Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered, by Cynthia Enloe

Gwendolyn Beetham on what we can learn from observations of society’s dismissal of women

October 17, 2013

In the spring of 2011, I was having dinner with a friend when she asked me, incredulous: “Can you believe this stuff with Dominique Strauss-Kahn?” When my response, “Of course I can”, brought laughter and a comment about being jaded, I began to wonder: “Why doesn’t this outrageous act surprise me at all?” Reading Cynthia Enloe’s latest book, I was reminded that the fact that I was not shocked had little to do with my jaded nature (well, maybe a little), but was because I view international politics through a gendered frame: in short, I take gender seriously.

It is not surprising that I was reminded of this lesson while reading Enloe, a prolific author who pioneered the act of taking women seriously in the international relations field. More than two decades on, Enloe writes with the same zeal and urgency as she did in her groundbreaking 1989 book, Bananas, Beaches and Bases, recognising that, although feminist scholars and policy-makers have made many inroads, there is still much to be done.

In true Enloe-esque fashion, the thread of taking gender seriously weaves together themes that, at first, seem disparate – sexual harassment, austerity, peacekeeping, the Arab Spring. Part of the difficulty, she reminds us, with asking gender questions – Who has power in the household? Who is invited to the decision-making table? Who is judged by what they wear to work? – is that these questions get at everyday issues that are so ingrained and, critically, so trivialised, that it takes training to see them at all. Enloe’s own feminist coming-of-age story in chapter 2 highlights this fact (and gets my friend off the hook) – it was years before she took gender seriously in her own work.

The inclusion of the occasional photograph in Seriously! helps (literally) to illustrate the cause and consequence of not taking gender seriously. It is one thing to read about women’s exclusion, but another to see photos of a meeting of an all-male United Nations observer team and an all-male group of Syrian rebels, or the all-male Group of Seven finance ministers and governors alongside the lone woman Christine Lagarde, Strauss-Kahn’s replacement as International Monetary Fund managing director.

But Enloe also reminds us that the “add women and stir” approach is not always a recipe for success. Chapter 7 features a conversation with Nadine Puechguirbal, former gender adviser to the peacekeeping mission in Haiti, recounting the inclusion of women in place of men. When, because of looting by men, the mission decided that women should be the recipients at food distribution points, the queues at these sites were protected by peacekeepers, but the violence that happened to women on their way home was dismissed as outside the mission’s purview.

To take gender seriously, then, is not simply to add women to the equation. When we truly take gender seriously, we make connections between the everyday, gendered culture of organisations such as the IMF and the personal acts of sexual abuse of that organisation’s powerful elite. When we truly take gender seriously, we ask why women play roles in revolutions and wars (Egypt, Syria, the Second World War) yet are excluded when peace treaties are signed and constitutions rewritten. When we truly take gender seriously, we analyse how austerity measures affect women more negatively than men.

As usual, Enloe does a beautiful job outlining these complex relationships in straightforward language. For example, although it is nearly impossible to write an analysis of the global financial crisis (or the IMF!) without using the term “neoliberalism”, she manages it. Those expecting high feminist international relations theory won’t get it from Seriously! But they will get vivid illustrations of the gendered dynamics of geopolitics. And they will certainly come to see scandals and crises not as the malfunction of a lone person or individual organisation, but the function of a misogynist culture.

Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered

By Cynthia Enloe
University of California Press, 264pp, £48.95 and £19.95
ISBN 97805205362, 05379 and 0956667
Published 6 September 2013

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