Gendering International Relations

Gender Studies Gendering International Relations Feminist Foreign Policy Martine Heijthuyzen

There is a discrepancy in how gender studies is perceived as an area of study and research in comparison to other disciplines in the social sciences. Such academic hierarchies are a reflection of wider power regimes which create systemic inequalities between men and women. This article will examine the potential of incorporating multidisciplinary approaches; specifically, how international relations (IR) can benefit from integrating understandings derived from Gender Studies.

Maria Do Mar Pereira writes about gender studies being the object of a sustained mocking, inside and outside academia. This mocking works to position gender studies as inferior to other disciplines, despite the field’s recognition as formally institutionalised and its significant academic contributions. Gender studies is constituted, as such, by the power and legitimacy given to both ridicule and misrepresent feminist work in our society. Therefore, research as part of the discipline of gender studies is at risk of being perceived less serious, regardless of its content.

Instead of perceiving gender studies as less serious or irrelevant, it is necessary to incorporate gender theories in all fields in order to advance and nuance research emerging from other disciplines. Specifically, there is a need to  ‘gender' IR. The idea of gendering IR is not new, however, there is a consistent misunderstanding of what this means. Many scholars perceive gendering IR as simply including gender as a category. This gendering must go beyond simply including gender as a category, and use concepts and theories from gender studies to deconstruct traditional IR paradigms.

The positive application of this kind of interdisciplinary synthesis can be evidenced through the concept of ‘embodiment’. This concept emerged through the discipline of gender studies and refers to the idea that bodies are not simply natural or ‘pre-political objects’. Embodiment defines bodies as unstable and constantly produced through practices of violence and varying discourses that constitute the vulnerability of the ‘embodied subjectivity’. In the words of Judith Butler:

“How I am encountered, and how I am sustained, depends fundamentally on the social and political networks in which this body lives, how I am regarded and treated, and how that regard and treatment facilitates this life or fails to make it liveable.”

Wilcox refers to this as ‘embodying subjectivities’. Meaning that humans are not only vulnerable to violence because their body exists of flesh and blood, but also because of the social and political world through which they emerge. The way the body is socially constituted and therefore, ‘regarded and treated’, depends upon power relations.

Without understanding the body as political, understandings of violence within IR will be left wanting.

In theories of international relations, ‘bodies’ are theorized but only considered important as living or dying objects, they do not possess any agency themselves. Moreover, liberal and realist IR theories perceive the body as  ‘pre-existing’ politics. Without understanding the body as political, understandings of violence within IR will be left wanting. This is problematic as violence committed on bodies will be perceived as a ‘miscalculation’ rather than the result of specific power formations. In other words, as long as we do not take into consideration that some bodies in this world are treated differently based on their physical appearance, we will not grasp the systematic, structural, and disguised forms of violence that sustain constellations of power within IR.

Feminist theory has emphasized and questioned the relationship between body, power, and violence. However, there has always been a privileged focus on gender within feminist scholarship. Feminist theory has often excluded the experiences of women of colour and bodies that do not identify as male or female. It has not been until the emergence of the concept of intersectionality that other social identities were significantly acknowledged in the examination of the relations between body, power, and violence. And while intersectionality has expedited this line of analysis, there is still much work to be done in mainstreaming its ideologies.

Feminist theory argues that embodiment is not neutral but political; that is, how you are at first regarded and treated when interacting with someone is largly due to your physical appearance.  As such, feminist theory underlines how violence is productive. Certain bodies are more vulnerable to certain practices of violence as a result of specific power structures. Therefore, when these bodies are targeted and subjected to violence as a result, they affirm and legitimise these power formations.

Without the recognition that subjects within IR should be understood as ‘embodied’, we will not see how policies produce certain bodies as threats, while others are constituted as needing protection. According to Wilcox, “bodies are not only killed, but are made to be ‘killable’ by practices of international relations”. Not only do certain policies within IR lead to the loss of human life, but these same policies can legitimise these killings. Therefore, when we impose a policy that will eliminate ‘risk’, this will simultaneously define and categorise bodies. Think about how the ‘risk’ of terrorism and the policies post 9/11 has resulted in violence all over the world against brown bodies. Think about how the notion of ‘security’ and our notion of ‘securing’ ourselves has made it increasingly difficult for non-Europeans to reach Europe through legal routes. This kind of racialization and embodied subjectivity has resulted in the countless deaths.


Martine Heijthuyzen is on the editorial boards for Kohl and Millenium. 


Annie Gergi