Writing Gender #3 considers gender-informed and politically engaged scholarly writing and pedagogical approaches, including mentoring practices and activist scholarship. It will think about how such work can transform disciplinary knowledge and research, and address the gendered politics of knowledge production both within and beyond university settings. This event will further consider alternative and potentially disruptive research and pedagogical methods that advance justice and equality in diverse ways. It will ask what gender-informed research and pedagogy look like right now, and what it means to engage in activist scholarship within this context to challenge gender inequality and other forms of systemic oppression.

Roanna Gonsalves will lead a conversation on these themes with Evelyn Araluen, Jeanine Leane, Quah Ee Ling, and Astrid Lorange on Friday 8 September. Please join us for this free online event at 11am. Register here.

We cannot talk about gender without talking about power. 

We cannot talk about gender without talking about power systems like gender/sex binaries, patriarchy, heteronormativity, coloniality, neoliberalism and race. The work of queer, trans, anti-colonial feminist theorists such as Jasbir Puar, Paul-Beatriz Preciado and Aileen Moreton-Robinson, just to name a few, informs my understanding of gender (and sexuality) as more than just an identity marker and role category. When we reduce gender to identity formation, classification, reproduction, oppression, struggle, recognition and politics, we often miss exposing the historical contexts and contemporary conditions and ecologies that control and discipline human bodies and lives. When we concern ourselves with identification – whether intentionally as part of our activist politics or unconsciously as a result of broader socialisation and normalisation – we assume identities are static and bounded. We often end up in divisive situations arising from identity politics. Even well-meaning, passionate activists and community workers get caught up in struggling for identity representation, policing identity borders and markers, and reinforcing colonial categorisations and constructions of gender and sexuality. 

As long as we are busy classifying people and striving in our activism to ‘include’ and ‘represent’ those who have been disenfranchised by the dominant culture, we are bound to reinforce existing systems of hegemony, leaving some out and further alienating others who have been left out, even in the ‘Olympics’ of representation (Puar 2017). Worst of all, the existing white supremacist, neoliberal, patriarchal power systems responsible for the unequal distribution of life chances do not get dismantled, and deeply embedded unjust power relations do not get disrupted! While minoritised populations struggle for recognition in the ‘oppression Olympics’ and inclusion in mainstream society, fighting for scraps from the master’s table, the master continues their domination and maintains their power. 

In the corporate space of ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’ (EDI), it is not hard to observe that this narrow understanding of gender as an identity marker manifests itself in different white, well-meaning initiatives which are problematic, counter-productive and, indeed, violent. Sometimes, I think these initiatives do more harm than good. It often makes me uneasy when corporations – including universities – advocate for gender equality, but end up prioritising women’s productivity and representation in leadership positions. It’s not that these concerns are unimportant, but they cannot be the only things that keep occupying the EDI space – as if gender were a synonym for women, or more specifically, white, straight, cisgender women. At best, corporatised gender equality policies and efforts advocate for these women’s concerns and needs. At worst, they send a message that other bodies – such as (but not limited to) Indigenous women, women of colour, queer women, trans men and women, non-binary, gender queer and agender individuals, queer men, men of colour, Indigenous men and bodies labelled as disabled – do not matter.  

There are in fact multiple layers of violence here. One is the treatment of gender in binary terms where it is persistently and instinctively assumed that humans can be reduced to two neat, clean categories – men and women – and the resulting advocacy is then skewed towards helping/saving members of the ‘weaker’ group, namely women in a patriarchal society. Many seemingly progressive corporations, including universities, have a weak grasp of multiple genders and the coloniality of the gender binary. Whenever I remind colleagues, including senior management, in my different capacities as a gender and sexuality scholar, as an anti-colonial feminist activist and, formerly, as the Chair of LGBTIQA+ Ally Network, that we need to decolonise the work of gender equity in the university and employ a multiple genders system, I often get a puzzled look. It’s as if they cannot fathom how gender can mean more than just men and women. In my years of classroom and research activism on Genders and Sexualities, I find myself working harder to advocate for an understanding of multiple genders and remind students and colleagues how the current power structures of cisgender binaries and heteronormativity hurt us all, including white heterosexual men, by entrapping us in the strict confines of identity, role and performance, and punishing those who dare to stray. 

Another inescapable layer of violence is the neat compartmentalisation of diversity work into these particular focus areas: 

Gender Equity – mainly about white cisgender heterosexual women; 

LGBTIQA+ – mainly about white queer people; 

Cultural Competence/Diversity – mainly about Indigenous peoples and multicultural communities who are not white. 

It feels as if, for each of these specific diversity spaces designed for singular causes, we are being asked to peel off a layer of our integrated selves. What does it mean for someone like me, a queer migrant woman in a white settler colonial society? It means I have to enter the gender equity space to talk about women’s empowerment, move to the LGBTIQA+ space to shout rainbow pride, and finally to the cultural competence space to demand racial justice. In each of these spaces, parts of me do not get validated, because our lives are not this easily dissected. When I walk along the street and encounter harassment, is it sexism, racism, xenophobia or queerphobia? Or could it be all of these?  

Yes, we need intersectional feminism to do gender work, including reading, researching, listening, writing, teaching and serving. But intersectionality is not just about adding up multiple identities, categories and systems to argue for the degree of marginalisation and oppression one may experience. While I advocate for an intersectional feminist approach to address marginalisation and injustice, I am reminded, by queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar and gender and sexuality feminist theorist Jennifer Nash, that an intersectional approach is not simply an ensemble of fixed, essentialising identities and a collection of multi-dimensional oppression stories fighting to be included by the majority. Taking on an intersectional approach to gender or sexuality, or race for that matter, means we need to acknowledge and oppose coloniality, racial capitalism, neoliberalism, patriarchy and heteronormativity – systems that simultaneously and complexly compel bodies to capacitate according to dominant logics for survival, and debilitate bodies that fail to do so. 

As Sirma Bilge observes, ‘Intersectionality, originally focused on transformative and counter-hegemonic knowledge production and radical politics of social justice, has been commodified and colonized for neoliberal regimes’ (as cited in Nash, 2019). Far too often, well-meaning white-washed diversity workers and organisations think that by using the ‘intersectionality’ buzz word and recruiting and including gender, sexuality and culturally diverse workers as poster children, they have done enough to interrogate the multiplicity and interrelatedness of dominating systems. Instead, Maria Carbin and Sara Edenheim explain that intersectionality ‘has moved from being a sign of threat and conflict to (white) feminism to a consensus-creating signifier that not only made the concept successful but also enabled an institutionalisation of a liberal, “all-inclusive” feminism based on a denial of power as constitutive for all subjects.’ (as cited in Nash, 2019).  

I am all for intersectional approaches, but not when intersectionality avoids meaningful implementation of change, or gets co-opted by ‘good white people’ to feel good about themselves after throwing into the mix a few women, people of colour, LGBTIQA+ people and people with disabilities to demonstrate how all-inclusive and ‘intersectional’ they are. Better still for them, if they get hold of someone like me, who embodies intersectional systems of marginalisation, including racism, sexism and queerphobia. Often I find myself busy being the poster child for queer women of colour, sandwiched between powerful white men as I cut ribbons for the launch of rainbow steps, while simultaneously being injured by aggressive punitive measures for speaking out against white supremacy, colonialism and institutional racism. What do all these ‘good will initiatives’ mean if they are only intended for corporate branding, white washing and helping good white people sleep better while there has been no change in power relations? Worse still, non-white people get gaslit, stereotyped as angry, ungrateful people, when they protest against the debilitating colonial and contemporary neoliberal categorisation and valuation of human lives according to the dominator’s logics. 

Far from arguing for a post-intersectional approach, I am asking for a genuinely intersectional feminist approach to gender or any diversity work that is not content with representation and identity politics, that does not turn a blind eye or pay lip service to the dominance of white supremacist, colonial, racial capitalist, neoliberal and patriarchal regimes, and that refuses to gaslight marginalised peoples with ‘things are better now’ and ‘things will get better’ nonsense. 

It is impossible to write, speak and teach about gender without making loud noises about broader structures that debilitate and oppress human lives at constrictive intersections of colonialism, racial capitalism, neoliberalism, heteronormativity and patriarchy. In my research and writing on marriage for migrant women in the Southeast Asian region, I abhor the ‘victim vs agent’ binary discourse, where women from less wealthy countries either elicit sympathy from guilt-conscious white, wealthier subjects in more powerful countries (‘they are really pitiful’; ‘we must save them’), or are recognised for their neoliberal, (re)productive potential and model minority attributes (‘they are just like us’; ‘they are good people too’). This pernicious binary narrows attention to individual identity and behaviour, with eligibility for scraps from the master’s table contingent on the performance of victim or agent. Such an approach in politics, policy and services does not do anything to flip and thrash the master’s table! It only skirts around the root cause. Subordinated minions will only continue to dance around the table in hope of the master’s attention and recognition. ‘Look at me, look at me! I am worthy!’ 

Instead, we need to expose the conditions that force us to capacitate according to the rules of those in power, and debilitate us for such capacitation work. Of course, the conditions affect us differently and hence the uneven distribution of life chances, privileges and capital. In the case of low-income women from less wealthy countries, we ought to acknowledge that the colonial legacy, racial capitalist and neoliberal economy, global gender (dis)order, transnational patriarchy and heteronormativity all contribute to their mass mobilisation across the globe to eke out a bare existence. They perform either unpaid intimate and reproductive labour through marriage migration, or other low-waged labour through sex work, domestic work, healthcare and beauty care. Do these women still need to prove their victimhood or agency for better life chances when the global systems of inequalities in which we are all complicit have already compelled them to take on a more treacherous trajectory just to live? 

I started this article by saying that we cannot talk about gender without talking about power. How can we not talk about power systems that traffic populations along certain normative paths lined with incentives and rewards, and that seek to exclude those who fail to get on these widely celebrated red carpets? How can we not talk about power when its distribution logic determined by power holders sets out to exclude and include based on their terms? Only when these power systems are dismantled might we have any chance of success in attaining equity and justice for those who have been more oppressed, and less supported, by these systems.    

Works Cited

  • Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2021) Talkin’ up to the white women: Indigenous women and feminism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. 
  • Nash, Jennifer. 2019. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Durham, London: Duke University Press. 
  • Preciado Paul. 2013. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (trans. Benderson B). New York, NY: Feminist Press. 
  • Puar, Jasbir K. 2011. ‘“I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”: Intersectionality, assemblage, and affective politics’. transversal texts. http://eipcp.net/transversal/0811/puar/en 
  • Puar, Jasbir K. 2017. The right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham, London: Duke University Press.   
  • Quah, Ee Ling & Tang, Shawna. 2022. ‘Exploring Southeast Asian Queer Migrant Biographies: Queer Utopia, Capacitations and Debilitations’. In Tang, Shawna and Wijaya, Hendri Yulis (eds) Queer Southeast Asia: Itineraries, StopOvers and Delays.  London, New York: Routledge.