Feminist Foreign Policy and Beyond

Jan 20, 2023

Iran Is no Litmus Test for Germany’s Feminist Foreign Policy

When it comes to the protests in Iran, critics ask: Where is Germany’s bold new foreign policy? They are misguided, while Berlin, in its response, seems to have forgotten three of its own principles.

A demonstrator holds a poster during a protest following the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran, in Berlin, Germany, October, 22, 2022.
All rights reserved

Four months ago, Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, died in Tehran at the hands of Iran’s so-called religious police. Her death triggered protests—led largely by women—which quickly spread across society and continue to this day. And Germany’s response? To talk about itself—to ask why the government has failed to support the protestors despite supposedly developing guidelines for a feminist foreign policy (FFP), and, in fact, already pursuing one.

No wonder Germans are criticizing the government’s response. The courage of the Iranian demonstrators has been remarkable. An estimated 500 people have been killed, including many minors. A number of young adults were recently executed by the regime, and many face the death penalty. Thousands more are in custody, held in brutal and frightening conditions. The meagre sanctions that Germany and its European Union partners imposed on November 14, 2022, have had no discernible effect on a regime fighting for its survival.

This, moreover, is not the first time the German government has fallen short. Extraordinary as the Iranian protests are, they form part of a wider pattern. In Belarus, Afghanistan, Dagestan, and Brazil women have bravely taken to the streets. These protestors bely the idea that the world is slipping ineluctably toward autocracy. They also bely the assumption that power politics is back and is rendering marginalized groups powerless to affect change.

Overtaken by Events

Yet the German government has repeatedly been paralyzed by these events, caught in a dilemma of its own making. On coming to power one year ago, the “traffic light” coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) loudly proclaimed adherence to a values-based foreign policy that would involve strengthening the security of vulnerable people and the agency of those most affected. But it said little about how it would actually do that, and it has since been overtaken by events. It is now struggling to escape this narrative that “power politics is back” not to mention the long shadow of the West’s past heavy-handed attempts at regime change in countries abroad.

So, it seems right to ask: Where is it, this bold new German policy?

Except that it depends who is asking. To put it mildly, the most critical voices in the German debate are not those usually associated with terms like feminism and patriarchy, intersectionality and marginalization. Indeed, it is almost as if those calling most loudly for proof of Germany’s feminist credentials want this policy to fail.

Everyone knows that Iran is a hugely demanding case: The German government has only a few tools at hand to support civil society in Iran (offering moral and humanitarian support, using instruments to put further pressure on the regime, and building international alliances around the notion that change is possible). Yet the critics have chosen this as a litmus test for the government’s feminist foreign policy.

Three Important Principles

And the government, regrettably, has allowed them to do so. It is treating the protests in Iran more as a crisis in its domestic credibility than the latest in a series of opportunities for international change. As such the government seems to have forgotten three important principles in its own policy.

For one thing, Germany’s feminist foreign policy was meant to be a long-term undertaking. Feminist foreign policy takes aim at deeply entrenched social structures discriminating women and other marginalized groups. In Iran this would mean overturning an entire system that, by politicizing religion, oppresses women and marginalized groups—held in place by a brutal police state. This can be supported from the outside only by building new international alliances, working out how to moderate Germany’s material interests with values, and rethinking existing diplomatic tools and assumptions. And that takes time.

A second emergent principle follows on from the first: that we should not reinvent the wheel when implementing this approach. Germany needs to use the existing tools of international action to effect change. The international response to Iran shows that this toolbox is broken—it rests on outdated assumptions and it lacks any guiding principle or coherence. Feminist foreign policy is forcing us to rethink these tools. Yet those who want to turn Iran into a litmus test are purposefully twisting things. They are using the inadequacies of German diplomacy in order to undermine the very policy set up to fix them.

A third principle is that “feminist foreign policy starts at home.” And the existence of these domestic cynics shows why: This government will not succeed abroad without challenging them, the traditionalist counter-forces at home. We strongly suspect that a small number of the German government’s domestic critics are not just opposed to the notion of feminist foreign policy, they are even undermining the fight for women’s rights to strengthen their Islamophobic concerns—and therefore make Iran their very special business.

The fact that women around the world are protesting is eloquent proof that Islam, or religious belief itself, does not have a monopoly on the politicization of women’s bodies—at most they show that religion can be twisted into a political tool for retaining power. Hoping that women’s protests in Iran fail in order to make a political point about the “backwardness” of Islam is hugely cynical.

Absurd Benchmarks

In short, the test of feminist foreign policy is not whether the German government goes “all in” on the Iranian protests—whatever this might involve in the eyes of feminist foreign policy critics. Neither can the benchmark for the success of German FFP be whether the protestors succeed in replacing the regime with a progressive new government. Both these benchmarks are absurd.

The protesters are fighting an uphill battle, and Germany’s current ability to influence events in Iran is limited. That needs to be acknowledged by its critics—including by those who genuinely want FFP to succeed and want some kind of grand symbolic success in Iran. But that is not the same as accepting that the Iranian movements are bound to fail. Real change can occur, and it is not impossible that the revolution introduces a new era in Iran, where the demands voiced by civil society are progressively turned into reality. But if it happens, it will be down largely to the protesters themselves, and it will reflect their values rather than necessarily ours. And that is as it should be.

Nevertheless, Iran is a litmus test for the German government. It is a test of its readiness to act progressively and practically over the long term. German diplomacy should be judged on whether it now begins unlocking networks and alliances for change, empowering marginalized groups at home and abroad.

Feminist foreign policy is based on an awareness that change can happen from the bottom up, driven by people and places that German foreign policy tends to disregard. Change in Iran will not be a product of Germany’s FFP but of an Iranian feminist revolution. But Germany can play an important role in supporting this. Whether the German government succeeds in this should be the real litmus test of its policies. And it should now go about the important business of including new voices in international order—and at the same time put its own national interests to the test.

Roderick Parkes is Deputy Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) research institute and heads the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe.

Dana Schirwon is a Research Fellow at the DGAP’s Center for Climate and Foreign Policy.

Leonie Stamm is a Research Fellow at the DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe.

Read more by the author