The United States stands on the brink of history with the nomination of its first female presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Paradoxically, electing a woman president for the US will not advance women's rights around the globe.

This is because Clinton will immediately feel the need to demonstrate her power in a world that operates by traditionally male-dominated statecraft.

That world will not allow her to redefine the US' national interests, and consequently its foreign policy, in a way that will truly empower the world's women, particularly in Muslim countries where safety and security is needed the most.

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Clinton and sexism

This year Clinton hopes to capitalise on the women's vote by making equal pay, affordable childcare, fighting violence against women, women's reproductive rights all a major part of her platform.

Yet, US politics is still a long way from gender parity. Clinton is the first woman to make it this high in a power structure which until 1920 did not allow women to vote.

As a former senator, Clinton is one of 46 women who have been elected to the Senate since 1922.

Only 20 women senators are serving in this Congress year out of a house consisting of 100 members, meaning that the Senate does not have 50 percent representation of women members.

In the House of Representatives, the number of women is at almost exactly the same percentage: 20 percent out of 435 elected members are women.

In her pursuit of the presidency, Clinton faces sexist attacks which hinge on an historical mistrust of women in power in the US.

Clinton has the chance to make history, but as the US' first woman president, will she continue to serve a male-dominated establishment, or will she choose to redefine national interests in a way that promotes women's rights and the security of women and girls around the world?


While the country is arguably the most powerful nation on earth, that power rests on a supremely male vision of power: military strength, "hawkish strategies", "muscular diplomacy" and the ability to apply hard and soft power to create what Joseph S Nye calls "smart power".

The military, the arm of the US government which functions as an extension of its foreign policy, continues to be a male bastion, both in numbers (85 percent male) and in culture and psychology, as cases of sexual harassment in the military continue to prove (PDF).

'Hegemonic masculinity'

This gender gap in the US politics extends to other countries - women leaders around the world have struggled with these dilemmas in different ways.

In South Asian countries, women heads of state are judged - partially accurately - as ineffective figureheads. Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike were the female continuation of male-dominated politics, with all its corruption and in-fights.

Women leaders are seen as strong and effective - Israel's Golda Meir, Britain's Margaret Thatcher and India's Indira Gandhi - only when they enact unforgiving domestic policy, tough foreign policy and go to war as ruthlessly as men do.

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This runs contrary to the commonly held belief among feminist circles that more women leadership would result in the reduction of global conflict and violence, as well as a concentration on social democracy and the uplift of poor and marginalised women.

In reality, the world's power structures continue to operate under RW Connell's concept of "hegemonic masculinity", so women find it hard to ascend the male hierarchy in international relations unless they are willing to espouse the militarism that it favours.

A woman leader favouring peacemaking and diplomacy over war and conflict could be labelled as weak because of her gender, rather than using a legitimate part of her leadership capabilities, policies and choices.

A feminist foreign policy?

If there are hopes that Clinton will enact a solely feminist foreign policy, the way Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom tried in 2015, they can also be abandoned now.

Foreign policy is enacted through institutions, not individuals, and they operate on the doctrine of necessities, not on principles - something that Wallstrom forgot, in championing gender rights abroad and attempting to bring Saudi Arabia to task over its human rights record.

Wendy Keen, of Iowa City, listens as Clinton speaks during the Women for Hillary Get Out the Caucus event, January 24, [Reuters]

She tried to make the principle of gender equality a top priority in an arena that neatly ignores the safety and security of women when it comes to war, arms deals, peace-making and defence treaties.

For all Sweden's progressiveness, its own male-dominated military-industrial complex, hungry for foreign money from arms sales, rejected her feminist overtures in foreign policy in the end.

Clinton is characterised as hawkish in her foreign policy, a warmonger who green-lighted policies that compounded the devastation of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

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Her pro-Israel stance worries Muslims in the Middle East and other Muslim countries. Her pro-Saudi stance has had the same effect.

Clinton may be progressive at home, but abroad, she is regarded as pro-establishment, pro-Wall Street and pro-military-industrial-complex.

If elected, as the first American woman commander-in-chief, she will continue to expand on her style of leadership in order to distinguish herself from Obama's style - more "muscular" as Ryan Grim wrote in the Huffington Post.

Will she conform?

US foreign policy flirts with feminism, but only when the it wants to soften up Muslim countries, and to advance women's rights as part of the export of democracy.

Women ambassadors are sent to those Muslim countries, and so are programmes to promote women as entrepreneurs or girls' education abound.

But when the US national interests of economy necessitate dealing with a regressive countries, or war and invasion of Muslim countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Libya, those ideals are thrown out the window.

For all Clinton's talk about gender equality, the US' wars have devastated the lives of countless Muslim women.

Clinton has the chance to make history, but as the US' first woman president, will she continue to serve a male-dominated establishment, or will she choose to redefine national interests in a way that promotes women's rights and the security of women and girls around the world?

It's hard to see Clinton giving up the opportunity to secure her presidency with a hawkishness that puts her up in the echelons of power with the big boys.

For her, conforming to the US' traditionalist, androcentric vision of global might may be the key to her political survival - and the continued suffering of women in conflict areas around the world.

Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani writer from Karachi. She is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera