Empty promises: Continuing the fight for trans rights in India

Despite a rich cultural tradition of gender-fluidity, the transgender community in India have been stigmatised as a ‘criminal tribe’ through a colonial-era law. The community has struggled for their rights over decades, and only after significant engagement with the judiciary were they finally counted in the population Census of 2011.

It wasn’t until findings of an Expert Committee in 2013 into the discrimination of the transgender community that there was significant legal change. After a Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender persons had the right to self-identify as male, female or a third gender. It also brought into law that the constitutional rights to life, dignity and autonomy would include the right to a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The government then brought in the ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 (TG Act)’, and issued the Rules in September 2020, which are used to enforce the act.

But the transgender community has seen little change, and still face discrimination in everyday life.

 

The teacher said to my father, ‘Take your son away, keep him somewhere else, I cannot teach him in school. Only if he behaves properly, I’ll be able to teach him in school’. I tried really hard but I was never able to behave ‘properly’. … my walk was different; my voice was different…”

A poster created by the Centre for Health and Social Justice. The text is in Bengali and reads '" 'You shouldn't come looking like this, You shouldn't walk around like this, You should walk like a boy.' This is how I would be thrown out of school." A representative of the transgender community Why does this injustice continue in Education despite the guarantees in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the Rules (2020)?'

The poster reads: “‘You shouldn’t come looking like this, You shouldn’t walk around like this, You should walk like a boy.’ This is how I would be thrown out of school.” A representative of the transgender community. Why does this injustice continue in Education despite the guarantees in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the Rules (2020)?” Credit: Centre for Health and Social Justice.

Discrimination remains

The TG Act and Rules have many provisions, including a simpler process for self-identification, setting up a Welfare Board and a Transgender Protection Cell, and creating separate infrastructure in hospitals, jails, shelter homes, as well as separate washrooms everywhere, yet none of this has been implemented.

“Despite the reading down of Section 377 or the passing of the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, we have not received any opportunities or benefits that have been promised to us in law.

The only change is that in forms and documents there’s been the addition of the word “Others” or “Transgender” but these terms really have no benefit for us.”

The disregard of the mandatory Equal Opportunity policy in all establishments leads to continued discrimination against the community in all social settings, including families, neighbourhoods, educational institutions, public places and limits opportunities to find employment. Many in the transgender community have not had access to schooling, and are not able to read the TG Act and know what their legal rights are.

When we approach the police, their response is, ‘Wait outside; do you expect us to listen to you right away? Are you going to give us instructions?’”

Demanding action for trans rights

The Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) (partners of Countering Backlash) and the transgender collective Kolkata Rista, led an event in July, sharing findings from a recent scoping study they conducted. The event brought together members of the transgender community along with senior officials from the police department, the health and AIDS Control department, and correctional facilities, to showcase three short films and posters which highlight the discrimination transgender people face in education, healthcare, work, and from the police.

The event started the creation of a support system for the transgender community with the institutions  that attended, who must use their power to enact positive social change. Kolkata Rista also launched a community crisis response and support cell with a helpline which will respond to any incident of violence or harassment and discrimination faced by the transgender community in Kolkata. It will include a safe space for shelter and medication or counselling.

The scoping study carried out by CHSJ with people in the transgender community brought out the lack of meaningful change in their situation despite their aspirations for self-improvement. The study also found that key people in the police department, health department and HIV/AIDS prevention programmes who have the power and knowledge to enact change have not yet carried out training for their staff on the TG Act of 2019 and the Rules.

Watching the stories of their own lives and struggles unfold in the films was an emotional experience for the community members. They shared painful experiences of rejection and humiliation and how a lack of opportunities to make changes in their lives affected them. The police officials and those leading AIDS programmes pledged that they would do more to provide meaningful support after watching these films and hearing their stories.

Now, those words must become action, and we must keep a vigilant eye on progress to make sure that rights are realised.

Event: Engaging men and boys on gender issues in India

Global progress on gender equality is under attack. Engaging men and boys on gender issues is a key way we can counter gender backlash.

This seminar was a collaboration between Countering Backlash, Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), and Men end FGM for a discussion about methods, lessons learnt and reflections on working with men and boys on gender issues in India and Kenya.

Mr Harish Sadani from MAVA spoke about his work on gender and masculinity, which he has been involved in for over three decades. He showcased part of a documentary he produced – “Yuva Maitri: Young Men Breaking the Moulds” – which focuses on the tools and methodologies used to engage young men on contemporary gender issues.

Mr Sadani also discussed the process and methods used, reflecting on the challenges he has been facing while addressing gender-based violence, in the current political context of India. He shared the outcomes and insights of a unique international travelling film festival on Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, which he has been running over the past five years.

Our discussant, Tony Mwebia, commented on what we have seen and heard, with some reflections on working with men to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.

When

  • 14 July at 13:00 UK Time

Speakers

  • Harish Sadani, Executive Director of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) India
  • Tony Mwebia, Executive Director of Men End FGM Foundation in Kenya and MA Gender and Development student at IDS

Chair

  • Jerker Edström, IDS Fellow and programme convenor for Countering Backlash

Event recording

Due to a technical issue with Zoom, only the half of the event has been recorded. However, you can view Harish Sadani’s presentation slides here, and watch MAVA’s full documentary.

Event: Defending online spaces for women

Social media has become a key place for gender activists to share their voices, show solidarity and mobilise action, but it has also become a focus for backlash. Online abuse and disinformation can be faced daily by women and those championing gender justice.

To mark International Women’s Day, the Institute of Development Studies hosted an online webinar with an international panel of speakers to share experiences, learning and tactics for countering backlash against gender justice, and disinformation targeted at women that frequently occurs in online spaces.

  • Title: Defending online spaces for women – countering disinformation and gender-based violence
  • Date: Thursday 10 March
  • Panellists:
    • Omaina H. Aziz (volunteer organiser for the Aurat March Lahore)
    • Iffat Jahan Antara (Research Associate, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University – co-author of Countering Backlash pilot study on online GBV in Bangladesh)
    • Pragyna Mahpara (Senior Research Associate, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University – co-author of Countering Backlash pilot study on online GBV in Bangladesh)
    • Chaired by Becky Faith (Leader, Digital and Technology Cluster, IDS)

Watch the recording below.

 

 

Event: Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis

The special issue of the Gender & Development journal covers empirical cases and current thinking on the rapidly evolving terrain of gender justice and feminist organising. In the last decade, we have witnessed a rise in racist, misogynist, populist and neo-nationalist governments, ideas and political practices that challenges the policy and discursive gains made. Further challenges to gender equality gains made in the world of work and labour rights comes from Covid-19 and its global impact.

Yet, feminist and women’s rights organisations and gender justice actors are mobilising around various issues – violence against women, denial of abortion rights, LGBTQI rights, weakening democracy, immigration laws and many other issues. The struggle against backlash is interconnected.

This event covered IDS members’ and partners’ work on manifestation of backlash through the co-option of feminist/gender equality agendas around the world and in international policy circles, the rise of ‘femonationalism’ in Europe (particularly Italy), the Shaheen Bagh movement and the strategies used by the women to counter democratic backslide and erosion of citizenship rights in India, and Hazara women’s protests against state violence and how participation in street activism affects women’s political leadership.

  • Title: Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis
  • Date: Wednesday 10 November
  • Panellists: Tessa Lewin (IDS Research Fellow), Daira Collela (IDS alumnus), Deepta Chopra (IDS Research Fellow), Miguel Loureiro (IDS Research Fellow), Jalila Haider (human rights lawyer, and Sussex Alumnus), Lean Karlsson (Sida). Chaired by Sohela Nazneen (IDS Research Fellow)

Watch the recording of the event below.

Reinterpreting the global tide of patriarchal backlash

This week we learned that US conservative state lawmakers have proposed more than 110 ‘anti-trans bills’ across America.  Coming only a month after a UN envoy – on the 10th anniversary of the Istanbul Convention – warned of a pandemic of violence against women, we have seen a growing number of countries beginning to withdraw from the Convention, including Poland and Turkey itself over recent months.  

This patriarchal backlash is not isolated.  Conservatives in countries like Brazil, Bangladesh, Hungary, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Russia, Uganda and many more are also busily dismantling women’s rights along with minority group protections. As part of the Ubuntu Symposium, Countering Backlash and the MenEngage Alliance hosted a series of dialogues exploring this global trend of patriarchal backlash 

Understanding the global tide of backlash  

The first session in this series threw the net wide, geographically and historically. In conversation with David Tshimba, Alan Greig challenged our understanding of the archetypal idea of backlash as a ‘restorative reaction’ to challenges by women to men’s power, by also describing the ‘white’ and ‘proprietorial’ character of male supremacy in the USA, rooted in a libertarian history of white European settlers (and slave-owners).   

David described a differently racialised dynamic in Uganda, with more ‘pre-emptive strikes’ (non-implementation of commitments to equality) by patriarchal power brokers, rooted in long histories of colonialism and resistance to Western influence.  Similar dynamics were described in a discussion on Indo-European ethno-nationalist backlash between Sana Contractor in India and Eva Zillén in Europe.  Not only racialised, the ethno-nationalist character of such backlash blends xenophobia with misogyny and homophobia in step with resurging far-right authoritarianism and restrictions to civic space.   

In conversation with Deniz Kandiyoti, Sonia Corrêa traced the Catholic church’s mobilisation to push back on gender and sexual rights back to the ‘moral majority movement’ in the 1970s and taking shape in the ‘gender trouble of the Catholic cradle’ between the Cairo and Beijing conferences in the 1990s. Deniz described the re-entry of religious conservativism into public politics as essentially a ‘broader strike’ than on gender equality; a rapprochement between religion and the state where the objective is power and influence, with gender and minority rights as collateral damage.     

Body politics and online misogyny  

We then went on to explore backlash in terms of body politics and online misogyny. Sabina Rashid in Bangladesh, Maria Alicia Guttiérez in Argentina and Neil Datta in Europe discussed sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and women’s sexuality and bodies as a core site of contestation, but with intersectional ‘othering’ (particularly excluding sexual and ethnic minorities).   

Religious, neoliberal and populist political pressures were often highlighted as coming together opportunistically in backlash campaigns and trends. Alex di Branco in the USA and Becky Faith at the Institute of Development Studies debated online misogyny, toxic masculine hate campaigns and the complex levels of in/visibility of backlash dynamics online, in platform architectures and the digital economy.    

At this point, several contradictions around backlash emerged: Backlash politics often appeals to some romanticised patriarchal past but are often also infused with a nihilistic attitude to the future. Various backlash actors commonly promote anti-global sentiments, but they are also transnationally linked-up. We see a bewildering array of diverse actors and aims, but they tend to unite around shared interests in opposition to ideas of gender equality or diversity. Backlash takes us by surprise by appearing episodic, but it recurs periodically and comes out of longer trends and broader systemic crises. A narrow understanding of men lashing back at women over losing privilege – whilst that is also part of it – is woefully inadequate for understanding this.   

Beyond that ‘reactive’ type, we also see; ‘pre-emptive backsliding’ by privileged elites and corporate interests, ‘projects for broader change’ such as religious/theocratic or fascist/ethno-nationalist ones, which are not primarily about gender but are based on patriarchal ideologies and, finally, ‘opportunist and populist alliance building’ between disparate interest groups uniting around divisive ideas against gender and diversity.   

Three key sites of contestation emerge in these struggles: ‘The Nation’ (ethnically bordered and ordered), ‘the Family’ (culturally traditional and religiously male-headed) and ‘the Body’ (sexed as male or female, and ‘naturally’ heterosexual).   

The hijack of gender in policy, in practice 

We also asked how backlash plays out in the spaces and processes of policymaking around gender justice itself, essentially hijacking gender. Amon Mwiine and Sudarsana Kundu compared dynamics of co-option and depoliticisation of gender policies within national politics, balancing commercial and political interests with international and neoliberal opportunities and pressures, across Uganda and India.  

Tessa Lewin at IDS reflected on this and proposed a way of reading it in terms of ‘overt-through-hidden’ attacks on gender justice, where the notion of ‘discourse capture’ may help to read the hijack and resignification of the terms.   

Andrea Cornwall from the UK described her participant observation research over years of attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women; seeing increasingly professional strategies used by conservative groups for the capture and repurposing of spaces and narratives, including the building of ‘discourse coalitions’ using ‘gender’ as an organising principle, and nimbly moving from side-events into main-stage official spaces and vice versa.   

Moving to experiences of backlash from within international co-operation agencies, Lena Karlsson described Swedish experiences of block formations by governments and the importance of finding likeminded allies in defence of multilateral frameworks for gender equality. Laura Turquet described some of the politics at the level of UN Women, negotiating the politics of data and evidence to inform gender policies, including some politics surrounding the recent ‘Families in a changing world’ report.   

Backlash actors target international policy spaces and professionally engage to shift the narratives and rules of the game, but these are also spaces where many actors on the inside remain committed to gender justice and in need of support to reverse the erosion and shore up its defence.  

Implications for defending gender justice 

Finally, the dialogues touched on movement-building, by sharing experiences of CSO members of MenEngage, as well as on uniting to counter backlash.   

In this closing session (five) Bafana Khumalo from South Africa and Lina AbiRafeh from Lebanon, debated men engaging with feminist struggles against backlash. Lina cautioned that not all men may be relevant as allies in this fight and that young men have shown themselves to be more open and effective. Bafana underlined the need to challenge men with good evidence and to also challenge powerful people in for example religious groupings with explaining the benefits of equality and exposing hypocritical stances on male privilege.   

Neil Datta from Europe and Aarti Narsee in South Africa debated the gendered politics in the broader political economy, with Neil urging us to face the entire challenge – located in three bigger projects: theocratic, hyper-capitalistic and authoritarian, respectively. Aarti shared developments from Poland of civil society alliance building in defence of abortion rights, breaking out from the usual silos and engaging across gender, anti-corruption and civil rights issues.    

We must… 

It was a rich set of discussions, highlighting the challenges we face globally. Yet there were also lessons to be learned and examples of movements and coalitions to push back against this patriarchal tide. It is hard to sum up, but there were some important takeaways. Unsurprisingly, it is not only women that suffer from patriarchy, but most men and other genders do so as well. By the same token, most – if not all – of us can benefit from feminist progress, if we can rescue it from hijack. 

In this, we must focus on – and expose – how power moves and ally with organisations working on broader issues of justice. A singular focus on gender often means we cannot understand or resist backlash, because it is about much more than gender. For men in this struggle, we must listen to women and other marginalised groups and ‘pass the mic’. Finally, if we are to resist and turn the tide, we must hold each other and ourselves to account.   

Join in and do the right thing!    

Event: Uniting to counter backlash – roundtable

Activists, researchers, activist researchers and policymakers share experiences, concerns and tactics, asking “can work on masculinities help to counter patriarchal backlash?” and much more. This fifth and final debate in the series ‘Countering Patriarchal Backlash’ will focus on critical challenges and potential solutions for mobilising to counter backlash through different strategies, like intersectional alliance building and men’s engagement in feminist and other social justice struggles.

Starting with reflections on key insights, dilemmas and directions recommended from the series, this debate will take a forward-looking perspective to discuss central questions posed, as we are all facing backlash and explore ways forward. What should we do? That is, as activists, researchers, organisations, networks, and movements? How should we link across social justice movements and counter the onslaught through alliance building, whilst holding ourselves and each other to account? This pair of facilitated two-way conversations – wrapped up with a plenary debate – will be guided by the co-chairs and focused on the ‘road ahead’.

Register now (select 1 June)

COUNTERING PATRIARCHAL BACKLASH AGAINST GENDER JUSTICE SERIES
Global progress on gender equality is under threat. So is democracy, freedom of opinion and assembly, and the very notion of human rights. Women’s and human rights actors and organisations in diverse contexts are facing conservative backlash to their work, including from religious fundamentalist groups, “men’s rights” groups, political parties and think tanks, media corporations, new movements and states who are anti-womens’ rights and dispute key aspects of gender equality.

New forces are pushing back to reverse many gains made for gender justice as well as to frustrate implementation of commitments and forestall further progress, but this backlash is also far deeper, more insidious, and complex than the recent trend of religious fundamentalisms, or a mere pushback on gender policies. While these are visible manifestations of patriarchal backlash, other actors and forces are also at play in nuanced ways, often under the radar, deploying and producing old and new power hierarchies across intersections of identity, beyond and including gender.

Such diverse, diffuse and networked backlash ‘others’, demonises and disempowers those who seek to advance gender justice. It entrenches binary understandings of gender and re-valorises patriarchal gender roles, appealing to ‘traditional family values’ founded on patriarchal ideologies of male supremacy. These forces tend to deploy polarising politics, mobilising populist narratives, promiscuously comingling misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia, with scant regard for evidence or truth.

Our series at the MenEngage Ubuntu Symposium explores this pressing global trend, advancing understanding of these movements and how the men and masculinities field can strengthen efforts and better support feminist movements to counter this backlash.

Our understanding of backlash must go beyond simple linear visions of social change – as in ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Diverse forms of patriarchal backlash appear to function in interaction with arrays of other oppressive dynamics, including de-democratisation and the capture of civic space, the rise of populism, ‘strongman’ demagogues and a global rightward turn, predatory capitalism, inequality and precarity. Furthermore, some argue that ill-conceived policy and practice on gender in development may itself play into the hands of backlash forces, who are said to be co-opting existing policy processes for gender. Yet, all of this is happening in plain sight. New opportunities, mobilisations and intersectional strategies in struggles for gender justice are likely to evolve.

The series will result in several knowledge products in line with the overall knowledge development strategy for the symposium. Products may include bitesize videos, a learning page on the Alliance’s website including webinar recordings and related reading materials and a report/thought piece providing deeper analysis and focused on promising practices and ways forward for the Alliance.

Event: Movement-building to counter patriarchal backlash

Join Countering Backlash for the fourth session in the ‘Countering Patriarchal Backlash against Gender Justice’ Ubuntu Symposium. This will be an interactive space for reflecting on experiences of anti-feminist backlash in our own contexts, and how to explore strategies to support feminist movements in countering backlash.

  • Title: Movement-Building to Counter Patriarchal Backlash: A Conversation Space (Ubuntu Symposium Concept Session (5)
  • Date: Thursday 13 May
  • Time: 9am EST; 2pm BST; 3pm CAT; 6.30pm IST
  • Facilitators: Sinead Nolan (Chair) with Jerker Edström and Chloe Skinner.

Reflecting on insights from previous sessions on backlash, this penultimate session of this series creates an open space for conversation among participants to share practical strategies used in different contexts and begin to collectively consider some concrete steps that members of the MenEngage Alliance can take to build on and link with efforts from other gender justice movements to counter backlash.

The format involves two rounds of breakout room discussions with some three-to-five participants per breakout room, interspersed with an opening, two feedbacks and a closing in plenary. Key outcomes of the session will feed into the final plenary of the series on 1 June tying together the series and proposing ways forward for the Alliance, as per the commitment in the Alliance’s new strategic plan for 2021-24.

Register now (select May 13)

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Event: Hijacking Gender? Backlash in Policy and Practice

Join Countering Backlash for the third session in the ‘Countering Patriarchal Backlash against Gender Justice’ Ubuntu Symposium. This discussion will explore anti-feminist backlash and co-option in policy spaces and its implications for policy and practice on gender equality.

Speakers:

In part picking up on issues identified in the Backlash, Body Politics and Online Misogyny and Understanding the Global Tide of Patriarchal Backlash sessions, this unlikely combination of activist researchers and policymakers will bring a unique set of contrasting perspectives to debate critical issues of how backlash ‘engages’ with – and impacts on – policy and practice on gender justice and equality itself, at both national and global levels.

The discussion will cover observations on backlash machinations in gender(ed) policy spaces, such as international conferences and commissions, how policy frameworks and approaches are restraining or enabling backlash in policy processes at country levels, and how progressive actors in development agencies experience the realities of international policy co-option and backlash, including any resulting tensions and/or trade-offs. We also explore the implications of this for policy and practice on engaging men in gender equality strategies.

Register now (select March 11)

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