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Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics

09 Feb 2015
Reviewer Barbara Trojanowska

Women in International Relations: are we still in the kitchen?

Where are the women? Are we still in the kitchen of international politics after over two decades of feminist International Relations (IR) scholarship? Cynthia Enloe revisits these major questions by rewriting probably the most classic feminist IR book first published in 1989: Bananas, Beaches and Bases. Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Similar to the first edition, in the second Enloe provides in eight substantive chapters a feminist analysis of tourism, nationalism, militarism, diplomacy, food production, multinational garment industries and domestic labour, and how they affect global politics. However, the book has doubled in size from 244 to 461 pages. What has happened in these new pages?

In both editions, Enloe takes the reader for an investigatory journey through women’s lives and experiences of the multilayered politics of the global – be it security, militarism, crisis or development. We are invited to meet differently situated women in terms of class, race or age. For instance, we travel with Mary Kingsley, an adventure girl and explorer from Victorian England. Then, we follow Carmen Miranda, a Hollywood star in the 1940s playing a silly Latin American woman with a fruit-laden hat, and we run into Tess, a Filipino woman employed on a banana plantation in Honduras. In the second edition, we are introduced to women who have only entered IR terrain recently. We listen to Rebakah Havrilla, a former U.S. army sergeant, who spoke about being sexually abused during her deployment in Afghanistan but never reported it, not having faith in her chain of command. We greet Laurie, a middle-class pharmacist living the “double day” in California, and Rosa, Laurie’s domestic servant. We finally meet Sumi Abedin who managed to escape the fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2012 and Shaheena who did not have as much luck and died in another factory collapse in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh in 2013.

Although understanding IR from the perspective(s) of diversely situated women (and men) is crucial for making sense of global politics, these women have a long history of being ‘out of sight’. Not only are they invisible but, perhaps more importantly, they are also denied agency in the sense that they do not define the key ‘problematics’ of IR. In IR scholarship (as well as in ‘the real world’) women tend to be impacted upon rather than being actors in their own right. However, “[t]here is an alternative incentive for delving into international politics,” Enloe argues. A feminist approach is distinctive in three major aspects. Epistemologically, it challenges the traditional understanding of IR knowledge. Methodologically, it involves genuine curiosity that takes women’s lives seriously. And politically, it is driven by emancipatory goals to bring about social change. Ultimately, feminist investigation of how the ideas of masculinity and femininity have formed the lives (and deaths) of all these women exposes unequal, international power relations that are neither essential, nor inevitable

For international politics to operate the way it does, the presence (and absence) of women is crucial. While playing different roles, women make the world work. But given the way power relations operate, women can also remake it – and this remains the main argument of Enloe’s book.

Bananas, Beaches and Bases broke IR out of its straightjacket (high politics of hot and cold wars) already in 1989. Enloe provided the solution to the problem of women’s exclusion by remapping the boundaries of IR – specifically showing how the personal is also the international, shaped by as well as effectively shaping global politics. Over the last two decades, women have, indeed, achieved some agency and visibility in IR in the policy realm as well as the scholarly field. Some women, like Hilary Clinton, Michelle Bachelet and Shirin Ebadi, have taken positions of power. The push to open up political spaces has been utilized by women’s transnational organizations, such as Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which continue to advocate for gender justice. Violence against women has sparked heated discussions showing how pervasive and harmful it is not only for women but for whole societies. Some stories, like the one of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a twenty-three year old Indian woman student who was gang-raped and murdered on a New Delhi bus, have eventually gone viral, causing a major outrage.

Enloe’s important book is still provocatively political, shamelessly radical and genuinely feminist. But what substantially distinguishes the second edition of Bananas, Beaches and Bases from the first is the level of reflection: while in 1989 Enloe’s ambition was more limited – to include women in IR, now it has become a concrete project starting with an imagined meeting of these diverse women to talk about international politics as experienced and shaped by them – to collectively organize and transform unequal gender power relations.

Professor Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases. Making Feminist Sense of International Politics,  University of California Press, 2014.

Review by Barbara Trojanowska, PhD student in International Relations and Politics at Monash University.