Twisting Gender Justice in the Cause of Backlash: The Case of Turkey

Anti-gender discourses, a growing opposition to gender analysis, and a specific interpretation of ‘gender justice’ replacing ‘gender equality’ have gained visibility in Turkey following the rise of the Islamist de-democratisation approach of the ruling party Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party initiated a re-patriarchalisation process, pressuring women’s and LGBTQI+ activism.

AKP’s approach to gender presents an intriguing case. In its initial years, during Turkey’s European Union (EU) candidacy, the Islamist government, attempted to make legislative changes that would actually improve women’s position in society. However, with their consolidation of power and the end of Turkey’s candidacy, AKP gradually and more pointedly moved toward women’s traditional roles in the family as mothers and wives.

Signing the Istanbul Convention

When Turkey signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011 there was an emphasis on the empowerment of women. Professor Feride Acar, the first president of the monitoring body of the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, Group of Experts on Action Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), was in a pivotal position in finalising the treaty, also playing a part in naming the agreement after Istanbul.

Turkey was the first country to sign the convention. However, double-dealing was visible in the government’s policy making even then, as in the same year, AKP transformed the Ministry of State for Women and Family to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. This was a red flag for the women’s movements, particularly about conservative attempts of the government to consolidate women’s domesticised status and rights within the framework of family.

Later in 2019, the government nominated another candidate to replace Prof Acar in contradiction with GREVIO’s candidacy criteria. After taking control of the convention’s monitoring mechanism, the AKP regime started to promote Islamic notions of ‘fıtrat’ (‘natural’ attributes of sexes) as the basis of their controversial definition of ‘gender justice’ more explicitly in public affairs.

With fıtrat, gender justice is celebrated as an Islamist alternative to the perspectives of equality advocated by ‘the Western imposed gender ideology’ in an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphasised women’s ‘delicate nature’ in his speeches several times, insisting that ‘women and men could not be treated equally because it goes against the laws of nature’, and he blamed feminists for not understanding ‘the special status attributed to mothers by Islam’.

Turkey’s Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention

Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention ten years after signing it, announced by a presidential decree at midnight on March 19, 2021. Ironically, the first country that signed the convention also became the first to withdraw. Under the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, massive protests by women’s and LGBTQI+ organisations took place in the streets and on social media challenging the government’s decision.

Women’s rights organisations and bar associations filed lawsuits against the decision to withdraw with a solid argument that Turkey ratified the Istanbul Convention via its National Assembly and thus withdrawal by a presidential decree is highly disputable. Despite this,the decision was declared final.

While the protests and challenges to the decision were continuing, President Erdoğan answered questions about the withdrawal in a live broadcast with university students. He argued that the convention does not bring an added value to the protection of women’s rights in Turkey, as national law No. 6284 already offers the required protection. He further presented Islam’s condemnation of violence against women as a formal reassurance.

Attempts to rationalise the withdrawal from the convention contributed to increased awareness of the backlash. The convention was declared a threat against Turkish family values in several speeches by government officials and was targeted as an untrustworthy tool of European cultural expansionism. This backlash gradually reached Law No. 6284, which was passed in 2012 for regulating the prevention of gender-based violence, as some members of the parliament asked for its annulment, with similar arguments of it being Western-centric. Özlem Zengin, a female attorney and vice president of AKP even found herself as the target of backlash actors, including her fellow party members, and received threats for stating that Law No. 6284 should continue to be the red line in Turkey against the violence targeting women.

Women’s movements have a long history of pressuring policymakers and amending laws in Turkey. Revisions in the Turkish Civil Code such as on article 159, which required women to have the permission of their husbands to be able to work (abolished in July 1992) and article 153, which entailed the sole use of the surname of the husband (changed in May 1997) were products of women’s movements.  These amendments came as Turkish laws harmonised with European codes as part of the country’s accession to the EU. When the accession negotiations came to a standstill in 2018, gender backlash gained more currency, significantly weakening the rights and freedoms of women and increasing violence against women and gender minorities.

The ‘New Turkey’

With his latest election victory in June 2023, President Erdoğan has now initiated the discussion for a new constitution, which is expected to bring further regressive revisions to gender equality. Immediately following the election victory, President Erdoğan addressed his electorate in Istanbul from the top of his campaign bus, referring to every member of the opposition as ‘LGBT supporters [LGBT+]’ and he joined his supporters as they booed the opposition, continuing the tradition he started in his rallies before the election. LGBTQI+ has now become a shorthand that labels diverse strands of political opposition in the ‘New Turkey’ as a threat to the ‘sacredness of family’, and the ‘future of the nation’.

AKP refrains from using the term ‘gender’ in official documents, which is adopted by the new Turkish state in its authoritarian turn toward anti-gender directions. With Islamist nuances added to reverse its international use, ‘gender justice’ is turned in the state-sponsored lexicon and into a tool of backlash. In this lexicon, women are defined as ‘extensions’ of men; as mothers, wives and daughters.

Islamist women’s government organised and non-governmental organisation (NGOs and GONGOs) such as KADEM, normalise the neopatriarchal culture that limits women’s social presence with their participation in the labour market, as they collude by putting an added emphasis on women’s association with motherhood.  Such pro-family discourses work to justify conservative neoliberal versions of masculinities in Turkey. It also shows that anti-gender approaches in AKP policies are rooted in their Islamist challenge to the universal notions produced by a long tradition of struggle for gender equality.

In the current period of backlash in Turkey, anti-gender politics plays a critical role in the strengthening of an authoritarian regime . The executive presidency regime bypassed the National Assembly in the process of withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. The neopatriarchal state under the Islamist AKP, creates new hegemonic perspectives via pro-family and anti-gender nationalism, and the Islamist biopolitics in civil society in the ‘New Turkey’ demands the emergence of a new patriarchal bargain with the complex power relations around gender.

5 ways funding is crucial for organising and defeating gender backlash

Backlash from conservative, patriarchal, religious and political forces is often seen as ‘the cost of doing business’ by feminist or LGBTQ+ activists. Yet how do philanthropic institutions who support gender justice respond to the scaled-up, well-financed and globally coordinated anti-gender ideology backlash today? How do they support and collaborate with activists and civil society organisations to expose and win against the ‘opposition’?

Lisa VeneKlasen explores this in Countering Backlash’s latest working paper ‘Anti-Gender Backlash: Where Is Philanthropy?’. It is written primarily for gender justice and women’s rights activists and researchers in the global South who struggle to make sense of the philanthropy ecosystem, and to gain a partial view of the map of actors most closely aligned with their agenda.

With the focus of UN Women’s 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 2024 around ‘financing with a gender perspective’, here are five takeaways from the paper.

1.    Gender is the ‘canary in the coalmine’

Coordinated attacks on gender rights and activists are part of a larger authoritarian agenda that includes the targeting of ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, environmentalists and more. The backlash against gender justice is a central pillar of the orchestrated rollback of democratic and progressive rights, politics and movements. Important collaborations between LGBTQ+ and feminist donors through the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) and between women’s funds, such as the On the Right Track initiative, are funding research that tracks who’s behind the anti-gender movement and makes the connection between anti-gender, anti-democracy and authoritarian discourse and strategies, in addition to resourcing increased power and protection of activists.

2.    Anti-gender funding is a juggernaut

Global anti-gender backlash is a juggernaut, stifling and reversing advances in racial, gender, and reproductive rights and justice, and attacking defenders in dozens of countries, and globally. As shown in the paper, research by the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) finds that the anti-gender movement spent over USD$1 billion between 2008 and 2017, from organisations based in the United States alone while new anti-gender networks are emerging in Europe. These are the networks behind the passing of ‘anti-gay’ laws in Uganda and Ghana, for example. In 2023, research by the Institute for Journalism and Social Change (IJSC) found that the UK Government had been directly funding anti-LGBTQ+ churches in Uganda.

“Actors in the UK are now a ‘key producer and exporter of anti-gender narratives”

In contrast, justice philanthropy has been slow to respond, and many steps behind the anti-gender opposition with regard to coordination, amounts and ways of funding.

3.    Donors are not making the connection between gender backlash and threats to democracy

Too few donors recognise how patriarchy and gender are ‘critical to the forces characterised by rising authoritarianism’, according to interviews for this research.

Trump’s election in 2016 and subsequent assaults on reproductive and gender-related rights have been a ‘wake-up call’ focusing philanthropic attention on the urgency of anti-gender backlash. But feminists in philanthropy suggest that it remains an uphill battle, and that women’s rights funding is generally decreasing.

They point to the different ways that characterising anti-gender backlash prevents donors from sharing a common understanding of the problem.  The distinct frames donors use include: fundamentalist backlash, democratic backsliding, rising authoritarianism, anti-gender, anti-feminist, anti-‘gender ideology’, anti-rights, anti-abortion, anti-democracy, the far right, religious nationalism, and the opposition.

A report published in September 2023 from the Astraea Lesbian Fund for Justice, ‘Global Resistance to Anti-Gender Opposition’ explores this issue. It recommends that donors’ responses ‘keep it simple’ (e.g. use words like ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’) to help forge a shared narrative and communicate to the general public.

Backlash is nothing new, and many feminists and gender justice activists are frustrated by a perceived lack of donor urgency. One donor advisor shared that some activists in the Middle East, feel like the recent framing of ‘anti-gender-Backlash’ is a Western export by Northern donors who are only now realising the extent of the problem because of Trump.

Several philanthropic foundations, such as Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, and Wellspring, are prioritising global South-led research and other strategies to fill knowledge gaps. GPP plays a central role in gathering analysis and coordinating the growing interest across the philanthropic sector.

4.    Donors must also fund collaboration among feminist activists and organisers directly

The fact that philanthropic organisations are investing time and funding to coordinate and scale up their responses is promising. For example, GPP’s ‘Shimmering Solidarity Summit’ in 2021 led to the establishment of the ‘Responding to Anti-Gender Initiatives’ (RAGI) to ‘energise and coordinate donor responses.’ According to GPP staff, there has been a significant increase in funding to LGBTQI+ groups and improved coordination since the summit, but new challenges are always emerging.

At the same time, funders recognize that prevalent funding siloes can create competition and prevent urgently needed collaboration. Improved donor collaboration is welcome, but it doesn’t substitute for more unconditional funding to enable activists and organisers to create their own spaces that are essential to power-building and aligning creative multi-sectoral strategies and unusual alliances to tackle and expose who’s behind backlash on multiple fronts. With more opportunities to strategise together, they would also have meaningful advice for their donor partners. Both a donor and activist approach to collaboration is essential.

5. Funders in search of ‘innovation’ while managing a heightened sense of risk

The philanthropic sector tends to seek out innovation and ‘big bets’. At times, the search for the new and better is at the expense of tried and tested strategies that are not as visible or exciting.

Not infrequently, new large-scale funding is directed toward the creation of new funding structures like collaborative and pooled funds to move money more quickly to groups and mitigate risk to the donors involved. Two new promising collaborative funds that have emerged in response to GPP’s analysis are Numun and Nebula. Both of these funds direct resources toward energised movement-driven collaboration to address important gaps.

Risk is not new to donors, though, in such a volatile political moment, donors are naturally concerned, especially as philanthropic foundations have faced attacks from governments. How to balance the risk of not funding movements at the scale needed to win against the risk of donor-directed political and legal attacks is a significant dilemma.

The seemingly contradictory push and pull of heightened risk vs a ‘moonshot’ mindset impacts how quickly and flexibly funding flows. This is particularly true for the less flashy organising and infrastructure-building necessary to resist and win against an ever-morphing foe in the long run.

Anti-Gender Backlash: Where is Philanthropy?

This working paper explores how philanthropic institutions with a history of supporting women’s and LGBTQI+ rights and democracy are seeing and responding to anti-gender backlash, and the background dynamics shaping the struggle. […]

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Understanding gender backlash through Southern perspectives

Global progress on gender justice is under threat. We are living in an age where major political and social shifts are resulting in new forces that are visibly pushing back to reverse the many gains made for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and to shrink civic space.

The focus of this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) calls for ‘accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls…’. This ‘acceleration’ would be welcome indeed. We are not so much worried about slow progress but rather by the regress in a tidal wave of patriarchal – or gender – backlash, with major rollbacks of earlier advances for women’s equality and rights, as well as by a plethora of attacks on feminist, social justice and LGBTQ+ activists, civic space and vulnerable groups of many stripes.

The Countering Backlash programme explores this backlash against rights in a timely and important IDS Bulletin titled ‘Understanding Gender Backlash: Southern Perspectives’. In it, we ask ‘how can we better understand the contemporary swell of anti-feminist (or patriarchal) backlash across diverse settings?’. We present a range of perspectives and emerging evidence from our programme partners from Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s what you can find in our special issue of the IDS Bulletin.

Why we need to understand gender backlash

‘Anti-gender backlash’, at its simplest, it refers to strong negative reactions against gender justice and those seeking it. Two widely known contemporary examples, from different contexts, are Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill (passed in 2023), and the United States Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade (which gave women the constitutional right to abortion) in 2022.

The term ‘backlash’ was first used in Susan Faludi’s (1991) analysis of the pushback against feminist ideas in 1980s in the United States, and historically, understandings of anti-gender backlash have been predominantly based on experiences and theorising about developments in the global north. More recent scholarship has afforded insights on and from Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Much explanatory work to date, if it does not implicitly generalise from global north experience, often fails to adequately engage with the ways these locally specific phenomena operate transnationally, including across the global south, and with its complex imbrication in a broader dismantling of democracy.

New ways of analysing gender backlash

The Issue presents new ways of analysing backlash relevant to diverse development contexts, grounded examples, and evidence of anti-gender dynamics. It aims to push this topic out of the ‘gender corner’ to connect it to contemporary shifts in relationships between faith, identity and state, governance, and the broader politics of democracy and economics, as seen from across the global south.

The articles in this special issue are grouped into three themes: one, on ‘voice and tactics’, including whose voices are being heard, and what tactics are being used?; two, on ‘framings and direction’, including how are ideologies spread, and how can we understand attitudes to change? and; three, on ‘temporality and structure’, including what is ‘back’ about backlash? What and who drives it, and how is it imbricated in broader trends and crises? Additionally, most articles proffer some thoughts and recommendations on the implications for directions to counter backlash, whether specifically for feminist movements, for other gender and social justice defenders, or for researchers and students.

Southern Perspectives

This Issue fundamentally challenges simple and reductive understandings of gender backlash. Diverse examples of politicised backlash are ‘mapped’ across geographies and viewpoints. This can help to build a more granular and multi-perspectival understanding of backlash, of its more subtle processes of co-optation and division, its connected across borders, regions, and continents, and the contextual and different strategies of resistance.

Understanding Gender Backlash: Southern Perspectives

The 30th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, and the 10th anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are fast approaching. And with global progress on gender justice on the rise around the world, we must find ways to combat gender backlash now.

The Countering Backlash programme has produced timely research and analysis on gender backlash, presenting a range of perspectives and emerging evidence on backlash against gender justice and equality, as such phenomena manifest locally, nationally, and internationally.

Understanding Gender Backlash: Southern Perspectives’ is our iteration of the IDS Bulletin, including contributions, insights, expert knowledge from a range of actors in diverse locations across South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, Lebanon and the UK – and all part of the Countering Backlash programme.

The IDS Bulletin addresses the urgent question of how we can better understand the recent swell of anti-gender backlash across different regions, exploring different types of actors, interests, narratives, and tactics for backlash in different places, policy areas, and processes.

The IDS Bulletin will be launched by a hybrid event on 07 March 2024, ahead of the programme’s attendance at UN Women’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 2024.

 


Articles

Sohela Nazneen

Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Cecília Sardenberg; Teresa Sacchet; Maíra Kubík Mano; Luire Campelo; Camila Daltro; Talita Melgaço Fernandes; Heloisa Bandeira;

Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Women’s Studies of the Federal University of Bahia (NEIM)

Adeepto Intisar Ahmed; Ishrat Jahan; Israr Hasan; Sabina Faiz Rashid; Sharin Shajahan Naomi

BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health

Jerker Edström

Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Abhijit Das; Jashodhara Dasgupta; Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay; Sana Contractor; Satish Kumar Singh

Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ)

Shraddha Chigateri; Sudarsana Kundu

Gender at Work Consulting – India

Phil Erick Otieno; Alfred Makabira

Advocates for Social Change Kenya (ADSOCK)

Amon A. Mwiine; Josephine Ahikire

Centre for Basic Research

Tessa Lewin

Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Nay El Rahi; Fatima Antar

Arab Institute for Women (AIW)

Jerker Edström, Jenny Edwards, Tessa Lewin, Rosie McGee, Sohela Nazneen, Chloe Skinner

Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Online violence against women is real violence

The campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence this year encourages citizens to share the actions they are taking to create a world free from violence towards women. But what is being done about the online misogyny and violence encountered by gender justice activists, individuals, and organisations fighting for women’s rights and creating awareness online? Do our laws, the state, and its citizens consider an action to be gender-based violence only when it results in physical harm, rape, sexual assault, murder, or something severe?

Every day, women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds become victims of online harassment and abuse in the form of trolling, bullying, hacking, cyber pornography, etc. Although there is no nationally representative data on victims of online gender-based violence, according to Police Cyber Support for Women, 8,715 women reported being subjected to hacking, impersonation, and online sexual harassment from January to November 2022.

Read the full op-ed by Countering Backlash partner BRAC BIGD on ‘The Daily Star’ website.

বাংলাদেশের পারিবারিক সহিংসতা আইন বাস্তবায়নে নেতিবাচক প্রতিক্রিয়া (ব্যাকল্যাশ) প্রতিরোধ

নারী ও শিশু নির্যাতন দমন আইন এবং পারিবারিক সহিংসতা (প্রতিরোধ ও সুরক্ষা) আইন ২০১০- এর মতো আইন থাকা সত্ত্বেও বাংলাদেশে পারিবারিক সহিংসতার হার অনেক বেশি। বাংলাদেশ পরিসংখ্যান ব্যুরোর তথ্য অনুযায়ী, প্রতি পাঁচজন নারীর মধ্যে প্রায় তিনজন (৫৭.৭%) তাদের জীবদ্দশায় কোনো না কোনো ধরনের শারীরিক, যৌন বা মানসিক সহিংসতার শিকার হয়েছেন। […]

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Anti-Gender Discourse in Serbian Media

This paper seeks to lay out a critical feminist analysis of anti-gender discourse in 843 media texts published in Serbia from January 1, 2019 to October 31, 2022. A database with the largest coverage of mainstream news was selected. […]

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Marriage equality in India: still miles to go

The queer community in India has been continuously fighting for social equality over the last few decades, given the colonial era laws like Section 377 that criminalised same sex relationships and the Criminal Tribes law that outlawed entire transgender community. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTQ+) groups have struggled in police stations, courtrooms and on the streets to access their rights as equal citizens of the country, given the widespread stigma and discrimination faced daily, not only within homes and neighbourhoods, but within private and state institutions.

The long-standing fight for equal rights

After many challenges and setbacks, the LGBTQ+ community was able to gain a few significant victories. These include landmark cases such as National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India (2014) where the Court held that the state must recognize persons who fall outside the male-female binary as ‘third gender persons’ and that they are entitled to all constitutionally guaranteed rights. This was followed by Justice KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017) in which the court held that the Constitution protects the right of a person to exercise their sexual orientation. The most recent judgement was Navtej Singh Johar and Ors v. Union of India (2018) in which the court held that Section 377 is unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes consensual sexual activities by the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019, the government of India enacted the Transgender Persons (protection of Rights) Act that recognized the right of transgender persons to have a self-perceived gender identity, prohibited discrimination and upheld their rights to residence, healthcare, education and employment.

However, there were still a lot of areas of struggle for the LGBTQ+ community in India, for example, in recognising relationship status for same sex couples. This was met with stiff opposition that led to coercive therapies, forced separation or forced marriages and state custody. In the absence of any legal recognition of long-term LGBTQ+ relationships, surviving partners were disregarded when it came to claiming insurance or employment-related benefits, nominee rights for healthcare or even share of property.

In 2022, several Writ Petitions seeking marriage equality for LGBTQ+ couples were submitted in the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. The key asks were that LGBTQ+  persons should have a “Right to Marry” the person of their choosing, regardless of religion, gender and sexual orientation; and that the Special Marriage Act (1954), which enabled two people of different religions or castes to marry, should also include LGBTQ+ couples by using gender-neutral terminology; likewise, the petitions called for changing the Foreign Marriages Act (1969).  In addition, the petitions also called for changes in the Child Adoption laws and regulations to enable LGBTQ+ couples to adopt children together; one petition asked for the right to ‘chosen families’. The final ask was for preventive and protective measures by district and police authorities to ensure the safety of adult consenting LGBTQ+ couples from the violence they faced from their birth families.

The Supreme Court ruling and its impact

The petitions were all clubbed together and came up before a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court that gave its verdict on the 17th of October 2023 (Supriyo@Supriya Chakrabarty and Ors vs Union of India), denying the claim for marriage equality. Although all five judges accepted that any two people have the right to live and build a life together and that such relationships should be protected from violence and discrimination by the State, they failed to reach a consensus on giving queer couples the status of a legally recognised “civil union”. Three of the judges argued that any legal status to such unions can only be granted through enacted legislation. Disappointingly, all five judges unanimously found that there is no “fundamental right to marry” within the Constitutional framework, a position that is in contradiction with Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that recognizes the right to marry and start a family. The court refused to propose any change to the Special Marriage Act (1954) or Foreign Marriage Act (1969) to make the terms gender-neutral, on the grounds that this would be intruding into the legislative domain.

On the issue of transgender persons, all five judges agreed with the proposition that a transgender man has the right to marry a cisgender woman under current laws; similarly, a transgender woman has the right to marry a cisgender man. A transgender man and a transgender woman can also marry. Intersex persons who identify as a man or a woman and seek to enter into a heterosexual marriage would also have a right to marry.

The minority opinion said the LGBTQ+ community has a fundamental right to form relationships and that the state was obligated to recognise and grant legal status to such unions, so that same-sex couples could avail the material benefits provided under the law. The right to choose a partner was the most important life decision. This right goes to the root of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The minority judgement went ahead to declare that not granting the same rights as those that accrue within marriage to those in civil unions would be violative of the Constitutional promise of no discrimination on the basis of sex. Regarding the Child Adoption issue, the minority opinion was that adoption Regulations discriminate against unmarried couples.

In terms of protection from harassment by families and the police, the Chief Justice of India made very compelling directions to the State to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ couples against discrimination and harassment, especially by the police. Even in the absence of formal marriage rights, this specific instruction for law enforcement agencies could go a long way in easing the problems faced by couples exercising their choice of intimate partner, especially lesbian, bisexual, intersex and trans women.  This is something that needs to be widely spoken about.

What will the future look like for the LGBTQ+ community in India?

Despite not granting new rights to the LGBTQ+ community, the judicial discourse has certainly moved ahead in terms of recognizing the various forms of discrimination acknowledged earlier in NALSA and Navtej Johar.  The Constitution Bench firmly countered the government’s claims that queerness was an alien, urban or elite phenomenon, asserting “pluralistic social fabric” and an “integral part of Indian culture”. All judges acknowledged the inequity and intolerance faced by the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the denial of access to certain benefits and privileges that are available to heterosexual married couples.

In other gains, the State had volunteered to set up a committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for the purpose of defining the scope of entitlement of queer couples who are in unions. They may pass an Act creating civil unions, or a domestic partnership legislation, or perhaps, rather than the Union Government, the State legislatures could take action and enact laws or frameworks. The possibilities are not encouraging, however, given the government has already expressed that same-sex marriages are not “comparable with the Indian family unit concept of a husband, a wife and children”.

The split verdict is a clear setback to the long struggle for equal rights of the LGBTQ+ communities, who remain unsure about how far the conservative forces will take up the directions of the Court to bring about the much-needed changes. It is imperative to continue to discuss and engage with familiar and unfamiliar groups and social institutions. This fight shall continue until no one can deny the rights that are due to the LGBTQ+ community as equal citizens of the country.

Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi

A period of crisis and upheaval is causing serious consequences for the rights of domestic workers. Conditions of economic precarity, work, and income insecurity have long characterised their lives. We are witnessing a clear backlash against domestic workers’ rights. Like other informal women workers who live and work in precarious conditions, they have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and continue to face its devastating impacts.

Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India is sharing their stories in a forthcoming storybook titled ‘Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi’ and launching in August 2023.

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by by Mrinalini Godara

Contextualising backlash against domestic workers in India

One reason for the intensity of this backlash is the systemic inequalities in paid domestic work in India. Although it is one of the largest sectors of work for women in urban areas, paid domestic work has been systematically undervalued and inadequately recognised as work by the state, society, and employers.

There are deep-seated reasons for this, including the highly gendered perception of domestic work as an extension of women’s natural roles, and its performance in familial spaces. Domestic work is also mainly made up of women from marginalised groups, particularly those from migrant communities, Dalit, and Adivasi groups, and +women who have not completed a primary education.

Domestic work is therefore characterised by informality and precarity, with poor working conditions, as well as discrimination based on gender, caste, religion, and migrant status. The vagaries and stresses of urban lives lived on the margins, of the inaccessibility of public services and resources, also encompass a key feature of the living conditions for domestic workers.

Domestic workers telling their stories of backlash

The forthcoming storybook shares glimpses into the lives of domestic workers based in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in India. Launching in August 2023, it includes live-in and live-out domestic workers, who are both young and old, long-term and new migrants, from Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities. The storybook  surfaces and makes visible the everyday forms of caste, religious, and gendered discrimination, violence, and backlash experienced by domestic workers, which took on monstrous proportions during the pandemic.

The storybook illustrates the backlash experienced by domestic workers, highlighting the worrying pushback against their struggles and their rights. This sense of ‘going backwards’ has been expressed by one of the domestic workers in the storybook as ‘10-20 saal peechche chale gaye’ – translated from Hindi to English as ‘we have gone back 10-20 years’.

This is in a sector that has barely seen any gains on their rights as workers. There has been a systematic non-recognition of the rights of domestic workers as workers across the country despite persistent claims made by domestic worker groups. The few exceptions where their rights have been recognised (such as the inclusion of domestic workers in minimum wage notifications, their inclusion as workers for welfare, or the inclusion of households as a workplace under the sexual harassment law, all in just a few Indian states) serve as a reminder for just how limited the gains have been.

This sense of going backwards has taken a range of forms which are highlighted by each of the stories collated in the storybook in the context of the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns. Stories explore the:

  • increased levels of discrimination, as well as high levels of economic vulnerability including increased indebtedness,
  • devastating and widespread loss of livelihoods,
  • decreased wages,
  • food and housing insecurities,
  • increased levels of work for those who remained or have since returned to work,
  • and worsening physical and mental health.

In the wake of these troubling losses, domestic workers have suffered humiliations, indignities, and vilification at the hands of their employers and the state. They have been silenced and rendered powerless. They and domestic worker organisations, such as Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), have experienced further reversals in their collective negotiating power, which has set back their struggles several years. The pandemic served as the ‘moment of revelation’ of the backlash experienced by domestic workers.

We see this in Roopali’s and Sundari’s stories, where their lives have been overwhelmed by insecurities, family illnesses, and severe discrimination.

The storybook painstakingly demonstrates that the backlash experienced by domestic workers is built on a bedrock of systemic discrimination, marginalisation, and myriad ‘microscapes of harm’. Almost all of the stories highlight that the early lives of domestic workers were constrained by disadvantage, insecurity, and hardship. These are stories of early marriages, poor educational opportunities, and very young starts to working life in a context often circumscribed by economic distress.

The spectacle of backlash

Systemic injustices and violence that are rooted in caste and religious notions of ‘purity and pollution’ and experienced in forms such as ‘untouchability’, were heightened during the pandemic. Everyday events of marriage, divorce, illness, the birth of children, death of loved ones, migration, and more, have been experienced as ‘shocks’ by domestic workers. This has been alongside more systemic shocks of forced displacement, climate change, and the pandemic have been experienced in terms of the ‘spectacle of backlash’.

There are now immense challenges faced by domestic worker organisations such as SMKU in contending with this backlash in the context of the reduced negotiating power of domestic workers, as well as shifts in the sector with employers seeking more live-in, ‘full-time’ workers. Even so, as the storybook highlights, the crucial support offered by organisations such as SMKU through immediate relief efforts (such as providing rations or enabling domestic workers to access online benefits) proved invaluable in the critical months when domestic workers were facing perilous food insecurities. Their organising efforts have provided a critical lifeline of solidarity and support for domestic workers, even as they seek to collectively re-strategise their claims making efforts to contend with the backlash.

This story is also available in Hindi.

घरेलू कामगारों के प्रत्यावर्ती अधिकार : दिल्ली में प्रतिघात और प्रतिरोध की कहानियाँ

भारत का वेतनभोगी घरेलू कामगार कार्यक्षेत्र मौजूदा समय में उतार-चड़ाव के दौर से गुजर रहा है, जिससे घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों पर दुष्प्रभाव पड़ रहा है। आर्थिक अनिश्चितता, काम और आमदनी का संकट हमेशा से घरेलू कामगारों के जीवन की कड़वी सच्चाई रही है। लेकिन कोविड-19 महामारी और लॉकडाउन की शुरुआत के तीन साल बाद, इसके विनाशकारी प्रभाव घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों के विरुद्ध स्पष्ट प्रतिक्रिया के रूप में दिखाई दे रहे है। अनिश्चित परिस्थितियों में रहने को मजबूर महिला घरेलू कामगार महामारी व लॉकडाउन के दुष्प्रभावों का ख़ामियाज़ा आज भी भुगत रही है। 

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध प्रतिक्रिया की प्रासंगिकता

इस प्रतिक्रिया की तीव्रता और तीक्ष्णता का एक कारण भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के भुगतान में की गयी व्यवस्थागत असमानताएँ हैं। हालाँकि यह शहरी महिला कामगारों के लिए सबसे बड़े क्षेत्रों में से एक है, लेकिन भुगतान के संदर्भ में घरेलू काम को व्यवस्थित रूप से राज्य, समाज और मालिकों द्वारा नज़रअंदाज़ कर इसे कम महत्व दिया गया है। इसके पीछे की जड़ें काफ़ी गहरी हैं, जिसमें घरेलू काम को लेकर पितृसत्तात्मक जेंडर आधारित दृष्टिकोण है, जो महिलाओं के लिए बतायी गयी उनकी प्राकृतिक भूमिका (घरेलू काम) का महज़ विस्तार और इसका पारिवारिक जगहों पर प्रदर्शन है। साथ ही, घरेलू काम मुख्य रूप से हाशिएबद्ध समुदाय की महिलाओं द्वारा किया जाता है। दलित, आदिवासी और प्राथमिक शिक्षा से पूरी तरह दूर महिलाएँ वृहत स्तर पर इस प्रवासी कार्यबल को बनाती है।

यही वजह है कि अनौपचारिकता और अनिश्चितता घरेलू काम की विशेषता होती है, जिसमें घरेलू कामगारों को जेंडर, जाति, धर्म व प्रवास के आधार पर भेदभाव और बुरे हालातों में काम करने को मजबूर होना पड़ता है। शहरों में सार्वजनिक सेवाओं व संसाधनों तक की पहुँच से दूर अनिश्चितताओं के साथ हाशिए पर बसने को घरेलू कामगार मजबूर है।

अपनी प्रतिक्रियाओं की कहानी बताते घरेलू कामगार

दिल्ली और नेशनल कैपिटल रीजन (एनसीआर) के घरेलू कामगारों की जिंदगियों की झलक पर केंद्रित आगामी स्टोरीबुक ‘जेंडर एट वर्क कंसल्टिंग – इंडिया’ द्वारा तैयार की गयी है। इसका लोकार्पण अगस्त 2023 में किया जाएगा। इस किताब में दलित, आदिवासी, मुस्लिम समुदाय और अन्य समुदाय से घरेलू काम के साथ और इसके बाहर जीने वाले युवा-वृद्ध, लंबे समय से इस काम में लगे हुए और नए प्रवासी के अनुभव शामिल है। ये स्टोरीबुक उन जाति, धर्म और जेंडर आधारित हिंसा और इससे जुड़ी प्रतिक्रियाओं को सामने लाती है, जिसने महामारी के दौरान विकराल रूप ले लिया है।

ये स्टोरीबुक घरेलू कामगारों की प्रतिक्रियाओं के अनुभवों को दर्शाती है और अपने अधिकारों के चिंताजनक दमन और जारी संघर्ष को बयाँ करती है। इस पिछड़ेपन से जारी संघर्ष का अंदाज़ा एक घरेलू कामगार के वक्तव्य से लगाया जा सकता है जब वो कहती है कि, हम दसबीस साल पीछे चले गए

यह एक ऐसा क्षेत्र है, जिसमें काम करने वाले लोगों को उनके अधिकारों के संदर्भ में कोई फ़ायदा नहीं हुआ है। घरेलू कामगारों के लगातार जारी संघर्ष व आवाज़ उठाने के बावजूद देशभर में श्रमिक के रूप में घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों को व्यवस्थित रूप से मान्यता नहीं है। कुछ अपवाद हैं, जहां उनके अधिकारों को मान्यता दी गयी है (जैसे कि कुछ भारतीय राज्यों में न्यूनतम वेतन अधिसूचना में घरेलू कामगारों को शामिल करना, कुछ राज्यों में कल्याण के लिए श्रमिकों के रूप में उन्हें शामिल करना या कार्यस्थल पर यौन-उत्पीड़न के रूप में घरों को शामिल करना) जो काग़ज़ी तो है लेकिन उनके लाभ का असर बेहद सीमित है।

सालों पीछे जाने की इस भावना के रूप ने कई रूप ले लिए हैं, जिन्हें महामारी और लंबे समय तक लॉकडाउन के संदर्भ में स्टोरीबुक में संकलित कहानियों में उजागर किया गया है। ये कहानियाँ उजागर करती है –

  • आजीविका का व्यापक स्तर पर विनाशकारी नुक़सान
  • उनलोगों के काम में दबाव जो काम पर बने रहे या फिर वापस लौट आए
  • वेतन की कमी
  • भेदभाव का बढ़ता स्तर व आर्थिक असुरक्षा से क़र्ज़ का उच्च स्तर
  • भोजन और आवास की असुरक्षा
  • शारीरिक और मानसिक स्वास्थ्य बिगड़ना

इन चिंताजनक नुक़सान के मद्देनज़र, घरेलू कामगारों को अपने मालिक व राज्य से अपमान और तिरस्कार का सामना करना पड़ता है। उन्हें शक्तिहीन बनाकर चुप करवा दिया गया है। उन्हें और घरेलू कामगार संगठन जैसे ‘शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन’ को सामूहिक तौर पर वेतन को लेकर मोलभाव करने और सत्ता को चुनौती देने के आधारों को उलट दिया गया है, जिससे वे सालों पीछे चले गए है। महामारी ने घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध की प्रतिक्रियाओं को ‘प्रकटीकरण का क्षण’ बना दिया है।

हम इसे रूपाली और सुंदरी की कहानी के रूप में देख सकते हैं, जहां उनका जीवन असुरक्षाओं, पारिवारिक बीमारियों और भेदभाव के कड़वे अनुभवों  से घिरा हुआ है।

घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध व्यवस्थागत भेदभाव, हाशिएबद्ध पर बसने को मजबूर और उनकी जिंदगियों में हुए ‘ढ़ेरों नुक़सान के अनुभव‘ को ये स्टोरीबुक सामने लाती है। घरेलू कामगारों की क़रीब सभी कहानियाँ उनकी जिंदगियों की असुरक्षा, संघर्ष और कठिनाइयों को उजागर करती है। ये कहानियाँ बाल विवाह, अशिक्षा और पारिवारिक आर्थिक संकट की वजह से उनके काम करने के संघर्ष को उजागर करती है।

प्रतिक्रियाओं का चश्मा

महामारी के दौरान व्यवस्थागत अन्याय और हिंसा का अनुभव बढ़ा, जिसकी जड़ें जाति और धर्म पर आधारित ‘पवित्रता’ के विचार, प्रदूषण और छुआछूत थी। शादी, तलाक, बीमारी, बच्चे का जन्म, किसी प्रियज़न की मृत्यु या प्रवास जैसी रोज़मर्रा की आम घटनाएँ भी घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एक सदमे के रूप में सामने आयी, जैसे कि अधिक व्यवस्थागत सदमे के तौर पर ज़बरन विस्थापन, जलवायु परिवर्तन और महामारी को उन्होंने लगातार अपने जीवन पर होने वाली ‘प्रतिक्रियाओं के वीभत्स अनुभवों के रूप‘ में जिया है।

अब एसएमकेयू जैसे घरेलू कामगार संगठनों को भारी चुनौतियों का सामना करना पड़ रहा है, जिसमें वे घरेलू कामगारों के मोलभाव की क्षमता के साथ-साथ इस क्षेत्र में बदलाव के संदर्भ में घरेलू कामगारों द्वारा सामना किए जाने वाले विरोध का सामना कर रहे हैं, जिसमें मालिक अब ‘पूर्णकालिक’ कामगारों की माँग कर रहे हैं। इसके बीच ये स्टोरीबुक एसएमकेयू जैसे संगठनों द्वारा महामारी के दौर में राशन की मदद, घरेलू श्रमिकों को ऑनलाइन योजनों के लाभ तक पहुँचाने में सक्षम बनाने जैसे ज़रूरी राहत प्रयासों को भी उज़गार करती है जो घरेलू कामगारों के लिए अमूल्य और इस मुश्किल दौर में उन्हें कुछ राहत दिलाने में मददगार साबित हुई। साथ ही, संगठन ने एक ऐसी जगह तैयार की जहां वे संगठित होकर अपने अधिकारों व संघर्षों के मुद्दे पर एकजुट हो सकें। संगठन के प्रयासों से घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एकजुटता और समर्थन की एक ज़रूरी जीवनरेखा तैयार हुई है, जिससे अब वे सामूहिक रूप से प्रतिक्रियाओं को चुनौती देने व अपनी माँगों को उठाने की रणनीति तैयार कर रहे हैं।

Event: Backlash against gender justice globally: What does it mean for development?

Countering Backlash hosted a panel debate where a panel of international experts will discuss and debate questions for development arising from a swell of anti-gender backlash across the world such as ‘What is it?’, ‘How should development adapt?’. 

Panel:

Co-chairs:

When:

  • 13 June 2023

Watch the recording

Partner Research: Unravelling and countering the backlash against gender justice in Uganda

While it is right and fitting to celebrate International Women Day 2023, it is also important to understand the politics defining how the gains made by women are understood and appreciated, while being insidiously countered at the same time.

There is need for a conversation about a backlash against gender justice that is unravelling in our eyes. More needs to be done to sustain gender justice agendas in the journey ahead. Voices in countering backlash must be intentional, strategic, enduring and needs support from all well-intentioned Ugandans.

Unravelling and countering the backlash against gender justice in Uganda‘, authored by Josephine Ahikire and Amon A. Mwine of Countering Backlash partner the Centre for Basic Research, explores the critical need to interrogate gender backlash and identify ways in which the women’s rights agenda can navigate this backlash.

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Mothers vs Children: Co-opting Child Rights as Gender Backlash

This paper examines how progressive rights frameworks are used as gender backlash tools to suppress feminist activism. The author engages with the events following Rehana Fathima’s political act ‘Body and Politics’, which faced strong backlash in the form of censure through law, and discourse capture. […]

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Countering Online Gender Backlash in Uganda

Advancing the access and use of technology and digital platforms has been embraced by governments and the private and public sectors. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated access to information, finances, education, and health services at a time when physical contact was restricted.

The benefits and potential of digital platforms and technology as a tool to achieve sustainable development and gender equality are vast. But too often they have been used to attack gender advocates, sexual rights activists and feminists, . There have been attacks on legal frameworks, regulation of online spaces, shrinking civic space, counterattacks and violent reactions to the progress of women and marginalised groups. This has led to frequent violent policing of women and feminists who belong to political and public spaces, such as women in leadership positions, and female journalists.

This year, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is thrilled to join the Countering Backlash programme. Our emphasis is to explore the understanding of gender backlash in Uganda’s context, identifying the key drivers of gender backlash and looking at the relationship between online and offline key drivers of gender backlash in Uganda. This will be done with a focus on three thematic areas: feminist organising; civic space; and the regulation of online spaces in Uganda. We join two other organisations from Uganda on Countering Backlash – the Centre for Basic Research and the Refugee Law Project.

WOUGNET is countering gender backlash

There have been numerous attacks on legal frameworks where gender activists, feminist advocates and human rights defenders use social media to conduct online activism. The advancement in the use of technology and digital platforms has also been a tool to share patriarchal narratives and attack these groups and push back against gender equality achievements.

In Uganda, and worldwide, violence such as sexual harassment, stalking, and Non-Consensual Intimate Images (NCII) or ‘revenge porn’, has been used to silence women human rights defenders, and feminist activists. This includes the use of different expressions of violence against feminist activists, and human rights defenders such as the use of words, phrases, and images that depict women as sexualised. They receive demeaning comments on their body size, hair and pregnancy, in ways that are non-sexual but still invasive. The use of the invisible expression of violence manifests in images, messages, and representations of women in media, where feminism is framed as the main cause of women’s problems.

Many religious groups in the public sphere oppose feminist and sexual-equality policies. For example, the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC) – a faith-based ecumenical organisation– in Uganda strongly opposed the comprehensive sexual policy developed by the Ministry of Education and Sports. The church attempted to argue that the policy will teach children to become sexually exploitative. This brought controversies between the Ministry of Health and Education and the Interreligious Council which holds discussions on components around feminism and sexual equality policies.

There has been significant government interference and closure of civic society organisations, mostly targeting women’s rights organisations and sexual rights organisations. For instance, on August 18, 2021, 55 civil society organisations were ordered to halt their operations by Uganda’s NGO Bureau. Most of the organisations affected were vocal and engaged in advocacy work on governance, human rights, and oil and extractives, such as Uganda Women’s Network, Democratic Governance Facility, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) 2019-2020, Chapter Four Uganda, and Sexual Minority Uganda.

WOUGNET’s research will contribute to understanding the context of gender backlash in Uganda, particularly in the policy, civic, and popular space and identify policy areas or strands of focus for the three years. The research will inform the capacity building, several convenings such as quarterly observatory meetings, and awareness-raising campaigns.

WOUGNET’s experience in countering gender backlash

WOUGNET has done extensive research on online gender-based violence in Uganda and continues to advocate on or ‘revenge pornography’, as a form of online gender-based violence commonly experienced in Uganda to reduce backlash on online platforms.  This has led to the acknowledgement of the impact of NCII on women’s rights online in Uganda.

Under the ‘Our Voices, Our Futures’ project, we conducted direct advocacy and lobbying focused on data-related laws and policies (Data Protection and Privacy Act, 2019). This included upcoming legislation and implementation of existing laws related to the NCII, censorship, and network disruptions. We researched the impact of shrinking civic space on feminist organising online, particularly for structurally silenced women to also understand the online discourse. We have generated online and offline creative content that challenges oppressive social norms using digital technologies, held multi-stakeholder convenings, and worked with women-led CSOs in Uganda to effectively participate and advocate for reforms on restrictive legal and regulatory frameworks for freedom of expression and access to information using the women’s rights online education guide.

WOUGNET’s work has delivered significant impacts for women human rights defenders and women’s rights organisations in Uganda. For instance, we have improved the security and advocacy opportunities for female journalists, activists and human rights defenders in Uganda through the established Toll-Free number (0800 200510) which remains an important legal and mental health support service provided to female journalists in Uganda.

What we will be doing on Countering Backlash

WOUGNET’s research will strengthen the understanding of contextual features of gender backlash. We will highlight and showcase key backlash issues and cases in Uganda to build awareness of the effects of gender backlash and misogyny. We will be working closely with women’s rights organisations, civil society, gender justice defenders, human rights activists, academia, policymakers, the media, and more, to change and improve the conditions of vulnerable groups in Uganda and, ultimately, counter backlash.