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A Case for a ‘Feminist foreign Policy’ for South Asia

A Case for a ‘Feminist foreign Policy’ for South Asia

J. Ann Tickner begins her essay Hans Morgantheau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation with “international politics is a man’s world, a world of power and conflict in which warfare is a privileged activity”. In all wars or conflicts it is women, who bear the real brunt. Any change in the situation needs a reformulation of foreign policy of individual countries because war is just a mean or a tool of execution. In light of this argument the idea of “feminist foreign policy” is evolving. This stresses on giving equal rights to women, encourages other countries to treat their women equally, and maintain relationship with countries having such a track record. As an idea, it has presence, but it lacks a substantive support base because any serious thought on it is a challenge to settled patriarchal institutional norms, which the proponents of patriarchy do not want to disturb.

In February 2015, explaining “feminist foreign policy” the Swedish foreign ministerMargot Wallström said “A feminist foreign policy seeks the same goals as any visionary foreign policy: peace, justice, human rights and human development”. As her remarks were based on the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, she was condemned by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Organisation of Islamic State and Arab League. Before her the former foreign secretary of the USA Hillary Clinton has talked about inclusion of issues concerning women in the foreign policy. Though the case for a ‘feminist foreign policy’ is strong, no substantive step has been taken in this direction. It is because of the institutional strength of patriarchy and its norms. Women working as foreign minister or secretary or a foreign policy spokesperson, work within the parameter of patriarchal values and norms. Any challenge to it has a serious impact on them.

Violence, as a political tool, is a means to promote or to keep intact the values of patriarchy. The form of violence can be many, so are the targets. It can be against an individual or a group or mass. While declaring their foreign policy goals, although countries around the world talks about promotion of human rights, peace, justice and human developments, they do not shy away from using coercive means to attain their ‘national interests’. In any form of political violence, women are the non-recognised and silent victims. Since ancient times rape of women and young boys have been a norm carried out by the powerful against the weak. In modern times too even the so called civilised and disciplined soldiers have followed it to maintain the patriarchal value of war. Even at present rapes are carried out with a political objective to establish power over the ‘other’. Only in 1998 rapes and murder have been accepted as genocide by the United Nation’s International Crime Tribunal. Yet it is very difficult to prove because of its social implications in post-war society where victims are ostracised because of being ‘impure’ and ‘in chaste’. This fear has made many women to commit suicide or even marry to the perpetrator of violence against them.

South Asian Scenario

Since decolonisation, south Asia has been one of the most violent regions of the world; and it is one of the most patriarchal societies. Both characteristics have led to unleashing of physical violence against the women in the region. During the partition of India related violence in 1947 , as Urvashi Butalia mentioned in her book The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, about 75,000 women were raped, killed and abducted by people from the other or their own community. Though the numbers of ‘honour’ killings have not been recorded yet, it too could be in thousands. Again in 1971, during the liberation war of Bangladesh, thousands of women were raped by Pakistani soldiers and Bengali fighters. Though the data is not available on the number of rapes taken place during the last Elam war, strong evidences are there to support the assumption of physical violence carried out by personnel of the Sri Lankan Army against the women in northern region of Sri Lanka. Not only during the war time but also communal riots, sectarian violence and tensions in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have resulted in rapes of women from other communities. In Afghanistan, as Alan Taylor writes, women have been caught in attacks from all sides –restricted by conservative laws, traumatized by bombings, and victimized at home.

This is the situation despite the countries of the region has or had strong women as head of states. As mentioned above the women leaders work within the patriarchal set up of the society. Be it Mrs Indira Gandhi, Mrs Benazir Bhutto ,Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga Sheikh Hasina or Khalida Zia, all of them co-opted to attain power. Those who challenge or potential to do so, have never been allowed to attain the political post or thrown out of the system. Hence it is very difficult to change the nature of foreign policy without changing the character of existing social structure.

Feasibility of “Feminist foreign Policy” in South Asia

In the given society, it is difficult to even think about having such policy, but a beginning has to be made. Any beginning towards this direction requires for a socio-political space to women in their own respective country. Secondly, while formulating foreign policy women have to be given a real instead of a token representation. Their issues have to be considered as a part of ‘core’ and not taken as a ‘secondary’. Thirdly, the individual states have to manage the patriarchal violence. This is difficult to do because nationalism in respective countries is based on hatred and fear from the ‘other’. This other is a neighbouring country or a minority group living together. The groups are considered as a representative of ‘other’ countries too, so violence against them erupts intermittently. In all such situations, the perpetrators get a legitimate licence to carry out physical violence against ‘other’ women. Finally, internal character of individual states has to change. They must promote equal human rights to all citizens. The socio-political policies must be an inclusive and not exclude people belonging to minority primordial groups.


Foreign policy of a country describes its character. The south Asian countries have to change their character by giving equal space to its entire member, instead remain a patriarchal. This is difficult to achieve than write but, hopefully, thinking may leads towards that direction.

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