The gender binary in foreign affairs

The new Immigration Guide brings us a step back

Two Thursdays ago, the Conservative government released a new citizenship guide. News organizations, such as the Globe and Mail (“The new Canada: a question of emphasis,” November 13), focused on a variety of changes, including new “emphasis” on the military and the monarchy.

In particular, the mainstream media has seized upon a sliver of the guide, entitled the “Equality of Women and Men,” because it condemns “barbaric cultural practices,” which primarily refer to practices within certain Middle Eastern or African cultures and which have been sticking points in the “reasonable accommodation” debate of the past few years. The National Post (“New citizenship guide says no to ‘barbaric cultural practices,’” November 12) is an example of this, writing that, “the inclusion of honour killings and spousal abuse in the guide reminded some onlookers of the tension over reasonable accommodation, a concept that came to a boiling point in Hérouxville, Que., in 2007 when the town council passed a motion governing the behaviour of immigrants, including provisions against stoning women and genital mutilation.”

It’s not just the mainstream media, however; The Daily also wrote about this in its last editorial (“Immigration Canada’s delusional new guide,” November 19).

I don’t disagree with covering this angle of the story. After all, “reasonable accommodation” has been a major debate within contemporary Canadian politics that has affected marginalized communities. However, there’s another story behind this portion of the immigration guide that I haven’t seen in the press: the development of the term “equality of women and men” and its political implications for other marginalized groups.

Before Stephen Harper, the Liberals pioneered the use of “gender” and “gender equality” as terms in international affairs. They chose this wording over “sex” or the phrase “men and women” because gender includes a social aspect.

When the Conservatives came to power, they brought with them an ideology that both rejects the Liberals’ conception of Canada’s international role and denies the social construction of gender. Instead, the Conservatives tend to see the gender binary as “natural,” particularly on religious grounds – an example of this is Harper’s own opposition to marriage equality (though he has decided not to challenge the law).

As a result of these ideological commitments, the Conservatives started replacing the term “gender equality” with “equality between men and women,” which is similar to “equality of women and men.” in foreign policy documents. This undermines Canada’s ability to be an international leader not just for trans issues but also on gender issues in general, since Canada now refuses to use the established language of the international community on the subject of gender. More importantly, ignoring social aspects of gender makes it difficult to discuss gender relations in their social context. How are we to discuss rape without looking at how different societies view virginity or other related concepts?
This move indicates that the Conservatives are committed to using this language not just for international affairs but also more broadly in government documents, a significant but largely unrecognized change.

It’s pretty easy to see the binary’s either/or mentality in phrasing like “equality between men and women,” which excludes anyone who isn’t male or female – so much so that I can’t help but wonder whether I’m really welcome in Harper’s Canada, since I generally don’t fit within the binary but am contemplating immigrating here.

Now, it’s not surprising to me that media organizations wouldn’t recognize how other groups are affected when covering the release of this guide. After all, the “reasonable accommodation” angle is low-hanging fruit. News organizations also tend to parrot the same narratives both from one event to another and from their competitors’ coverage. Most importantly, media outlets often don’t require education on queer issues, which probably means that many of the people covering the guide didn’t examine it from that angle. However, we need to examine the guide in more than one light.

More importantly, however, we need to take the Tories to task for their changes to the citizenship guide, including but not limited to the “Equality of Women and Men” section. Personally, I’d suggest just voting them out next time. Ironically, as a potential immigrant, I’d have to take the citizenship test first – which means studying the very same guide that I find so objectionable.

Quinn Albaugh’s taking a vacation. Send them season’s greetings: