I was born in Turkey. My grandfather was a retired general who once worked at the NATO Headquarters. He was my hero; I loved listening to his stories and his interpretations of world events. The idea of protecting not only my country but also the world appealed to me so much that I wanted to be a military officer myself. Frankly, my grandfather was proud of my aspirations yet he was not comfortable; war was too much of an ugly business for a woman, I should aim for an academic career instead, he advised.
In Turkey, a NATO country, the military high schools do not admit women. Women can only join the army when they reach university, starting up to six years after their male peers. I wanted to be a military doctor, yet in the Turkish university entrance exams, as a woman, I needed to score twice as high as a man to enter the Gulhane Military Medical Academy (GATA). I was frustrated when my score was slightly lower than required (still significantly higher than what was expected from a male candidate) and I decided to pursue my ambitions in academia as my grandfather once suggested.
Now, I am teaching religion and politics, political violence and conflict resolution in the United States. The more I teach and study the concept of war, revolutions, alliances and conflicts, the more I notice the lack of the female voice, the absence of half the world from the security dialogues. I know that I am not alone; millions of women from around the world want to play an active role in the defense of their countries. UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889 have aimed at providing a platform for these voices, but without an institutional example to represent these ideals, these resolutions remain unfulfilled promises.
The transatlantic cooperation, as expressed in the institutional body of NATO, has been the symbol of innovation and no less than a trend-setter in defense policies. It is within the framework of the transatlantic cooperation that women can find their voice in defense and security matters with the hope that their equal involvement will make a significant difference in world affairs and constitute an example for their partners. Equal involvement, meaning fifty percent, is not unattainable or impractical, especially given that the new strategic concept focuses on cooperation, partnership, dialogue and constructive competition to counter threats like nuclear proliferation, terrorism and transnational crime.
Although the presence of female political leaders, ministers and officers is encouraging, this does not guarantee that female voices are heard. Within the framework of transatlantic cooperation, figures like Gitte Lillelund Bech, Carme Chacón Piqueras, Grete Faremo, Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright have been inspiring, but the percentage of women occupying managerial posts in NATO was still less than 30 percent in 2010. This percentage is significantly lower in the defense echelons of individual member countries. NATO, with its new strategic concept titled Active Engagement, Modern Defence, has the power to change this outlook. How can this 50/50 principle be integrated into the organization’s culture, hopefully to be mimicked by the member countries and their partners?
First, NATO should actively promote the recruitment of women to military positions in all its categories. This can be achieved through special NATO workshops and internships. The fields that lack female representation, including combat positions, should be targeted and the technical expertise and guidance should be provided. This is essential since in the military world the prevailing belief is that women, due to their nurturing quality, cannot serve in combat positions and under demanding conditions. Given the sexual violence in war settings, women sometimes physically go through much more than men do; they are already at the frontlines of the bloodiest battles. Millions of women fight for their lives, families and nations, as civilians or paramilitaries. There is no reason why this should be any different in military settings. Along those lines, NATO can use its socializing power and advise the member countries to remove any existing barriers that work against recruitment of women to the military.
Second, NATO should keep drawing attention to the capacity of women when it comes to sensitive operations, especially the ones that require one-on-one interaction with civilians. NATO acknowledges that “the complementary skills of both male and female personnel are essential for the operational effectiveness of NATO operations, especially in light of the increasing complexity of civil-military interaction, public relations and intelligence gathering”. The organization should provide special funding for projects in member countries that focus on the potential contributions of female officers to peacekeeping, conflict management and strategies of deterrence.
Third, although the contributions of the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives (NCGP) are valuable, it also runs the risk of portraying women as “the other”. Each division and agency in the organization can incorporate the ambition of equal representation; rather than being confined to an advisory role, NCGP can supervise the progress of each division/agency when it comes to gender mainstreaming. Thereby, instead of one committee thinking for the others, each division can decide for itself how it would best promote gender equality within its own operations.
These three avenues of integrating female capacity and perspectives into defense, removal of barriers in combat positions, recognition of the female capabilities in duties that require personal interaction and extending the vision of NCGP to all NATO divisions, should be followed not only because of normative concerns, but also due to the strategic importance of employing a so far “underutilized” source. I would like my future daughters to have the chance to actively protect what they value, to be military doctors, mechanics, pilots or peacekeepers. The UN resolutions 1325 and 1889 promised this dream to mothers and daughters; if these promises cannot be put into operation under a transatlantic alliance that brings multiple cultures with a progressive vision of defense, where else can we turn?
Nukhet A. Sandal is a Visiting Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's
competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides
with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an
increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The
contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public
You can read more submissions from the competition here.