“Seriously, Guys!”: How (Not) to Write About Gender and Foreign Affairs

26 April 2012, 1746 EDT

Photo courtesy of Conflict Cupcake

To be fair, despite all the criticism, Foreign Policy‘s “Sex Issue” got a few things right. For an all-too rare moment, it put gender – er, sex – er, sexuality* – on the foreign policy agenda. Somehow (could it be the nude photo on the cover?!) the editors managed to get people excited – gripped even  – by “women’s issues.” (What were the chances?)

But enough snark. FP did well by including commentators from the Arab world like Mona El-Tahawy (OK one such commentator who is now based in New York) and both practitioners and scholars with expertise on global women’s issues like Melanie Verveer and Valerie Hudson (OK, they included one expert in each category), in addition to some pieces by the staff, one of which wasn’t even that stereotypical or demeaning.  But perhaps more important than the analyses was the symbolism: here was a mainstream foreign affairs publication making the case that sex/gender/women/men/femininity/
masculinity/sexuality/ [presumably sexual orientation]/what-have-you is actually important to what happens in the world and how we understand it:

Sex — in all the various meanings of the word — matters in shaping the world’s politics. Why? In Foreign Policy, the magazine and the subject, sex is too often the missing part of the equation — the part that the policymakers and journalists talk about with each other, but not with their audiences. And what’s the result? Women missing from peace talks and parliaments, sexual abuse and exploitation institutionalized and legalized in too many places on the planet, and a U.S. policy that, whether intentionally or not, all too frequently works to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity.

Hey, sounds almost like boilerplate from a feminist IR syllabus, actually. So why has the issue has been criticized and called “simplistic,” “offensive and disrespectful” or “disgusting and disappointing?” Don’t women (and feminist men) know a good gender analysis of world politics when they see it? Well, “guys,” yes and no. Below are three big do’s and don’ts for foreign policy magazines aiming to “take women’s issues seriously.”

Let’s start with the DON’TS, shall we?

1) Don’t Use Women’s Naked Bodies To Sell Articles About How Godawful It Is To Use Women’s Naked Bodies. Seriously, guys? No wonder tweets reacting to the issue included the following:

To be fair, there was lots of praise for the issue as well, and to their credit, FP responded to the outrage by posting a round-table 24 hours later as a forum for critique, featuring female Muslim voices from around the world. I am with those who thought the article was important yet the picture was a mistake, among them Naheed Mustafa:

“The image works against [Mona Eltawahy’s] essay. It belies the nuance and breadth of the writing by reducing a subject to one easily consumable image… an image that doesn’t even speak to the kind of women Eltahawy is writing about. If anything, the imagine does exactly what Eltahawy accuses Islamists of doing: reducing women to one-dimesnional caricatures with little or no autonomy… and it’s not just about Muslim women. The illustration is insulting to women in general. It takes the profoudn probelm of gender-based violence and reduces it to sexual imagery: ‘Hey, we might be talking about the endemic hatred of one gender for another, but here’s a naked painted lady to keep you company!'”

Yep, that about says it.

2) Don’t Pit Women Against One Other. I don’t know what Mona El-Tahawny originally titled her piece, but the subtitle Foreign Policy‘s editors chose (“the real war on women is in the Middle East“) was a needless slap in the face to women fighting in the US for pay equity, reproductive health and to safety in our homes, streets and workplaces. The “real” war on women – and other gender minorities – is everywhere. It just takes different forms. What is a constant in world affairs is the use of finger-pointing about “other cultures’ women” to create a sense of our own cultural superiority. Make no mistake: elites in the Middle East are doing the exact same thing, pointing to Western rape prevalence rates, the objectification of women in the media, and our lack of socio-economic protections for women – to justify their own cultural superiority. Instead of buying into and replicating this dynamic by focusing only on women of the global south, serious journalism on gender and world politics would examine how this “gender-ideology stereotyping” works to structure foreign policy – drawing perhaps on years of feminist IR scholarship documenting precisely how this process works. And it would ask how human rights-minded actors in the West can support indigenous women’s movements in the Arab world without feeding this viscious cycle or denying the struggles of women everywhere.

3) Don’t Pretend To Take Gender Seriously While Proclaiming that Next Week, It Will All Be Business as Usual. And I quote:

Women’s bodies are the world’s battleground, the contested terrain on which politics is played out. We can keep ignoring it. For this one issue, we decided not to.

[Italics added by obviously hormonal author.] In the words of Melanie Verveer, SERIOUSLY GUYS! You can’t just tease us like that… you can’t just assert that “sex is the missing part of the equation” and that this works “to shore up the abusers and perpetuate the marginalization of half of humanity” and then tell us that besides “this one issue” (which by the way mostly focuses on sexuality, not on women’s issues or gender relations broadly) you’ve done your due diligence and let’s get back to writing about “real” issues: as if gender, sex and sexuality aren’t relevant to many of the stories you routinely cover: peace negotiations, missile defense, intelligence gathering, cyber-security, population shifts, pandemic disease, transnational crime, the financial crisis.

What to DO instead:

1) Acknowledge The Impact of The Foreign Policy Media’s Own Gendered* Biases And How You’re Planning to Fix Them. Hey Blake Hounshell, why exactly do you suppose it is that your readers have “never heard” of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?? It’s as if you’re pointing out the problem you’ve been complicit in creating and then slapping yourself on the back for it, with no critical analysis whatsoever of the foreign policy media’s own role in marginalizing women and gender as a serious topic of inquiry about world affairs. The funny thing is, Foreign Policy actually does do gender: check out the front page of the site Tuesday at 1:19 a.m. and we’ve got stories about whether India is “compensating” for something with its nuclear program (answer: probably but it’s not that simple); Tom Ricks is writing about the draft, a gendered institution if we ever saw one; and President Obama’s new genocide prevention architecture is discussed, an issue affecting countless civilians but also devalued by a foreign policy elite that privileges “hard” over “soft” security. Each of these articles represents an opportunity to think about how assumptions of sex and gender suffuse world politics. The question is whether FP will step this up in a more serious way as its competitors already have. And whether for that matter, it will finally recruit and hire some smart female writers like Megan MacKenzie or Courtney Messerschmidt or Irshad Manji  who think about and deploy gender and sex in different intriguing ways as they comment broadly on global affairs; or hey, just some female writers period (no pun intended, hey it’s the sex issue right?) [“But there are so few qualified women!” Seriously guys?: Megan McArdleMichelle FlournoySusan SchwabHeather HurlburtLorelei Kelly. Sarah Holewinksi. Mary Ellen O’Connell. Sarah Kenyon Lischer. Kate McNamara. Debbi Avant. Martha Finnemore. Kathryn Sikkinkand/or male writers with genuine expertise in gender issues and a willingness to mainstream it into the writing they do. Which leads me to…

2) Remember That Gender – and Sex – is About Men Too. Yes, yes, I read Josh Keating’s piece on Ayatollah Gilani, which is beyond fabulous if you’re into soft porn… or if you’re logged in to cracked.com. But then, why offer serious articles on the political economy of prostitution around military bases or the politics of our own sex scandals or how the emerging international norms of gender and gay integration are impacting security architectures in militaries and peacekeeping missions or spend more than a couple of paragraphs on the life or death issue of sexual orientation rights or when instead you can write three whole frakking articles on the same tired, simplistic, offensively orientalist issue of how brown Muslim men lecherously view “their” women’s bodies?…  What if we really took masculinity seriously as a cultural norm that regulates not just men’s attitudes toward women but also their attitudes toward other men, that is embedded in the entire way we think about nations, states and markets, and that impacts foreign and economic policies around the globe, even those that have on the surface nothing to do with women’s rights? (Keating’s round-up of state policies on population control, pandemic disease and tourism comes the closest to this, but like the rest of the issue focuses only on sexuality not gender, and on the global south, not the “global”: this tells us much more about gender assumptions made by US foreign policy commentators than it does about the actual world.) To really take the power of those assumptions seriously in foreign policy analysis (and face it, “guys,” it’s all about power),  you’d probably need to…

3) Invite Participation From Analysts Who Study Sex, Gender and Foreign Policy. Great that FP included the excellent and provocative pieces on women’s rights by Melanie Verveer (an experienced practitioner) and Mona El-Tahawy (a brilliant and gutsy commentator/activist). But too bad that they included only one article (and that belatedly) by an analyst with expertise and data on the gender dimensions of foreign policy. In the first ever “sex and global politics” issue I’d have expected to see a range of different views by various experts on the general topic: people like Cynthia Enloe, who pioneered the field of global sexual politics; or like Laura Sjoberg, who has written extensively on female terrorism, gender and security; or like Dyan Mazurana, who straddles both the academy and the UN community and put girl soldiers on the international agenda when no one else knew they existed, or like Joshua Goldstein who wrote an exhaustive book on the topic of gender and war. Instead, the remainder of the commentary comes from folks at FP with opinions or anecdotes or, in Josh Keating’s case, the ability to pull together interesting news stories… but little analytical expertise in asking the right questions about gender and security policy. (No offense to  Christina Larson but her expertise is in Asia and the environment, not in gender issues – otherwise her analysis of marital trends in China might have been less about why it’s too bad women have such high expectations and more about why the Chinese state, faced with this obvious social problem threatening its interests and stability, is not throwing resources into training its surplus men to be the kind of husbands these women want. Similarly, Karim Sadjapour knows something about Iran but not much about gender analysis.) Tip for beltway editors: If you want to at least appear to be taking gender seriously, first reach out to the community of experts who have done so for the past two decades. Gain some insight, then try to apply it.

Readers: What else can we add to each of these lists?
*Sex: biological maleness or femaleness. Sexuality: pertaining to sexual relations. Gender: socially constructed notions about masculinity and femininity. Gender Analysis: analyzing the relationship between gender (see above), power hierarchies and sociopolitical outcomes. “Gendered” Analysis: basing an analysis of sociopolitical outcomes on gender myths and stereotypes. EG: “We can’t hire women writers because there aren’t enough qualified women” or “If the issue has women in it, it must be all about SEX!!!” See also this.