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PERSPECTIVE ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS : Putting Gender in Foreign Policy : American policy-makers can no longer ignore the issue of how women are treated in other countries.

<i> Henry Bienen is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. </i>

Ethnic factors have long played a role in the formulation of American foreign policy--citizens of Greek descent march under the banner “Macedonia is Greek”; citizens of Jewish faith have been concerned with the security of Israel and have established a powerful lobby that has influenced arms sales in the Middle East, foreign aid to Israel and the terms of settlement of Arab-Israeli conflicts; African Americans have had an impact on policies toward South Africa.

Now, gender politics is properly emerging as a foreign-policy issue for the 1990s. Discrimination against women will become an increasingly important issue in the second half of this decade.

Women are the largest group of people in the world systematically discriminated against; they are treated as second-class citizens in some societies, many of which are officially Islamic.

The interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, mandates restrictions on dress and behavior in Saudi Arabia and Iran that do not apply to men. Women have been penalized for trying to drive autos in Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan and in many other Islamic countries, laws of evidence are applied differently to women. And in many countries where Islamic law does not apply, there is systematic discrimination by custom that relegates women to an inferior status.

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In the future, foreign-policy makers will find that they cannot ignore women’s issues in formulating U.S. policy toward countries that disenfranchise half their population or interfere with women’s rights concerning their labor, children or persons (witness the criticism of the Bush Administration when, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, it restored the Emir of Kuwait as head of a system that does not grant equal rights to women). Policy-makers should not be able to ignore the fact that some countries treat women differently on ownership of property and establish an inferior status for women in court.

Apologists for the abusive treatment of women retreat to cultural relativism, arguing that there are laws and behaviors that flow from the traditions of a particular country or religion. The same argument could have been made about apartheid in South Africa, or the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in Nazi Germany.

As the United States reformulates its foreign policy in a post-Cold War world, human-rights issues will loom larger than they ever have before. True, it has always been difficult to develop human-rights policies and apply them consistently. It has seemed important to sustain some elites in power. And, because the United States has multiple interests and goals, including regional peace and security, and has special concerns such as access to oil, foreign policies are complex and must take account of many factors.

Nonetheless, there will be a strong and growing pressure to deny foreign aid, military assistance and political support to governments that tolerate or promote discrimination against women.

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Gender politics will no longer be confined solely to debates about such national issues as abortion, sexual harassment or equal pay for equal work. The growing number of federal, state and local positions held by women and the increase in consciousness, size and number of the organizations with a commitment to women’s rights make it likely that human rights will be redefined to make the equal treatment of women abroad a major concern of American foreign-policy-makers. Neither politicians nor civil servants will be able to ignore this long-overdue redefinition.


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