State Autonomy, Gender & Sexuality - Part 2

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What happens when the autonomy of a nation-state directly violates the human rights of various people? This discussion was introduced in Part 1 of this series regarding how nation-states, as an inherently Western patriarchal construct, exclude marginalised groups. The threat to individual agency can potentially lead to human rights abuses. For this reason, this two-part series pursues a discussion surrounding gender and sexuality representations before the nation-states, under the following arguments: 1) the idea of a nation-state being inherently Western - discussed in Part 1; 2) nation-state privileging free men over women as property; and 3) the notion of a nation-state being harmful to gender and sexuality because individual agency is not taken into account. This Part 2 discusses 2 and 3. 

Nation-States and Women as Property

The formation of a nation-state associates men with freedom and women as the property of free men. When referring back to the social contract theory (Part 1), the theory only holds if everyone within the contract remains in his or her proposed positions. Martha Nussbaum (1995) identified seven elements of women's objectification and dehumanization to the status of property: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fundibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity (Nussbaum, 1995). For the purpose of discussing the idea of nation-states and their suppression of individual autonomy on the basis of gender and sexuality, this article will focus on three elements of Nussbaum's theory: instrumentality; denial of autonomy; and inertness. 

Instrumentality is defined as “the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes” (Papadaki, 2015), which directly parallels with the present treatment of women based on the advancement of man's interests. Throughout history, there have also been numerous counts of women used as propaganda tools  by men within various different contexts.  Denial of autonomy is intertwined with instrumentality as its primary definition is “the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination” (Papadaki, 2015). Women have never had full autonomy to make their own decisions in how they engage with governance or the various contracts that have been established to subordinate them. This highlights a direct correlation between the suppression of sexuality and how societies have engaged with said suppression. Inertness is defined as “the treatment of a person lacking in agency” (Papadaki, 2015), which could be reflective of groups that are marginalized within the intersections of gender and sexuality. For nation-states to actively enable and allow for the autonomy of all citizens, there must be an understanding for the power relations that birthed the nation-state and the same power dynamics that continue to guide their structures. Agency is tied to an individual’s expression of himself or herself and suppressing this by a means of any type of contract further elevates the dominant group. This is directly linked to how White men from Western countries have been responsible for the creation social positions within a contract for the rest of the world to follow (Part 1).

There is a greater fear in a woman taking the lead and being a successful leader than that she is contractually bound to oppressive structures.

The discussion around the idea of nation-states and sovereignty will inevitably always lead back to how the concept of the nation-state is inherently Western in nature and focuses primarily on the inevitable freedom of men. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau thought, to some degree, that contracts could be substantial as people were unable to fully govern themselves. With little variation on the suggested purpose of government, each theorist believed that governments are needed to provide some type of structure. These philosophers each had theories deeply rooted in patriarchy and male dominance as inherent. Equality is not an ideal that can be seen as substantive if there is no acknowledgement of privilege and its roots in oppression of others.

Joan Acker (1990) notes how the institutions that have shaped our lives are lead primarily by men. This inequality of power within institutions reflects how nation-states prioritize the needs of men over creating an equal ground for women. This is because the world we live in - as the philosophical theories previously discussed - are shaped by the socialized practices of gender. However, gender as a topic is continuously left out of the conversation due to its proximity to femininity.

Nation-states have the foundation of being Westernized concepts, which also build upon gender domination. One could argue that for a nation-state to sustain its autonomy, women have to be kept in traditional role within the power structure in order for the nation-state to continue. There is a greater fear in a woman taking the lead and being a successful leader than that she is contractually bound to oppressive structures.

The Lack of Individual Agency in the Nation-State

Nussbaum (1995) also discusses how John Rawls, one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century, does not include feminist ideology in his concept of governance and ideology (Bernstein, 2008).  Rawls proposed in his book, The Law of Peoples (2001), the theory of “justice as fairness”, in which equality is granted to all people in society via a social contract. He believed that all people can be treated fairly within this contractual agreement. However, it becomes problematic defining what “fairness” is and who could be contracted to such a definition. With what he called ‘the veil of ignorance’, characteristics such as gender and race are to be kept from such an agreement in order to ensure fairness for all people.  Similarly, Locke's theorisations supported the idea that citizens should be willing to give up these other characteristics for the greater good. The idea of erasing these identities in order to adopt “the benefits of political society” is a way of further suppressing the oppressed (Freeman, 2014). It is hard to believe that engaging within a political society would be worthy of giving up the various social fabrics that make people who they are.

What Rawls’ (2001) fails to see - as highlighted by Nussbaum (1995) - is how gender identity and sexuality are core components in determining a person’s individuality. If a nation-state wants to remain relevant and engaged with its citizens, a consensus has to be made on the intersections of gender and sexuality. This would also mean that when conversations surrounding gender and sexuality occur, they cannot always be deemed as “feminine topics”. Gender and sexuality can drastically shift cultures and societies. Not including these identities would demean the foundation for a new, proposed society as Rawls’ described.

If a nation-state wants to remain relevant and engaged with its citizens, a consensus has to be made on the intersections of gender and sexuality.

Even societies that vocalise an awareness of various social inequalities may hesitate to “fix” such inequalities in the real world. For instance, many countries ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) created by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA, 1979). However, Amnesty International highlighted alleged myths about CEDAW, including how the definition of discrimination was “too broad” and this could lead to “frivolous” implementation of laws in the United States (Amnesty USA, 2005). What could be considered most shocking is how countries such as the U.S. are steadfast in not having to uphold strong commitments to conventions like CEDAW, which gives way for other countries to do the same. Even with the ratification of this specific convention, societies and nation-states must be held accountable to upholding these ideals. Whilst there are no specific guidelines for punishing countries that do not follow through with conventions - as the UN does not enforce such ideals - nation-states should still be held to these standards.

In this sense, the idea of reaching Rawls’ perceived society becomes unrealistic, as the foundations for such a society do not exist. All citizens would have to be considered equal for such a society to exist, which is far from the current reality. Contracts between people, including nation-states, are inherently Western and not rooted in providing individual autonomy. Rawl's ideation of a perfect society fails to recognise the very real social heirarchies that are in existance, which blockade the ability to exist within his proposed world without inequalities. This misunderstanding on Rawl's behalf is clearly reflected through his failure to mention gender within his proposal. 

Blessing Nyong Ikpa is a Master’s graduate of American University’s School of International Service in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs. Her focus is in Human Rights, Gender Equity and the relations within the African Diaspora. She is an IR professional based in the Washington, DC area. Follow her on Instagram: @blackfeministsupreme


Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139-158.

Amnesty USA. (2005). A Fact Sheet on CEDAW: Treaty for the Rights of Women. Accessed in 30 April 2018.

Bernstein, A. (2008). Nussbaum versus Rawls: Should Feminist Human Rights Advocates Reject the Law of Peoples. and Endorse the Capabilities Approach? Accessed in 28 April 2018.

Freeman, S. (2014). Original Position. Accessed in 29 April 2018.

Papadaki, E. (2015). Feminist Perspectives on Objectification. Accessed in 25 Apr. 2018.

Rawls, J. (2001). The Laws of People (1st ed.). Harvard University Press.

UN General Assembly (UNGA). (1979). Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 18 December 1979, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1249, p. 13. Accessed in 30 April 2018.

Marissa Conway