A Question of Gender

by Annie Deng

This week, Deputy Secretary General Amina J. Mohammed was sworn in by SG Antonio Guterres and we, your faithful representatives, immediately got a chance to hear her speak. It was her first official engagement and I was extremely delighted when she announced that she will be focusing on sustainable development. SD has always captured my imagination and passion. I cannot agree more with the vision of sustainable development that she has forged with SG Guterres, especially their emphasis on the need to empower youth as agents of peace and development. (Read the full text of her speech and the Q&A that followed here.)

DSG Amina Mohammed / Photo from UN.org

At one point in her speech, DSG Mohammed mentioned that we have not achieved enough success in addressing gender barriers. I realized that she herself is a symbol of this progress and the limitations therein. Earlier in the semester, CCNY was graced by the visit of Ms. Natalia Gherman, former Prime Minister of Moldova and one of the female candidates for secretary general in the 2016 race. Ms. Gherman had mentioned that many were expecting a female from Eastern Europe to emerge victorious; if the seat rotated fairly, it simply was time for such a new SG. When Mr. Guterres, a white man from Western Europe, became the winner, even he was surprised. Ms. Gherman posited that the new SG feels guilty that he took the position from the ladies, and so wanted to make up by appointing a lot of women to high positions at the UN. Deputy Secretary General Mohammed’s selection would certainly fit this theory.

Gender has been an issue of hot debate lately. On many stages, battle of the sexes have manifested into heated contests. So many positions and candidates became over-simplified into a competition between men and women. And then there are the transgender folks and complex gender folks I have yet to learn how to address properly…Apparently Facebook offers 58 possibilities. While I am of course happy that more ladies are taking on prominent roles in different arenas, some times I wonder what it all means.

Pronoun cards 2016-02
graphic from uwm.edu

Last week I attended an event sponsored by the permanent mission of the Republic of Indonesia on “the role of women in peacekeeping”. The panel was made up of female officers in peacekeeping missions and police forces, with a lone gentlemen, the Permanent Representative of Lebanon, asked to “balance out” the set. The ladies shared their experiences in the field and the general conclusion was indisputable: Having more women in peacekeeping missions would be beneficial all around.

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During the discussion, my mind kept floating to my “Debating Political Ideologies” class, where I learned about third wave feminism, which envisions a gender fluid society where people are no longer restricted to the categories of women and men. Gender is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Babies are ascribed gender roles and trained to perform according to their labels. We are not born as males and females, but rather learn to become men and women.

So when a recommendation is submitted that more women be recruited to serve on peace-keeping missions, do we need biological women? Genetic women? Individual who physically resemble the traditional vision of “women”? Or people who possess the personalities, characteristics, and/or skills usually associated with “women”? Would a biological male who can pass for a girl and is gentle and kind and detail-oriented suffice? What about a girl who is like a “man” in every way? Would she still bring about the benefits expected by having a female?

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With academia and the activist circles heading so far ahead on questions of gender, discussing binary struggles of male v.s. female feels so odd, like a throwback of many decades. Are we really still stuck in that stage? DSG Mohammed said we have not achieved enough. Perhaps that is so. But perhaps, beyond the male-female struggle, the world has yet to find a common direction in which to progress. It is a deeply controversial issue and we must be culturally sensitive.

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