Women, life, freedom: Women’s bodies at the centre of the Iran protests

Zan, Zidegi, Azadi (‘women, life, freedom’) is the central slogan of the ongoing women-led protests that have shaken Iran and captured the world’s attention. The slogan emerged from the Kurdish freedom movement and has been taken up by Iranian protestors. It is a call for the reclamation of women’s bodily autonomy, an issue at the core of the current movement.

The women-led protests started after Masha Amini, died  in police custody. Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian, was arrested during a visit to Tehran by the morality police for violating ‘hijab’ laws. She was sent to a ‘re-education’ camp and later died. The images of Amini’s brutalised body went viral and triggered widespread protests led by women. Women are removing their headscarves (hijab) in public and cutting off their hair in a bold defiance of a law that requires mandatory head covering. The protests, the largest since the 2009 Green movement, have been met by a brutal crackdown by the authorities, and several media sources have reported deaths.

Women’s Bodies as Battlegrounds

Contestations over women’s bodily autonomy are not new in Iran’s history. The politicization of the hijab (and women’s bodies) started with Reza Shah Pahlavi – the father of the deposed Shah, who banned wearing the veil in public. Women who veiled faced harassment in public. The law was abolished a few years later as it was unpopular with devout women and the general public, but it had cemented the hijab (and by extension women’s bodies) as an ideological battleground. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, veiled women came to symbolise national identity for the new regime, and hijab-wearing was made compulsory. This proved unpopular with women, and there were major protests led by women in post-revolutionary Iran. Compulsory veiling was written into law in 1983 but has remained contested, with the regular emergence of protest movements.

Women-led protests and state backlash

Recent protests in Iran have seen numerous strategies by women defying the state’s control over their bodies: the cutting of hair in public, the making of bonfires with headscarves, the singing and dancing in the streets; all of which change how women’s bodies are imagined and presented in public. This is not unique to Iran. Similar strategies of performing songs and dances, defying gender norms and state regulations in creative and unruly ways to claim public space and demand change are used by the Aurat March protestors to draw attention to bodily integrity issues and the Hazara women protestors in Pakistan. Anti-sexual harassment protestors at Egyptian universities  used performance to draw attention to claim women’s right to say ‘no’, and the Shaheen Bagh protestors in Delhi used sit-ins and public performance to draw attention to citizenship rights.

All of these women-led protests are facing backlash from their country’s regimes, who continually attempt to discredit them and delegitimise their claims. State security forces and police have harassed and detained protestors and their allies. Given the high levels of state surveillance in these contexts acts of protests carry grave, even life-threatening, risks for the protestors, their families, and their allies.

A leaderless movement and change

As with many other women-led protests, the Iranian protests are leaderless, showing a model of distributed leadership, which enables the sustainability of the movement in the face of state clampdown. The widespread support from many men and across society is another sign of hope for Iranian women.

Time will tell whether this will be a turning point for renegotiating women’s rights in Iran, and if the wide-scale support for the women-led protests will trigger positive change. What we do know, and are seeing, is that the protestors will face severe repression. The state has implemented a social media block in an attempt to contain the protest. In the meantime, those of us that support Iranian women’s right to bodily autonomy need to find effective ways of showing our solidarity, so the protestors know they are not alone. We need to avoid exceptionalism and Islamophobic narratives that position Iran’s gender politics as static and uniquely repressive.

Backlash against women’s bodily autonomy is rising in many contexts at the moment, and it will take a collective effort, to resist it.

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.

The overturning of Roe vs Wade: a dark time for rights

We live in illiberal times. The systematic attack on women’s rights, and human rights more broadly, is a global emergency. The overturning of Roe vs Wade – the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling that established access to abortion as a constitutional right – is the latest assault. Overturning the right to abortion will not mean less abortions, but less SAFE abortions, in particular for poor women.

Overturning the right to abortion will not mean less abortions, but less SAFE abortions

Global backlash against rights

In terms of the rule of law, the overturning of Roe vs Wade will erode public trust in a much-respected institution crafted to protect the law and rights of citizens. The fact that since we knew this was coming after the leaked draft last month makes it no less shocking.

Many see the reversal of rights as a part of a global backlash driven by right-wing populist forces and their allies; one against women and LGBTQI+ people, based on the perceived gains of rights movements since the 1980s (as argued by Goetz in 2020 and Petchesky in 2005). Others claim that the idea of a backlash assumes progress that many have not yet seen. Whichever side of this debate you are on, there is no denying that the impact of this week’s Supreme Court decision will reverberate beyond US borders, and significantly strengthen anti-abortion actors elsewhere.

Countering the anti-abortion lobby

Access to abortion is regarded as a fundamental human right

As feminists, access to abortion is regarded as a fundamental human right. Between 2015 and 2019, over 120 million unintended pregnancies occurred worldwide, 61 percent of these ended in abortion. Since 1994, abortion rights have been rolled back in Poland, Nicaragua, El Salvador; in many other countries where this right does not exist for women, abortions are accessed secretly, often unsafely. While the anti-abortion forces have lost in Ireland and Argentina – their energy at the global and national levels has not dissipated, despite growing public support for abortion rights in many countries. In the US about 85 percent of Americans view abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.

The anti-abortion lobby in the US and around the world is a diverse set of individuals and groups. They have strong transnational links that have long infiltrated the international arenas and institutions where ‘global norms’ and human rights are debated. Before Roe vs Wade was challenged in the US supreme court, the US government (under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Donald Trump), used the ‘global gag rule’ to restrict funds to organisations working on sexual and reproductive health if they provided any information on abortion services or advocated for abortion law reform. This rule has had a significant impact on women’s and girls’ access to reproductive services around the world.

What does the overturning of Roe vs Wade mean for other hard-won rights in the US? For contraception? For same sex marriage? People are fearful that these too will be reversed.

Our rights need to be fought for

In development studies, we tend to see history as a linear, progressing towards greater well-being, and more rights for more people. Since the 1950s, this idea has been tied up with notions modernisation and an ‘extractivist’ model of development. As a result, it has been significantly compromised by both of what constitutes progress and of its presumed linearity. Rights are not won forever; their maintenance requires vigilance and on-going struggle, or they are at the risk of reversal. We cannot assume that many of the rights enshrined in international laws are universally regarded as either valid or intrinsic.

We must mobilise urgently, with renewed commitment, and in preparation for an on-going struggle to counter backlash and to defend our hard-earned rights.

An Uprising in Parliament? Lebanon’s 2022 Parliamentary Elections

Lebanon’s 2022 parliamentary election was held in the midst of economic turmoil, and the first since the October 2019 uprising and the world’s largest ever non-nuclear explosions that devastated Beirut’s port. Despite ongoing commentary that there would be a low turnout, 49 per cent of voters cast their ballot – on par with the 2018 figure.

This year’s elections were defined by political and gender activism, opening a window of opportunity to discuss issues from civil marriage to secularism.

The October 17th MPs

For the first time since the first post-war 1992 parliamentary elections, alternative political groups, who reject traditional sectarian political parties and advocate for a feminist and secular agenda, won over 10 seats in the Lebanese parliament – unprecedented in the contemporary history of Lebanon. These groups, known as the October 17th Ministers of Parliaments (MPs) or as ‘Change MPs’, hail from the various strands of society that joined together for the October 2019 uprising – a revolutionary movement that seriously dented the Lebanese neoliberal sectarian system.

It was a long-awaited opportunity for many Lebanese to reinvent themselves and their relationship with their country and politics – a reinvention that saw people pour into the squares and streets to protest. It represented a break from the corruption, patriarchy, and sectarianism in the country. This moment and the deliberate mismanagement of the multiple crises that followed it, culminated in the recent win of Change MPs in parliament.

These MPs are in a position to bring the demands of protestors and civil society at large to the table, especially in issues such as civil marriage. If this group of diverse parliamentarians succeeds at building alliances and coalitions over strategic demands, their leverage will certainly grow. Whilst change in Lebanon tends to be excruciatingly slow and incremental, at best, this gradual shift in representation could make progressive change significantly more likely.

Women’s representation in the new Parliament

Despite these successes, an enduring feature of Lebanese politics perseveres. Having won the right to vote and stand for elections in 1953, Lebanese women only entered parliament 10 years later when Myrna Bustani was elected, replacing her late father.

The percentage of women in parliament has remained low since then, with only three to six women being voted into parliament over the last five elections. While in 2018 women represented only 11 per cent of running candidates, they represented 15 per cent in 2022 – the majority of whom came from the capital district in Beirut. The number of women elected in 2022 rose from six to eight – half of whom are from four of Lebanon’s major political parties.

Although the representation of women in parliament remains low, 2022 has the highest number of women from alternative political groups in Lebanese history – four in total. Their unprecedented win and that of the Change MPs in general represents a challenge to the traditional make-up of the Lebanese parliament. Yet, whilst these Change MPs have made commitments to human rights priorities, openly challenging the sectarian political establishment’s general resistance, backsliding and backlash against rights remains a daunting call to many, and politically risky. The heightened sectarian, political and economic tensions in the country are all linked, and act as a major impediment for positive and progressive change.

New Voices in parliament are a window of opportunity to counter backlash

Although priorities in Lebanon today are focused on economic reforms, the incoming parliamentarians are expected to revive debates around several human rights and gender justice issues, particularly civil marriage. In May 2022, shortly after the end of the elections, the civil marriage debate spiked again and galvanised discussions on social media. Several clerics took to social media to spew false information about all forms of civil marriage, demonise the ‘Change MPs’, and incite hate and violence against them. Until recently, ‘backlash’ against civil marriage has been one of the most contested topics brought up by the media.

Indeed, while some Change MPs claim to hold a feminist agenda, the battle against the embedded norms and practices, as expressed by the ‘old guards’ in parliament, complicates the chances of progress and reform.

Countering backlash in the political system

The political stand-still, the ruling parties’ mismanagement of the Lebanon’s crises, and the very design of the sectarian power-sharing political system, all conspire to ensure resistance and regular backlash against progressive reform. And entrenched patriarchal culture is a central to it.

Challenging discriminatory laws and practices through new voices in parliament – coming from the fringes of the country’s rigid political institution – is itself a symbolic ‘win’ against backlash forces.

The four-year parliamentary journey for the newcomers is marred with challenges amidst a tense political landscape, a crumbling economy, and patriarchal sectarian barriers. In 2022, the battles of civil, political, economic and gender rights have seeped into parliament after having flooded the streets. The Change MPs agendas remain promising and the prospects for change remain high as many young people in Lebanon see in them a long-awaited beacon of hope.

Advocates for Social Change are tackling backlash in Kenya. Here’s how

Advocates for Social Change – Kenya (ADSOCK) see victim blaming and ‘what-about-ism’ (‘but what about men and boys?’) around sexual and gender-based violence gaining ground in the country. The organisation’s latest resource book ‘Paradigm Shift: Countering Backlash Reclaiming Gender Justice‘ provides practical ways individuals and organisations can counter this backlash.

Phil E. Otieno, Executive Director of ADOSCK, shares some reflections from their work on this.

Developing methods and knowledge

At ADSOCK we engage with a range of partners and actors in the field of gender, identifying what drives patriarchal backlash. We have been able to document how male supremacist ideologies are installed and flourish in combination with other oppressive ideologies through our capacity building workshops, and we have seen how male resentment is mobilised within diverse contexts in Kenya.

Our activities are complemented by knowledge strengthening for different audiences, by designing and delivering training workshops and modules, developing and sharing Social Behaviour Change and Communication Materials (posters, stickers, t-shirts), and the ‘Paradigm Shift: Countering Backlash Reclaiming Gender Justice’ resource book.  This has been important in supporting our trainers and audience (a range of local and national gender justice actors) in understanding forms of gender backlash and by providing them with real examples of promising interventions to counter patriarchal backlash.

The resource book is one of the best, because it has all the materials that a trainer needs for proper grounding on patriarchal backlash and other elements of gender inequality

Anne, ADSOCK Trainer

We include 17 modules which provide step-by-step guidelines and practical resources that help the user in understanding a particular module and how to apply the information acquired. Feedback from practitioners and those using the resource book (particularly men) have shown that module three – ‘Roadmap to male allyship’ – and module 11 – ‘Understanding and Countering Patriarchal Backlash’ – have been of most interest and use.

The resource book is empowering and is loaded with very insightful information on Backlash including the module on male allyship towards gender equality

Steve, Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK)

Open Debates

Since inception of the project, we have conducted four workshops that brought together a diverse range of stakeholders for challenging and reflective debates and learning. They have included; women’s rights organisations, civil society organisations, university students, member of the LGBTIQ+ community, Kenya Police Service, persons with disabilities, media personalities, religious and cultural leaders, county leadership among others. The trainings helped to contextualise situations and how we internalise contested ideas.

In the workshops, a vast majority of men felt that gender equality is a ‘Western phenomenon’ (non-African) and a system aimed at destroying the so-called ‘African’ family. We also found that there is discomfort in some language, with many people feeling gender equality should be anchored in Pan-Africanism for it to be accepted. A vast majority of men expressed that ‘men are in crisis because of the feminisation of society’.

Another common trope in patriarchal backlash is ‘What-about-ism’ and victim blaming regarding sexual and gender-based violence, which is slowly but surely gaining ground in Kenya. Interestingly, we found that conversations about the ‘boy-child’ being ‘left behind’ is advanced by both men and women. This has led to a stereotyping and labelling of human rights defenders and feminists as ‘angry individuals’.

We believe that ADSOCK’s Resource Book will help people by providing an understanding of the importance of gender equality, accountability towards social justice (including identifying how patriarchal backlash happens). It also provides knowledge on how gender backlash is manifested both in online and offline spaces, critical factors contributing to the success and failures of different actors in their work on gender equality, as well as methods and approaches for challenging the status quo.

Curbing Erosion of Gender Equality and Women’s Rights

There is a need to document and analyse how backlash mobilises forms of male resentment across different contexts in Kenya; how can we tackle restrictive masculinities that may hinder men’s engagement in gender equality initiatives? A comprehensive male-engagement process is needed to ensure women are not targeted or ostracised by men’s organisations who believe that measures to address entrenched gender inequality are unfair and a form of ‘reverse discrimination’. Engaging with men and boys in the promotion of gender equality is one in many strategies for tackling the ever-growing problems of inequality, injustice and oppression.

To sustain the campaigns on gender equality, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) need support with resource mobilisation and the development of advocacy and awareness messages. CSOs also need support in building knowledge and action towards political mobilisation, along with allyship in movement and partnership building for gender and social justice. This is incredibly important in political spaces. Shifting norms concerning women’s leadership, leading towards a more transformative role for women’s collective agency – in both formal and informal settings – which both depends on and determines their individual agency. It also calls for men’s reflective allyship and support without mansplaining, patriarchal protectionism or ‘bro-option’.

Arthur do Val’s sexism about Ukrainian refugees is shocking – but not surprising. Here’s why

The world is shocked by the beginning of another war. The images of death, destruction and displacement coming from Ukraine are heart-breaking.

Brazilian right-wing politician Arthur do Val visited Ukraine on a ‘humanitarian mission’. During his trip, sexist and misogynistic comments of his about Ukrainian women, those who are fleeing war, were leaked. They are truly shocking – but they are not surprising. Here’s why.

Military conflicts are always crossed by gender issues.

The decision to begin or to end a war is usually taken by cis-gendered heterosexual men. The sexualised division of labour means that they are the ones in charge of the armies and the state. Men also tend to be summoned to fight, while women are forced to flee or stay behind, taking care of the elderly, children, and a home that might not even exist the next day. Women do what Cynthia Enloe called the invisible work of holding their battered wartime communities together. In these situations, they frequently experience the menace of sexual violence and rape – another weapon of war.

Do Val’s shocking comments

In the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Arthur do Val, a representative at São Paulo’s State Assembly and a prominent figure of the Brazilian right – made the news after his sexist comments were leaked during a trip to Ukraine. His trip was supposedly to support the Ukrainian people by giving a financial donation and even helping to make Molotov cocktails: “I never thought I would be making Molotov cocktails for the Ukrainian army”, he wrote in a photo shared on Instagram.

During his stay, he sent a message to a group of friends making comments about Ukrainian women, particularly refugees. Someone decided to leak it to the world.

If you haven’t heard it yet, prepare your stomach. Do Val says: “I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of beautiful girls. The refugee queue … imagine a 200metres-long or more of just total goddesses … it’s some incredible shit … the queue outside Brazil’s best nightclub … doesn’t come close to the refugee queue here.” His sexist and horrific tirade doesn’t stop there. “…they’re easy because they’re poor”, he says.

The comments, besides being sexist, are also racist because at he points out that they are all blondes and that “they are gold diggers”. He recalls that his partner on this visit, Renan Santos, leader of MBL (Brazil Free Movement), takes a trip every year on what he calls a “blonde tour” around European countries.

Should we be shocked? Yes. Should we be surprised? No

It’s disgusting to hear a man say these kinds of sexist things about women. How can a person not show any kind of empathy towards other human beings, especially in a war? Worse so, it objectifies them. It’s shocking.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Do Val’s movement, MBL, was born in 2014 and was one of the main groups responsible for the demonstrations against president Dilma Rousseff that led to her impeachment in 2016. Back then, as Flavia Biroli argues, sexism and misogyny contributed in the construction of a political environment where an elected woman was challenged in her competence and deposed. In 2018, when do Val was elected deputy of São Paulo’s State Assembly, MBL supported Bolsonaro, a candidate openly against women’s and LGBTQIA+ people’s rights, as I shared in my previous blog for Countering Backlash.

Nowadays, MBL’s candidate for the Brazilian Presidency is a former judge and Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sergio Moro. Moro is the one who convicted ex-president Lula and prevented him from running in 2018. Now Lula’s convictions were annulled by the Supreme Court and he is free to run for political office.

Once the audio leaked, to defend himself, do Val argued he did ‘nothing’. As if his sexist words didn’t matter in everyday life.

I had a personal experience of MBL’s hatred of women. In 2017, after I appeared in a TV show talking about male and female predetermined tasks and how it affects childhood, a picture of me was shared on their social media, accusing me of being a ’radical feminist’. After that, I received thousands of critiques and dozens of menacing comments.

Brazilian society reached its limit

The response from Brazilian society was strong. Do Val is now facing 21 requests made by his colleagues to cancel his political mandate, from right- to left-wing parties. There are also online petitions claiming his expulsion from São Paulo’s assembly.

This might tell us that something has changed in Brazilian society. It shows there should be a limit to symbolic violence against women, which is nowadays so commonly spread by the far-right. However, the line was not drawn by an event in Brazil, but one outside our borders and political affairs.

What does this reaction mean? Will that be enough to avoid the re-election of figures from MBL and Bolsonaro himself? One can only hope.

Online violence against women – a weapon used to silence and degrade

The digital space has become an essential medium for activists and individuals to reach global audiences with messages on human rights, gender justice, and other critical social issues through social media platforms like Facebook.  While online activism for gender justice is growing, violence against women on these online spaces is also on the rise. This issue of online violence as part of the larger backlash against women’s rights is the focus of a new pilot research project by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) under the Countering Backlash programme. Through the research we explore the online hate and threats of violence towards advocates for gender justice, and women in general, causing them to lose confidence, courage, and interest to speak out or advocate. 

Following the Facebook pages of vocal women 

For the research we chose to track the Facebook pages of three female media personnel based in Bangladesh who are vocal about women’s rights and gender justice issues. This included a social media influencer, a journalist, and a veteran actress who is also a development practitioner.  It also included examining two events that flared up on social media and created mass debate on women’s agency and women’s rights in the context of Bangladesh during May – September 2021 and one anti-feminist Facebook group. The study looked at the interaction of the three media personnel in Facebook in depth and found that women’s choice of clothing, personal life choices, including relationship and marriage, LGBTQI issues, and contents on violence against women including rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence were the most contested issues – resulting in the most online harassment and violence against the voice that raised them. 

Types of backlash  

Looking at the types of backlash, we found a few common types across issues and persons that occur repeatedly. The first and the most common form of backlash, regardless of the content they post, was name-calling and labelling of women, mostly as ‘prostitute’, targeting their personal life choices (such as clothing, marital/relationship partners, etc). Then came sexually explicit hate comments that are often directed to specific body parts of women, such as breasts and vaginas. In extreme cases, these led to rapethreats and publishing sexually fabricated photographs to create a meme or post in the comment section to vilify these women.  

Another major form of backlash was religious and moral policing. With this form, backlash actors bring in religion to point fingers and criticise female public figures for their clothing preferences, lifestyles, personal choices, and opinions. For instance, the social media influencer would oftentimes be blamed for coming in front of the camera and speaking in public without covering up. Many of these hate comments would also state how wrong she is to try to make a mark in the entertainment industry by showcasing a ‘western lifestyle’ without respecting her cultural roots.  

A major form of backlash is delegitimising posts advocating for women’s rights. This comes with “male validation”, where male backlash actors are often seen defining what “ideal feminism/women’s rights/motherhood, etc.” is and deciding who is “credible” enough to be speaking on these matters. When the female public figures in our research posted contents on issues such as early childhood development, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, mental health, consent in a sexual relationship, marital rape, single parenthood, and such issues for public awareness, backlash actors would attack them by drawing on their personal life and suggest that they are not the “ideal” person to talk about such issues. When a series of delegitimising comments like this are posted and multiple fellow backlash actors ‘like’ them, the key messages originally posted by women eventually lose their relevance and seriousness.  

Backlash actors also mocked and trivialised with ‘haha’ reactions on Facebook to devalue the underlying messages directed towards understanding women’s struggles better and fighting misogynistic discourses and actions in patriarchy. Even when someone took legal action against the cyber-harassment it was not taken seriously and rather delegitimised with a comment stating that it was waste of time. 

Who are the perpetrators?  

But who are these backlash actors? We tried to find if those posting the online abuse are an organised group or if they share any common identity. Our research looked at Bangladeshi and Bangla speaking people, living both inside and outside of Bangladesh and found that the backlash is coming from the broad public, and thus it is hard to pinpoint any specific organised groups.  

Many of the perpetrators hide behind fake accounts on Facebook to maintain anonymity. For the locked accounts, the gender and other background information could not be determined. The accessible accounts showed that most of the commenters are men and boys, aged between their early twenties to late forties. However, women too are actors and accomplices of backlash. There is a trend of openly posting and commenting based on religion-based critiques and moralising, both by women and men. We found that fake accounts are primarily used to post sexually explicit comments and rape threats. 

Tactics to counter the backlash  

We also found that the female personalities are using tactics to counter the backlash. The most common one is filtering and restricting the comments on their Facebook pages, especially when posting about more sensitive subjects – such as LGBTQI rights. Sometimes they appoint moderators for their social media handles who remove offensive hate comments. An interesting tactic we observed was using dark humour and sarcasm to highlight the contested issue. It can be assumed that making serious issues sound “lighter” results in less severe backlash. Other tactics include calling out to the hate commenters through a short video, replying with wits while showing the screenshot of the hate comment, talking about the abuse and harassment on media outlets and radio, and taking legal actions. 

Online and offline harms 

Although online violence most often does not lead to physical harm offline, the online violence is far more widespread and intense. On one hand it subtly (or not so subtly) aims to send women back to their “acceptable” roles – how society expects women should behave and thus sanctioning discrimination, stigmatisation and violence against women. On the other hand, protesting women’s rights online is easier than protesting or preventing women from enjoying their rights on the streets. The scope of anonymity and lack of legal consequences give the perpetrators the opportunity of committing the violence with impunity, making it a lethal weapon for silencing women’s voices. 

This emerging form of online backlash on social media is not only closing the digital space for women but also shrinking the civic space for promoting gender justice. We need to acknowledge the severity of this violence and its impact on the lives women and girls. It is high time to understand and address the depth of this issue in today’s digital world and take a comprehensive approach to prevent and mitigate online risks, and promote a safe online space for everyone. 

This blog is also posted on the Institute of Development Studies’ website.

Living in a digital society – but at what cost?

The digital revolution and access to online spaces has transformed the ways we communicate, work, and organise. It has also become critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – not least SDG target 5b to ‘Enhance the use of enabling technology to promote the empowerment of women’.

This digital transformation has been accelerated over the past two years by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the European Commission going so far as to note the pandemic’s potential ‘positive’ impact in “increasing further the number of internet users and their interactions online“.  Yet research carried out by the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster since the start of the pandemic compellingly illustrates the costs of inclusion in digital societies to individuals, democratic institutions, and the economies of lower income countries.

In their work with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Kevin Hernandez and Tony Roberts also outlined the challenges of governance in a world where a significant percentage of the world’s social, economic and political life now takes place on digital platforms. Platforms that are owned by private monopolies whose algorithms are optimised for private profit, cannot be held accountable, or democratically governed to service development or human rights goals.

Imbalance of power in digital trade provisions

Research by Karishma Banga has highlighted the digital trade provisions in trade agreements, showing how African countries are entering continental negotiations at a severe disadvantage. This is unsurprising given that the revenue of the big five firms (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook) reached $7.5 trillion in 2020, which was three times the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of all African nations combined. She argues that we need to understand the embedded power structures in digital development – which are vividly illustrated by the involvement of global technology companies such as Google in lobbying in Kenyan trade agreements.

Digital-only access to work and social assistance

In our research carried out for the ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre Kevin Hernandez and I have been looking at how decisions made by powerful digital actors shape experiences for different users based on their levels of digital access. As access to job seeking and welfare during the pandemic moved online, we sought to understand the impact on people with limited digital access and skills. As a welfare advisor in the UK put it “At the very basic level you need some kind of Internet access these days to administer a benefit [Welfare] claim… It’s become as vital as water and electricity.”  Yet we found that already marginalised individuals were especially vulnerable to being further excluded by services that were only available digitally during the pandemic.

This move to online only service provision is also the case in the humanitarian context. Our recent working paper for the BASIC project shows that there are also significant risks involved when people have to provide personal information for digital databases to humanitarian agencies in order to access social assistance. Amid increasing pressures to digitise the whole value chain of humanitarian cash assistance, our research highlights a raft of key issues requiring further scrutiny, from the purported ‘value for money’ to the technical effectiveness of biometric ID systems. Issues that have become even more urgent by the recent revelations of a cyber-attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross resulting in the leak of personal data of more than half a million people registered on their international family tracing service.

Online backlash against women

Mobile phones and internet technologies are being used positively by women and marginalised groups to access information, organise on online spaces to demand their rights, and to influence policy and political change. However, the same online technologies are also used to disrupt civil society, spread disinformation, target online hate speech and to silence dissent. In our work with the Countering Backlash programme we are collaborating with partner organisations to research the online backlash against women’s rights, which threatens not only women’s rights to be seen and heard online, but our economic right to access platforms which are essentially now our workplaces; vital for commerce, professional engagement, job seeking, and distribution of our creative outputs.

Online civic space and surveillance

Finally, people’s ability to act using digital tools or online digital spaces in ways that allow people to exercise, expand, and defend their rights and freedoms has been growing in political importance over the past decade. However, this digital citizenship is threatened by digital authoritarianism, as explored by Tony Roberts in his case study with Tanja Bosch for the OECD’s recent Development Cooperation Report.

The work of the African Digital Rights Network shows how digital authoritarianism in the forms of digital surveillance, online disinformation, and internet shutdown by states and corporations  – violate human rights, close civic space, and reduce the space for digital citizenship. Their research across ten African countries identified 115 “digital closings” of civic space including mandatory mobile SIM card registration and social media taxes, and only 65 positive examples of “digital openings”, including social media activism and innovations to provide transparency and track corruption. Their work on Surveillance Law in Africa showed that governments are carrying out illegal digital surveillance of their citizens, highlighting the need for strong civil society, independent media and independent courts to challenge government actions.

This snapshot of research from the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster and our partners demonstrates the importance of contributing to understandings of power asymmetries and exclusions in all aspects of our digital lives; from political mobilisation, to e-commerce negotiations and access to welfare payments. This knowledge will be critical for policymakers and practitioners within development seeking to further social, environmental and gender justice in today’s digital world.

With thanks to Jasmin Morris for her contributions to this opinion article.

Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis

Feminist activism and organising for gender justice are rapidly evolving. We are seeing new energies and new ways of building a feminist future. This is happening in a time of multiple and interconnected crises, adversely impacting women’s, trans folk’s and non-binary people’s rights, as well as gender equality gains made in policy, discourse and practice.

To explore the challenges to feminist and gender justice activism and to identify new energies in the field, Sohela Nazneen and Awino Okech were invited to guest edit the Gender & Development journal’s special double issue on Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis. You can also watch the authors discuss their articles in an Institute of Development Studies’s webinar held in November 2021.

Why now?

Feminist activism has faced new and diverse challenges over the past decade. The rise of conservative and populist forces, the growth of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, and austerity in many countries are just some of these challenges. These have led to an increased dismantling of civil liberties, freedom of speech, expression and peaceful assembly.

Across the globe, feminist and gender justice activists are recalibrating their actions to face these challenges.

From Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and climate justice activism, we are witnessing a growth of transnational and intergenerational organising. Feminist and gender activists are seizing the moment to reimagine democracy, gender and power relations, and humanity.

Feminist activism requires presence across policy, online spaces and the street…

What we explore

In this special double issue on Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis, we set out to answer two central questions:

  1. How are movements sustaining thriving, robust and resilient spaces and alliances in a world of multiple crises?
  2. How is politics of solidarity created at the national and trans-national levels?

To answer these, we explore varying themes and collective mobilisations for feminist and gender justice actors through 20 articles from different regions of the world. Below are some examples of what you will find:

Nothing is as it seems: ‘discourse capture’ and backlash politics; Tessa Lewin

Tessa Lewin develops the concept of discourse capture, analysing how gender equality is undermined by right-wing political parties and women’s groups as they co-opt progressive feminist agendas. Tessa details examples from around the world, including the US pro-life movement, the ‘Vote No’ campaign in the Republic of Ireland, the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ in Uganda, and more.

Femonationalism and anti-gender backlash: the instrumental use of gender equality in the nationalist discourse of the Fratelli d’Italia party; Daria Collela

Daria Collela explores the media strategies of right-wing political parties in Italy, and how they frame people of colour, especially those of a Muslim background, as perpetrators of violence against women. Daria argues that these nationalist forces use gender equality agendas to bring together a diverse set of actors to promote racism, anti-migrant agendas and xenophobia.

The resistance strikes back: Women’s protest strategies against backlash in India; Deepta Chopra

Deepta Chopra analyses the strategies used by Muslim-women activists in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, India. These women led a four-month-long sit-in protest against the police violence inflicted on student activists and India’s discriminatory citizenship laws. Deepta details how the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh used inclusive frames for claiming citizenship, rotated care work duties with younger women of the community so the latter could participate, and how the performance of poetry and songs transformed the Shaheen Bagh as a space for building cross-sectional solidarity.

Visible outside, invisible inside: the power of patriarchy on female protest leaders in conflict and violence-affected settings; Miguel Loureiro and Jalila Haider

Miguel Loureiro and Jalila Haider examine the Hazara women’s protests in Balochistan, Pakistan. They look specifically at how the women went on hunger strike and drew national attention to the killing of and violence against the men of their community. Women’s participation transformed the movement from male-dominated violent protests to women-led peaceful ones. But despite women being the face of protests, they are still excluded from key decision-making structures, drawing attention to the slow pace of change.

Gendered social media to legal systems, online activism to funding systems

Other articles in this issue explore how South-South transnational solidarity is built. They examine the role of public performance, street protests and intergenerational dialogues in creating solidarity across diverse social groups and generations in the movements such as “A Rapist in Your Path” in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and the anti-abortion rights movement the Green Wave in Argentina. There is a focus on queer and feminist activism in online spaces in Nigeria (such as #ENDSARS), Lebanon, Brazil and how online engagements help to raise contentious issues but also pose a significant risk to activists. For many authors, how to sustain movements and protect spaces for autonomous organising remain key concerns. Several of them focus on the development of alternative funding mechanisms and influencing bilateral negotiations as key pathways for sustaining activism.

Further articles analyse how having a seat at the table in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina were important for making and sustaining pro gender equality policy change and explore the ways an active and effective feminist presence in policy political spaces can help to counter gender backlash.

The strength and determination documented in the articles of feminists and gender justice activists, gives us hope for a better, equitable, fairer future.

By banning ‘gender ideology’ Bolsonaro feeds his far-right ideals

In Jair Bolsonaro’s 2019 inauguration, he swore to ‘combat gender ideology’ and ‘preserve’ familial values. ‘Brazil will once again be a country free of ideological bonds’ he declared – as if what he was stating wasn’t ideological at all. This positioning led to gendered cultural and social approaches and policies being dismantled. Funds to prevent violence against women have been cut, teenage abstention is promoted instead of sexual education, LGBTQ+ groups are excluded from public television; these are just some examples explored in my article ‘Brazilian far-right neoliberal nationalism: family, anti-communism and the myth of racial democracy’.

This type of backlash isn’t new

‘Gender ideology’ is an expression frequently used in Brazil by the far-right to attack progressive public policies, pro-women and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. But this is not recent. As numerous researchers have identified, ‘Gender Ideology’ is a term that was first propelled onto a global level in 1995, as a reaction of the Catholic Church leadership to the World Conference on Women in Beijing, when the word ‘woman’ began to be substituted by the word ‘gender’. With the passage of time, the expression was taken up by other Christian groups and gained social popularity in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, France, Hungary, Peru, Poland and the United States.

In Brazil, one of the main disputes of ‘gender ideology’ was in the educational sector between 2014 and 2016. The word ‘gender’ was banned and simply excluded from several state’s education plans when approved by City Councils and State Assemblies. Elected officials frequently argued that ‘sexual orientation’ (they don’t use the word ‘gender’) doesn’t concern schools or education, but only the ‘family unit’. This ignores the reality that gender does indeed cut across the entire school experience.

Gender ideology as a neoliberal tool

Bolsonaro’s discourse against gender ideology and women’s and LGBTQ+ people’s rights gained materiality by his agenda, implemented by the Ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights and the Ministry of Economy. Neoliberal reforms and policies promoted by his government and his predecessor, Michel Temer, led to the intensification of poverty and to the dismantling of the social assistance system (such as changes in the ‘continued benefit’, a guarantee of a minimum wage per month to the elderly aged 65 years or over or to the disabled person of any age), which made women’s lives – especially those who are black, indigenous and trans – worse.

The defence of conservative thought might sound contradictory to liberal and neo-liberal ideas. However, neoliberalism and ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative’s thoughts are an ideal marriage in Bolsonaro’s Brazil – and of course I’m using the word ‘marriage’ in a provocative way as Bolsonaro and his supporters defend a traditional, restrictive family model.

As I argue in my recently published article ‘Brazilian far-right neoliberal nationalism: family, anti-communism and the myth of racial democracy’, with Sue Iamamoto and Renata Summa, it is necessary to understand the various cross overs between neoliberalism and neo-conservatism, which we do not see as opposing schools of thought. As Verónica Gago accurately explains, ‘the privatisation of public services or the restriction of their reach is translated into the fact that these tasks (health, care, food, etc.) must be supplied by women and feminised bodies as unpaid and mandatory tasks’.

The promotion of a heterosexual, patriarchal family, strengthening the sexual and racial division of labour, fits well to neoliberal plans that weakens public services which were already far from being universal. Afterall, somebody still has to take care of the children, the elderly, the family and group’s health and survival in general. Services that could be offered by the State become once again unpaid or precarious work. As Wendy Brown argues, the defence of the ‘family’ is also a neoliberal attack on social policies that battle inequality, whether in its gender, race, or class expressions.

An ideological ‘crusade’

During Bolsonaro’s first year as President it was commonly mentioned, especially by the hegemonic media, that the government had two, even three, different branches: the economic, the ideological and the military. Going to the end of his first term, it became evident that such distinction did not exist. The far-right Bolsonaro government is an assemblage of all those actors and the fight against women’s, black, indigenous and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. Presented as an ideological ‘crusade’, this is the ground where the disputes are happening in Brazilian society.

But there is resistance.

Here is an example: before the first term of the elections in 2018, thousands of women from all over the country occupied the streets in the #EleNão (#NotHim) movement against Bolsonaro. They headed back to the streets on 4 December, 2021.