Biological Determinism: Gender and Peace in the Contemporary British Context
Author: Patricia Rich
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/07/2010
“To be a citizen is not to live in a society. A citizen is one who transforms a society” – Augusto Boal[i]
I am a gendered woman. By this I mean that the interaction between my biological sex and my historically and culturally contingent experiences have determined me to be a woman. Gendered identity is manifest in contemporary society; it permeates our idea of self and informs our interactions. Through our lived reproduction of a paradigm of biologically deterministic gender relations, we deny the past conceptions and possible comprehensions of this mass identity formation. Restrictive gendered ascriptions mould us, from birth, informing our experience of self, desire, actions and reactions. With this article I argue that we are able to go beyond these narrowly defined identities, which we perform and reinforce with our everyday interactions, and that through a transformation of our gendered identities we are able to seek a more peaceful existence.
This paper is premised upon the notion that identities are fluid: who we are is in constant flux. That is, individual’s identities’, which are inevitably plural, are dynamic entities, continually re-defined on the basis of, for example, context and experience. Whilst the focus of this paper is to analyse gendered identities, this should not imply the importance of gender over any other form of identity, but rather to serve as an example of mass identity formations and our ability to go beyond contemporary interpretations of the self.
Through an analysis of the definition of peace and violence I lay the foundations of this paper, illustrating the link between gender relations and peace. I go on to analyse the meaning of gender and how our interaction with scientific knowledge serves to reinforce dichotomies of man and woman. This article adopts a highly reflexive methodology and is influenced by my personal experiences and interaction with contemporary British and London culture. Through an exploration into my experiential learning and literature readings, I propose that a gendered lens of analysis exposes British society as not engaging with processes of peace. From here, I conclude that we need to engage with our gender in a creative way in order to re-perceive our gendered selves.
State of Art
As stated above, this paper adopts a highly reflexive methodology. Whilst I question how the concept of gender permeates our collective identities, it is imperative to pose these same questions to my personal sense of self; “critique is not something for the academic observer; critique is a lived experience”[ii]. Thus, my journey as an individual cannot be untied from my authorship of this article. So in the name of honesty, dear reader, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself.
I was born in London in the summer of 1985: I am a female British citizen. I lived the first 19 years of my life in South London, moving to Bristol (a small city in the Southwest of England) in 2004 to go to University. In 2007 I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Politics and Sociology. I stayed living in Bristol until 2008 when I moved to Costa Rica to study for my Masters at the UN mandated University for Peace (an intimate international institution in a small village outside of San José). I graduated in International Peace Studies in July, 2009 and returned to the UK last August, since then I have been living in London.
The change in cultural, geographical and contextual settings I experienced while moving between Costa Rica and the UK has necessarily entailed and compelled me to reassess my gendered identity and interactions. Amelia Smith, a freelance writer from the UK who lives in Cairo, explained to me how the change in her cultural setting made her think about what it means to be a woman in a more profound way; her gendered interactions are brought to the forefront as she moves between Egyptian and British society. My move from the Costa Rican ‘Peace School’ life to the highly populated urban area of London has highlighted the societal performance of gender and paved the way for this analysis.
This paper has been consciously researched through reading, attending lectures, discussion groups, individual conversations and my experience of daily reality over the past seven months since re-arrival in the UK. My experiences of what it means to be a woman during my time living in Costa Rica have made me reflect upon what it is to be a woman in my current context.
The reflexive nature of this paper necessarily implies that I am not attempting to produce a representative analysis of an essentialised experience of woman. On the other hand, the relevance of this article should resonate further than irrelevant personal prose. I attempt to find a space between these two extremes, presenting a comprehension of contemporary gender relations whilst remaining honest about the eyes through which the world is being seen. As a very wise friend, Taylor O’Connor, once told me “the world is dynamic and ever changing, we never cease to learn more. With this, we can do nothing more than to share our thoughts with the world as best we understand it and always listen to others.” Thus, this paper is presented as my humble understandings at this present moment. My intention is to create a space for open and honest dialogue and discussion regarding the issues covered.
Recently I have read two books that spoke to me. When I say that they spoke to me, I mean they held a resonance with my experiences of reality. Natasha Walters’ Living Dolls and Susie Orbach’s Bodies inspired much of this article; through their often scathing critique of contemporary Western, particularly British, society with reference to our lived gendered experience, they put into words a lot of what I have been experiencing and feeling in my interactions with British society and culture.
Walters’ analysis of ‘the return of sexism’ illustrates the resurgence of biological determinism as an explanation for our gendered experience. Living Dolls examines the interactions between academia, the media and social interaction in shaping the ‘pink is for girls, blue is for boys’ fashion, highlighting the limitations, dangers and violence produced by the perception that our gender is a product of unchallengeable science. She deconstructs the deterministic account asking, “Why it is we are allowing the stereotypes of the nurturing, empathetic woman and the powerful, logical man to be seen as natural and inevitable”[iii] and urges us not to give up hope; “What we can remember when we look at the past is that social change is always possible”[iv].
Orbach’s Bodies (and coinciding lecture in November 2009 at the London School of Economics) explores the way that we inhabit our physical bodies. As a feminist psychoanalyst, Orbach investigates the way our gender interacts with our experience of the physical self, and presents that the contemporary societal ideal of body type is “increasingly homogenised and homogenising”[v]. She argues the “natural body is a fiction”[vi], that our physicality interacts with our environment producing bodies, rather than bodies being a predetermined fact. Orbach is concerned with our contemporary obsession with control over our bodies, contending that the monolithic physical ideal has led to a state where our “bodies are on high alert”[vii] and “body hatred is becoming one the West’s hidden exports”[viii].
Both Walter and Orbach expose the sexualisation of our (particularly women’s) bodies as a facet of consumerism; that we are sold this ideal through advertisements, television programmes, news media, music videos, and glossy magazines (to name a few a examples) and it is one our society is increasingly buying into; “The image of female perfection to which women are encouraged to aspire has become more and more defined by sexual allure”[ix]. Both authors explain the danger that this is posing, as ever younger biological females are attempting to adhere to this sexualised ideal.
However, both authors talk from a space that is very different to the one that I occupy. They are from a generation older than me; they are prominent writers in their field and have had a different experience of what it is like to grow up as a woman. Second-wave feminism of the 1970’s took place within their lifetimes and they have had the opportunity to witness the changes this has brought to British society. My generation of people in their 20s have grown up with the stories told from our mother’s generation about the changes made in the ‘70s; we mature amidst a narrative of a certain paradigm of gender relations and gendered resistance. Today’s young women and men have different experiences and thus, different perspectives and analyses to offer. However, very rarely are our voices given space to be heard. Through years of hard work, no doubt, Walters and Orbach have reached a stage where people take their thoughts seriously; I feel that the voices of those of us at the genesis of our journey into adulthood are often marginalised from serious debate. We are busy having social lives, pursuing careers and hobbies; with a lack of time, (often) a lack of interest and a lack of opportunity, our voices are not heard. We are silenced by our crawl up career ladders, whose rungs have been opened for us (young women), and, in many ways, determined for us, by the work of our mothers and grandmothers. We tend not to talk explicitly about feminist issues; “My generation of women in England don’t really talk about women’s rights; it has become something passé – an issue our parents dealt with”[x]. These obstacles compound with the attitude that our lack of experience is reason to continue our exile. I believe this is a detriment to us all. We may not have been alive for as long or collected so many experiences, but instead we have fresh ideas and passions that we must work harder to comprehend, must be encouraged more to develop and have spaces opened for this to happen publicly. Through open and honest dialogue we can begin to find solidarity and push for change.
This paper seeks to apply a gendered perspective to contemporary British society, as I encounter and experience it as a young British woman, living in London. Arguing that for us to engage with processes of peace we must reconceive the way that we understand ourselves on the basis of gender. The questions that have guided me through my research and authorship of this article are: What makes us men and women? How can we engage with our gender in a way that works for peace? What ideas are useful in helping us to expand upon and go beyond the foundations laid by the generations who arrived on this earth before us?
What is Peace?
A basic assumption of this paper is that our contemporary (Western / British) reading of gender is violent. In order for me to build the analysis of this paper, I must first lay the foundations and explain this fundamental assumption. Violence, peace and gender are all relational terms: rather than existing as static concepts defined in a vacuum, our lived experiences of these notions continually redefine and develop our comprehension and experience of violence, peace and gender. I turn first to peace to exemplify this point, through this analysis I propose a working definition for this article.
In what Wolfgang Dietrich refers to as the magical period of history, European cultures “worshipped female divinity goddesses of fertility and peace”[xi]: nature, the Great Mother, was understood as providing life, nutrition and peace; the experience of peace during this period was bound within ones relationship to nature. Through the philosophy of the ancient Greek city states of the fifth century, BCE prominent thinkers such as Plato (c.428-347) and Aristotle (384-322) reformulated peace as being bound within power. Peace became divorced from its conception as a dynamic relationship with cosmic harmony, the earth (understood as our mother) and fertility, and became understood as “contractually arranged” on the basis of “power and order”[xii]. In line with this shift in thinking, the One Creator God emerged, presented as the almightily power and life giver. Anthropomorphised as a male father figure, he held peace and gave it out to “men of good will”[xiii] -those who adhered to dictated rules and regulations. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan of 1651 reasserts the need for power and order to achieve peace, famously arguing that the life of man, existing in the state of nature, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”[xiv]. Hobbes argues that it is only through large communion, under a commonwealth that peace and security can be achieved: “This is the generation of the LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal god, our peace, our defence”[xv]
Where the immortal god once governed over us, the modern conception of governance resides; premised upon the principle of rationality, the invisible god is co-opted with a tangible replacement; however, the framework within which it operates is the same. In the image of the One Creator God emerges Hobbes’ Leviathan, the nation-state. This Westphalian creation presents an evolution and reaffirmation of the concept of One Truth. Rational man governs as the bearer of peace; it is through adherence to his rules that we are able to achieve a state of peace. We find ourselves today in a period which can be defined as modern-morality. In other words, the role of the church in defining One Truth has been replaced by the rationality which defines right and wrong on the basis of science, that which is the only true form of knowledge. This presentation of the state as the only way to understand the inter-national has been exported from its European origins to the rest of the world, marketed as progress; the only acceptable form of civil and political life[xvi]. Thus, peace within the dominant paradigm is associated with the eradication of warfare (physical violence) through regulation, and therefore is defined as a (somewhat utopian) end point to work towards, to be achieved.
This formulation of peace is bound within a certain perception of gender. The nation-state, the rational equivalent to the immortal god, is depicted as the centre and giver of peace, the state system as that which will bring world peace, and interstate relations as the site at which peace should be sought. This perception defines the state as protector, peace becomes understood as a phobic experience– the idea that there must be a danger or threat from which to seek security. This image of security, as protection from physical violence, resides within a masculinised image, most often centred around the illustration of ‘man-fights-man-with-gun’[xvii]. ‘High politics’ of international relations, from which peace derived from, is a constructed sphere, not only overwhelmingly filled with male actors, but exists within a masculinised institutional framework which understands women as those occupying the domestic sphere, as those to be afforded protection, and places threats from bombs and guns at its core[xviii]. This perception excludes gender relations from the sites of peace and violence.
Violent interactions, according to Johan Galtung, exist in three interconnected manifestations; direct physical, structural and cultural. Galtung’s ‘triangle of violence’ highlights the dependent nature of these formations and widens our comprehension of violence from simplistic physical to include structural relations and thought patterns. Galtung defines cultural violence as “those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence […] that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence”[xix], thus giving us a more complex understanding of violence and opening space for a deeper analysis of peace.
Widening our comprehension of violence allows us to determine that peace cannot solely be derived from an absence of physical violence, for we must also seek to address the structural and cultural manifestations. Contractual, top down analyses of peace blind us to the violence intrinsic in our systems and beliefs. Fundamentally, peace as derived from a governing state power legitimates physical violence by placing physical security at its heart, demoting structures and cultures to the realm of the domestic. However, if we release the idea of peace from these narrow confines we are able to transform our understanding. John Paul Lederach describes peace as “a developing quality of relationship”[xx], no longer governed from above, peace exists anarchically in our daily relations. Rather than an elusive state to be achieved by a zero-sum understanding of interaction, where peace is a gratification for adherence to a set of rules, peace becomes a dynamic and lived experience, alive in our relationships. Therefore, to engage in processes of peace we must seek to continually redefine our relationships (personal, interpersonal, institutional, and societal) through a quest for knowledge, deeper understanding and respect.
The point of the above analysis is two-fold. Firstly, by noting the development of Western thought and the definition of peace, we are able to deconstruct the naturalisation of its dominant contemporary illustration. From this point we are able to move forward, we are no longer blinded to its past conceptions, the prevailing ideal of peace is no longer an enduring entity and we are thus free to learn from previous and alternative comprehensions of peace and seek a new definition related to our experience of the present. Secondly, the preceding discussion has opened the space for us to analyse violent manifestations of gender relations; we need not only look at physical violent actions and become able to analyse the construction of gender itself as a form of violence.
What is Gender?
Presently, and dominantly, gender is understood as a dichotomous identity formation built upon the ontological sex of a human being. Biologically, humans are (almost always) understood to be born either male or female; one or the other. This biological shell is the base for gendering, “the process of transforming females to women and males to men”[xxi]; our scientific sex moulds the identities and behaviours society expects us to adopt. Biological determinism professes that our experiences of being a man or a woman are linked to sex through a linear relationship: biology informs gender. Through this fatalistic attitude, gender relations are naturalised and our essentialised binary experience of being male or female is reinforced. This understanding “promotes a zero-sum view of masculinity and femininity,”[xxii] whereby what it means to be a man stands in diametric opposition to the essential characteristics of a woman; the more one is masculine the less one is feminine. It is through this trade off in personality traits and behaviours that we come to define ourselves as men and women.
However, I do not adhere to this deterministic and fatalistic interpretation of gendered identities. How we understand ourselves on the basis of being a man or a woman is effected by more than just a linear association with biology; I believe that context and experience interact with biology in a far more complex fashion. As Victoria Fontan states “What it means to be a man or woman greatly differs according to the societies in which one finds him- or herself”[xxiii], we cannot reduce attributes of masculinity and femininity to determinants of dualistic biological understandings. Societal norms and values, aspirations and ideals are passed down to us through a process of socialisation where we learn to be functional and accepted members of society. We learn to be men and women; we may be born male and female, but we become men and women. I am not arguing that biology is impotent in the construction of our identities, but rather that the interaction between biology and socialisation is not a linear process, with biology as the base upon which all else is built. Biology and socialisation interact and allow for the continual development of identity.
If we further analyse the biological deterministic approach to gender we are able to highlight its relationship to the paradigm of peace through order. Just as peaceful relations are governed by adherence to a prescribed set of rules, gender relations are governed by societal norms and expectations. The rationality of governance is premised upon ideals of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century which gave male proprietors legitimacy and control of knowledge. Scientific, rational knowledge is heralded as the highest and truest form of intellect, demoting all else as dependent upon this base, just as scientific sex is presented as the base upon which socialised gender is built. Our gender relations must be understood as a symptom of the dominant ideal of knowledge.
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Bio: Patricia Rich graduated from the University of Bristol in 2007 with a BSc in Politics and Sociology. After spending some time working in a Mental Health Hospital in Bristol she studied for her MA in International Peace Studies at the University for Peace where she graduated in 2009. She now lives in London, working as an intern for the charity Right To Play, UK.
Previous published work: Women in Iraq, Available at URL:
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