In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Dr Alexandra Phelan, Deputy Director of Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre, and Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, about her career so far in international relations, focusing upon Latin America and Gender, Peace and Security.
Dr Alexandra Phelan is Deputy Director of Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre (Monash GPS), and a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.
Alex completed her PhD in 2019, which examined why the Colombian government alternated between counterinsurgency and negotiation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Based on an extensive examination of negotiation documents and primary FARC material, fieldwork and interviews with former and active FARC, ELN, M-19 and AUC members, she critically examined the role that insurgent legitimation activities had on influencing Colombian government response between 1982-2016. Before she was appointed a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Monash GPS. She was also a visiting scholar at Georgetown University's Centre for Security Studies, Walsh School of Foreign Service (2019).
Alex's research at GPS focuses on gendered approaches to understanding terrorism and violent extremism. Her research interests include insurgent governance and legitimation activities, insurgent women, political violence and organised crime with particular focus on Latin America. She has a forthcoming edited book Terrorism, Gender and Women: Toward an Integrated Research Agenda (Routledge, 2021). She currently serves on the editorial board for the journal, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university? Did you have a set plan for pursuing a PhD early on in your studies?
I was quite lucky that I found my “passion” in terms of research very early on during my time at university. I had developed a strange fascination with the Russian Revolution when I was eight years old, and through high school I fostered a keen interest in conflict more generally. However, in my first semester of first year, I took a subject at Monash University (that I now teach today!) on terrorism, and this sparked my interest in terrorism and political violence. I also majored in Japanese translation and interpreting and minored in German/German literature, ironically dropping Spanish in first year under the (false) assumption that I would never use it again! Seeing that I started university quite soon after the 2005 Bali Bombings, originally I developed an interest in studying terrorism in Southeast Asia and went on to look at deradicalization in Indonesia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia for my Honours thesis. However, I have always been drawn to Latin America and became fascinated with the Colombian conflict, particularly in terms of the “staying power” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC). I did in fact have a set plan to pursue a PhD early on in my studies, but whilst originally I thought it would be more strategic in terms of employment opportunities later on to focus on Southeast Asia, I decided to follow my passion and focus solely on the FARC and the Colombian conflict.
You have spent a number of years exploring the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), especially through a gender lens. What sparked your interest in this topic, and what were your experiences of conducting fieldwork?
My PhD examined why the Colombian government alternated between counterinsurgency and negotiation with the FARC, paying particularly attention to how insurgent legitimation activities influenced government response. Originally much of my research in fact did not examine gender dynamics, but rather how insurgents cultivate popular support and appeal to legitimacy vis-à-vis the state. This being said, I was conducting fieldwork for the Colombian case in 2017 on a Monash Gender, Peace and Security project Towards Inclusive Peace: Mapping Gender Provisions in Peace Agreements, and as part of this conducted interviews with a wide range of stakeholders from government, NGOs, academia and the military. However, I was also able to conduct interviews with active and former FARC leaders and members, and from these it became clear how gendered experiences of conflict were amongst women and men, and also their reasons for participation and motivations sustaining involvement. What further began to spark my interest was when FARC invited me to attend a workshop that was launching their new ideological framework that they called “insurgent feminism”. It was fascinating to me that we had an organisation that in many ways has historically promoted “gender-sameness” amongst their ranks– where, at least theoretically, women and men were treated equally– all of the sudden switch to begin to promote an agenda calling for greater women’s emancipation after signing a peace agreement. Seeing that originally my research background was in conventional terrorism studies which in many ways has generally under-utilised gender analysis in interrogating radicalisation, participation and experiences of conflict, I became more interested in marrying these two research areas to explore the gendered dimensions of terrorism and insurgency.
Tell us more about your current role as the Deputy Director of Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. What does this role entail?
As part of role as Deputy Director of Monash GPS, I lead the research stream on gender and violent extremism. We have recently completed a project examining gender and role adoption in far-right, far-left and radical Islamist networks in Australia, however the centre we have completed a range of projects examining gendered dynamics to violent extremism in North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. I also convene our Graduate Certificate of Gender, Peace and Security, which enables students, policy-makers and leaders to better integrate gender perspectives into peace and security policy at all levels. In this certificate we balance academic research with technical skills, so that students can develop an understanding of the gendered politics of conflict, security and peace processes by undertaking two units, “Gender, Security and Conflict” and “Gender-Based Policy and Planning”. This year, I also convened our inaugural Gender and Violent Extremism Webinar Research Series, where we have welcomed international terrorism experts presenting on an array of topics from women in terrorism, gendered dynamics to Tunisian foreign fighters, understanding incel violence, and misogynistic terrorism and the far-right.
What has been your greatest professional achievement so far?
This is a little difficult to say because in many ways I feel that I am very early on in my career. However, from a personal perspective one of my greatest achievements was finally being able to interview a Colombian politician, Antonio Navarro-Wolf, which took me about two years and two fieldwork trips to secure! In many ways this was my “impossible interview”, but I was so determined to make it happen. Antonio Nararro-Wolf was a former commander and leader of the 19th of April Movement (the M-19), but very quickly went on to be a successful politician shortly after the M-19 signed a peace agreement, demobilised and transitioned into a political party. I was always fascinated with Navarro-Wolf’s story, because he really symbolised how it is possible for guerrillas to successfully transition to operating within legal political frameworks, and in his case, transition from guerrilla to politician. He was generous in agreeing to be interviewed, but in my first round of fieldwork regrettably the interview fell through despite my best efforts (mind you, he is an incredibly busy politician). But I didn’t give up, and continued to write to his office- probably a bit too persistently- and ask my other interviewees that may know him to try and put in a good word. Then, one day his wonderful secretary wrote to me urgently to tell me he could see me that afternoon in the Colombian Senate. It was a fantastic interview, and he such an admirable leader. I think this taught me that hard work and persistence can indeed pay off, particular in complex environments!
Finally, what advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
Especially in times of COVID, career prospects may seem a little bit dim right now, and we are really going through a challenging time. However, I would encourage students and young professionals to think about how careers in international affairs can indeed be pursued in multiple industries. There are government and policy, intelligence, defence, NGOs, think tanks, consultancy firm jobs– there are various opportunities that both here and abroad (eventually) that could allow you to pursue your passion, even though you may not necessarily think it’s your “dream role”. It’s important to take risks and during times like this, to be resourceful. Reach out to the people that you admire or may want to work with, ask to go for a coffee to find out more about how they got to where they are! You’ll probably find out that it may not necessarily be the “conventional route”.