On Mar. 10, Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström announced the cancellation of a 37 million euro arms deal with Saudi Arabia, citing the kingdom’s poor human rights record. She singled out the case of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes from the Saudi government for speaking out against some Muslim clerics. A diplomatic row ensued between the two nations, with the kingdom declaring that Swedes would no longer be issued visas. This in turn drew ire within financial and diplomatic circles in Sweden, which claimed the minister’s move would hurt Sweden’s foreign standing and financial interests in the world.
In contrast, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an international women’s rights group, applauded Sweden’s decision as a victory for women’s rights, suggesting the kingdom’s abysmal treatment of women was Wallström’s real motivation. “This is precisely what a feminist foreign policy looks like,” wrote Madeline Rees, Secretary General of the WILPF.
The diplomatic clash has proven that the seemingly disparate fields of feminism and foreign policy may not be mutually exclusive. Traditionally, foreign policy has been formulated and enacted by men, but as more women join diplomatic circles around the world, they bring their perspective and concern for women into their countries’ international stances and actions.
But even as we recognize the urgent need for feminist foreign policy, we must acknowledge the difference between imposing feminism through foreign policy and encouraging it to grow from within, especially in more conservative, non-western countries where feminism has long been viewed as just another western instrument of cultural domination.
Looking at the ways in which issues of racism and sexism meet, intersectional feminism must include the voices of women of color. Foreign policy that aims to speak, advocate and legislate for women in other countries by influencing the internal politics of those countries therefore holds potentially troubling implications.
Margot Wallström had stated from the first day of her term that Sweden would be using feminist concepts to help dictate her foreign policy, and has previously pointed to the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which recognizes the link between the international arms trade and gender-based violence. Women are the biggest victims in armed conflicts around the world—the treaty uses examples of violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Colombia to make this point. Still, while certainly sending a message of disapproval, it is not known how the cancellation of the arms deal will affect the status of Saudi women.
In her famous 1985 essay on postcolonial theory, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” philosopher Gayatri Spivak famously wrote on the phenomenon of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” As western feminists move into positions allowing them to make decisions relating to foreign policy, they must be careful not to fall into a similar trap. To do so could result in the institutionalization of a post-colonial racism in foreign policy. It’s highly unlikely that Muslim women in Iraq, for example, feel any great gratitude to Condoleeza Rice or Madeline Albright for their historical foreign policy decisions.
Of course, the Saudi-Sweden row is complicated by additional factors. On Mar. 9, Saudi Arabia officials blocked Wallstrom from delivering her Arab League summit speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which she planned to ask Arab nations to pay more attention to Palestinian rights, religious extremism, and to development and democracy.
Maysam Behravesh, a PhD student at Lund University in Lund, Sweden has been researching the way state political apparatuses and polices are influenced by—and manifest as—gendered characteristics. According to Behravesh, the most radical aspect of the Swedish leader’s speech was actually her recognition of International Women’s Day. Seen through the prism of gender politics, this whole incident is less about human rights and more about differing styles of governance that pit a conceptually “masculine religious autocracy” against a conceptually “feminine social democracy,” Behravesh writes.
History, politics and religion have arguably shaped modern-day Saudi Arabia into an extremely masculine state, where women are infantilized through patriarchy—a case in point being the ban against women driving, which Saudi activists like Aisha al Mana and Madiha Ajroush have bravely opposed since as far back as 1990. Ajroush describes the unofficial ban like this: “It’s like a person being cut off. Their legs are cut off and the wheelchair has been taken away from them and you’re completely dependent on one gender.” Conversely, Sweden prioritizes gender equality in foreign policy, placing it on a collision course not just with more masculine states, but with masculine entities, such as military, financial, and corporate institutions.
This question of how—or even if—state institutions, actions or policies can be gendered is a hot topic in the field of international relations. British academic Charlotte Hooper looks at the links between masculinity and power in her 2001 book Manly States: Masculinities, International Relations and Gender Politics. Masculine identities and masculine rivalries, Hooper writes, have historically shaped international relations, but so has international relations shaped masculinity, with its emphasis on hegemony, war, and arms races. Maysam Behravesh, too, is focusing his dissertation on how “state gender” manifests in nuclear and missile programs, looking at Iran and Pakistan in particular.
In my home nation of Pakistan, it is not even masculinity, but the closely-related concept of machismo that runs our national psyche. As I have written previously, this strong and aggressive masculine pride is a testosterone-fueled characteristic evinced in our “heavy dependency on an almost all-male army, a male-dominated political scene, sophisticated weaponry, and a large national ego that overreacts to the slightest threat.” Our machismo has given us the illusion of strength, as we rattle our sabers against India, brandish our nuclear weapons, and show the world through military parades and arms exhibitions our readiness to defend our borders.
Pakistan’s internal power structure is built on inequality and exclusion. Pakistan today is not a democracy, but a morass of hierarchies, powered by political influence and family patronage, which maintains the supremacy of Sunni Muslim male domination.
Only feminist principles can inspire us to redress this state of affairs, particularly the feminist principle of inclusion and equality for all regardless of gender. Perhaps more important than any other, this principle must replace a patriarchal status quo that concentrates power and resources in the hands of mostly wealthy male leaders. True feminism addresses power structure and nation-building, distribution of resources, and human rights.
History is hard to escape. Pakistan and Sweden may seem dissimilar today, but they are more alike than either would probably like to admit, in that all societies and countries have been built on a bedrock of patriarchy. Despite any patina of feminism, all states have traditionally operated on policies of exclusion and inequality. Even in Sweden, Wallström’s actions were met with huge opposition and disapproval from former foreign minister Carl Bildt, the business newspaper Dagens Industri and the groups Volvo, H&M and the SEB Bank Group—a broad representation of male-dominated institutions that still have great influence in Sweden today.
Given the uphill battle, should we even try to genderize foreign policy?
Absolutely, and it can be done with sensitivity and intelligence. Many women-friendly initiatives have been enacted by foreign missions in Pakistan. For example, the Netherlands has been supporting grassroots programs that spread awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights amongst Pakistan’s youth, especially among girls and young women. Meanwhile, the United States sends Pakistani women to America every year in a Women’s Leadership Exchange to meet with their American counterparts and make important global connections in a dialogue where learning goes both ways.
It is imperative that feminist foreign policy encourage women from developing countries to enact change at home. This means equitable gender participation in the political arena, gender-equal legislative, as well as social, political, and religious reform. Sweden’s decision to render collective punishment on a society is ultimately not going to be as effective as encouraging feminist progress to grow from within.
And, importantly, every country, whether western or eastern, must look inward at its own patriarchal structures, including those governing “masculine” trade, defense and financial agreements. All states must work to dismantle these international systems of oppression; only then will a balanced, powerful feminist foreign policy emerge.