• The Gender Security Project

Feminist Alternatives to the Westphalian Order: Part 1

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Image: An Undated Medallion symbolizing the Peace of Westphalia. Christina of Sweden as Minerva holding an olive branch in her left arm and grasping the tree of knowledge with her right hand.

Westphalian State

The Westphalian State system is characterised by the realist logic of sovereignty-equality-anarchy. Born out of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia Treaty, the state in its contemporary form in the international system is understood in the Western, particularly the European, context. According to this system, every state regardless of its size has an equal right to sovereignty and follows the norms of territorial integrity and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs. While the Westphalian state has been seen as the blueprint for state-building in past centuries, it has come under fire in recent decades for being a western-centric conception of organising, largely becoming irrelevant due to globalisation and in light of the doctrines of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Before we explore what a feminist reimagining of a Westphalian state would look like, it would be useful to look at some problematic elements about the current template of a typical state, which are overlooked or ignored by mainstream international relations theory.


The origins of the modern state system date back to the 18th century, a period frought with rampant colonial expansion by European powers. This settlement and usurpation of native lands, by dominant European powers, is hardly theorised as constitutive of the modern state. Therefore, international relations fails to recognise that the state, in its historically most widely accepted form, is inherently imperial. [1]

Post-colonial scholars have pointed out how IR canon has erased alternate state-systems in the non-western world and how colonial administration was justified in theory and in practice. For example, IR canon, in its analysis of Indian state-building, doesn’t acknowledge the historical contextualisation of pre-colonial India and its different forms of local governance nor the fact that ground realities in India are very different from those in Europe. This ahistorical lens is problematic in that mainstream IR theories (realism) don’t acknowledge that humans have “existed without states in the sense of territorially defined, exclusive political identities that claim the monopoly of legitimate force.” [2]

Indigenous Politics

Indigenity is a critical component in IR as it is central in moving beyond state-centrism. Indigenous resistance, protests and movements promote self-determination rights and “question states’ authority over land by placing its sovereignty into historical context”.[3] States often employ violent tactics to assimilate indigenous lands and bodies within their territorial and administrative framework, without the consent of the indigenous communities. Many states were created in the aftermath of colonisation, cultural imperialism, genocide and the eradication of indigenous peoples and their lands.

In this context, despite their existence within a state, indigenous peoples’ fight for their own self-determination and rights also highlights how alternative forms of governance and organisation are rarely validated within in the discipline. Analysing indigenous politics can help us go beyond the rigid framework of sovereignty and territorial integrity that the realist model of the international system deemed as universal and objective.[4]

Feminist Critiques

Within feminist theory, the state is a subject of vexation and confusion. For oppressed groups such as women, non-binary persons, the LGBTQIA+ community and refugees, the state can occupy the role of both the source of oppression yet even the entity one looks to for security. As Swati Parashar, Ann Tickner and Jacqui True rightly said, “feminist scholars have vacillated between embracing the state as the only institution that can realize women’s human rights and redress patriarchal structures, and critiquing the state as a site of masculinist power that legitimizes patriarchal structures.” [5] While states can support feminist goals through feminist means such as a feminist foreign policy, gender budgeting, affirmative action or national action plans for gender equality, the state can simultaneously be the locus of many gendered problems such as militarism, cheapening of women’s labour, control over women’s bodies (eg. abortion laws) and even state-sanctioned violence.

In realism, the state is synonymous with national security, war and military build-up in pursuit of security. In turn, the state embodies the notion of power and autonomy which are associated with masculinity. Indeed, women were not even considered political participants in many states and didn’t gain suffrage until decades after the formation of the state. It is no surprise, therefore, that feminist analyses have taken problem with this heavily masculinised conception of the state. Notwithstanding, scholars like Mona Harrington (1992) and Jane Jaquette (2003) believe that a strong state infrastructure is the only form of political organisation that can deliver the outcomes that feminists seek, such as reproductive rights, redistributive benefits and women-friendly policies. They have cited Nordic states which are good examples of social democracies and welfare states that tend to be ahead in many indicators of gender equality. [5]

Towards a Feminist State

While the above discussion was by no means an exhaustive list of the problematic elements of the state in its current form, feminist conceptualisations of a state have sought to address coloniality, indigenity and patriarchy in their visions for a reworked international system.

Contradictorily, while the sovereign state was seen as the beacon of freedom for many anticolonial movements, many postcolonial states that adopted the Westphalian framework ended up committing gross violations of human rights against their populace, citizens or foreigners. Both postcolonial and former coloniser states are witnessing how imperial designs of state borders are preventing refugees and ethnic/religious minorities from being secure due to conflicts and violence. Katrina Lee-Koo illustrates how Aceh, Indonesia could be seen as a potential yardstick to mitigate the problem of ethnic minorities. While Aceh did not become a fully independent state in 2006, it was deemed to be semiautonomous and gained a significant level of autonomy in terms of local governance, laws and use of resources. Nonetheless, Lee-Koo points out how it was a missed opportunity to address structural social and political issues surrounding gender, dismissing them as ‘not urgent’ and favouring status-quo masculinist structures and cultures. [5]

The key takeaway here is that employing a gendered state analysis allows feminists to work with the state to promote bottom-up agendas that function in the interests of and empower the lives of all of a state’s citizens, not just the privileged few and certainly not with the idea of a gender-neutral conception of a state. [5] This is the case not just in terms of a state emerging post a natural disaster or civil war but a state forged under any circumstance.

Next, indigenous peoples’ forms of local self-government challenge the discipline and its practitioners to image a world different from the prevailing one with state borders and allows us to envision a means to share power between different kinds of state and non-state entities. This is a similar goal to feminist IR methodologies which ask how the local and international impact each other. With the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) solidifying indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, there is optimism for discourse to slowly shift in favour of a plurality of approaches of governance between different unit actors, without necessary eliminating or rejecting the Westphalian idea of a state. [4]

Manuela Picq (2013) and Marisol de la Cadena (2005) used the examples of Kichwa women in Ecuador and indigenous communities in the Andes to illustrate how these native women used international law to advance and codify their rights, making subnational systems of justice accountable to international frameworks of women’s rights. These women have suggested that pluriethnic or pluricultural citizenship has potential to transform the modern state and subvert rigid conceptions of national sovereignty. These theories are in line with feminist goals of dismantling binary hierarchies that separate people in terms of national identity, race, gender etc., using multilevel systems of governance which accord importance to local cultures and systems.[5]

Tickner and Harrington have asserted that one of the most significant steps to building feminist states stems from the economic sphere, in that dichotomies between a masculinized public sphere and a feminised private sphere must be broken down. They have stated that only when unpaid care work and economic labour are valued as equally as concerns of national security can women’s subordination in the home and outside be removed. Tickner also remarks that since the very foundations of the Eurocentric Westphalian state systems were deeply gendered, patriarchal, imperial and colonial in nature, “any ethical and political framework adequate to challenge gender inequality must similarly challenge the other structures of subordination with which gender intersects”. [5] An intersectional feminist framework of the state or the post-state must address structural inequalities that disadvantage those in ethnic, racial and religious minorities; those belonging to the LGBTQIA+, non-binary, indigenous and disabled communities and those who are marginalised.

Finally, at a time when state-centric conceptions of international relations have failed to not only avert but also mitigate global health, economic and security crises, it’s imperative that we heavily scrutinise the idea that the state is the best form of political organisation. Perhaps, as feminists many envision to be a utopia, the time has even come to usher in a post-state era where a plurality of forms of governance are accepted and encouraged, including but not limited to non-state actors, semiautonomous states, local forms of self-government and maybe even something else new!


1. G.K. Bhambra et al., (2020, July 3), Why Is Mainstream International Relations Blind to Racism?, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/03/why-is-mainstream-international-relations-ir-blind-to-racism-colonialism/

2. N.C. Behera, (2008, August 1), Alternative to the Westphalian Rashtra, Himal Southasian, https://www.himalmag.com/alternative-to-the-westphalian-rashtra/

3. M. Picq, (2014, May 21), Self-Determination as Anti-Extractivism: How Indigenous Resistance Challenges IR, E-International Relations, https://www.e-ir.info/2014/05/21/self-determination-as-anti-extractivism-how-indigenous-resistance-challenges-ir/

4. J. Corntassell and M. Woons, (2018, January 23), Indigenous Perspectives on International Relations Theory, E-International Relations, https://www.e-ir.info/2018/01/23/indigenous-perspectives-on-international-relations-theory/

5. S. Parashar, J.A. Tickner, J. True, (2018), Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations

© 2020 by The Gender Security Project