The Duck of Minerva

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Radical definitions of gender

October 22, 2009

The Special Rapporteur’s report on “Protecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism” is making headlines for something other than countering terrorism – for (gasp) what reporter Adam Brickley calls “a radical definition of gender” which he notes the UN General Assembly has already rejected several times, and implies is dangerous to global social and political organization. Others have decried the “co-optation” of the anti-terrorist report to redefine gender, argued that the report attempts to “hamstring actual counterterrorism efforts”, and an “excuse to turn a blind eye towards innocent civilian bloodshed.”

So what did Special Rapporteur Martin Scheinin write that was so controversial?

In relevant part, Scheinin explains that “gender is not synonymous with women, and, instead, encompasses the social constructions
that underlie how women’s and men’s roles, functions and responsibilities, including in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, are understood.” He argues that “gender is not static; it is changeable over time and across contexts,” and goes on to use that observation to justify the exploration of the gender, sex, and sexual-orientation-based impacts of counterterrorism policies.

The horror!

Certainly, the objections that I cite to the report are mostly from far-right-leaning media. That said, they contain some important implications – not only that it is acceptable to understand gender as fluid, but also that such an understanding should be understood as a security threat not only to (American) people generally but to women specifically. There’s not a counterdiscourse in the media (or even on left-leaning blogs) that makes the argument that I would make: that fluid definitions of gender are not only accurate, but essential to individual and collective human security.

The Scheinin report makes the important point that sexual minorities, particularly transgendered people, are often (and often with women) disproportionately negatively affected by policies that are intended to counter terrorism. It also argues that we should understand gender subordination as a problem in counterterrorism policy, even as it takes a number of different forms and causes problems for a number of different sorts of people.

Defining gender narrowly encourages the “boxing” of people into particular roles, expecting certain behaviors of them on the basis of perceived association with sex classes. Such expectations negatively (and even violently) affect people’s lives on a daily basis everywhere in global politics – in wartime rape, domestic violence, sex trafficking, labor gaps, the list goes on … Narrow understandings of gender make people insecure. Not broadening them.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.