Ways of seeing feminist foreign policy


Adopted largely by the West, FFP advocacy needs to address Global South dilemmas, contradictions, and tensions for adoption in non-West geographies.

This essay covers some dilemmas, contradictions, and tensions that emerge during the conceptualisation and advocacy of FFP in the Global South or will emerge in the due course of its implementation. Given the reality of heightened security concerns that many Global South countries face, it brings into question the sustainability or even suitability of absolute pacifism as part of FFP advocacy in countries facing legitimate security threats. It points out contradictions that may emerge when FFP is advocated and/ or adopted in countries where the status of women and minority rights is painfully poor. Besides, it delves into contradictions and tensions between different understandings of ‘feminist’ foreign policy held by various stakeholders like the state and civil society actors.

In August 2021, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar acknowledged the necessity of a ‘gender-balanced’ Indian foreign policy, one that welcomes a more proactive participation of women, is sensitive to their interests and applies a feminist gaze to foreign policy making (Panicker, 2021). However, he went on to caution against the simplistic emulation of feminist foreign policy (FFP) as practiced in an increasing number of western countries[i].

If such a framework were to work in India, according to Jaishankar, it should be allowed to grow organically in an ecosystem informed by India’s cultural and historical context rather than that of the West. This essay dives into some dilemmas, contradictions, and tensions that emerge during the conceptualisation and advocacy of FFP in the Global South or will emerge in the due course of its implementation. To begin with, it explores the politics of language and what implications labels like feminist/ gender-balanced/ gender-sensitive/ inclusive foreign policy have on the shape and form of FFP. Next, this essay explores the lineage of feminist peace ethics vis a vis FFP. Given the reality of heightened security concerns that many Global South countries face, it brings into question the sustainability or even suitability of absolute pacifism as part of FFP advocacy in countries facing legitimate security threats.

The essay also points out contradictions that may emerge when FFP is advocated and/ or adopted in countries where the status of women and minority rights is painfully poor. It reflects valid concerns regarding the motive behind FFP adoption (rhetorical vs. transformative) and legitimacy (is it acceptable, or even ethical, for a country to advocate feminist positions outside of its borders when poor standards prevail back home?).

Further, the essay delves into contradictions and tensions between different understandings of ‘feminist’ foreign policy held by various stakeholders like the state and civil society actors—what happens when ‘feminism’ means different things to different actors and how can such contradictions be reconciled?  Finally, the essay discusses scepticism around FFP being a western export to Global South countries and ways to circumvent such accusations, which can stall the advance of FFP in non-western countries.

The discussion below makes the case for a break from the unfortunate tradition of marginalising foreign policy considerations in feminist reflections on foreign policy (Rajagopalan 2012), especially those of the Global South. FFP discussions that place both foreign policy imperatives and feminist ethics at their centre can contribute to new ways of thinking about FFP pathways— globally and locally. Such discussions lead to explorations for the best possible resolution of contradictions and ensure that resulting policies are more in sync with the geopolitical, security and historical contexts of non-western countries, and therefore more assimilable.

Gender mainstreaming vs. ‘feminist’: Do labels matter?

The politics of language is at the centre of many policy changes. In India, feminist ideology and the term ‘feminism’ can evoke scepticism. Although such discomfort is not unique to India and has also been seen in the case of Germany and Canada with respect to their FFPs[ii] (Kubernein Initiative, 2022), the term ‘feminist’ foreign policy can be a double-edged sword in countries where androcentrism is deeply entrenched and therefore difficult to counter. On the one hand, conversations around FFP can work to introduce sceptics to the nuances of feminism, on the other, they may trigger opposition to anything labelled feminist, preclude important conversations and by extension necessary policy changes.

Given the scepticism (or discomfort), some alternatives to the term ‘feminist’ have been used in policy conversations. These include gender-balanced, gender-sensitive and inclusive foreign policy. These terms no doubt have far less ideological opposition to them, however, none of them quite substitute the term ‘feminist’. When adhered to in letter and spirit, feminist policies imbibe values like reflexivity and inclusivity (Aggestam et al., 2019, p. 29). Feminist policies also go much further than gender mainstreaming or equal representation and aim to identify, question, and deconstruct power hierarchies that are assumed to be natural (Zilla, 2022, p. 3). Feminism goes beyond advocating simplistic inclusion of women in existing structural hierarchies as ‘add-ons’. According to Zilla in the context of the use of the term ‘feminist’ foreign policy, “the adjective feminist underlines the intention to go further than just working towards gender equality: Not just to be reformist within existing structures but structurally disruptive and transformative” (Zilla, 2022, p. 3).

Advocates of FFP must consider if the label of ‘feminism’ is productive or counterproductive, especially in androcentric countries like India where state feminism is not robust yet. This would depend to a large extent on engaging with members of India’s foreign policy institutions to understand their views on ‘feminist’ foreign policy and the kind of changes they envisage for India’s foreign policy structures, if any at all. Strategically, it is not bad politics to drop the label of ‘feminism’ if transformative aspects, which are informed by feminism, are included in future official foreign policy documents.

Security imperatives vs. pacifist feminist goals: FFP in a militarised region

Some FFPs adopt a proactively pacifist stance with respect to security and defence issues. For instance, Sweden’s FFP (which was officially rolled back in 2022 by the new centre-right regime) made its pacifist position clear in official documents. It included exercising “strict controls” on the export of military equipment and referenced the Arms Trade Treaty, specifically Article 7.4. This Article requires exporting states to consider the risk of its military equipment “being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children”.

Even when such pacifist goals are not stated in official FFP documents, countries receive criticism for continuing with arms trade and growing defence expenditure despite adopting an FFP. To many feminist experts then, FFP necessitates a pacifist stance, which, if not adhered to, elicits a troubling contradiction – between feminist anti-war/ peace ethics and security imperatives that require military action[iii]. Most countries have sidestepped this feminist peace versus national security quagmire by excluding feminist reflections on traditional defence and security policies in their FFPs and instead linking FFP with national efforts on the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Resolutions (seen in the case of Canada, France and Spain).

Western middle powers[iv]  countries that form a majority of FFP proponents, and FFP advocates from these countries – may find absolute pacifist positions assimilable to larger FFP conversations because until recently security perspectives in these countries were informed by relatively stable geostrategic conditions, military superiority (due to advanced military technology) and in the case of much of Europe, the security guarantee offered by a military alliance-NATO.

However, the recent Ukraine-Russia conflict has revealed the limits of absolute pacifism within FFP frameworks as countries are forced to face the “dilemma between feminist peace ethics and pragmatic security concerns” (Aggestam et al., 2019, p. 28). For instance, in the backdrop of rising Russia-Ukraine tensions, Sweden applied for NATO membership in May 2022[v] and Germany rolled back its policy of not selling or sending arms to conflict areas, as well as the ban it had placed on the sale of German made arms by other EU countries to Ukraine.

In contrast to the relative stability of western middle powers’ recent past, states in the Global South have been facing security threats, which require significant defence expenditure, large armies, and military action. This is precisely the case with India, which is locked in a territorial dispute with both Pakistan and China.

As western proponents of FFP like Germany and Sweden move away from pacifist positions in the face of an active conflict and non-western perspectives and find space in global FFP conversations, the urgent need for deeper feminist reflection on ‘relational understanding’[vi] that inform present FFP frameworks and serious consideration of Global South security dilemmas which can inform new FFP pathways becomes apparent. Instead of being locked in the unrealistic and self-defeating binaries of pacifism versus militarism, advocates should consider de-hyphenating absolute pacifism from FFP advocacy and seriously explore what feminist regulation of military intervention, defence expenditure, export of military equipment can look like when informed by adverse set of security dilemmas such as those faced by Ukraine and India today.

Domestic status of women and minorities vs. espousing feminist aims outside national borders

Although the first FFP was adopted by Sweden – a country known for its domestic feminist policies and recognised as a ‘feminist state’ – FFP has since been adopted by countries who have a chequered reputation with respect to feminist goals on the domestic front. For instance, Michaela Conley, while writing for the online feminist publication PassBlue, cites the example of Mexico. The country has some of the worst statistics on violence against women in the world and has been battling with the problem of femicides and adopted an FFP in 2020. She cites a 2021 Amnesty International report, which found that “at least 10 girls and women are killed every day in Mexico, and authorities often fail to investigate properly” (Conley, p. 8) to raise questions on the motivations and ethics of adopting FFP.

This invites the question: What are the necessary conditions for adopting an FFP and is proactive state feminism on the domestic front one of them?  Despite the duality pointed out in Mexico’s case, its FFP warrants wider support as it does not shy away from mentioning domestic structural inequalities. It identifies the location of its FFP within domestic institutions primarily and uses it as a way to align the internal dimensions of its external action with feminist principles. This position is put forward by Martha Delgado, Mexico’s undersecretary for multilateral affairs and human rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in her paper on Mexico’s FFP.

Without feminist action on the domestic front, states that adopt an FFP may be accused of trying to “gain legitimacy through this gendered discourse of empowerment” (Thomson, 2020, p. 427).  However, feminism is not a station to arrive at but a process of reflecting and disrupting structural inequalities. Therefore, insisting on prior precedent of proactive state feminism as a precondition for FFP ideation may preclude feminist engagements where they may be needed more urgently. Mexico’s case highlights what meaningful FFP may look like in countries where state feminism is not robust because it turns a feminist gaze to the internal aspects of its foreign policy as well. In this way, it showcases how FFP can be an important vehicle of feminist transformation, both at home and abroad.

Contradictions in civil society and foreign policy community’s understandings of ‘feminist’ foreign policy.

Emerging critiques of various FFPs[vii] point to a gap between understandings of feminism held by civil society actors and those reflected in official FFP documents. Civil society ambitions for FFP as captured in the consensus definition brought out by Lyric Thompson, Spogmay Ahmed and Tanya Khokhar include prioritising peace, gender equality and environmental integrity and upholding human rights aimed at disrupting colonial, racist, patriarchal and male dominated power structures (Lyric Thompson et al., p. 26).

However, national FFPs routinely fail to uphold these criteria. For instance, Morton questions whether Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) can be “truly feminist if it is simply cordoned off to one section of the government’s foreign policy?” And he goes on to ask whether the FIAP may be “little more than a thin veneer of feminism over a status-quo foreign policy” since planned FFP reforms stay away from “trade, diplomacy, migration, and defence policies” (Morton et al., 2020, p. 347).

Zilla on the other hand, critiques the narrow focus of the now rolled back Swedish FFP on women and girls specifically. She states, “If a FFP is not designed to be systemic and merely represents an agenda to promote women’s rights in the areas of diplomacy and development cooperation, it will inevitably fall short when measured against the ambitions of a feminism seeking transformation rather than reform.”

States may choose to circumvent certain feminist ambitions[viii] to a) sidestep tensions between feminist ethics and strategic imperatives, b) capability limitations – translating feminist ideals into policy that can be operationalised and measured is a complex process, and c) co-opt gender discourse to promote their national identity as a liberal state whilst undertaking minimal transformative action. For instance, on the last point, Thomson notes that Sweden and Canada are “embedding liberal feminist ideas into national self-identity and self-promotion and using these ideas as a way to distinguish them from other nations, particularly to suggest that they are more progressive” (Thomson, 2020, p. 434).

Whatever be the motivations behind a ‘watered-down’ FFP, the presence of a ‘gap’ between expectations and interpretations shows that states hold larger ownership over the shape and form of FFPs. It, therefore, elicits questions about if and how state interpretations can be informed and regulated by feminist ethics? In this context, a proactive civil society, which engages state institutions and regularly provides feminist insights on better foreign policy making can play a crucial role, provided the government in question welcomes such open debates and suggestions.

Localising international norms? Addressing scepticism around origin of FFP

External affairs minister Jaishankar’s remarks betrayed an underlying scepticism regarding the simplistic import of western FFP models to the non-West. This is a valid concern as most FFPs (except those of Mexico and Libya[ix]) have been adopted by western democracies. As stated earlier, countries in the Global South have different geopolitical pressures, cultures, and histories. Such differences warrant different FFP pathways.

In the context of non-West FFP pathways, two things are important: first, pragmatic and balanced engagement by advocates on foreign policy imperatives peculiar to each country; and second, acknowledging and addressing domestic sources of inequalities endemic to each country. Real Global South imprint over FFP can only be asserted (or claimed) when advocates go further than finding common cause with their western colleagues. They need to articulate feminist reflections on the foreign policy environments of their countries, identify sources of structural inequality within their societies (as Mexico has in its FFP) and undertake meaningful ways of addressing both through FFP. 

It is also important to discard older ways of thinking that seek to ‘localise’ progressive/ feminist policies and “accelerate their uptake” in non-western countries[x]. Such perspectives imply that the Global North is the natural home of feminist policies and countries elsewhere should ‘adopt’ or ‘adapt’ these policies to suit their own contexts. However, since FFP is still in its earliest days of conceptualisation and has no institutional home that furthers historic North-South hierarchies (like the UN), FFP presents an opportunity for non-western countries to create their own unique framework that steps out of the shadows of western feminism in pursuit of feminist and foreign policy goals.


Attempts to de-westernise the global FFP agenda will require the following two questions to be answered first:  What kind of shadow does western feminism cast on FFP making in the Global South? And what newer ways of thinking about FFP does a Global South context inform? This essay answers the first question through the careful consideration of Global South dilemmas, contradictions, and tensions as they arise in FFP advocacy, adoption, and operationalisation in non-West geographies. Not all issues discussed here present themselves as barriers to the advance of FFP currently, but they may become more apparent when conversations around FFP reach further into official domains, thereby necessitating an eventual resolution.

On the second question, the essay shows how meaningful feminist reflections on foreign policy in the Global South are key to de-westernising FFP. Such reflections should however go beyond common anti-patriarchal North-South solidarities and de-hyphenate Global South FFP constructions from issues, capabilities, and agendas of the Global North. Such non-western explorations in the early days of global FFP conversations will work to expand the scope of how FFP is imagined and applied across the world in the days to come.

Lastly, it is crucial to point out that as the concept and methodologies of FFP are still in their nascent stage, joining global FFP conversations today is in the interest of Global South countries. It allows them to assert Global South ownership before FFP is concretised in its western avatar(s). In this context, this essay is intended to stimulate a nuanced dialogue amongst a cross section of stakeholders including sceptics and fence sitters to urgently advance FFP ideation in India and the larger Global South.



[i] At the time of publication, seven countries had officially adopted a FFP and one (Sweden) had rolled it back following a change to right of centre government in 2022. In addition to these seven countries, many others have announced their intention to adopt a FFP but are yet to bring out any official documents providing further details on it. There are also some countries that are applying a feminist or gender-sensitive lens to specific aspects of their foreign and development policies but not foreign policy as a whole. This essay focusses specifically on those countries who have well-developed FFP frameworks brought out through official FFP documents.

[iii] For instance, see Aggestam et al. 2019b, Conley 2022, Pallapothu 2022, Fiona Robinson 2021 and Sundström & Elgström 2019. See also Assad and Tausendfreund 2022 for a critique of the expectation of ‘absolute’ pacifism in the context of German FFP.

[iv] In International Relations, countries that cannot be labelled as great or small powers are called middle powers. Such categorisation of countries into great, middle, and small powers is usually made based on military strength, size of economy, size of population, diplomatic influence etc. and helps to overcome simplistic categorization of countries into great and small powers.

[v] This was prior to the rollback of its FFP by the new right of centre government in late 2022.

[vi] See True (2010) for a discussion on relational understanding-perspectives informed by different social and geopolitical contexts, not just one’s own. 

[vii] See Scheyer and Kumskova, 2022; Morton et al., 2020; Thomson, 2020.

[viii] Although the reasons for watered-down feminist engagement on foreign policy are detailed here, it is not to suggest that only negative engagements exist. States may in fact also choose to be proactive on the ‘gender’ issue in some instances. See Basu (2016) for a detailed analysis of state behavior at the international level when ‘Gender’ is considered to be an issue of national interest.

[ix] In 2021, Libya announced that it would be adopting an FFP, but there has been no further policy movement on the same post this announcement.

[x] For instance, the UN’s women, peace and security resolutions urge ‘localisation’ through National Action Plans.



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This article first appeared here: in.boell.org

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