Interview: Marissa Conway

The co-founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy tells Mariana Vieira that for all the progress in feminizing some aspects of the international agenda no country has the right to call itself a ‘gender superpower’

The World Today Updated 10 June 2021 Published 26 March 2021 4 minute READ

Marissa Conway

Co-Founder, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

In 2018, two years after the launch of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP), you wrote for The World Today magazine that ‘the agendas of both foreign policy institutions and the feminist project as a whole are more closely aligned than ever.’ How has this alignment translated into progress towards gender equality in the last four years?

That statement still holds true. States and civil societies’ ideas of feminism are closer than they have ever been. However, when it comes to the way in which feminist ideas are being used by the state I remain sceptical because I do question whether a patriarchal state can be a feminist actor. I am still excited about feminist foreign policy (FFP) and encouraged by how states and government officials are engaging with feminist ideas and having conversations around intersectionality. But there are many feminist ideas that are getting left out of these conversations, as the state picks and chooses which parts of feminism it wants to engage with. There are also aspects of feminism, such as intersectionality, that remain at a level of superficial engagement because they suit existing priorities. Even so, I am excited that that feminism is losing its taboo.

In the same The World Today article you described your role at the CFFP as two-fold: to determine the overall direction of Centre’s work at a global level, and then execute it locally in Britain. What does a successful execution look like? Is the UK a good example?

I am in the process of answering this question, having recently formed the UK Civil Society Working Group on Feminist Foreign Policy. In my opinion, a feminist foreign policy should be civil-society driven, not state-driven and I think this is where my current frustrations with FFP lie. Civil society needs to be setting the agenda and the expectations for any state that claims to have a feminist foreign policy. With the UK, I think we are a far cry from seeing a feminist state, but I don’t think we are as far from seeing a feminist foreign policy. Moreover, there is an important distinction to be made between gender-equality policy and feminist policy. The former has a more specific goal – it is in the name – whereas the latter represents a set of values and ideas that encompass gender equality and go beyond it, looking at the many ways in which people can be oppressed and subjugated. And according to this framework, can the UK be a feminist actor? I am sceptical that the current government could achieve this. I think we are likely to see a lot of the same co-optation of feminism. The cynic in me sees government action on women’s rights policy areas like Women, Peace and Security and Girls Education as virtue signaling to send a message of liberalism to the international sphere. 

Would you consider the question the other way around then? What does bad feminist foreign policy look like?

I do remain hopeful that, by engaging with feminist values, we are collectively setting off a series of changes that in the long term will result in equality for all. What I see as a limitation is the focus on short-term feminist goals, such as women’s representation or funding girls’ education. These goals address the symptoms of inequality. However, to truly implement an agenda reflective of the many different ideas and aspects found across feminism, it is also necessary to consider more long-term goals that address the root causes of inequality. Here, the focus is on systematic change and rebuilding institutions with different value sets. Both short-term and long-term goals need to be prioritized at the same time, but right now I am only seeing attention paid to the short-term. 

Thinking about long-term goals and long-term problems, what can feminist foreign policy say about contemporary issues in international affairs, such as the rise of China? 

The way I use feminism as an analytical tool focuses on a series of questions: who has power? Who does not have power? Why and how has the current distribution of power come about? Is this causing harm? How can we address this? This is the perspective from which I apply feminism and these questions can lend an analytical eye to any policy issue. I am not an expert on China’s foreign policy so I can only suggest that collaboration and diplomacy is the way forward when it comes to navigating international waters. Framing the UK in competition with China is a terrible narrative because it reinforces harmful stereotypes and contributes to the ‘us versus them’ mentality. We have just seen in the US the rise of attacks on Asian-Americans, including the Atlanta spa shooting which resulted in eight casualties. Framing the rise of power of other countries as a threat to western liberal states has real world consequences on an everyday level.  

When it comes to locking the UK and China in a framework of competition, what are your initial thoughts on the recently released UK government’s Integrated Review of foreign policy?

This just goes to show how optimism gets the best of me sometimes. I was very much looking forward to the Integrated Review and I think I got duped by the rhetoric that had been coming out of the government in terms of strengthening its position as a human-rights defender with an interest in thinking outside of the box to move away from doing business – politics and foreign policy – as usual. But the Integrated Review is exactly that – neoliberal business as usual. It positions the UK to rely on weapons and the military to keep the ‘peace’ and uphold a sense of safety and security despite there being so many other aspects to keeping people safe. For example, a well-funded NHS and affordable housing will do more to keep someone safe and healthy than nuclear weapons will. Needless to say, the decision to increase its nuclear arsenal was very disappointing. This has very little to do with safety and everything to do with power-flexing competition with China and Russia.

From Southeast Asia to South America, the anti-femicide movement has become a global phenomenon. Here in the UK, the high-profile case of Sarah Everard’s disappearance and killing is sparking a national conversation on gendered issues. Is this an example of how feminist policies are required in both domestic and foreign policy agendas?

Feminism recognizes the interconnected nature of the local and the global. When we talk about a feminist foreign policy, that automatically invokes the domestic dimension because there is a ripple effect between the two. Sarah Everard’s case has pointed to a host of issues, including the lack of safety that women experience every day and is an excellent example showcasing the hypocrisy of a state-driven feminist policy. Recently, I’ve seen a few policy analysts discuss the concept of a ‘gender superpower’ which describes those western liberal countries that are increasingly excited to become champions of feminist foreign policy or gender equality, espousing these values and feminist ideas in an external way. However, feminism also means holding a mirror back to oneself and undergoing self-reflection to understand how, we ourselves, are contributing to injustices. The UK considers itself to be a champion of gender equality within its development and foreign policy, and yet, is failing the women within our country who feel utterly unsafe just going about their daily life. 

Next week, the CFFP will be hosting an event on ‘Rebuilding the Table: Global South Leadership in Feminist Foreign Policy’. Are these categories of Global North versus Global South helpful? 

This is a tough one. ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ are quite loaded terms and, as I was selecting the name of the event, I couldn’t figure out a succinct way of expressing the focus of the event without invoking the idea of ‘Global South’. Even within feminist foreign policy – designed to be a disruptive agenda and change the status quo – we are seeing some reoccurring patterns that it tries to put an end to. Feminist foreign policy is a largely Global North, white-dominated field, developed by western countries with the exception of Mexico. Consequently, we are starting to see these patterns and dynamics whereby FFP is yet another set of ideas being exported from the Global North onto the Global South, as opposed to methods of liberation that are being developed together. If we’re invoking feminist ideas within government, we must hold ourselves to account to what it means to be feminist in these spaces and part of that is ensuring there is a variety of different voices and lived experiences at the table. 

In the magazine article I mentioned at the start, you proudly described your participation in the Nato Engages summit as ‘easily one of the highlights of my career so far’. Should we sit down in five years’ time again, what achievement(s) would you like to be able to highlight as a step in the right direction?

In the context of the pandemic, I have not been thinking long-term this year but I can tell you I have a new career highlight which was to be interviewed on the BBC the other day sharing my insights into the Integrated Review. Broadly speaking, I would love to see really strong relationships between civil society and the government when it comes to gender equality and feminist foreign policy. At the moment, we are backwards – we are going top-down, from the government to civil-society. Currently governments announce their intent or interest in gender equality, often develop their agendas, and only then go to civil society for their feedback and ideas. However, if a government is interested in a feminist foreign policy or reducing gender inequality, they should first go to the activists, prepared with questions and keen to listen intently to what feminist activists and academics have been advocating for so that the state can allocate appropriate funding to the priorities of feminist civil society. So in five years, I would hope to see the current dynamic reversed. I hope that by that time, we will have an understanding that when a state is adopting an FFP, they do not get to pick the pieces of feminism that fit their existing agenda. When a state invokes feminism, they are committing to absolutely transformational change in which things will never look the same again.