Friday, June 5, 2009

Gender and International Security

It is a prevalent notion that gender does have nothing to do with mainstream international politics/security. International security has been heavily male-dominated in its discourse and prescriptions. I would however argue that it is essential both men and women have a say in any decision-making process or equally represented in a decision-making fora. It is simply not fair to keep half of the population outside of these processes.

It is obvious that it comes along with the all the responsibilities and duties. It still amazes me when I hear men reiterate that point. It is pretty obvious that rights come along with certain and responsibilities. Secondly, it does not matter whether men and women in equal representations is for the betterment of the society or not, but the more important aspect is to include the other half of the population into the mainstream.

Most forms of feminism, in some or the other, reject patriarchy because patriarchy seeks to portray men as the perfect norm against which women are compared and found lacking. The patriarchal revolves around controlling women. Bringing a gender perspective into international relations (IR) or any issue does not necessarily mean men and women are different. It is just as among IR theorists, there are various schools of thought such as the realists, non-realists, feminism or a gender approach will only bring another school of thinking to the existing schools of thinking.

Bringing a gender perspective to a forum discussing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka or Sierra Leone is hardly appreciated. However, I would reiterate the known but ignored fact that it is women and children who are the most affected in any conflict. Conferences/seminars are held to deliberate on as to what are the critical issues in a particular conflict, who are the stakeholders, how a comprehensive solution can be found and so on. However, giving an additional gender dimension to the debate by a well-trained IR (International Relations) feminist as to how women end up being the largest victims, the audience is immediately even astonished to say how it is directly relevant to the current debate. This is not true of just India; the western world of academia is not drastically different. The “learned” audience and other participants also end up saying the discussion is digressing from the main theme.

What does feminism mean in reality?
Feminism has come a long way, as did other theories, moving from first wave feminism, to second wave, third wave and contemporary feminism. One finds that the third wave feminism has been a more acceptable form of feminism. Third wave feminism originated in the 1990s attempts to challenge some of the definitional aspects developed during the second wave feminism. The second wave had assumed certain universal female identity as also identified a lot with the experiences of upper middle class white women. Broadly, one can say that while first wave focused on issues such as suffrage, the second wave devoted itself to fighting inequality and the need for an end to discrimination. Third wave feminism, on the other hand, moved away from the concept of universal female identity, and refers to feminists coming from a variety of class and race. They essentially stood for issues that oppress or limit women and sought to create a broadbase inculcating consciousness of the issues involved and widespread education gearing up the society towards gradual social change.

Feminism is generally understood, particularly in the Indian sense, to be “embracing movements for equality within the current system and significant struggles that have attempted to change the system.” The question however arises as to why women should strive to be equal to men. Is “men” the model to be imitated upon and emulated? The answer should be a categorical “NO.” There is an urgent need to change the traditional gender roles, as they tend to see male as the ideal to emulate and perpetuate patriarchy.

There is nonetheless a category of women who seek preferential treatment to be given to them because they are women. By this, this category is obviously making a point that they are inferior to the male species, and hence seek a special favoured treatment. There is a question of dichotomy in this: on the one hand, women want to be equal and on the other, they seek special treatment, owing to the fact that they are women and hence weak. The stereotype community, including that of the IR academic community, tend to see the world through the masculinely associated factors such as power, strength, autonomy and rationality, whereas the women is seen just the opposite of the above said things like, weak, dependence, irrational, emotional and volatile. Such stereotype configuration of persons will continue to be a stumbling block for real progress and development. There is yet another facet to the whole issue of gender. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi articulated that she is not a feminist, but she would do something for the underprivileged including women. She added that feminism or women’s so-called freedom in the west is only an imitation of man. While one could agree that freedom in the west for women may not be in absolute terms, it might be too simplistic to say that it is just an imitation.

Feminism – a social and cultural construct
I tend to agree with the constructionist thought in reiterating that differences between the sexes are a socially and culturally construct phenomena rather than biological differences. These differences, besides arising out of patriarchal system, also have to do with religion one preaches. Almost all religions describe men as the superior species and commanded that they be in control of weaker species “women.” Consider the following:

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands as unto the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church."- Ephesians 5:22-23.

"A woman must never be free of subjugation." - The Hindu code of Manu V

"In pain shall you bear children, yet your urge will be for your husband and he shall rule over you."- Genesis 3:16

"Your women are fields for you to cultivate, so go to your field as you will." - Koran 2:223

"Women have weak memories, are undisciplined, impulsive and dangerous when given authority over anything." - Catholic Church's edict against witches.

"I thank thee O lord, that thou has not created me a heathen, a slave, or a woman."- Orthodox Jewish prayer

"Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. I suffer not women to teach nor to usurp authority over the man but to be in silence."- First epistle-Timothy 2:11-12.

Feminism through history
Historically-speaking, women played a great role in sustaining the support structure in various countries, particularly during World War II. This was purely necessitated by the shortage of men, who were out fighting in their own country or foreign countries. Compelled by such events, women moved out of closed doors and their traditional roles to take up jobs otherwise meant for men. Women were literally running the country, managing the affairs of various towns and cities. Women in cities like London were faced with not just additional government and other jobs, but also had to deal with bombing raids and other wartime threats. As combat areas expanded to cities, women bore the duty to protect their families, children, the elderly, either in taking them to safety areas and providing them with food and shelter during the emergency. The US also witnessed similar situations. Thousands of women were employed in Washington, DC in various government and support jobs. Women were also employed in huge numbers at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, after the US bombed Japan. Shortage of men also pushed women into other non-traditional areas including sports. The All-American Girls Baseball League, created around the same period, was a result of such shortages. There were even women pilots, although in non-combat roles. Women pilots were trained to fly non-combat missions so that male pilots could be made available for combat missions. Essentially, the women pilots flew between the manufacturing plants and military bases, but they also flew new aircrafts like the B-29, to showcase their capability and that these aircrafts were not as difficult as men make it out to be.

Women political leadership has also come up during wartimes. For instance, in China, wife of the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek was active in promoting the Chinese cause against the Japanese occupation. However, that could be categorised a passive duty behind the mainstream. Notably, she was also the head of China’s air force during the war. She was one of the few people who had addressed the US Congress (in 1943). In most other cases, women in powerful positions, owing to the family links or such other factors, played only a behind-the scene role, in morale building among the population – civilian or armed forces. In all of these cases, women played a role outside of their traditional ones/home front, only when there was shortage of male forces, as male was considered to be the norm and women had to be pushed into these roles simply out of necessity.

However, during modern times, there are areas where a woman has played a significant role that cannot be undermined. These roles do manifest in particularly critical situations, although never taken into account in the mainstream discourse. For instance, the role of woman is critical in carrying forward terrorist or counter-terrorist agenda. A woman remains critical in the indoctrination of terrorist or counter-terrorist ideology, because a woman is ultimately shaping up the thought process of children. In an insurgency infested area, poverty and shortage of cash flow are factors that guide the actions of a woman. She could decide that a terrorist could be given shelter for few months in return for Rs. 10000 or so, as she is hard pressed for cash.

Linguistic aspects of feminism
While seeking to gender-sensitive the IR community, the linguistic aspect of IR becomes very interesting. I may list out a few examples of such uses: chairman, man, he. It is often argued by male colleagues that these words are used rather as neutral and is not to be taken in its literary sense. But I would argue that it is appalling to even argue on such terms. It is highly unacceptable. Another callous usage is that of lady doctors. Consider a few instances and some of these have been taken from other seminal works on feminism and philosophy of language. ‘Ask the candidate about his husband or wife’; ‘when a student comes into the room, he should pick up a handout’. These are not gender-neutral usage of words, but because male is the norm. Here, I would like to make further clarifications. Consider words like ‘waitress’, ‘lady doctor’, ‘manager’, ‘chairman’. Waitress is used to specify a woman on the job, because that is the norm, a woman is expected to deal with handling kitchen, home etc, whereas lady doctor is not the norm. In a profession such as doctor, male is the norm and a female doctor is considered unusual and strange, despite the fact that they make better doctors. Somewhat similar is the case of manager and chairman. There are, by and large, no such usage like ‘manageress’ (although I believe it might be use in the UK) and chairwoman, because, again, male is the norm. Is there a term ‘househusband’ in our social milieu? No, it is only housewife, because only woman is considered to be sitting at home, looking after affairs at home (female is the norm), while the husband is typically the bread-earner of the house.

There has been some progress made to find alternate words like the singular use of the third-person gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ in place in ‘he’ in a sentence like ‘someone left their sweater behind.’ However, the use of ‘chairperson’ does not have such an optimistic interpretation, because it is still considered as being used only when a woman holds that position, and not in general terms. However, I must say that I was astonished recently at the gender insensitiveness displayed at one of the highest bodies of the US Congress. Recently, there was a team of people from US-China Economic and Security Review Commission that had visited my office. Since I wanted to see who they are, what their areas of interests are, I visited their website and was astonished to see Ms. Carolyn Bartholomew addressed as the Commission’s Chairman for the 2007 report cycle. Where has all the gender-sensitiveness gone? One assumed that the whole linguistic debate about feminism particularly in the usage of words like chairperson was outdated. It has been a wrong assumption however.

There are words in English language that have generated from a male-dominated society. Consider the word, whore. The meaning of the word is, “a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse, usually for money; prostitute; harlot; strumpet.” Consider rape; meaning of the word is “the unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse.” All these are symptoms of the male mindset that man is powerful and male thrusts upon a woman sexually; and in the first case, it can only be a woman if she is engaged in sexual activities for money. Again, there are words that denote the masculine and feminine aspects like bachelor and spinster. However, in the case of bachelor, it has a positive connotation whereas spinster portrays negativity.

What ought to be done?
One might argue that there has been a lot of progress made in the whole debate of women’s rights and the need for equal representation. However, lot needs to be done still to ensure that women sit around the table as equal partners. It should be noted that women still face discrimination at work places, despite the increase in the number of women moving out of their traditional roles of running the domestic chores and taking up duties and responsibilities, which were denied traditionally. Women earn relatively less and enjoy lesser perks compared to men on the same job; are appointed for lower ranks despite the competence. Besides, women are also faced with double burden problem. This concept was introduced to scientific theory by Myrdal and Klein in their work “Women's two roles: Home and work,” published in London in 1956. It is a fact that women have to excel in their work (excel even their counterparts, who may be equal or even an average) as well as manage the household and childcare. Many patriarchal groups have criticized this concept saying that a woman made the choice and was not forced upon her. I want to argue that this is so because female is the norm in the case of running household and childcare, whereas seeking a career is going against that norm and hence, be prepared to face the additional burden.

It should be admitted that linguistic aspect and changes sought in this area is only an aspect of a large problem. The large problem remains the mindset of the society that is conditioned for decades together that male is the norm. Writing on the difficulty faced in bringing about reforms, Deborah Cameron cited one of the most striking passages that appeared in The Sunday Times. It read: “the lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults about. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, disabled, the women and the children” (Cameron, 1985). The power that men exercised over decades and centuries have left them with certain power over society, how the society and its norms are created, have had a strong influence on the language, spoken and written. Hence, the need of the hour remains not to pick out phrases and sentences, but there has to be a conscious understanding of serious issues involved – change of the male-dominated mindset.

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