Masculinist ‘growth and success’ could legitimise social injustice, Malta housing expert says

Buzzwords like ‘integration’, ‘equality for all’, ‘inclusivity’, are all part of the current political narrative. Yet they could also be a half-hearted mimicry of feminist values, which attempt to hide the contradictory political motives such as the privatisation of land

In the male profile of power, social injustice can be legitimised through masculinist values of growth and success, where poverty is ‘feminised’ by notions of the single female-led households at risk of poverty, which are the result of the difficulties of finding child-friendly policies or flexible hours in the workplace
In the male profile of power, social injustice can be legitimised through masculinist values of growth and success, where poverty is ‘feminised’ by notions of the single female-led households at risk of poverty, which are the result of the difficulties of finding child-friendly policies or flexible hours in the workplace

Obsession with economic growth is part and parcel of masculinist big-boy leadership. Such is the theory of American feminist Nancy Fraser, endorsed by social anthropologist Rachael Scicluna.

Scicluna believes that economic growth is now the machoism of the West, a phenomenon not exclusive to Malta, but big growth on a little island makes the country an ideal case study.

Scicluna spent 12 years carrying out ethnographic research on the intersection between home, housing, domestic life, feminism, politics, gender and sexuality.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Scicluna said that governments tend to base their leadership on masculinist values and a positivist economic strategy obsessed with growth rather than collectivity and the common good.

In the male profile of power, social injustice can be legitimised through masculinist values of growth and success, where poverty is ‘feminised’ by notions of the single female-led households at risk of poverty, which are the result of the difficulties of finding child-friendly policies or flexible hours in the workplace

“This neoliberal governance is largely based on social injustice,” she said. “Due to maldistribution of wealth among other things, participatory equality becomes almost impossible to achieve, allowing the ones at the top to have strong sway over the country’s flow of wealth. This can be especially gleaned from institutional decision-making and the planning of infrastructure and urban policies.

Anthropologist Rachael Scicluna, who is an advisor on social housing, argues that social justice should not be about self-realisation, but simply the norm of participatory equality
Anthropologist Rachael Scicluna, who is an advisor on social housing, argues that social justice should not be about self-realisation, but simply the norm of participatory equality

“In Malta, we are still at a stage where we do not have an urban system that seeks to implement planning that brings together demographic changes, cultural shifts, the environment, and economy. To date, the emphasis has been on the importance of the built environment, and not enough attention has been granted to social relations and the key role they hold in determining the well-being of urban communities,” Scicluna says.

Reflective of this is an anthropological report on the aftermath of Valletta 2018, revealing how disgruntled city residents were often side-lined for businesses and urban regeneration.

For Scicluna, it all boils down to the “male profile of power”, where social injustice can be legitimised based on masculinist values of growth and success.

“Social injustice can be legitimised based on masculinist values of participation in the labour workforce, at home, and beyond. For example, this could explain the feminisation of poverty, such as single female-led households fall within the ‘at-the-risk of poverty’ category due to the difficulties of finding child-friendly policies or flexible hours in the workplace,” Scicluna says.

“While the government can introduce schemes that are at first glance benevolently egalitarian and inclusive, this is more often than not a smokescreen for the muscular hand behind those schemes.”

Understanding housing through the queer lens

Buzzwords like ‘integration’, ‘equality for all’, ‘inclusivity’, are all part of the current political narrative. Yet they could also be mere superficial undertakings and a half-hearted mimicry of feminist values, which attempt to hide the contradictory political motives, such as the privatisation of land.

“While the government can introduce schemes that are, at first glance, benevolently egalitarian and inclusive, this is more often than not a smokescreen for the muscular hand behind those schemes”

“Such glossy and sleek policies can be confusing especially when citizens are faced with taking decisions such as voting,” Scicluna says.

She argued that the antidote to all this can be described as the ‘queering’ of policymaking.

“In order to move away from a static and biased worldview upon which institutions are generally based, I contend that we should ‘queer’ policy. The term ‘queer’ is used as a paradigm in order to bypass the conservatism present both within and outside the realm of policymaking, governance and academia. Such an approach does not ‘box’ experiences into neat categories and norms,” Scicluna says.

But is it doable? Policymakers, after all, issue schemes based on typical domestic situations—in the housing sector, for example, government schemes such as the first-time buyers and equity sharing are all based on norms of daily Maltese family life.

Scicluna argues that this scheme-based approach already ignores the fluidity inside households, and tends to frame Maltese domestic and family life as static.

“Treating the household as a static backdrop in policy can have detrimental effects on daily lives as say, claimants of housing benefits may not fit in the neat priority list of service providers. Instead, policymakers and researchers should take household plasticity as a starting point, and think of alternative domestic compositions such as post-divorce and inter-generational households, solo living, shared households with unrelated others, same-sex and inter-racial households, and cohabiting and living-apart together relationships.”

She adds that government policies taking off from patriarchal notions have a negative impact on our collective consciousness and practice.

Crucially she argues that social justice should not be about self-realisation, but simply the norm of participatory equality.

“The shift in understanding housing through a queer lens is to move away from a traditional understanding of the family and the household. The alternative domestic arrangements such as the blended family or single-parent households are the new norm. This suggests that households are always changing.

“However, the idea that cities and households are static is problematic. In fact, household fluidity, as understood by social scientists, is largely discordant with the approaches of urban developers and policymakers, including service-providing agencies. Understanding the household and home as a process plays an important role in analysing and designing policies that meet the needs of the locals.”

Scicluna contends that the queering of policy that she proposes is no easy task, even in a small community like Malta, due to the unprecedented ever-changing realities that stem from rapid urbanisation, economic growth, an ageing population and low fertility rates.

“Malta has no national housing policy and the Housing Authority operates on a scheme-based service provision. A culturally-sensitive urban system would understand the complex web of relations made of various social networks – such a system would be important especially because housing is ostensibly home-making, a micro-setting for community life, where important values are cultivated.”

When this masculinist, powerful hand provides such normative housing schemes, the very basic foundation of home-making is undermined, Scicluna argues, in the form of both literal poverty and the poverty of values.

“Therefore, queering infrastructural policy and the urban landscape is much needed if we are to design policy that is culturally-sensitive and inclusive. Again, the core ought to be in thinking of society and the household as being in flux, and take this as a serious unit of analysis at a political level. This should also take architectural form where the traditional household layout may not be the ideal home space any longer.”

This queering approach has the potential to address the range of exclusionary criteria attached to factors related to socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability and also issues related to ageing such as loneliness, isolation and ‘erasure’ within urban development.

“The key is in including the social dimension at planning stage which is often a lower priority in urban development. Design choice, no matter how small-scale it is, can greatly influence individuals’ interactions with one another and facilitate a positive sense of well-being. International research is demonstrating that there are significant economic benefits when developers consider the social dimension in the planning phase, alongside the economic, environmental and governance dimensions. This approach is a cost-saving measure as it releases the burden from other services by ensuring optimal quality and best value of resources.”

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