On gender and hierarchies

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I think one of the first things I learned about feminism was an inherent contradiction that didn’t strike me as such when I first heard it: on the one hand, there are universal solutions to gender inequality, such as education, employment, sexual rights, and so on – these are not necessarily context-specific (the details can be) but need to happen everywhere in order for gender equality to become a reality. And yet on the other hand, there are very different levels of gender inequality across the world. This very difference  in the level of inequality could point to the need for different kinds of solutions, but this did not seem to be the case. Instead this difference functioned to create a very clear – even if rarely labelled such openly – hierarchy in terms of gender equality. At the top of this hierarchy we have the role model countries: Scandinavia, Western and Northern Europe, and sometimes Australia, the US and the UK. And then underneath we have a series of levels with different countries. Typically Egypt and other Arab and African countries come somewhere at the bottom.

While this may seem very simplistic, I would urge anyone reading to think of conversations they’ve had, conversations in the media, comments at events, readings they’ve covered to think of the common sense assumptions reproduced about where gender inequality is a big problem and where it continues to be a problem. The categorizing I did earlier seems simplistic precisely because it is. The idea that we can divide countries – and cultures and religions – into a hierarchy based on gender inequality is extremely simplistic. And yet it really is one of the most common sense ideas in the world today.

Many people have already critiqued this hierarchy and have pointed out that the assumptions used to create it are problematic. Take for example the gender gap index, which relies on very specific indicators to measure gender inequality. Aside from the fact that gender inequality cannot and should not be measured, there is also the fact that this ignores power relations in the world today that allow some countries to continue to be economically developed, while others continue to be exploited. This dynamic is relational – in other words, some countries are poor because others are rich, and some are rich because others are poor. It is not a coincidence nor is it the result of hard work and innovation or laziness and corruption. It is not accidental but dependent on specific historical political and economic processes – which is precisely why power matters.

What I have increasingly found interesting is that this hierarchy continues to be reproduced because of how central it is to the formation of the self-identity of specific countries. In this post I will focus on the Netherlands because I am familiar with it, although I do think it applies across Europe and also in the US. The understanding the modern Dutch citizen has of him or herself is very much intertwined with the understandings this citizen has of “the Other.” This Other is not only far away in Africa or Asia, but is now also inside the Netherlands: Surinamese, Moroccans, Turks, and so on. While we may agree that Dutch racism exists and that there are problematic views about non-white people in the Netherlands, the idea that these views are constitutive of Dutch identity is less acceptable. And yet this is strongly apparent. For us to be civilized, it means there are people who are uncivilized. For us to be modern, there must be places that are not modern. For us to be one of the most gender progressive countries, there must be countries that are not so progressive.

Here is the thing about hierarchies: they are dependent on a modern teleology of progress. A hierarchy exists and this suggests that whoever is at the bottom must be given the chance to get to the top. This ignores that if everyone was at the top, modern structures such as capitalism, patriarchy and racism would fall apart – something the very people calling for equality are against as it would mean they would lose their privileges. But it also means that entire industries are created in order to – supposedly – demolish this hierarchy, even as this serves to further strength and reproduce the hierarchy. Development is the most prominent example of such an industry. An entire apparatus is created whose aim is to lift whole countries out of poverty, to get rid of gender inequality, to promote freedom. Experts are created, who identify problems and solutions. These “problems” may or may not have existed before these experts identified them, and the solutions may also have or have not existed. That is not important. Development is not just about very material changes, such as funding or the building of dams, but it is also about the creation of new categories such as “poor people” or “third world women.” As Escobar has argued in Encountering Development, before the development industry emerged, the category “poor people” did not exist. No one used this label. It did not represent an actual category of people. But because development needed something to intervene in and improve, it needed poor people. And so the category was created, and now we have underdeveloped countries. But what happened here was also the co-creation of its opposite: developed countries.

This is precisely what has happened with gender. The “third world woman” Chandra Mohanty has identified constituted its opposite: a first world woman. What separates them is a hierarchy. Talking to feminists in the Netherlands and attending events on gender has made it very clear that the Dutch self-understanding and self-representation of the modern Dutch self as progressive on gender is directly dependent on the understanding and representation of the Other as regressive on gender. The two are not separate. And so when it comes to gender inequality, it is always somewhere else. You may hear a Dutch feminist say “we still have some work to do here” but this some is important. We have some work to do but you have much more.

As long as gender is not contextualized within other structures such as capitalism, racism, heterosexism and so on, it will continue to be understood as a hierarchy. A hierarchy needs to continually be reproduced to survive. On the one hand this is done by these very structures. But on the other hand it is done through discourse and representation. It is done through small comments such as “don’t worry, gender equality took a long time to happen here” or “what is it about culture over there makes life hard for women?” It is done through industries such as the media, development, and education. Through all of this, the idea that there is a hierarchy has become common sense: of course there is. How could we even imagine putting Sweden next to Egypt? The point is not that women in Egypt face the same problems as Sweden. Certainly life is more precarious for a woman in Egypt. But not only is this connected to global structures and histories, but the point is that we can make that point without comparisons that only serve to continue to reproduce a problematic hierarchy. Why do we need these comparisons? Why can’t we speak about gender inequality in Egypt or gender inequality with Sweden without comparing and ranking them? What are the political ramifications of these comparisons? Precisely that they reproduce this hierarchy and thus strengthen the categories we need to start deconstructing, namely those of “third world woman” and “first world woman” or “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Indeed what is ultimately ironic is that those who critique postcolonialists for reproducing an “us” and “them” and simplifying everything to “West” and “East” are the very same people who do this by reproducing this hierarchy.

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2 thoughts on “On gender and hierarchies

  1. I’ve been thinking down similar lines, and have some ideas. One is that by pointing at the ‘bigger’ problem – in this example standing in The Netherlands and pointing at Egypt, you can undermine women in The Netherlands because pouring energy into solving problems there isn’t solving the much bigger problems in Egypt. Hierarchy creates problems that overwhelm, and disempower because your problem is not the ‘real’ problem and therefore you shouldn’t be solving it. I think comparison is used to derail, especially when people (in this hypothetical case women in The Netherlands) are directed to a situation they can do little about (women in Egypt). There may be a secondary issue that it reinforces the idea that The Other has to be saved by those who are ‘at the top’ and thus undermines ideas of autonomy and finding your own solutions and having the means to do that. So women in Egypt are to feel powerless and wait for women from The Netherlands to come and save them. Bit of a simplification for reasons of sanity, but hopefully makes sense.

  2. Pingback: Media Roundup for June | The Instinctive Path

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