Bessma Momani, professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. She is co-editor of Strengthening the Canadian Armed Forces through Diversity and Inclusion.
Being cynical about Canada’s feminist foreign-policy agenda is easy. Make no mistake, there is lots to criticize about what is often seen as a traditional foreign agenda with a hint of women thrown in for good measure. Critics call this a policy of “just add women and stir.” But Canada is on to something, getting us global recognition for a policy that serves us all good.
While in Jordan last month to celebrate the opening of our International Development Research Council’s regional office in Amman, I watched a Jordanian TV news report of King Abdullah visiting women officers in the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF). This small group of 35 women was the kingdom’s first all-female platoon trained by the Canadian Armed Forces in a two-year program to strengthen Jordan’s quick-reaction forces’ operational capacity as part of Operation Impact.
The Jordanian government approached Canada, over other NATO partners such as the United States or Britain which have provided similar programs in other countries, to deliver this unique training. We do not have the same country brand of having a heavy military footprint in the region. After all, Jordan was firmly under British tutelage for decades and the United States has a long and sordid reputation of its military making a muck in the Middle East.
Training Jordanian female officers to deal with the influx of women and children refugees crossing its long border with Syria, detect female suicide bombers with ties to Islamic State terrorists and provide medical aid as first responders to female civilians affected by violence are among the activities provided by Canada.
While I was in Amman, a Canadian in my hometown of Kitchener-Waterloo grumbled to Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer in a town-hall meeting about Canadian foreign assistance to Jordan. For many Canadians, feeling far removed from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and not knowing why Canada’s military is engaged in overseas missions is easy. Add to that the murky goals of Canada’s feminist foreign-policy agenda and we could easily lose sight of CAF’s valued activities and its role in the Middle East. Many Canadians may not see why providing this training is valuable to us, as Canadians; that is, until you know the story of Linda Vatcher.
A retired school teacher from Newfoundland, 62-year old Ms. Vatcher was visiting Jordan with her son in December, 2016, and taking in the majestic historic sites of the kingdom. Only briefly in Jordan, Ms. Vatcher was touring Kerak’s famous crusader castle at the very moment Jordanian security forces were trying to enter a suspicious home in a nearby town that neighbours had complained about. Taking advantage of social sensitivities of the conservative Kerak community, the suspected terrorists cried that women in the house were uncovered. This delay gave them enough time to mobilize guns and arms and engage in a fatal shootout with Jordanian forces; they then escaped to hideout in Kerak castle where Linda Vatcher was killed in further exchange of fire.
Had there been women on the Jordanian security team to enter that suspicious home, things might have turned out differently. That day, in one of the rare instances that terrorists have attacked this relatively tranquil Middle East country, 14 innocent people were killed. Ms. Vatcher was the only foreigner among the dead. After that attack, Jordan approached Canada to help train women to join in its security and counterterror forces.
I had the pleasure of meeting one of the CAF’s Training Assistance Team members, Captain Aisha Jawed, who humbly spoke about the bond she shared with the Jordanian platoon after six months on the job. With no shortage of challenges facing women in the CAF as well, there are lots of lessons for Canadian and Jordanian women military officers to share. Both Jordanian and Canadian militaries need cultural change to achieve true gender equality.
A feminist foreign policy works to better life for those abroad and prevent the senseless death of women such as Linda Vatcher who were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Investment in a feminist foreign policy is not an abstract or ideological agenda, it has real impact on allies, Canadians, and half of society.