Gendered States: What We *Really* Talk About When We Talk About the State

The first of three critical commentaries on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series, including an introduction and posts from chapter authors Christine Agius, David Duriesmith and Katherine Brown, is here). This intervention comes from Megan MacKenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney. Megan’s research spans feminist theory, international security and transitional justice, and her latest publications explore (myths about) women in combat roles and masculinity nostalgia.


We talk about the state a lot within the field of International Relations. In fact, as a student of international relations I was taught that the state was the most important actor; everything below the state level was to be studied in other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, or development studies. But what are we really talking about when we talk about the state? It’s probably useful to state upfront- in a sort of full-feminist-disclosure-style- that I’m an unusual person to review a book focused on the state. I’ve always been suspicious and apprehensive about studying the state. I can trace the root of this apprehension back to my PhD training. I can still vividly remember taking an International Political Economy course from the formidable and amazing Professor Suzanne Soederberg. At some point during the first week I made an intervention into the class discussion, and used the word ‘state.’ Professor Soederberg stopped me and said, ‘what do you mean by the state?’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, the state…you know…um, the institution…’ I’m sure I trailed off in embarrassment. Professor Soederberg then asked the rest of the class for a definition and got equally vague, yet more confident responses that included terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘borders,’ and ‘power.’ I can still remember her total exasperation as she drew a black box on the white board and explained that the state is not some singular “thing” that we can just lazily refer to and hope no one asks us what we mean. We were all busted.

Actually, most of IR as a discipline is busted when it comes to lazily using the term ‘state.’ From that moment on, there have been dozens of times I wished I had Professor Soederberg’s words recorded so I could play them at conferences, in other classes, and when reading articles. The state is consistently referred to as a given, or defined with such minimal attention or effort that it offers not much more than my answer back in my International Political Economy unit: ‘well, the state…you know.’ Years later, I still don’t know how most people are using the term ‘the state’ and often I don’t think they do either.

Rather than wade through the many, many definitions of the state, it is more useful to ask, ‘what do we talk about when we talk about the state?’

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To Be Or Not To Be? Islamic State as a Proto-State

The fourth contribution to our forum on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, this time from Katherine Brown. Katherine is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Head of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, where her work focuses on the gendering of religious resistance and politics. Recent publications address social media and terrorism and the securitisation of human rights. The full series of posts is available here.


 

The so-called Islamic State (hence forth Daesh) offered a new world order to believers, one in which states were abolished, the pious ruled, and Allah’s will prevailed. The group offered adherents ‘Gold, God and Glory’, and in exchange members would help realise the group’s vision through extreme levels of violence and banditry. Alongside this was an everyday, mundane and tedious mode of governance, covering tax inspections, trading standards, fishing permits, Quran reading competitions, and fairgrounds. This dichotomy puzzled security analysts who struggled to classify the group. Daesh was both more and less than a terrorist group, or an insurgency, or a guerrilla movement. For IR scholars, if it wasn’t any of these then a new possibility opened up – were we witnessing the birth of a new state? It was therefore a perfect case study for the revisiting of Gendered States.

Daesh was set a series of tests by academics and others to determine its ‘right’ to call itself a state. Did it have autonomy, capacity, legitimacy to govern, was it a ‘bordered power container’, could it redistribute resources, did it have a monopoly on the use of force? Longobardo asks this question about whether or ISIS could be seen as a sate in international law, and Belanger-McMurdo also addresses whether it can achieve political domination. The problem is that it had all and none of these. As Nexon notes, there is a tendency to conflate the Weberian ideal-typical definition of the modern state with the concept of ‘state’ and secondarily, a tendency to read the literature exclusively with an eye toward asking when, if, and how particular polities crossed some imaginary threshold into ‘state-ness.’ The tests seemed ‘unfair’ in so far as setting a high bar for a state emerging as ‘fully functioning’; it was like expecting a PhD candidate to pass their viva just by having been accepted onto the programme. Continue reading

Promoting Ally Politics in the Liberal State during the Age of Paleo-Masculinism

The third in our series on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (edited by Swati Parashar, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True). In this first set of posts, contributors to the volume recap their contributions. Today, it is the turn of David Duriesmith. David is a UQ Fellow at the University of Queensland, where his research focuses on masculinities, peacebuilding and new wars. His latest article is ‘Hybrid Warriors and the Formation of New War Masculinities: A Case Study of Indonesian Foreign Fighters’, in Stability. The full series on Revisiting Gendered States may be viewed here.


 

Feminist activism often appears to bump up against the desire to appeal powerful masculine actors to use their privilege for good. These appeals are unavoidable for those who want to achieve concrete and immediate change due to the power that patriarchy affords masculine actors on the basis of gender. The success of these appeals in the international arena create uncomfortable alliances between feminist activists on one hand and state actors on the other, the latter of whom are increasingly keen to position themselves as feminists on the international stage.

My contribution to Revisiting Gendered States came out of my discomfort at some of the successes in getting state actors to adopt the language of feminism and gender equality. In particular, I was provoked by the emergence of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and the rise of state leaders positioning themselves as feminist ‘agents of change’ through initiatives like #HeForShe.

These developments seem seductive, in that they utilise state power for feminist goals, while reinforcing the legitimacy of these state actors as protectors of the oppressed. However, the adoption of the label ‘feminist’ does not require that states are substantially remade, nor that they change the masculinist nature of their institutions, but instead seems to occasionally result in the cynical use of gender programming to legitimise other forms of violence that they themselves inflict. Continue reading

Continuities, Ruptures, and Gendered States

The second post in our short series on the edited volume Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (Oxford, 2018) – the full series may be viewed here. In this post, Christine Agius revisits here contribution to the volume. Christine is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Swinburne University and the author of a number of pieces on sovereignty, identity, foreign policy and security, most recently (with Emil Edenborg), ‘Gendered Bordering Practices in Swedish and Russian Foreign and Security Policy’, published in Political Geography.


Like some of the most important questions of the day – will there ever be a decent Terminator film beyond T3, and is it still ok to love Broad City after their Hillary love-in – the question of who or what the state is has perhaps never been as important as it is in these troubling times. As authoritarian and right-wing governments produce electoral wins, and initiate policies that seek to assert the power of the state in the name of ‘the people’, the effects and affects are becoming more and more visible across a range of levels and registers. So much has already been written about recent authoritarian politics, including in this forum (see here, here and here). As I began to write this blogpost, the US border with Mexico militarised with the visible presence of troops, tanks and weaponry in preparation for the arrival of the ‘caravan’ of mostly women and children from Honduras. Austria had rejected a UN migration pact in order to ‘defend its national sovereignty’. And Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly-elected president, has projected the view that international climate action is a threat to Brazil’s national sovereignty. Public discourse and debate has been deemed to have become uncivil, individuals emboldened to ‘say what they think’ or act on impulses that until recently might have been kept in check, whether it be policing non-white citizens or ‘going in’, to deal with ‘invaders’ as the Pittsburgh shooter who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue recently did. The visibility of the alt-right in western democracies even conforms to specific aesthetics, from the alt-right art of ‘fashwave’ to MAGA caps and Hitler Youth haircuts.

Despite liberal anxiety about the rise of right-wing populism (or should we just call it fascism?) as a decisive and seismic moment of rupture for liberal democracy, this isn’t necessarily new. While we may be tempted to see this as a crisis point in ‘normal’ politics, some have highlighted how the very basis of liberal democracy might sow the seeds of the divisions we now see across lines of tolerance, race, gender and political economy. Here the debates are as complex as they are multifarious. Take, for instance, the rise of an overtly masculinised approach to protecting borders and defending sovereignty. This ‘strongman’ politics blatantly attempts to raise defences against imagined outside incursions – and it is easy to see the gendered dynamics that construct these efforts to reclaim and exert power, order and hierarchical relations. We see it in ‘America First’, and ‘take back control’, as well as replicant iterations elsewhere. It also provokes a sort of counter-strongman response. I’m thinking here about Arnold Schwarzenegger (as I often, inexplicably, do) taunting Trump over Putin, support for white supremacists or climate change denial. While Arnie gets a lot of likes for this, he’s still married to a conservative idea of what the state is, what statecraft should look like, and how strength should be used. This is part of the problem. Dig a bit deeper, and the very order we’re claiming to defend relies on ideas of strength, autonomy, rationality. This is highly gendered, not simply in the way ideas of strength and weakness are invoked, but in the sort of solutions and responses that are offered to counter such positions.

So instead of rupture, I’d rather talk about continuities. I was reminded by Debbie Lisle, at her recent workshop for Roland Bleiker’s Visual Politics seminar series at UQ, of the idea of intensification. Debbie used this a long time ago in response to the crisis of 9/11 – rather than see 9/11 as a rupture, it was an intensification of already existing and ongoing processes. It’s been a useful device for teaching my critical terrorism studies class, and I’ve referred to it ever since. At her UQ seminar, intensification again emerged in response to the migrant ‘crisis’, in this case, how ‘crisis’ invites affective modes of urgency, enabling and disabling certain actions, responses and responsibilities. Intensification has me thinking about this exact juncture between event, rupture, and crisis, which seems to constantly interject into ‘normal’ politics. There is a purpose and a danger to categorisations of rupture and crisis – such descriptors can invoke a range of different responses, placing events out of time, context and space. This has been interrogated in various ways across political economy, democracy, and security post-9-11 and in the era of Trump. So, I want to skirt away from the realm of urgency and instead look to and try and expose the continuities when apprehending how gender is threaded into the very fabric of states and the performance of statehood. And herein lies the complexity: gendered states are practised and performed in different ways, and often rework the very conditions they claim to try to change. Focussing on rupture can distract us from what is already embedded and part of the very thing we are trying to defend. So instead maybe we ought to look to the spaces in-between – the cases where we might miss the signs and connections of the ways in which gendered states operate and persist, or work in different ways.

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The Gendered Grammar of Modern States and Why it Matters

This is the first in a series of posts over the next week on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, released in 2018 as a successor to 1992’s Gendered States. The series combines commentary from contributors to the volume and reflections from others. We at The Disorder are glad to host it. In this first post the book’s editors – Swati Parashar (University of Gothenburg), J. Ann Tickner (American University) and Jacqui True (Monash University) – reflect on the motivations behind the project. The full series may be viewed here.


Revisiting Gendered States

Nearly a decade ago, Jean Elshtain expounded in her International Relations essay, ‘Women, the State and War’ that gendering the state did not alter much, though feminist insights could reveal a thing or two about how the state functions in the Waltzian levels of analysis. As expected, younger generations of feminists did not take too kindly to that (see for e.g. Laura Sjoberg’s response to Elsthain, ‘Gender, the State, and War Redux’). This was neither the first, nor the last time feminists clashed over the merits of ‘gendering’ the state. The debate continues to rage, enabling gendered explorations of the state, its forms and practices.

When we decided to undertake this project, we were aware that the state was a contested zone for feminists. To embrace its many secular ideals and rights-based policy interventions, to reject its policing and violence on non-conforming bodies and its selective bestowing of citizenship privileges, or to remain ambivalent about its future relevance and sovereignty in an era of competitive globalization – these remain the many dilemmas that feminists have explored in their writings about the state. There is no consensus on either the increasing relevance of the state as a principled actors in in global politics or its popular [lacklustre] appeal in a fragmented and broken world where boundaries and sovereignties are hardly stable categories.

The state is back, and yet the state is invisible; the state is violent and yet the state is the hope for many; the state is an end in itself and also the means to achieve political and social objectives; the state is actively opposed and yet it remains an aspirational institution. What marks the appeal of the state? How and why do states embody gendered qualities, emotions and hierarchies? Who becomes/performs/embodies the state? Which persons are citizens of the state and which ones remain the policed subject populations? How can the state be free from the limitations of its own institutional frameworks, to respond to the challenges of the changing times? These were just some of the questions that guided the chapters in Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations. Continue reading