Gender and US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

On November 17, 2001, then First Lady Laura Bush gave a radio address to the nation that lamented Afghan women as victims of an oppressive terrorist regime. She famously painted the picture for the American people that women in Afghanistan were helpless, brutalized individuals who were unable to take part in the small joys of life and were in dire need of saving from a more “civilized” society. She went on to state that “Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity … Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.”

By using the image of a helpless Afghan woman, First Lady Bush attempted to appeal to the heartstrings of the American people while covertly mustering public support for the US invasion of Afghanistan. This speech succinctly captured the quintessence of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) women’s position in American foreign policy toward the region. The components of American foreign policy that focus on gender often use MENA women as the rationale for war and militarization. The claim is that the United States, being a western power, is responsible for the liberation of Middle Eastern women from oppressive patriarchal and authoritarian regimes. Gender, in this instance, is used as a guise to further American military control in the region and presents these conquests through a more palatable lens to the rest of the western world.

Gender and Human Rights Have Not Been a Priority in US Foreign Policy

American foreign policy in the Middle East has traditionally focused primarily on military conflicts and economic relations. Very little thought has been placed on the daily lives of the people in the region. Historically, this was the case for two reasons. It was not until post-World War II that the United States even began to consider human rights as a component of international politics and foreign policy. At that time, women and gender issues were lumped together under the umbrella of “human rights.” However, it took decades for the United States to fully begin to implement the rhetoric of human rights in its foreign policy agenda. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush made human rights the central tenets of their administrations’ stances on foreign policy. Carter stated that human rights were a fundamental principle of US foreign policy and that “for too many years, we’ve been willing to adapt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs.”

The Carter Administration denounced the Soviet Union for its human rights violations; however, it did not halt arms sales to Iran under the Shah, whose government frequently oppressed internal opposition.

However, even with the grandstanding gestures, both administrations were criticized for what was deemed a hypocritical position due to each of their own mixed records on human rights. For example, the Carter Administration denounced the Soviet Union for its human rights violations; however, it did not halt arms sales to Iran under the Shah, whose government frequently oppressed internal opposition. The Bush Administration, for its part, was accused of  using illegal torture techniques on detainees in secret CIA detention centers. Ultimately, when it came to policies in the Middle East, women in the region were not considered important enough to be deemed vital actors in foreign policy initiatives. Human rights, when viewed through the lens of American foreign policy, was more of a way to tout western societies’ supposed civilized status on the world stage.

Moreover, oversight regarding the consideration of women’s roles in the MENA region had a lot to do with the fact that the United States has historically had a severe lack of women in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks. One can speculate that this is a product of American society’s long-standing and fervent categorization of women as exclusively responsible for the domestic sphere. Policy making was perceived as a male-dominated field, and masculine leadership traits were—and frankly still are—seen as the standard of excellence. Women in these positions were put under tremendous pressure to achieve perfection in their roles as well as continuing to be doting, attentive mothers at home. The stage for an increase in the number of women in national security and policy positions was laid with the Reagan Administration’s appointment of Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick as the US Representative to the United Nations in 1982. Fifteen years later, in 1997, the Clinton Administration pushed the standard further with its appointment of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State.

On October 31, 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which focused on women, peace, and security. It emphasized “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction.” The resolution further urged “all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts.” For the United States, this meant the need to step up its own inclusion of women in foreign policy creation. The Obama Administration made strides with the promotion of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. This plan aimed to allow American political leaders to advocate on behalf of marginalized women around the world and cemented the basic tenets of the United States’ modern-day approach to foreign policy. More specifically, it clarified the principle that women’s rights and women’s involvement in policy making could be utilized as tools to help foster democracy, strengthen relations, and promote development in some parts of the Middle East.

The Biden Administration has taken a strong stance on the promotion of women’s rights in its foreign policy initiatives. It announced in February 2021 that it will begin to take steps to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The Biden Administration has taken a strong stance on the promotion of women’s rights in its foreign policy initiatives. It announced in February 2021 that it will begin to take steps to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council from which the Trump Administration withdrew in 2018. The Biden Administration has also brought women’s rights and gender equity to the forefront of its politics. To do this, Biden has reformulated the Obama Administration’s White House Council on Women and Girls and created the Gender Policy Council (GPC). This council’s main objective is to advance gender equity and equality in both domestic and foreign policy development and implementation. The GPC will work with other government agencies, such as the Domestic Policy Council, National Security Council, and National Economic Council, to “instill a strategic, whole-of-government approach to gender equality and gender equity.” The Biden Administration is holding itself accountable to this standard of gender equity by nominating and appointing a record number of women to cabinet positions. However, compared to other countries, the United States is still lagging behind on this front.

Opportunities and Challenges of Gender-Responsive Policy

Over the past year, gender-based policy in the Middle East has come to the forefront of the Washington political consensus. With the Biden Administration’s early commitments to gender equity in policy making, the discussion very quickly turned to gender-based policy in the Middle East. On December 2, 2020, the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing titled “Advancing the Rights of Women and Girls in the Middle East: An Analysis of Current Trends and U.S. Policy.” The hearing was wholly comprised of female experts on gender and policy in the Middle East who unanimously agreed that women in the MENA region were unable to actively participate in the formal political arena because of increased instability, economic conditions, and sociocultural disparities. Jomana Qaddour, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, stated that although it has been 20 years since the United Nations enacted Resolution 1325, women in the Middle East have yet to play a systemic role in the diplomatic process. She went on to specify some challenges MENA women face when attempting to become involved in peace and security policy creation.

One challenge is the “lack of women involved in all levels of governance,” Qaddour stated. Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, women’s engagement in political activism has increased greatly; however, their official participation in the diplomatic process has not. The electoral successes of conservative Islamist parties, comprised of men, in Egypt and Tunisia after the events of the Arab uprisings concerned many feminists in the region. The main concern was that those in power, basing decisions on their conservative interpretation of Islam, would diminish women’s rights and restrict women’s already limited freedoms.

As of early 2020, Lebanon was the leading Arab nation when it came to women’s participation in the formal political sphere, with six female cabinet minister out of 20. In Egypt, eight women have obtained ministry positions.

As of early 2020, Lebanon was the leading Arab nation when it came to women’s participation in the formal political sphere, with six female cabinet minister out of 20. In Egypt, eight women have obtained ministry positions, making up 24 percent of the cabinet. The number of female judges in Egypt reached 66 and, for the first time, a woman is the deputy to the justice minister. Although these are strides toward an increase in women’s involvement in the governing process, the numbers are still minuscule compared to those of countries in other regions. Often, women who are placed in these positions are tokenized or used as tools by these governments to create the illusion of inclusivity to appease western nations.

Overall, the Atlantic Council’s Qaddour explained that Middle Eastern “women involved in politics often have no support structures to assist them in developing sound political proposals and the ability to nurture future women leaders.” Female political participation in the region is slow at best and the lack of representation leaves women alone in their political opinions. Without the support of more women or like-minded individuals, women’s policy decisions are often brushed aside by their male colleagues. The United States does not help to amplify women’s voices in Middle Eastern politics. This has a lot to do with the lack of women’s voices within American politics itself. However, continued US support, particularly financial assistance, to governments that do not put women in positions of political power has hindered any progress that could be made. By redirecting money away from arms deals or pulling financial support entirely, the United States could be a broker in equitable gendered policy making in the Middle East. Moving forward, the United States needs to create policy that supports the mainstreaming of women’s participation in the region and not relegate the serious challenges that women face simply as “women’s issues.” After the Arab Spring that began in 2011, women in the MENA region have shown that their active participation in the political sphere can make change inevitable.

Toward a Better US Policy

As a major world actor, the United States is often seen as the leading opinion maker regarding foreign policy and international relations. When it comes to the Middle East, the United States plays an important role in the region’s political realities. Although it is beginning to publicly put gender as an issue on the forefront of its Middle East foreign policy agenda, the United States’ actions are another story. In the past, the United States and Morocco have partnered to help promote women’s rights in Morocco as a way to foster democracy and “curb extremism and fight terrorism, all core objectives of [American] foreign policy.” The partnership with Morocco has inspired the United States to attempt to push women’s rights in countries it deems as “reform-oriented.” However, Washington does not offer the same level of support for all countries in the MENA region.

The United States has a track record for touting human right policies, yet it continually ignores its own violations and those its allies commit. 

The United States has a track record for touting human right policies, yet it continually ignores its own violations and those its allies commit. The double standard relative to human rights violations in the Middle East is something that the United States will have to reconcile in order to move forward as a leading broker for gender equity policies in the region. The United States has a habit of scrutinizing human rights and gender equality violations by governments which it dislikes (such as Iran) yet ignores similar violations from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia has a notorious track record when it comes to gender inequality; further, many of the victims of Israel’s bombings and oppression have been women. Ignoring the offenses of governments that the United States categorizes as “friendly” showcases the unsustainable flaws in gendered foreign policy that the United States applies in the region. Essentially, US actions indicate that Washington would rather have stability than accountability. Furthermore, the United States has historically utilized women as a tool against regimes with whom it does not have close relations.

Going back to Laura Bush’s 2001 speech, it is clear that the United States will use MENA women to advance the American narrative of being a progressive power for democracy and human rights, while blatantly contradicting the sentiments through its actions. For the United States, stereotyping Middle Eastern women as individuals in need of saving allows for a broader public appeal domestically when it comes to entering conflicts in the region.

In order for the United States to become a serious broker in the fight for gender equity and create sustainable foreign policy that helps to support it, there needs to be a fundamental change in how things are done. To start, the United States must begin to take an egalitarian approach to foreign policy in the Middle East. It cannot continue to hold certain countries and governments on a pedestal, while ignoring their egregious gender and human rights violations. Second, in order for gender-based policy to be successful, the United States must match its rhetoric with its actions, particularly when it comes to the money it allocates to the region. Instead of funding corrupt state institutions and the ruling elite, it would be more productive for US aid efforts to aim at enriching civic society. Money that is allocated to top tier government powers is often used to fund conflicts, which ultimately hurt women most. Instead of touting the emancipation of Middle Eastern women through military conflict, the United States should direct its financial assistance toward women’s organizations. Finally, the United States must break out of the narrative created by previous imperial powers that the struggle for gender equity in the region boils down to the religion of Islam as oppressive to women. This rhetoric ignores the reality that interpretations of Islamic doctrine are not exclusively to blame for gender inequality. Perpetuating these negative stereotypes not only plays into the orientalist image the West has of the Middle East, but it negates the work of many Middle Eastern feminists who have been instrumental in formulating and advancing women’s issues for decades.

Andrea Sakleh is a Research and Editing Intern at Arab Center Washington DC.