Geopolitics Public Lecture 2-01

[REFSA Geopolitics Public Lecture] Feminist Foreign Policy in a World of Crisis

Date: 22 December, Thursday                       

Time: 4:00PM – 5:30PM (MYT)

Online seminar: ZOOM & Facebook Live


Featuring Panelist: Dr. Nurliana Kamaruddin, Deputy Executive Director, Asia-Europe Institute (AEI), University Malaya

On December 22, 2022, REFSA hosted its second public lecture as part of its Geopolitics Series in collaboration with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). Titled “Feminist Foreign Policy in a World of Crisis”, the lecture was delivered by Dr. Hoo Chiew Ping, Senior Lecturer at the Strategic Studies and International Relations programme, National University of Malaysia. She was joined by Dr. Nurliana Kamaruddin, Deputy Executive Director of the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. The session was moderated by Tan E Hun, Executive Director of REFSA. 

Though feminist foreign policy may sound like a novel concept to many, Sweden became the first country in the world to launch a dedicated feminist foreign policy in 2014, prompting other countries to do the same in subsequent years. This public lecture aimed to explore and understand the development of feminist foreign policy in Western and non-Western societies, and whether Malaysia and Southeast Asia could benefit from such a perspective and approach.

Why Feminist Foreign Policy?

The lecture began by posing the following question: why do we need to talk about women in peace and security (WPS), and in extension, women in foreign policy? The response came in two parts.

First, Dr Hoo deconstructed feminism as a concept which aims to empower women and to achieve gender equality, rather than being misunderstood as an anti-men ideology. In other words, women’s rights are simply human rights. In any ongoing conflict, women’s roles are all-encompassing: they can be from the military (as soldiers), victims of war, and humanitarian aid providers. Throughout each stage of conflict, women’s basic human needs are under duress just as any other individual, by being prone to abuse and loss of life. 

That being said, women require special attention as they often suffer from injustices that are unique to their gender identity and societal circumstances, such as disproportionately being victims of (often, but not exclusively, sexual) violence. As Dr. Nurliana posits, women are often simply received as collateral damage of war rather than being regarded on equal ground with their counterparts of the opposite gender. Refugees, for instance, are often victims of sexual violence, and rape is also often weaponised in war crimes and acts of terrorism. As another example, the atrocities committed by Boko Haram against women and girls received little attention until it was exposed by international journalists and finally received condemnation from world leaders. 

Second, the need for feminist foreign policy is also evident through the representation of women as contributors in international affairs and policy making. Traditionally, women play a subservient role in a patriarchal society. Women’s vulnerabilities in conflicts are often ignored, sidelined, and silenced through the lack of representation in media reports and public discourse. Hence, their plights are often overlooked and even forgotten, especially  when decision makers in policy actions are predominantly men. A feminist foreign policy would ensure women are well-represented during policy debates, thereby being able to produce policy outcomes that will address issues of gender biases.

It is also important to highlight women’s contributions to peace processes and conflict resolutions. From humanitarian intervention to peacemaking, women enforcers can provide security assurance to women victims, ensuring their safety and well beings. Historically, women in conflict scenarios have acted as first-aid providers alongside medical doctors; prominent figures such as radiologist Marie Curie’s invention played an important part in providing emergency medical detection, which continues to shape medical practices in conflicts until today. It only makes sense to acknowledge and empower women on the ground, as they play active and constructive roles beyond being victims and recipients of aid in various conflict and war scenarios. 

WPS emerged as an important agenda because women with the same level of expertise as men are often sidelined and receive little attention in the policymaking process, even in global governance bodies such as the United Nations. Women have always been part and parcel of international affairs on both sides of conflict and in all aspects of peace processes. Naturally, the value of their expertise and input should transcend their gender identity.

Following the rise of women’s agency in Western societies, the United Nations declared 1975–1985 as the United Nations Decade for Women, which was the first time women’s roles were acknowledged in the UN for their contribution to global governance. In peace advocacy, more women have been empowered to start movements or initiate peace processes (such as Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), “Women Against the Bomb”, “Women Strike for Peace”, “Women Cross DMZ”, and other movements), providing alternative perspectives typically unseen by men due to their awareness of the unique plights faced by women and children in different conflict scenarios. To contrast with Western experiences, the majority of Southeast Asian countries acknowledge women’s leadership roles better than their Western and Northeast Asian counterparts. Not only are women considered equal alongside their male counterparts, they are also generally well-acknowledged across different sectors from national leadership to security and societal issues.

Women’s Empowerment in International Relations

As a discussant, Dr Nurliana provided additional insights from her observations. She highlighted that the absence of women in decision making processes remains a persistent problem in international affairs. For example, despite negotiations involving women having proven to produce a more positive impact, women in international relations professions are still being subjected to patriarchal pandering even within positions of power. A feminist approach to international affairs must include empowering the role of women as active players, giving them visibility as well as equal footing in a male-dominated field. The idea that women’s rights are non-negotiable must be mainstreamed. 

Similarly, on the battlefield, relatively fewer women military officers and generals also means the female perspective is less likely to be taken into account, which leads to poor female participation in conflict resolution. For instance, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the hierarchical and cultural discriminations prevent women from receiving proper recognition within their own countries, causing such conflicts to continue being highly militarised. 

Feminist Foreign Policy in ASEAN and Malaysia

Responding to an audience’s question, Dr Hoo commended ASEAN and Malaysia for taking initiative in promoting the WPS agenda and embracing the concept of feminist foreign policy. Its results include the ASEAN Regional Plan of Action on Women, Peace and Security and the recurring workshop for Mainstreaming Women, Peace and Security at the regional level. Locally, the previous Pakatan Harapan government was an example of how women “hold up half the sky” in global governance and policy, with public figures such as YB Hannah Yeoh, YB Nurul Izzah and YB Yeo Bee Yin being very well received by the ministerial officials for their tremendous efforts during their short tenure at the ministries. Therefore, there is hope that the current Unity Government will continue to spearhead similar initiatives in the long-run.

Dr. Hoo also highlighted that foreign policymaking is largely an elitist process in Malaysia, which leads to a lack of feedback system for the public to effect changes in foreign policy. However, at the international level, the professionally trained diplomats are well-empowered to assert our country’s perspective and national interests. There is a healthy number of capable women diplomats within the government who have represented our nation well and they have expertise which garnered national and international respect. With the former foreign minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin promoting women’s involvement in foreign policy through the WPS agenda, even specifically highlighting feminist foreign policy, it is with hope that the former diplomats and policy planning officials who believe in these causes would continue to advance the agenda.

Dr. Nurliana also cautioned that conservatism still exists within the public policy discourse in Malaysia, which is largely a result of economic and structural conditions that our country currently faces. Engaging both genders in dialogues, rather than creating an “us versus them” in the conversation on gender equality, is the way to go. 

Feminism in Malaysia also requires us to change female perception of women in the workforce, not just men’s perception. It should also be noted that at times women also reinforce gender discrimination against their own gender, a key example being zero women nominated in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Dr. Nurliana also stressed that in the debate of quantity versus quality, an equal playing ground needs to be normalised with equal number of representation, so that more women are structurally empowered to break the glass ceiling. Engagement and amplification of women in international affairs must be purposeful, such as Australia and New Zealand’s approach to women in international affairs. 

In empowering women minorities, such as the orang asli, affirmative action can be a short-term solution. However, constitutional recognition is required in order to further empower them. Donations for women and refugees should also be accounted for in order to support their future generations. In general, future development should require new paradigms for policy, and breaking gender-based approaches.

There were, of course, many other insights gained throughout the lecture and panel discussion. Be sure to check out the full recording on Facebook and don’t miss out!

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