Feminist Voices Could Change the Nature of International Diplomacy

Can diplomacy organise itself more effectively so that outcomes take into account the interests of these largely silent multitudes that comprise women?

“I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” These words from Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand command attention. We need more female representation in various fields. Gender equality should define the grammar of daily existence.

“Feminism” was the most looked up word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary last year. The dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”.

The first woman ambassador – from anywhere in the world – to the US, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was once asked, “How does it feel to be ‘world feminist number one’?” She replied, “I am not a ‘feminist’. As far as I can see, the question of being male or female has nothing to do with the duty of both sexes to take their part in world affairs.”

Pandit’s reference to the duty of both sexes to take part in world affairs was particularly telling. It symbolised a natural grasp of a universal truth – that women have as much the right and the responsibility to guide human destiny as their male counterparts.

Diplomacy is basically gender-neutral; it does not occupy itself with ‘his and hers’ differentiation. It is the art of ensuring peace and preventing war and conflict, of skilful and quiet negotiation, of adeptness of communication. For instance, a feminist foreign policy in our region would embrace the idea of a South Asian commons; it would speak and act in favour not of ravaging disunities, but of rationalising unities, of merging capacities to build, to develop, to link. It would weigh the interests of humanitarianism against the interests of power. It would feel the true pulse of the unknown, the marginalised, the excluded, understanding the economics of proximity rather than promoting proximity as a peril.

I was once told on social media that the “pipe dream of feminist foreign policy will die before it is even conceived. Very disappointing and a waste of time”. Clearly, given the politics of the subcontinent, very few vest their hopes in crafting a future where the women of the region lead with their voices and actions to build a peace that overrides conflict. Peace is clearly only a dream.

The question to ask, drawing reference to the definition of feminism, is: Can diplomacy organise itself more effectively so that outcomes take into account the interests of these largely silent multitudes that comprise women? Can women make themselves more effectively heard? They say the strongest indicator of a state’s progressiveness is not its democracy or wealth, but the way it treats its women and how much the latter issue impinges on the national consciousness.

Obviously, strength lies in numbers. In India, very few women are engaged in international studies or relations. They are mostly conspicuous by their absence in a panel – or ‘manel’ – discussions and often overlooked when it comes to such participation since male “experts” are the default choice. The contributions of women are mostly forgotten.

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In the real locus of power, the UN Security Council, the responsibility to protect becomes a tool driven more by the raw calculus of strategic interest. Even beyond, the cases of Libya and Syria (and Iraq) show the complete insensitivity to the facet of human dislocation, the destruction of societies and human heritage, the erasing of borders and the effects on the welfare of women and children. We are yet to find a way in which we combine feminine soft power with masculine hard power to create that ideal purusha and prakriti in diplomacy.

The Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, is absolutely justified when she says that striving towards gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development and security policy objectives. Her strategy focuses on the three Rs: promoting the ‘rights’ of women and girls, supporting women’s ‘representation’ in decision making and ensuring financial ‘resources’ for promoting gender equality. Rights, representation and resources – no government worth its name should have any quarrel with any of these concepts when they apply to women. Each country has to develop its own dynamic in this regard. There is no one playbook that we can automatically relate to or apply.

What do women need most, regardless of what their professional field of choice is? I believe it is voice – that which enables them to articulate their cause, their interests and their aspirations. And voice needs amplification, the amplification that comes from numbers, from adequate representation. If women constitute 50% of the population, it is obvious that their representation in professions, and in leadership positions, should be equal to or at least close to equal to that of men who are similarly placed.

The third aspect after voice and amplification relates to service conditions. In my own experience, women in the Indian Foreign Service have undertaken a long march to the present day from the days in which the “stain of sex determination” prevailed, where married women diplomats could not continue to work, where you could not apply to join the foreign service if you were married, and where you could scarcely aspire to the top positions of responsibility in the service. The famous Supreme Court case of Ambassador C.B. Muthamma, a pioneering woman member of the Indian Foreign Service, is an example.

In fact, it is little wonder that the inspiration for women in post-independent India to enter public service was provided by women like Ambassadors Muthamma and Pandit, Lakshmi Menon (the first woman minister of state for external affairs) and the unique Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Here is the latter speaking of an Indian worldview in the years prior to independence, in a voice far ahead of her times and in a tone even more progressive than the male stalwarts leading the freedom struggle: she points to India’s “insular peninsular outline” as having

“widened into the global, with an increasing awareness that we and the rest of the world are but part of a single sphere, that our destinies are inevitably linked, our paths interlocked…It is not idle curiosity or cheap sentiment which shapes the question that haunts and harasses every diplomat like a family ghost: ‘What about India?’ We may well say ‘Everything’… India is more than a test, it is a symbol. It is the mirror in which the world sees the shape of things to be…It is towards a world which recognises the right of every nation to determine and rule its own destiny but in a cooperative world order, that the women of India and of the world have to strive for, if humanity is ever to enjoy decency, peace and happiness.”

Any consideration of the feminist voice in foreign policy cannot also ignore the life and times of Indira Gandhi, India’s first woman prime minister. Her example is particularly interesting because she led the country at a time of momentous developments concerning not only domestic politics but also India’s external interface, both regionally and internationally. If her foreign policy reflected feminist qualities, these were difficult to discern. She had little choice but to demonstrate that she could lead like a man in a man’s world, intent on establishing that her pragmatism in politics set her apart from the romantic idealism of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mrs. Coretta King, wife of U.S. Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. shaking hands with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on January 24, 1969. Credit: US Embassy India

Mrs Coretta King, wife of U.S. Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. shaking hands with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on January 24, 1969. Credit: US Embassy India

One can argue that leading a democracy as complex as India’s is a daunting task in the best of times, and that Gandhi through the power of her example did prove that women were as capable as their male counterparts in demonstrating leadership at critical times in a nation’s history and in exceptionally difficult circumstances, as the events leading to the birth of Bangladesh showed. She was, through her actions, creating a path for women of succeeding generations to follow. In many ways, Gandhi’s success made it possible for middle-class India to suspend disbelief about women entering the arena of politics, national security and diplomacy, and pursuing full-fledged careers in public service.

The question, however, still remains on whether women bring a purely feminine-oriented perspective to the conduct of public policy. The issue would be different if the number of women in public policy decision-making was to substantially increase and if women are no longer in a minority. That becomes the inflection point for greater confidence and assertiveness in speaking out or leaning in, in a manner that is incorporative of concerns about the impact of decisions taken on gender equality.

An Afghan woman had this to say recently about the future of her country: “We are not responsible for the destruction” she said, “but we should be responsible for the reconstruction.” The former British foreign secretary, William Hague, said in 2016, “The full social, economic and political empowerment of women is the greatest strategic prize of the 21st century.”

Feminists can come from both genders. The important thing is that we recognise 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. We, the people must include she, the people.

Nirupama Rao is a Global Fellow at The Wilson Center in Washington DC and is a former foreign secretary and ambassador of India. This article is excerpted from the 16th Sidhartha Maitra Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of California at Santa Cruz on February 23, 2018.