The big idea: can foreign policy be feminist?
The big idea: can foreign policy be feminist?
Op-Ed 3 minutes

The big idea: can foreign policy be feminist?

From Laura Bush’s famous radio speech declaring that the invasion of Afghanistan would liberate its women, to the Trump administration’s invocation of women’s rights as it pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, war-making in the modern world is often linked to gender equality. Those who push the west to take a muscular approach to advancing its interests in distant places, through bombing, droning or economic warfare, like to weave sepia-tinted images of women in miniskirts into their advocacy. Whatever the actual motives, accompanying them with rhetoric about securing women’s freedom has become standard practice during western interventions.

These cynical moves are often what come to mind when we hear the words “ethical foreign policy”. But a whole realm of quiet work lies beyond them. As it stands, much of western foreign policy is concerned with shoring up peace and stability in areas of strategic interest to governments. That includes dispatching advisers to improve developing countries’ militaries, supporting healthcare and education through development aid, and doing diplomatic work to get disagreeing parties to negotiate before things deteriorate too far. For years now, various governments have woven gender equality into these efforts. When development aid sits formally in the same department as foreign policy, as it now does in Britain, those efforts can get serious political backing.

The notion that feminism should inform foreign policy has deep roots. Activists from around the world, but especially in developing countries, have gathered for decades to demand that states listen to their needs and create foreign policies that actually address them. Those efforts took concrete shape at the United Nations, leading to successive resolutions concerning women, peace and security. Feminist movements in the west also clamoured for governments to help implement abroad the kinds of reforms they were enacting at home. Underpinning all of this was a hard-nosed calculation about the pay-offs: that improving the wellbeing of women and girls would make countries more successful and less likely to experience hellish civil strife or to attack others.

So has it been effective? Apart from less contentious measures, such as an increase in female peacekeepers, the drive for clean cooking stoves for the world’s poor and the push to involve women in security decision-making and peace negotiations, the answer partly depends on the strain of feminism you support. The legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, for instance, has written: “In the American war against the Taliban, for a brief moment women had a foreign policy, or briefly became part of a pretext for one.” Hillary Clinton, who made women the centrepiece of US foreign policy, claims some progress has been made, and calls for more women in higher office, arguing that female leadership “contributes to greater cooperation, equality and stability”.

But as Rafia Zakaria writes in her book Against White Feminism, politicians pursuing “feminist” foreign policies may simultaneously be making other choices that badly harm women, fuelling the conflicts that lead to their rape and impoverishment. How useful and feminist is it, she asks, for governments to demand Yemeni women be included in stalled peace talks, while selling arms to Saudi Arabia to use in that war? Even the development aid that governments earmark to advance gender equality, Zakaria argues, often ends up sapping women’s grassroots activism, incentivising people to pursue the largesse of NGOs rather than mobilise politically.

There are even more sinister consequences to the west’s tendency to package together the use of armed force with promotion of western feminism. In many battlegrounds, it has allowed insurgent groups from Isis to the Taliban to repeat the trick in reverse, bundling their rallying cries of “anti-imperialism” together with anti-feminist ones.

So would governments be better off dropping gender equality as a pillar of foreign policy entirely? Some prominent voices have said just that. Professor David Wood recently argued in an article that the quest for gender equality is fundamentally a domestic struggle. Not all conflicts, he believes, are driven or shaped by gender imbalances. By demanding that gender empowerment be baked into every effort to end wars, governments and donors may be chasing unrelated problems, and getting in the way of their efforts to stop violence.

But to veer in this direction, even with the aim of overcorrecting faulty interventions and harmful policies, would be a mistake. Neither feminism nor gender equality can truly sit apart from global politics, when the conduct of dominant states so intimately shapes the lives and security of women and girls around the world, and especially in the global south. While there is much to criticise in the double standards and hypocrisies of some policies that invoke feminism, women’s wellbeing as an indicator of a society’s economic and political health remains crucial and revelatory.

Read the full article on The Guardian's website.

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