The next commentary on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series is here).
Although it can no longer be claimed with any credibility that gender is at the fringes of International Relations as a discipline, consistently excellent and adequately nuanced analyses of the gendered nature of IR and its touchstone – the state – are still few and far between. In a field otherwise saturated by liberal feminism focused largely on the West (the US, the UK and Western Europe to be precise), Swati Parashar, J Ann Tickner and Jacqui True’s Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations provides a refreshing change. Bookended by an incisive forward by Spike Peterson and a compelling, almost poetic afterward by Christine Sylvester are eleven ‘substantive’, and uniformly thought-provoking chapters. In less than 200 pages the contributions to Revisiting Gendered States manage to traverse the whole spectrum of issues sacralized by IR: state formation, borders and bordering practices, terrorism, security, identity and belonging.
The text reopens the discussion the seminal Gendering States: Feminist (Re)visions of International Relations Theory published in 1992 and edited by Spike Peterson, initiated. Gendered States has the same point of departure – an examination, and concomitant critique of the centrality of the masculine, patriarchal state in IR but it does so in a distinctly 21st century context. The state is no longer a blackhole or a rarefied rational actor, but rather a set of complex and often confused practices: an effect, symptom and perpetrator of globalisation, securitisation, and nationalism. The chapters are truly global in scope, drawing on case studies from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia. The contributions are not merely empirically heterodox, they are also theoretically pluralist, drawing variously on queer theory, assemblage theory, affect theory and postcolonialism alongside more mainstream IR theory.
Here I wish to single out Katherine Brown’s chapter on the Islamic State because my thinking around and writing of this review coincided with the national debate on Shamima Begum in the UK. On the 19th of February, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that he would revoke Begum’s citizenship in accordance with Section 40(2) of the British Nationality Act 1981, which gives the Home Office the power to strip someone’s citizenship if they have recourse to citizenship of another country. Whilst the legality of this maneuver is not my immediate concern (although it is almost certainly illegal as Begum does not in fact possess Bangladeshi citizenship), the performative element of this very public removal of citizenship is. Shamima Begum – one third of the so-called ‘Bethnal Green Trio’ who had left their families in the East End of London in February 2015 to join ISIL – recently pleaded to come back to the UK in order to be able to safely give birth in her home country. At nineteen, having witnessed the death of two of her children in a refugee camp in Syria, she expressed a desire to return to Britain to raise her third child. She did not, however, display much remorse about her initial decision to leave the country to join Islamic State in her media appearances.
This lack of regret has been a constant refrain in commentary on Begum and has led to the peddling of an image of her as a particularly vindictive and dangerous enemy of Britain. In construing Begum as a threat to Britain, this incident chimes with a number of concerns spotlighted by the contributors in the edited volume. The affective and emotional dimensions that Parashar attributes to Indian ‘nationalism’ in response to the Maoist ‘insurgency’ (p157 – 173), the question of whether Britain is acting as a hypermasculine state a la Russia (Wilkinson, p105) in flexing its muscles or more like an ostensible feminist-state, donning the mantle of liberalism whilst reifying the role of a masculine protector (Duriesmith, p52) all speak in different ways to the UK’s interpretation and representation of this case. Yet, the episode also throws into sharp relief the questions of womanhood and citizenship and their relationship to race and racism. Although feminist scholarship has written against the running together of ‘womenandchildren’ as hapless victims, something echoed by many of the authors in the present volume, what happens when a 15 year-old Muslim girl gets radicalised and leaves her home in the prosperous West to join a terrorist organization in the Global South? Who gets to decide whether she was a victim or a perpetrator and whether she deserves to be made stateless or not? If she does, is it because her imagined community is different from ‘ours’? How can we apprehend citizenship and womanhood as separate from questions of ‘self’ and ‘other’? Indeed, can questions of gender ever be disarticulated from questions of race? Shamima Begum has been denied the gendered and patriarchal benevolence of the state, ultimately revealing the sham of British citizenship and proving that patriarchal benevolence is always already a contradiction in terms. Patriarchy cannot be delinked from racism, and the British state’s enactment of white supremacy is simultaneously one of heteropatriarchy: gendered and racial orders are made in relation.
Which brings me to a critique: why is there not more engagement with those who have explicitly written about the ways in which raced, classed, and gendered forms of oppression are experienced differentially, if not always conterminously. The absence of bell hooks, Angela Davis, Hortense Spillers and Audre Lorde (to name a few) from this volume is profound and revealing. Whilst intersectionality is often invoked, it is rarely engaged in its originary form – as an attempt by black women to highlight and eventually dissemble the multiple structural marginalisations that they are subject to. I don’t mean to throw shade at this otherwise outstanding work, but I can’t help feeling frustrated by IR’s constant lip-service to intersectionality that often flattens asymmetries in an attempt to understand and grapple with ‘difference’, which has the ironic effect of reinscribing ‘gender’ as the primary or foundational node with ‘race’, ‘class’ and more recently ‘disability’, ‘religion’, ‘sexuality’, ‘age’, plotted as its derivatives. This once again leaves us with a (re)centred white cis woman at the heart of the analysis. And yet, perhaps this is a bind that can never be convincingly addressed, it is not merely impossible in a slim edited volume but one that has been elided by the discipline of IR in its entirety.