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Beyond Boundaries and Binaries

Evaluating the contribution of Transnational Movements to International Relations

Salwa Mansuri. Resident Intern, Princeton Foundation for Peace & Learning; and Graduate Candidate at the London School of Economics.

Between the end of World War II to 1970, close to ninety percent of international relations scholarship reflects the realist view (Vasquez, 1999), where states are considered principal actors (Schuett and Stirk, 2016). The state centric nature of International Relations once thoroughly celebrated and studied through, in contemporary scholarship holds little satisfaction for scholars and students of international relations alike (Foot, 1990). Other theories, such as feminism scholarship have shifted state-centric notions of international relations towards typically side-lined actors, women (Tickner, 1997). By exposing the state as gendered rather than neutral, feminist analysis highlights the masculine, heterosexual and aggressive state, which draws rigid boundaries that enable patriarchy to sideline women from the international sphere. Transnational Feminist Movements (TFMs) blur such boundaries between binary identities, the domestic and the international, the private and the public and transform statist concepts of power, sovereignty and identity towards individual sexual autonomy of women. However, by conceptualizing Third World Women in need of saving, and as selfless victims, pathways to justice and empowerment are homogenized according to White Liberal Feminists.

Broadly, significant literature in international relations is centric to Western Liberalism with attention drawn to the “Third World Woman” (Afshar, 2005; Narayan 1997). Literature that challenges white liberal feminist scholarship Alexander & Mohanty (1997), Stoler (1997), Kim (1997) & Hasso (1998) invariably creates binaries such as the powerful and the powerless, the White Liberal empowered woman and the subordinate victim, the rational and the irrational (Mohanty, 1988). Such “dualistic thinking” (Sprague and Zimmerman, 1993, p.321) to feminist scholarship spark transnational feminist literature. Scholars such as Moallem (2001)), Inderpal Grewal (1994) and Spivak (1996) draws attention for the need to escape traditional parameters of neoliberal constraints of the state to system to highlight patterns of asymmetry that exist beyond the state parameters. Though TFMs have been previously explored (Adams and Thomas, 2010 & Conway, 2017), there remains scarce assessment of how such transnational movements transform perceptions of statist concepts of power, sovereignty & identity and further the understanding of international relations from a state-centric to a women-centric one.

Transnational Feminist Movements (TFM): #MeToo
TFMs involve activist movements that cross-borders and mobilize individual women across the globe. They aim to “disrupt oppression” and “advance liberation in diverse cultural contexts” (Zerbe Enns, Díaz and Bryant-Davis, 2020, p.11). The “transnational” aspect of feminist movements particularly threatens the masculine approaches and attempt to dissolve rigid boundaries between between the private and the public, the domestic from the international and the self and the other. (Steans 2003, p.434). Founded in 2006, the #MeToo Movement is a social change TFM that attempts to build solidarity with victims of sexual abuse (Hillstrom, 2018). The MeToo demonstrates all qualities of TFM because it focuses on the diverse experiences of women who live within, between, and at the margins or boundaries of nation-states around the globe” (Peter, 2020) thus blurring parameters of the domestic from the international. With a specific focus on women in traditionally male-dominated spheres such as the workplaces, the film industry and the movement has blurred boundaries between the private and the public the segregation of which furthers marginalization of women into domestic parameters (Wharton and Baron, 1991). With a focus on “transnational inequities and intersectionality” (Zerbe Enns, Díaz and Bryant-Davis, 2020, p.15) it dissolves binary identities and boundaries. As such the #MeToo is useful to explain the role TFM play in furthering the understanding of international relations in theory and in practice.

Sovereignty: The Domestic; The International
Gender analysis transforms the traditional statist view of sovereignty towards emancipation and freedom of victims of sexual assault. As such, TFM blur boundaries of sovereignty largely characterized within domestic state boundaries towards women’s experiences across the world. They further understanding of sovereignty as beyond domestic spheres of the state and towards individual sexual autonomy and emancipation.

Sovereignty and state autonomy
In international relations scholarship, sovereignty is rarely detached from the state and considered a statist concept (Hoffman, 2001, p.6). Realists tend to define the state as merely representative of the “constitutional independence of the state”. (Hoffman, 2001, p.9). Significant scholarship highlights that the state is unable to exist if it does not claim sovereignty and therefore, sovereignty is linked with “autonomy, freedom and emancipation” (Hoffman, 2001, p.5). Feminist scholars highlight how such freedom that the state receives through sovereignty ironically curbs individual freedom and dignity of those within the state through patriarchy and male domination (ibid). Hoffman (2001) discusses that the sovereignty which “respects and empowers women” (p.5) is sovereignty beyond the state, such as in the case of transnational movements. TFMss highlight the need to detach sovereignty from the state, be reclaimed and reconstructed (Brace & Hoffman, 1997). As such they blur boundaries between the domestic and the international as they draw attention to individual sovereignty, sexual autonomy and consent of women across the international community beyond sovereignty as domestic statist spheres.

The MeToo movement disrupts traditional notions of sovereignty by placing consent, sexual freedom, sexual autonomy and emancipation from sexual violence and harassment at the forefront (Sikka, 2021) through the survivor’s march. Thousands of sexual assault survivors and allies have stepped outside their homes and joined survivor marches on the street in their own home country sparking similar movements in other countries. Women have marched the streets with slogans such as “EndTheStigma” and the “Way I dress is not a Yes”. The movement challenges scholars such as Tinkner (1992) who argue that “sovereignty appears to be a concept that is inherently immune to reconstruction” and instead highlights that sovereignty can be reconstructed and reconceptualized to place the sexual autonomy and freedom of women beyond domestic spheres as paramount. The MeToo serves as a means for women to reclaim and retain denied sovereignty (Hoffman, 2001) by asserting that “no means no”.

The MeToo movement also challenges traditional critical theorists and shifts notions of sovereignty from “sovereign leviathan” that appears to take for granted that sovereignty can only express itself in the institutions of the state (Hoffman, 2001 p.22) and instead highlights that such sovereignty such as emancipation, sexual autonomy and liberty is one that is exercised through individuals. Such reflections are encapsulated by both Hutchings and Shildrick (p.22) who speak of sovereign individuals as dominant. In doing so, the MeToo movement has challenged the traditional notions of international relations demonstrated through the command-obedience model: power as sovereignty (Allen, 1999) but power that relates to autonomy and emancipation at an individual level, rather than expansionism and hegemony. The MeToo invariably challenges the notion of sovereignty as “divisible power” or a “masculinised deity” (Peterson 1992, p.18) because it brings women’s autonomy and sovereignty to the forefront.

Power: The Private v the Public
Gender analysis challenges the conventional realist notion of the state as a “neutral arbitrator capable of delivering justice” (Mack and McCann, 2018, p.342). As such TFMs blur boundaries between the private and the public sphere by drawing attention to the injustices perpetrated by the state within private spheres by public officials in the form of police brutality. As such they further understanding of power as “empowerment” beyond hegemony and expansionism.

Sexuality of the State
Hegemonic masculinity “focuses on competition, aggression, independence, control, and capacity for violence” (Purvis and Blanco, 2019, p.1513), one that the realist state embodies through vie for power, hegemony aggression and control and one that is seen as the ultimate goals of states. As feminist scholars “began to peel back the many layers that it takes to construct the state” (Hudson, 2013, p.5) they exposed the gendered nature of the state as a “masculinist construct” (Pettman, 2005, p. 5). Feminist scholars extend this critique and raise “unaskable” questions (Enloe 1990) about the dependence of states on gender segregated roles. Such segregated roles and the rigid demarcation between the private and the public has led to boundaries between inside and outside to legitimise control, regulation and coercion by the state (Hudson, 2013, p.3). Some scholars (Stiehm and St. Germaine, 1983) perceive state as essentially a “protection racket” which enables men, including state apparatus like the police to control women within demarcated domestic spheres. Coercion, violence and oppression are legitimised at a domestic level and as Peterson (1992) highlights, “systemically institutionalized and supported by the coercive power of the state” (see Hudson, 2013, p.5). Such “sexual dominion” (Millett, 1977) is “perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power” (ibid, p.25).

Legitimizing Oppression through Protection
MeToo movement also highlights police brutality and the state structures that perpetuates, produces and normalizes subordination of women in relation to men (MacKinnon, 1987, p.53). Such police brutality and violence is not only visible on streets but trickles to the domestic household. “Police Me Too” (Fearn, 2021) was launched by a woman who survived domestic abuse at the hands of her former husband who previously was a police officer. The movement gathers personal histories of women who have been abused by police officers (ibid) and aims to amplify the voices of women and girls who were abused by police instead of protected (ibid). Such movements debunk the myth that as MacKinnon (1987, p.52) highlights “female power” is a contradiction in terms…a misnomer. Such movement expose that men who are paid to uphold the law and protect vulnerable people doing the very opposite behind closed doors (ibid). It contradicts MacKinnon’s view that “the form of power they [women] are exercising, even though they are female, is still male (or patriarchal) power” (p.117) because the power that TFMs and activists are upholding, is invariably one that expose patriarchy. They do not seek power neither from patriarchy, nor from the state but instead from a collective form of identity and solidarity based on similar experiences.

TFMs transform the notion of power based on material feminist, Hartsock ([1983]1985) view that “suggests that women’s ‘life activity’ gives rise to “an alternative tradition” of power, a female or “woman-centred” (Radtke and Stam 1994, p.7) as seen in such movements, life stories and experiences.

Identity: Beyond the Binary
Gender analysis challenges the conventional notion of identity largely dictated and denoted by state borders as a means for states to differentiate themselves from other actors and accomplish their foreign policy goals. Such distinctions reflect heteronormativity of the state and segregates gender identities as binary. TFMs place intersectionality and gender fluidity at the forefront, celebrate non-binary identities, and serve as an opportunity to “queer” the state. As such they further understanding of international relations as beyond the binary.

Heteronormativity of the State
Such distinctions have resulted in states reflecting the same distinctions and dualities as binary reflective in public policy they formulate fostering heteronormativity and restricting fluidity and spaces for non-binary outlooks into gender. Puri, (2014) highlights that not only does the state regulate domains of sexuality thus furthering heteronormativity within the state but also “produces such binary and distinct domains”. For example, Stevens (1999) highlights that identity such as gender, sexuality are not “pre-political categories” (see Evans et. al, 2014, p.347) or affiliations that play out in the international arena. Instead, as Cooper (1995) highlights, the normalization of heteronormativity become “references for states” for patriarchal governance. Attempts of some national governments to suppress the MeToo movement is a clear example of heteronormativity, one which would neither be recognized nor considered problematic without gender analysis (reference?).

Queering the State
Several scholars such as Duggan (1994) has highlighted the need to dismantle the heterosexual normativity of the state by “unraveling the state’s investment in heteronormativity and exhorts a queering of the state”. One way in which the MeToo movement has bolstered departure to “queering” the state is by mobilizing LGBTQ candidates to run for political office to combat sexual harassment in American Society. For example, Mark Pocan who self-identifies as non-binary “called on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to include guidance on sexual orientation as part of the Workplace Rights and Responsibilities Program, an anti-workplace harassment and discrimination training attended by Members of Congress and their staff”. Transnational movements such as the MeToo have highlighted how the state can be reconstructed, restructured and transformed from a heterosexual and dominant male identity to one that is gender-sensitive and fluid. TFMs such as the MeToo help critique literature put forth by traditional radical feminists. Radical Feminist Scholars such as Judith Allen highlight view of the state as “a category of abstraction” that is “too aggregate, too unitary and too unspecific” as an entity of international relations. Jane Jaquette (2003a, 2003b) builds on this concern to argue the need to reject state all together under the assumption that states are naturally hostile to women and little concern for gender or women (see Hudson, 2013, p.6). As such their “static and oppressive character” is likely to remain intact. The MeToo movement has mobilized queer individuals to run for office, one step towards dismantling heteronormativity. Even then, transnational feminist movements attract significant critiques, especially from a post-colonial feminist lens.

“The Veil of Shame”: A post-colonial feminist critique
TMFs such as the MeToo transform understanding of foundational concepts of power, sovereignty and identity. However, several post-colonial feminist scholars (Ghadery, 2019; Phipps, 2019) critique that such movements only perpetuate colonialism. Post-colonial feminists have highlighted the exploitation of “women of color” worldwide (Chowdhry and Nair 2002). Hence, understanding of power, sovereignty and identity remain Western-centric.

Motif of the Veil: Deprived Agency
In neoliberal feminist scholarship, the veil often symbolises a “static colonial image of the oppressed veiled Muslim woman” (Hoodfar, 1997, p.3). The MeToo movement for example has largely been characterised by the media as a form of movement that encourages women to “lift their veils of shame and stigma” (Lazareva, 2019) and “lifting the veils of masculinity” (Khandekar, 2022). Several mainstream media spaces have celebrated the MeToo Movement as an opportunity for Muslim Women to unleash themselves from oppression, the veil being characterised as one that the West believes women have awaiting. Such notions highlight that the only means to feel empowered, heard and seek justice is through unveiling.

Abu-Lughod (2002) highlights that liberals are surprised that women do not appear to “throw off” their burqas or veils even after Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban. It appears that the MeToo movement has unintentionally, sparked similar notions and expectations. For example, it highlights that “The #MeToo Movement Is Powering Women To Throw Off The Veil Of Patriarchy”. Veil of Patriarchy also makes it appear as though patriarchy is limited to Veil-wearing women and those that do not wear the Veil are free from it. Post-colonial feminist scholarship therefore critiqued the conceptualization of the West as one that legitimizes its oppression and dominance across the international community such as in the case of war, interventions and other foreign policy objectives that it aims to further.

Saving Third World Women
Invariably, by characterizing the “Third World Woman” as “the Other”, TFMs have embodied White Liberal Feminist stances, where colonized woman are in need of saving reflective of Spivak’s expression: of “White Men saving Brown Women from Brown Men” (Spivak, Joskowicz, Nowotny and Steyerl, 1988). As such, TFMs give back the same power to White men to control, coerce and oppress in the name of protection and saving. For example, Russo (2006) highlights that feminist movements that aim to challenge “hegemonic masculinity and patriarchy can actually bolster the hegemonic project of the state” (p.557). Such movements, therefore, homogenize means of justice and empowerment and invariably contradicts its aim to advance liberation in diverse cultural contexts (Zerbe Enns, Díaz and Bryant-Davis, 2020, p.11, Ahmed and Donnan, 2003). The goal of feminist transnational movements in the first place was to debunk the notion that “the world share the same types of experiences, oppressions, forms of exploitation, and privileges; they explore differences and inequalities between women, such as different priorities and ways of understanding gender issues and different ways of conceptualizing agency”( Zerbe Enns, Díaz and Bryant-Davis, 2020, p.12).

Invariably, TFMs have characterized as homogenized forms of agency and characterized women of the West as in need of it through the motif of the veil is the only one that must be removed to achieve liberation. Such movements also expose what Spivak highlights “imperialism” rather than “colonialism” to point out that critics of colonial discourse often forget that colonialism is at work now, but in a different form” (see Andreotti (2011) and TFMs appear to be taking that form. Abu-Lughod (2002)’s analysis on whether Muslim Women need saving comes particularly handy to analyse TFMs such as the MeToo and the discourses that surround sexual assault of veil wearing women. She suggests that veil may not be necessarily a symbol that lacks agency but instead as a “portable seclusion” which allows veil wearing women to enter public spaces freely and in this context feel empowered (Hanna Papanek, 1982).

Post-colonial feminist analysis furthers the understanding of International Relations as one where women seek justice and empowerment within a culturally relative context and debunk that a Western centric view is universally applicable or adopted as the ideal set standard that the West must strive towards to achieve justice and empowerment. As Jos (2021) asks, “Who’s Emancipatory Politics?”, TFMs such as the MeToo have provided a clear answer that such movements are, as Leila Ahmed (1992) has called "colonial feminism" or “colonialism hard at work”.

Conclusion & Limitations: Promises & Pitfalls
Our analysis challenges the neutrality of the state, exposes its masculine and heterosexual nature, and highlights skewed focus of foundational IR concepts: power, sovereignty and identity from the state to women. Such neoliberal tendencies have sidelined oriental women from the international arena, bolstering the same patriarchal project it intended to erode. While acknowledging that theories help explain how the world works (Snyder, 2022), this essay is not purely rooted in theory but in deeper analyses of the real-world evidence generated from transnational movements to argue the above concisely and with originality. It demonstrates not only thorough scholarly knowledge in terms of breadth of feminist scholarship ranging from neoliberal feminists to post-colonial feminists, but also empirical depth of a singular transnational movement that furthers our argument persuasively. Our gender analysis of largely statist concepts of power, sovereignty and identity is unique and highlights that ultimately, theories such as feminism illuminate certain aspects while concealing others. Further studies should consider post-colonial feminist lens as critical to the holistic understanding of international relations in the 21st century.

Disclaimer: This blog is a product of author’s own research. Author declares no conflict of interest. No funding was provided by any agency to the author for this research and publication.


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