The agility to challenge the status quo
Professor Zeynep Alemdar, a Turkish academic, on why political representation matters and women should be put at the forefront of global decision making.
Growing up in cosmopolitan Istanbul, Zeynep Alemdar has always been fascinated with how big the world is, how infinite the possibilities of the future are, and, at the same time, how small people can be.
Being good at connecting the dots from a young age, she quickly learned there are no distinct lines between the domestic and the international. That our lives are affected by global events as much as they are affected by local incidents.
This realization guided Alemdar, a natural problem-solver, to her calling in international relations. Now a professor and a dean at Okan University in Istanbul, she says: “The world is vast and exciting and we are usually bottled up in our own localities. I’ve always had this bird's eye picture of events, looking at things within a bigger perspective.”
No wonder her research interests revolve around issues of democratization and civil society, critical security studies, and international organizations.
In her career as an academic, but also as a force in civil society, she is focused on bringing the female perspective forward in both local and global decision-making processes. As she puts it herself, the strive for equality has been like a combustion engine in both her personal and professional journey.
Together with Dr Christina Bache and Rana Birden, two ladies from different fields but both with backgrounds in international relations, Alemdar founded Women in Foreign Policy in Turkey. This initiative’s goal is to showcase the critical importance of women in solving international conflicts and to give women a safe space to talk about these issues.
“The three of us come from different sectors – from academia, a think-tank, and business. We saw men talk about the issues that we know a lot about and we were never invited to join those talks. Why was our expertise not valued as much as that of old white males?”, prof Alemdar asks rhetorically.
Women’s role in peacekeeping
She also noticed that none of her female students in her international relations classes were confident enough to dream of being the president someday, or to even aim for a top leadership position in public policy.
Professor Alemdar explains the goal of the Women in Foreign Policy Initiative as: “We want to encourage women who are interested in foreign policy and provide them a space in which they can talk comfortably about solving international problems, to learn from each other, to learn from their role models, and to bring different generations together”.
One example is their work to get Turkey to implement a national action plan based on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which aims to empower women’s participation in conflict resolution, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding.
“We are raising awareness and writing about how Turkish foreign policy can be geared towards a peace and security agenda. How the priorities of Turkish foreign policy can be made more sensitive to the feminist agenda. It’s such a low-hanging fruit that it could be done without anyone else being aware of it”, Alemdar says.
According to UN Security Council research, when women are involved in peace talks, the likelihood that a peace agreement will last longer than 15 years increases by 35%. There are real-life examples from such places as Liberia, the Philippines, and Burundi, where women’s civil society organizations stopped peace talks from being suspended and managed to get the men to agree with each other.
Professor Alemdar explains that: “At the peace table, men usually talk about borders and when to stop the arms race, while women talk about torture, harassment, sexual violence, and child soldiers”.
She cites American research, which shows that women in the US Senate voted according to their party lines when deciding upon military intervention. However, once that was resolved, they raised issues like: “What's going to happen to the soldiers coming back from the war? What is going to happen to the women and children the soldiers left behind?” As Alemdar puts it: “They were bringing up issues that were not considered before”.
Professor Alemdar explains why women are so effective in foreign policy missions this way: “All the research that I have done or read points out that women think longer-term. While men try to solve problems right away, women always think about the longer-term effects”.
She also adds that women are more detail-oriented when it comes to problem-solving. They look into the nuts and bolts of the issues they are trying to solve. “Once you put women at the peace table, they look into the structural reasons for a war and try to find solutions”, she says.
Feminist foreign policy
The term feminist foreign policy was first coined by Margot Wallström, a former minister of foreign affairs of Sweden. In 2014, Wallström made Sweden the first country in the world to formally adopt a “feminist foreign policy.”
What does this mean exactly?
“Feminist foreign policy is about making women count in all foreign policy decisions. To make use of women's knowledge, of women's experience, and of women's intelligence in an area which has traditionally neglected women”, Alemdar explains.
She points out that all the terms coined in international relations are usually laden with male values – hierarchy, frontiers, borders, and power.
“All these concepts that we use to describe international relations are very male-oriented. Feminist theorists started to question these back in the 70s and the 80s. What is powerful? Shall we talk about borders, as if they are these immutable lines in the sand, or shall we talk about borders differently? What is sovereignty? How do we define sovereignty”, she explains.
But only in the early 2000s were these ideas converted into political actions and impacted how resources are distributed. For example, countries like Sweden and Canada have started to prioritize women's organizations and women in their development aid programmes while France and Mexico have begun to include more women in their diplomatic corps.
“It's such a vast, fruitful, and productive field that you can make any type of policy feminist. You can gender mainstream the budget, you can create gender mainstreaming aid policy, you can gender mainstream the refugee policy. You can change the diplomatic corps. There’s a lot of room if countries would like to maintain a feminist foreign policy”, Alemdar adds.
“She was a good role model for a lot of feminists around the world, not only during the COVID crisis but also when there was an attack on a mosque in New Zealand. At a time when Trump was going around and yelling, she handled radical terrorism in a way that was so compassionate. In a world where polarisation was the game, she changed the game by being strong, but soft-spoken, compassionate, and kind”, Alemdar explains and adds: “She showed us that you don't need to yell to be strong. To project power, you don't need to beat people up. Being strong and being kind are not exclusive things.”
The subtle glass ceiling
Zeynep Alemdar’s feminism was cultivated in her family. She grew up in what she describes as a typical middle-class family and a close-knit family environment. Her parents had a very strong sense of justice and equality. They believed a person should be humble and always share with the less fortunate.
“Even if sometimes my mom wanted to go along with the traditional female roles within the family, my brother would object. If she said: “Go bring your big brother a glass of water, he would be like: “Oh no, I will go get my own water. Why did you ask her to do that?” He was influential, helping me to become the feminist that I am”, Alemdar reflects.
Today, she values agility as her way to face challenges and become a better version of herself. She admits that even in the free and progressive world of academia, she hits the glass ceiling every day.
“Every day you're dealing with the big white males. It's never really directly pronounced, it's very subtle. If you call someone out about it, it will be rejected right away. It will be rejected in a way that makes you look like a crazy person”, Alemdar says bluntly.
She recalls that she was once called a sleeping beauty by a male colleague during a conference because she dared to bring forward the feminist agenda to hard security issues. “It’s not because of the things I was saying, it was because I was challenging them from an angle that they never thought about before”, Alemdar says.
This academic is certain that to change the status quo, governments should take all the necessary measures to get men and women on equal grounds in terms of care work, economy, and political participation. The numbers are still striking, even in developed countries. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2021, at the current pace, it would take 145.5 years to close the gender gap in political empowerment, and 267.6 years in economic participation and opportunity.
Other research comparing female and male academics’ productivity during the COVID period, shows that male academics were publishing more, while women academics were taking care of their kids, houses, families and worrying about health issues.
According to Alemdar, to encourage more female participation in politics, women need good gatekeepers, namely male allies who would open the doors for women. Another key is female solidarity – women in power supporting and lifting each other up. And the third is quotas. “With these numbers so low, especially in terms of political participation, women need legal amendments to push them to the front”, Alemdar states.
But it is slowly happening. As she concludes: “If you look at the protests all over the world – Black Lives Matter, Indian women fighting for their rights to property, climate change activists, etc. – It's very obvious that women are driving the change. And they are the ones who are challenging the traditional policies.”