As my audience is probably aware, when I’m not writing down my lengthy musings on links between feminist theory and popular video games/Greek literature/things I learned in Year 7, I’m studying for a Master’s degree in International Development. I made this life choice as I tend to make all my life choices: by reaching a point where a life choice was necessary, refusing to consider the life choice too hard, having a decent option smack me in the face and deciding it might be worth a try. Then, when said life choice needs to be made, the single option I have actually made progress towards becomes the natural choice. There were some justifications as to why I decided to specifically study in China, and doing International Development (mostly because I try to make life choices based around being both vague and awesome, and degrees with no obvious subject matter in far off countries are definitely that), but mostly it was all just another happy little accident.
It’s not a decision I’ve ever really regretted. I spent a year in the opposite end of China before coming to university (on my Gap Yah, if you will), and always knew I wanted to come back for more. And studying international development looked like a great decision, at least on paper- another degree that would let me study basically everything and might even give me skills to Help People, fantastic! I remain sceptical about some of the practical details, of course. By the end of the year I’ll probably be a Master in Public Administration, which is a laughably useful-sounding for somebody who once got a visa to work in the USA under the job title “playwright” (vague and awesome, guys, vague and awesome). But I made one big, frustrating academic mistake when I came here: I decided to study gender in a country where gender studies don’t exist.
It becomes more frustrating the more independent I become. I exist in a world where classes are about policies and technical solutions and urbanisation and transport and food security and economics and Beyond Economics and the environment and endless, endless debates about China’s Hukou system- but we touch so little on gender and development that it might as well not exist. Meanwhile, everywhere I look in the rest of the development world, enormous weight is placed on questions of gender- try UNDP’s #equalitymonday hashtag on Twitter, for example, which provides link after link to statistics and measures trying to conceptualise and tackle global gender inequalities wherever they are found. China’s own development plans and white papers normally do include female empowerment as a goal, but it’s never considered important enough to be discussed. Meanwhile, the China Women’s Federation is too busy shaming single women into giving up their ridiculous standards and dreams and marrying off as soon as possible to tackle women in development in any more than the rhetorical sense.
In one of my first assignments here, I decided to study some of the recent work on gender and climate change, to the utter bewilderment of a couple of my classmates- how could there possibly be any overlap between those two topics? After all, climate change is a hard, serious, scientific topic that deals with facts and numbers and data and gender is something studied by fluffy academics in pretentious hats who invent complicated words to talk about simple things. They are literally things from different worlds. That is, until you start actually analysing the current effects of a changing climate: the increasing rate of natural disasters whose casualties are disproportionately women and children, or the increasing unpredictability of weather systems which put subsistence farmers- again, disproportionately female- at risk from food insecurity. Or if you look at the people targeted by a lot of climate change mitigation policies, where adopters of household-directed policy initiatives once again tend to be women in both developed and developing areas- changing heavily polluted coal stoves for solar powered ones is both an environmental issue and one of women’s health. The messy intersection of environmental degradation and poverty reduction and gender is not a fiction- it’s a real thing being discussed by plenty of important and concerned people. Except not here.
It’s so frustrating, because there’s so much to discuss! And not just from a practical point of view, although clearly this is the most vital part of the operation. But beyond that lies the other big challenge of development- understanding what actually works in what context. And to do that, we need to start seriously looking critically at the diverse normative structures we built around “women incubate babies”, how they work and what might- or should- be done about them. Saying this to people when trying to get a thesis supervisor was eye-openingly frustrating- speaking to one of the underlings in the office of our department’s biggest climate change “star”, for example, her only insight into gender and climate change was “oh, it’s interesting that most of the doctoral students in our office are women”. She wasn’t interested in getting me in contact with anybody higher-up in the office, and frankly I don’t think I missed out on much.
As I’ve mentioned before, gender is everywhere. In societies like the UK (and the rest of Western Europe and North America) it very explicitly shares space with discourses on race and sexuality and ability, but on a global scale even the most homogenous societies, where distinctions along the other three lines either don’t exist or are repressed, gendered norms and organisational structures are always still present. In development, gender clearly goes way beyond the rather specific example of climate change: poverty reduction, agriculture, patterns of urbanisation and migration, healthcare, education, labour patterns, population*- all of these are development issues which are hugely affected by gendered norms in the ways they work. Pretty much every society across space and time has turned “females incubate babies” into a fundamental pillar of the human condition, and from there we have constructed normative systems which become very hard to separate from the biological facts entailed by “females incubate babies”. It seems pretty obvious that those of us who are interested in how human beings can live better are going to need to take these structures into account, or we’re not talking about human beings at all- we’re just talking about men.
And of course, it’s important because in almost every society, these normative structures make women’s lives notably more difficult than men. This ranges from femicide (female infanticide and neglect of female children in societies with strong son preference, with big negative consequences both for demographics in general as well as for both men and women in the societies in question) to double burdens and economic insecurity and enforced childcare to restricted movements to all the other various insidious ways that societies have of keeping women subordinate to men. And because these are the products of millennia of human society, tackling these inequalities requires more than simply pointing out their existence and allowing them to speak for themselves- we’ve installed so many systems around explaining why female biology necessitates this death and neglect and overwork and subordination that meaningful equality often requires nothing short of full upheaval. Unlike racial discrimination, which is presented in international law as factually wrong, the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) presents gender inequality as being a question of values- equality activists can only present norms to fight other norms.**
This framing presents an interesting, if implicit, dilemma when it comes to gender sensitive policy, developmental or otherwise. Is it better for us feminists to focus on policies and discourses which change these norms- join in the moral discourse about our own equality and what it actually is? Or is it better to focus on policies which work within these norms, or even use them, to provide good outcomes? We certainly see plenty of the latter, mostly utilising the implications of the double burden and the undervaluation of female labour- in the majority of places, women still have control over household and children, so any policy aimed at improving household living conditions really still needs to focus on women in order to be effective. What these policies often do, in both development and in policy more widely (enforced recycling is a fabulous example of this in developed countries!) is increase the workload of the [female] household manager in order to bring about better outcomes. In less developed areas the burden that women are assumed to be able to take on is greater; so you get initiatives about education and healthcare, particularly, which rely on telling women what they need to do and assuming that as they are good householders and mothers and they don’t really do much else with their time, these good basic development objectives will get done. I’m not denying that it can work- and in rural areas where men have migrated away, there’s not exactly anybody else to put the burden onto. But the values and systems that these systems rely on to work mean that when we gender them, we lock women into “naturally” having to take on greater workloads- empowerment and trust at the cost of devaluing what their labour is actually worth.
The alternative is very tricky, however, because the question relies on a “we” that cannot be assumed to exist: “how do we break down these systems to actually free women from restrictive societal expectations and empower them to actually be free to make fulfilling life choices?” The answer is not for those of us in privilege to tell other people how they should be changing to fit our personal preconceptions of equal societies- mostly because we still have no leg to stand on when it comes to a lot of our own societal organisation. The UK still has a “missingmillion” women who don’t work because childcare choices aren’t adequate to let them (although it’s unclear how many of these missing million are just lucky enough to be able to make a positive choice to concentrate on childcare alone), and growing inequalities which disproportionately affect women and children, particularly in the lower 50% of wealth. In talking as if there is a single path which some of us are further along than others, we risk drowning out voices of people who are coming to this question from different points of departure, and coming up with equally valid conclusions. I’m not talking about accepting that “it’s in some cultures to oppress women” because that’s not something worth respecting. But we do need to entertain diversity more than we currently do.
It’s important, because when we don’t ensure our debates are noisily and obviously about the “how” of normative change, then we risk reverting to debating the “why” of normative change. We’re already implicitly vulnerable to this, because gender equality is so full of qualifications and confusions about what is “natural” and to what extent things need to be “different-but-equal” (because more female chimpanzees play with stick babies, etc. etc.). Recently, left wing writer Medhi Hassan opened himself up to a storm of criticism when he wrote an anti-choice piece for the Huffington Post- his response rightly points out that the level of internet vitriol that people can bring on themselves can be excessive, but it also shows a level of arrogance in expecting that he should be able to have a normative debate about a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body. Too many people in this world, men and women, think that there is still a productive debate to be had about whether women should be equal at all, and this can’t be tackled either by silence or by prescribing a model from the “top” that still isn’t anywhere near perfected.
*Here our professor did know his stuff when it comes to gender, so it's not universally bad!
** The exception to this is the argument to allow women to participate in the labour force to some extent, which can easily be justified in terms of increasing economic productivity. The positivity of this is, of course, a normative good masquerading as a universal fact. But let’s not get too into that.