A Gender-Sensitive Indian Foreign Policy -Why and How?
11 March 2021
Remarks by Amb Nirupama Menon Rao
As diplomats today, women or men, we work not only to practice the craft of diplomacy, but we are concerned with matters concerning national security, defence, trade and development, apart from the exercise of soft, or what is a better term, smart power. This is the life cycle of foreign policy today. But turning to the subject of gender, in its traditional form and structure, foreign policy has not dedicated much focus or, attention, in a coherent way, to the impact of its workings on women and children. While as a country, in India, we have rightly prioritized diplomatic solutions over military ones what is the attention we have given to questions of women, peace and security in policy conceptualization, and has voice been given to those traditionally ignored? We are proud of the contributions of our women to U.N. peacekeeping and rightly so, but there is still value to be infused in the whole terrain of gender sensitivity in our foreign policy, especially as more women are added to our diplomatic strength and they take on key responsibilities in the foreign service of the country.
Women have a predisposition to diplomacy - it is wired into our genes. Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrate (400 BC) is about women from three different cities who frustrated by the lack of success of men in matters of war and peace, organize themselves to end the Peloponnesian war. The metaphor Aristophanes used for the work of these women was weaving, “to portray women of exceptional diplomatic ability, who pull together the strands of society, to negotiate peace and ‘weave the fabric of nations’.[i] In an ideal world, there would be recognition of these innate qualities of women. But life is far from perfect. And, the inescapable reality is that men, as it has been said, have the muscle, the media and the money to back them up even as we women weave the fabric of diplomacy on the charkhas of life. The union of equality that we need, equality for all, the sharing of strengths of men and women, should be our goal.
Foreign policy, across a wide swathe of countries, has tended to be gender-blind. But the scenario is changing. In 2014, Sweden became the first country to articulate what it termed a feminist foreign policy saying that such a policy would focus on more representation of women in international politics, equal access to resources for women and respect for women’s rights, centered on gender equality, and that it was an idea based on Joseph Nye’s idea of “Smart Power. It was aimed at including half of the population that so far has been almost systematically excluded and forgotten — namely, women. Since then France, Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands have been some of the other countries who have come out with their own iterations of the idea. A feminist foreign policy it is said, adopts an intersectional approach to questions of peace, security, economic well-being and development, from the viewpoint of the vulnerable and under-represented sections of society. Given that nationally, the policy of our government is to further the cause and welfare of our female population, their health, education, livelihoods, and their upward mobility and representation in key national institutions, there should be no barrier in our articulating these basic values in the definition of our global outlook and our foreign policy. For instance, the government could consider appointing a female Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues (as the Obama administration did with Melanne Verveer) or create an office for Policy Planning on Women in Foreign Policy that would look at the whole gamut of women’s representation in policy making, ensuring that women’s issues, inclusion and diversity find a place in our development diplomacy, disaster management, humanitarian assistance, and also in regional cooperation in trade, education, and health, as also ensuring a voice for women in conflict prevention and peace-making.
One of India’s founding ‘mothers’, as I would call her, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay saw man and woman as comrades of the road, going forward together, a wonderful image to express for this week when we mark International Women’s Day. Her world-view was grounded in the realization that the women of India, particularly, have to provide a global outlook that moves beyond insularity towards a cooperative world order based on decency, peace and happiness. Of course, the question of being male or female has nothing to do, as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit once said, with the duty of both sexes to take their part in world affairs. Feminists can come from both genders.
Feminism, it was said recently, requires us to take a holistic look at power, who exercises power, who is prevented from accessing power, and why. This may be much bigger than gender, it is a question of equality, looking at the historically marginalized and struggling. We need a systemic lens through which we can tackle such needs.
Diplomacy can be gender-neutral, but it should not be gender-blind- it has to focus on the middle way, getting peace to override war, stressing skillful negotiation, embracing diversity and eschewing hierarchies and outdated concepts of hegemony. When we say diplomacy should be gender-neutral we mean that it should be about issues that concern human wellbeing, with women as an indivisible component of this outlook. Women’s voices should shape agendas and outcomes in diplomacy, and therefore women must acquire agency and make themselves more effectively heard – on issues particularly of rebuilding and reconstruction of societies torn apart by war and conflict – as an Afghan woman said once, “We are not responsible for the destruction, but we should be responsible for the reconstruction.” Therefore, a feminist (or, a gender-sensitive) foreign policy is that which focuses on political dialogue for conflict resolution, diplomacy and trade, safety and wellbeing, stressing multilateralism, inclusion and intersectionality, being embedded in civil society institutions and local communities. Women must sit at the table, participating in decision making that involves the future of our societies. We must prioritize diplomatic solutions over military ones. For example, have we considered the impact of the use of nuclear weapons on women and children? Does our disaster management outreach in diplomacy and foreign policy have a crucial component concerning the impact on women and children and the benefits to them? Is our policy on climate change sensitive to this category of humans? Our foreign policy as it concerns the developing world should focus on these concerns.
‘Feminism’ in foreign policy should make us more thoughtful about the ways in which we approach such matters, it should integrate feminine values into policy making in matters of peace and development. It should underscore respect for international law. Have some of the P-5 countries considered the impact of their sanctions on their adversaries on women and children – take the instance of the Iran nuclear sanctions? Often, who is going to feel the impact of these decisions is overlooked. Policy makers should listen to the civil society dialogue on these issues.
Today, the effect of the year-long COVID-19 pandemic on women should be of special concern, including the issue of domestic violence- the so-called ‘shadow pandemic’ affecting millions of women world-wide. As Isabel Allende said recently, why are aggression and violence against women not regarded as an infringement of a woman’s human rights?
The U.S. state of Hawaii recently launched a feminist recovery plan for the pandemic, which centres women at the heart of the policy response. It is called “building bridges, not walking on backs”. We have to address issues like water, sanitation, hygiene, housing, the gender digital divide, environmental concerns, inequalities in employment, wages, the quality of life. When diplomacy focuses on development, these are issues that should occupy our policy makers, because they benefit women, and society as a whole. So, an intersectional analysis is required in our approach to overcoming the effects of the pandemic. At every cross-section there stands a woman in need for equal access to opportunities. Vice-President Kamala Harris of the U.S. spoke recently of the mass exodus of women from the workforce during the pandemic as a national emergency. “The pandemic has created a perfect storm for women workers”, she said. Have we assessed the impact of the pandemic on women in the country and in our region?
Where women lead, the responses to the pandemic have been most heartening and impressive. The examples of Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan can be cited in this regard. It is said that there are many examples of men ceding ground to women to be appointed to lead in times of crisis – letting the women deal with the mess, as it were – look at the case of Theresa May in the U.K. during Brexit. They call this the Glass Cliff – women being appointed to positions of responsibility when the chances of failure are the highest. Contrary to expectations, many women in such situations have shown that the glass cliff is no barrier and it can be a weapon to overcome the sister concept of the glass ceiling, too!
Involving and engaging women in peace processes should be another concern. How are we to craft peace if half the population is excluded? Our research base for preventing conflict and building peace, as an input for policy makers, should look at gender equality in this crucial sphere and the role of women. Perhaps this will also help us to challenge the assumption of hard power as the only way to solve conflict, that we can also use the tools of diplomacy, trade, inclusion as a means to bring peace, and never lose sight of the fact that when we think of security we should think of human security, also. We must be alert to the fact that every policy we make affects men and women differentially. We must train our minds to look at the gender impact of every policy decision we take. The same requires that we ensure diversity in the policy and decision-making apparatus, and that we increase consultations with women when making policy and so that everyone who is impacted by a decision is able to make their voice heard.
Contrary to popular belief, a feminist foreign policy is not a pacifist foreign policy. It is about having tough conversations in a graceful way. What is important is to balance diplomacy and defence and use diplomacy as the first line of defence so that the decisions we take will lead to more stability. Our decisions should be based on solid data analysis and we should integrate gender equality into the working of our foreign policy- using the data from research in the field to avoid unintended consequences in the working of policy.
Another issue of central concern is that of Women, Peace and Security or the WPS Agenda. Twenty years after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) many member states, India included, have not developed a WPS National Action Plan (NAP). India is supportive of the agenda and is committed to the Resolution itself, but these commitments and talking points require more granularities in translation. Perhaps, this is work in progress. The issue of armed conflict – the use of force as a weapon affecting the unarmed and marginalized in which we include women, has a grave impact on lives of non-combatants and we can ill afford to ignore this factor if we are to ensure conflict prevention and elimination. We have to listen to their voices and build a national consensus on UNSCR 1325 and understand the true meaning of human security. Strengthening women’s representation in key governance institutions and bodies is a part of this effort. This should be a key marker for our democracy.
Lastly, there is a felt need for more Indian women to access the field of security studies and international relations and a rise in their numbers in senior executive positions in think tanks in this country for instance. There are many patriarchal and entrenched barriers to overcome. Women tend to be pigeon-holed on the basis of their gender. Old boys will be old boys although there are many men who are exceptions to this rule and value diversity and inclusion. A woman security studies scholar recently suggested that a National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325 by India may strengthen the role and presence of women scholars in peace and security . This is certainly worth further consideration.
Some years ago, I wrote a piece “Have the Women Spoken?”[ii] Speaking as a South Asian which I include very much in my Indian identity, I said the following: “I often wonder what a feminist foreign policy for South Asia would look like. (In Europe, the Swedes have it; we do not.) Can we not consider a discourse that speaks of matters beyond war and peace (peace in the South Asian subcontinent seems to be associated with white flags, surrender, submission, weakness)? Do we think of a South Asian Commons? Not an arena for mutual jousting where we bait each other in blood sport, but a space for maturity of peaceful purpose, robust civility, and mutual accommodation? We have built towering babels around ourselves, but we have not cleared a way for the Commons.”
Not much distinguishes Indian and other South Asian women from each other. We share similar genealogies, and labour under the same masculine patriarchies. We care similarly about our children, our homes, our environments. We are programmed to be peacemakers, each in our own small way and we weep similarly for lives lost. We want literacy, empowerment, and liberation from hierarchies that keep us confined in spaces and prevent the full flowering of our talents as capable, gifted, human beings.
I said that a feminist or gender-sensitive foreign policy would embrace the idea of a South Asian Commons; it would speak and act in favour not of ravishing disunities, but of rationalising unities, of merging capacities to build, to develop, to link. It would exercise vetoes to block war, not peace; it would emphasise the right to food, the right to public health, the right to knowledge and learning, the fundamental right of women to exist, the right to reject the disconnects, the worn clichés and mental barriers that divide us. It would weigh the interests of humanitarianism against the interests of power with far greater precision and wisdom. It would say no to violence, against all, but particularly crimes against women and children. It would reject the voices of the far right and the far left. It would feel the true pulse of the unknown man or woman, the marginalised, the excluded. It would have a people-centred approach. It would promote business-to-business engagement, building the infrastructure for trade, removing non-tariff barriers, facilitating commerce, understanding the economics of proximity rather than promoting proximity as a peril. Why sacrifice these benefits at the altar of history? Rather, promote these possibilities as assets that can alter the narrative of the past, and realise the prospects of peace that have hitherto been so elusive.
Feminists, as I have said earlier, can come from both genders. The important matter is that we recognize and respect gender equality, the right of women to be heard, and to make decisions that affect the peace and security of our homelands, to promote their participation in public life and to expand their leadership opportunities. The time just came for us to be, as women, smarter and braver, about what the protection of our interests should be about and how there is no need to mansplain a feminist foreign policy. We can speak with the greatest authority on what it means.
These are a few thoughts. I know that our expert panelists will have a lot to contribute to our discussion this afternoon. I thank the ICWA for inviting me to participate in this webinar, it is a unique privilege. Thank you so much.
[i]Stella Kyriakides , ‘Women in diplomacy - delivered at the “Women in Diplomacy” event hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus’, 21 February 2020, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/kyriakides/announcements/women-diplomacy-delivered-women-diplomacy-event-hosted-ministry-foreign-affairs-cyprus_en
[ii]Nirupama Rao, ‘Have the women spoken?’, The Indian Express, 18 October 2016, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-pakistan-women-literacy-women-empowerment-women-safety-3088484/