Last month during the general debate of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, India’s Minister S Jaishankar made a remark about how Western states invoke respect for the UN Charter and advocacy for a rules-based order. “For all the talk, it is still a few nations who shape the agenda and seek to define the norms,” he said. “This cannot go on indefinitely. Nor will it go unchallenged.” Many postcolonial countries like India are becoming increasingly critical of Western dominance, and are raising concerns of their own around the need to address global inequalities, including ensuring a just transition in response to the climate crisis; alleviating crippling debt burdens; and increasing Global South representation in international institutions.
With this rise in global contestation, some postcolonial states are seizing the opportunity to assert their agency on the world stage. Amid the opportunities and challenges presented by the prospect of a multipolar world order, the potential of feminist foreign policies (FFPs) to contribute to transforming foreign policymaking and the multilateral system, deserves attention. FFPs were initially centered in Western nations, but as countries from non-Western nations adopt them, there is growing recognition that these feminist policies should seek to disrupt colonial and racial hierarchies alongside patriarchal ones.
The first FFP, put in place by Sweden in 2014, focused on promoting women’s rights, increasing representation of women in foreign policy, and directing more resources toward advancing gender equality. Generally, FFPs aim to make foreign policymaking—including international agreements, aid and investment, among others—more gender-sensitive. But to what extent have Western FFPs taken the perspectives and criticisms of feminists from postcolonial nations into account? Understanding postcolonial feminism can allow for greater critical reflections on Western FFPs, the roles they might play in transforming gender inequalities in international politics, as well as the different approaches to feminist change taking root within postcolonial nations themselves.
What is Postcolonial Feminism?
Postcolonialism concerns itself with the critical analysis of the legacies and current manifestations of colonialism. It points to the need to deliberately decenter the dominant culture in order for marginalized perspectives to be accepted sources of knowledge. Postcolonial studies build on anticolonial theories associated with 20th century independence movements, as well as racial and social justice movements. More recently, postcolonial thought has informed criticisms of some Western foreign policy approaches to, for example, aid, development, humanitarian interventions, and peacebuilding, labeling them as “neocolonial.”
Feminist perspectives are often rooted in grassroots political organizing, though they are not confined to local spaces, and transnational movements have been key to many feminist advancements. Postcolonial feminist theorists, both within and outside of the West, challenge Western notions of feminism, and argue that not all women are colonized equally. In “Under Western Eyes,” scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty highlights how “third world women” are assumed to be a homogenous group, uniformly oppressed by and suffering more in relation to men. She argues that this universalizing tendency fails to account for differences between women in their experiences of oppression based on intersecting identities, including race, caste, class, or religion; nor does it consider the shared experiences between women and men who are marginalized on the basis of those categories.
Postcolonial feminist theories therefore highlight racialized aspects of society often ignored by Western feminism, as well as the role of colonialism in the subjugation of postcolonial societies that continues even today. In a recent interview, scholar Swati Parashar says that many of the conservative laws in India that are challenged by feminists were established during the colonial era. In the context of Western countries’ FFPs, she asks: Is it fair to assume that non-Western states do not have an enlightened sense of gender equality?
Why Does Postcolonial Feminism Critique Western FFPs?
One of the most notable critiques of Western FFPs by postcolonial feminism points to how Western FFPs view Global South women. Feminist movements often appeal to the unique forms of violence and oppression experienced by women—such as economic disempowerment or experiences of sexual violence—in attempts to mobilize support for greater rights or efforts to address a particular form of violence or inequality. However, these movements have largely grown organically in their local contexts, even when leveraging international norms. Mohanty warns Western feminists that, in uncritically assuming a shared victimhood status—which can be a site of agency and change when wielded by women organizing politically—Global South women can become limited in their agency, turning them into objectified “others,” and, potentially reproducing imperialist assumptions about their inferiority.
Some more recent critiques warn that Western states which implement FFPs without transforming the “masculinist underpinnings” of their own foreign policy institutions risks perpetuating a “masculine protector logic” toward Global South women, who are portrayed as needing protection. This could in turn be used as justification for unwanted or ineffective interventions. Critics have also suggested that uneven power dynamics between the Global North and South allows for “brown and black bodies inevitably becoming the testing ground for policy priorities.”
The FFPs of Western states often promote strategies for achieving greater gender equality that are broadly similar to those pursued by Western feminists. Postcolonial feminist critiques take issue with the tendency of Western feminism to view its own trajectory as more inherently feminist, and to therefore believe that Global South countries have to adopt similar strategies in order to “catch up” to the progress that has been made in the West. For instance, Sweden’s FFP (which was withdrawn last year by the new government) promoted women’s participation in formal politics, including in peace processes, as one of its main objectives. This raises broader questions: is increased representation among the most important objectives for all women around the world in their struggles for equality, and should it be so central to FFP? Scholar Columba Achilleos-Sarll argues that although it’s imperative to address historical underrepresentation of women in foreign policy, to “simply take elite women as a subject in foreign policy and ‘stir’ is not enough.”
Postcolonial Feminism’s Alternative Perspectives
The contributions of postcolonial thinkers are not limited to exposing the exclusionary nature of Western-dominant politics and institutions. They allow for the reimagining, restructuring, and reconstructing of policymaking to consider local forms of knowledge and accord importance to bottom-up perspectives. Across the postcolonial world, local organizations are working toward women’s equality, promoting their own visions of feminist transformation, and making positive advances on the ground. These ground-up feminist movements offer perspectives that would be useful for drafting more inclusive, postcolonial feminist-informed FFPs that integrate the priorities and successful strategies of local activists, and avoid a universalizing one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t accommodate the specific challenges faced by women in postcolonial contexts.
Locally-led organizations are often better able to recognize the complexities of women’s identities and the intersectional challenges they face, which helps to promote practical strategies toward economic and political empowerment, while also undermining assumptions that all women experience the same forms of discrimination and prioritize their gender identity above other intersections. For instance, in Nepal, the Feminist Dalit Organization supports women from the Dalit community and looks to address both gender and caste-based discrimination, thereby advocating for Dalit and women’s rights simultaneously. In Sri Lanka, Muslim feminists use a variety of strategies informed by local conditions to navigate discriminatory practices. For example, they have promoted solution-oriented arbitration in marital disputes. And in Afghanistan, the Afghan Men as Allies in a Feminist Struggle Project focuses on countering essentialist, patriarchal narratives surrounding Afghan men, and showcases their role in an Islamic feminist struggle.
Since 2020, some Latin American countries have also adopted FFPs. If these can build on the region’s strong traditions of feminist organizing, they present an opportunity for non-Western feminisms to inform foreign policymaking and efforts to transform global politics.
In 2021, India’s External Affairs Minister said in the context of a gender-balanced foreign policy, that bringing in a feminist perspective to foreign policy cannot be directly replicated or imported from the West: “These countries have different cultures, different historical traditions. We need such a framework to evolve organically for it to work.” While foreign policy positions of postcolonial nations are right to be skeptical and critical about Western policies, they must work toward a context-specific FFP that accords recognition to intersectionalities within their societies.
While FFPs from Global North states have begun to recognize the need to direct resources toward women’s organizations working toward gender equality on the ground, FFPs as policy instruments will always be limited if undertaken as a top-down approach. Postcolonial feminism can help Western states reckon with their own inequalities while drafting their FFPs. For instance, there is little reference in the FFPs of former colonial powers or settler colonial states to these pasts or to their indigenous communities, neglecting the role these events played and continue to play in creating global gendered inequalities, and potentially precluding many means of transforming these dynamics. And within Western nations, postcolonial feminisms will continue to be particularly relevant to current movements that are reckoning with the legacies of colonialism and racial injustice, and promoting policy measures that seek to remedy inequalities faced by marginalized communities, including indigenous communities.
In implementing their FFPs, Western nations must go beyond Global North-centrism. A postcolonial-feminist informed FFP offers potential for both the Global North and South to advance feminist objectives. Policy discourses must acknowledge colonialism and differentiated impacts of foreign policy, and avoid Global South women being homogenized as victims. Understanding and incorporating the strategies of the marginalized could have better consequences for feminist foreign policymaking. For both the West and the postcolonial world, when it comes to feminist foreign policy, there is scope for nuance.
Neha Tetali is a PhD candidate in Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
This article is part of a series reflecting on the 23rd anniversary of the WPS agenda.
 As of May 2023, the following countries have either officially adopted, or indicated that they would consider adopting FFP: Sweden (2014- 2022), Canada (2015), Luxembourg (2018), France (2019), Mexico (2019), Spain (2021), Libya (2021), Germany (2021), Chile (2022), the Netherlands (2022), Colombia (2022) and Liberia (2022).