in schooling outcomes – or in health or caloric outcomes – of boys compared to girls. Your gender-explicit research makes your organization’s program results look less successful. And that could dampen donors’ enthusiasm. What then will the senior people in your organization do with your findings?

When you point out that your research has found that the organization’s current assessment criteria are not realistic because they hide the gendering of inequalities and insecurities in your organization’s programs, you will have to push hard. That calls for building alliances and probably being able to alter the understandings of your donors, which your superiors may resist. But, that’s what it means to change an organization. It’s really hard. You, though, are at Fletcher. Of course you can do that hard work. But to do it, you have to make alliances, you have to have evidence, you have to have good research processes that can show that no, our current assessment processes are just not up to par.

And what advice would you give to human security students who are confronting these questions, and working within their own discomfort?

Well, first, try to see your discomfort as valuable, not as embarrassing. Second, share your discomfort – its causes – with other people. Don’t just try to cope with it by yourself. Do your research in a group, too. It’s harder for your colleagues and superiors to dismiss a group of people who have derived their uncomfortable findings from solid research. Some people will still try to dismiss you, of course, but it’s harder to dismiss carefully produced evidence, and it’s harder to dismiss a group of committed people who are in solidarity around evidence.

You know the famous slogan of activists: Don’t agonize, organize. I’d add to that: Be gender curious, do gender research.

Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor at Clark University. Among her 15 books are “Bananas, Beaches and Bases,” “Maneuvers” and the newest, “The Big Push.” Her works have been translated into Korean, Japanese, Turkish and French, and she has appeared on BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera and in Ms. Magazine. Her name appears on the Wall of Justice at the ICC in the Hague.

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