Redefining Sovereignty and Building a Just World: Lessons for Feminist Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region

Irene M. Santiago

Feminist Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region an Online International Workshop Program, a Two-Day Immersive Online Discussion Workshop was conducted on 19 and 20 September 2023 by IMPRI, Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi.

Feminist Foreign Policy, relegated to the margins for decades, is slowly gaining much-deserved recognition as a result of the efforts of peacemaking, peacebuilding and peacekeeping by transnational feminist solidarity. A feminist foreign policy provides a powerful lens through which we can counter the violent global systems of power, i.e., patriarchy, racism, cultural nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, that leave the majority of the population in perpetual states of vulnerability and despair. It puts promoting gender equality and women’s rights at the centre of a nation’s diplomatic agenda.

Thank you to IMPRI for this invitation to speak on the important topic, “Feminist Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region”. My warm greetings to all of you attending this workshop online. Special greetings to my dear friend, Prof. Vibhuti Patel who extended this invitation to me on behalf of IMPRI.

First, full disclosure. I have never been a diplomat (and never will be as you will soon realize).
Neither am I a researcher. The point of view I take here is of one who has been an organizer of
mayhem and movements, in other words I have been involved in trying to bring about societal
change from local, national, Asia/Pacific and global levels to bring about a peaceful and just
society where everyone can lead long, happy lives.

As an organizer who is also a feminist, I have learned a few lessons I would like to share with
you as a way of reflecting on what we can do moving forward. Allow me to name three lessons.

Lesson number one. If you can’t name it, you can’t have it. You all remember the many hours
we spent on “consciousness raising” in the early days of the feminist movement. We had to
unload the many scripts in our heads and hearts that made us live and behave the way we did
in a patriarchal world. Then somebody coined “personal is political”. What a powerful three
words these were. Yes, we moved our personal issues to the public realm where they were
discussed in policies and rules and allocation of resources – yes, the public arena, all areas of
decision-making outside of the private sphere where our issues were previously hidden.
“Personal is political” was pure genius.

Lesson number two. The approach “Add women and stir” doesn’t work. It doesn’t work big
time. We demanded more representation, more participation. But what happened? More
women in the labor market. But where in the labor market? We got more but they were In the
bottom of the pile. More women in politics. But what kind of politics? Collateral question:
what kind of women?

Lesson number three. Everything substantial is about power: who wields it, how, why, for
what purpose? After Beijing or the Fourth World Conference on Women, gender

Mainstreaming became the main approach to integrating gender into everything. I must admit
we dropped the ball here. What was essentially about power became substantially a technical
issue of data-segregation and budget allocations, etc. I will talk about power again later in this
short speech.

I will stop at those three lessons and see where we can move forward in advocating for a
feminist foreign policy in our region.

As it stands, the countries that have instituted a feminist foreign policy have focused on what
they call the four R’s, namely: rights, representation, resources, and reality (or context). You
and I must admit these are all political issues. I repeat: rights, representation, resources and
reality are political issues.
Some countries, to their credit, have been working on pushing for the four R’s in trade, defense, diplomacy and development. This is certainly laudable. But how far can this foreign policy approach tackle oppression and exploitation of the powerless when these operate entirely on the existing economic, political and social order? It sounds to me like “the add women and stir” lesson we previously debunked.

In other words, there is a need to examine the structural underpinnings of the four R’s,
especially considering the crises of major proportions our world is facing: the climate change
crisis, the economic crisis, the health crisis. They all are transnational in scope. And some
people are more vulnerable and impacted than others because they hold little or no power. Are
our concepts able to deal with these transnational crises in a structural way- meaning in a way
that changes power relations?

As we think of feminist foreign policy, let us go back to what our movement did in the early
days when we examined the concepts or the mindsets or the paradigms that were the
straitjackets from which we needed to free ourselves.
If we are to face the transnational crises we are facing, one concept we could examine Is the
whole notion of “sovereignty”.

“Sovereignty” came into our language only in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia that ended
the 30 years’ war in Europe. The Treaty of Westphalia established the nation-states, each one
being “sovereign” within its own boundaries. It helped countries function independently of
each other. The practice of diplomacy was initiated as negotiations of peace treaties became
the mode of ending any disputes. However, the same concept of sovereignty has been invoked

By nation-states to keep people out of their borders, to keep large standing armies, to go to
war, etc.As we discuss feminist foreign policy, is there a way of reformulating “sovereignty” as an approach to solving our major crises in a transnational way? Or formulate a totally new
concept just as we did with “personal is political”? Just adding women won’t redeem the
world. Indeed, some writers have said that that’s a heavy burden to be laid on women.
There is a need to re-conceptualize “feminism” in light of this point in history and the daunting
challenges facing humanity, and not just those in Asia and the Pacific.

As we re-conceptualize “sovereignty”, let’s also analyze how other mindsets make it ever so
easy to divide people and foment hatred and anger for the other as we can see in so many parts
of the world today. Last week I spoke before the Indian Association for Women’s Studies and shared this short analysis which I want to also share with you today.

What is the most devastating word in the English language? It is a two-letter word. That’s all.
But because of that two-letter word, the world has suffered genocide, war, and the most brutal
atrocities.That two-letter word is OR. Me or you. Us or them. My country or your country. My religion or your religion. For some reason we are wired to think that someone or some people have to be superior, others inferior; some strong, others weak; some smart, others stupid; some winners, others losers; some saved, others damned to eternal fire.

And what is the antidote to the Devastating OR?
It’s a three-letter word. I call it the AWESOME AND. Me and you. Us and them. My country
and your country. My religion and your religion. We are ALL superior, strong, smart, winners,
saved. Remember John Lennon’s song, Imagine? “ Imagine there’s no country, no religion too. No hell below us, above us only sky.” Yes, the power of our connectors. The idea that nobody and nothing stands alone and we can all live in peace with each other and with nature. As women who have these capacities.

When I sit down to plan any strategy for change that I will initiate, I look at three barriers: the
conceptual barriers, the technical barriers, and the political barriers. The conceptual barriers
must break down not only patriarchy but all the other evil systems. We have to remember that
gender equality is organically integrated in economic, political and social equality. Concepts
like the “Devastating OR” and the “Awesome And” must penetrate our plans. The technical
barriers can be broken down by building our capacity to think and do with effectiveness and

The political barriers are broken down not only by solidarity but also by using power
differently, transformatively. How? Not by just getting to the leaders’ circle but more
fundamentally by redefining power as the potency to act for what is good. It is changing the
goal of power – to act for what is good!
More than anything, feminist foreign policy must put the 4R’s within this solid framework. Yes,it is within our reach to build a just and equal world that benefits everyone because no one
stands alone. We are all connected.

Acknowledgement: This speech is posted by Harshaa Kawatra is a research intern at IMPRI.

Day 1: Feminist Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region with regards to Climate Change
Day 2: Feminist Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific for Transnational Solidarity for Peace

Event Page

Book Release: Advocating a Feminist Foreign Policy for India



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