Four years on, Sweden remains committed to its feminist foreign policy

Both praised and questioned, Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is a global first. But, as Nathalie Rothschild reports from Stockholm, some say it doesn’t go far enough. 

By: /
March 5, 2018
Margot Wallström
Swedish minister for foreign affairs Margot Wallström addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting on Somalia in New York, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

When Swedish minister for foreign affairs Margot Wallström presented her government’s latest Statement of Foreign Policy, which sets out Sweden’s priorities in the foreign policy arena, in mid-February, she painted a broad picture of global gender inequality and reinforced Sweden’s commitment to redressing imbalances.

“Throughout the world,” she said, “women are neglected in terms of resources, representation and rights. This is the simple reason why we are pursuing a feminist foreign policy — with full force, around the world.”

The concept of a feminist foreign policy, pushed by Sweden’s Social Democrat-Green Party government, has received much attention since it was first floated in 2014, when Wallström, then the newly appointed foreign minister in the new coalition government, declared that Sweden would be the first country ever to conduct such a policy.

At the time, the concept was not clearly defined, and the ministry for foreign affairs invited a number of civil society actors to help carve out its agenda. Eventually, an action plan was drawn up, laying out six long-term objectives for 2015-2018. It stated that the Swedish foreign service will contribute to all women’s and girls’: full enjoyment of human rights; freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence; participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peacebuilding; political participation and influence in all areas of society; economic rights and empowerment; and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Each year since, the government has set out different focus areas within each of those six broad objectives.

So, four years down the line, how has the policy fared?

Wallström’s recent statement, read in parliament on February 14, lists some examples of Sweden’s “feminist foreign policy in action” over the past few years. They include efforts to educate women in Saudi Arabia and Iran to enhance their economic empowerment, initiating a public debate in Rwanda about the role of fathers, working to stop female genital mutilation, and funding international projects in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Now, with a new general election looming in September, the governing coalition, which dubs itself a “feminist government,” is reasserting its commitment to achieving gender equality at home and abroad.

"Some in Sweden have asked what makes a 'feminist foreign policy' so different from previous efforts."

While the outcome of the September election is uncertain at this stage, polls have predicted strong support for the right-wing Sweden Democrats. Their outright win is unlikely, however, and commentators have speculated on a number of possible government formations. Regardless, none of the current parties in parliament are hostile to gender equality.

Yet some in Sweden have openly asked what makes the kinds of initiatives implemented under the banner of a “feminist foreign policy” so different from previous Swedish governments’ efforts to push for women’s and girls’ rights in the global arena.

In a 2016 interview with the Swedish newspaper Expressen, Katarina Tracz, director of The Stockholm Free World Forum, a foreign policy think tank, described the feminist foreign policy as “essentially classic Swedish foreign policy.”

“What is novel is the way in which one launched and then pushed this concept as something new and revolutionary even though it, in fact, is not. And you have to say they have been very successful,” Tracz said at the time.

In his essay Feminist Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice, Robert Egnell, a professor at the Swedish Defence University, compared a section of Wallström’s 2015 Foreign Policy Statement with a corresponding section in a 2013 statement from Sweden’s previous, centre-right government (delivered by then-foreign minister Carl Bildt). Egnell wrote: “Apart from the odd choice of words — not least the fact that the word ‘feminism’ makes its entry here — the declarations are almost identical in their corresponding sections.” 

The sections referred to both dealt with Sweden’s global role and self-defined responsibility to play an active part in the international community, an ideal that Egnell demonstrated has been in place since the end of the Second World War. Both statements also mention gender equality as a key part of that ideal.    

In other words, Egnell argued, the introduction of the term “feminist foreign policy” did not so much signal a new, radical turn for Sweden but the expansion of an existing approach. The 2015 statement went further than previous ones, describing what the new term would mean for policy. The purpose of a feminist foreign policy, Wallström’s statement said, “is to counteract discrimination of women, to improve women’s conditions, and to contribute to peace and development…A feminist foreign policy should permeate the work of the entire Swedish foreign service and the aim is to strengthen women’s rights, to increase women’s access to resources, and to expand women’s representation.”

Since then, Wallström has received praise from global actors like UN Women in New York, which gave the minister an Agent of Change Award this past September for her commitment to gender equality and her work to strengthen women’s rights. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and executive director of UN Women, tweeted at the time: “Congratulations! Your #feministforeignpolicy is trailblazing.”

Yet, Sweden’s feminist government has not received universal praise. The criticism of its foreign policy approach has mainly been along two lines: there have been charges of hypocrisy in the government’s application of gender equality and concerns that the government’s actions, especially on trade, have not always been consistent with a feminist agenda. 

In 2015, Wallström caused a diplomatic crisis after she stated in a speech in the Swedish parliament that Saudi Arabia is led by a dictatorship that suppresses women’s rights. In retaliation, the Saudis blocked Wallström’s scheduled speech to the Arab League, in which she had planned to call for members to “focus attention on women’s rights.” In the midst of the row, Sweden decided not to extend its much-maligned weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, which then recalled its ambassador.

"The report also stated that 'Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is more important than ever.'"

After several twists and turns, diplomatic relations were eventually restored and, around six months later, Sweden signed a new deal with the Saudis, albeit one focusing more on civilian than military cooperation, Sweden’s minister for enterprise said at the time. However, the topics of human rights and feminism were apparently not on the agenda as Swedish and Saudi officials met to sign the new deal — and that led to charges of hypocrisy against Sweden’s self-avowed feminist government.

Then, in February of last year, the Swedish government received widespread condemnation after it instructed female officials to comply with Iran’s headscarf law during a trade visit to the Islamic Republic. The feminist government was again accused of hypocrisy and double standards after Trade Minister Ann Linde and female colleagues wore the hijab when meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran. The criticism was levelled at home by other Swedish politicians as well as from abroad, including by Iranian activists like Masih Alinejad, a journalist who created the My Stealthy Freedom campaign, inviting Iranian women to post pictures of themselves without a hijab.

The Iranian case was also contrasted with how Swedish officials had seemingly taken a stand against US President Donald Trump’s approach to women’s rights.

Just days before pictures of the Swedish representatives wearing hijabs in Iran were circulated around the world, Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin had posted a picture online in which she signed a climate bill surrounded by female colleagues. The image was widely seen as mocking a picture of Trump signing an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by male aides and advisers.

The Swedish officials “should have also condemned an equally unfair situation in Iran,” Alinejad argued in a Facebook post.

Inconsistencies on gender equality aside, some critics believe the feminist government is simply not feminist enough — in all areas. A 2017 report, titled How Feminist is Sweden’s Foreign Policy? and published by a coalition of 62 NGOs and women’s organizations called Concord, caused a stir in Sweden. It stated that the government’s arms exports to countries that violate women’s rights and its restrictive policy on family reunification for refugees counteract Sweden’s feminist foreign policy. 

Arms sales boost the power of repressive states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that violate women’s rights, the report argued, and restricting refugees’ reunification rights disproportionally impacts women and girls who are left behind in conflict zones. Yet the report also stated that “Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is more important than ever.”

In fact, the basic premise of the policy and the idea that it should permeate all aspects of Swedish foreign policy, including foreign aid, as well as the entire foreign service, has generally not been questioned in Sweden. That overall support means the government’s recent assertion that Sweden should “continue as well as strengthen its leading role in highlighting the gender perspective in the international community” has not faced any major pushback — a signal that, regardless of a possible change of government in September, the feminist approach to Sweden’s foreign policy is not likely to be reversed. 

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