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Insidiously 'neutral'

Why we need an EU Foreign Policy that is both feminist and intersectional

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March 8, 2021

By : Shanti Walde


Foreign policies are often assumed to be ‘neutral’ policy spaces, unbound by discriminatory biases such as gender, race, class, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or age. This assumption is wrong and highly problematic.
The almost total absence of a focus on gender in the latest Commission’s ‘Counter Terrorism Agenda for the EU: Anticipate, Prevent, Protect, Respond’, exemplifies this all too well.


Gender is mentioned only twice throughout the entire document. Yet, this does not make the document gender ‘neutral’, but simply gender evasive. It operates under the implicit but powerful assumption that the right compass for grasping the complexity of counterterrorism as a policy field, as well as of all the lives it affects, is the white, cis-male, heteronormative perspective. This has the effect of ignoring all lived experiences that do not conform to this one predominant view.


While examples could be drawn from almost all areas of EU foreign and security policy, I will focus here on the EU’s approach to the challenges posed by the return and repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs).


When it comes to FTFs the Counter Terrorism Agenda explicitly states the need to hinder the undetected return of FTF’s by enhancing smart, biometric border-control measures. It stresses the importance of having access to battlefield information provided by the US and Interpol to identify and prosecute FTFs on their return. It addresses some of the de-radicalisation challenges posed when it comes to the imprisonment, rehabilitation and re-integration of FTFs. It addresses the specific needs and rights of children. It does not mention gender.

Yet, a gender-sensible approach would have allowed the Commission to recognize that while the overall psychological, personal, social and economic drivers for women to join a terrorist movement are similar to those of men, online recruitment processes are known to rely on strongly gendered messaging campaigns. Prevention and de-radicalisation policies (e.g. in prisons) would most likely be more impactful if they followed suit and adopted a gender-sensible approach.


The Commission also ignores the highly gendered dimension of return-rates. A 2019 report by Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC) of the UN Security Council highlighted the extraordinarily low return-rates of women as compared to both men and children. It estimates that worldwide, of the about 7.366 returnees only 256 (4%) are women. Furthermore, these 256 women, account for merely 5% of the total number of women who have travelled to Iraq and Syria in the first place. While the ratio behind these numbers has yet to be further explored, one possible explanation might lie in the prohibition for women to travel without a male guardian thus limiting the chances to escape and return, particularly with children. This is typically the type of ‘details’ gender-evasive policies omit, failing to protect those most in need.


Then again, how could the Commission act differently: as of today, the EU does not collect gender-disaggregated data on the return rates of FTFs. Furthermore, unlike the UN Security Council CTC, the EU does not yet have a focal point on gender when it comes to counterterrorism. As such it has no working unit, neither within the Council nor within the European External Action Service (EEAS), explicitly taking into account the gendered dimensions of both terrorism and counterterrorism.


It seems as if women are either portrayed as victims or simply ignored. Either they are stripped of their agency and infantilised, or they are left unaccounted for and unprotected. Ethical problems left aside, there is also an operational issue here: from a security and threat-containment perspective, it is narrow-sighted to disregard gender in anti-terrorism strategy. The peculiarity of security risks posed by radicalised women – for example when propagating radical ideas in prisons – is well studied. Disregarding these dimensions amounts to a systemic underestimation of such threats.


Also, adopting an intersectional feminist approach might have led the Commission to take into account the racially discriminating dimension of biometric border control measures, reliant on anticipatory measures such as threat and risk profiling. Sure, the Counter Terrorism Agenda does mention the externalities posed by gender and racial biases in AI. Yet, it does in no way address their actual implications when it comes to border control practices, and thus on the actual lives of the majority, bona fide, travellers who happen to have the same nationality, skin-colour or facial traits as the ‘targets’.


These are just some examples of the possible negative effects of gender or race-evasiveness in counterterrorism policies. Yet what they stand for is a reality, which is transversal to all areas of EU foreign and security policies. A reality that turns a blind eye to structural and systemic biases and discriminations and therefore reproduces them.


In November 2020 the European Parliament has set an important precedent as it endorses a report calling upon the Commission, the EEAS, EU Member States and all the EU agencies acting beyond the European borders to integrate “gender mainstreaming and an intersectional perspective into the EU’s foreign and security, enlargement, trade and development policy”, stressing that ‘power dynamics inherent to EU policies’ have to be further analysed based on ‘gender- and age-disaggregated data and gender-sensitive indicators‘.


Adopting such a report is no silver bullet against systemic discrimination. However, it sends a signal and provides policymakers with the tools required to detect discriminatory biases, and to recognize specificities, circumstances, needs and potentials. It provides a lens, an intersectional feminist perspective, applicable to each and every dimension of the EU’s foreign and security policy, making it both more fair and more effective.


In this sense, adopting an intersectional feminist approach means first and foremost to acknowledge that policy spaces, just like mental, physical or discursive spaces, are by definition not neutral. They are embedded in societal and ideational structures and are therefore the product of the societies that have thought them up in the first place.


Adopting an intersectional feminist approach means to recognize that there simply is no such thing as a gender, race, class, or able-bodyism neutral policy space. And, that perceiving policies as neutral is a privilege granted only to those who do not, and never will, experience the discriminatory effects of such so-called ‘neutral’ policies.


It means to understand that whoever, in the presence of racism, claims not to see race, is in fact refusing to see the discriminatory effects of racism. Whoever, in the presence of sexism and heteronormativity, claims not to see gender and sexual orientation, is in fact refusing to see their effects. Whoever, in light of multiple lived experiences, assumes to treat everyone the same, actually refuses to acknowledge the existence of subjective needs.


As the Centre For Feminist Foreign Policy in Berlin has exquisitely put it: „Feminist foreign policy is about questioning the status quo, and acknowledging that just because something has been the norm for decades, it does not make it right or fair, precisely because the establishment of many of those norms, structures, and processes have been shaped by a small percentage of the population“.


As such, adopting an intersectional feminist approach means to identify, reflect upon and counterbalance the manifold forms of structural discrimination reifying unequal access to resources, power and representation.


This is no endeavour for the faint of heart. It implies a strong disruption of the status quo. It implies to systematically question structurally embedded privileges. Therefore, it implies to be willing, when needed, to renounce some of them.


The EU has committed itself to the promotion and the protection of universal and indivisible human rights both in its internal as well as in its external policies. It has enshrined this commitment in its treaties, legal texts and moral compass. This is why, for the EU to live up to this commitment, and to truly implement a human rights-based approach, whereby human security, dignity as well as equal access to power, representation and resources can truly become a reality, it must implement a foreign policy that is both feminist and intersectional.



The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the authors, and not to their employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.
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