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.

Billionaires, backlash and the phallic symbolism of space colonisation

Billionaires burning inordinate amounts of fossil fuels to undertake their own personal joyrides into space have occupied international headlines this month, in what has sickeningly been dubbed the “billionaire space race”.

Meanwhile, rolling news of floods, fires, and droughts continues, as the UK Prime Minister’s COP26 spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, called for the masses to mitigate climate chaos by ceasing to rinse their dishes before putting them in the dishwasher!

And yet, there are currently no regulations around rocket emissions, with one rocket launch producing up to 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere – where it can remain for years.

Branson’s ‘Unity’

In a year in which the sea itself has set on fire, Richard Branson, boyish and grinning, became the first man to ‘penetrate virgin space’ in his own private spacecraftVirgin Galactic’s euphemistically termed “Unity 22”.

As he told observers, “For all you kids down there: I was once a child with a dream, now I’m an adult in a spaceship!” He continued “to the next generation”, “if we can do this, just imagine what you can do!” He’s doing it for the children!… as he allegedly inspires ‘unity’ in an earth-shattering performance of the worst excesses of capitalism.

Bezos’ Phallus

Days later, Jeff Bezos burst forth – unfettered as ever – into the ‘brave new world’ of space colonisation in an enormous fossil-fuelled penis, also termed ‘New Shepard’ – Blue Origin’s first “rocket for space tourism”.

Upon landing, decked in a blue space suit and a cowboy hat – lest we forget the settler colonial overtones of his mission – he thanked each and every Amazon employee, to scattered laughter from the audience, “because you guys paid for this”. Yes, they did pay for this, through the now well-documented exploitative practices that have further enabled Bezos to amass unprecedented wealth, alongside his “aggressive” tax avoidance and strategy of total market domination.

The Vision

Other than massaging already over-inflated egos, other than ‘inspiring’ the children of this increasingly plundered earth, what is the ultimate goal of this ‘space race’?

At this point, this is a massively destructive billionaires’ game, that one day promises to be highly profitable for those same billionaires as ‘space tourism’ gains traction.

Yet, as journalist George Monbiot observes, it is also “being sold to us as some kind of desirable future, as something we should aspire to”.

Indeed, it is bizarrely being peddled as an antidote to the climate destruction that capitalism has wreaked. In his terrifying post-flight triumph, Bezos informed listeners, “we are building a road to space, so that future generations can build the future.”

He continued even more ominously: “We live on this beautiful planet […] and we have to keep it safe and protect it, and the way to do that over decades is to move all heavy industry, all polluting industry out into space.”

According to Bezos, therefore, burning exorbitant fossil fuels to enable his quest for space colonisation is a mere move to “keep this planet the gem that it is”.

The vision, then? Seemingly, to burn this planet, to plunder another, under the ultimate control of white, male billionaires – such as Bezos, Branson and, also, Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX also seeks to reduce space transportation costs to enable colonisation of Mars.

Indeed, aiming to get a million people to Mars in the next 50 to 100 years, Musk’s published vision outlines the nightmare of space colonies, created by billionaire potentates – also animatedly outlined by Bezos.

What has this got to do with backlash?

First of all, let’s look at what this has got to do with gender as it intersects with race, capitalism and coloniality.

Obviously – indeed, too obviously – there is the phallic symbolism of Bezos’ rocket. And then there is the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of those now privately undertaking space colonisation (all of them).

The colonial imaginary and its destructive realities have long been predicated on white male pioneers conquering ‘virgin lands’ and plundering resources for capital gain. In the ‘billionaire space race’, this symbolism and extractive plan is all too clear.

Normatively, however, these ‘pioneers’ then variably eliminate, assimilate or debilitate the indigenous peoples of that land. In this case, let’s hope – for their sake – there are not sentient beings on Mars. And so, rather than the indigenous peoples of the colonised space, it is those most marginalised on the increasingly scorched earth that will be dispossessed by the intergalactic colonial endeavours of these billionaire white men.

The climate crisis, in its advancement and in its effects, is highly gendered and racialised. If billionaires can launch themselves into space at will, it is those most subjugated by intersecting oppressions of coloniality, race, class, disability, age and gender who will be disproportionately debilitated under the heightened ravages of climate destruction.

Moreover, as Bezos himself pointed out in thanking Amazon employees, it is their labour that will pay for it.

So, now, what has this got to do with backlash?

Backlash is not only the explicit act of rolling back policy and legislation that relates to gender or social justice more broadly.

Backlash is also the continued hegemony of white, capitalist-enriched heteropatriarchy, despite moves to topple its power. It is the continued impunity bestowed upon some – at the expense of many – to destroy and degrade the earth and its diverse inhabitants. Moreover, backlash can be the packaging of these realities as desirable, possibly equitable and even liberating, in the deployment of notions of rights, freedom and ‘protection’.

As billionaires joyride in their phallus-shaped fuel guzzlers, they talk of colonising space as the final frontier. As they do, they reassert the power of a white, heteropatriarchal manhood, empowered by having “mined rare earths, fabricated massive technologies and invested in capital’s projection to send him and his white brethren” into outer space, to use the words of Scott Morgensen.

In spite of the knowledge of steps required for greater social and ecological justice, the ‘billionaire space race’ powerfully symbolises the continued power of those white men endowed with the spoils of capitalist destruction and energised by colonial aspiration to do as they wish – and tell us it will be good for us.

Let’s hope that COP26 will focus less on rinsing dishes and freezing bread, and more on regulating the behaviour of these billionaire overlords. Indeed, suppressing their power is the only hope we have.

Reinterpreting the global tide of patriarchal backlash

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

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

Understanding the global tide of backlash  

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

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

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

Body politics and online misogyny  

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

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

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

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

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

The hijack of gender in policy, in practice 

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

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

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

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

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

Implications for defending gender justice 

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

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

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

We must… 

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

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

Join in and do the right thing!