Do You Feel Safe? A discussion about feminist approaches to security

Záznam diskuze

This is an edited transcript of the international debate “Do You Feel Safe?”, organized on 23 November 2022 in Bratislava. This debate, facilitated by Zuzana Maďarová (ASPEKT), Weronika Grzebalska, a Polish sociologist, and Míla O’Sullivan, Czech researcher in international relations, discussed various gender aspects of security. The event was organized by the ASPEKT organization in partnership with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Prague office.

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Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

ZM: In recent years, security has become a key topic in Central and Eastern Europe:

  • For instance, we encounter the idea that history is going to be stolen and the “right” version of history must be defended, and so some memories and stories in our collective memory are considered illegitimate and are to be excluded, rewritten or adapted. Maria Mälksoo, a scholar in military studies, refers to it as “calling for mnemonical security”.
  • During the global COVID-19 pandemic, there were many discussions about public security and health. We observed how the military came to support vulnerable, failing healthcare and social systems.
  • After the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, there were changes in defence policies in several Central and Eastern European countries, and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there has also been intensified militarization. Challenges to national security have fostered a gender transformation in the defence sector, as the example of Poland shows.
  • Voices calling for peace seem to build on very different notions of peace – from an absence of war and complete demilitarization, to an active, everyday struggle for decent life without occupation.

Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

I am very glad that we can discuss these and other important topics with our guests, Weronika Grzebalska and Míla O’Sullivan.

Weronika Grzebalska works at the Polish Academy of Sciences, focusing on social and institutional transformations in contemporary Poland and also Central and Eastern Europe. Her main areas of interest are the military and defence, war and memories of war, right-wing and illiberal politics, and gender policies. Dedicated to the principles of public sociology, she works at the intersection of academia, policy-making and public engagement.

Míla O’Sullivan is a researcher at the Centre for Global Political Economy at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. She works as a book review editor for the Czech Journal of International Relations. Her professional interests include primarily feminist international relations, with a focus on the UN’s “Women, Peace and Security” agenda in the context of Central and Eastern Europe, specifically, Ukraine. She is an expert consultant on gender equality in Czech foreign policy for various governmental and non-governmental bodies.

My name is Zuzana Maďarová, I am a researcher at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences of Comenius University in Bratislava, I also cooperate with ASPEKT, a feminist educational and publishing organization, and I will facilitate this meeting.


ZM: Before we get to the present, I would like to set our discussion in a broader historical context. Weronika, could you describe the changes to defence and the military in the V4 countries after 1989?

WG: I am not so familiar with the current discourse in Slovakia, but I suppose it could be very similar to that in other countries. Lately, you have probably heard over and over about the Zeitenwende, which is a German term for the epochal shift in defence and security policy that Europe is undergoing. In order to understand what this shift is, we have to go back to the events after the Cold War. We are all products of what happened after the Cold War, not only because many of us were born around that time, but also because our mental and intellectual frameworks were built around that event.

During state socialism, most countries of the Soviet bloc sustained big armies and had male conscription, so almost every man was trained for defence in a certain way. This form of everyday militarization was an important aspect of social life. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this started to wane, slowly and silently. The structural demilitarization after 1989 – across our region – was a rather silent process and not many media or scholars talked about it. Both elites and society awaited it and supported it, but rarely discussed it.

In practice, this meant the end or the suspension of male conscription. In other words, generations of men in our regions no longer had to do military service. As public opinion polls show, this had public support in Poland. Subsequently, armies in our region have become smaller and professionalized, and defence spending was drastically reduced. Generally, the army was pushed to the margins of social life and as citizens, we have not been really engaged with it. We knew about its existence, and we would periodically ask why we should spend a given percent of our GDP on it.

After the fall of state socialism, the belief in the “end of history”, i.e. the advent of European peace and the necessity to establish liberal democracy according to the western model, became rooted in the policies and practice of our region. We enjoyed a period of stability without major threats to our borders, the EU, and the international order. During this era, a significant part of the progressive and feminist approaches to security were formed. We started forming ideas on how to do security in a progressive way and we thought this means finding an alternative to securing national borders, arming ourselves or using force. A lot of that progressive thinking started to crack after 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. 

Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

ZM: Those processes sound good, in fact. Was there anything problematic about the “end of history” notion and the related demilitarization of post-socialist countries?

WG: Those processes and notions are not necessarily wrong or problematic. The issue is that our material reality has drastically changed, and this approach has still been seen as the only right one. I often call this a post-militarist train – in our region, we all were on this train towards the end of history and liked it, but many of us, mainly the Baltic states, Poland and Finland, got off this train after 2014 as the situation in Europe changed due to resurgence of Russian imperialism. The security environment seemed no longer stable, we started to rethink and bolster security to protect our citizens.


ZM: Weronika, you have studied the shifts in security and defence policies for a long time, especially in Poland. You have done research on paramilitary organizations as well as state defence policies, and you have discovered interesting gender dynamics.

WG: I started my academic journey as a young scholar working on World War II, memories of World War II and women’s resistance, in particular in Poland. As I was finishing my work on this topic, I had this weird feeling that I was no longer researching the past, but that it was rather the future that had unravelled before my eyes. I started to realize these were not just memory processes, but many things were recurring. That was already after 2014. These things were recurring in the form of civil society mobilization, new discourses, new actors and new political agendas. In other words, defence started to return to the Polish public life and societal life.

There has not been anything like that in Slovakia yet, and it does not have to necessarily happen, as you still have possibilities to influence the paths your society will take, although there is one paramilitary group in Slovakia.

When I started observing these remilitarization processes, I was interested in their gender dynamics. In much of feminist literature, there is this mainstream approach that any militarization process is gender unequal, as it tends to reinforce men’s position in society and male-dominated sectors as well as values related to masculinity. I wanted to see what it means in Poland specifically, and so I did field research with paramilitary groups and I started looking at quantitative data. What I found is much more complex.

In the last six years, interestingly during the rule of the illiberal Law and Justice party, the share of women in the Polish armed forces has doubled. In 2017, the new Territorial Defence Forces were formed, and it already has 20 % women, in comparison with the UK where the reserves have about 14 % women.

Regarding paramilitary groups in Poland, they tend to be like defence-oriented Scouts. They have trainings with guns, but only under supervision, so the members do not have access to weapons.


ZM: So what do they do?

WG: Paramilitary groups in Poland – and similarly in Lithuania – follow the old tradition of riflemen’s unions. In the late 19th and early 20th century, when Poland did not even exist on the map, these organizations were training to later take part in World War I, and afterwards, they became a part of the new state’s army. They were mostly formed with the idea of independence in mind, and interestingly, they had a significant socialist backbone. Many members subscribed to social democracy, so this is more of a left-wing tradition in Poland. This is a difference from Slovak Conscripts (Slovenskí branci), for example, who lean towards the far right traditions and have Kremlin ties, while the Polish paramilitary tradition was more socialist, although very much pro-independence and patriotic.

The new paramilitary organizations are not necessarily left-wing, they try to be rather mainstream and pro-state, without a specific political affiliation. In my research of these organizations, I discovered some of them had more women than men. For instance, there is a riflemen’s organization in South-Eastern Poland, near the Ukrainian border, and the commanders have been puzzled by the fact that for five consecutive years, they had approximately 60 % young women and 40 % young men.

This is not just about numbers, though. I also tried to explore the ethos or the organizational culture of these new paramilitary movements, and it turned out they are merging civil society ideas with those of the military. They think of themselves as civil society actors in defence rather than as soldiers. They do not see their task as only taking up weapons and starting to fight when necessary, but mainly in being there to protect, organize and strengthen their local communities and to actually show some care and empathy to the community. This is important because it is also a very gendered thing. This new militarism in Poland thus combines orientations and qualities traditionally associated with men – such as gun culture and physical prowess – and with women – care, empathy and civil society building.

I don’t mean to say it’s all roses and gender equality is present in all aspects. For example, paramilitary groups in Poland are mostly youth-based, it is often young adults who have just started to work and have no family obligations. I noticed that at the age when women start their families, they usually leave, while the men stay. So this also means that despite so many women in the sector, only few reach positions of power. It may be due to some kind of discrimination, but I think mostly it is the structural reasons, when women no longer have time for such activities.

Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

Why I think it’s important to talk about these paramilitary groups is that they are doing something that we, as feminists and progressives, have not tackled. Namely, they are noticing the gender division of security labour in our societies and trying to do something about it.. Since compulsory conscription ended, we may naively feel like nobody but the professional army has to defend the country, but if you look at your country’s regulations, you will find out that in case of mobilization for war, men have to be conscripted, otherwise they would be penalized, while women are mostly expected to be protected by men or flee with their children. I am not saying whether this is good or bad, I just mean to point out that our defence policy has drastic gender implications. For decades, we have institutionalized a system where it is mostly men who are expected to defend the state, and so they are the ones who have access to security knowledge and skills.

In Poland, there was just one public opinion poll with a single question on this topic, where they asked people if they had ever undergone a certain kind of civilian or military defence training. It turned out that over 40 % of men had – which is still not that much – but only around 10 % of women had.

As feminists, we do not want to reproduce a situation when, in a time of crisis, it is women who need protection just because they have never acquired defence skills, but that’s what we’ve been doing by neglecting this,  and this is where the paramilitary organizations step in, because they’ve been decreasing this gender gap in defence by accepting and training women. In Estonia and Finland, there are special paramilitary groups for women only, and they are often frequented by older women, the category that is the most left out. They engage in everyday security trainings, for example, what to do during a blackout or when you need to secure a window during a missile attack and so on. It’s not about training people how to take up guns and kill, but more about protecting your own life and those around you. For  30 years, as V4 progressives we’ve left women out of this, and I think it should be a feminist issue.

In conclusion, the mainstream, normative Western frameworks of ‘remilitarization as bad remasculinization’ are not always working, at least not in Poland or the Baltic countries. If we want to understand what is happening, we need to ask new questions about the current issues of securitization and militarization and look for new ways of thinking about them.


ZM: We’ll come back to the questions of how to rethink the frameworks of understanding and analysing security later. Now we can look at the existing frameworks. After the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there were very different reactions from feminist activists and scholars around the world. Míla, can you please tell us what reactions you have observed and what they tell us about the East-West dynamics?

MO: First of all, thank you for inviting me to this historical event, perhaps the first one ever on feminist approaches to security in Central Europe.

The answer to your question is related to what Weronika said about the changes after 1989 and the end of the Cold War. We have seen much more focus on human security and more critical scholarship on security, including feminist security studies, but these tend to be very western-centric [i.e. normalizing the experience of Western Europe and the USA - note by ZM] which was very much reflected in the reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

There were various reactions, and I will start on the negative side. You have probably heard the word “westsplaining”. There has been a lot of westsplaining coming from mainstream western policy makers, especially the hard-core realists, but also from scholars including feminists.

Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

ZM: To make it clear, “westsplaining“ is a variation of the well-known term “mansplaining“, i.e. the situation when men self-assuredly explain things to women although women have more knowledge or experience in the given area. Aliaksei Kazharski, a scholar focusing on Central and Eastern Europe as well as on Russian foreign policy, defines westsplaining as “speaking without sufficient expertise but from a position of authority, often making false projections and assumptions that are based on the western experience but are not necessarily relevant to the region in question.”

MO: With my colleagues from various countries, including Ukraine, we have done some research that shows there has been westsplaining even from feminists. The most symptomatic is the anti-war manifesto by the “Feminist Resistance against War” initiative. That calls for de-escalation on “both sides” and reproduces the narrative of blaming the NATO expansion for this invasion. The manifesto ignores various local perspectives, and Ukrainian feminists were not even consulted on it. These western, feminist, pacifist initiatives call for “peace” and for “peace talks” which Ukrainian feminists find impossible at this point. On the contrary, many feminist initiatives in Ukraine ask for arms so they can defend themselves and continue their feminist work. These are strong statements from Ukrainian feminists and from organizations that are anti-militaristic, they are aware of what militarization can cause in society, but at the moment they don’t see another choice.

We’ve also observed the language and the constant misuse of words such as “Ukrainian crisis” or “Ukrainian war” which deny who the real aggressor is – Russia. On Twitter, I have noticed an event planned by a UK university that was called “Humanitarian intervention, or act of aggression?”. Is this really questionable in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? It was later deleted.

We can see scholars, including feminists, who try to score points on current affairs despite their lack of knowledge and understanding of the local context. There are numerous panels and discussions about Ukraine with no Ukrainians present.

In conclusion, responses to the Russian invasion reproduce the uneven relations between the East and the West. Western academia tends to talk over and behind voices from the East.


ZM: Let me add that the academic and feminist voices from western countries are diverse, but the dominant discourse is as you described. When talking about the lack of voices from Central and Eastern Europe, this also applies to the area of feminist security studies. Together with the scholar Kateřina Krulišová, you wrote the book chapter Feminist Security Studies in Europe: Beyond Western Academics’ Club about this. What are the implications of this lack?

MO: That’s part of the book Feminist IR in Europe (available for download). The story of that chapter itself reflects the overall situation that we wrote about. We weren’t even supposed to be part of it - like many similar volumes and handbooks, it was meant to be based on knowledge seen through the western perspective and written by western scholars, but someone dropped out and I found out because I was working with the book editor on another project. Together with Kateřina Krulišová, we wrote the chapter Feminist Security Studies in Europe: Beyond Western Academics’ Club, where we explored the academic background of feminist security studies in Europe and pointed out the exclusion of Central and Eastern Europe and local scholars. The book was published right before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and afterwards, this problematic knowledge production became even more apparent.

We attempt to show that feminists from the Global North try to be inclusive, inviting feminists from the Global South to collaborate, but that the CEE region is somewhere in between, as many scholars have pointed out, including Slovak scholars. Although there have been long-term efforts of some scholars calling for going beyond such concepts, they keep recurring, and there has been a lot of debate on post-socialism and the “in-betweenness” of our “non-region”. With voices missing from Central and Eastern Europe, there is also a lack of certain topics and experiences, for example, of Russian imperialism, which is a part of our region’s collective memory but has not been included in feminist security studies.

In this mapping we also discovered there is a lack of academic focus on Southern European topics in feminist security studies. There are all these centres of excellence in the UK and the Nordic countries, and their locations strongly influence what is actually being researched.


ZM: I am thinking about the differentiation between the East and the West. In the past three decades, we have been trying to overcome this division and change the perception of the East as something different and exotic. Feminists have thus often tried to emphasize similarities between Eastern, Central and Western Europe. This points to the complexity of geopolitics, and it also shows we should be careful about certain concepts. When unconsidered, the use of dichotomous West-East divisions can reproduce the inequalities caused by that very division. On the other hand, if we avoid such divisions completely, we might lose some tools that point to certain power dynamics and their implications.

WG: I would just add that when we talk about the CEE perspective, it’s not a uniform one. Even when we look at societal attitudes towards defence and security, or at feminist approaches to these issues, they can be very different across the region. Our goal is not to obliterate them from view, but rather to look for the historical and material things that connect us. Among them is the experience of totalitarianism and being on the receiving end of imperialism. Many western countries do not understand this, as they were on the other side of that imperialism, on the side of strong imperialist armies.

Another shared thing is the fact of geographical location. The events in Ukraine are not just affecting us via the influx of refugees, but also because we are not living in peace. We may not be directly in the war, but since at least 2014 we have not been living in peace. We are exposed to numerous hybrid attacks and interference, whether it’s the secret services meddling in our domestic politics, or Russian airplanes going into our airspace, or ships entering our seas without warning. There are reports about the increases in such events, and when we look northeast of the EU, there is also the issue of the weaponization of vulnerable groups – people in migration – to destabilize EU’s Eastern border, and of course there is also the weaponization of energy. The media discuss why Europe is so reliant on Russian gas and what can be done about it, because the more reliant we are on these crucial resources, the more they can be used against us in critical moments. In this sense, there is a difference between us and the western countries – simply, we are closer, more affected, and we are already living in a kind of un-peace.


ZM: Thank you for reminding us of these specific things, because in the recent media and academic debates the notion is frequently expressed that some topics can be rhetorically turned into threats. That’s important, but one could easily get the feeling that when we read or hear about threats to security, it’s just another discourse exercise, not something caused by a concrete situation. I’ll return to what Míla suggested. When you look at the war in Ukraine, as a scholar rooted in Central Europe, which topics should be brought into the public and the academic discourse?

MO: That’s a difficult question. We can start from the immediate insecurities that Ukrainian people are facing which relate to military support for continuing the defence of Ukraine against the imperialist aggressor. We can also see that Ukrainian refugees are facing violence in the EU, for example in Poland or Czechia. We recently had a debate with Ukrainian feminists in Prague and what they emphasized was the issue of economic security. In the EU countries there are millions of Ukrainian refugees, mainly women with children who need child-care facilities to be able to work and generate income.

My research focuses on everyday areas of security, such as those related to social and economic rights, and this is something I think is still missing from the debates on the reconstruction of Ukraine, which are just starting and seem to be gender blind. There was a similar situation after 2014 – my research in Ukraine revealed that the state reforms were harmful for women, as they affected them disproportionally: it was mostly women who worked in sectors affected by austerity policies. This is a phenomenon present all around the world – women can hardly ever participate in peacebuilding and reconstructing their countries, as they don’t even have income and security for their families.

Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

ZM: You mentioned one reason why I’m so glad to have both of you in this discussion. You, Míla, focus on areas that are often neglected in international relations and security research, i.e., the everyday aspects of social and economic security, and you, Weronika, focus on an area that is often absent from feminist research and discussions, and that is critical research into security and militarization from the gender perspective. I am happy our discussion is an opportunity to interconnect these diverse aspects of security.

You both mentioned the need to rethink certain concepts, practices and approaches, so I would like to ask you what it is that we need to rethink from a critical feminist perspective rooted in Central and Eastern Europe, and how we could do this.

WG: This is a huge issue, so I will at least try to sketch an answer. For me, it is important to accept the reality we are facing – sometimes referred to as poly-crisis, or cascading security crises. Even if we proceed from the assumption that capitalism only operates through crises, the fact of the matter is we are still going through a phase where we must brace ourselves for big disruptions ahead. The radical constructivists might say we’re securitizing things and that it’s us creating the crisis through discourse. Still,after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it’s even harder to settle for that perspective, though. I believe we must combine an understanding of material reality with an interest in how reality is being constructed. The tanks rolling through the streets of Kyiv were not a discursive construction.

Now that we understand we need to be serious about security and defence, the greatest challenge for our region is to do it in a way that is not in conflict with the values and principles that we hold dear – human rights, gender equality and democratic standards. This is very difficult, because neither in our region, nor in the West, does the progressive left have a very strong voice in security. The notion of the “end of history” contributed to the fact that the leftist progressives ignored security topics and focused on economic and social policies, climate change and other (albeit pressing) topics, but the problem is that at this point only conservative and right-wing forces have a voice in security and defence, and they might even be right, to a certain extent. For example, as young leftists in Poland, we used to happily protest against any type of army presence in the civilian sphere – when I was in college, I personally found it problematic that the army was organizing blood donation stations at my university campus, as I considered it a serious breach of civil-military relations. At about the same time, Polish right-wing parties were already saying that we need a defense boost because the war in Georgia was Russia’s first step, and that then it would be Ukraine, and then Poland. Conservative and far-right parties have been preparing their discourses and policies, while we have not. So this is a great challenge for us – how to engage in defence and security politics, but in a different way.

There’s a part of the left that wants to have nothing in common with defence, security and the military. Míla mentioned the feminist pacifism that talked about “problems on both sides” as Russian tanks were rolling across Ukraine. I believe this approach is a product of the “end of history”. When we think we live in peace, without acute threats from another state, it’s naturally easy to criticize military spending. Why wouldn’t we do that? Why wouldn’t we look for alternatives to military security, when there are no direct threats? Nowadays, though, it’s not feasible to think in such dichotomies in CEE.

The problem is that the Russian war in Ukraine has not changed opinions in some of these circles. Before our discussion, I looked at the Feminist Centre for Foreign Policy website – that’s a think tank with offices in London, Brussels, and Berlin. I wanted to know how they see feminist foreign policy, but their position has not changed at all since the beginning of the war. They still advocate for the same things with virtuous slogans of disarmament, open borders, ending ministries of defence and substituting them with ministries of peace, and human security instead of borders security. All these slogans sound very good, but if you place them in this specific CEE reality at this specific time, they don’t work. I think most Ukrainian feminists would not think that human security and border security are alternatives; they would probably say that they are connected, because without border security, there are mass rapes and murders in the streets of Ukraine. Very few feminist organizations in Estonia and Poland would now say we don’t need the military and our countries should disarm.

If we want to rethink the military and defence, it would be helpful to be less dogmatic. We can start by looking at the current challenges our citizens are facing and searching for solutions that merge our values and our material reality. Obviously, most of us are dedicated to disarmament and we would love to live in a country where most things are secured in a civilian, socio-economic way and not by a strong military. At the same time, the reality is that in places with no military bases in Ukraine, the Bucha massacre happened. We can talk about various forms of security, but the fact is that the military is necessary when your country is attacked by another military.

My point is that we need to rethink security and defence in a way that is not so simplistic and based on such dichotomies. We need to do the difficult part –thinking about specific solutions because a list of values ​​is not enough. We also need to embrace ambiguity. I believe in a progressive politics that has obligations to the citizens and tries to protect them. That may even require increasing defence spending, as much as we would love not to do that, and sometimes this could mean sending arms to a country that has been attacked.

Diskuze Cítíš se bezpečně? 23.11. v Bratislavě

MO: Firstly, I find it important to mobilize feminists in CEE for these topics because there seems to be very little research on them and what exists is scattered across disciplines. We can come together and discuss what to do and how to bring local insecurities to light, including those Weronika mentioned, as well as about our understanding of peace and security.

Secondly, I find it important to talk about the gender aspects of digital security and disinformation campaigns, as for example through Russian foreign policy we can see the spreading of the antifeminism that preceded the military invasion. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is sometimes justified as a protection of “traditional values”, and those who promote them have been reinforced by the war. This is connected with domestic policy, where we have a lot to do - for example neither Slovakia nor Czechia has ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention).


ZM: I perceive that as an invitation to discussion. Thank you both for joining us and sharing your work. I believe our discussions on feminist security will continue.


Transcription, editing and language editing in Slovak: Jana Cviková, Jana Juráňová, Zuzana Maďarová

Transcription, editing and language editing in English: Petra Jelínková, Gwendolyn Albert

Photo: Jaroslava Jelchová

The transcript of the discussion originally appeared on