Feminism or genderism: which is better?

While working for the UN and with Pakistani Army Generals in Pakistan (coordinating relief and recovery following the 2005 earthquake) I did a lot of learning, principally about gender planning. I saw that success and understood the need for age and gender desegregated data, and saw the issue not through the lens of feminism, but through the lens of effective planning. Gender issues are only ‘mainstreamed’ when ‘gender’ is not the issue.

One may be tempted to think an army general in a country like Pakistan would think the issues around gender would be secondary or inconsequential. General Nadeem, the Vice Chief of General Staff of the Pakistan Army, understood not only the importance of gender but also the importance of persuading other men that gender issues are critical in effective planning and project implementation.

A similar approach needs to be taken in business.

Issues around “gender” are not the same as issues about “women and girls”. For example many may look at the problems associated with female-only households when all the men of a family have been killed in a natural disaster. This is particularly important in communities where there are strong gender assigned roles in local culture. Women in these circumstances can be left very vulnerable.

Yet few think of the problems of male-only households when all the women in the family have been killed.

Regardless of what one may think of different cultures, when there are specific tasks in assigned to the different genders in different cultural environments, a family unit becomes dysfunctional if one or other of the genders is removed from the equation. Those planning relief and recovery operations need to understand the various issues regarding gender and plan the response accordingly.

When gender advisers from outside of the country (all of whom were female) claimed the low rate of women’s education was ‘all the fault of male dominated Islam’, Nadeem dismissed them as not knowing what they were talking about.

“Well why aren’t the girls going to school?’ I asked.

“Because they spend 4 to 8 hours a day collecting water” he said.

Nadeem’s solution was not to blame Islam, it was to go to the root cause of the problem – lack of water provision. He then made it compulsory in the earthquake reconstruction effort of 2005-2008 to build taps in every house.

As a result girl’s enrolments in schools skyrocketed resulting in the earthquake affected region meeting the Millennium Development Goals targets in education of girls.

It took practical military thinking to remove the fog of ideology and get to the real root cause of the problem.

Both those who look at gender issues merely through a “feminist” lens and those who are straying down the path of male chauvinism, are equally as erroneous as the other. Yet some people still equate a ‘gender’ view with a ‘feminist’ one. Tragic results can some times flow.

I attended an emergency planners’ conference in Geneva during 2006 and listened to a presentation by a gender advisor (the vast majority of whom are female – which is in itself ironic) who spoke on issues regarding women’s evidence in rape trials in Islamic countries. It is a great shame that in some Islamic countries, women’s evidence is not accepted as equal to that of a man’s evidence.

At this conference the female presenter outlined the programme she had been running in Sudan to have women’s evidence accepted as equal to men’s. She had persuaded approximately 100 women who had been raped, and who had wished to put the episode behind them, to pursue a prosecution of the male perpetrators. This academic saw it as a great success that after 100 attempts, she achieved the first prosecution of a man based on the equal acceptance of women’s evidence. The majority of the people in the room, mainly women, applauded her.

There had been 100 attempts at conviction and finally one victory!

But it was a hollow victory.

I put my hand up to ask what had happened to the other 99 women. The presenter informed us that there had been no conviction in the previous 99 cases and that the men had walked free. This is a shame. Guilty people should be punished.

I again asked the question about what happened to the other women as opposed to the accused men. After having admitted a sexual act had taken place (the rape was not proven but sex was admitted) the women were then charged with adultery.

So who really won? A woman from outside of the cultural context persuaded 100 women who had been through a terrible ordeal, rather than put the ordeal behind them, to take action in court for rape. The action failed, the man walked free, the women were tried for adultery. Then what happened?

They were convicted and stoned to death.

When one becomes too blinded to an ideological goal one can lose sight of their impact on people. Unlike the presenter, I thought it a great tragedy that 99 women who had wanted to put the episode behind them ended up being charged with adultery, convicted and stoned to death. This would not have happened to them if not for the neo-academic feminist wanting to prove a point using other people’s lives.

In a similar way, when gender issues are confused with feminism in conflict environments, similar distortion can take place.

Rape as a weapon of war is abhorrent. Yet if one looks at the issue of rape in war through a feminist lens then the result is the creation of a large number of programmes supporting the victims of rape.

When one looks at the issue of rape as a weapon of war through a gender lens then two things become apparent. Firstly, it is appropriate to put in place as many programmes as you can to look after the victims of rape. Secondly, when analysing who the perpetrators of rape are in many conflict environments, often it is young boys and youths forced into the acts as part of a gang style initiation programme implemented by some of the world’s worst warlords.

The boys are often kidnapped, forced into the military and forced to perpetrate these heinous crimes. In some ways they are are also victims.

When tracing back the issues as they impact on both genders, a lot of programmes can be put in place to try and protect the boys from kidnapping and thereby reduce not only the number of child soldiers, but also the number of perpetrators of rape.

When looking through a feminist lens one deals with the consequence of rape. But when looking through a gender lens one can deal with both the consequence of rape and the causes of rape. Which is better?

In the case of the Pakistan earthquake when looking through a “feminist” lens one may be tempted to say that girls were not going to school because of issues regarding Islam. When looking at the issue through a “gender” lens one may see the issue has more to do with taps.

So how does this apply to business?

Diversity is not achieved merely by getting the gender balance right. Diversity is all about a diversity of opinions, experiences and background that can lead to more robust discussion on strategic corporate direction.

A discussion around ‘diversity’, not just in gender but in thought, is a non confrontational discussion. When talking about diversity only through a gender leans, there is a great risk of ignoring the broader issues and just continuing the old generation gender wars of women against men.

It is time we put the confrontational language behind us and understand that gender issues involve both genders, and diversity involves more than just gender.

Andrew MacLeod is a Visiting Professor at Kings College London, a visiting expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, a former Australian Army Officer and United Nations Official. He can be followed on twitter @AndrewMMacleod

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