‘Gender’, understood as the social construction of sex, is a key concept for feminists working at the interface of theory and policy. This article examines challenges to the concept which emerged from different groups at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, September 1995, an important arena for struggles over feminist public policies.
The first half of the article explores contradictory uses of the concept in the field of gender and development. Viewpoints from some southern activist women at the NGO Forum of the Beijing Conference are presented. Some of them argued that the way ‘gender’ has been deployed in development institutions has led to a depoliticization of the term, where feminist policy ambitions are sacrificed to the imperative of ease of institutionalization. ‘Gender’ becomes a synonym for ‘women’, rather than a form of shorthand for gender difference and conflict and the project of transformation in gender relations.
‘Gender sensitivity’ can be interpreted by non-feminists as encouragement to use gender-disaggregated statistics for development planning, but without consideration of relational aspects of gender, of power and ideology, and of how patterns of subordination are reproduced. A completely different attack on ‘gender’ came from right-wing groups and was battled out over the text of the Platform for Action agreed at the official conference.
Six months prior to the conference, conservative groups had tried to bracket for possible removal the term ‘gender’ in this document, out of opposition to the notion of socially constructed, and hence mutable, gender identity. Conservative views on gender as the ‘deconstruction of woman’ are discussed here. The article points out certain contradictions and inconsistencies in feminist thinking on gender which are raised by the conservative backlash attack on feminism and the term ‘gender’.