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Where are the Women?: Gauging Visibility of Female Diplomacy in International Relations

By Disha Verma (Law Graduate, Pune)


I distinctly remember an international law lecture in early years of law school, where we set out to explore “sources of law” in various modalities. Having referenced European scholars and philosophers to a point of exhaustion in every lecture, it was refreshing to see the words “Hindu Mythology” now scribbled across the whiteboard. “Lord Hanuman’s visit to Lanka in the Ramayana is the first ever documented instance of diplomacy. And Vibhishana’s choice to not hurt him while on foreign land, the first acknowledgement of diplomatic immunity”, the professor stated impassively, and moved on.

But the thought of High Commissioner Hanuman took up most of my days to come. I read Applied Diplomacy by Retd. Amb. T.P. Sreenivasan and realised how often diplomacy, a seemingly modern instrument of asserting soft-power, finds place in ancient texts. Then I watched guest addresses from a few years ago, where Retd. Amb. K.P. Fabian suggested it was these mythological anecdotes that have helped India navigate international relations. He also recounted historically significant events that have shaped Indian diplomacy, and then reminisced about several of his own adventures in service.

Through this process, something immediately struck as odd to me—Where were the women?

Among the luminaries Fabian mentioned, there was not one woman named. In the mythology Sreenivasan cited, not one woman (but a distressed and abducted Sita) either. I struggled to find, in my own research endeavours, high-ranking female consuls to draw inspiration from. One quickly realises that diplomacy and consular relations do very little justice to its women: first, there aren’t enough of them; second, they consistently occupy low-ranking positions; and third, their contributions to international relations are often brushed under the carpet. So, I set out to explore in this article why this is and what we can do better.

Although India’s patriarchy actively conceals working women, the broader exclusion is not limited to Indian diplomacy. Holding foreign office is synonymous with prestige and esteem across the globe, which is why it is guarded with egregiously difficult competitive exams in almost every populous country. The social, financial and recreational charm of foreign service attracts aspirants from all intersections of caste, class, creed, gender. But how many does it accommodate?

In most governments across the world, women were not allowed to hold foreign office until the 1970s. Even after, they were formally banned from marrying while in service well until the 1980s. This workplace sexism came masquerading as odd foreign policy customs that still prevail. For instance, the social capital associated with being an ambassador’s wife is both more appealable and achievable to a woman than becoming an ambassador herself. This created an early pattern of very little female representation in the field.

One could attempt to address why: this article, for starters, suggests that countries have long described a Successful Diplomat as someone rational, strong, tall, polite and level-headed – all stereotypical male qualities of leadership and completely undervaluing femine leadership qualities. Perception of women in high-prestige positions by popular media has not helped either: this Hindu article is a good example. Ripples of this subjugation are felt in present-day numbers and statistics.

Unsurprisingly, women are more likely to hold ambassadorial posts in countries with higher levels of gender equality. Sweden and the US appoint the greatest share of women ambassadors, with Europe contributing the highest in terms of regional representation. But there is an unpleasant pattern even to these appointments. According a 2018 study by Towns and Niklasson, women ambassadors in these jurisdictions are:

  • Often posted to countries with lower GDPs (on an average) than their male counterparts;

  • Rarely sent to Trade-Intensive Countries (TDCs) to negotiate important trade deals;

  • Appointed to consistently lower-paying and less economically prestigious positions than their male counterparts.

It is interesting to note that Sweden was the first country to announce a “feminist foreign policy” in 2014, followed by France, Iceland and Mexico. But even this policy commitment to making foreign office more welcoming to qualified women does not reflect in statistics. Inherent biases, like hesitating to assign important negotiations to women, seep through the cracks. But sexism of this order is a usual suspect in every profession. What sets diplomacy apart is: apart from just structural hurdles, there are practical ones too. For instance, consular missions to socially underdeveloped (or lawfully misogynistic) countries where women think they would never be seen as equals or taken seriously are often passed on. Imagine visiting countries where fundamental female autonomy is a punishable offence and having to meet the very leaders that criminalise it. The pressure to be a Successful Diplomat with these added social hindrances makes the path rockier for women. It also makes them more prone to public scrutiny and – at times – failure.

A controversial but fitting example of this is the Swedish-Iran visit of 2017. Shortly after having proclaimed itself as the first feminist government, Sweden sent an entourage of women diplomats to close important trade deals with Iran.Iran has always demanded that diplomats making such visits observe local laws and customs, which include donning the mandatory hijab for women. This is not unusual in consular practice – diplomats are trained to always be respectful of cultures to reinforce friendly relations. But this particular visit was different.

At the time, Iran was witnessing historic pushback against the mandatory hijab law from local women and feminist groups. Activists like Masih Alinejad were on the frontlines of possibly the biggest civil uprising in modern Iran to rid the country of an oppressive and patriarchal law. An online campaign urging women to take off their hijabs in public and take pictures of their uncovered heads (an offence punishable with upto 2 months in prison) was gaining traction.

Yet, the Swedish entourage led by erstwhile Prime Minister Stefan Lofven wore hijabs from the minute they set foot in Iran and were never seen unveiled. The visit was a consular success. The Swedes achieved what they set out to: negotiating trade-deals to their benefit while maintaining comity with Iran. They were textbook Successful Diplomats, a first for womankind. Supreme Leader Khamenei had even tweeted positively about this visit, assuring that Sweden had a “good reputation” in Iran.But Alinejad and several other local activists vastly criticized this move. To them, 11 vocally feminist women – representing a feminist government – had just undone much of the progress that protesting women in Iran had made by legitimising an extremely repressive custom. Successful Diplomats had belittled a feminist revolution.

Now, my understanding of feminism does not allow me to defend the Swedes in this instance. In fact, I would cite the example of Marietje Schaake, a European High Commission who has consistently been vocal against hijab laws, to say that it was possible to support the resistance. But I also cannot forego this observation: why does being a Successful Diplomat come at such high costs for women? An all-male Swedish entourage in this instance would have no difficulty closing deals, receiving a validating tweet from the Premiere, and coming back home to only commendations – not backlash. But also, because being a man in a country like Iran already gives one a head-start. And this preferential treatment (and easy-way-outs) is available to male diplomats in many different jurisdictions in many different ways.

Remember me asking, where are the women? Maybe they hide behind this dichotomy: wanting the high-prestige of foreign office but dreading the lack of political autonomy that it inevitably comes with. This leads us to three conclusions as follows.

First, women diplomats are, in fact, invisible. It started with a pattern of exclusion through the marriage-ban and ambassador’s wife trope decades ago, but has left a profound impact on present-day representation. When there are only a handful of high-ranking women ambassadors for young girls to idolize, interest in the field drops quickly, and fewer women end up pursuing it. This cycle of low representation – low interest creates an institution that, when retired ambassadors talk about in their speeches, features not a single female name.

Second, low women-to-men ratio in the service (especially in higher ranks) creates an irreparably masculine environment. This may reflect in promotion patterns and explain why gender biases have taken so long to be dismantled. Lack of female perspectives on female-centric issues, such as the many missions addressing Female Genital Mutilation in African countries, makes these missions incomplete.

Third, women diplomats tend to settle for far less economically prestigious positions within the service. This may stem from either concern: that because most women are assigned lower positions or cadres, the environment of this horizontal becomes female-friendly and accommodating, so they cluster with other similarly placed women and stay there. Or, they have been made to internalize that this is the permissible extent of their worth and ambitions, so they never choose to rise in ranks. I pray it is the former.

A safe (and cliché) conclusion would be to chalk up the egregious realities of diplomacy to unchecked biases and unkind history – and hope it gets better. However, I strongly believe it will not get better until the whole of foreign service alters the way they view this institution. Each new generation of diplomats continues to parrot the wrongful claims of their predecessors, “diplomacy sees no gender”. Even the women in service have called it “gender neutral” before, assuring an audience of aspiring civil servants their gender will be no bar to their professional journeys. But that vastly misses the point. It is not the case that women are being sent home from embassies for not being male; neither is Successful Diplomat described as categorically male in training manuals. The biases that persist continue to persist because diplomacy sees no gender. Like affirmative action seeks to remedy wrongful pasts of social minorities, diplomacy must also acknowledge the patterns of sexism it has enabled, encouraged, and passed down generations. It must start seeing gender. And it must start uplifting the weaker ones. This is already being done in several countries by reserving seats for women in governmental positions – but it must extend to international organizations. It must reflect in pay-scales, manifest in better representation, and, most importantly, address the arbitrary standards women diplomats are subjected to without regard to social predicaments.


The full version of this article is available on the Law Review blog.

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