By Iman Ali Mounged
Politics and international relations (IR) across all global contexts have continuously adopted the use of gendered language in analyses of power, violence, nationalism and human rights. However, the “gendered language” they consider are far too exclusionary to remain relevant today.
The field of politics and IR are (rather unfortunately) built upon predominantly cisgender, heterosexual Western men and their wisdom through history. We see this in the origins of the constructions of nations and states and the position of women therein. We see this in the human rights agendas and the “responsibility to protect” marginalised societies, especially in the Global South. We see this in the linguistic tools used to convey these beliefs and translate them through history. “The Descent of Man”, “The Philosophy of Man”, “Son of Man”, “Statecraft and Mancraft”- all of which technically refer to humankind and not necessarily the male gender, but is that the case? Have state constitutions truly considered women in their constructions of binary societies? Let alone gender diverse identities?
We even see this in the commonly used term “Mankind”. Sure, the word is derivative of a context divorced of any implications of gender or power, but in Modern English “man” refers to the male sex/male gender identity. That doesn’t necessarily have to be problematic, but unfortunately, the word holds a heavy and loaded connotation ingrained in societal references of humankind.
This is immediately indicative of the (binary!) gender disparity that’s prevalent throughout history and seemingly constructed into our everyday politics. But if the gender binary is already unjust, what space does it allow for nonbinary and nonconforming identities?
How can we change these indoctrinated constructions built upon centuries of violence, oppression and omission of existence?
Gender performativity is a term coined by the acclaimed IR scholar Judith Butler (they/them- who ironically remains misgendered in academic contexts) explores the notions of gender expression and gender essentialism frameworks that confine us to what society expects from us and our “designated” gender identities.
They elaborate on how that often forces us to deviate from what our true gender identity would express, reflecting what would satisfy society’s tolerance to our position in life. Haven’t we all felt marginalised by that? Whether you’re cis, trans and/or nonconforming; the gaze that dictates our expression is often too powerful to allow us to face our true identities.
Our gender identity is something we should have the freedom to “perform” authentically. Not dubiously. Not fearfully. Not unfaithfully.
Advocating for gender diversity and neutrality does not diminish the gender binary and its identities.
That is often the barrier to tolerance and acceptance; the dismissal of what was once society’s truth and comfort. But “radical” reformulations of norms, and in this case identities, don’t seek to erase what exists. Rather they seek to create the space for exploring and integrating what has been dismissed, overlooked and excluded. Queer political theorists do not stop at studying what constitutes a human being in a political context- they also consider who gets to be a “human”, the privilege and power associated with that.
Why is it natural for us to use they/them pronouns in the absence of someone’s identity but claim that it is unnatural to apply them when that preference is stated? You hear people say “they/them refers to a plural context, I cannot use that about one, singular person”. But how does that differ from when you didn’t know their name? Or when you didn’t have the context of who they were? Suddenly, it’s acceptable to assume and implement your belief system(s) to align with someone’s identity? That is where the issue lies. We are too construed to “belief systems” that are outdated, some may say flawed. It’s no one’s fault to have the privilege of not having to consider the implications of misgendering/being misgendered.
There is some optimism in emerging concepts of IR like Queer IR (Cynthia Weber) and analyses of the politics of gender (Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Donna Haraway). When politics is stripped of its attachment to rigid confinements of sex, gender, race and culture within identities, it becomes less harsh and intolerant to those who it has failed to consider and protect. Perhaps academic integrity will finally enable society to validate and recognise these concerns, a purpose long overdue.
The personal is political emerged in the 1960s through the second wave of feminism. It refers to the revaluation of considering private affairs and struggles echoing into political contexts. We’ve used this in contexts of women marginalised by men, but how about we start using it to consider gender diverse identities? What if the way forward was to consider gender neutrality in our personal lives, until specified otherwise? Would that make people more considerate of gender-diverse identities? Would that make us more tolerant, accepting and inclusive? Would that alleviate the gender disparity that already exists in binary gender identities that human rights networks have tried to advocate for years? Perhaps. We’ll never know unless we put the effort into trying it.
We need to start asking these questions, loud and clear, to find answers and solutions to the profound concerns of gender and identity politics.