Where are the women in world politics?

International relations is not a ‘gender-neutral’ discipline. Most feminist literature that interrogates this focuses on: first, highlighting the consequences of international politics on the lives of women and; second, problematising the discipline itself by using a gendered epistemology.

It’s a man’s world

Enloe believes that by asking the simple question of ‘where are the women?’ one can begin interrogating the discipline of IR using gender. International politics has been dominated by men. As Tickner wrote, it is ‘a man’s world’.

There are hardly any women in areas such as diplomacy, military and the academic discipline. Even the women who break the glass ceiling and enter the field are not at the top, in leadership positions. In order to gain respect, women usually have to ‘masculinise’ (discussed in detail further) themselves. Examples of Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Jean Kirkpatrick and Indira Gandhi illustrate this point. Even then these women are discriminated against. Kirkpatrick called herself as a ‘mouse in a man’s world’ due to this.

Sheila Rowbotham wrote how women have been ‘hidden’ in international politics. This indicates that the situation is a deliberate one, wherein the dominant sex has restricted access of spaces to women. Claims of women ‘not being good enough’ are often used to justify this exclusion.

Sylvester likened women in IR to Red Riding Hood encountering wolves in the woods. However, she believes that the issue is not as black and white as this. Women do exist in international politics, but the statist bias prevents us from seeing them. They are ‘invisible’, but still present. For instance, the experience of women in conflict-torn Kashmir is hardly discussed. There are several “half widows” whose husbands have disappeared, been presumed dead, but they cannot avail benefits such as pensions since they cannot prove death and procure the death certificates. This issue is not one that is a voting issue in talks about Kashmir. Enloe in her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases has studied the effects of IR on women’s lives, which will be elaborated ahead.

Due to this historical dismissal and ignorance of women in the discipline of IR, several feminists have tried to bring these issues to light. Their work is analysed under two broad areas below: the first is to inline gender in IR in terms of values and the second is to outline the consequences of international politics on women’s day-to-day lives (Sylvester).

International Relations: a Gendered Arena

As pointed above, international relations has been the reserve of men. This has affected its theoretical underpinnings. For some scholars, even if there existed no barriers to entry for women, the discipline would remain deeply masculine.

At this point it becomes important to define masculinity and femininity. Both are socially and culturally constructed characteristics that are present in the form of binaries such as objectivity-subjectivity, autonomy-relatedness, self-other, public-private, etc. In most societies, the masculine characteristics are privileged over the feminine, by men as well as women.

For feminists, IR is based on assumptions that are inherently masculine. In her critique of Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism, Tickner challenges these very presuppositions. Morgenthau bases his theory on a view of human nature that is a view of nature of man. Evelyn F. Keller wrote how objectivity and separation of self from the other are associated with masculinity. His claim of a universal and objective theory is based on these very assumptions of male behaviour, without recognition of feminine behavioural characteristics.

Morgenthau’s supposed separation and autonomy of the political sphere, divorcing it from morality is also a problem for feminists. Only focusing on the end and not on the amoral means, states have used rape as a weapon in war. This directly affects women and thus they advocate moral political action. A problem with this idea, however, is that morality is a deeply contested concept. The dominant moral narrative is usually the monopoly of men, who can advocate the ‘moral protection’ of women to fulfil their ends. Thus a debate on what this morality entails is also important.

The interest of states defined as power is also a masculine interest. Morgenthau defines power as ‘the dominance of man over man’. Feminists contest this definition of dominance, which has been used by men to oppress women. Hartsock, for instance, defines power as more of a potential. Arendt, similarly, believes it is the ability to act in concert. Feminist definitions of power are more cooperative, not in terms of a zero sum game.

An examination of nationalism would be useful here. Feminists have contended the idea of a national interest. For Mazzini as well, nationalism is simply obedience. It contains a rhetoric of respect behind it that states use to enforce hierarchies. A distinction may be drawn between individual and national interest, with the former better advocating women’s interests. Virginia Woolf, for instance, strongly believed that she would not support the state that enslaved her, denied her education and property and went against her instinct as a woman.

Women’s ideas of war also need to be examined. The views can be subsumed under three heads: pacifism, militarism and just war. Under the first category are women who believe that war is masculine. It is waged by men, but the brunt has to be borne by women. It involves interests (power, dominance, victory) that are antithetical to femininity and women hardly get any benefits. Women, for instance, were at the forefront of protest against the Vietnam War. On the other hand, there are women who support wars that are waged by men. They enlist in the army or provide outside support. They were a part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) under Prabhakaran who sent them to the front line. In 2013, the ban on women in combat was lifted in USA. Several female leaders have themselves become nationalistic icons for victory in wars, such as Indira Gandhi after the 1971 Bangladesh War.

A different position on war comes from scholars such as Jean Elshtain. In Women and War, she characterised militarism as the epitome of masculinity. Later, she advocated the idea of ‘just war’. A just war ideology does not completely oppose war, but wants to limit it. A war must be the last resort and must be waged for legitimate reasons such as self defence, ensuring justice or providing aid to an aggrieved party. The means used must be proportionate to the ends and non-combatants must not be hurt. She provides a defence for US invasion of Iraq, citing the Gulf War as a grave injustice. It was also the last resort – as sanctions were tried before that. Thus, feminist conceptions on war are as diverse as women themselves.

Gender is thus not just an abstract category that can be applied to personal relationships. It is primarily concerned with power, which is a concern of politics. The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’ can be reformulated to justify that ‘the personal is international’.

Consequences of International Politics on Women

Even when women are not participants to international decision-making, these deeply affect them. IR cannot thus hide behind its ‘gender blindness’ and the gendered consequences of international politics need to be examined.

The effects of wars waged by men on women are discussed below. Women often come to symbolise war. Symbols such as Britannia (UK) and Germania (Germany) during the First World War generated nationalistic support. ‘Protection’ of women is also considered a just reason for waging war.

Women are the chief victims of war. 90% of casualties are civilians, who are usually women and children. 80% of refugees who are displaced by war are women and children. Use of rape as a political tool, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also victimises women. In Bosnia, Muslim women were raped as a means of ethnic cleansing. They were also put in concentration camps and impregnated with Serbian children.

Economically, women are reallocated and assigned jobs while men are at war. While this access to public space is empowering, it is soon taken away after the war, as in post-World War 1 USA. The wages they are paid are also meagre and lesser than men.

Even intimate issues such as the family come to light. The power of a nation is associated with its population, thus high birth rates are supported. Women’s wombs become politicised, as in Nazi Germany where they got awards for birthing Aryan sons.

Ideologically, war reinforces the protector-protected relationship. However, it is often the protector that becomes the biggest threat to women (Tickner). One example is rape by soldiers, made possible due to the application of AFSPA, in the North East. This leads to low self-esteem and sense of responsibility (Judith Stiehm). It also reinforces misogyny in the minds of men.

In Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Enloe has provided a vivid account of lives of women that are affected by international politics. She looks at banana republics (countries in Latin America whose economies depend on the export of bananas) where women work in the plantations for lower wages. The popularisation of bananas in America using Carmen Miranda and sexual connotation is another link. The world tourism industry is another area where the cheap labour of women is used. Travel is concerned with the public sphere and inaccessible to women. Most importantly, she talks of the prostitutes who ‘serviced’ men in US bases, who the US government wanted to get tested for STDs. The unpaid and unrecognised labour of wives of diplomats, who often aid them in foreign policy, is another way in which women operate in the international sphere.

Enloe also wrote about militarisation, a concept that continues after the last shot has been fired. It entrenches the privileging of masculinity and prevents women from full participation in post-war society.

Not all streams of feminism view the effects in a similar way. However, they seek to answer an aching question – why are there not enough women in world politics? Why is Angela Merkel a lone wolf among all-male diplomatic barrages? Feminists have answers to these, and many other questions.

Photo credits: https://tjournal.ru/38240-ostalas-tolko-merkel-politicheskie-itogi-2016-goda-na-odnom-foto
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