Unsettling Patriarchy: Tackling the Gendered Injustices of Colonialism in Liberal Democracies

By Michael Elliott, Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu).


Indigenous women stand amongst the most marginalised and vulnerable of groups within contemporary liberal democracies. This fact has been recognised for some time, but was affirmed again last week in a report published by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It highlighted the patterns of severe disadvantage, discrimination, and violence – including sexual violence and murder – to which Indigenous women in Canada are routinely exposed, and lamented the general lack of sufficient action being taken to address them. The same story could also be told of other advanced liberal democratic ‘settler’ states such as Australia, New Zealand, and USA.

In the wake of the CEDAW report, and as we find ourselves sandwiched neatly between International Women’s Day (8th March) and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21st), this seems as opportune a time as any to reflect upon this issue.

Gendered colonialism

The distinct form of oppression to which Indigenous women in settler societies are today subject is, by any standards, complex. Since the earliest days of European colonial presence in the so-called ‘New World’, through subsequent processes of settlement and state-building, and within the contemporary legislative and policy frameworks of liberal democratic governance, the positions of Indigenous women have come under particular and consistent attack.

To some extent, this must be understood in the context of wider racist and sexist cosmologies that have dominated (and in many ways dominate still) Western societies, and which have conspired to ensure a special disregard for Indigenous women. But there is also another side to this story that is rooted more in the realm of strategic reasons. Undermining the power and status of Indigenous women in a specific sense has formed a key part of attempts to weaken the social cohesiveness of Indigenous groups more generally, and with it their resistance to colonial processes and the advancement of state interests.

Accordingly, measures designed to diminish the power of Indigenous women within their communities (and outside of them), to separate them from important social and cultural networks, and to cut them out of the economy, have been a consistent feature of settler-colonialism. One need only witness the legacy of sexist provisions in the Indian Act in Canada for indication of this. Set in the broader context of colonial domination, these gendered attacks have carried dire repercussions.

Gender relations in many communities have been seriously distorted at the same time that social mechanisms for tackling abuse and discrimination have been dramatically eroded. In wider society, gendered oppression has been compounded by entrenched forms of racial discrimination. The result is that Indigenous women in settler-colonial contexts today find themselves negatively positioned in social relationships of all kinds – that is, in respect of Indigenous men as well as non-Indigenous men and women – and suffer a host of disadvantages and vulnerabilities as a result. In terms of socio-economic status, health, employment, housing, political representation, and in many other areas besides, serious disparities have emerged.

But if the factors underpinning such disadvantage are complex, then taking effective measures to address it is even more so. For, the fact is that colonial domination is not some distant aspect of history for most Indigenous groups in settler societies today. It is, rather, an active feature of daily life. The presence of external authority over Indigenous lands and populations has never been removed, and neither has the sense of injustice and threat that comes with it.

One consequence of this is that efforts to address patterns of female subordination can come into conflict with broader struggles against colonial domination. Where emancipatory movements around gender seem to draw on the resources of dominant society (both material and intellectual), and especially where they serve to cast doubt on the representative legitimacy of Indigenous governments and other organisations pressing for political change, there is real potential for friction with wider ‘decolonisation’ projects.

The result is that gender-based struggles often carry a certain controversy for many Indigenous communities, and have historically tended to become somewhat peripheralised as a result. This does not excuse, but has nevertheless abetted, a general lack of sufficient commitment amongst state actors to tackle such disadvantage – who, for better or worse, are currently best equipped in terms of resources and power to take decisive steps to promote change. The combined result is that disproportionate patterns of injustice and suffering borne by Indigenous women have persisted despite relatively wide acknowledgement.

How can progress be realised?

The very broad brushstrokes I have painted with here undoubtedly gloss over a great deal more complexity, controversy, and contextual nuance. Nevertheless, this rudimentary picture can at least provide traction for some initial thoughts on finding a more effective response to this issue.

And we might benefit here from separating two things: (1) the overall fact of oppression on the one hand; and (2) vulnerability to the most dire consequences of that oppression on the other. This is a precarious separation at best (both conceptually and practically speaking), but nevertheless can be of use in this case.

Taking the vulnerability question first: the CEDAW report emphasised that susceptibility to violence, poor health, and the worst effects of discrimination is exacerbated by the low socio-economic status of Indigenous women. Tackling this dimension of disadvantage must therefore represent an absolute priority.

In the current context, this can only be done with the full backing and support of the state. And whilst some notable steps have been taken in this regard by liberal governments in recent years, continuing patterns of violence and suffering attest to the need for a great deal more action. This will inevitably evoke significant antagonisms for groups struggling against the broader context of colonial domination. However, these might be reduced (to at least some extent) by resourcing Indigenous organisations to take the lead in the design and implementation of response programmes. The state could also take a responsible step here by refusing to appropriate such moves in efforts to consolidate its own position in ongoing disputes of colonial injustice.

However, tackling acute vulnerability is clearly only one part of the issue. And whilst such measures ought to carry broader positive repercussions in their own right, these will be limited if the background conditions of Indigenous women’s oppression are not simultaneously addressed.

This is by far the more difficult question, and one that lacks a clear or simple answer. Undoubtedly, though, without significant advancement in confronting the enduring fact of colonial domination – including the specific scenes of dispossession and disempowerment that currently characterise it – attempts to tackle its consequences are likely to fall desperately short. Gender-specific patterns of injustice certainly cannot simply be subsumed into this broader category of colonial injustice, but neither can they be treated in isolation from it. Achieving significant progress in respect of either inescapably requires addressing them together.

The kind of broad and unified commitment needed to make real moves in this direction presently seems (to put it generously) unlikely. But without it, it is difficult to see how the patterns noted in Canada in the CEDAW report – and felt equally acutely in other settler-colonial contexts – will improve significantly. As difficult as an open and committed confrontation with not only the past but also the ongoing injustices of colonial domination will be for settler societies (and the wider international community), it would seem to be essential if the suffering and rights abuses currently experienced by Indigenous women are to be properly addressed.

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