NATO and civil society: What NATO can learn from women in the Middle East and North Africa

The views expressed are those of the author, Dr. Noha Aboueldahab, and do not necessarily represent the views of NATO or its Allies.

  • 07 Oct. 2022 -
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  • Last updated: 07 Oct. 2022 15:40

It has been 15 years since NATO adopted the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. How has it fared in NATO’s work across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)? This question is best answered by those on the ground, alongside whom I had the pleasure of speaking at NATO’s WPS conference on Women Mediators and Peacebuilders in MENA in March 2022.

NATO and Civil Society: What NATO can learn from Women in the Middle East and North Africa

NATO’s attention to the importance of WPS in the MENA region is commendable, but after examining its approach to WPS in MENA, I was struck by the absence of any reference to the importance of racial justice. The development and implementation of foreign and security policies must take seriously the role that race plays in shaping them.

The WPS National Action Plans of most European states tend to focus on problems concerning women and politics ‘over there’, outside the West. It is important, however, to look inward and to question how the worldview of some men and women in the global north skews their understanding of the experiences and the power held by women in politics in other parts of the world.

This focus on how women experience conflict and gender violence ‘over there’ cannot be separated from the foreign policies of Western states, including NATO members. Individual actions of NATO member states must work to align with the overarching Alliance Policy on WPS, else the agenda’s claims to protect women ring hollow.

Without WPS policies that take the racialization of MENA women seriously, the prospects for gender equality, sustainable peace, and security will remain grim. There are several ways to address this. NATO should diversify its staff to include women of MENA origin who have the lived experiences that NATO itself recognises are important drivers of policy reform. The solution is not just about ensuring there are women taking up positions at NATO, but to ensure an intersectional approach that puts these women in decision-making positions.

Secondly, to help NATO build a more representative understanding of MENA women’s experiences of peace and security, it should pursue engagement with WPS actors and those impacted by it within the MENA region more often, rather than resorting to the more convenient option of holding such meetings in the Euro-Atlantic region. That way, NATO would have important conversations with the very communities (and not simply individuals) that WPS aims to target. The spaces within which engagement takes place between MENA women and international policymakers in the peace and security fields often only include women who have the time and resources to travel, who can speak good English or French, and who have a Western education.

Relatedly, NATO practitioners overly depend on MENA government representatives to connect them with civil society. NATO should engage directly with all civil society leaders despite NATO’s proximity to their national authorities. This is crucial if NATO genuinely wants to improve the impact of its WPS policies in the MENA region.

Third, NATO should create more spaces in which women from the areas that the WPS agenda targets can share their existing knowledge and produce new knowledge on the impact of WPS and on how to improve its policies. All too often, MENA women are objects of research as opposed to the producers of research themselves.

Finally, the WPS agenda should foreground MENA heroes. By drawing on the history of the achievements of MENA women in peace and security, the WPS agenda would have an existing framework from which to better understand the current struggles and achievements of MENA women. It should draw on their own contributions and strategies for combatting gender injustice, rather than simply exporting Western feminist ideals to other parts of the world. This would be one way to integrate racial justice into NATO policies. In this sense, the WPS agenda is far from a ‘start’. It should recognise, honour, and build upon the longer history of intellectual and practical contributions of MENA women long before UN Security Council resolution 1325 came into existence.

NATO’s event on Women Mediators and Peacebuilders in the MENA Region: Leveraging Leadership in March 2022 was a space that actively welcomed constructive critique. This is encouraging, and I hope to see many more such frank policy discussions take place both in Brussels and across the MENA region.

Dr. Noha Aboueldahab is a non-resident fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, where she teaches international law. She co-chairs the American Society of International Law’s Transitional Justice and Rule of Law interest group. Dr. Aboueldahab is an award-winning specialist in transitional justice. Her forthcoming book examines the role of Arab Diasporas in shaping the intellectual and policy spaces of transitional justice and political change.

Dr. Noha Aboueldahab was a panelist at the event Women Mediators and Peacebuilders in the MENA Region: Leveraging Leadership, organised by the Human Security Unit and the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division in March 2022. On this occasion, she shared her suggestions regarding what NATO can learn from the security experiences of women in the region.