A friend recently commented how nervous he became, anytime ‘The Feminists’ got started in a class discussion.
Having had the recent privilege of sitting in a three hour seminar about Gender, Sexuality and Security, led by Dr Adam Kamradt-Scott and featuring guest lecturer Dr Megan MacKenzie, of the Government and International Relations Department at the University of Sydney, I was intrigued.
Preempting his response, I still asked the obvious, ‘Why’?
Put simply: He didn’t know what he could or more importantly, couldn’t say.
He didn’t know the correct terminology (ie: what language to use) nor appropriate themes on which to engage i.e.: he didn’t know how to avoid offence.
Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t been in the New Security Challenges seminar the day before, where our discussions centred on the gendered nation-state, despite the fact gender has been historically ignored within International Relations (IR).
What was so refreshing about this seminar was the fact that we were ALL uncomfortable (read ignorant) from the outset.
What was so enlightening was the simplicity of Dr MacKenzie’s approach. Just like a great paper, we started with key definitions and defined our binaries: What is Feminism? How is it different to Gender studies?
By doing so, we were able to apply state-centric and human security lenses for the purposes of critically understanding another approach to IR, without getting lost in what we couldn’t do.
When Feminism and Gender enter a conversation, our logic seems to catapult itself into the stratosphere, never to be retrieved again. That was until Dr MacKenzie lead a straight- talking, logical articulation of our inherent prejudices within the discourse.
So what is Feminism?
My understanding of Feminism (and I suspect this will continue to evolve) in the international security context, is it’s an approach with a political agenda, that recognises things are ‘not ideal’ and looks at what and how to promote change.
Whereas, Gender Studies, refers to a body of work, sans political agenda, concerned with the social aspects and norms or binaries (masculinity Vs femininity) of a society.
While our discussions focused on war, more specifically the Queen Boat Case in Egypt, and the desecuritization and reconstruction of women (read: female soldiers) in post-conflict Sierra Leone, the key learnings and insights were applicable in both a war and peace context.
Just like business, sport and government, in our privileged, democratically developed world, the nation state remains inherently patriarchal: ‘a man’s world’ (Sjoberg 2009:184). Therefore, so too does the dominant IR discourse.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, it’s simply the way things are, or how you look at things.
One thing I have learnt, is that what’s important in any form of discourse (formal or informal) is in understanding what you’re looking at, and how you’re looking at it. And most importantly, in the incidence of debate, what others, whose opinions differ from yours are looking at and how.
It’s usually our ability as leaders (thought, imagined or otherwise) to identify the epistemological differences with a debate that enable productive outcomes.