Over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that it would be hypocritical to at once “support women’s empowerment” and oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director. Her boss, President Donald Trump, in announcing Haspel’s appointment had similarly emphasized that she was “the first woman so chosen” to lead the spy agency. In doing so, they boldly asked the public to overlook Haspel’s role in the CIA’s post-9/11 “black site” interrogations and their cover-up because of her gender. Or in other words, to ignore that women can be torturers and its champions, too.
Using women in this kind of bait-and-switch is nothing new. When then-President George W. Bush went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, it was justified in part to “save” women from the Taliban. More recently, seeking to divert critique from its war in Yemen, a well-oiled Saudi Arabian public relations machine lauded the fact that women can now drive in that country.
To be clear, security institutions like the CIA do have a women problem. Women are woefully under-represented across intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies globally. And those women that are there do not have an easy time. The national security sector has also had its #MeToo moment, with women reporting sexual harassment, assault and abuse.
Alongside this gender gap, the security policies that come out of these institutions also routinely fail women. Targeted by terrorists, female victims are then stonewalled by governments, including through U.S. rules that ban foreign assistance for safe abortions. Often on the front lines against terrorism—from assisting victims to negotiating ceasefires to building peace—grassroots women’s groups also face crackdown from abusive security services and even international isolation if officials label them terrorists. With women squeezed like this between terrorism and its response, there is an odd synergy in the patriarchy that cuts across both lines.
Yet simply infusing security institutions and tactics with women is neither a cure-all—nor cover—for this equality impasse. On the one hand, it states the obvious to observe that there is no guarantee that women in power will be humane, as well as women-friendly. Or that even when countries do turn to thinking about women in security that they will necessarily get it right. France’s ill-fated “burkini bans” as a hybrid gender equality-security measure, which actually undermined both, show just how much is at stake in cursory approaches that “add and stir” women to security policy.
Against this backdrop, lauding Haspel’s appointment as feminism sets back the clock, risking the women-washing of coercive security practices by focusing on one female’s promotion. Doing this distracts from how security policies ultimately fail women, as well as human rights more broadly. But a single promotion is not a policy of genuine inclusion, and women’s equality is not advanced by appointing as CIA director someone who holds moral and legal responsibility under international law for serious human rights violations.
Instead of hoodwinking by tokenism, global national security practice must place human rights—specifically including gender issues—at its core. Only then can we move from simple talk about women’s roles to the real challenge of ensuring women’s rights, and indeed human rights more broadly.