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This article will examine the forces behind the rise of Women’s rights as a western foreign policy objective in the Middle East and the impact application of this objective has had to date.

The focus on women’s rights by powerful nation states and global institutions is a recent phenomenon. Foreign policy objectives in the Middle East have during the last five years routinely referred to the need to enhance the rights of women.


International Relations Theory

International Relations theory inform foreign policy initiatives and strategy therefore a brief review of dominant paradigms is necessary to understand the theory and structures which underpin today’s policy objectives.


The first international relations theory Liberal Internationalism (or Idealism) emerged in post World War I America and European response to the devastation caused. Its key elements were recognition of the sovereign nation state as the central international actor; promotion of democratic, non-aggressive political systems and the creation of an overarching international structure, the League of Nations, through which states would legally conduct international relations. It was believed that this global structure promoting law not war would obviate the need for nations to resort to military action, the collective will of all nations enforcing world wide security.


Sadly this utopian dream of the West was shattered by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and a new theory, realism, emerged. In 1948 the key realist of the period Hans J Morgenthau, a German-Jewish émigré to the United States, published his work, ‘Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace’. The central tenets of realism were set out in this work. The sovereign nation state was seen as the key actor with relationships between states being anarchical due to the absence of a world government / authority. A self-help system being created where each nation state uses a combination of diplomacy (the exercise of influence) and security (force / military intervention) to maintain and / or enhance its position within the world balance of powers. This theory was at its height during the Cold War.


With the ending of the Cold War and the growing importance of international organisations such as the U.N., the World Bank, the EEC (later EU), multinational corporations etc., there was a move away from state centric depictions of international relations towards a more pluralist approach. It was recognised that states no longer had the power to regulate non-state actors. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s seminal 1971 work, ‘Transnational Relations and World Politics’, stated that the rise of powerful non-state actors gave rise to a plurality of power bases and therefore international relations should now be seen as a series of complex interdependencies which run alongside realism.


In 1979 the realist paradigm was revitalised with the publication of Kenneth Waltz’s influential book, ‘Theory of International Politics’. Waltz integrated International relations theory into the dominant mode of theorising politics in the USA, rational choice theory (RCT). RCT presupposes that ‘politics can be understood in terms of the goal directed behaviour of individuals, who act rationally in the minimal sense that they make ends-means calculations designed to maximise the benefits they expect to accrue from particular situations’ (Brown, 2005, p40). Waltz in effect bypassed pluralist contentions by narrowly focusing on the international system. He concluded that only two systems were possible, hierarchical (world government– different kinds of units organised under a clear line of authority) or anarchical (similar units with different capabilities conducting relations with each other) and contended that the present system was clearly anarchical, the changes identified by pluralists were not such as to bring about a change of the system. Neo-realism remains the predominant theory of international systems.


The neo-liberalists of today have much in common with neo-realists. Both accept the theory of international anarchy and the rational egoism of states however neo-liberalists focus on state co-operation offers a different perspective. State co-operation as evidenced by today’s extensive and growing networks of international institutions undermines the neo-realist position that states are unwilling to co-operate.

Alternative Views

There are of course a diversity of critics within the International Relations Theory field who challenge and are hostile to rational choice approaches. Post structuralist, critical theorists and constructivists all offer alternative perspectives.

For the purpose of this article the most important of the alternative views come from feminist critical theorists. It is argued that International Relations Theory is not a free standing theory but rather part of a broader movement of social thought, the Enlightenment Project. Liberalism, a pervasive element within IRT, was the standard bearer of the Enlightenment project of human emancipation. The project was a movement which began in eighteenth century Europe and voiced the thoughts of liberal, white, European men. Critical theorists do not accept that the emancipation project is recoverable by adding the voices of those excluded e.g. women, non-western. They seek to trace gendered assumptions and revise the notion of human emancipation with an ultimate goal of producing inclusive International Relations Theories.

A Clash of Civilisations? - Cultural Assumptions

An additional factor has a substantial impact on foreign policy in the Middle East. The Orientalist conception of the East as ‘other’. This conception is particularly strong in respect to Middle Eastern women who have since the Enlightenment been portrayed as passive victims of a patriarchal Islamic system in need of rescuing.

Samuel P. Huntington, a Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, in his widely read 1992 article, The Clash of Civilizations?, argues that following the end of the Cold War the fundamental source of international conflict is not economic or ideological but rather one of cultural and religious identity. ‘The principle conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations.’ (P22, Huntington, 1993.) Clashes between the West and other civilisations, including Islam, are held to be inevitable.

This is an approach supported by many influential Middle Eastern scholars such as Bernard Lewis who write within the Orientalist tradition. The major tenets of orientalism can briefly be described as: an assumption that a dichotomy exists between the orient/east and the west; a positivist approach which provides certainty by positing knowledge as objective and unchanging; and a knowledge base reliant on philology, specifically the study of ancient Islamic texts.

In his 1990 essay entitled, ‘The Root of Muslim Rage’, Lewis refers to the clash of civilisations. Lewis states, ‘It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a Clash of Civilisations’ (p330, Lewis, 2004).

The Orientalist approach is not the only academic theory which underlies national approaches to foreign policy. In 1976 Edward Said published his work, Orientalism, which challenged the Orientalist essentialisation of Islamic people and culture, refuting the implications that they are ahistorical, static, unchanging and homogenous. As a result a new school of thought arose, the so called political economy approach, which seeks to explain Middle Eastern political development in terms of its economy and modes of production.

However the argument that a Clash of Civilisations is occurring is an accessible and compelling one supported by respected scholars. It provides an academic basis for the foreign policy of many western based institutions and a modern day impetus to resuscitate the rescue of Middle Eastern woman.


‘Foreign’ policy in this instance should be taken to mean the collective policies of the institutions of the Washington Consensus which have, ‘anchored the liberal international order since the end of World War II’ (Chowdry, 2002, p133) The consensus consists of key institutions in the US government, multilateral institutions like the World Bank and other organisations such as the United Nations. This liberal western ideology is legitimated and reproduced by an ‘intellectual protective belt’ (ibid, p134) of neo-realists academics. The following sections offer a brief overview of the current policy of some of these institutions in relation to the Middle East.

International Law

Some of the key concepts of Liberal Internationalism survived the realist hegemony. In October 1945 following the end of World War II the United Nations (U.N.) was created. This group of international institutions was established by 51 countries and now comprises almost every state in the world.

Each member state wishing to join the UN must accept the obligations imposed by the UN charter. This treaty set out the basic principles of international relations and had four purposes: ‘to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations between nations; to co-operate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights; and to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations.’ (Baylis and Smith, 2004, p406)

Peace and Security

Despite its remit of promoting a peaceful global community, the Security Council, the main decision-making body responsible for maintaining international peace and security, has a realist view regarding the distribution of power. There are 15 member nations which sit on the Council and of these 5 permanent member nations have veto powers in respect of all council decisions. (USA, Russia, France, UK and China). There is therefore a clash between the U.N.’s universal ideals and its recognition of power politics via this veto afforded to select influential nations.

Human Rights

The UN developed a system of international law to regulate relations between nation states. A plethora of international human rights standards as embodied in e.g. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 1979 have been produced.

The basic concepts underlying the majority of UN legislation, ‘emerged from Western philosophical and political developments’ (Cook, 1994, p171) and predated the second wave of western feminism. It is therefore arguable that the UN promotes white, western, male values and as such is not universal. Not only is its universality questioned its effectiveness is also problematic. The rights it grants can only be enforced if the legislation is ratified, incorporated into the domestic law and accessible by the citizens of each nation-state.

The lack of legitimacy combined with ineffective enforcement has prevented a hierarchical world government emerging. In order to determine who and what governs international politics we must therefore look at the influential players in today’s anarchical system.

The Nation State

US Foreign Policy

The US is currently acknowledged by Americans to be the world most powerful nation state. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War a unipolar system of American hegemony or imperialism, depending upon one's perspective, has emerged unquestioned. America is in its strongest international position ever, ‘it possesses a concentration of the physical attributes of power not seen since the beginning of the Westphalia system… and its political competitors are not intent on seriously challenging this predominance’ (Brown, 2005, p237).

So what use has the US, the worlds leading capitalist democracy, made of its dominant position to influence the international arena?

Since the end of the Cold War US foreign policy has fluctuated with each presidential change and more recently has been heavily influenced by the attack on the World Trade Center. The Clinton administration adopted a less isolationist approach than its predecessor actively promoting international adoption of western style America democracy and human rights on the basis of the Democratic Peace Thesis i.e. democracies do not fight democracies (Anthony Lake – foreign policy advisor to President Clinton).

The national crisis in 2001 caused by the September 11th attack on the twin towers placed the US on a war footing and galvanised the Bush administration into beginning its international ‘War on Terror’. This took the form of campaigns first against the Taliban in Afghanistan and later in 2003 against Sadam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime in Iraq. Such large scale military interventions have caused many commentators to call for a more measured approach. John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics 2001’, argues that, ‘instead of building an empire-which will increase anti-American hatred and put US forces on the front lines around the world – the United States should seek to reduce its military footprint and use force sparingly’ (Schmidt, 2004, 441)

Chris Brown, professor of International relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, believes that America’s self image is one of benign patronage, protecting its own interests yet promoting the desirable ideologies of universal democracy and human rights. It sees opposition to these goals as irrational and irresponsible or in more extreme cases such as Al Qaeda as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’.

Professor Brown notes that it is of course natural for peoples and governments to seek to define their own approach to world affairs and defend their own interests. It is therefore inevitable that many will see US foreign policy as self-serving and even imperialistic. It is the US governments failure to openly admit it is pursuing its own interests abroad, the ‘cloaking of interest in the language of altruism’ (Brown, 2005, p14) rather than merely the pursuit of these interests which is promoting anti-American sentiment.

Middle-Eastern states are the most disaffected. The US has long been demonised by regional hegemons such as Iran. This anti-American sentiment has spread with their protracted presence in Iraq. Many now see America’s War on Terror as a War on Islam.

Women and the MEPI

The US Department of State has an office dedicated to international women’s issues. [1] Global respect for women is stated to be, ‘a Bush administration foreign policy priority.’ In line with this policy in 2002 the Bush administration set up the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) [2] which uses ‘transformational diplomacy’ described by Condoleezza Rice as the, ‘use of both diplomatic power and foreign assistance to help citizens better their own lives and build their own nations.’

The MEPI concentrates on four specific areas or ‘pillars’ of reform, political, economic, education and women’s empowerment. Since 2002 these four pillars have received funding of $293 million from America. Three of these pillars are familiar focus areas however granting equal weight to women’s empowerment is an innovation.

Within the women’s pillar the MEPI sets out four areas for development: 1. Women and the Law – support for the elimination of arbitrary legal systems 2. Women and Democracy – increasing participation for women in building democratic societies, focusing on political representation and a strong civil society. 3. Women’s rights – support for local group struggles. 4. Women’s Economic Empowerment – access to and opportunity for economic independence.


These US foreign policy goals are laudable however critics have questioned their effectiveness in promoting women’s rights in the Middle East. Is the US government committed to empowering women in the Middle East or is it merely waging a propaganda war with women’s rights as the chosen battleground?

On International Women’s Day 8 March 2006 Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, stated, ‘throughout Afghanistan and Iraq women are making their voices heard in their new governments.’ [3] By reviewing the success of the implementation of the MEPI women’s pillar in Iraq, it will be possible to draw some tentative conclusions regarding US commitment to its policy goals.

Empowerment or Rhetoric?

The situation regarding women in Iraq was recently reviewed by Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt in their article, ‘Women in Iraq: Beyond the Rhetoric’. By looking at the first two foreign policy goals set out in the MEPI women’s pillar and reviewing progress made to date in Iraq it should be possible to gauge the depth of the US government’s commitment.

Women in Law

The Iraqi Constitution ratified in October 2005 enshrines women’s right to public participation but significantly does not grant women equal rights within the family. The areas of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance have traditionally been areas in which all women suffer discrimination. As in Lebanon the state has opted to accommodate regional differences in family law due to religious sectarian divisions, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd etc., rather than prioritise the empowerment of women through the provision of non-discriminatory laws.

Women’s legal rights within the family have been sacrificed to ensure sectarian loyalty to the state. The US goal of promoting the elimination of arbitrary legal systems appears to have failed in practice.

Women in Democracy

The MEPI advocates increased participation in the public sphere for women and, in particular, political representation. Following the fall of the Ba’ath regime the US provided substantial funding to Iraqi women to bring them into the political process quickly. The resulting upsurge in civil society activism amongst women produced a consensus, ‘irrespective of the “secular-religious” divide, that women should hold at least 30 percent of all elected offices.’ (p2, Al-Ali and Pratt, 2006).

Despite stimulating this upsurge in women’s activism via funding the Bush administrations representative in Iraq at the time, CPA head L. Paul Bremer, refused to support quotas for women. Without US support Iraqi women achieved an agreement, now enshrined in the constitution, that women representatives will form 25 percent of all elected assemblies.


By failing to support calls for equal rights for all women within the arena of family law and refusing to support political representation quotas for women the Bush administration’s genuine commitment to the empowerment of women as a foreign policy initiative is questionable. The military is a powerful male bastion. It can be argued that the US realist agenda in occupied Iraq leads it to seek stability via negotiations with those in positions of power, the male elite. In this situation only token attention will be paid to the voices of women who will be heard but not listened to or substantively assisted.

Global Institutions

The World Bank – Economic Development

In 2004 the World Bank published its findings on the economic consequences of gender inequality within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)in a report entitled 'Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa' [4]. Statistics showed that although MENA compared favourably with other developing regions in relation to women’s health and education gains that it was, paradoxically, considerably below average in the areas of economic participation and political empowerment.

Investment in the health and education of women had in other developing regions boosted employment and productivity among women and increased access to political participation. In the MENA region these gains failed to appear. Participation by women in the labour force had increased significantly during the last two decades but remained the lowest in the world. Women on average represented only 32% of the workforce (p19). Political empowerment was also poor compared to other regions, research confirmed that ‘women’s presence in the political arenas and their influence on public policy are more limited in MENA than in any other region’ (p3).

The failure by MENA to utilise two-thirds of its potential female work force would inevitably undermine economic growth, income and productivity. In order to understand and address the low level of women’s economic and political participation the World Bank looked at the distinct socio-economic factors in MENA which shape women’s everyday lives.

Public v Private

In MENA, ‘gender roles and power dynamics within the household determine to a large extent women’s access to and interaction with the state and the public sphere.’ (p94). The World Bank believes these roles and power dynamics are shaped by four socio-economic factors:

1. Centrality of the family – culturally the family and not the individual is society’s building block. Women fulfil the function of mother / carer. 2. Male Breadwinner Model – the expectation that the man is the primary breadwinner and head of the household is a world wide, yet hotly disputed, male expectation which is taken a step further in MENA where this norm is enshrined in legislation. 3. Imposition of social constraints on women by the ‘code of modesty’ – a family reputation is believed to reside in preserving the honour of female family members. Men as the guardians of this honour protect the family reputation by controlling and limiting women’s access to the public spheres e.g. paid labour, travel etc. 4. Unequal power in the private sphere – Women face serious discrimination in the area of family law which encompasses marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance laws. In many MENA countries family laws are based on Shari’a and require obedience by a wife toward her husband / provider. Disobedience by e.g. working without consent can result in extreme consequences: divorce, loss of children and an end to financial support.

These socio-economic factors within MENA are believed to promote inequality and discrimination based on gender.

Strategy for Change

The World Bank suggested that political and economic gender disparities could be addressed by:

1. Reviewing legislative provisions to ensure women’s rights are enshrined in the constitution 2. Providing an infrastructure supportive of women’s participation in the public sphere e.g. transport, childcare 3. Education – building on the significant gains already made 4. Reform of outdated labour laws and regulations e.g. access to all jobs, removal of restrictions on the hours of work, equal access to tax and employment related benefits.


The study acknowledges that a grass-roots consensus and state support are both required to implement effective changes promoting lasting gender equality. Without public support attempts by the state to impose equality are likely to result in public resistance as demonstrated during the post-colonial 1950-1970’s period. The failure of government elite led attempts to impose greater public participation by women become a symbol of resistance to modernization and westernisation.

Women’s advocacy groups should be supported and encouraged to promote demand for participation in the public spheres of politics and the economy. Positive discrimination in form of quotas are advocated.

The United Nations – Human Development

The first Human Development Report (HDR) was published by the United Nations Development Programme in 1990. The idea was to introduce a measure for human as opposed to purely economic development. Development was no longer to be measure by reference to GNP alone, new indices of growth measurement e.g. HDI (Human Development Index) and later GEM (Gender Empowerment Measures), were developed to highlight the fact that, ‘People are the real wealth of nations.’ (AHDR, 2002, p15)

Measuring Progress

Although the HDI indicators: measurements of life expectancy, adult literacy, education enrolment ratios and gross domestic product per capita; are useful the concept of human development is broader than these measures.

The first Arab Human Development Report 2002 [5]. sought to assess human development in the Arab region against a wider set of socio-economic measures highlighting:

1. Civil and Political Freedoms – reference was made to the Freedom House [6] freedom index produced by an American organisation since 1972/73. In 1998/99 the Arab region was found to have the lowest freedom score in the world. 2. Women’s Empower – gender inequality was stated to be, ‘the most pervasive manifestation of inequity of all kinds in any society because it typically affects half the population.’ (AHDR, 2002, p2). In terms of GEM the Arab region was found to be ranked next to last in the world, only sub-Saharan Africa having a lower score. The low level of women’s empowerment being attributed to the limited participation of women in political organisations and not a lack of female education. 3. Human capabilities / knowledge relative to income – The Arab region was found to have relatively poor knowledge acquisition and production. Illiteracy rates being higher and enrolment rates lower than less developed countries in Latin America. A further cause for concern was that access levels to ICT were in 1998 lower than in Sub-Sahara Africa.

As with the World Bank Report lack of progress in gender equality was highlighted. Despite showing the greatest regional improvement in female education this achievement did not counter regional gender based social norms which continued to see women in a private reproductive role and excluded from the public spheres of politics and to a lesser extent the paid labour force.

Strategy for Change

The report called for greater public participation for all citizens in Arab countries via genuine representative democracy. It highlighted the specific need for women to be, ‘politically empowered by far greater participation.’ (AHDR, 2002, P9) and pointed to the present patriarchal social system as the font of inequality.

Noticeably this report, prepared by Arab academics, did not gloss over and ignore regionally specific cultural values. It clearly stated that advances in economic and political participation must take account of regional and cultural values. It was suggested that governments should be a positive influence leading by example and that openness and constructive engagement with the values and cultures of non-Arab countries would be the most viable response.

Women’s Voices

The western liberal theories which underlie foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East have not gone unchallenged by the women in the developing world. Theories which reconceptualise and reclaim identity and place gender and race at the centre of their analysis are emerging. Patriarchy, the pervasive legacy of colonialism and the conflation of oppressive cultural practices with Islamic beliefs have all been challenged.

Leila Ahmed in her book, ‘Women and Gender in Islam’ 1992 argues that the oppressive practices women in the Middle East are subjected to are due to the prevalence of patriarchal interpretations of Islam. These oppressive interpretation were entrenched during the colonial project of female emancipation as patriarchal cultures rejected western imposed emancipation as a means of retaining cultural authenticity. Ahmed argues that Islam is not itself a source of repression.

Postcolonial international relations scholars such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty start from the premise that, ‘imperialism constitutes a critical historical juncture in which postcolonial national identities are constructed in opposition to European ones…the imperialist project thus shapes the postcolonial world and the West’ (Chowdry, 2002, p2). Postcolonial does not signify the end of colonialism but rather the study of the impact of colonialism and its enduring legacy via powerful, western, global institutions.

Third world feminist such as Hamideh Sedghi, an Assistant Professor of Political Science, highlight a political dilemma women in the developing world often face. When colonialism is resisted and national liberation sought women are often asked to support a resistance movement which is patriarchal e.g. post-revolutionary Iran. Women are therefore required to choose between supporting the national patriarchy in a show of solidarity or using events in world politics to highlight their own gender specific struggles. e.g. Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifa when speaking of Intifada women maintains, ‘I don’t want to be a heroine for the sake of the nation. I don’t want my body to be a bridge for the state.’ (Beckman, 1994, p94).

If foreign policy is to address the inequities women in the Middle East face a review of the theories underpinning current practices will need to be undertaken. This will require the voices of women be listened to and heard.

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