Building a Truly Feminist Foreign Policy
By Kirthi Jayakumar
The idea of a Feminist Foreign Policy is not new to the global south. We walk on the shoulders of giants, that is, our feminist civil society, who have mobilized time and time again and remained key actors in a broad range of areas. From resisting colonialism to brokering peace, from fighting extractivism and protecting the environment, to creating systems of governance that centre the marginalized, women have lived and thrived within spaces of action that they have nurtured in deeply feminist ways. Feminist Foreign Policy has long since proven the potential for the advancement of global justice, equity, and sustainable development: These possibilities are not a wishful dream, but a reality that must be given full play, unfettered by the military-prison-heteropatriarchal-industry complex.
To start with, a Feminist Foreign Policy is not limited to providing aid in support of women’s rights, gender mainstreaming, and sexual and reproductive health rights. At its heart, undoubtedly, the most basic ingredient of a Feminist Foreign Policy is to address systemic barriers to gender equality. However, that is not enough. A truly feminist foreign policy must transcend the add-women-and-stir approach, and call into question the numerous systemic barriers that normalize necropolitics and the systemic oppression of a vast majority to privilege a handful few. A truly feminist foreign policy would not look at global justice, equity, and sustainable development as ends, but really, as means.
The idea of global justice must not be limited to the cookie cutter mould of prosecute-and-punish. Justice is an active striving of shifting the fundamental foundations on which society exists: where the advantaged few cannot continue to accrete through the exploitation, marginalization, displacement, othering, discrimination, and demonization of the disadvantaged several. The root for this goes to the point we started from, to get where we are today. The decolonized world we currently live in has shifted from colonialism only in word, not in deed: Excluding transitional justice as an iteration in the global regime and governance change was a costly mistake, and has continued to allow the structural violence of colonialism to thrive in the present day. A simple look at how the media reports on the Russo-Ukraine conflict versus its silence around the genocide unfolding in Tigray, and the saviour language that endorsed military interventions world over should prove this right in a second.
The notion of equity is not about equality among equals, and definitely not about co-opting the oppressed into a checkbox – only for the sheep to become a wolf, while retaining the sheep’s clothing. Colonialism not only left colonies depleted and destroyed, but also gave full play to social orders of inequity and left the most oppressed even more disadvantaged. Policies of divide-and-rule played up in systems of inequity that existed in the social orders of the colony, and have entrenched them deeper into societies world over. The result is up for everyone to see: Deeply traumatized societies divided on the grounds of religion, race, caste, and gender – where historical oppressions are etched into community memories and continue to operate. Representation is not about bringing women into your panels to talk about women’s issues, or a woman from a war zone to perform her trauma for a military superpower to normalize intervention in her country, well, to save her.
If global justice and equity were to manifest, a Feminist Foreign Policy could envision that outcome, and then take us there. It calls for wholesome, systemic change, starting from the seat of power. Global justice and equity are system-level changes that must manifest in every sphere. These shifts must start from the personal to the political. Some of the things it can look like include:
Time Justice – for example, holding a conference on Zoom at a time that isn’t the dead of the night or “after close-of-business” for the global south simply because it is within work hours for the Transatlantic world
Compensation Justice – work commissioned out of the Global South is not cheap labour – pay your staff for the work, not for where they’re doing the work from
Voice Justice – don’t speak for those you don’t represent, and pass the mic to those that must be represented
Agency Justice – Make your tables longer, don’t make your fences higher, and bring those that must be heard to the decision-making table. If you can’t bring them, take the table to them;
Security Justice – Centre human and gender security, and not military security. Superior is not safer. An arsenal of nuclear weapons mounting in your cache makes no one feel safe. Security can ensure safety only if it were humanized.
We are seven years into the span of a decade and a half that we gave ourselves to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. While some may throw numbers that check boxes in the list of targets and indicators to say that such-and-such has been achieved, reality shows a very different truth. A world that is deeply broken on the lines of war, discrimination, hate, and military hegemony is not a sustainable world. A world that has normalized necropolitics – a paradigm where some lives are considered more important than others – is not a sustainable world. A world where the food and resources one community grows and thrives on to sustain itself is forcibly extracted to feed the frivolous choices of the affluent half the world away is not a sustainable world. A world where a tight knot of men in positions of power make decisions for everyone else – consigning and trading away their rights in a matter of a signature or, now, alarmingly, even in a Tweet – is not a sustainable world.
A feminist foreign policy would never endorse, enable, or even condone these things.
Therefore, a nation that claims to adopt a feminist foreign policy while supplying arms to continue a war, or does nothing to address the murder of indigenous women, or that demonizes women of colour for their choices, does not adequately represent the values of a feminist foreign policy. Global justice, equity, and sustainable development call for personal and political introspection, and a clear acknowledgment of the sides of the fences we occupy by choice, circumstances, or both. It calls for the redistribution of power, socio-politico-economic capital, and decolonization of thought, engagement, and participation. It calls for the dismantling of systems and structures that have kept us from fairness, that have led us to normalize the egregious failings of structural violence as “the status quo.” It calls for those in positions of power to stand up to the power they have entrenched, to uproot and distribute it without gatekeeping.
We live in the age of the Anthropocene, an era where our species has had the greatest impact on the planet, its climate, and its ecosystem – and even beyond – the richest among us have made brazen attempts at spacefaring while making the money for it off of the backs of some of the world’s poorest. It might seem tempting to assume that a feminist foreign policy would end wars, respond to climate change, prioritize disarmament, and create cultures of peace and equality all with a matter of a piece of paper being adopted under the title of “A Feminist Foreign Policy.” The issues we’re up against needs all hands on deck. The solution is not down to one government, one woman, or one foreign policy. The solution is not one, will not fit all, and cannot be achieved in a day. This means that a feminist foreign policy is a journey than a destination. What we can do in collaboration is to make a start: We need a whole-of-system approach that starts from the personal and extends to the political, and shifts power in every step of the way.