Thursday, January 17, 2008

Theorizing Gender: Homogenizing Women and Men

It seems that I'm writing quite a lot about gender these days. Probably because the topic is on my mind, given my new research interest in the negotiations between on/offline constructions of gender.

Reading Rachel Aslop, Annette Fitzsimons and Kathleen Lennon's
Theorizing Gender (2002, Polity) is a good start for anyone like me, not really immersed in gender studies literature but with some interest in the topic.

A specific section on "Debates about Difference" seemed suitable for this blog. The main idea was to point out that even noble attempts, such as feminist ideas, may have the unintended consequences of further stabilizing the binary women/men as 'natural'. This happens mainly because putting all women in the same category - just like doing it for men - ignores not only the everyday diversity of women's experience, but it is also blind to the different power structures in which women around the world live.

To give an example: the task of taking care of the household may disempower women in Western societies, placing them in a dependency relation to the man, the main breadwinner. But this might not be the case in some African communities, where men are not breadwinners and where taking care of the household becomes empowering for women on a certain level. Which isn't to say that women and men are considered as equal, but only to point out that what empowers a white, middle-class woman might not necessarily empower a rural, non-white one.

"The institution was marriage - write the authors - was positioning women in a different way when, for example, Palestinian families were scattered without travel documents, the men removed from women and children and shipped out from Lebanon. The family, which was viewed as a structure for exploiting women's labour and sexuality on men's behalf, constitutes its subjects differently when it is the site for organizing resistance to racism" (2002: 76)

The way in which we conceive difference cannot be detached from homogenizing processes. Each time we draw a boundary between categories, we are forced to put diversity aside and to constrain all cases within the label, erasing their own distinctiveness.

Photo credits: Polity Press

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hans Kohn on the Birth of the Other: Israel and Hellas

Have you ever wondered why we tend to forget reading the 'older' academic books? I'm re-discovering Hans Kohn's brilliant work on the history of ideas feeding into contemporary nationalism. "The Idea of Nationalism" was published in 1944, a precusor to the another of Kohn's books which I briefly discussed here. In this work, Kohn explains at large the ideas which, together with other factors, facilitated the development of nationalist thought.

Extremely interesting was his discussion of the differences and similarities between the thought of ancient Israelites and Greeks on the question of the nation (in Chapter 2: Israel and Hellas. From Tribalism to Universalism). It is a discussion of how the tribal sentiment - the feeling of belonging to a closely related, face to face group - became elevated with Hebrew and Greek thought to a

"guiding factor of spiritual life, a new consciousness which gave every member of the group the knowledge of a special mission entrusted to it and distinguishing it from other people" (Kohn 1943: 27).

The Hebrew thought - primarily a discussion of the Old Testament - was centered primarily on the relation between Hebrews and God, and the idea of the chosen people. History was central to them, argues Kohn, because history was the will of God. Hebrews were born through the Covenant with God, which separated them from others through the will to obey God's commands.

"The Covenant concluded between God and the people of Israel formed the gateway to their history, a symbolic act of the highest pregnancy, revived three thousand years later as the root of modern nationalism and democracy" (Kohn 1943: 37).

Kohn further explains that this idea of the special mission of the Israelites was being refined through the writing of the Prophets, who can be seen as guardians of an incipient religious democracy against the Kings. It is in this process that the concept of the nation was developed in opposition to the Other, the one who didn't share the burden of the Covenant or the responsibility to fulfill God's desire. The underlying basis of this concept of the nation however was one of common will: the Israelites had a will to accept God's Covenant, they were making a conscious decision to do so.The nation is one of common will, of constant struggle to maintain the difference between Us (the Chosen People) and Them.

The idea of the nation inherits different meanings from the Ancient Greek thought. There the difference between Us, the Greeks, and Them, the Barbarians goes further, by establishing a hierarchy of 'humanness': for the Greeks, the Barbarians were seen as less then human, which would justify any acts towards them. On the other hand, the awareness of being "Greek" had nothing of the national implications it had today, and the Greeks were divided by conflicts and rivalries. Being a Greek had no political implications, as one's loyalties were primarily to the city-state:

"They were conscious of their cultural and racial unity, but they very rarely drew any political conclusions from it." (Kohn 1943: 52)

At the center of the self-awareness processes of Ancient Greeks lied the idea of education and freedom. In contrast, the Barbarian appeared as uneducated, impulse-driven, primordial. The Barbarian wasn't and couldn't be free precisely because of that. With Alexander the Great, Ancient Greek thought became precisely what the Greeks themselves aspired to: the cradle of civilization, of rational thought. The legacy of Ancient Greek thought to nationalism thus consisted of imagining the nation as a cultural space, which is ultimately endowed with a universalistic mission - that of civilizing the world.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Being man/ being woman

The idea that gender is a social construct, proposed in the late '70s by Don Zimmerman and Candace West took some time before being given consideration in the academic world. Roughly, their argument was that what defines being a man or a woman is the product of social practices and values of the time.

While we may have some trouble accepting the idea ("But you are being born a wo/man!"), the LGBT community has long challenged - even if only from the margins - our ideas of male/female essences. Gender does not necessarily follow from your biological sex. And even biological sex is more complex than the simple pair male/ female would entice us to believe.

Browsing the Thinking Blog, I came across the story of Bulent Ersoy, a singer from Turkey - and while information about her is scarce in English, here's a song of hers:

If you're wondering how she's challenging our constructions of gender, then, like me, you didn't know that Bulent Ersoy was biologically a man, undergoing a sex change to become a (biological) woman - after all, we still find it hard to accept that you can be a woman without the appropriate biology... Along with other celebs like Dana International in the late '90s, such public icons challenged our own definitions - and in certain instances, acceptance - of gender diversity.

That we have an uneasiness in acknowledging the social nature of our gender identities should be quite obvious from the fact that the what really captures our attention is not the music, or the talent, but the question: "Was she a man indeed?"

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The success of Canadian multiculturalism...

Michael Adams has a new book on what he calls the success of Canadian multiculturalism. In a news story on TV a few days ago (I was unable to find the exact reference), he explained his ideas as to why this type of multiculturalism is successful. Will Kymlicka, another big name when it comes to promoting the success of the Canadian multicultural model, praised Adams in a Globe and Mail article:

...Adams sees Canada as a model for the world, particularly in contrast to our American neighbour, where cultural conservatism and racial antagonism have created a society that is both more conformist and less solidaristic.

I feel quite ambivalent about Adams arguments, out of many reasons.

First of all, I find this whole discussion about the 'Canadian multicultural' model quite nationalistic in itself. The idea that Canadians
are tolerant and welcome diversity (although everybody pretends there's nothing out there that makes someone truly Canadian) is very self-satisfying in a world of political correctness - and in particular in relation to Canada's Big Brother (and I am not trying to reinforce other stereotypes here about the relation between the two countries).

But while people might say they are tolerant when asked, looking at their practices might tell a different story. There is a China Town, an Italian Town, a Greek street etc. in almost all big Canadian cities. There is the odd survey showing we do not want people of a different ethnic background as our neighbors. And of course, there is the daily reality of immigrants trying to get work which is quite different from the picture portrayed by Adams.

There is one point on which I agree with Adams though: multiculturalism is a reality in Canada - but also allover urban spaces. It is an URBAN reality for those cities which are doing well. And it is also a politically correct discourse to which there is a certain WILL in Canada - as well as in other countries. But this will is fragile, and all it takes is an extremist leader to play upon the feelings of frustration arising from living a multicultural world with a xenophobic and nationalist mindset.
It is not the multiculturalism legal framework that makes the 'Canadian model' - after all, legal frameworks talking about diversity and multiculturalism exist in other places, for instance the Council of Europe.

And then again, another disagreement with Adams... In the news story mentioned above, Adams made the argument that we want immigrants to come to Canada, not to reconstruct their countries here. Aware of the trap, he was quick to add that this doesn't mean that we reject other values, but that we reject values incompatible with liberal democracies (such as patriarchy). But to what extent can we incorporate other values? And to what extent the vision of Canada which pre-exists immigrants requires them to conform to the 'Canadian values'? People may say there are no such things as a corpus of Canadian values. But then any immigrant looking for a job will probably disagree. One of the main thing immigrants are required to do is to learn the Canadian lifestyle, to learn how to exhibit it in public spaces and how to mimic it in order to be seen as eligible workforce.

Truth be said, I do not disagree with many of these values myself. And I have learned through my own multicultural experiences that it is really hard to accept other lifestyles on an equal footing with yours (whatever that may be). Living diversity in a harmonious way requires a change inside us, which would imply the gradual destruction and reconstruction of hierarchies of values and categorization systems. It requires a will, but also a change in our bodies (I still cannot cope with hot foods...). But where does the will come from? And how stable is this will? I have many doubts.

Photo credits: Michael Adams website

Monday, January 7, 2008

Gay blood is contagious...

Reading one of the recent news stories about blood donation in Canada, I was shocked to read that men who have engaged in sex with other men in the past 25 years cannot donate blood. I am not a medical doctor, and I confess that I'm not an expert in the issue, but as far as I know, being gay or having sex with a same-sex partner is not a contagious disease. And, as far as I know, most of the other STDs are quite common in heterosexual relations as well. So, I'm confused: why is it that?

I went to the Canadian Blood Services website to look for some answers. In their brochure on things you should know to donate blood, I read that you are at high risk of having HIV if you are a male and if you had engaged in sex with another male after 1977. As presented in the document, having a gay sexual life places you in the group with high risk of contracting HIV, and therefore it is recommended that you do not donate blood. I wonder if 'recommended' means the same thing with 'forbidden'.

I also wonder why only gay sexual behavior is singled out as being prone to HIV transmissions. The UK Blood Transfusion and Tissue Transplantation Services website seems to offer me some answers: gay men are asked not to donate because
gay men, as a group, are known to be at an increased risk of acquiring HIV and a number of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), many of which are carried in the blood. It is specific behaviours, rather than being gay, which places gay men at increased risk of HIV infection.Safer sex will keep most gay men free from infection,however research shows that allowing gay men as a group to donate blood would increase the risk of HIV infected blood entering the blood supply.

But so are sex-workers engaged in heterosexual relations, I'd say (obviously, from a lay perspective, which can always be challenged). It's a tricky and sensitive matter, I agree. I definitely do not want to be infected by some complex disease through a blood transfusion. And the truth is, we have already been confronted with such cases: take the Romanian
children infected with a HIV tainted blood supply from Western Europe in the late '80s/ early '90s.

Yet, as much as I want to feel secure when I go to the hospital and receive treatment, I'm also wondering if making gayness a reason for excluding a particular group (defined through sexual practices) from donating blood is indeed reasonable, or if it's merely the result of a conglomerate of stereotypes othering sexual practices. After all, it took a long battle to remove homosexuality from the list of 'diseases' and accept it as simply a sexual practice. Until further evidence, I feel quite unconvinced by the Canadian Blood Services policy.
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