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Does the buzz around feminist foreign policy mean anything for women in politics?

Does the buzz around feminist foreign policy mean anything for women in politics?

By Swarna Rajagopalan
(Guest Post)

Photo courtesy: Jen Theodore/ Unsplash

On March 1, 2023, Germany joined the small club of countries that have announced that they will now have a “feminist foreign policy.” Since Margot Wallstrom first announced Sweden’s feminist foreign policy (now retracted) in 2014, others have followed: Canada, Mexico, France, Spain, Luxembourg and Chile.

What this means varies from country to country but two dimensions are common—a greater emphasis on human rights and gender equality in global public discourse and more priority to gender equality-related projects in development aid. As Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom made news by upbraiding Saudi Arabia publicly for its human rights violations. Unfortunately, while such announcements have been made with fanfare, the implementation of these policies has been low-key and routine, with no dramatic shifts.

Sweden’s abandonment of “feminist foreign policy” in 2022 illustrates a major shortcoming of this approach—it is a political, ergo polemical, decision. A particular government or minister favours the idea and it is adopted. They lose an election and it is changed. The new Swedish minister stated, “Gender equality is a core value for Sweden and this government, but we will not conduct a feminist foreign policy… because labels on things have a tendency to cover up the content.”

In India, since March 2020, one has been hearing a buzz about “feminist foreign policy,” with think-tanks—some connected to government, some independent—organising seminars and discussions on this topic.

I have been thinking about feminism and foreign policy since Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State—the first feminist I can think of to actually head a Foreign Ministry. The idea that feminist ideas about power and equality can make a difference to a country’s external relations choices was tantalising to me. In the 15 years since that event, and especially since Wallstrom’s announcement, “feminist foreign policy” has become a popular area of work for international relations scholars and researchers.

What does a feminist foreign policy mean? In practical terms, countries have answered this question by advocating women’s rights abroad and by funding development projects relating to gender equality. Canada appointed a Women, Peace and Security Ambassador to advocate particularly for the role of women in peace processes. It has also given asylum to large numbers of Afghan women human rights defenders who have had to flee their country over the last few years.

Whatever the variations in the interpretation of the term, greater participation of women in public affairs is common to all feminist foreign policies. Indeed, we might say that it is the one feminist idea that most people—feminist or otherwise—find easy to agree with, even though they may not rush to act on it. The minimal commitment a feminist foreign policy makes is to increase the numbers of women in that country’s foreign service while advocating greater female participation in public life around the world.


1 2 3 4 5
Country Ranking by Inter-Parliamentary Union Percentage of women in Lower House/ Single House Percentage of women in Upper House Percentage of women ambassadors across missions
Mexico 4 50 50.4 23.3
Sweden 10 46.4 No Upper House 50
Spain 21 42.4 39.3 26.7
France 35 37.8 35.1 24.7
Chile 44 35.5 24 Not available
Germany 45 35.1 40.6 22.9
Luxembourg 46 35 No Upper House Not available
Canada 61 30.7 51.6 50

Columns 2-4: Inter-Parliamentary Union, Monthly ranking of women in national parliaments, January 1, 2023.

Column 5: Sara Chehab, Women in Diplomacy Index 2022, Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, March 2022.

Women in public life includes women in media, female social workers, women activists of all shades, women in social movements and trade unions, female academics who engage with public, political and policy issues, as well as women in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). All of us matter; yet, ultimately, it is elections and government that hold up a mirror to the reality of our significance in the public sphere. It is when women contest elections, campaign and win in significant numbers that we can speak of clout in public life. Why does this clout matter?

A democratically elected Parliament should mirror the demographic make-up of the population. Diverse representation brings a diversity of experiences to representative bodies at every level from the Panchayat to the Zilla Parishad and Municipal Corporations to State Assemblies and Parliament. A parliamentary debate on any policy issue must mirror as many points of view as possible. Diverse life experiences and political histories find expression, influence the political agenda and inform the laws that are adopted. Policies adopted by truly representative bodies are more likely to serve their intended beneficiaries well—or at minimum, to not grievously harm any community or group. This may seem obvious but sadly bears explicit repetition not just to the mostly male gatekeepers of electoral politics but also to women who are easily satisfied with the 14.44% that women make up in the current Lok Sabha and the 2 women out of the 28 ministers of Cabinet rank in the Government of India at the time of writing.

Saying that we value women’s participation is easy. In practice, it means acknowledging the huge numbers of experienced and talented women working in the public sphere so that you no longer say, “We’d like to give more women tickets, but where are the women?” It means selecting women for electoral contests and also backing them up with funds and star campaigners where needed. It means including women in the candidate selection committees and other gatekeeping bodies. Admitting women and other minority groups to these bastions of political privilege may be harder than getting them elected! A commitment to women’s participation also involves a commitment to the rights and safety of women human rights defenders who work at great risk to themselves and their families.

Parties might demonstrate their commitment to gender equality through manifestos that do not reduce women to the status of victims in need of rescue via gifts of sewing machines or gas cylinders or safeguarding via CC-TV cameras and policing. A commitment to gender equality means zero tolerance for misogynistic speech. The award of election ‘tickets’ and cabinet posts to those accused of sexual harassment and sexual violence belies every pro-women claim made by political parties.

As a feminist, to me, all spheres are connected—not just the personal-political, but formal-informal, private-public and domestic-international. As countries declare that their foreign policies will be feminist, one is compelled to ask what this means, for how long they will be feminist and in what measure their foreign policies will reflect the reality of gender relations (and other intersectional equations) at home. The answers will not be easy or pleasant. But a true commitment to feminism—as to any other ideology of change—requires that they be posed seriously, again and again.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist specialising in international relations. She founded Prajnya, which drafted a Gender Equality Election Checklist in 2016 and a petition to punish misogynistic speech in election campaigns in 2021.

© 2024 Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI).

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