Governing Gender On a Global Scale: The Rise of Feminist Knowledge

A growing body of literature draws on the affinities between governmentality studies and feminist thought to analyze the global governance of gender. By gender, I refer first of all to the social conventions and norms that inform the classification of bodies as male or female, and the regulatory practices that assign different “labor, responsibilities, moral attributes, and emotional styles” to different individuals on the basis of their biological sex (Halberstam 2014: 117). Gender is also “a primary mode of oppression” (Halberstam 2014: 117), in that the characteristics assigned to men and women are typically attributed unequal value. In many social contexts, women are expected to be vulnerable, passive, and emotional, and men to be comparatively strong, active, and rational. The latter characteristics are deemed superior to the former, and provide the basis for the male entitlement to manage all things historically conceived as nature, including “women’s sexuality, bodies, and labour” (Peterson 1999: 40). These binary characteristics also provide an example of how gender operates as a marker of difference and a social relation not only between bodies (Halberstam 2014: 117), but also between concepts or attributes (e.g., when we think of a line of work as feminine or masculine). These gender hierarchies sustain material power imbalances between men and women, and between masculine and feminine fields of activity.

Gender and understandings of “the global” are co-constituted through overlapping regulatory practices targeted at global populations and phenomena, such as the “regulatory edifice of the global economy” (Priigl 1999: 4). As mentioned in the volume’s introduction, Foucault theorized that governmentality emerged in the 18th century in combination with new forms of calculation and planning that encompassed the entire globe as a frame of reference. The production of gender as a social norm is embedded in this co-constitutive exchange between modes of governing at a distance and understandings of globality. For instance, the global governance of economic remittances as a strategy for the alleviation of poverty relies on and reproduces stereotypical gendered subjectivities (Kunz 2013). In the Mexican context, men are expected to work abroad and send remittances to female relatives, who are expected to stay at home. In other contexts, notably in South-East Asia, a transnational network of actors attempts to discipline the bodies of women who work as domestic migrant workers so that they conform to a docile and productive ideal of feminine working class subjectivity (Elias 2018). As these examples related to the global governance of migration suggest, gender “pervades world politics” while also being “a global construct” (Priigl 1999: 3-4).

The importance of gender as a structuring principle of global forms of governmentality emerged first through the violence of colonial conquest. In the mid-18th century, when Europe first understood itself as needing “the world for its unlimited market” (Foucault 2008: 55), colonial enterprises initiated attempts at imposing European gender codes in the colonies. This was notably the case during the colonization of Yorubaland in Nigeria by the

British in the 19th and early 20th century (Oyewùmi 1997, ix). Prior to colonization, the Yoruba people cultivated social stratifications organized around age and kinship - not gender. Individuals of any sex indiscriminately occupied leadership roles. This changed under British rule. In the colonial era, boys and girls were educated unequally; men received better employment opportunities; colonial judges adjudicated customary law in favor of men; and British authorities did not recognize female leaders. In most colonies, similar gender regulations prevailed, so that if the male colonized population was treated as subaltern vis-à-vis the colonisers, their female counterparts were left “more deeply in shadow” (Spivak 2010: 41).

From the 19th century onward, transnational networks of women’s organizations intervened to reverse some of these trends, and successfully established women as “a transnational category with shared problems in need of international resolution” (Harrington 2013). Prior to this, European authorities had regulated women’s lives on a national level through attempts at governing the family unit (Foucault 1991: 100; Rose 1999: 74). Women’s organizations headquartered primarily in Europe and North America, such as the International Council of Women, established in 1888, assembled statistics on women in various parts of the world in order to advocate women’s suffrage, international labor legislation, and the prevention of prostitution and human trafficking (Berkovitch 1999: 21; Harrington 2006: 350). This helped construct women as a globally relevant category of personhood in their own right, while also establishing the knowledge of women’s organizations as valuable (Harrington 2013: 55). After World War II, the newly established UN would give an increasingly global dimension to this trend in the context of its Commission on the Status of Women (Harrington 2013: 54) and, from 1976 onward, its International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women and the UN Development Fund for Women (Berkovitch 1999: 146).

Women of color, who had been minority elements in earlier arenas of transnational women’s activism, were the majority of participants at the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985 (Davis 1990: 110). From this moment, women of color were better positioned to diversify the feminist knowledges accepted as expertise on a global scale. Up to this point, these knowledges were mostly informed by white and middle-class perspectives (Harrington 2013: 53), and often aimed to incorporate women into global development initiatives that took Europe as its point of reference (Berkovitch 1999: 16). In 1995, during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women from the Global South and particularly Africa reoriented the global governance of gender beyond development, to better account for problems of war and insecurity (Hawkesworth 2006; Tripp 2006: 68). The Beijing Platform for Action committed to integrate women’s concerns in matters of “armed and other conflicts” (art. 141). Soon after, the UN International Criminal Tribunals and the International Criminal Court reinterpreted the laws of war to better recognize rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, trafficking, and gender-based persecution as war crimes and crimes against

Post conflict statebuilding 149 humanity (Kinsella 2005: 252; Hawkesworth 2006: 97-98). In 2000, the relentless advocacy of women’s organizations led the UN Security Council to adopt the first resolution on Women, Peace, and Security. This event firmly initiated the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in the armed conflict and securityside of the UN (Cohn 2008: 185). Although these efforts are often tainted by colonial undertones, women across the globe have been mobilizing to influence and reclaim the resolution to promote their interests (Holvikivi and Reeves 2020).

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