India’s commitments to international agreements towards gender equality show the country’s tremendous potential to make crucial advances in feminist foreign policy
The discourse around Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) has gained tremendous traction over the last couple of years, with several countries around the globe championing its merits and efficacy. A closer reading of the concept reveals one very interesting aspect of it: Its definition and understanding are always influenced by the context in which it is discussed. For instance, in a report discussing the scope of feminist foreign policy for the European Union (EU) with respect to its relations with Iran, the concept’s idea was rooted in the remarkable Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda of the United Nations (UN) that stresses on the gendered impact of conflict. Foreign policy in this respect focuses heavily on various stakeholders and their involvement in ensuring gender equality and securing women’s human rights.
While there is no doubt about the merits of this conceptualisation, deriving a universal definition from just this aspect narrows the scope of its applicability. In order for foreign policies to thus be feminist in nature, socio-political landscapes and lived experiences of each country need to be taken into consideration. In simpler words, the idea of FFP needs to be tailored to each country’s specific political needs and backgrounds, making it all the more important for India to derive its own definition of the concept. With the gradual expansion in India’s global footprint and presence in the UN, the potential it carries to be the flagbearer of change is immense. The main objective of this article is to explore this potential and understand the gaps India needs to overcome to harness it.
The idea of FFP needs to be tailored to each country’s specific political needs and backgrounds, making it all the more important for India to derive its own definition of the concept.
An ideal definition of FFP in the Indian context would, thus, involve dissecting the term into ‘Feminist’ and ‘Foreign Policy’, and explore their place in India’s political attitudes and opinions. In the simplest of terms, feminist perspectives in international relations call for deconstructing dominating power structures that create policies benefitting a limited set of people. It seeks to “challenge systems of oppression, marginalisation, and exclusion” that perpetuate inequality. On the other side, understanding foreign policy is not just limited to how countries interact with one another, but also how distinctive political cultures and schools of thought merge together for the mutual benefit and larger good of the society. Each country’s foreign policy is a reflection of their values and the way it is constructed can fully explain their stance on any policy-related matter.
In the Indian context, a ‘Feminist Foreign Policy’ would, thus, imply the deconstruction of power structures that thrive on all kinds of inequalities. It would revolve around the experiences of people who deal with constant barriers towards accessing their basic human rights. Involvement of women, in this respect, does not conform to gender essentialist standards. Their equal representation indicates the agency they hold and shatters the myth on how foreign policy is a male-dominated field. In other words, involvement of women and focus towards ensuring equality would help question the hierarchical system of international relations at its roots. In addition to this, key aspects of FFP in India would rely on the human security school of thought and should include a dedicated commitment towards securing peace, enhanced accessibility to basic human rights and allocation of resources dedicated specifically to achieve these outcomes.
On paper, India’s commitments towards gender equality seem highly impressive. Some examples of this include its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993; India’s reiteration towards implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 5 on gender equality; providing financial aid and assistance to multilateral programmes focusing on women’s empowerment; and the most recent being India’s membership in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 2020. Furthermore, India’s contribution to UN peacekeeping efforts, especially in Liberia in 2007 (by sending an all-women peacekeeping contingent) is often heralded by the international community as their way of supporting the ideas put forth by the WPS Agenda, even though India has not formally ratified it.
A deeper inquiry into India’s dynamic with the discourse on feminist foreign policy and commitments towards gender equality reveals how India’s efforts tend to address the cause on a superficial level.
However, there is more than what meets the eye. A deeper inquiry into India’s dynamic with the discourse on feminist foreign policy and commitments towards gender equality reveals how India’s efforts tend to address the cause on a superficial level. There are several examples that elucidate this point better. Firstly, India managed to appoint their first female Minister of External Affairs only in 2014, when Sushma Swaraj completed her full term of five years. Secondly, while India may have ratified the CEDAW, it has not ratified its ‘optional protocol’ that allows people to directly approach the CEDAW committee if the national systems fail to uphold the principles mentioned in the agreement. Thirdly, India’s performance in Liberia was also critiqued on being gender essentialist in nature since the women peacekeeping contingent was mostly involved in providing care and support. Lastly, high numbers of women in the total workforce of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) does not translate into high numbers of women being posted at high governance positions.
Existence of gaps between commitments on paper and the reality—with respect to India adopting a FFP and bringing gender parity in its foreign policy structure—can be attributed to two main reasons. The first involves how India’s actions are determined more by its political considerations than fulfilling its commitments. India justified not ratifying the WPS Agenda on the grounds of it “not being applicable to their country context”, even though it is home to several militarised regions vulnerable to internal conflict to this day. At the same time, this has also been seen as an outcome of India’s concern on outside interference in their domestic affairs, which also explains why they might not have ratified the Optional Protocol of the CEDAW.
India justified not ratifying the WPS Agenda on the grounds of it “not being applicable to their country context”, even though it is home to several militarised regions vulnerable to internal conflict to this day.
Secondly, the traditional misconceptions about women not being capable diplomats and foreign service agents stemming from patriarchal and misogynistic thought processes also hinders India’s implementation of gender equality commitments. Interestingly, the IFS rules of service reflect their inherent assumption of having only men being appointed to different positions. There is no mention of female pronouns in the document as it chalks out the duties and responsibilities for diplomats. Similarly, women’s access to opportunities as well as India’s efforts on inclusion of women in the mainstream policymaking are both along gendered lines. Efforts are still rooted in having quantitative inclusion by increasing the number of women but that does not translate into qualitative outcomes.
The on-going pandemic has shown the glaring need for India to adopt a human security approach in its conduct of foreign policy. One can say that half the battle is won since India does show its willingness to adopt the necessary measures to incorporate FFP in its international relations. In addition to showing how India is capable of dealing with a variety of issues at hand, adopting a FFP could also prove instrumental in reforming India’s domestic policy landscape and its treatment of women. While there is no doubt that India has to walk several miles to achieve this goal, it is crucial that it realises that now would be a perfect time to start that journey.
The author is a research intern at ORF.
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