Law in the time of Corona: Gender, feminism and international law

Legal gavel and law book

Dear Dr. Heathcote,

I write this letter to you as the Co-Founder of ATLAS, a network of women international lawyers who now find we are operating under the conditions of the global pandemic COVID-19, popularly referred to as the coronavirus. (The irony of this pandemic being given a name which can be attributed to ‘the crown’ is not lost on me. As one anonymous ‘friend from India’ suggested in the press, why not call it communovirus, as they have done there? This might at least focus attention on its capacity to create community, to enable people to stand together, rather than maintaining ongoing anxieties regarding its capacity to colonize and exacerbate further global inequalities).

In recent weeks, I have watched as this newfound hyper-object (as Oliver Hailes put it) has begun to capture both the public imagination and the public international legal imaginary. My co-founder and friend, Sareta Ashraph, has drawn my attention to the efforts being made to calibrate responses to COVID-19 to address the risks of gender-based violence by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee of Humanitarian Assistance for the United Nations. Additionally, Marissa Conway at the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy has created a resource of feminist publications on the pandemic, highlighting the need to consider the increased threat of intimate partner violence; the gendered division of labour/burden of care; threats to sexual and reproductive health; and the institutionalized inequality prevalent in the response, primarily being formulated by teams of men, to the coronavirus.

As I read through the policy briefings generated, I note that there is an ongoing prevalence of co-opting sex and gender into existing vectors of power within international legal institutions and processes, further entrenching existing gender binaries. For example, amongst international institutions in the Asia-Pacific, calls are being made for global responses to the virus to disaggregate the data related to outbreaks based on sex, age and disability in order to understand the ‘gendered differences in exposure and treatment and to design differential preventive measures’. In keeping with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC) tool, this would seem to re-inscribe existing gendered norms onto any approach to the pandemic and may entrench gendered stereotypes in our response. While there is undoubtedly some merit in collating this data, it falls short of considering the different types of harm women and men of different ethnicities and class experience, different access different women and men have to preventive measures and follow-up care, and the different costs both women and men face in the community when responding to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, several international law blogs tend towards dividing along traditional gender lines (whether consciously or not), with the European Journal of International Law’s blog EJIL:Talk! publishing pieces such as those focused on how coronavirus relates to international peace and security and international investment law, while feminist blog IntLawGrrls published a piece on the demands of home-schooling one’s children whilst being an international law academic.

All this has led me to question what the role of women (including female-identifying) international lawyers should be at this time. Might there, as yet, be room for us to reflect on our collective response to COVID-19 by resisting the twin poles of envisaging international law as a language of crisis or international law as reiterating business as usual, particularly in the way international institutions function? Could we not begin to craft a response to the coronavirus that might enable us to envisage multiple feminisms, drawing from a plurality of subjectivities, being considered simultaneously, re-casting the problem as one that is inherent in international law’s response to it, rather than as one ‘out there’ that needs fixing? In this respect, I drew some inspiration from the way in which health scientist Julia Smith was asking as many questions as they were suggesting answers. I wondered if you had any questions (or indeed, answers) you thought we should propose at this stage?

Yours sincerely,

Michelle Staggs Kelsall


Dear Dr. Staggs Kelsall,

Many thanks for your letter, your questions. It arrived while I was cleaning the bathroom, perhaps an unremarkable moment to record in a symposium on international law but I will elaborate why my COVID / covert cleaning matters in global politics, to international law, to this global pandemic.

I have been thinking about the politics of crisis, the continued framing of this as THE crisis in a manner that pigeon-holes the COVID-19 pandemic into a known set of ways to respond, masculinized, securitized, focused on state actions (Italy did this, Japan did that) and ignoring the politics of everyday. Yes, I have been re-reading Charlesworth while I have been getting on with the business of cleaning. At the same time, I note that British media report what they have labelled the first quarantine ‘murders’ which appear to in fact be straight out, run of the mill, domestic violence killings. Then again, perhaps COVID-19 made them do it and it was just the isolation that provoked the violent acts. The strangeness of a moment where everything is seemingly being re-imagined and re-packaged through the lens of COVID-19, international lawyers are writing about the ethics of care and promoting a political / legal model premised on community, all the while feeding into the crisis mode that actively forgets both the role the last ten years of austerity politics plays in the magnitude of harm and risk and the histories of feminist and queer utopias, futures and alternatives that offer blueprints that might be returned to, appraised and implemented going forward.

In Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita’s novella Lunar Braceros 2125-2148 (2009), feminist and queer organizing that recognizes labour undertaken by the world’s poorest, literally cleaning the world’s shit, and the labour of revolution provides a fantastic insight into the limits of our imagination or, rather, the Hollywood loop of what is imagined as after the crisis / zombie uprising / global pandemic / end of the world as we know it. I mention the Sánchez and Pita novella here, also the topic of Ulibarri’s account in Feminist Review 116, as it is a reminder that someone has to clean the mess, already, now and their labour is overlooked, not clapped for in doorways or re-posted on social media. I was reminded of this when my own cleaner was unable to come this week and I had to clean the bathroom. I was reminded of this as I listened to my teenager complain about how disgusting it was to clean the sink. I was reminded of this as I mused on the choice to go to work, to pay someone to do the chores I am less inclined to do, as a function of capital’s need for unseen workers to take a tiny percentage of our income. Have there been sufficient questions about who is cleaning the hospital? Have there been sufficient inquiries into who is cleaning the White House and the Kremlin? Has anyone asked who is cleaning the World Health Organization? How does international law understand the cleaners of the world? It does not. Yet the world still needs those that clean the bathrooms of the powerful. Who is caring for the army of cleaners, globally, now and before coronavirus-19?

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa the gendered labour of tending to the deceased was misunderstood by the international NGOs sent into assist. The gendered meanings and performance of care were more important than a foreign decree about how to avoid infection.  How does gender inflect what is happening now, globally? I suspect you need to ask the individuals who are doing the cleaning and the caring to find out. I don’t for a moment think that it is uniform within our various communities, temporally or geographically, I feel confident it is as varied as gender is diversely lived, globally and locally.

Our approach to international law might also interrogate, learn and become familiar with queer accounts of kinship. International lawyers might ask about queer futurity, feminist utopias and the long history of the intertwined public and private politics that are gendered, that shape who has access to what and when. These are re-imaginings of sovereignty, of nation, of subjectivity that already exist. It saddens me to think that there is a dialogue centred on seizing the moment to re-think the political which does not notice the long histories of the transnational, of the queer and caring, of feminist blueprints that can be mobilized. Institutions that have continually re-packaged gender law reform into legitimations of business as usual might, right now, ask if there was already an alternative starting point, framing of the political, and the personal.

I have always admired the alternative public space that ATLAS Women has created – over 7000 international lawyers connected through a private social network. Hierarchies are relatively absent as professor, graduate student, and senior practitioner develop dialogues, connect friends and build different kinds of networks than the ones we more often find in the everyday networks of international law. I always wondered if ATLAS Women’s success was partly the weird contradiction of the creation of a womyn-only space leaving gender absent. This, it seems, is a radical act of care, a transnational network that learns from itself and is ever expanding like a fractal and not unlike the COVID-19 tentacles of care that have spread across our local neighbourhoods, in a global fashion, these past few weeks, months.

At the same time, I worry about this new COVID-19 public space also in the virtual environment, how and when does gender reinforce and when is gender disrupted in the clamour to access Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Jitsi and the rest during the pandemic. Is it just me that finds these disembodied spaces, talking heads a weird parody of what business as usual looks like? The public is very much in the private and my private space must be rendered neutral lest my co-workers learn too much about me when we ought to be discussing alternative assessments at the university. The students have access to the cat’s shenanigans and the sound of my partner making coffee. Benign maybe, but there may be other things noticed in the edges of the screen.

I should think our dialogue needs to commence with an excavation of the feminist utopias, feminist alternatives already offered, fully downloadable during the crisis moment, and offering blueprints for doing the public and private, the cleaning, the everyday, politics and gender differently. International law is no exception.

Yours sincerely,

Gina Heathcote.

Dr Gina Heathcote is a Reader in Gender Studies and Public International Law at SOAS University of London and author of Feminist Dialogues on International Law: successes, tensions, futures (OUP 2019) and Dr Michelle Staggs Kelsall is a Lecturer in Public International Law at SOAS, and Co-Founder of ATLAS (Acting Together: Law, Advice, Support) whose mission is to empower, support and connect women working in, or embarking on, a career in public international law.

For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit https://www.soas.ac.uk/coronavirus/

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