As an LSE student emerging into a SOAS building I feel a wave of understanding for the tortoise as he awkwardly wakes up from hibernation. For several months I have been accustomed only to the dull blacks and browns of tailored business suits and the hushed, tense quiet that is punctuated by the off-rhythm tapping of mac keyboards. I had not, nor could I of, prepared for the bright, vibrant colours and noise of, well, actual conversation.
Thankfully, I had by my side the impressive and astoundingly kind Marissa Conway, Founding Director of 'Feminist Foreign Policy', who politely and patiently 'bared with me' as I began on my first Study in Gender interview...
“The best way to sum up feminist foreign policy, is just that, people centred policy”
If we could start at the beginning with your MSc. I believe you did it on the US - Iran nuclear deal?
Yes, I did an MA in Gender Studies and throughout my year I focused on women in politics and women in international law. I didn’t just focus on representation, but looked at the narratives of women in leadership positions, and how they are spoken about. I became intrigued by what Sweden is doing with its foreign policy, and I actually wanted to write my dissertation about it, but there wasn’t the literature to support it as it was so new.
I questioned, instead, how a feminist foreign policy could be applied in practice. That, to me, means centring policy around people, not special interests. Of course there are so many different ways to interpret it, but personally I see the best way to sum up feminist foreign policy, is just that: people centred policy.
I was eager to interrupt foreign policy’s elite nature and its emphasis on hegemonic masculinity. I focused my research on security and how masculinity influences US policy making. I picked nuclear weapons because I see the field as being hyper-masculine, which intrigued me greatly.
For my case study, I focused on US nuclear policy through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the Iranian nuclear deal. I focused on how hegemonic masculine ideas and oriental narratives about Iran influence US policy making. More generally, nuclear weapons have historically been sexualised and rhetorically and symbolically used as an extension of one’s manliness.
"I was eager to interrupt foreign policy’s elite nature and its emphasis on hegemonic masculinity."
I saw this process of understanding nuclear policy through masculinity as a practical application of feminist theory to foreign policy. Feminist theory invites a discussion about identity, power, East to West relations, and more, all with the aim to understand how these policies actually affect the everyday lived experiences of people. Not just the lives of decision makers, but those who bear the brunt of such decisions - those who might actually have their lives change because of them.
While I was wrapping up this research and getting ready to hand in my dissertation, I bought the domain name for Feminist Foreign Policy and started our Twitter account. What FFP is now has been a direct result of my dissertation. In my last dissertation chapter, I wrote about what interrupting foreign policy with feminism, on a theoretical level, might actually look like. I wrote specifically in regards to nuclear policy, but also more broadly, and so based much of the theoretical foundation of FFP as a project on what I had uncovered in my dissertation. This is a project in which people orientated policy is the goal of everything I do. It's about questioning power to understand it better in order to disrupt it. Feminism asks who has power, and who doesn’t. Feminism asks all of us to look at our identify and how that influences lived experiences, how it supports systemic inequality, and asks how we can personally encourage diversity and include new voices.
So the feminist in your foreign policy is more people focused than women focused?
Definitely. Everything we do is still very women-focused, but to me, feminist foreign policy goes far beyond even gender equality. I think it is a much larger conversation. It is about gender identity as a whole, not just those who identify as women. It is about critiquing power structures that help to preserve an elitist system of international governance. Many people explicitly see feminism as something for women, which I agree with to a certain extent, because I think that greater equality for women directly increases the health of a society. But any feminist journey that wants to be taken seriously needs to simultaneously examine other forms of inequality - race, class, ethnicity, citizenship, etc.
Would you therefore see your research as developing to continually include more identities?
Yes, I really want to make this conversation a lot bigger. Currently, Sweden is the only country with a feminist foreign policy, and Canada has its feminist international aid, so it is still a very new idea. My hope for this project is that while this idea is still fresh and still in formation, we can encourage a very open approach to it. I do not want to speak as an authority on the subject matter, but rather, invite a conversation around it - and one that is diverse. If the whole point is to interrupt foreign policy then that means bringing lots of new and different ideas into the mix.
Brilliant, really interesting. So you have talked, particularly in reference to your dissertation about what a focus on gender can reveal to us, but how is foreign policy a tool for looking at gender?
I think macro policies often go unquestioned as to how they will affect individual’s lives. When incorporate gendered perspective into foreign policy, I think you tend to get a more well-rounded picture as to what these policies are actually doing on the ground. As an example, one of the things that comes to mind is US foreign aid. The definitions used by the US to define trafficking, or sex work, must be adopted by other countries in order to receive our aid. Many of them do so because they simply need the money. But the US has a very conservative, narrowed perspective, which doesn’t recognize sex work as a profession, nor seeks to understand the women who choose it as having any agency. Because of this, many sex workers can’t unionise or build any legal support around them, because what they do is flatly illegal. Whether you agree with sex work as a profession or not, harm comes from disallowing them any room to organize or advocate for themselves. It strips their voice, strips their agency, and puts them in a more marginalised and perhaps more dangerous position than they might have been before. When looking at these issues from top down as well as bottom up, a gendered lens allows us to see a different reality.
Where do you see the Feminist Foreign Policy moving?
We currently have an online journal and a really successful events programming, There is an ongoing open invitation for anyone who would like to join the conversation and pitch an article to us. I’d say we approach this project it with a more academic perspective, and ensure all our articles are research based. Our events programming includes opportunities for networking in London as well as panel discussions each month with experts in different fields. I am also in the process of developing a business strategy to put these discussions into practice and actually do some policy influencing. I am not entirely sure what that will look like at the moment, but I do know great things are coming.
"For the first time I really explored my identity and my privilege"
You talked in another interview about how you wanted the Feminist Foreign Policy to be international, is that still an aim of yours?
Absolutely. The journal is online and while it is in English, which is limiting of course but we want to be an international resource for feminists and policy-makers everywhere, and are trying to include articles in multiple languages.
If someone else wanted to do something like this, and create it into a business, do you have any advice?
Yes. If you feel very strongly about an idea - go for it! It takes passion and patience but it’s worth it. I’ve also had a terrible tendency to wait for people's approval. But with FFP, I have never felt so excited about anything I have done, ever. It took going through a master’s programme to finally instill the confidence in myself to tackle something so big, and I simply decided that I was no longer going to wait for someone to give me that formerly-needed pat on the back. Starting FFP has been a huge leap of faith in myself, but when you know you have something that is worthwhile, it can be such an incredible journey.
Is there anything that surprised you through your master's, or anything you would like to research further?
This isn’t necessarily surprising, but maybe for the first time I truly explored my identity and my privilege. That was never something that I had had to think about before. It’s greatly impacted how I have approached FFP and how I structure it. I think it is a very important part of a feminist journey - thinking about how your life experience, and how it affects the ways in which you live your life, and then how that affects others.
How are you going to introduce and invite a broader audience to the debate?
I see it as giving people access to the microphone, If you will. I want everyone who would like to join the conversation to know that FFP is available to them. We want to include a huge set of ideas and opinions, and do our best to reach out to new networks to bring people into the movement. And we certainly won’t be speaking on behalf of others. We’ll let their stories and their ideas speak for themselves.
Is that part of the learning curve, not talking over people?
Oh yes, definitely. That is a struggle that feminism as a whole has had forever - most recently with the US election. There is still so much tension around white women thinking they can talk on behalf of everybody else. I never explicitly thought I had that right but it is a very subtle, institutional form inequality, and it’s difficult to know you’re doing it unless someone pulls you back a step and shows you. It was a learning process, and I daresay, understanding my white privilege always will be.