Toronto Metropolitan University
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Invisibilized, Individualized, and Culturalized: Paradoxical Invisibility and Hyper-Visibility of Gender in Policy Making and Policy Discourse in Neoliberal Canada

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posted on 2023-10-17, 14:50 authored by Sedef Arat-KoçSedef Arat-Koç

It is ironic, if not completely hypocritical, that in the same environment where gender equality has disappeared from discourses, making and implementation of policy, gender plays a rather prominent part, often centre-stage, when it comes to policy talk on specific groups of racialized women, immigrant women, multiculturalism and citizenship. As [Alexandra Dobrowolsky] has aptly observed, whereas women in Canada have in general been "invisibilized", "disappeared from the words and deeds of state actors" (2008: 465), some, specifically immigrant women, have been "instrumentalized," made "hyper visible, purposefully positioned in the public eye" (466). In the general public discourse and policy discussions, gender inequality is treated as a problem solved for white women, as if Canada is in a post-feminist state. As [Janine Brodie] and [Isabella Bakker] comment on Minister Bev Oda’s 2006 statement, gender is "everywhere but nowhere" in general policy discussions. Yet it is seen as a problem specific to immigrant women, often from racialized communities. On the one hand, there is no discourse (other than claims to a post-gender, post-feminist order) or policy on gender; on the other, there is an inflation of discourses on the gender of "others."

What is specific to the attention gender gets in recent public and policy discourses is that this attention is based specifically on a culturalist perspective. This perspective, which has gained a widespread currency as a central operational category in the social sciences and policy making in recent decades, uses a de-contextualized, de-materialized notion of "culture," often based on essentialized, simplified, homogenized, and static conceptions of how culture is assumed to operate. One of the major problems with a culturalized understanding of the problems facing immigrant women from racialized ethno-cultural communities is that this perspective blames a "package picture" of "culture" (Narayan 1997, 2000) in the country of origin for all of the gender inequalities immigrant women face in diaspora. This "package picture" of culture relies on essentialized, overgeneralized, and distorted assumptions about the "cultural luggage" individual women may carry. A second major problem is that culturalization overlooks the significance of gendering and racializing effects of Canadian policies and experiences on the women. Invisibilizing the relevance and significance of what happens "here and now" and through real, material impacts of state policies and dominant social, economic and political forces, it helps to let the "host" society and the state "off the hook" in both the analyses of and solutions offered for gender inequality for immigrant women.

[Hester Eisenstein] develops a powerful critique of liberal, "hegemonic feminism," showing how its central ideas have helped legitimize corporate capitalism. Critiquing recent U.S. feminist writing which suggests that we might be living in the best of times for women12 Eisenstein sides with Brenner instead, who has argued that it is rather "the best of times and the worst of times," a time when some women have clearly benefited and enjoyed opportunities whereas for most women economic changes in recent decades have represented a downward spiral in recent years. In this context, Eisenstein argues, "feminism in its organized forms has become all too compatible with an increasingly unjust and dangerous corporate capitalist system" (2009: 1), as some "demands of feminism have been absorbed and co-opted" within the system (Eisenstein, 2009: 16). In a world where alternatives to capitalism have become devalued and de-legitimized, she argues, several developments associated with the restructuring of the economy and of the state, as well as the "war on terrorism" have been able to draw on feminist ideas. As examples, Eisenstein (2005, 2009) mentions the decline of the family wage, the abolition of "welfare" in the traditional sense, and the 1996 Social Responsibility Act under the [Clinton] administration,13 as well as the targeting of women for microcredit and the use of female labour in export processing zones. Eisenstein concludes, "in its 21st century incarnation, feminism has been a useful handmaiden of capitalism" (Eisenstein, 2005:511).