The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Defining a feminist foreign policy

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sweden consul general of sweden feminist foreign policy In 2016, Therese Hyden, consul general of Sweden, gave remarks to honor 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. "Freedom from physical, psychological, and sexual violence is a main objective of Sweden's feminist foreign policy, including to ensure that such crimes do not go unpunished." Photo: UN Women/Cihan Demiral under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

No “pinkwashing.” We should challenge political leaders and policymakers that sell feminism short.

If you’re interested in feminist foreign policy—and you should be if you care about ending poverty—a good place to start is a new paper from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

In a short, readable eight pages, the paper offers an account of the major milestones of feminist foreign policy. While political leaders in countries like Sweden, Canada, and France have embraced feminism and even launched feminist programs, none have yet defined their foundational principles.

Defining feminism is no easy task. But this should be the first order of business. Otherwise political leaders and policymakers are setting sail on a boat into choppy waters without an anchor.

So what is feminist foreign policy? What should it be? And how could it transform the world we live in?

A starting point

It’s no surprise that political leaders and policymakers would be reluctant to try to enclose the wild and creative energies of feminism. And while academia has not stepped up to provide a definition of feminist foreign policy, ICRW has.

Here it is: “Feminist Foreign Policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states and movements in a manner that prioritizes gender equality and enshrines the human rights of women and other traditionally marginalized groups, allocates significant resources to achieve that vision, and seeks through its implementation to disrupt patriarchal and male-dominated power structures across all of its levers of influence (aid, trade, defense and diplomacy), informed by the voices of feminist activists, groups and movements.”

This definition provides a rather broad, but still meaningful, frame. It helps clarify that the concept means more than a conventional policy with a touch of gender and a few references to women (“just add women and stir”). As a matter of policy, governance, accountability, and clarity of purpose, that’s super important.

But the definition is more descriptive than prescriptive. There remains so much more to draw from in feminist theory, feminist movements, and from feminists themselves to avoid “pink washing” bad policy and instead achieve the highest possible standard for what a feminist foreign policy could be. We should apply these learnings and challenge political leaders and policymakers if they try to sell feminism short.

A different approach

It’s important that we keep open the debate on what a feminist foreign policy should be. Jacqui True argues in her 2010 paper, Feminism and Gender Studies in International Relations Theory, that “what distinguishes most feminist theories of international relations is their ethical commitments to inclusivity and self-reflexivity, and attentiveness to relational power.”

She goes on: “Guided by the commitment to be inclusive of the multiple vantage points on international relations and self-reflexive potential exclusions, feminists are acutely sensitive to power and politics in all places within and beyond the conventional boundaries of states and international public spheres. This leads them to ask questions not only about the powerful but also about their relationship to the powerless.”

ICRW’s definition incorporates “multiple vantage points” to some extent and centers power in their definition. But we should ask for more—in particular regarding self-reflexivity and inclusion.

The reflection means that a policy should include the seeds of its own improvement, revision, and reiteration. Criticism should be welcome, respected, and internalized. Part of the reason for this self-reflection is to ensure and improve inclusion. Excluded or neglected voices and perspectives should be recognized, engaged, and incorporated. The policy itself should be implemented by and through feminists with their own voices and agency, not “for” them.

The ICRW paper also notes the critical importance of taking an intersectional approach. But it’s not clear what methods or program of work would bring such an approach to fruition. This needs further assessment, exploration, and piloting.

Another concept that a feminist foreign policy might incorporate is “the ethic of care” which conceives of “the central role of care and other relational moral practices in the everyday lives of people in all settings.” This could provide a different and feminist frame for existing (and new) interventions and policy.

One example of where this idea might significantly alter existing policy would be in elevating the humanitarian mandate of “responsibility to protect” as a motive for foreign engagement, including use of peacekeeping forces and foreign security assistance. Another area would be in the treatment of and policy towards refugees and migration. Other concepts merit consideration as well.

An evolving standard

A true feminist foreign policy should be policy foreign to existing or conventional understandings. Foreign because a feminist understanding of “international relations” goes far beyond state-to-state engagement.

A feminist concept of “relations international” would operate in the nexus of trans-national households, affiliations and identities that transcend country, economic, and social relations, among others. Feminist thought accepts plural perspectives, contestation, and erases the boundary between public and private spheres.

In fairness, there are probably limits to how far we can apply feminist theory to foreign policy. The very idea of foreign policy or international relations is contested within some variants of feminist theory, as is the effort to define feminism. That’s why practitioners and policymakers must make pragmatic accommodations and assess an imperfect world with imperfect information using imperfect tools and make our best efforts nonetheless.

Still, I’m holding out for more.

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