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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

The World through a Gendered Lens

Written by Samvrutha Bhavani Mukilan

Patriarchy is a problem that has plagued societies, families, work cultures and even individual minds from time immemorial. But it might come as a surprise to many that it is in the realm of politics that this is most evident. International Relations (IR), as we know it today and throughout history, has been a thoroughly masculinized sphere of activity (Tickner 1992, 4). This gender-related difficulty is part of a much deeper issue, something this article aims to deconstruct. It does not intend to present strategies to increase the number of women in positions of power but takes a step back and tries to explain from a gendered perspective, how this world is constructed. It is indeed hard to understand the association between something as cold and straightforward as IR and something wholesome and nuanced as Gender Studies. Thus, it attempts to provide the bridge by explicating what gender really is, how the current approach to politics is profoundly gendered, why equal representation is not the immediate goal and what kind of insecurities that a masculine approach to security may set forth.

It is commonplace for IR-trained feminists and gender studies scholars to encounter awkward silences and face questions rooted in serious miscommunications when they try to present their perspective to IR audiences <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Tic97 \p 612 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Tickner 1997, 612)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, and much of this has to do with the fundamental misunderstanding of the term ‘gender’. It is vital to differentiate it from sex as gender is NOT the biological composition of the body but rather the set of social expectations constructed around identity, role and legitimacy and what these mean for the processes of assessing importance or agency. It affects all the sexes. Thus, a gendered perspective of IR and politics tries to analyse and critique how these social norms have conditioned the way we all think, influenced our choice of priorities and encouraged a kind of patriarchal apathy, paying little heed to a wide spectrum of security issues outside the conventional idea of ‘high politics’.

Despite the presence of a wide array of political theories, it is Realism that was and continues to remain dominant in the study and practice of IR. This approach considers three broad levels of analysis – man, the state and war, which it strongly asserts to be the causes of enmity and distrust, justifying the theory’s relentless pursuit of national security <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Pet93 \p 348 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Peterson 1993, 348)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. However, these levels are profoundly gendered, relying heavily on stereotypical masculine behaviours. Realists care (only) about the security of the state defined as a particular arrangement of political authority over a given territory. Underlying this thought process is a reification of the state as an isolated unit which fears insecurity. The more dependent it is on another state, the more exposed it becomes and thereby is less secure. So, the theory lays emphasis on (material) power, strength and self-preservation. It legitimizes violence by suggesting war as a solution to preserve territorial integrity. Ann Tickner rightly called out this pattern saying, “…the realist characterization of state-behaviour in terms of self-help, autonomy, and power-seeking, privilege characteristics associated with the Western construction of masculinity <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Tic92 \p 42 \n \t \l 1033 <![endif]–>(1992, 42)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.”

Masculinity and politics have had a long and close association. Toughness, power, courage and independence, characteristics generally associated with ‘manliness’ have been considered to be most desirable in the conduct of politics. Violence and the use of force have for long been valorised and applauded in the name of defending the country. Such glorification of male power produces more of a gender dichotomy than exists in reality <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Tic92 \p 6 \t \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Tickner 1992, 6)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. The greatest irony however is that, this description does not fit most men. R. W. Connell relates these characteristics with what he calls ‘hegemonic masculinity’, a socially constructed ideal that he distinguishes from other subordinated masculinities and devalued femininities. Such socially constructed gender differences simply act to reinforce compliance with ‘men’s’ superiority and nowhere is this more apparent than in international politics. Hypermasculine traits are projected onto the behaviour of states “whose success as international actors is measured in terms of their power capabilities and capacity for self-help and autonomy <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Tic92 \p 7 \t \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Tickner 1992, 7)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.” And this pattern helps sustain patriarchal authority and legitimizes a patriarchal social and political order <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Con95 \n \t \l 1033 <![endif]–>(1995)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>.

Thus, it is no surprise that women play a very meagre role in politics and policy making because IR is a ‘man’s game’. The poor numbers of women in positions of power, security institutions and decision-making bodies is just a consequence of this deep-seated issue that is gaining attention today but may take eons to fix. The typical IR audience may question this claim by pointing to Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meier or Indira Gandhi <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Tic97 \p 613 \t \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Tickner 1997, 613)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. But it is important to note that Thatcher was known as the ‘iron lady’ for displaying characteristics associated with a ‘real man’, because such behaviour is necessary for women to succeed in the masculine world of international politics. The present social and political order has conditioned women to believe that only aggression would be effective if they ever occupied the high office. It must be kept in mind that simply adding women to security institutions based on a “top-heavy gender mainstreaming agenda <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION DCo16 \p 410 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(D’Costa 2016, 410)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>” without addressing this deep-seated patriarchal mind-set may actually turn counter-productive and contribute to reinforcing the current patriarchal order. This article, however, does not wish to belittle the importance of equal representation for women, which is certainly an important goal that the world needs to work towards. But whether this is the first step in empowering women is something that requires serious reconsideration.

Aside from being heavily gendered, the conventional realist approach to state security can have huge and deleterious consequences for the people living within the country. For example, in the 1950s, the US and UK had a tight security co-operation, with the US placing thousands of armed forces in the UK. On noticing the locals’ discomfort at this arrangement, the US decided to make things better by providing every family within the radius with a washing machine. What seemed like an act of modernization created severe social dislocation, with multiple people losing their livelihoods and many simply did not have access to electricity <!–[if supportFields]> CITATION Enl90 \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Enloe 1990)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. The conventional approach looks only at the macro level of bases and bombs and politics but underneath this are a series of insecurities induced by these acts of security which the discipline unfortunately fails to recognize.

To conclude, the gender project values holism, in matters of security and otherwise, rejects apathy and strives to educate people enough to someday evolve over these social constructions to live in a non-gendered world which is highly inclusive. The security of every individual would be a priority, and everyone would be free to live their own, creative lives, without having to succumb to gender roles or stereotypes. Whether the project succeeds in its emancipatory cause seems to be the biggest question and only time and relentless education can provide an answer.


<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>Connell, Raewyn. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

D’Costa, Bina. 2016. “Gender Justice and (In)security in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Postcolonial Studies 19 (4): 409-426.

Enloe, Cynthia. 1990. Bananas, Beaches and Bases Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Peterson, V. Spike. 1993. “Review of Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security by J. Ann Tickner.” Political Science Quarterly (The Academy of Political Science) 108 (2): 347-348.

Tickner, J. Ann. 1992. Gender in International Relations Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tickner, J. Ann. 1997. “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagments between Feminists and IR Theorists.” International Studies Quarterly (Wiley on behalf of The International Studies Association) 41 (4): 611-632.

About the Author: Samvrutha Bhavani Mukilan is pursuing her master’s in International Relations at Australian National University. She is also an intern at the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S).


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