Women’s Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Sarah Miyahara

Women’s role in United States foreign policy creation and enactment has become increasingly more prominent. Up until recently, foreign policy was debated and implemented by men, with little to no regard for its impacts on women. The post-World War II era may be considered the beginning of true enforcement of human rights into international politics and foreign policy, and therefore can also be considered the time when women’s rights began to become a part of the international conversation. As the United States has made its way into the 21st century, women’s rights, as well as female representation in the international realm, has become a higher priority by recognizing that lack of support for half of the world’s population may actually be detrimental to world politics. Through the lens of constructivist feminism and realism, as well as current conditions of foreign policy initiatives between the United States and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it can be determined that women’s rights issues have grown in importance in the international realm and are becoming an important part of the foreign policy agenda in the developed world, particularly in the United States.

The United States has had a wide variety of relations and interactions with the MENA region, although economic interests in Middle Eastern oil reserves have frequently fueled these relationships. Through use of its international diplomatic and military power, the United States has frequently pursued these economic interests, creating “a variety of U.S. interventions ranging from diplomatic overtures of friendship to full-blown war,”. Though these interests may still be prevalent, most recently the United States has begun to move toward more humanitarian efforts in the MENA region as a means to promote human rights, democracy, and anti-terrorism. Since the late 1940s and post-World War II era, the goal of foreign policy was to keep communism at bay, which consequently lead to the spread of democratic ideals and values. With the end of the Cold War came the fight against terrorism and protection of basic human rights by supporting “leaders and governments it considered to be stable allies,” including Morocco.

The United States and Morocco have historically had an amicable relationship, as Morocco tends to align with U.S. interests frequently in international affairs. During World War I and World War II, Morocco supported the Allies, aided the Gulf War of 1991 and previously assisted the U.S. in leading peace initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 21st century relationship between the two nations remains strong as they continue to “encourage free trade, economic development, support for both human rights and democratic reforms, and combating terrorism,”. One such program is the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) that supports Moroccan civil society organizations that work to improve certain aspects of their society including women’s empowerment. It has been said that the United States views Morocco as a “model of modernity for the rest of the Middle East to follow,”.

The United States and Iran have historically had a bit of a different relationship. Though the U.S. maintained its same motives during the Cold War of keeping communist and Soviet influence at bay, Iran was less inclined to support the U.S. than Morocco was. In its efforts, the United States directly “toppled the regime of Iran’s elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq,” as the they saw him as a communist threat. This indirectly led to the rise of Mohammed Reza as the new leader of Iran who had pro-Western tendencies and values. Reza established an oppressive, autocratic regime in order to institute Western social reforms with force. Large opposition to Reza’s regime led to the establishment of a new Islamic state, the Islamic Republic of Iran, creating an even greater anti-American sentiment nationwide. This negative tension between the two states remains hostile, which, consequently, affects its diplomatic relations with regards to addressing human rights and women’s rights.

Human rights, and more specifically women’s rights and international female empowerment, have started to become a more integral aspect of international politics and foreign policy, particularly through Western nations pushing for gender equality in developing areas. More recently, gender equality and the promotion of women’s rights is being recognized as having many political and economic benefits, which continues to empower many nations to push for such a development. Research has shown that “focusing on women is often the best way to reduce birth rates and child mortality; improve health, nutrition, and education; stem the spread of HIV/AIDS; build robust and self-sustaining community organizations and encourage grassroots democracy,”. By focusing on women and bettering their way of life, society as a whole has improved its “living standards, increased social entrepreneurship, and attracted foreign direct investment,”. Specifically, in the United States, the State Department established the Office of Global Women’s Issues in 1995 solely dedicated to promoting the “rights and empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy,”. The office outlines four areas in which the United States aims to empower women and girls, including categories of women, peace, and security; women’s economic empowerment; gender-based violence; and adolescent girls.  

After the end of World War II, but more recently with the turn of the 21st century, historians have begun to recognize women’s contributions to American foreign policy, which had previously been pushed aside. These women, including Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Eleanor Dulles, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton and more, have helped to make great strides for the United States, and have yet to be recognized for their actions until recently. By first recognizing the importance of women in impacting generic foreign policy in the first place, Verveer sees this as one of the first stepping stones into creating a diplomatic focus on women’s rights issues. The Obama administration made a great change in an attempt to put women’s rights at the forefront of his agenda. Through promoting the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, Obama and Clinton aimed to include women abroad in issues of “‘human rights, citizen security, justice, employment, healthcare’ and ‘speak on behalf of other marginalized groups and across cultural and sectarian divides,’”. With American political leaders advocating on behalf of marginalized groups of women all over the world, women’s rights have begun to establish themselves as a basic aspect of modern-day foreign policy.

With regards to this shift in foreign policy, the United States and Morocco have recently begun to work together in order to promote women’s rights as a way to “foster democracy, but also to promote development, curb extremism and fight terrorism, all core objectives of its foreign policy,”. The World Bank has even begun training female political candidates in Morocco, and most recently, it has been established that there must be a certain number of seats set aside specifically for women in Morocco’s governmental arena. While the emergence of women in Moroccan politics is a new and developing initiative, their inclusion in politics in the MENA region is sure to be an inevitable path to change of Moroccan foreign policy that is most likely to be of significant benefit to women. Regarding current foreign policy itself, the United States has supported and attempted to implement women’s rights through “reform-oriented countries,” such as Morocco, so far, with little enforcement. Though not necessarily successful yet, these reforms, including the MEPI, are relatively new. Simply introducing such initiatives is a positive step in furthering women’s rights than previous actions. With Islamic feminism on the rise amongst Moroccan women, public opinion in the country is beginning to shift to a more gender-aware perspective.

As the United States and Iran do not have the positive relationship that the United States and Morocco have, it has presented more obstacles to the promotion of human rights in Iran as well as for U.S. foreign policy to dictate gendered provisions Iran must take. Because the United States has prioritized women’s rights as a fundamental human right and imposed that belief on traditionalist areas such as Iran, it has “irked conservative religious forces or the authoritarian regimes”. The deep tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which have been historically embedded, makes it difficult for the United States to support and heavily enforce women’s empowerment reforms in this area of the MENA region. Though it has “linked calls for democracy with increased rights for women...and promoted gender equality,” the U.S. has had little room to be able to enforce such initiatives. In September of 2010, the United States imposed general sanctions on Iran for violations of human rights, and while the results of these sanctions remain uncertain, it has been determined that sanctions are generally effective in highlighting key problems and putting pressure onto certain states, such as Iran, to address such issues. Even though the United States could be more consistent when it comes to enforcement of these sanctions, its introduction and implementation exemplify a shift in focus of United States foreign policy focus. U.S. policy has prioritized advocating on behalf of women’s rights and gender equality along with the promotion of democracy. As research has shown, greater gender equality leads to greater economic prosperity, which may be the angle that the United States may soon use in order to promote their ideology in traditionalist countries such as Iran.

The feminist critique of international affairs attempts to break down international relations by identifying gender norms and relations, while recognizing that the international system is male-dominated and inherently benefits men while suppressing women. Such a gender bias inhibits women from participating in the global system and reaching their fullest potential; feminists advocate that holding women back holds back the rest of the world, as well. The goal of the feminist theory is to open up the conversation on international diplomacy, to become more inclusive of all genders, and to recognize that the international system has historically been structured in a way that has been unwelcoming to women. The feminist critique can be considered a subsection of the constructivist theory of international relations as constructivism dictates that there is no objective norm or reality because political norms are constantly changing due to culture or change over time. With that said, a constructivist feminist would see the current international system as one that is beginning to shift into a new era of norms where women’s rights are beginning to be recognized as an integral aspect of international development.

These changing ideals and the evolution of the modern world has become more focused on human rights issues, particularly after World War II, and with it came the modern feminist movement. According to Carpenter, “feminists have long argued that it is wrong to ignore half the population when crafting policies meant to secure a stable world order,”. Foreign policy experts have begun to take new approaches to international relations, from a gendered perspective, that sees the incorporation of women into the conversation inherently betters the promotion of “military effectiveness, alliance stability, democracy promotion, actionable intelligence, the stem of pandemic disease, or successful nation building,”. According to Verveer, women typically endure the brunt of violence and poverty while also bearing the burden of “rebuilding families and communities” as a result of negative international relations and affairs, yet, “they are often excluded...from both the negotiating table and the governments charged with sustaining power,”. By excluding women’s issues and the negative impacts this exclusion has on half of the world’s population, little progress can truly be made. Thus, the constructivist feminist would argue that as the world continues to change and develop, foreign policy makers are beginning to recognize this reality and the importance in opening up foreign policy issues to women’s rights and opening the floor to women, as well.

In the case of Morocco, it can be considered one of the few Islamic countries whose norms are changing the most quickly as it is one of the most open to offering equal rights to both women and men. Though Morocco may have much left to do until equality may officially be met, the fact that it is open to changing its social norms exposes and proves that social norms and values tend to change over time. The same can be said for U.S. diplomatic relations and foreign policy initiatives. As the goal of U.S. foreign policy has shifted over the years and has come to focus more so on gender equality, its positive relations with Morocco and their joint goals of democratic reform and equal rights exemplify the feminist theory that women’s rights will become a forefront issue in international politics. Thus, it is only a matter of time before gender equality is achieved.

In looking at the case of Iran, the situation is a bit different in that the Iranian government vehemently and deliberately rejects full equality for all genders. However, as the United States continues to make efforts in pursuing human rights interests in the MENA region, one could determine that the world order is continually changing and that Iran simply has not yet joined most of the rest of the world’s view of equal opportunity for men and women. Also, the fact that the case of Iran is so different from that of Morocco, though both are Islamic states, shows the constructivist’s view that there is no objective reality in terms of international relations; both Morocco and Iran each have their own normative values that are likely to change in the future. With the developed world moving toward pursuing gender equality, Iran’s normative values are likely to move in that direction in the future, as well.

Realism is the theoretical approach to international relations that identifies the international system as anarchic and inherently selfish. It predicts that all states act rationally and in self-interest, which can often be aggressive and perceived as threatening to other countries. This often leads to inevitable conflict that can cause changes in the international power structure. As realism has its basis in the state acting in the most rational fashion, realists tend to argue that greater participation by women in international decision making is the most plausible as they can expand policy and offer new ideas and strategies that may not have been introduced had only men been involved. From the realist perspective, involving all types of people creates a multilevel and multidimensional aspect of foreign policy in which a state may weigh all possible costs and benefits of a situation from various perspectives in order to make the most rational decision. As previously stated, it has been proven that “investing in women and girls is the moral thing to do, and also the smart, strategic thing to do -- for development; for social, economic, and political progress; and for the advancement of U.S. interests,”. Realists argue that in order to truly ensure national and global peace, security, and stability, women must first be involved, and these issues will only be solved if women are added into the equation.

Generally, the United States has pushed for democratic reform, particularly in the MENA region, since the Cold War era. A critical aspect of such a task is the inclusion of women and gender equality in order to promote democratic values in hopes of future implementation of democratic regimes. From the realist perspective, it only makes sense that the United States would look toward Morocco as a first step in promoting such ideals, as it can be considered one of the most liberal of the MENA nations. With regards to Iran, a realist would consider the United States’ approach to human rights and gender equality as the most reasonable as the United States continues to press toward social reform, while not imposing themselves too much as it could potentially create more tension and conflict.

Though human rights, and more specifically women’s rights, are starting to become more prominent in foreign policy, many would argue that not enough is being done to promote such values, and the promotion that has been done, has been executed from a very euro-centric perspective with little consideration for the receiving states. For instance, there are still many traditionalists in Morocco who refuse democratic reform. They associate modernization with their colonial era in which modern and Western ideas were forced upon colonized states. As a result, many Moroccans began to see modernization, which includes gender equality, as the equivalent to Westernization, and therefore a loss of culture and tradition. Another critique of the manner in which the United States has pursued its promotion of equality for women is one of pity, in which Americans are the saviors that were needed to rescue oppressed women of the world. Though it is generally unanimous that U.S. foreign policy focusing on women of the MENA region is beneficial, it has been done by means of refocusing and manipulating various facets of their traditional society and culture to become more Eurocentric. In this way, American efforts to promote human rights and gender equality have been perceived by the receiving populations as even more oppressive than before. However, from the realist perspective, one could say that these actions have always been utilized in the United States’ best interest, which is to be expected as states always act in their own self-interest, and they are not necessarily expected to act in ways that the native population may wish.

The introduction of women’s rights into foreign policy initiatives by the United States, particularly in the MENA region, has not yet been completely successful, however, the introduction and effort in introducing such initiatives is progress in and of itself. Though it is true that much still needs to be done, it cannot be denied that foreign policy focuses have shifted over time and women are becoming a more prominent topic of conversation all over the world. With the United States at the forefront pressing for more focus on women’s rights and women empowerment, it is only a matter of time before more and more countries push for the same goal, and progress will be made.


Sarah Miyahara is a senior at Loyola University Chicago where she studies International Studies and Political Science.

Works Cited

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