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  • Carla Smith

Why does gender matter in international politics?

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

This Voices piece looks at the enduring role of gender disparities in shaping international politics. Our student contributors have explored the ways in which nationalism, international justice, the COVID-19 pandemic and media coverage of the Russian war in Ukraine are products of a masculinised conception of our global society.


1. The Inherent Masculinisation of Nationalism

By Anna Berkowitz, MSc International Relations

It is often assumed that gender is simply a lens through which to look at International Relations issues, and it is often just relegated to its obligatory week in the syllabus of an introductory module. However, looking at the interplay between gender and international relations speaks not only to how women are affected by the international system, but explains why some issues are prioritised over others, how and what decisions are made, and how individuals experience violence and security threats differently.

As right-wing nationalistic movement surge around the world, discussions surrounding nationalism have increasingly become more and more prominent in the academic literature. Nationalism, an ideology that imbues one with pride in the nation, has long had a connection with manhood and patriarchal values, as the very idea of the state is a masculine invention. Any conversation about nationalism is thus incomplete without an examination of the way gender is utilized as a tool to fuel these movements.

In her revolutionary book Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Cynthia Enloe notes that “nationalism has typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation, and masculinized hope.” Essentially, the very ideas in which nationalism are based, collective strength, tradition, and often violence, are thus inherently connected to the culture of masculinity and the reproduction of gendered hierarchies.

In considering the role of women in the national project, politicians have long framed women as “perpetuators of the nation.” This continually reinforces the reductive image of the female body as representative of the future of the nation, as they are valued for their ability to reproduce, nothing more.

To reinforce a strong sense of nativism, women are also often framed as the implicit victims of a perceived threat, summed up in Donald Trump’s infamous presidential announcement speech When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. [...] They’re rapists.” The implicit message is clear: the outsiders present a sexual threat to American women.

Nationalism as a concept and as a practice is built around identities and social relations, thus gender becomes inherently tied to nationalistic causes. The ideas that fuel these movements are highly masculinized, and as we watch nationalism grow in the 21st century, gender becomes more than just a lens through which to view these events. It becomes an integral part of how these movements subjugate women and enforce existing gender hierarchies.

2. Feminist Analyses of Security and Justice

By Lara Patching, 3rd Year BSc International Relations

To address the most obvious of gender disparities in security: female victims still suffer from increased domestic violence during times of war or crisis. Findings from research done in war-torn areas are all of a similar nature: when a state is at war, uncertainty increases along with the stress of the population and the number of people drafted to the militar. These factors are significant as they have a direct correlation with the increase of domestic violence against women. Domestic violence is continuously relegated to a matter of health rather than security. Indeed, the WHO is now the main actor in helping to solve violence against women. As a result, policy is directed at providing resources for women to help themselves, such as domestic abuse hotlines and widespread public information campaigns, rather than effectively dealing with the matter with law enforcement and state resources.

Further gender disparities are also seen in the international justice system where female war criminals are likely to get lesser sentences and have less help in reassimilating into civilian life. During the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46, female war criminals were consistently ignored and justice against some of the most violent female Nazi officers was pursued so late that they died before a verdict. Female prosecution in war tribunals has improved only slightly since then, such as when Bosnian Serb President Plavšić was prosecuted in the ICC. Plavšić directly worked alongside army commanders to instigate the killing of around 50,000 Bosnian Muslims in the event now known as the Srebrenica Massacre. War tribunals have more recently prosecuted female war criminals, however, their role is still dangerously underplayed, and many walk free.

Furthermore, the unequal pressures laid on men during times of conflict can be linked directly to patriarchal notions of ‘masculinity’. It is key to note that women are still not accepted into the army in many states and, in the states where they are, they struggle to be fully accepted into army life due to the ‘boys club’ nature of army life. This leads to an increased pressure on men to engage in conflict and defend their country, more so than their female counterparts, as battle is seen as a path to manhood or a crucial element of one’s masculinity. This increased patriarchal pressure is a factor in the deterioration of male mental health, one of the biggest health problems faced by men in recent years.

Evidently, security and international justice have a long way to go in addressing gender disparities in their respective fields. However, for these to be fully addressed, states need to reexamine the way in which they frame their security and justice efforts, and question ingrained societal values that have led to the gendered beliefs we share today.

3. The gendering of the COVID-19 crisis

By Vandana Venkataraman, 3rd Year BSc International Relations

Cynthia Enloe revolutionized feminist IR theory by asking ‘Where are the women?’. In an ongoing Covid-19 crisis, this is a question we need to ask ourselves, for the consideration of women and non-binary gender identities is largely missing in global health discourse. No health crisis is gender-neutral, especially the Covid-19 pandemic that has caused increased biological and socioeconomic losses for women compared to men. Mainstream IR scholarship is severely lacking in gendered representation of global health systems. It is about time for an immediate call to action for policy reform.

Women are clearly invisible within the policy space, and this invisibility exposes the weaknesses within health systems during crises in catering to gendered needs. Women’s access to basic sexual and reproductive healthcare was massively disrupted because of the pandemic, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where women reported disruptions at significantly higher levels (95%) than males (17.6%). More women died of obstetric and post-natal complications than from the virus itself as health facilities were solely directed to Covid-19 patients. These are preventable deaths that politicians have failed to recognise and grieve properly. These lives have been lost due to the evident gendered gaps in the system.

The gendered effects of Covid-19 also highlight existing inequalities internationally, with women bearing the brunt of economic losses. Internationally, the female job loss rate is 1.8 times greater than male job loss rate, simply because women are disproportionately represented in sectors affected by the pandemic. Less than 1 in 5 social protection measures enacted by governments have been gender sensitive, with women taking up most of the unpaid care without adequate support. The lack of progress on gender equality is ultimately proving to be economically costly for the whole world.

Real-time sex-disaggregated data needs to be prioritised as the absence of statistics reflecting the lives of women and girls renders many issues invisible. In the context of Covid-19, this includes data on hospitalisation, testing and vaccinations to truly understand the extent of the outbreak’s transmissions and its impacts. Scientific studies and assessments of pandemic response need to be inclusive of gendered factors. Not only is this beneficial for governments in creating diverse policy frameworks to target different groups, but this is also important to women and girls all over the world who are vulnerable to heightened exposure. Though IGOs like UN Women are filling in these gaps, more needs to be done to expand existing research into gendered health impacts.

It is not too late to learn from our mistakes and make up for our losses. Immediate action to extend health accessibility, strengthen responses and prevent transmissions is crucial in tandem with policies geared at reducing socio-economic inequalities using a gendered lens. With greater female and non-binary leadership, a path to equitable recovery is possible.

4. The Danger of Hypermasculine Political Leadership

By Maria-Letizia Freiin Von Bibra, 3rd Year International Relations and History student

Nowadays, it seems as if the borders of the gender binary are as stringently protected as the borders of nations. Challenges to this binary, including recognition of third genders and calls for inclusive language reform, are met with the most resistance by individuals who most strongly identify with their given gender, as it provides them with a secure sense of self that is hereby coming under threat. We can observe the gender binary and its rigorous defense as distinct phenomena in international politics, as evidenced by the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, the gendered media coverage of conflict situations, and the increased hypermasculinity of male leaders.

The outbreak of war in Ukraine has further exposed the centrality of gender in international politics. While intensified militarism is conflated with masculine heroism, Ukrainian ‘women and children’ are categorized as the innocent, feminized victims of the conflict. Even though it is true that the war has affected men and women differently, in part due to existing patriarchal norms, the media has undeniably cemented these gendered realities in our collective imaginations. Another tragic consequence of the gender binary and its role in this war is that those members of society that are most at risk, such as trans and non-binary people, are almost entirely overlooked. Apart from being the target of transphobic attacks in their own communities, Ukrainian trans people, especially trans women, say they are “terrified” of leaving the country since having an incorrect gender marker in their identity documents might result in being forced to stay and join the army “as a man." A gendered perspective of international politics can shed light on the systematic persecution of these gender minorities and provide us with a more accurate, nuanced image of who suffers during conflict.

Gender analysis also opens our eyes to the real-life consequences of hypermasculine political leadership. Widely circulated images such as those depicting Vladimir Putin riding bare-chested on a horse help project an image of masculinity that strives to bolster his regime’s domestic legitimacy and international credibility by playing on traditional, masculine traits that other male leaders identify as strength. Coming to power at a time when Russia was perceived as weak and ‘feminine’ for losing its superpower status, Putin arguably seeks to correct this emasculating historical trend by demonstrating an excess of military aggression, manifesting in harrowing crises like the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine.

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