Women activism and political impact

“Becoming political activists is extremely empowering.”

I heard this statement last night from Michal Barak, an Israeli lawyer who is among the founders of the new organization Women Wage Peace. Michal came to Cambridge with the Palastinian-Israeli social worker Samah Salaime Egbariya,  to discuss their experience of despair during the Gaza war last summer and to tell about their initiative of a women-led peace movement in Israel, which has gathered momentum towards the upcoming general elections in March.

Women wage peace is a non-partisan movement aimed at raising awareness among politicians and the general public of the need for a permanent peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. It gathers over 8,000 women who share a commitment for peace, if nothing else. WIthout offering a  specific solution to the middle east conflict, the organization invites citizens and politicians to engage in fruitful discussions and eventually negotiations for a peace agreement (rather than temporary settlement). I’ve been a member of this organization since the summer, and followed their activities, mostly online.

What is the value of women peace movement? This question has two parts: first, what is the value of women as political activists, and second, why found another non-partisan movement when decision-making is evidently centred in the parties and the parliament.

In reply to the first question, women activists said that they felt more at ease to express their view in feminine company, because the reaction of men to their ideas about politics, security and military issues was dismissive and impatient. They felt that despite the fact that there are leading women in Israeli politics, a woman is not taken as seriously as men. Often, women are not invited to debates on national security and politics (they take more active part in debates on social issues). A women-led movement would allow women to express themselves freely.

However, can we, and should we stretch this argument to say that women have a distinct voice in political debate, that is fundamentally different from men’s? Do they bring a different vision, shaped by their experience as women? I can easily think about women who were political activists for a variety of causes: first of all feminism and gender equality, but also racial equality, world federation, European peace, and much more. Would their action be more effective within a female-led group? Some women say that they feel more comfortable to express themselves among other women. While I can easily identify with this feeling, I strongly believe that the challenge remains to go out there and establish the feminine voice as a legitimate one in a mixed society, as a representative of a particular worldview and not of women as such. While there is nothing inherently wrong in a group of women calling for change, I am concerned by the argument that women feel more comfortable to act and speak out among women. This may perpetuate, rather than help overcome, their difficulties.

The answer to the second question, whether there is need for another peace movement, is, for me, more evident. Yes. In the current situation, an organization that groups people from different backgrounds, beliefs, religions and places, around a shared goal of peace, is doubtfully important. The growing despair in the Israeli public about possible solutions for the conflict calls for a grassroots movement promoting change. Yet for me the final test remains the movement’s ability to impact decision making in the parliament. Its activities should go well beyond the online sphere or the crossroads manifestations. As much as one wants to talk about change from below, the social protest of 2011 shows that effective change can only be attained within political institutions. Only when elected to parliament did the protest leaders have the power to influence socio-economic politics.

Last night was inspiring and encouraging. The women who decided to dedicate time and energies to promote peace deserve more media and public attention. But in my view, they deserve that not because they are women, but because their cause is right.

women wage peace

Reflections on feminism for the International Women’s Day

Today I listened to a special broadcast on the classical music radio channel. An orchestra of women played a concert for international women’s day. The presenter introduced the soloists and said that for the benefit of those listening to the concert on the radio, he’d like to add that the musicians tonight are “stunningly beautiful”, and the first violinist is a “charming redhead”.

In a few words, he managed to make the whole event rather pointless.

This seemingly innocuous episode symbolizes in my mind some of the greatest problems women have to tackle today in order to realize their professional aspirations. The musicians in this orchestra were evidently successful, ambitious and talented career women who managed in their own way to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and attain a respectable and possibly stable job that reflects their abilities. Nonetheless, on the very occasion when their achievements are supposed to be celebrated, they are confronted again with the same typical stereotypes. An orchestra of women becomes in the presenter’s complementing words a flock of artistic amazons, a band of beautiful sirens that gathered to bewitch the culture aficionados. When have we heard that the male first violinist is a very handsome young blond? What presenter in their good mind would compliment a male conductor on his elegant hair cut? It is of course unimaginable.

After the International Women Day, which to me was just like any other day, I am inclined to believe that our educational efforts should not be pointed primarily at convincing women that they are as talented as man. Instead, we should aim at changing the social conventions of femininity and ‘re-conceptualize’ women in men’s mind as equal human beings. Every girl knows that beauty can open doors (and get you free drinks). But for the benefit of society as a whole, and our own professional ambitions, we should all take part in this mental change and demand that women should not be immediately associated with the same old feminine attributes like beauty, motherly affection, tenderness, patience and more.

women's day

It may seem a matter of little consequence. But to my mind, the different attitudes of society to men and women remain a real obstacle even if the legal and formal limits to gender equality have been lifted. In academia, we see a tendency to consider women as better teachers, administrators, welfare officers, but less as cutting edge researchers. Women are encouraged to explore ‘soft’ topics like gender studies or social history. A successful historian told me once that as a student in the 1960s she realized that if she was to be a professional academic she must specialized in political history and not gender or cultural studies because these were too feminine. This statement reflects both on what was considered scientifically serious, and what was deemed appropriate for a women historian. Perhaps today the situation has changed, but on the road to gender equality, women still face many difficult choices rising from new options available in the private and professional dimensions of their life. Moreover, new freedoms come with new burdens. Women are required to take life-changing decisions about having and taking care of children in the most crucial years for career-building. Men are relatively free, and perhaps oblivious of these concerns. This should be changed.

The point is that while the role of women has changed and expanded, social conventions have not really changed accordingly. A better society depends not only on  women’s achievements, but on society’s in general. Gender equality regards men as well. There is still a long way to go, but the change cannot come from a celebration of women’s achievements. Change will come when the barriers of social convention will be lifted and both men and women will understand their different qualities, mutual concerns and common goals. Then we shall have an International Humanity Day, rather than 1 Women Day and 364 Men Day. 

Political realism and history

Last month I participated in an Italian conference on political realism. A group of fifty-strong Italian academics and researchers, we spent three days, 8 hours per day, in a beautiful monastery in Perugia debating the meaning of political realism. The line-up was ambitious: we were each given 15 minutes to make our original and insightful contribution to thinking about political realism. Topics ranged from Thucydides to Strauss, from Mosca to Machiavelli, from Hobbes to Aron, via many other thinkers who contributed more or less to shaping the idea of ‘political realism’.

My talk focused on political realism and geopolitics. When my turn to speak arrived, at the end of the first day, the audience seemed a bit fatigued by the day’s intense intellectual labours. To brighten up the discussion, I argued that we, as historians of political thought, should reconsider the usefulness of ‘political realism’ as a category of political analysis. Possibly, ‘political realism’ is too vague and general a category to provide any insightful, instructive and innovative historical and conceptual knowledge. Many past thinkers embellished their arguments with the title of ‘political realism’. But among this diversified group of realist thinkers – even the ones we’ve discussed at the conference – there was a plurality of incompatible arguments and conclusions.

For example, in mid-century American geopolitics, many claimed to speak for ‘political realism’ in their geopolitical writings. Both Owen Lattimore and Nicholas Spykman argued that they were realists because they based their political proposals on empirical observations of the geopolitical world and power relations within it. However, Spykman thought a realist political theory should recognize the real power relations in the world: American political global supremacy. Lattimore similarly thought political realism should be based on reality, which for him meant a plurality of communities, societies and states. Spykman’s world order aimed at accommodating the new American world power, while Lattimore’s aimed at safeguarding the world’s diversity and pluralism. It is easy to judge – anachronistically – whose ideas were more realistic, in sense of political realization and practicality. But this is beside my point. I was interested in showing how ‘political realism’ could mean anything and nothing, even for people who write at the same time and place in similar academic environment. Thus, perhaps we should be wary of using the term too generally, without grounding it in historicised definitions and intellectual context.

Despite the late hour, my intervention ignited a long debate. Some were concerned with giving up on ‘political realism’ – it seemed like a basic concept in politics which should not be abandoned so easily (not to mention the possible implications for the whole conference, whose topic and title were now at risk). Others were relieved to find that many shared their doubts about the viability of ‘political realism’ as an eternal, cross-cultural and cross-temporal category. Perhaps instead of one ‘political realism’ there should be many diverse realisms, not necessarily compatible with each other.

Yet not everyone was keen to give up, and some started to look for a mega-definition of political realism. One proposal went along the lines of ‘political theory based on observation of reality’, which, in its turn, seemed to some too vague as to include almost any attempt at thinking about politics, including Thomas More’s Utopia and Kant’s Perpetual Peace which emerged as a critique on reality of their times. If it wasn’t for dinner, we would have gone on and on forever.

At the end of the day, it was a stimulating and diversified conference exploring ideas from different places, times and contexts. Intentionally or not, the uncovering of the thousand aspects of ‘political realism’ showed that it could never be assigned one clear meaning.


How to be a public intellectual?

Recently, academics in IR, political philosophy and history seem more concerned than usual with questions like: how to make an impact, how to be ‘public intellectuals’? One of the reasons may be the upcoming REF, the new framework for assessment of academic work which gives some weight to its public ‘impact’. Perhaps this should not surprise us, at a time when exchange of information is made relatively easy, between the public, the government and the academia. Everyone is just one email away. At the same time, academics find themselves challenged to justify the relevance of their research, often simply by the eternal question ‘what is it good for?’, especially if public funding is requested.Nowadays, it has become almost commonplace in the field of Political Science and International Relations that abstract theorizing is not enough – a concrete, practical insight about our world is usually necessary. (Philosophers are still quietly tolerated, but who knows for how long).

This week I’ve been to two academic conferences revolving around the figure of the ‘public intellectual’. Yet based in different disciplines they proposed different dilemmas, and solutions, to the social role of academics today. At the British International Studies Association annual conference, the main question was how academics and political practitioners should interact. Should IR academics advice politicians? Should they write their studies in view of future policymaking? Should they offer ‘big ideas’ or specific tips? Should IR experts take public political stance even at risk of jeopardizing their career by being controversial?

The engagement with the public and the political establishment, by ‘speaking truth to power’, was depicted as an intellectual duty. But most people agreed that relevance to policy was not sufficient to make good research. Moreover, many reminded that ‘power’ was also corrupting, and should be resisted and criticized. Is it possible to criticize effectively the same government that one counsels? Is a political position an intolerable intellectual bias? There were more doubts than conclusions.

Similar questions were raised in Oxford, at the New York Review of Books conference on Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams and Stuart Hampshire, where leading public intellectuals discussed the merits of past public intellectuals. Here, there were fewer doubts about the desirability of getting involved in public political debate. The political philosophers on stage were pretty comfortable in stating their views publicly beyond the academic sphere, in the hope that a politician would listen, and celebrated the capacity of Williams, Berlin and Hampshire to do so modestly, honestly and moderately.

Perhaps the picture they were painting was too rosy. Mark Lilla reminded that some ways of being public intellectuals were less than recommended or interesting: academics giving expert policy advice, accomplished academics giving general political visions, and, worse of all, experts contributing advice on other issues beyond their competence. But there was a public role for the caring academics.

The ‘good’ public intellectual should give their views as a well-educated citizen, first among equals, and should not worry if the policy-makers did not take up the hint. It was curious that in the two events, two Oxford women panelists encouraged intellectuals to get publicly involved and thus assume political responsibility: Prof. Ngaire Woods of the Government School, and Baroness Helena Kennedy, the principle of Mansfield College. Both keep one foot out of the academia (in law and government). They argued that public involvement was a matter of individual political responsibility, and called for more intellectual courage among their peers.

At the end of the week, I wondered why the philosophers were less wary than the IR scholars regarding their role as ‘public intellectuals’. Perhaps, the philosophers were more confident of their own stamina against the corruption of power, or less aware of possible perils? Or perhaps the philosophers saw their role as mainly in relation with the general public, and not the policy-makers, and thus more benign and educative in nature? Raymond Aron, a public intellectual par excellence, always felt his ‘public’ engagements undermined his ‘intellectual’ production: by focusing on journalistic writings he did not produce the great philosophical works he saw himself as capable of. Arguably, the balance between the ‘public’ and the ‘intellectual’ is the real challenge, which very few truly master without compromising one or the other.

Reflections on history and theory

The first day of our Oxbridge Conference ( was an interesting and stimulating exchange of ideas not only between the two universities but also between two disciplines, Political Theory and History. Our aim was to bring together these two ways of thinking about the global. And I feel we did create a conversation between researchers who use different methods to look at the same problem – how to think about the global  – from distinct viewpoints. Yet I could not but notice, despite everyone’s enthusiasm and curiosity, that the encounter remained somewhat of a challenge. The historians readily accepted the need for a more theoretical background for their research, and the political theorists welcomed the historical background for theirs. But some differences could not be bridged. The theoreticians demanded that at the bottom line should be a reflection on ‘political relevance’, on what practitioners and politicians could do with the historial narrative to move beyond the present towards a better future. For the historians, of course, the questions ‘what is this good for’ is misguided. However, for me, the debate between history and theory persists as an underlying current in both disciplines. History should not necessarily be prescriptive, and theory does not need historical grounding to be inspiring. But both would benefit from a closer interaction, not to justify and legitimize an intellectual trajectory, but to find stimulating problems and inspiring paths towards new ideas.

I look forward to our second day, 7 June in St Antony’s college in Oxford, to continue this reflection on the interaction between the history and theory of the ‘global’.

Globalism and Foreignness

I am very happy to announce the second edition of the Oxbridge Critical Exchange conference in intellectual history and political theory.

Our first session will take place on May 23, at 9.30-16, in the Alison Richard Building at the University of Cambridge.

The very promising programme can be found here

Dr Shruti Kapila, Faisal Devji and Meera Sabarantam will also participate in our discussions.

I much look forward to this conference!