‘The Square’

The film ‘The Square’ is a documentary which follows young activists who have engaged in the revolutions from the early stage. This reminded me the days in Egypt and life with Egyptian people from January 2012 to April 2014, and motivated me to write down my thought here.


The revolution started in January 2011 was filled with energy, anger against regimes, ambitions to the future at the beginning. However, as the time had passed, it begun to create violence and grievance, and transform revolutionaries’ original aim, which was to fell down the president, to the further aims, such as elections and new constitution. Witnessing this slight but clear transformation, I came up with some questions.


Revolution as/for democracy?

Yes, it is likely true that the revolutions, especially the January 25th revolution, played a crucial role to spread civilians’ voice against existing regimes, unite and mobilise people, achieve their first aim which to fell down the 3 decades-long Mubarak regime and bring ‘democracy’. But, is the revolution a way to perform their rights to democracy? Have the revolution really brought them democracy? And, what kinds of democracy do people need?

If they define the democracy as that they can have rights to free speech, to social justice, liberation, or whatever, do they keep doing revolution every time they feel oppressed or inequalities? I saw many times that many social systems were down because people were in the street and the squares in order to emerge revolution and people’s daily lives become more difficult. Moreover, I am doubtful that Egyptian people have really gained rights to free speech after the revolution. Specifically, since 30th June 2013, people have divided into two groups, pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi, and seemed that they have begun to hostile each other more or less. As anti-Morsi became superior among the society, I felt there was no room to discuss politics and forced to support the next regime, Sisi. Furthermore, the revolution revealed the limits of democracy in Egypt. Even if they could create a new regime by the very democratic way, election, they would make it step down by doing revolution. It means that they have denied democracy which they have sought by themselves. In my viewpoint, they will keep doing revolution until the consequences can reach what people want. But it is impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs. Seeking alternative way except revolution is a big challenge for Egyptian people.


Revolution as culture?

In the film, a guy of leading role says ‘revolution is now our culture’. But there are risks to accept revolution as a culture and continue it again and again. As I mentioned above, revolutions have create another revolution, and it is still unclear whether revolution have brought something better for their lives. Moreover, repeating revolution can mean that people are allowed to keep showing their complaint in public to others, such as regimes and authorities. It may be welcomed to some extent in the country which has been oppressed to be silent for decades. On the other hand, however, it can allow people to express their feeling directly to others, and can create intolerance to different groups from own beliefs. We also witnessed that religious became instrument to mobilise people through the activities, and sometimes it triggered people to hostile to others.


I would like to emphasise that I don’t want to deny Egyptians revolutions. I can say that these revolutions are crucial moment in their history, not only for nation itself but also for each Egyptian people. I do have to keep in mind that many people have cried when their families or friends were sacrificed since 2011 spring. I do have to keep in mind that people are struggling and stepping forward no matter which direction they intend to go, and even if they don’t know which direction they are going, carrying a tough history from 2011.


Wishing that every Egyptian people have a peaceful 4th anniversary on 25th January.


What my journey through this module has brought to me

My journey through the module has been challenging, with a lot of obstacles and confusion; but it has also been exciting because it has provided me with new perspectives. The lectures, and my own reading and discussions with colleagues have all broaden my views on gender and development.

First, several times, the module has forced me to reflect on my work experience in Egypt. Before I came to the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), the dominate notion I had of gender was “something about women”, and I thought that gender and development was “something about women’s empowerment”. In Egypt, I rarely questioned my work, which was to support income-generating activities for local women, and thought that women’s economic empowerment was good for them, and should thus be promoted. However, I found that the global debate on gender and development is much wider and deeper. Now, I realise that economic empowerment activities can have negative effects, such as reshaping gender roles, bringing down the social structure, increasing the burden of women’s work, and so on. If I had been aware of such outcomes, my approach in Egypt would have been very different. At IDS, I learned that attempting to redress the balance for women as a subordinated group is too optimistic to grasp the whole situation around gender issues. Moreover, I recognised that development programmes and interventions designed to address the problems faced by women and girls can have a devastating impact on society, especially in terms of gender norms.


Yes, I agree on the significance of women’s empowerment, but should we look at women only?

Nevertheless, these new viewpoints have sometimes confused me. We constantly sought to critique existing principles of and practices in gender and development. For example, we discussed the film The Girl Effect (2010), concluding that it simplifies the gender problem in suggesting that girls’ empowerment is an essential solution. On the one hand, this film brought me critical perspectives on girls’ and women’s empowerment. However, on the other hand, we also have to remember that this view tends to undervalue the significance of girls’ and women’s empowerment. We cannot deny the fact that the message of this film has universal appeal and can motivate people to raise funds or contribute to the global debate on gender issues as well. Yet, here, I feel that there is a huge gap between academia and development practice; and how such a gulf might be narrowed will be a major personal challenge from now on.

At the same time, taking a critical approach to Western-oriented development and feminism has brought considerable insight, too, encouraging me to rethink the practices of Japanese agencies for example. I have learned that the Western world view has faced many dilemmas and struggles with local contexts. Pigg’s (2001) study is a case in point, revealing the incongruity between international knowledge of HIV/AIDS and local Nepali life. Given that Japan has a different history of gender and development from Western countries, reflecting on Pigg’s (2001) research, I am now curious that how the outcome differs between Japanese approaches and Western’s one. Of course, there would be gaps between Nepali and Japanese attitudes towards HIV/AIDS, but I assume that the context between us are closer geographically and culturally than those of the West. I therefore feel that if I wish to be effective in the future, I should stop directly applying the theories and concepts of Western-oriented gender and development: I need to seek an alternative means of development which fits the Japanese context.

Yet, I still have some reservations about gender and development per se. Everyone agrees that its goal is to achieve social equality and justice, but I still do not have a clear view of where and how I set my positionality in terms of striving for gender equality. As I wrote in my first blog, situations differ according to positionality and whether agents are insiders or outsides. As long as I am an outsider in a developing country context, I will always impose foreign views and values on local communities in seeking to achieve gender equality. But who decides that there is gender inequality in the first place? Who sees women as subordinated or violated? Eyben (2014) argues that, as aid workers, we must be constantly aware of our position, the influence we have, and the political relationships between donors and beneficiaries. I now strongly believe that gender and development aid workers should bear in mind these invisible power relations because their programmes can directly impact a society and change its gender norms.


Where is my positionality?

To sum up, in my journey through this module, I have definitely learned that there are multiple perspectives on gender and development. At the same time, it has led me to reassess past practices and encouraged me to continue seeking my position. Therefore, my challenge and goal for the remainder of my course at IDS is to seek appropriate positionality as an aid worker in gender and development.




Eyben, R. (2014) International Aid and the Making of a Better World: Reflective practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pigg, S. L. (2001) Languages of Sex and AIDS in Nepal: Notes on the social production of commensurability. Cultural Anthropology 16(4): 481–541.

The Girl Effect (2010) The Clock is Ticking . Available from: http://youtu.be/1e8xgF0JtVg (Accessed 2 December 2014).

Whose culture should be transformed for Egypt’s abolition of FGM/C?


When I was faced with the topic of culture and rights, an experience in Egypt came to mind that concerned the culture of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I cannot forget the moment when a 17-years-old friend said that she had been circumcised just two weeks previously. I was very shocked because she looked pleased to have had the operation, and her mother and other relatives celebrated it as well. At the same time, I recognised the big gap between the Western sensibilities that condemn this tradition, which can be termed ‘rights vs. culture’ (Cowan et al. 2001), and the reality what I saw in Egyptian society.

FGM/C became a worldwide public issue at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, with a video presentation on the practice in Egypt by a CNN reporter and harsh condemnation from the United Nations (Shannon 2012). However, a study shows that in 2000, 97 per cent of married women reported having undergone FGM/C, and in 2008, 50.3 per cent of school girls had been exposed to it (Tag-Eldin et al. 2008). Merry (2006, p.25) argues that, ‘Diminishing violence against women requires cultural transformation.’ Therefore, my aim in this blog is to answer the question: whose culture will be transformed by Egypt’s abolition of FGM/C? In other words, at whom should proponents of the anti-FGM/C movement direct their efforts? Now, have a look at this video.

Where are the problems? Who fears whom?

Several arguments for rights vs. culture in terms of the abolition of FGM/C have been put forward. At an international level, after the Cairo ICPD, many anti-FGM/C groups adopted human rights, women’s rights, and health and development approaches (Shannon 2012; El-Dawla 1999). At a national level, the Egyptian National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), with from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), launched a strategy to tackle FGM/C, and lobbying by a broad coalition of activists led to the passing of a law that criminalised the practice  (Molleman and Franse 2009). Moreover, as the video shows, at local and grassroots levels, efforts have been made to eradicate FGM/C by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious leaders, and through media campaigns (BBC 2012).

Yet, there is much resistance to the rights vs. culture movement, which, let’s say, takes the position of rights for culture against ‘rights vs. culture’. Of the arguments for FGM/C, I would like to focus on the fact that mothers and grandmothers continue to subject their daughters and granddaughters to the practice in order that they should be marriageable. For them, FGM/C is necessary to show that a girl is pure and thus acceptable to a potential husband (BBC 2012; El Dawla 1999). Therefore, it could be said that the central concern or fear of such women is that FGM/C is inevitable if a girl is to be married; and they perpetuate the practice because they must conform to men’s wishes in this regard.

In my opinion, this fear of women toward men is produced by a hegemonic patriarchy; and such a gendered structure must be considered in the delivery of anti-FGM/C movements. However, in reality, these movements have not looked at the patriarchal structure sufficiently. Why don’t anti-FGM/C groups take into account the gendered structure? Moreover, is there any room to discuss how much men and boys really value FGM/C?

Molleman and Franse (2009) argue that the engagement of men and boys in the battle against FGM/C is crucial. However, they also state the difficulty for males to talk about sexuality and the female body because of the barrier of religion. Moreover, it is not surprising that discussion between women and men about sexuality is very difficult in a strict gendered society. However, I believe that the voices of young men and boys could prove to be a breakthrough in resolving this stagnant situation.

Beyond the patriarchal hegemonic society

It is notable that men and boys talking about marriage and their sexual lives in the second video often claim that it does not matter to them whether their wives are circumcised or not. Moreover, we remember the story of the woman in the first video who said that sex with her husband was very painful because of her circumcision. Through these two videos, I have come to think that the voices of men and boys who are sympathetic to the anti-FGM/C can act as role models to their communities, and make positive changes for challenging the hegemonic patriarchy and practice of FGM/C.


In my opinion, the inherited Egyptian FGM/C culture derives primarily from the hegemonic patriarchal norm. Thus, the effort to eradicate the practice should not only focus on transforming the female culture and mindset, but also on understanding the patriarchal society, and transforming the male culture and mindset. To achieve this, the voices of young men and boys must be louder and spread wider.



BBC (2012) ‘Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt’. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bObvzSHRKT8 (Accessed 24 November 2014).

Cowan, J., Dembour, M., and Wilson, R. (2001) ‘Introduction’. In Cowan, J., Dembour, M., and Wilson, R. (2001) Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–26.

El-Dawla, A. S. (1999) ‘The Political and Legal Struggle over Female genital Mutilation in Egypt: Five Years Since the ICPD’. Reproductive Health Matters 7(13): 128–136.

Merry, S. E. (2006) Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Molleman, G., and Franse, L. (2009) ‘The struggle for abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Egypt’. Global Health Promotion 16(57): 57–60 .

Shannon, K. J. (2012) ‘The Right to Bodily Integrity: Women’s Rights as Human Rights and the International Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation, 1970s–1990s’. In Iriye, A., Goedde, P., and Hitchcock W.I. (eds.) (2012) The Human Rights Revolution: An International History. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 285–310.

Tag-Eldin, M. A., Gadallah, M. A., Al-Tayeb, M. N., Abdel-Aty, M., Mansour, E., and Sallem, M. (2008) ‘Prevalence of female genital cutting among Egyptian girls’. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 86(4): 269–274.

Zakaria, A. and El Sayaad, M. (2014) ‘FGM in Egypt Short video ’. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTO6ltQo5mA (Accessed 24 November 2014).

To what extent has queer globalism influenced Egyptian society?



Khanna (2011)  draws attention to the unnaturalness of speaking of Indian sexuality in the context of a global framework. Mohanty (1991) argues that Western feminism does not always take into account ‘third world women’ and criticises the hegemonic nature of the movement. These two claims concur in positing that there are limitations to the implementation of Western  views on sexual liberation in contexts other than those of the West. However, I believe that the intervention or prevalence of Western feminism does not necessarily harm developing world  societies. In this post, I focus on Western notions of sexual equality in Egypt, particularly the spread of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (LGBTQ) rights, a development known as “queer globalism” (Amar 2013), and discuss its impact on Egyptian society.

Queer Globalism and Egypt

According to Amar (2013), the introduction of queer globalism to Egypt occurred in association with economic growth and the modernisation of consumer spaces through the rise of tourism in the 1980s. However, in a homophobic society constructed by a traditional Islamic and patriarchal culture, the representation of homosexuality is necessarily constrained and sexuality is not openly discussed. Nevertheless, queer globalism and the new terms associated with it such as “sexuality”, “gay”, “lesbian”, “homosexuality”, etc. have opened a crack in the debate on sexual identity in Egypt.

Positive impacts – sexual identity  and sexual democracy

Adopting such terms  as “gay”, “lesbian” and “queer”, people categorised into these groups gain “alternative” rights based on their sexuality, reframe their sexual identities, and attain freedom. According to Long (2014), the term LGBTQ has gained acceptance in Egyptian society, especially by those living in Cairo and a few other urban centres, and has encouraged people to experiment with their sexualities in new ways, with the help of the burgeoning availability of the Internet. In other words,  gay people are empowered to reconstruct and reify their identities.

Combining with a movement which called for the liberalisation of the repressive politics of President Mubarak, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 encouraged the expression of homosexual identities in public spaces. Moreover, in the centre of Cairo, images of homosexuality were used as a symbol of the beginning of a new age. Thus, it could be argued that, in a sense, queer globalism has been as a key player in the democratic movement.

Negative impacts – target of political oppression

Yet, queer globalism has also had a negative impact on Egyptian society. It has proved to be a trigger for the politicising of sexuality as it has drawn attention to homosexuals. Terms such as “gay” and “homosexual” have made people who had previously hidden behind the homophobic culture hypervisible and come to be seen as target for the crackdown. In the end, gay men were portrayed as ‘hyperaggressive agents despised traitors who menaced national integrity, invaded or infected the country, and trafficked in practices that police categorized as threats to national security and framed in a new discourse of sexual terrorism’  (Amar 2013, p.78).

The “Cairo 52 ” incident is a typical case in point. On 11 May 2001 , Egyptian security forces raided the Queen Boat, a riverboat nightclub moored on the Nile between two of Cairo’s five-star hotels. The Queen Boat was not part of the underground scene but a visible and well known gay club. During the raid, all the Egyptian men present were arrested, put in jail overnight, and exposed to humiliation and extortion. Responding to this, Human Rights Watch (2004)  strongly condemns it as an ‘assault on justice’. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Massad (2002) argues that such criticism by Western human rights groups can be acceptance of Western cultural hegemony.

Furthermore, we cannot deny that Egyptian gay people are exploited for political purposes more than in the past. In an interview in The Guardian, Mahmoud, an activist on gender issues, argues that ‘[the crackdown against gay people] help[s] show government and police can be society’s moral gatekeepers and their point is that even though the Islamists are gone, we’re still going to keep an eye on the behaviours that may, according to them, disrupt society .’


On balance, it seems that queer globalism is a double-edged sword for Egyptian homosexuals. On the one hand, it has led to alternative sexual identities and emancipation from the oppressed and ambiguous framework of sexuality. However, on the other hand, open usage of terminology around homosexuality has drawn attention to such people and encouraged discrimination against them by those in power.


Amar, P. (2013) The Security Archipelago; human-security states, sexuality politics, and the end of neoliberalism. London: Duke University Press.

Human Rights Watch (2004) ‘In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice In Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct’. Available from: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/egypt0304_0.pdf (Accessed at 10 Nov 2014)

Khanna, A. (2011) ‘Meyeli Chhele becomes MSM: Transformation of Idioms of Sexualness into epidemiological forms in India’. In Cornwall, A., Greig, A., and Edstrom, J. (eds.) Men and Development: Politicizing masculinities. London: Zed Books, pp. 47–57.

Kirchick, J. (2007) ‘Queer Theory’. New Republic. Available from: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/queer-theory (Accessed at 10 Nov 2014)

Kingsley, P. (2014) ‘Egypt’s gay community fears government crackdown’. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/17/egypt-gay-community-fears-government-crackdown (Accessed at 10 Nov 2014)

Long, S.  (2014) ‘Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came’. A Paper Bird. Available from:   (Accessed at 10 Nov 2014)

Mohanty, C. T. (1991) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’. In Mohanty, C.T., Russo, A.  Torres A., and Torres L. (eds.) Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.51–80.

Can ‘Ikumen’ change hegemonic masculinities and achieve gender equality in Japan?



In the dynamic and rapidly changing Japanese lifestyle, ‘Ikumen’ are in the spotlight now in Japan, reflecting the increasing need of fathers’ support for childcare. Iku in ‘Ikumen’ stands for ‘Ikuji’ which means ‘childrearing’ in Japanese. So we call men ‘Ikumen’ who are take part in childrearing positively and actively, taking paternity leave, for example. In this post, I would like to discuss the background of birth of Ikumen and examine how Ikumen have influenced to the hegemonic masculinity and gender equality.


Emerging of Ikumen

Strict gender division in the household has been socially and traditionally formed in Japan. Typically, fathers have been commonly thought to be breadwinners and remain bystanders to household chores, while mothers are supposed to stay inside the house, doing all housework including childbearing. As the theory of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ introduced by Connell (2005) shows, there has been subordination of women by these binary gender roles in Japanese society. However, as times change, more women are now in work and the number of dual-income households has been increasing in last few decades. Therefore, as traditional gender roles in the household outlined above are becoming outdated now, the inequalities in the distribution of housework are being revealed, which has been a crucial matter for women to balance between working and childrearing. As the BBC reports, working mothers’ situation is very harsh: ‘Women who are having children are not working. Women who are working are not having children’. In these situation, Ikumen raise hope in contributing toward reducing women’s burden and achieving gender equalities in Japan, encouraged by ‘Wimenomics which is a higher-priority manifesto of current government.


Upsides of Ikumen / How has it change Japanese hegemonic masculinity?

The emergence of “Ikumen” stirred up the Japanese traditional gender roles and questioned old-fashioned hegemonic masculinity in both individual and social level. On an individual level, many Ikumen-husbands have reflected on their attitude towards families and childcare, and also their working style. For instance, an Ikumen says that he came to respect working mothers after he took paternity leave, and that he wants to be a role model of Ikumen for other working fathers (Ikumen Project: a). At the social level, the movement of Ikumen has encouraged companies to popularise and allow the paternity leave for their employees. Actually, an Ikumen reports that his paternity leave changed the attitude of colleagues toward men’s child-care (ibid: b). Thus, it is highly probable that the emergence of Ikumen has pushed us to sensitise the hegemonic masculinity and the gender distinction about childrearing which is hardly fit for modern society. Considering that hegemonic masculinity can be socially constructed, Ikumen have the potential to change this construct and promote gender equality.


Limitation of Ikumen

On the other hand, the idea of Ikumen has limitations to change the hegemonic masculinity and gender transformation. First, Ikumen may have difficulty in getting rid of the structure of hegemonic masculinity as long as the concept of Ikumen itself is dominantly constructed by men. Not only is Ikumen encouraged on a large scale through the ‘Ikumen Project’, which is promoted by a male-dominated government, but also there is little input and perspective of women in the conceptualisation of Ikumen. In fact, there is no mention of ‘women’ in the definition of Ikumen by the Ikumen Project, which defines that ‘Ikumen is men who enjoy childrearing and grow up themselves’ (ibid: c, my English translation from Japanese). Surely, it is men who do Ikumen. However, the lack of women’s views on Ikumen can remain hegemonic masculinity.

Second, the distribution of childrearing by Ikumen does not necessarily promote gender transformation. Even if mothers could be emancipated from the burden of child-care by the support of Ikumen, they are not guaranteed to be economically present, that is working in high positions on equal salary to their husbands. Greig (2011) criticises this phenomenon as being only a “romance of female social advancement”, expressing that the liberation of women is ‘dependent on a complementary romance of male domestic responsibility’. Moreover, it seems possible that the discussion of Ikumen has shifted attention from institutional responsibilities to domestic responsibilities of child-care. Actually, the discussion of how to improve the working environment for working mothers has not reached tangible conclusions. Therefore, the idea of Ikumen has a risk of making women’s salient struggle more unvisible.



Conclusion / Can Ikumen promote be gender equality?

Certainly, Ikumen have been a trigger to rethinking about hegemonic masculinity in Japan. It has played an important role in encouraging society to actively reshape the concept of hegemonic masculinity as well. Yet, it does not necessarily lead to gender equality because of its inability to address problems of women’s advancement in economic activities, even if the burden of child caring has been reduced by Ikumen. Now it might be time to reanalyse fundamental social structure of gender inequality, which are revealed by the emergence of Ikumen.



Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J. (2005) ‘Hegemonic masculinity: rethinking the concept’ in Gender and Society, 19(6), pp.829-859.

Greig, A. (2011) ‘Anxious States and Directions for Masculinities Work with Men’, in Cornwall, A., Edstrom, J. and Greig, A (eds.) Men and development: politicising masculinities. London: Zed Books, pp.219-236.

Ikumen Project: a, Available from: http://www.ikumen-project.jp/ikumen_experience/index.php?q=%E3%83%AD%E3%83%BC%E3%83%AB%E3%83%A2%E3%83%87%E3%83%AB&id=&a=0&p=0 (Accessed 10 December 2014)

Ikumen Project: b, Available from: http://www.ikumen-project.jp/ikumen_experience/index.php?q=%E8%81%B7%E5%A0%B4&id=&a=0&p=0 (Accessed 10 December 2014)

Ikumen Project: c, Available from: http://www.ikumen-project.jp/project/index.php (Accessed 10 December 2014)

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes. (2013) “Japan: The worst developed country for working mothers?” BBC News. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21880124> (27 Oct. 2014)

U.S.-Japan Council. (2014) ‘Powerful Voices Join USJC-ACCJ Women in Business Summit to Advocate Growing Role of Women in Japan’. Available from: http://www.usjapancouncil.org/powerful_voices_join_usjc_accj_women_in_business_summit_to_advocate_growing_role_of_women_in_japan (Accessed 27 October 2014)

What is ‘Gender’? Definitions and risks in various approaches

Introductiongender toilet

What is gender? What is the difference between men and women? What distinguishes masculinity and femininity? Seeking to answer these questions can represent a framework for the conceptualisation of gender, but it will differ according to context – community, individuals, their ages, and so on. In this post, I would like to consider some definitions of gender and the risks we may face in approaching gender issues.


Gender in second-wave feminism

The debate on gender/sex distinction emerged in the middle of 1950s (Friedman 2006). During the 1960s and 1970s, the shaping of so-called second-wave feminism succeeded in reworking the language of gender. This distinguished gender from sex, defining sex as a naturally fixed dualism around which gender is socially constructed. Thus, Friedman (2006 ) states that ‘gender  is actually largely caused by social norms and institutions – and thus can and should be transformed’. She also argues that this sex/gender distinction could provide the basis for a feminist movement for gender equality. However, it could also emphasize sex differences and risk sliding into essentialism and determinism.


Butler’s definition of gender

In 1990, a new perspective on gender was introduced by Butler (1990, cited in Friedman 2006), who argues that the notion of sex is invariably inherent in that of gender. Thus, sex constitutes the performance or the product of the social and psychological discourse on gender, and sex per se can be eliminated as a discrete category (ibid). This hypothesis allows us to involve in the dialogue people who have hitherto been marginalised by existing categorisations of gender, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (LGBTQ) communities. However, Friedman (2006) claims that Butler’s perspective ignores the significance body image, and tends to dismiss the challenges to those who feel that they have birth defects, physical abnormalities, and/or psychological disorders.


Risks in approaches to gender and gender inequality/equality

Both second-wave feminists and Butler agree that gender is produced by the social structure. Based on such a definition, then, solving gender issues and transforming gender inequality require change, or, in other words, the intervention of the social structure, as embodied by culture and traditional practices. Chambers (1995) defines development as ‘good change’. However, whether development can be achieved through ‘good change’ or requires a more deliberate intervention would seem to be determined by the position of the development agent: insider or outsider.

The debate on the wearing of the hijab or burqa, which Muslim women use to cover their hair or body respectively, is a good example, as it suggests multiple insights into gender and the social structure, and the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders. A report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) (2006) states that:

The wearing of the headscarf is a complex and multifaceted issue that is often raised in public debate in most European countries during recent years, particularly in the areas of education and employment. It is in these areas that the issue of the headscarf has become controversial, as it is seen as a symbol of female oppression and gender inequality.

As a consequence, some states have banned the wearing of religious coverings generally in schools and/or workplaces (Ssenyonjo 2008: 148).


Photo credit: femispire.com


However, many Muslim women do not feel that such a mode of dress is as a symbol of oppression and decide to wear the hijab or burqa for various reasons of their own. For example, Hoodfar (1997) cites the case of a young working woman who chose to take up the veil when she got engaged because wearing the hijab was a suitable way of expressing her good character to her fiancé’s very conservative family. Kapoor (2014) asserts that many women also wear such coverings for security reasons and that they can prevent unwanted gazes from men. In short, for Muslim women, wearing the hijab or burqa ‘can be a tool of identity, freedom, empowerment and emancipation’ (Ssenyonjo 2008: 198). Thus, the decision to wearing the hijab or burqa is a reaction to the social and personal context in which women find themselves.


Photo credit: Kapoor/Al Jazeera


Veil may be a border between insider and outsider.


The aforementioned contrasting reactions to the wearing of the hijab or burqa are indicative of the differing perceptions of insiders (Muslim women) and outsiders (Western countries). We must therefore recognise that the attempts of outsiders to achieve gender equality, such as banning women from wearing the hijab and burqa, can lead to the denial of insiders’ socially constructed culture and oppress their rights.



In summary, gender can be defined as a socially constructed concept; therefore, any approach to the achievement of gender equality must accommodate the social norms of all actors in the issue. In my opinion, when we discuss issues around gender, we have to consider the possibility of cultural influence.




Chambers, R. (1995) Poverty and Livelihoods: Whose reality counts? Environment and Urbanization 7(1): 173–204.
European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (2006) Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia. Vienna: EUMC.
Friedman, A. (2006) Unintended Consequences of the Feminist Sex/Gender Distinction. Genders [http://www.genders.org/g43/g43_friedman.html] 43 . (Accessed: 8 December 2014)


Hoodfar, H. (1997) Return to the Veil: Personal Strategy and Public Participation in Egypt. In: Visanathan, N., Duggan, L., Nisonoff, L., and Wiegersma, N. (eds) The Women, Gender and Development Reader. London: Zed Books, 320–325.


Kapoor, S. (2014) In Pictures: Beyond the Burqa. Al-Jazeera. Available from: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/09/pictures-beyond-burqa-20149161034537557.html (Accessed: 8 December 2014).
Ssenyonjo, M. (2008) Moslem women, religion and the hijab: A human rights perspective. East African Journal of Peace and Human Rights 14(1): 147–199.