Updated: Sep 26, 2022
At the German Foreign Office's Conference for "Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy" last week in Berlin, it was clear that the time has come to make gender central to international relations.
The protests in Iran have now spread to 60 cities and constitute the biggest challenge that theocratic government has had in years. For the rest of us who are watching, the situation illustrates perfectly why the governments of the world need to adopt feminist foreign policy.
Fortunately, that is exactly what is beginning to happen. Sweden, Canada, Mexico, Rwanda, Norway, Luxembourg, and Albania already have such policies; Chile, Peru, New Zealand, and Colombia are hopping on board. Germany has announced it will adopt one and they are currently studying what that policy should include.
That's why I was in Berlin last week to attend a conference held by the German Foreign Office to seek expert input in formulating their policy. (For Americans who are reading, the "foreign office" is basically the equivalent of the State Department). I, of course, was there to speak on a panel about gender economics, but most of the rest of the conference was focused on war and human rights violations. I was also invited to a small luncheon with Susanne Baumann, the German Secretary of State, to provide direct input to actions Germany might consider as they put their feminist foreign policy together. I was very flattered, but also super impressed with the display of serious government intent.
I also learned something at this conference that astonished me and lifted my spirits: feminist foreign policy is a real thing. As the attendees were drawn from all over the world, it was plain that an array of real countries are actually taking the idea of feminist foreign policy on board. The best illustration of this, for me, was a plenary session where the foreign ministers of five nations sat on the stage together and discussed what they were doing to make feminist foreign policy evident in practice. Imagine it: the foreign ministers of Sweden, Norway, Albania, Rwanda, and Luxembourg made time to be there together, in public, on the same stage, same day, to talk about feminist foreign policy. To me, that says it's real.
Back in the US, my colleagues in women's economic empowerment and I have become quite discouraged because the attention to women's economics has seemed to go dark over the past few years. This is true of the US government, but even more so the corporations. Several companies who used to be big players in the movement have pushed the women's programs under "sustainability" departments. What seems like a mere organizational change inevitably means the money, personnel, and management attention for women is shifted to climate change. And that happens regardless of the company's public claims that they are still doing women's stuff, just under a different department name.
To be fair, international organizations like the World Bank have continued to develop commitments to gender inclusive economics and USAID is still solidly behind the power of gender equality, even if they have been a little quieter than they used to be. But NGOs that were once focused on women's economic empowerment are less engaged and some groups have closed up altogether. My guess is that this is a consequence of corporate money drying up, as NGOs in this area had become pretty dependent.
And yet now, thanks to this kind invitation from the German Foreign Office, I could see that, all this time, other national governments, especially in Europe and South America, as well as elsewhere in North America (both Canada and Mexico), have begun to focus on taking a gender lens to their international relations, which certainly must include their economic policies. And that will make all the difference, even for the corporations and NGOs.
So, what kinds of things would a nation with a feminist foreign policy do? A great example is the trade agreement struck between Canada and Chile in 2017. This was the first trade agreement ever to have a gender provision. The treaty included plans for both nations to undertake specific programs that would facilitate women's participation in trade—a step that they estimated would add significantly to both countries' GDP—but also included a mutual promise to hold each other accountable for enforcing existing equality laws across the board. (Many nations' equality laws, especially equal pay, are not enforced.) Importantly, the arrangement has picked up steam since it was signed: Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and New Zealand signed this Gender Trade Agreement between 2020 and 2022.
The foreign minister of Luxembourg said their first step was to tell all the NGOs that they had to take on a feminist lens or they wouldn't get any money from the government. As I explained, that kind of intervention is spot on.
Another example, though perhaps less obvious, would be the British government founding their Forced Marriage Unit. As far as I know, the UK does not have a formal feminist foreign policy, but this action definitely qualifies as a feminist action with international implications. The UK has a large immigrant population whose children, now native-born British citizens, are frequently forced into marrying someone in their country of origin—usually Bangladesh or Pakistan. (Forced marriage is, unfortunately, very common around the world. The International Labor Organization, as well as the British government, defines forced marriage as slavery; ILO says there are currently 24 million women living in forced marriages globally. There are more slaves in the world today than ever in history and 71% of them are female. Remember that this trade is a primary product of international crime and therefore also contributes to geopolitical instability.)
Another rather surprising example has just occurred in response to the treatment of women in Iran. The United States does not have an explicitly feminist foreign policy and its participation in pro-women activities around the world fluctuates significantly depending on the party in leadership (NB the "Global Gag Rule"). But this week the US Treasury sanctioned the Iranian Morality Police for the death of a young woman while in their custody, a brutality that spurred the current wave of protests. They also sanctioned several Iranian security agencies: the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Army’s Ground Forces, the Basij Resistance Forces, and the Law Enforcement Forces. In addition, they individually sanctioned several leaders of these groups. Coming from the US Treasury, these sanctions will have serious economic implications for those "targeted." (Now if the US government would get over its hypocrisy about Saudi Arabia. . . .)
Iran is, in many ways, typical of places where women are severely subjugated. There is a surprising and ominous overlap between countries where women's rights are strictly suppressed and autocratic states/fragile states/states in conflict.
A pretty reliable way to see this relationship is to look at places with high fertility, always a red flag indicating women's rights abuses. Of the thirty-five most fertile countries, more than two-thirds are among the most fragile states in the world. Countries with the pyramid-shaped populations that high fertility creates (see graph below) have been eight times more likely to experience civil conflict than the global average and 90% of them are autocratic states.
Women in conflict countries often have very high fertility rates. Obviously, high fertility squeezes resources, especially food, in a way that, in turn, leads to fighting. This is but one example of how holding women captive produces political problems that lead to war.
In such nations, women often have stern restrictions on their mobility and no sexual sovereignty, but their economic rights are usually also very constrained. The economic restrictions serve to keep women dependent on males. Without money, they have no means even to leave an abusive relationship. Indeed, as I said in Germany, women are held down with two fists: one of them is the threat of violence and the other is forcible poverty.
Consider, for instance, that only 20% of Iranian women work, which is one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, only 5.9% of the landholders in Iran are female, again one of the lowest rates in the world (it means 94% of the land is owned by men). Because land ownership is a useful proxy for the gender control over all capital, this fact signals that women are not only barred from having an income, but also out of the capital markets—most have little or no real wealth, even if they appear to be rich. Change in the control over capital has proven to be difficult and slow. Due to the directives of Sharia law, Iranian widows did not get the right to inherit real property from a deceased husband until 2009. Importantly, the "morality laws" that inhibit women's mobility in Iran has made it difficult for women to have their own bank accounts and thus retain control over any money they have, therefore nearly impossible to save or accumulate capital.
Some experts argue that gender inequality actually predicts conflict (for a great summary of the evidence and the cultural mechanisms that make this idea plausible, see Valerie Hudson et al Sex and World Peace). For instance, it is common for conflict countries to have an "honor culture" where a man is only respected by other men to the degree that he can control the women in his family—by making them wear a veil, for example. When a woman transgresses or another man approaches her, such men often defend their "honor" with violence ("honor killing" is an example of brutal practices that are so prevalent they have a name). They claim that independent women are an affront to "morality." Furthermore, the men in such cultures are so obsessed with guarding their status as a man that they respond to any encroachment, insult, or attack coming from another group, including another nation, with violence—and they do this without trying to work things out, as in diplomacy.
So you can see, from just these examples, why the relationship between women's oppression and keeping the peace has drawn the attention of the foreign policy community around the world. I feel awkward advertising my book again, but I have discussed the historical and current connections between war and women's rights at length in, The Double X Economy (Das weibliche Kapital in Germany and recently released as a paperback titled The Cost of Sexism: How the Economy is Built for Men and Why We Must Reshape It in Britain; the book has now been translated into 14 languages).
There are exceptions, though, to the scenario I have just described and these are worrisome and even disturbing—but potentially instructive in a different way. Generally, women in conflict countries have high fertility and little education. In Iran, that is not the case. I brought up at the luncheon that Russian women look good on paper—high education, high female labor force participation, low fertility—and yet we are watching a horrific aggression, which was very much on everyone's mind in Germany.
I think there are perhaps three explanatory factors that apply in both the Iranian and Russian cases. First, in history, when women have won rights, their gains have always been temporary. When they lose their rights, it is usually due to a regime change and/or a war. Iran is a good example of that: women have low fertility and high education there largely because the country was pretty modern before Islamic extremists came to power in the Revolution of 1979. In Russia under Putin, there has been considerable backsliding when it comes to gender—they even decriminalized domestic violence in 2017. Second, in both cases, an international religion (Islam in Iran and the Russian Orthodox Catholic Church in Russia) has been behind the backsliding.
We can see the process happening now in Poland, where women's rights are under attack by a Catholic church that has basically compromised and infiltrated the government. Indeed, there are right wing uprisings, many of a religious nature, all over the world right now and they are virtually all aimed at eliminating women's freedoms.
Can't we see that these right wing attacks are a threat to the international order that brought The Long Peace we have enjoyed since the end of World War II? Of course we can. It's no coincidence that key international charters signed in the aftermath of the war, such as the United Nations and the European Union, prominently included gender equality among their goals and rules.
In sum, because of the potential to strengthen the peace, discourage autocracies and right wing takeovers, war we have enjoyed since the end of World War II? Of course we can. It's no coincidence that key international charters signed in the aftermath of the war, such as the United Nations and the European Union, prominently included gender equality among their goals and rules.