Putting the Feminist into Feminist Foreign Policy
Updated: Mar 30
Image: Women assemble as part of the Zapatista uprising of 1995, to protest the expansion of corporate and political powers by displacing indigenous people from their lands. Source: Chispa (Link)
By Kirthi Jayakumar
One of the ways in which we argue for a feminist foreign policy is to contrast it with what we understand the state, as a referent object in international relations, to be. We see the patriarchies inherent in the state, we identify the hegemonic and patriarchal ways in which it wields power over particular groups, and we clearly see its pursuit of necropower. Instead of a response to this, what we see most countries that have adopted Feminist Foreign Policies do, is to leave their strategies at only addressing women – their rights, their inclusion in positions of leadership, and the prevention of violence against them – while all the while using the term “gender,” effectively conflating sex and gender. In this, we see an essentialist and limited interpretation of what a feminist foreign policy must mean: the antithesis of the patriarchal power that the traditional Westphalian state is.
The essentialist understanding of the framework for a Feminist Foreign Policy starts with a limitation: one that oversimplifies international relations into an add-women-and-stir equation. In the process, it also becomes a moral high ground, as well, where Sweden can pass judgment on, say, a Saudi Arabia and call it medieval, or Canada can “simultaneously over-politicize and depoliticize gender, gender equality, and feminism to suit prevailing policy environments.” As Fiona Robinson (2019) argued, the gendering of ethics and foreign policy, where “‘feminist’ (or ‘feminine’) foreign policy is constructed as ethical, principled, or visionary, in contrast with ‘masculine’ foreign policy which is understood as ‘realist’ and focused on national interests and security” suggests that “global justice (or ethical feminist foreign policy) is enacted by a series of powerful, Western states to save (or punish) racialised others.” She goes on to argue that this narrative is partial and inadequate, and produces and reinforces existing racialised, colonial hierarchies and power relations.
Seen this way, a Feminist Foreign Policy can end up re-gendering gender, re-sexing gender, and re-racing race (Pratt, 2013) argued. It can wind up force-fitting non-intersectional feminist ideas within the Westphalian state, producing no systemic change whatsoever, and leaving structural violence unquestioned. It can become a case of cultural colonialism: by extending extant colonial state power through an essentialist and limiting policy with a new name.
In some ways, this is already happening. With Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico (the lone exception to an otherwise Global North group) adopting Feminist Foreign Policies, it has been presented as an “innovation” of the Global North. Assuming this is to engage in a massive act of erasure: of the several thousands of years of work of indigenous women, and the heavy-hauling in peace work by women in the colonial and post-colonial eras: the Amazonia women who resisted colonial conquest, the Indian women who litigated in Spanish courts and led uprisings against colonial invasions, the Bartolina Sisa and Tupak Katari that led powerful armies during the 1782 siege of La Paz, and the Kichwa women who shaped 20th century politics in Ecuador (Picq 2019) to name a few. Women in several parts of the Global South continue to do this, oftentimes putting their lives on line to fight imperialist structures, gatekeeping, violence, and discrimination even as they call out and fight systemic violence every day.
It is vital to understand that there are several renegotiations of gender power relations that do operate in countries in the Global South and have done so for years now, framed by context-specific factors (Robinson, 2019). Ignoring this is to engage in racism. It represents a “tendency toward culture-blaming that de-politicises social problems, and diverts attention away from the ways in which gendered practices are supported and sustained by wider global economic and geo-political structures of inequality” (Robinson, 2019). This does nothing to question the systemic and structural violence of colonialism: the civilized us versus the uncivilized them.
This is not to mean that practices that discriminate against, marginalize, and amount to violence against women should be condoned: it only means that an imposed, external standard that does not acknowledge how it suffuses and enables structural violence is not the answer. It is vital to acknowledge the fundamental trappings of the global political economy, economic policies from the Global North that in one way or another, affect women’s lives. It is to acknowledge how the disadvantages women face world over are in no small part kept alive by patriarchal and capitalist policies that normalize sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination while pursuing unfair policies of extractivism, displacement, and unfair trade and labour practices (Corwin and Jaggar, 2018). It is to acknowledge, and humbly so, that indigenous women and women in the Global South have been doing Feminist Foreign Policy for years, even generations, and that slapping a term on a Western endeavour of gendering foreign policy cannot erase that on any account.
The trappings of a Feminist Foreign Policy, then, must also be to look inward and to work toward dismantling systemic and structural violence, erasure of indigenous women’s efforts, and to strive to uphold that commitment externally as well.
Amsler, Sarah. 2007. "Cultural colonialism." The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology 1-3.
Corwin Aragon, Alison M. Jaggar. 2018. Agency, Complicity, and the Responsibility to Resist Structural Injustice, Journal of Social Philosophy, 10.1111/josp.12251, 49, 3, (439-460).
Picq, Manuela Lavinas. 2018. Vernacular sovereignties: indigenous women challenging world politics. University of Arizona Press.
Pratt, N. 2013. ‘Reconceptualizing Gender, Reinscribing Racial–Sexual Boundaries in International Security: The Case of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace and Security”’. International Studies Quarterly, 57, 772-783.
Robinson, F. 2019. ‘Taking an Ethical Stand’: Moral Principles and Colonial Logics in Feminist Foreign Policy. https://www.boell.de/en/2019/08/28/taking-ethical-stand-moral-principles-and-colonial-logics-feminist-foreign-policy