When feminism meets foreign policy
When a developing country adopts a feminist foreign policy, it suggests conviction that these values are worth any risks or isolation that might follow
On 9 January 2020, Mexico announced that it was adopting a feminist foreign policy. What would this mean? According to their official press release, it aligns Mexican foreign policy with the government’s commitment “to reduce and eliminate structural differences, gender gaps and inequalities”. Over the next four years, Mexico will promote gender equality and human rights in its relations with others, promote gender parity within its foreign ministry and ensure that the ministry is violence-free and safe for all.
Mexico is the first country in the developing world—the Global South, as it is currently called—and in Latin America to adopt a feminist foreign policy. For an Indian feminist who has been watching, reading and writing about this new kind of foreign policy for a decade, wistfully and enviously from a distance,
this opens the possibility that wealth and prosperity are not prerequisites.
Feminist thinking about war and peace are very old but feminist advocacy around foreign policy may have been formally facilitated by the official creation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda post-2000. In several of Hillary Clinton’s initiatives as US secretary of state, one saw glimpses—her meetings with women’s organisations, the Women of Courage awards and the broad emphasis
on eliminating gender-based violence as one area of diplomatic engagement, at least for the embassies.
In 2014, Margot Wallström became Sweden’s foreign minister.
Her illustrious career in Swedish and European politics also included three years as the first United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Sweden became the first country to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy under her watch, promoting women and girls’ “Rights, Representation and Resources, based on the Reality in which they live”. The condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the recognition of Palestine were two controversial decisions Wallström took and as Sweden took on the backlash, it seemed that perhaps you had to be a rich country to afford a feminist foreign policy.
In 2017, Canada became the second country to adopt feminism as a central tenet of its foreign policy. Its Feminist International Assistance Policy is the centrepiece, linking the elimination of poverty to gender equality. Canada has also appointed an Ambassador for Women, Peace and Security. In the last year, France has become the third country to join this trend, adopting “a feminist foreign policy that forgot no subject”.
In all three instances, a feminist foreign policy centres on linking gender equality and development, and supporting sexual and reproductive health rights. Neither Canada nor France has as yet taken the strident human rights positions Sweden has, but ending sexual and gender-based violence and supporting the Women, Peace and Security agenda feature everywhere. What does it mean when a developing country that does not have huge aid packages or the legacy of imperialist influence to dangle before others, adopts a feminist foreign policy? It suggests conviction and commitment that these values are worth any risks, losses or isolation that might follow. In Mexico’s case, it has gone beyond a focus on women and girls to include the rights of sexual minorities, leadership on the Beijing+25 processes and climate change—all of which preceded the official announcement of the policy.
Sweden, Canada, France and Mexico buck a global trend for militaristic, ultranationalist leadership and foreign policies. Where the dominant trend seems to be for governments to let expediency prevail over rights, these countries are making an official commitment to human rights and gender equality advocacy. Where many governments are recasting nationalism as regime support, these four are pushing for a greater democratisation of discourses and resource allocation. Societies around the world are deeply militarised, embracing curbs on civil liberties in the name of security; punishing dissent and debate, and endorsing any means, however coercive, towards a preferred end. Feminist foreign policies move towards equality, common well-being and peace.
They recall Dale Spender’s memorable words: “Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’, I ask, ‘Why? What’s your problem?”
To ask whether India will ever see such a paradigmatic policy shift is naïve even for an optimist. Patriarchy, rape culture and impunity are deeply ingrained in our social source code and reinforced by caste inequality. Class, a more recent entrant, dutifully serves these entrenched and intertwined hierarchies. Where we have barely made a dent in systems of iniquity at home, we can expect neither the visionary and principled leadership that will adopt other values in its global interactions nor can such posturing—for that is what it will be—be credible. Feminism begins at home.
Mexico gives us a little hope, however distant. Closer home, perhaps the courageous and creative leadership and participation of women in the anti-CAA protests of the last two months will lead to a greater public sphere engagement on their part. From Shaheen Bagh to kolam-drawing in the streets, women, interacting with each other across other social divisions in these rallies, may build bridges that undermine structural inequalities. We grasp at straws, wishing others the sustained success that will also ultimately benefit South Asian women.
Mexico is the first country in the developing world—the Global South, as it is currently called—to adopt a feminist foreign policy. For an Indian feminist who has been watching, reading and writing about this new kind of foreign policy for a decade, wistfully and enviously from a distance, this opens the possibility that wealth and prosperity are not prerequisites
Political scientist, founder of The Prajnya Trust and member of the Women’s Regional Network