Understanding international relations in the context of feminism


Feminism and international relations are two intertwined disciplines, both of which are multi-faceted and complex. However, in the field of IR to be specific, feminism seems to be a bit neglected and unexplored to the fullness of its complexity. Feminist theories, for instance institutionalism and realism, seek to unearth the fact that gender biases are generally embedded in the field of International Relations (Whitworth, 2016). Other feminist theorists aim to reconstruct the gender biased outlooks of international politics. Some scholars of international relations are now looking to understand feminism better but feminist theories still generally remain on the margins of international relations as a discipline. This paper shall look into the intricate relationship between feminism and international theory and the manner in which feminist theories continue to change the face of international relations.

Introduction of Feminism to the Political Debate

Feminism has been thought to have sprung up late as compared to other social science facets. This could be attributed to the fact that in general feminism as a theory has just emerged in the twentieth century since the society has always been considered a patriarchal society. In particular, feminist theories have been thought to enter the political debate space around the 1980s during what is known as the ‘third debate’ (Tickner and Sjoberg, 2013). Similar to the post-positivist critiques of the well-known approaches to International Relations, feminism has contended with paradigms such as liberal institutionalism, realism and neo-realism. This has presented a biased view in regards to political assumptions which are not acknowledged and which do not tell the story of politics internationally. Conservative theories have been censured since they failed to explain events such as the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the security threats of the late twentieth century, and the peaceful yet sudden end of the Cold War.

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Different Feminist Theories

The feminist approach to IR cannot be considered a solitary theory but instead are multiple theories that are in fact competing. For instance, liberal feminists focus entirely on ensuring that women get equal rights to the access to education and the economy. On the other hand, Marxist feminists are more interested in transforming the socioeconomic structures of any society, particularly those that are capitalistic in nature. Further, standpoint feminists are of the opinion that the knowledge that women from marginalized areas have could potentially provide full insights into the politics of the world. Post-modern feminists claim that the idea that there is only ‘one true story’ in regards to the human experience is a fallacy that should be done away with (Gardam, 2016). These feminists argue that the idea that there is a bona fide woman’s life that can be used as a model to understand the women of the world is a fallacy that should generally be ignored. Post modern feminists indeed chide liberal feminists for adhering to the Enlightenment project, as well as the Western middle class bias. Every woman is unique according to them and brings a new set of experiences and opinions to the table.

The Role of Gender in International Theories

Despite the fact that there are multiple feminist theories in the field of IR, they are all brought together by gender. Gender in this case does not refer to the biological disparity between the sexes but instead points to the socially and ideologically constructed differences between these two genders. Gender constitutes and is also constituted by the inequalities both in social structures as well as power relations. In addition, gender has serious implications on the experiences that both men and women have depending on the kind of society they each are in. For instance, in America it is normal for feminists to tout their beliefs and theories on the streets and to seek political representation. This may not be the case in Saudi Arabia where women are to be seen but not heard. The women in Saudi Arabia are not expected to have any thoughts or opinions on anything and are indeed preferred to be quiet on all issues raised since the men can speak for them. The general aim of feminists in politics and international theory is to explicate the role of gender in both the practice and theory of IR by locating the few women in international politics and investigating their behavior and structures in the international system (Reiter, 2015). Further, they aim to reconstruct IR in a way that is more gender-neutral such that women too, have a space in the realm of international relations.

Mainstream IR theories did not traditionally concern themselves with gender and the aim of the early feminists in this field was to unveil the important though the unaccounted responsibility of the women in international politics, war and high politics (Thorburn, 2000). One woman in particular, Cynthia Enloe, focused on the realities of women in the workplace, at home and in other places. Cynthia had the idea of demonstrating that women were equally important in the running of the economy as well as politics. Women were plantation workers, politicians, wives of diplomats, consumers, and even prostitutes that serve military bases. Cynthia insisted that leaving women out in IR leaves a political analysis that is both incomplete and naïve.

The example of women’s involvement and experiences during war best shows the inequalities between the two genders. War is generally known to force women to take up unpaid work, for instance taking care of the sick or injured when the hospitals are destroyed or overcrowded. Women are also forced to go into sex trade in order to ern n income to sustain both themselves and their children and are sometimes contracted by military leaders to take care of the soldiers’ needs in order to keep up their morale. This is compared to the men who go into battle and often receive accolades and awards for work well done. The contribution of women to war often goes unnoticed as it does in many other sectors of everyday work. Non-combatants, particularly women and children, often make up at least 90% of the casualties in contemporary wars (Parpart and Zalewski, 2013). Systematic rape has in the past been used as a weapon in war, for instance in the war in Herzegovina and Bosnia, or more recently the civil war that still goes on in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Looking at war through the eyes of women who are indeed directly affected by the same makes IR theorists rethink the drastic consequences that people suffer in relation to tyranny and militarization.

Standpoint and post positivist feminist have a questioned why gender biases have been accepted and normalized in the discipline of IR. This has challenged IR scholars to begin to question the foundations of their theories and to further ask themselves what can be changed in order for women to feel more included in the political arena. For IR theorists to deconstruct the partialities, they have been forced to examine the language used in mainstream theories, particularly realism.  Dichotomies such as culture and nature, national and international, objectivity and subjectivity have been highlighted as some of the contributors to these biases. In these dichotomies, the former is considered to be masculine and inherently has more worth than the later more feminine term (Tickner, 2014). For instance, culture is considered more superior than nurture. This could be the case since the people that created these theories were essentially men who had been brought up to believe that women were the weaker sex. The analysis herein has been used to scrutinize important IR texts and has given remarkable insights into the nature of the language that has been used over the years. This has allowed new definitions of well researched concepts such power; state and security come into existence.

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The State and Gender

The capricious distinction between private and public life in modern politics is pointed out by feminists to be the main reason for the limitations of women that are experienced n international politics. For the dominant traditional theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Aristotle, a ‘citizen’ is a man that works in the public sphere that defends the state during war. This difference acts to obscure the duties of women as mothers and wives, work which is important to the constant existence of the state while at the same time militarizing citizenship (Roach, Griffiths and O’Callaghan, 2014). This has constructed women as dependent and in constant need of the fortification of men. The state also has a patriarchal and masculine bias, which only goes on to show the bias of the society. Hobbes depicts a paternal image of the state such that it is a strong and autonomous entity which serves to ensure that its people are protected from the danger and chaos of nature. It is evident that early philosophers believed that for anything to flourish in the face of adversity then the masculine state must be maintained. Additionally, they believed that women were to be protected and taken care of at all times which may have resulted in women being less proactive about national issues at the time.

These insights into the gendered temperament of the state intimate critical propositions for the manner in which IR has been understanding concepts such as security and power. Realism seems to be preoccupied with control and advancing the theory that the state seeks to acquire security through military might in order to conquer other states (Steans, 2013). Nonetheless, feminists argue that this analysis is not partial and has been informed entirely from a male perspective. Power is indeed the ability for a state to work in cooperation with other people of a similar mindset. Feminists argue that power should ideally be a collaborative effort as opposed to dominating others. This view of power has proven to be extremely important when addressing the twenty first century problems in relation to economic interdependence as well as security threats such as international crime, terrorist networks and ecological degradation. These securities cannot be solved by using the idea of military power since they are more complicated than that.

Feminists also argue that security covers a broader idea than simply the protection of a state from other states (Dunne, Kurki and Smith, 2013). Security should also address issues such as rape and aggression not only from foreigners but also from the citizens. This is to mean that insecurity should not only be an external issue but can also be an internal one depending on the situation. Feminists argue that issues of rape and violence against women are not taken as seriously as seriously as other issues of security and yet in both cases human lives are at risk. Feminists typically point out that the occurrences of rape almost always increase during war and in some cases, are used a way of cleansing the rivalries within their state. However, these discussions would not be found in IR discussions since these traditionally focus on state-to-state interaction.

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Studies have indicated that the capitalist structure is one that is generally patriarchal and has been effective in marginalizing the role and contribution of women to the society (Jackson and Sørensen, 2016). A lot of the work that women do is mirrored primarily in unpaid or illegal work which is not known to have any economic implications. Liberalist institutions such as World Trade Organizations have created free trade policies that have weakened state protection on public funds and labor rights that in turn have affected the large percentage of women in the workforce negatively (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2013). This has camouflaged issues of female exploitation, particularly the issue of the gendered separation of work force and the amplification of sex trafficking all over the world.

Have Global Institutions Curtailed Feminism?

Feminists also challenge the claim of the liberalists who argue that global institutions have provided ways in which women can be more empowered and approved. The processes of formal global organizations and their leaders originate from a bias system thus keeping women at a disadvantage. This means that these organizations only help in the manner that they think is necessary, which for the women could mean it is not necessary at all (Fierke and Jorgensen, 2015). For instance, some recent international conferences such as the Agenda 21 and the Beijing declaration were meant to reinforce the position of women in the society. However, the wording of these documents only served to downplay the success of women in the society. It should be acknowledged that some progress was made in regards to some critical issues but it cannot be said that enough was achieved in order to ensure that some real changes were implemented (Burchill et al., 2013). Some unsatisfactory results include the lack of concord on the description that should be given of gender as well as the inability to secure benchmarks which measure progress. These critiques highlight the challenges that the feminist theory faces since they point toward the widely supported and highly publicized women’s movement seemingly do not do much in the way of ensuring that the goal of reaching actual gender equality is attained.

As already mentioned, feminist theories should not be considered as separate theories in the larger spectrum of International Relations (Shepherd, 2014). It is evident that feminism is highly opposed to realism as a sub-theory of IR but instead aligns itself with liberalism. This is particularly so in relation to the view that it has on the role of the person and the emphasis it places on the world being cooperative. Despite the fact that it heavily relies on the liberal patriarchal systems, it relies on liberal international organizations in order to further its agenda in the achievement of gender equality. Therefore, one can conclude that feminism can be classified as a sub-category of liberalism and can be used to fortify and augment the liberalist theory.

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It cannot be emphasized how important feminist literature is to International Relations. The feminist movement is one of the few movements which have rippled across the world and whose effects have been felt on international platforms. The feminist theory demonstrates the normative biases which are embedded in the foundations of IR theories as we know them. This theory also makes evident the tenets in which mainstream theories seem to be lacking. This is particularly in relation to the fact that women account for 50% of the population which many find baffling.  These deep partialities have already been unearthed and can in no way be brushed aside. Of course, it is important to note that feminist theories have not been implemented. It is hoped that in future, feminism will be taken seriously, particularly in the field of International Relations.

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