Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hillary Clinton and Feminist Diplomacy

This article appeared in the Taipei Times today, fed from The Guardian: Hillary Clinton Is Proving That a Feminist Foreign Policy Is Possible - And Works

I enjoyed reading it, and strongly support the publication of similar articles on women in foreign policy. For those interested in reading further on women and diplomacy, I recommend a book I was given a decade or so ago entitled
"All Her Paths Are Peace", and strongly recommend ordering books from abroad from The Book Depository. Free worldwide shipping, none of this $26 bullcrap from Amazon. **** you, Amazon.

Someday soon I am intending to write a review with my thoughts on the book above, but will save that for another post and link it back here.

I also, of course, support a feminist foreign policy, simply because feminist = equal. It doesn't mean "women above men" or "women given priority over men" or "the advancement of a feminazi agenda". It simply means a foreign policy that tips the scales from their previous unevenness - that of a preference for issues of importance to men - to something more balanced and therefore fairer and more whole: giving new, equal weight to issues primarily affecting women.

To that end, Bunting is absolutely correct in stating:

Indeed, it became a credibility requirement for any women with a senior foreign or defence brief to give a wide berth to anything with a whiff of being a woman's issue. Women had to work extra hard to look tough on the world stage. Meanwhile, women's issues were parked in the softer brief of international development.


For a security agenda traditionally dominated by weaponry and military expertise, this is radical stuff. It draws on a powerful consensus built up behind the overwhelming evidence that women are vital to a range of key global concerns.

I do find the following passage rather interesting, and it hits close to home (as in geographically, not regarding my life in particular):

Even in that most delicate and crucial relationship with China – on which the world's attention will be fixed this week for the Chinese president's visit to the US – Clinton has gone out of her way to press feminist issues. In China's case, she has highlighted the country's growing gender imbalance caused by the high abortion rate of female foetuses.

A raging, and fascinating, debate brewed in the comments over that one: a culture that condones the abortion of fetuses
simply based on the fact that they are female, coupled with a law that is intended to reduce population but has the oft-ignored side effect of encouraging this tragic practice, is inherently anti-female and worthy of a good feminist fight. On the other hand, so is the right of mothers to choose. Which one gets more traction here? Can we take away (or encourage the taking away of) the right of Chinese mothers to choose whether to carry their babies to term, because the choice they may make is based on a cultural directive that we find repugnant?

Is it any more 'moral', 'equal' or 'good' for doctors to refuse to divulge the sex of a fetus in China or India, where the chances of that fetus being aborted if female is high...but perfectly OK to divulge gender information in countries where abortion-as-gender-preference is unlikely? I can't say "unheard-of": there are plenty of immigrant communities in the developed world that may well take advantage of abortion rights in their new home for the purposes of a very Old World belief.

...and would we feel the same way if the 'information' regarded the health of the baby or the mother?

This part fascinated me, as well:

Many of her statements can be routed back to the idealistic internationalism of 70s feminism. Astonishingly, she has managed to bring the feminism for which she was loathed in the early 90s (as the first lady who didn't stay home and bake cookies) into the heart of the state department and foreign policy, and is still clocking high opinion poll ratings.

I attribute this to a slow and I hope permanent change in public feelings and discourse, thanks in no small part to Clinton herself. Compared to the lives of our mothers, the '90s was a haven of equality during my formative and teen years. Yet, even a whiff of female empowerment in government institutions, from political wives no less, was received with vitriol and spite. Contrary to what you may see in idiotic Internet comments, things are changing.

I want to add here that I admire Clinton for her feminism and strength. Do I agree with her every move, or many of her other policy goals and motives as a US Senator and now Secretary of State? No. That is a different debate. I have, however, noticed a weird rip tide in the sea changes of American civil rights: slavery ended, and many of the women at the Seneca Falls Convention hoped that women's rights would soon follow. It took another 60 years for that seminal right, the right to vote, to be granted to women. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights crusade of the 1960s, and while women did have a similar wave of feminist outcry, it wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that it gained more common acceptance...and we still haven't managed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

So, we elect and mostly accept Obama, and yet the idea of a female president still sparks rage in many. Of course, the idea of a black president also sparks rage in some racist individuals, but society compels them to mostly keep it silent or try to frame it in other ways (not that this makes it any more acceptable: my point is that racism in its pure form is now unacceptable culturally). It is still relatively accepted to attack a female politician from a sexist perspective, and to do so openly, with no veiled words or alt-framed arguments.

More related to this article, a public official is commended for moving forward the cause of civil rights, but advocating for women's rights, globally or locally, is still "risky". It's still something that even female representatives and cabinet members have to approach with care. I applaud Clinton for taking that old paradigm and smashing it to bits.

But I digress.

Finally, I found this interesting:

But for all the enthusiasm, it's clear there are major constraints on this agenda. It gets nowhere in the Middle East, while Afghanistan presents a big challenge – Clinton has insisted peace cannot come at the cost of women's rights. But the signs aren't good that she can hold this line. Meanwhile, there are critics who worry that her advocacy could backfire and antagonise conservative societies, and even prove inimical to US interests.

This is true, and I could see it creating a problem in the future in China - although Clinton is getting away with it now. China has always been touchy about our saber-rattling on their human rights record, and the recent Nobel award to Liu Xiaobo will mean that they are particularly sensitive. It is not inconceivable that when Hu reaches the USA, or at some point in the future, he'll group our pressing of women's issues and human rights together into one messy package of "stay out of our business, you are hurting the feelings of the Chinese people".

I do love how the CCP believes that "this hurts the feelings of the Chinese people" is an acceptable foreign policy, by the way.

This is where Third Wave feminism could prove crucial to a feminist foreign policy globally: in some countries, pressing women's issues gets you somewhere (it's making inroads in India, slightly slower ones in China due to their One Child Policy, for example). In others, it creates pushback that the US can't afford. A feminist perspective more in line with "do what you can, but respect the culture you're dealing with, and trust the women of that culture to make decisions that are right for them, even if they are not right for you" would probably earn more traction for Clinton in the Middle East and other Asian and African countries where women's rights are lagging.

It is true that in many of these places, women can't make the best decisions for them, because they simply aren't allowed to. Although I hate to admit that progress may come with compromises here, I'd say pushing a women's rights agenda that encourages women to do what they can within the framework they're allowed, and hoping that such steps lead the way to eradicating the oppressive framework in the future is the best - possibly the only - way forward.

The example of the cooking stoves in the article is a good one. Clinton not going to suddenly overturn the sexist culture of the Congo by telling their leaders that it should happen. You're not going to get women out of the kitchen (and men in the kitchen) just by saying it ought to be so. By raising awareness and funding to buy new stoves for women to reduce deaths by smoke inhalation and reduce sexual violence while collecting firewood, however, you've taken a step. One can only hope that that step will lead to others.

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