Feminist Astropolitics with Nivedita Raju
Updated: Oct 12
As told to Kirthi Jayakumar
Nivedita Raju is a Researcher in SIPRI's Weapons of Mass Destruction programme. Her recent research focuses on developments in space security, space governance and gender issues. Additionally, Nivedita is a Project Coordinator on behalf of SIPRI in the EU Non-proliferation and Disarmament Consortium (EUNPDC). Previously, she was a research fellow at the Open Lunar Foundation, and a research assistant at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University. Nivedita spoke exclusively in her personal capacity.
Nivedita is pictured before a backdrop presenting an artistic rendition of The Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant and pulsar wind nebula in the constellation of Taurus. The nebula was the first astronomical object identified that corresponds with a historically-observed supernova explosion. (Photo credits: Nivedita Raju - Profile picture | Kirthi Jayakumar - Astronomical Art)
What got you interested in space law?
I have a legal background but stumbled into the space field quite by accident. It was not something I set out to do. I was an aviation lawyer, and practiced in Mumbai for a few years. In 2015, the Obama administration introduced a national legislation on space resources and to me this immediately raised questions of equitable rights of access. These questions have been simmering in all lines of work for years, including in the space sector. With that, I started pursuing my own research, and joined McGill University for an LLM in Air and Space Law. I stayed on with the University as a research assistant and gained more exposure to issues of space security. Around this time, I was also working on a research project called MILAMOS, which is the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military uses of Outer Space – and that led me to engage more with questions of peaceful uses and the weaponization of outer space. Following that, I worked with Open Lunar Foundation, a non-profit considering policy-related questions specific to the moon, and what transparency and confidence building measures we would need to ensure that lunar activities are secure and sustainable for all stakeholders. I then ended up at SIPRI, where I currently work. SIPRI is a peace research institute located in Stockholm and I work on different issues concerning space security, governance, dialogue and transparency and confidence building.
I will also add that it is still difficult to make headway in the space law field as a full-time career. Career guidance in international law, let alone space law, was quite limited when I was in law school. I think it's because of this prevailing notion that these aren't stable career options. If you had told me when I was an undergraduate student that I would become a space security specialist, I wouldn't have believed you. It is changing slowly today, but we need more initiatives to encourage students to get involved in this field.
How far is the inequality in the access to outer space a function of the lack of diversity in the field in itself?
Quite far! There are a number of multilateral processes and governing frameworks on space law and different aspects of space activities. The governance of safety, sustainability and security are all interrelated. There are also initiatives by international organizations and by civil society. All these actors seek to improve diversity in these processes and increase the number of people participating in these frameworks. However, it's quite challenging because the community still struggles with what exactly meaningful diversity, equity, inclusion practices are, and how we should implement them. There is still a lack of awareness regarding how to how to act, facilitate and how to implement DEI. For example, the awareness of intersectionality is still quite limited. There is a strong tendency to think very narrowly in terms of “women”, which obviously means focusing only on a specific kind of woman. Another example is the tendency to conflate sex with gender. Most people who are involved in these discussions wouldn't know the difference. Consequently, there is a tendency to ignore considerations of overlapping discriminations with other social indicators and how intersectionality is also very different in various cultural contexts. With this narrow thinking, we would, for example, just end up with more women only from global north countries in a room. I think that reflects quite poorly on the state of the global space sector today because all of us are entitled to benefit from space.
If you could spell out a feminist model for spacefaring, what would that look like?
Feminism and space go hand in hand because feminism is underpinned by the principles of equality, space is meant to benefit all of humankind and space systems provide essential services for civilians and the military. However, when we look at how space is used by civilians, or attacks on and disruptions of space systems, they would all have a disproportionate impact based on the individual’s social location. This means that we must intentionally create opportunities to improve access to space. We need to implement intersectional approaches to space, including in space security. Understanding gender, understanding that there is a wide spectrum of gender identities, looking at gender in relation to social indicators including race, caste, nationality, religion, ability, age (among others) is important. At SIPRI, we just released a publication on implementing intersectional approaches in gender perspectives in international humanitarian law. It shows that we can similarly develop feminist models for space security. We may have a long way to go, but we can start by building a strong foundation at least.
Does space law in its current form allow room for this feminist model to take shape? What would applying a feminist view to the law look like, then?
Yes, space law can allow this, and that depends on very intentional interpretations, where of course, there is a lot more work to be done. For example, the Outer Space Treaty says that space is for the benefit of all humankind. Several UN Resolutions over the years have reiterated this. There’s also the Benefits Declaration adopted by developing countries in 1996. We know that this point has been raised repeatedly and is recognized in multilateral processes and forums. Specific states can lead by example and take this forward. There are some positive indicators from the most recent UN space security process, ie, the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats. In their submissions, Canada and Sweden made references to ensuring the full and equal participation of women. Australia sponsored a side event on gender equality. There are also states that have adopted feminist foreign policies or intend to adopt feminist foreign policies. In early September, we saw that 19 states adopted a political declaration on feminist approaches to foreign policy. Many of these states are active in space processes, including space security processes. There's a natural convergence here so convening exchanges among these states is a useful starting point. And raising awareness on research initiatives that should be supported in order to take this work forward.
So I definitely think that space law has a basis for a feminist model, but we need to be deliberate about achieving this through careful interpretation, common understandings, and by driving more research initiatives.
How can we decolonize our approach to engaging with and using space?
This is where the work will be especially challenging, because decolonizing our approach means questioning our own understandings, concepts, and framing, and even our accountability in these systems. Starting with language and framing, you see the use of terms like “conquering”, orthis view that “space is the Wild West.” A lot of this rhetoric is not only exclusionary, but it is not accurate, and it does not reflect reality. A number of space lawyers would disagree vehemently with a such framing: One, because all entities are entitled to benefit from space - firstcomers cannot lawfully decide how others are entitled to access space. In decolonizing our approach, we should also consider other approaches to international law, such as TWAIL (the third world approaches to international law), and strive to engage experts from these streams to ensure an interdisciplinary approach. The space community tends to be rather siloed and shielded from a lot of these conversations, and that is a key hurdle. That would be the next step to take because decolonizing our approach is not going to happen if we continue to stay stuck within these communities, and keep using the same unhelpful language and framing.
Can our current technology-based and indigenous cosmologies and coexist? If not coexistence, what, what comes to mind in terms of how the future of spacefaring should look?
I do! I have hope, but the difficult part is – if we want coexistence, and cultural narratives such as indigenous approaches to space, we need to first acknowledge and address the inequalities that already exist. There seems to be a reluctance to engage here, because we need to acknowledge that many voices are still not heard or represented. It is important to engage with a range of communities, instead of convening or facilitating discussions on their behalf. They deserve the space to not just “participate” but actively lead these conversations. I have seen some instances of well-meaning, yet privileged, researchers who pursue such initiatives but end up being quite extractive when engaging with diverse communities. This is extremely harmful because it only reinforces North-South hierarchies and overarching inequalities. So there are a number of questions to consider if we want to do this right - How and which communities are underrepresented? What measures are needed so they can steer conversations? What are our own roles in these processes? And how can we avoid tokenizing and implement DEI meaningfully? Only if we engage with such questions can we take steps to break down existing hierarchies - only then can we help ensure that space actively benefits all of humankind.
This interview series was supported by The Maypole Fund.