India Must Move Towards a Feminist Foreign Policy

In a significant diplomatic victory, India was elected to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member on June 18 2020. As it assumed its seat in January 2021, India has committed to focus efforts on peacekeeping, peace-building and women’s inclusion. In September 2020, India also became a member of the prestigious UN Commission on the Status of Women. These diplomatic developments demonstrate that India’s foreign policy now envisages making a stronger commitment towards the goal of women empowerment.

For its aspirations to become actions, India should consider adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) framework. The FFP approach focuses on protecting the needs of marginalized and female groups by critically reflecting international power structures and putting human security at the heart of discussions. Adopting a FFP could offer India an opportunity to create a conducive environment for peace, eliminate domestic barriers against women, and assist in building stronger bilateral relationships.

The Lack of Women in Indian Foreign Policy Discourse

Adopting a FFP could offer India an opportunity to create a conducive environment for peace, eliminate domestic barriers against women, and assist in building stronger bilateral relationships.

India’s principal priority in its foreign policy play has been guaranteeing the security of its nation; in framing this goal, India has adopted a rather traditional and narrow view of security focused on the application of military force. This can in part be attributed to the fact that for centuries, men have monopolized the conduct of diplomacy and foreign relations within India. As such, India’s traditional, male-defined notion of security has remained intact, ignoring the particular needs of women, emphasizing hard security issues, and, in turn, eschewing soft-power diplomacy matters.

Women have traditionally been excluded from the conduct of foreign policy on the basis that a typical “female approach” would be more inclined to “soft-security” matters—including human rights, women empowerment, migration and trafficking—and distract from a focus on more important hard security issues. Inherently masculine thinking has accentuated this and helped sharpen a false hard-soft security dichotomy: defense, power and security have been reserved as male domains, where neither women nor soft security issues have much space. This conceptualization of soft and hard security concepts are constructions—in reality, no clear dichotomy exists between the two.

It is only over the past few decades that India’s foreign policy has begun incorporating some non-traditional security approaches. But the persistent marginalization of women—in India’s security domain and domestically—has made it impossible for India to properly implement these approaches.  Women continue to be under-represented in decision-making positions within India’s diplomatic mechanisms: women constitute only nine percent of India’s previous foreign secretaries and 18 percent of the current leadership in embassies and high commissions.

Owing to this restricted inclusion of women in the Indian Foreign Service establishments, gender mainstreaming efforts in India’s foreign policy have largely occurred under the development assistance paradigm, where specific programs are directed towards making women the drivers of inclusive growth. While some might argue that this approach is a step in the right direction for empowering women, it is only partially. Women are relegated predetermined roles rather than given the agency and equal rights to select into different tracks. In light of these challenges, it is vital that India pursue reforms not only at the organizational level but also in policymaking to build a more inclusive set-up, including by adopting a FFP framework.

Why a FFP framework?

The FFP approach provides steppingstones for India to follow en route to equality, common well-being, and peace. FFP builds on three central principles of feminist perspectives on diplomacy and security, which include broadening the understanding of security, decoding internal power relations, and acknowledging women’s political agency. In this sense, FFP is an effort to move beyond the traditional notions of war, peace, and development assistance to incorporate other arenas of foreign policy, including economics, finance, health, and the environment. By doing so, the framework looks at security in a more holistic way and incorporates the effects of its policies on women and marginalized groups.

The FFP framework can also provide India opportunities to eliminate existing barriers restricting the participation of women and other marginalized groups in India’s decision-making processes. An emphasis on women in leadership could catalyze an internal shift in India domestically and help subvert strictly defined patriarchal gender roles. Empirical research has suggested that gender equality is an important pre-requisite for the economic and social development of a nation, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the advancement of national security.

Prioritizing human security and gender issues might even put India in a better position to fulfill its global power ambitions. India currently ranks 112th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2019-2020. A FFP and improved performance in the global gender gap index could provide a major boon to India’s international relations by indicating the country’s commitment to women’s empowerment. As part of this, India could emerge as a role model for other countries by setting an example for achieving gender parity across various social indicators that are important for evaluating a country’s overall development. FFP would allow India to foster stronger ties with countries that have either adopted this framework—such as Mexico, Sweden, and Canada—or that are otherwise prominent advocates of gender equality. Considering that FFP is an all-inclusive approach, it could also push India to foster relations with other nations by engaging with civil society organizations that already have a strong human-rights standing in those countries.

Moving Forward with FFP

Considering that FFP is an all-inclusive approach, it could also push India to foster relations with other nations by engaging with civil society organizations that already have a strong human-rights standing in those countries.

FFP offers India a platform to deepen its commitments and make its presence felt as an emerging power, one that approaches the question of security from a holistic point-of-view. India’s past efforts signal that it is ready to move towards FFP—it deployed the first all female police force unit to Liberia in 2007; actively participated in UNSC debates on women, peace, and security; and strongly advocated for women’s inclusion in peacemaking and peacekeeping.

India can move towards a FFP by first actively appointing women to posts at various policy levels and involving them directly in the conduct of its foreign relations. Second, India can make a stronger commitment to include women at the decision-making tables, either through quota system or simply by ensuring that there is an equal representation of men and women. Third, India can collaborate with various international, regional, and national civil society organizations to ensure the proper implementation of the FFP framework.

India’s historical record on women’s rights—or rather, women’s subjugation—makes it unlikely to swiftly and effectively adopt a FFP framework. Patriarchal values are so deeply ingrained within Indian society that India has hardly managed to bring about a change in the system of inequity at home. As a result, it lacks the credibility to embrace feminist values in its global interactions. A FFP approach may not only assist India in fostering innovative ways of thinking, but also allow it to build upon its traditional view of security, facilitate diverse representation, and build long-term bilateral relations.


Image 1: Pixabay

Image 2: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in , Defence, democracy, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, India, Peace, Security, UN, Women's Rights

Akanksha Khullar

Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher with the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Her research focuses on gender issues, particularly on understanding the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and identifying how national, regional and international organisations contribute in shaping the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Akanksha is currently working on mapping out India’s engagement with UNSCR 1325 and analysing how women in India are participating in conflict-management and peacekeeping. Prior to joining IPCS, she has interned with several think-tanks, international organisations and government agencies. Akanksha holds a Masters of International Relations (Advanced) degree from the Australian National University.

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