In recent years, feminism has been made to feel like an exclusive concept, one reserved for ‘leftists’ and academics. As a result, gender politics is regularly dismissed as being of relevance only to this minority. There’s also a worrying attitude that feminism was something from the past, that came and went. But we need only look at events in the last year to see that this isn’t true: the defences of Julian Assange that carried more than a whiff of rape apology, the kangaroo courts hastily erected by the SWP to ‘ínvestigate’ rape allegations at the core of the party, and the recent bout of transphobic hate speech printed in the Observer. It becomes clear that the issue of gender isn’t something that ought to be locked away in the back rooms of universities; it is a tangible, key relation in contemporary politics.
Societies controlled by capitalism have been fundamentally defined by patriarchal relationships throughout history. From birth, we are conditioned to behave according to socially normalised standards – gender, sexuality and race are all imposed on us, determining our identity from the outset. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze asserted that forcing a fixed identity upon “subjects” not only isolates and divides us, it becomes a way of pacifying our desire for freedom. We are forced to inhabit stereotyped identities and gender binaries, which not only stifle society’s revolutionary potential, but divide our struggles.
The division of gender roles predates capitalism, but the significant economic changes which have come to constitute the capitalist model have served to both reconstruct and further reiterate divisive gender binaries. Capitalism enforces arbitrary gender norms which we feel obliged to live up to; triggering our inner-most insecurities, isolating us and encouraging consumerist behaviours. We buy into these gendered identities for various reasons, but among them is the desire to belong, which we’re told will happen if we ‘strive’ towards the unattainable (and undesirable) lifestyles that glossy magazines, sensationalist advertisements and politicians tell us we must crave.
By creating and establishing normative genders and linking them to biology, as if they were natural and inevitable, people (aka the “subjects”) become more easily exploitable. However the way in which gender-roles mutate across time and cultures demonstrates the arbitrary nature of how female/male identities are constructed under different social systems. For example, up until the 1800s the idealised female figure was extremely curvaceous. In Ancient Greece both cross-dressing and homosexual relations were widely practiced among men. As a matter of fact, whilst homosexual relations have been common throughout human history, it is only over the past 100 years that we have witnessed the birth of a globally standardised ‘gay identity’ – “the gay international”.
Indeed, womanhood has changed over time in the global north. Women now form the spine of the global workforce; having been mobilised to accumulate capital, acting as a major pool of labour for capitalist expansion. But, under post-fordism we also have the contradiction that Donna Haraway has described in that gender binaries become both intensified and eroded. Many females will still seek out ‘productive’ labour, but it will be “pink-collar” work, from clerical roles to beauty therapy to care work where the stereotypes of femininity are a marketable asset.
Assigning arbitrary emotional traits to femininity (e.g. irrational, hysterical, weak) is one of the most subtly violent forms of oppression. It is also a debating tactic David Cameron is all too comfortable with, made famous by his unremarkable “calm down, dear” jibe in the House of Commons. Not only are these “humorous remarks” oppressive to women, they also feed into a wider spectrum of prejudice, which seeks to undermine any behaviour that is deemed non-conformist, such as the desire of a man to wear a dress or the struggle for social justice. For this reason, it is no longer acceptable for the left to regard gender as a charity struggle, or an isolated academic concept. As the poet Percy Shelley once put it: “How can man be free if woman is a slave?”
The movement has also changed: from suffrage and the fight for basic rights (largely for middle-upper class white heterosexual women), to the recognition of cultural role inequalities that are so easily taken for granted. Postmodern versions of feminism have often turned to conceptions about womanhood and gender identity.
Once gender roles become fixed and standardised they are not only another terrain for capitalist exploitation, but also a potent weapon deployed by nation states to justify sanguineous colonial wars. Historically we have seen how sexual freedom or feminism is often used to manipulate popular opinion against Islam, migrants or any other culture deemed “inferior” to the West. One example of this was the media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were repackaged by broadcasters and tabloids as something akin to a “feminist mission”. On the contrary, the implementation of a particularly gender-oppressive form of Sharia law in Iraq was a direct consequence of UK and US invasion.
Gender dominance is so intrinsically violent that “war rape” is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries. From the Bosnian conflict, where women were raped so they could give birth to Serbian babies, to the estimated 200,000 women raped during the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, and the rapes during the 1937 occupation of Nanking – the past century offers too many gruesome examples.
Though gender stereotypes and identities have been and are constantly used as tool of oppression, gender politics has simultaneously been the epicentre for social change in many struggles. Though the contemporary gay rights movement is currently utilising much of its resources for marriage rights, it is a movement that has rebellious, even revolutionary roots. Multiracial, mostly working class, transgender and gender variant people played a crucial role in this history. From the riots which kicked off in Compton’s cafeteria, San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn, New York City in the 1960s – which gave birth to Western LGBTQ movements – to the famous Zapatista “Mujeres con la Dignidad Rebelde” (Women with Rebel Dignity) to the vast mobilisations against rape apology across India and many other parts of the world.
Social and political connections between queer communities and the police have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ agenda as street youth, gay and lesbian people of colour, sex workers, drag queens, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people face disproportionate police violence. While the mainstream LGBT movement continues to lobby for the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in state and federal hate crimes statutes, there are numerous examples of grassroots efforts to challenge homophobic and transphobic violence whilst lessening our reliance on police, prisons, and courts.
As the policing of Muslim communities in the name of gender equality is now a globally organised phenomenon, queer and feminist resistance in colonised countries is becoming all the more prominent. For example, the Palestinian self-defined queer group, alQaws, seeks to challenge heteronormative oppression as well as the colonisation of Palestine.
This publication does not seek to provide an all-encompassing guide to current debates on gender. The idea behind the theme for this issue is to tease out some of the current debates on the topic; to facilitate a narrative in which gender inequality is no longer a mere afterthought, but rather the centre of our methodology, the point from which we develop our strategies and tactics, both within activism and outside of it. As long as the sole purpose of having women quotas (especially within activist groups) is to pay lip service to the idea of equality, proposals for radical change will remain couched in the delusive language of neoliberalism. We do need more women, queers and trans* within activism, but not simply to appear to be addressing cosmetic notions of equality, but to help us radically rethink our tactics. To misquote Flavia Dzodan: “My revolution will be feminist, or it will be bullshit.”
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