Be free? The European Union’s post-Arab Spring women’s empowerment as neoliberal governmentality

  • Hendrik HuelssEmail author


This article analyses post-Arab Spring EU initiatives to promote women’s empowerment in the Southern Mediterranean region. Inspired by the Foucauldian concept of governmentality, it investigates empowerment as a technology of biopolitics that is central to the European neoliberal model of governance. In contrast to dominant images such as normative power Europe that present the EU as a norm-guided actor promoting political liberation, the article argues that the EU deploys a concept of functional freedom meant to facilitate its vision of economic development. As a consequence, the alleged empowerment of women based on the self-optimisation of individuals and the statistical control of the female population is a form of biopower. In this regard, empowerment works as a governmental technology of power instead of offering a measure to foster fundamental structural change in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) societies. The EU therefore fails in presenting and promoting an alternative normative political vision distinct from the incorporation of women into the hierarchy of the existing market society.


Arab Spring empowerment European Union governmentality neoliberalism women 



I am grateful to the editors, two anonymous reviewers, Ingvild Bode and Toni Haastrup for their constructive and insightful feedback on earlier versions of this article.


  1. Al-Ali, Nadje (2012) ‘Gendering the Arab Spring’, Middle East Journal of Culture & Communication 5(1): 26–31.Google Scholar
  2. Amigot, Patricia and Margot Pujal (2009) ‘On Power, Freedom, and Gender: A Fruitful Tension Between Foucault and Feminism’, Theory & Psychology 19(5): 646–69.Google Scholar
  3. Bartelson, J. (2006) ‘Making Sense of Global Civil Society’, European Journal of International Relations 12(3): 371–95.Google Scholar
  4. Bicchi, Federica (2006) ‘“Our Size Fits All”: Normative Power Europe and the Mediterranean’, Journal of European Public Policy 13(2): 286–303.Google Scholar
  5. Bicchi, Federica (2011) ‘The Union for the Mediterranean, or the Changing Context of Euro-Mediterranean Relations’, Mediterranean Politics 16(1): 3–19.Google Scholar
  6. Bicchi, Federica and Benedetta Voltolini (2013) ‘EU Democracy Assistance in the Mediterranean: What Relationship with the Arab Uprisings?’, Democracy and Security 9(1–2): 80–99.Google Scholar
  7. Bilgic, Ali (2015) ‘Hybrid Hegemonic Masculinity of the EU before and after the Arab Spring: A Gender Analysis of Euro-Mediterranean Security Relations’, Mediterranean Politics 20(3): 322–41.Google Scholar
  8. Browning, C. S. and P. Joenniemi (2008) ‘Geostrategies of the European Neighbourhood Policy’, European Journal of International Relations 14(3): 519–51.Google Scholar
  9. Buzan, Barry, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.Google Scholar
  10. Cardwell, Paul James (2011) ‘EuroMed, European Neighbourhood Policy and the Union for the Mediterranean: Overlapping Policy Frames in the EU’s Governance of the Mediterranean’, Journal of Common Market Studies 49(2): 219–41.Google Scholar
  11. Chant, Sylvia and Caroline Sweetman (2012) ‘Fixing Women or Fixing the World? “Smart Economics”, Efficiency Approaches, and Gender Equality in Development’, Gender & Development 20(3): 517–29.Google Scholar
  12. Charness, Gary and Uri Gneezy (2012) ‘Strong Evidence for Gender Differences in Risk Taking’, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 83(1): 50–58.Google Scholar
  13. COWI, ADE and Itad (2015) ‘Evaluation of EU Support to Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Partner Countries’, final report.Google Scholar
  14. Dean, Mitchell (1999) Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society, London: SAGE.Google Scholar
  15. Dean, Mitchell (2002) ‘Liberal Government and Authoritarianism’, Economy and Society 31(1): 37–61.Google Scholar
  16. Dean, Mitchell (2007) Governing Societies: Political Perspectives on Domestic and International Rule, Maidenhead: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Dean, Mitchell (2015) ‘The Malthus Effect: Population and the Liberal Government of Life’, Economy and Society 44(1): 18–39.Google Scholar
  18. Deveaux, Monique (1994) ‘Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault’, Feminist Studies 20(2): 223–47.Google Scholar
  19. Development Researchers’ Network (DRN) (2013) ‘Evaluation of the European Union’s Support to Two European Neighbourhood Policy Regions (East and South)’, Rome.Google Scholar
  20. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow (1983) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, second edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  21. European Commission (2011) ‘A New Response to a Changing European Neighbourhood’, COM(2011) 303. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  22. European Commission (2013a) ‘Gender Mainstreaming Continues to Be a Challenge for Development Cooperation’. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  23. European Commission (2013b) ‘Programming of the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) — 2014–2020, Single Support Framework for EU Support to Egypt (2014–2015).’ Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  24. European Commission (2014) ‘Neighbourhood at the Crossroads: Implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2013’, JOIN(2014) 12 Final. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  25. European Commission (2015) ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Transforming the Lives of Girls and Women through EU External Relations 2016–2020’, Joint Staff Working Document SWD(2015) 182 Final. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  26. Foster, Emma A. (2011) ‘Sustainable Development: Problematising Normative Constructions of Gender within Global Environmental Governmentality’, Globalizations 8(2): 135–49.Google Scholar
  27. Foucault, Michel (1990) The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  28. Foucault, Michel (1991) ‘Question of Method’, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds, The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality, 73–86, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Foucault, Michel (2001) ‘Truth and Power’, in James D. Faubion, ed., Power: Essential Works of Michel Foucault 19541984, Volume 3, 111–34, New York: New Press.Google Scholar
  30. Foucault, Michel (2007) Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 19771978, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  31. Foucault, Michel (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 19781979, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  32. Foucault, Michel (2010) The Government of Self and Others. Lectures at the Collège de France 19821983, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  33. Freyburg, Tina, Sandra Lavenex, Frank Schimmelfennig, Tatiana Skripka and Anne Wetzel (2009) ‘EU Promotion of Democratic Governance in the Neighbourhood’, Journal of European Public Policy 16(6): 916–34.Google Scholar
  34. Gordon, Colin (1991) ‘Governmental Rationality: An Introduction’, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordo and Peter Miller, eds, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, 1–51, Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Grek, Sotiria (2009) ‘Governing by Numbers: The PISA “effect” in Europe’, Journal of Education Policy 24(1): 23–37.Google Scholar
  36. Hansen, Hans Krause and Arthur Mühlen-Schulte (2012) ‘The Power of Numbers in Global Governance’, Journal of International Relations and Development 15(4): 455–65.Google Scholar
  37. Haukkala, Hiski (2008) ‘The European Union as a Regional Normative Hegemon: The Case of European Neighbourhood Policy’, Europe-Asia Studies 60(9): 1601–22.Google Scholar
  38. Hickel, Jason (2014) ‘The “Girl Effect”: Liberalism, Empowerment and the Contradictions of Development’, Third World Quarterly 35(8): 1355–73.Google Scholar
  39. Holden, Patrick (2011) ‘A New Beginning? Does the Union for the Mediterranean Herald a New Functionalist Approach to Co-Operation in the Region?’, Mediterranean Politics 16(1): 155–69.Google Scholar
  40. Jad, Islah (2003) ‘The NGOization of the Arab Women’s Movements’, paper prepared for the international workshop Feminist Fables and Gender Myths: Repositioning Gender in Development Policy and Practice, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, 2–4 July, 2003, more at
  41. Johansson-Nogues, E. (2013) ‘Gendering the Arab Spring? Rights and (In)security of Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan Women’, Security Dialogue 44(5–6): 393–409.Google Scholar
  42. Kausch, Kristina and Richard Youngs (2009) ‘The End of the “Euro-Mediterranean Vision”’, International Affairs 85(5): 963–75.Google Scholar
  43. Khalid, Maryam (2015) ‘The Peripheries of Gender and Sexuality in the “Arab Spring”’, Mediterranean Politics 20(2): 161–77.Google Scholar
  44. Khalil, Andrea (2014) ‘Gender Paradoxes of the Arab Spring’, Journal of North African Studies 19(2): 131–36.Google Scholar
  45. Kunz, R. and J. Maisenbacher (2015) ‘Women in the Neighbourhood: Reinstating the European Union’s Civilising Mission on the Back of Gender Equality Promotion?’, European Journal of International Relations, online first (December).Google Scholar
  46. Kurki, Milja (2011) ‘Governmentality and EU Democracy Promotion: The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the Construction of Democratic Civil Societies’, International Political Sociology 5(4): 349–66.Google Scholar
  47. Larner, Wendy and Richard Le Heron (2004) ‘Global Benchmarking: Participating “at a Distance” in the Globalising Economy’, in Wendy Larner and William Walters, eds, Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces, 212–32, London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  48. Lemke, Thomas (1997) Eine Kritik der Politischen Vernunft: Foucaults Analyse der Modernen Gouvernementalität [A Critique of Political Reason: Foucault’s Analysis of Modern Governmentality], Hamburg: Argument.Google Scholar
  49. Lewinski, Marcin and Dima Mohammed (2012) ‘Deliberate Design or Unintended Consequences: The Argumentative Uses of Facebook during the Arab Spring’, Journal of Public Deliberation 8(1): 1–11.Google Scholar
  50. Maclean, Kate (2013) ‘Gender, Risk and Micro-Financial Subjectivities’, Antipode 45(2): 455–73.Google Scholar
  51. Malmvig, Helle (2006) ‘Caught between Cooperation and Democratization: The Barcelona Process and the EU’s Double-Discursive Approach’, Journal of International Relations and Development 9(4): 343–70.Google Scholar
  52. Manners, Ian (2002) ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’, Journal of Common Market Studies 40(2): 235–58.Google Scholar
  53. Marlow, Susan and Janine Swail (2014) ‘Gender, Risk and Finance: Why Can’t a Woman Be More like a Man?’, Entrepreneurship & Regional Development 26(1–2): 80–96.Google Scholar
  54. McGarty, Craig, Emma F. Thomas, Girish Lala, Laura G. E. Smith and Ana-Maria Bliuc (2014) ‘New Technologies, New Identities, and the Growth of Mass Opposition in the Arab Spring’, Political Psychology 35(6): 725–40.Google Scholar
  55. Merlingen, Michael (2006) European Union Peacebuilding and Policing: Governance and the European Security and Defence Policy, London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  56. Merry, Sally Engle and Summer Wood (2015) ‘Quantification and the Paradox of Measurement: Translating Children’s Rights in Tanzania’, Current Anthropology 56(2): 205–29.Google Scholar
  57. Miller, Peter and Nikolas Rose (1990) ‘Governing Economic Life’, Economy and Society 19(1): 1–31.Google Scholar
  58. Mirkin, Barry (2013) ‘Arab Spring: Demographics in a Region in Transition’, Arab Human Development Report Research Paper Series.Google Scholar
  59. Moghadam, Valentine M. (2014) ‘Modernising Women and Democratisation After the Arab Spring’, Journal of North African Studies 19(2): 137–42.Google Scholar
  60. Montanari, Marco (2007) ‘The Barcelona Process and the Political Economy of Euro-Mediterranean Trade Integration’, Journal of Common Market Studies 45(5): 1011–40.Google Scholar
  61. Munro, V. E. (2003) ‘On Power and Domination: Feminism and the Final Foucault’, European Journal of Political Theory 2(1): 79–99.Google Scholar
  62. NATO Parliamentary Assembly (2010) ‘The Implications of the Youth Bulge in Middle East and Norht African Populations’, 138 GSM 10 E Rev 3.Google Scholar
  63. OECD (2010) ‘The DAC Network on Development Evaluation: Illuminating Development Results and Challenges’, factsheet.Google Scholar
  64. Oksala, Johanna (2013) ‘Feminism and Neoliberal Governmentality’, Foucault Studies 16(September): 32–53.Google Scholar
  65. Oxfam International (2011) ‘Power to the People? Reactions to the EU’s Response to the Arab Spring’, available at
  66. Powel, Brieg Tomos (2009) ‘A Clash of Norms: Normative Power and EU Democracy Promotion in Tunisia’, Democratization 16(1): 193–214.Google Scholar
  67. Prügl, Elisabeth (2011) ‘Diversity Management and Gender Mainstreaming as Technologies of Government’, Politics & Gender 7(1): 71–89.Google Scholar
  68. Prügl, Elisabeth (2015) ‘Neoliberalising Feminism’, New Political Economy 20(4): 614–31.Google Scholar
  69. Repo, Jemima (2014) ‘Gender Equality as Biopolitical Governmentality in a Neoliberal European Union’, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society December: 1–22.Google Scholar
  70. Roberts, Adrienne and Susanne Soederberg (2012) ‘Gender Equality as Smart Economics? A Critique of the 2012 World Development Report’, Third World Quarterly 33(5): 949–68.Google Scholar
  71. Rose, Nikolas and Peter Miller (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  72. Rose, Nikolas and Peter Miller (2010) ‘Political Power beyond the State: Problematics of Government’, British Journal of Sociology 61(SUPPL. 1): 271–303.Google Scholar
  73. Said, Edward W. (2003) Orientalism, London and New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  74. Seeberg, Peter (2010) ‘Union for the Mediterranean — Pragmatic Multilateralism and the Depoliticization of EU-Middle Eastern Relations’, Middle East Critique 19(3): 287–302.Google Scholar
  75. Sjoberg, Laura and Jonathon Whooley (2015) ‘The Arab Spring for Women? Representations of Women in Middle East Politics in 2011’, Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 36(3): 261–84.Google Scholar
  76. Spring Forward for Women Programme (2015) ‘Launching the Arab Women Economic Empowerment Network “Khadija”’, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  77. Tassinari, Fabrizio and Ulla Holm (2010) ‘Values Promotion and Security Management in Euro-Mediterranean Relations: “Making Democracy Work” or “Good-Enough Governance”?’, 17. DIIS Working Paper.Google Scholar
  78. Teti, Andrea (2012) ‘The EU’s First Response to the “Arab Spring”: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity’, Mediterranean Politics 17(3): 266–84.Google Scholar
  79. Teti, Andrea, Darcy Thompson and Christopher Noble (2013) ‘EU Democracy Assistance Discourse in Its New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood’, Democracy and Security 9(1–2): 61–79.Google Scholar
  80. Tömmel, Ingeborg (2013) ‘The New Neighborhood Policy of the EU: An Appropriate Response to the Arab Spring?’, Democracy and Security 9(1–2): 19–39.Google Scholar
  81. UN Women (2015) ‘Spring Forward for Women Programme: About’, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  82. UN Women (2016) ‘Women’s Empowerment Principles’, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  83. Union for the Mediterranean (2009) ‘Conclusions: Second Ministerial Conference on Strengthening the Role of Women in Society’, Marrakesh, 11 and 12 November, 2009, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  84. Union for the Mediterranean (2016a) ‘Promoting Women Empowerment for Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development in the MENA Region’, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  85. Union for the Mediterranean (2016b) ‘Skills for Success — Employability Skills for Women’, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  86. UNRISD (2005) Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World, Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.Google Scholar
  87. Walters, William and Jens Henrik Haahr (2005) Governing Europe: Discourse, Governmentality and European Integration, London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  88. Wolfsfeld, G., E. Segev and T. Sheafer (2013) ‘Social Media and the Arab Spring: Politics Comes First’, International Journal of Press/Politics 18(2): 115–37.Google Scholar
  89. Women’s World Banking (2015) ‘Gender Performance Initiative’, available at (last accessed 13 February, 2017).
  90. World Bank (2006) Gender Equality as Smart Economics: A World Bank Group Gender Action Plan (Fiscal Years 2007–2010), Washington: World Bank.Google Scholar
  91. World Bank (2011) World Development Report 2012, Washington: World Bank.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics and International RelationsUniversity of KentCanterburyUK

Personalised recommendations