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.

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!    

Then and now: limits to gender justice in Uganda

Ever since the inaugural celebrations of the International Women’s Day 110 years ago, humanity has been exhorted to challenge the status quo to actualise women’s empowerment and, ultimately, equitable benefit for all. Uganda too, in both its colonial and post-independence times, has not escaped this clarion call.

I argue that the pursuit of gender justice always intersects with the long arm of tradition, for better or for worse. Human agency enacted in the struggle for gender justice is hence often circumscribed, though not entirely determined, by institutional structure. In the latter, therefore, lie the real stakes for gender justice.

Social custom and the struggle for gender equality in colonial Uganda

Colonial Uganda offers us a myriad of cases showcasing how access to justice (or the lack thereof) is a profoundly gendered process. The ongoing doctoral research of Sauda Nabukenya—into litigation and the pursuit of justice in both Ganda native and British colonial courts in Uganda—recently unearthed an array of archival material from the basement of the historic Mengo Court. One case in particular stands out, namely Lukiko v. Simon Petero Wakiwugulu Kigozi. The stakes in this case made it travel from the Buganda native court at Mengo through the appellate British court of Judicial Advisor of Buganda to Her Majesty’s High Court of Uganda at Kampala.

In March 1941, Irene Drusilla Namaganda, widow of the King of Buganda, Kabaka Daudi Chwa, married Simon Peter Kigozi, a mukopi (Ganda commoner). Following their exchange of nuptial vows at St Luke’s Church of Kibuye, the couple proceeded to the Lubiri (the official residence estate of the Buganda king) for wedding celebrations. Thereafter, the couple moved to the Lusaka (the official palace of the Namasole, that is, Buganda Queen Mother) where they spent their first night as newly-weds. Soon after, Kigozi was sued by the Lukiko (Buganda legislative assembly) in the Principal Court of Buganda at Mengo and later convicted on two grounds of abomination, namely (i) marrying in the Lubiri and (ii) sleeping with the Namasole in the Lusaka, all supposedly in contravention of Ganda custom.

Plaintiffs from the Lukiko argued that the Lusaka belonged to the Kingdom. When the British colonial authorities, drawing on both the letter and spirit of the 1900 B(U)ganda Agreement, appeared to sympathise with the defendant, the Lukiko decided to prosecute Kigozi under a criminal rather than a civil suit. They particularly considered his sleeping with the Namasole in the Lusaka—however legally married to each other they might now be—to be “an unlawful use of the kingdom’s property” and a disturbance to the social peace of the kingdom. Kigozi’s acts were henceforth interpreted and prosecuted as a criminal offence against social order.

Deeply dissatisfied with the Mengo Court decision, Kigozi appealed to the British Judicial Advisor’s Court and later to Her Majesty’s High Court at Kampala. Kigozi’s appeal was lodged on the premise that no Buganda native court had any jurisdiction over the case given that his was a legal marriage under the British Protectorate law. In his series of appeals, Nabukenya tells us, Kigozi challenged the use of Ganda custom as the basis for convicting him criminally and decried his sentence as “repugnant to justice and morality”. The British judges nonetheless upheld the decision of the Ganda native court as Her Majesty’s Chief Justice ruled that native courts did have the power to define offences against social peace as they saw fit.

Customary practice and the fight for gender justice today

On 3 July 2020, His Lordship Justice Godfrey Namundi delivered a landmark ruling at the Family Division of the High Court of Uganda at Kampala. In a civil suit, the plaintiff (Herbert Kolya) sought (i) an order directing the defendant (Ekiriya Mawemuko Kolya) to provide an account of all the assets of the estate of the late Israel Kimomeko Kolya (who had died, testate, in 1997) and (ii) an order directing the defendant to distribute the property in the estate of her late husband in accordance with his will. The plaintiff was a paternal grandson of the late Israel Kikomeko Kolya and of his wife, the defendant.

In his will Israel Kikomeko Kolya bequeathed to the father of the plaintiff (the late Herbert Lukanga Kolya) his home at Kibuga, located in one of Kampala’s residential areas within the city centre, as well as other properties on the outskirts of the city. The plaintiff, being an administrator of the estate of the late Herbert Lukanga Kolya (the late Israel’s eldest son), claimed that on 5 April 2000 the defendant obtained letters of administration to the estate of the plaintiff’s grandfather from the Chief Magistrate’s Court of Mengo without annexing the will. Yet, the late Israel Kikomeko Kolya had made a will on 27 January 1997. The defendant filed a defence denying all allegations and averred that she was legally granted letters of administration of the estate of her late husband.

In his ruling, Justice Namundi specifically underscored that the land and home at Kibuga was a matrimonial property. Making reference to Articles 32 (1) (i.e. customs, cultures and traditions that are against the dignity, interests or welfare of women are prohibited) and 31 (1) (i.e. men and women are entitled to equal rights in marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution) of the Ugandan Constitution, Justice Namundi accordingly dismissed the plaintiff’s claim in the form it stood. In a society in which it has not been uncommon for matrimonial property to be held in the husband’s name and for the husband to bequeath it to the eldest son subject to the wife’s right to live there for life or until she remarries, this ruling appears revolutionary.

But progressive as Justice Namundi’s ruling looks to be, the enactment of gender justice here still relied on feedback from a gerontocratic customary practice: In an affidavit presented before court it was reported that upon the demise of both Israel Kikomeko Kolya and Herbert Lukanga Kolya, bereaved family members met as is customary of post-burial arrangements in Ganda society. A decision was reportedly made by older family members present in that meeting to dispense with the late Israel’s will, for the latter (in the wisdom of majority of older family members present) was defective. It was on the basis of that family decision that the Chief Magistrate Court of Mengo granted letters of administration of the estate of the late Israel Kikomeko to his widowed wife (the defendant) without annexing the will.

The judgement from the Family Division in the High Court of Uganda at Kampala (which heard the appeal) essentially rubber-stamped the decision of the Chief Magistrate Court made back in April 2000. The will in question was in itself an ostensibly patriarchal-conservative writ. Yet, the Court eventually stood with the defendant only through a recourse to another piece of evidence stemming from a gerontocratic customary practice. Differently put, on her very own, the defendant’s claims could not stand the test for gender justice.

The making or breaking power of tradition

Placing these two lawsuits on a historical continuum of struggle for gender justice shows how social custom in the 1940s was summoned to deny the widowed woman the right to take her newlywed husband ‘home’, whereas in the 2000s, thanks to a gerontocratic customary practice, the older woman’s rights as a widow overrode the patriarch’s will to bequeath the ‘matrimonial property’ to his grandson. That an older widowed woman is rendered justice in a lawsuit comprising a young man as plaintiff, and that a newlywed man was denied justice in a case involving a young widowed woman ensnared in patriarchal power also speaks volumes about the intersectionality deeply enmeshed in the struggle for gender justice.

Age, class, marital status, health status, legal status or pedigree, among other identity markers, can amplify gendered harms and further frustrate the pursuit of gender justice. To truly reckon with tradition as a force for gender justice would mean ensuring that justice for individual women is not the product of a gerontocratic system that is somehow viewed as ‘natural’ despite the fact that, in many regards, it disempowers women. It would also mean that peace among men is not pursued through resort to an entrenched regime of violence against women. Only then shall we contemplate the real dividends of gender equality.

COVID-19 and government inaction leaves domestic workers in crisis in India

In recent years, India has seen a wide-ranging retrenchment of hard-won labour rights with serious consequences for working communities in general, and for the rights of women workers. This has only worsened since the onset of the global pandemic and the imposition of stringent lockdowns across the country.

The mask of the pandemic

Under the cover of the pandemic, and in the name of reviving growth and the economy, the government sought to make deeper incursions into labour rights, even as communities on the margins experienced devastating losses of livelihoods and incomes and increased levels of hunger and indebtedness.

For feminised sectors of employment such as paid domestic work, the loss in employment has been particularly harsh – a report by ActionAid India found that 85 per cent of women domestic workers surveyed lost their livelihoods during the lockdown. The findings on the devastating effects of the loss in livelihoods on domestic workers’ lives in terms of food and housing insecurity, increased indebtedness, the attendant indirect impacts on their health and education in the face of inadequate safety nets and increased burdens of care during the periods of lockdown are replicated in several studies.

The loss of livelihoods continues to remain rife in the sector even after the periods of lockdown eased across the country, with reports suggesting that the primary reason for the loss in livelihoods is that domestic workers are perceived as potential carriers of the virus.  Where domestic workers have returned to work, they have suffered heavy losses in wages, and a reduction in the number of employers. They have also had to face the arbitrary diktats of Resident Welfare Associations and discriminatory practices in the name of ‘social distancing’, which have entrenched existing hierarchies enabled by caste practices.

The systemic roots of discrimination

The precarities experienced by domestic workers under conditions of lockdown have deeper systemic roots – they lie in the liberalisation-led agrarian crisis, which has resulted in the unprecedented eviction of women from the rural workforce, even as there has been an increase in women’s employment in the undervalued and low-paid sector of domestic work. Domestic work is also mainly performed by marginalised groups of women – it is a largely migrant workforce, there is a preponderance of Dalit women in domestic work, and most domestic workers are women who have not completed a primary education.

This combination of factors has led to the devaluation and persistently inadequate recognition of domestic work as work in society and in law. Under labour law, domestic workers are not fully rights bearers; barring a few aspects of domestic work, such as on minimum wages in some states, social security provisioning, and sexual harassment at the workplace, the sector has largely been left outside the purview of labour laws.

Countering the systemic roots that devalue domestic work

Where there have been positive changes to the law, much of it is a testament to the persistent organisation of domestic workers. Domestic workers have been organising since the 80s and 90s, and there has been an increased momentum in this mobilisation since the 2000s, and especially post the adoption of ILO Convention C189 in 2011. In 2012, domestic worker organisations from several states across the country formed the National Platform for Domestic Workers with the rallying cry to recognise domestic workers as workers through the enactment of a separate law on domestic work.

The recent labour law reform process which led to the enactment of four Codes on Wages, Social Security, Industrial Relations, and Occupational Health and Safety and Working Conditions, provided a singular opportunity to extend labour rights to domestic workers (as well as other workers in the informal sector). However, it proved to be not just hopelessly inadequate in addressing the rights of domestic workers, it further retrenched hard-won labour rights on unionisation, on the right to strike on flexible working and so on, including on minimum wages for domestic workers.

The loss of livelihoods engendered by the lockdowns has had devastating impacts on the lives of women domestic workers pointing to the precarities that structure their lives. We need to attend to the deeper systemic roots that devalue the domestic work and address the persistent non-recognition of the rights of domestic workers that have only been made more acute in the face of the wider retrenchment of labour rights in the country.

In the face of the crisis of survival faced by domestic workers, we have an urgent call to action. It is imperative that we find ways to amplify the voices of domestic workers and support domestic worker groups as they employ various legal, discursive, and organising strategies to claim their rights as workers.

Backlash in the digital space in Bangladesh

Bangladesh has a rich history of social and political struggles and movements for independence, democracy, constitutional rights, punishment for war crimes,  justice against rape and many other social injustices. Protests are faced with backlash and resistance in the forms of threats, physical violence, killing, and criminal charges. As the internet becomes more accessible and ubiquitous, many of these movements nowadays take place in the digital space. However digital activism is also met with backlash and resistance in old and new forms.

The reality of online backlash

Informal and individual backlash to secular and progressive voices online do not just stay in the virtual world, the hatred and vitriol often translates to real life. In 2015, the secular blogger and writer, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in public by members of a religious extremist group, Ansar Bangla-7, for his freethinking and views on science. One of the convicted assailants, Shafiur Rahman Farabi, was well-known for making life threats to and demanding the killing of Roy and LGBT activists on Facebook.

The following year, Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two prominent LGBT activists in Bangladesh, were also murdered. Both the activists received death threats by individuals and Islamist extremists groups on Facebook for co-founding Roopban, Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine and organizing a pride event called Rainbow Rally on Bengali New Year. As a result of the killing of Mannan and Tonoy, the LGBT movement in Bangladesh came to a halt and has not since recovered its former strength and visibility.

Incidents of backlash, however, are not limited to issues like secularism or LGBT rights. If someone writes about gender equality, sexual harassment, or sex education, they risk the same reaction. In 2020, founding members and teachers of an online school platform called Robi Ten Minutes School received death threats for speaking out about sex education and supporting same-sex relationships. For their own security, they had to remove all of their sex education-related videos from digital platforms.

Backlash by the state

These are examples of informal backlash, which comes from extremist groups and individuals. But formal backlash by the state is taking place using wide-ranging instruments such as the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018. The act was introduced in 2018 in order to ensure national digital security, identification and prevention of digital crime.

A recent example is the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in custody. He was accused of “trying to circulate propaganda and create confusion” according to the case statement while news reports say that he criticized the government for the poor management of coronavirus situation. He was detained by police under the DSA 2018 in May 2020 and was not granted bail. He died in police custody in February. Others have been also detained under the same act with similar allegations, such as drawing cartoons satirising the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, criticising political leaders who were arrested under criminal charges or expressing personal views about religion.

Women’s rights

In recent times, we have seen an increase in informal backlash on digital platforms against women and advocates of women’s rights also. According to a study by Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust (BLAST), 73 per cent of women using the internet faced cybercrime and a study by the international organisation Article 19 found that 70 per cent of women who face online harassment are between 15 and 25 years of age.

On digital platforms, women face all types of harassments, from name-calling to blackmailing and defamation by the use of private messages, photographs, and videos. The effect of online harassment does not remain limited to digital spaces and to the victims. Rather both the victims and their family members face social exclusion, public resentment, and humiliation. 15-year-old Antara Saha, died by suicide after she was photographed as she was sexually harassed on her way home and thos images were shared on Facebook.

The DSA 2018 could have been useful to fight these cyber crimes as it defines any false, defamatory, hurtful expressions, and pornography as criminal offenses. However, this Act has rarely been used by women to protect themselves. It fails to address gender-based violence effectively. Fearing social stigma, victims are afraid to report incidents of sexual harassment, because often instead of condemning the abuser, digital spaces are flooded with victim-blaming. Questions like “what was she doing with him?” or “what was she wearing?” surface on social media, as they did during the Banani and Noakhali rape incidents.

Bangladesh online

In Bangladesh, almost 86 million people were using the internet by the end of April 2018 according to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). Facebook has become the most popular platform on the internet to express one’s ideas and opinions. No one has to wait to get published in a national daily to raise an issue. No fact-checking is necessary. Simultaneously, hate speech, obscenities, and life threats have been a daily occurrence in digital spaces. Yet, these do not always remain virtual.

Not only must we study backlash in digital spaces, how it operates but we also have to better understand it and to be able to develop strategies to counter it.

Women take centre stage at India’s ongoing efforts to curb dissent

Over the last few years, India has faced a series of backlash against feminist and progressive politics. There have been concentrated efforts to close spaces for democratic dissent and democratic accountability in the public sphere. This has happened simultaneously with the erosion of civil liberties and state reprisals against journalists, students, academics, activists, and other human rights defenders through the growing crackdown on dissent.

Using ‘Lawless Laws’ to repress voices

‘Lawless laws’ such as sedition (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code), and the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) have been major strategies in this continued repression of dissenting voices. Unsurprisingly, India has fallen sharply on several indices that monitor the health of democracies such as the Democracy Index 2020, World Press Freedom Index 2020 and the Impunity Index 2020.

A recent example is the arrest of 22-year-old ‘Fridays for Future’ climate activist, Disha Ravi, who spent several days in the custody of Delhi police, before being granted bail at the end of February. The charges levelled against her include sedition, and criminal conspiracy with the Poetic Justice Foundation, a group alleged to have alleged terrorist links.

Delhi Police claimed Ravi to have edited and been a ‘key conspirator’ behind the preparation and dissemination of an allegedly seditious protest toolkit. The document was shared by climate activist Greta Thunberg on social media, accompanying her tweets expressing solidarity with the farmers’ protests in India against the new farm laws. Delhi police used these tweets and the toolkit as “evidence” of a coordinated conspiracy by Ravi “to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India”.

The arrest and subsequent events made international news, alongside the farmers’ protests, with the New York Times describing it as the latest in a series of broader crackdowns on activists as well as a striking example of declining internet freedom in India.

Increased danger for women and minorities

As such, this course of events has not been surprising, being one of many in the recent clampdowns by the Indian government. Less than a month prior to Ravi’s arrest, Haryana Police arrested 23-year-old Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit labour rights activist actively supporting the 2021 farmers’ protests in India. After her bail, Mx Kaur alleged that she was physically and sexually assaulted in custody, in addition to being subjected to casteist slurs, also bringing into question the dangers that women – as well as men and gender minorities – face in state custody.

Recent trends have, in fact, suggested that women, particularly young women from minority communities have borne the brunt of the Indian state’s tryst with criminalising dissent of any kind.

The arrests of Safoora Zargar (who was arrested when she was more than three months pregnant), Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and many others, under laws like the UAPA still remain fresh in public memory. Adivasi rights activist Soni Sori argues that tribal women are facing the brunt of state violence under the garb of Naxalism in areas like Chhattisgarh. The statement came in the wake of the custodial death of Pande Kawasi, a 20-year-old Adivasi girl from the Kankipara village in the state. The intended effect of these events is to normalise a culture of fear that prevents anyone from speaking out against oppressive state policies.

And yet, despite these violent clampdowns – or perhaps because of them – women are coming to the forefront more and more in resisting the Indian government’s anti-minority, anti-worker and anti-farmer laws and policies. The women of Shaheen Bagh, for instance, were the vanguard of the anti CAA-NRC protests, and tens of thousands of women are active participants in the farmers’ protests. In fact, as law student Priyanka Preet put it:

female dissent across states has not merely been instantaneous, impulsive anger, but concerted, conscientious, sequenced actions against the infringement of their rights and liberties.

Beyond ‘women’s issues’

The presence of women in resisting the backlash against feminist and progressive politics is particularly telling because they, especially those belonging to minority communities, have the most to lose from issues like climate change and accompanying loss of livelihoods. Similarly, the CAA-NRC has rendered women in much higher danger of loss of citizenship, seeing as how they have historically not owned land or held identification documents. This also brings to light the arbitrariness of what mainstream discourse usually categorises as ‘women’s issues’, as those that pertain only to the biological female body. On the contrary, all issues that affect citizenship and all issues that affect livelihoods are ‘women’s issues’.

Simultaneously, there is a need for a continuous and sustained interrogation of the Indian government’s use of “lawless laws” such as UAPA and sedition to curb dissent and violently repress any form of activism that it perceives as a threat to its hyper-nationalist, patriarchal and neoliberal policies.

The problem with these laws lies not only in their misuse, but they are anti-people and anti-citizen in their very design. The right to peaceful protest is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. It guarantees the freedom of speech and expression and assures citizens the right to assemble peacefully and without arms. Dissent has always been the hallmark of responsible citizenship, and democracies were built on the backs of resistance.

Fundamentally, the Indian government cannot in the same breath celebrate freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, and still employ draconian, colonial-era laws on sedition to further its oppressive motives.

Reclaiming gender discourse to fightback against backlash

The convergence of a global gender backlash, with the gendered impact of COVID-19, including the significant increase in the burden of unpaid care, and levels of domestic violence, presents both a rather bleak picture and an opportunity to galvanise for change. On International Women’s Day (IWD) we have an opportunity to celebrate the historical gains of the Women’s Rights movement, and to critically assess what is still to be achieved.

A woman holds up a sign that says 'this is what a pro-life feminist looks like'

As a contribution towards this, and in response to calls from feminist scholars for new theoretical and analytical tools to help us understand the nature of contemporary anti-feminist and anti-queer politics, I have been developing the concept of ‘discourse capture’.

A silent coup?

This emerged from the idea of ‘state capture’, which for South Africans became a household term in 2016, when the extent to which Zuma’s government had been infiltrated and manipulated by the Gupta brothers became apparent.

The phenomenon of state capture was first identified in 2000 as an aberration in governance but was later taken up and reworked in South Africa. State capture differs from corruption in both its intention and scale. It has been referred to as a ‘silent coup’ (pdf); as a political project that sets up to remove the controls associated with the rule of law. It is this idea of an intentional ‘silent coup’ that helps frame the notion of ‘discourse capture’.

Discourse as a political battleground

‘Discourse capture’ acknowledges the importance of discourse as a political battleground, and recognises the extent to which discourse constructs and normalises objects of knowledge. Discourse dictates not only how ideas are put into practice, but WHICH ideas are in circulation. As Kelly Bean writes:

“Language produces material consequences, arguments create political realities…whether people live or die, have access to power or not, are allowed to marry or not, live in safe neighbourhoods or not is very much determined by the language used for or against them, the manner in which they have been defined…there are no shelters for women without the term ‘domestic violence’, for example; no equity training without the phrase ‘sexual harassment.'”

‘Discourse capture’ is particularly evident in anti-gender and anti-feminist politics, where the language of ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ traditionally associated with a liberal agenda, is being mobilised by right-wing actors to undermine and roll back progressive legal statutes such as abortion rights, or constitutional protections for LGBTQI people.

Perhaps the ultimate example of discourse capture is the framing of ‘gender’ as an ideology, but there are many others. For example, the pro-life protestor from the United States labels herself ‘a true feminist’ in fighting for the rights of ‘unborn women’. In this context, Halva-Neubauer and Zeigler offer a fascinating analysis of the way in which pro-life forces have transformed their framing of the abortion issue. They highlight the transformation as that positions foetal rights against maternal rights, to one that emphasises the bond between the woman and the “child”; a rhetorical shift that attacks the central claim of mainstream pro-choice activists: that the foetus is not a person.

Undercover mythmaking

The dismantling of discursive systems that ‘discourse capture’ points to, is not a new idea, it might be considered a central component in conceptualising the gender backlash, call ‘undercover mythmaking’. Within the broader backlash literature, there are numerous existing references to the co-option and resignification of language, to the re-conceptualisation of progressive notions, and to the appropriation, or erosion, or purposeful dismantling of particular frames.

However, the concept of discourse capture goes beyond this initial recognition of a rhetorical device and provides a lens that systematically links these different forms and allows us to be more alert to their existence. Feminists have struggled to either create new discourse or, as Bean urges, to ‘reclaim the language of the movement and renounce its uses against women’.

Our hope as the ‘Countering Backlash’ programme, is that if feminists and gender justice activists can better understand the mechanisms of power being used in backlash, we will be better able to fight back.

Trump’s Defeat: Celebrate, Recharge and Resist

Donald Trump was defeated earlier this month in the 2020 US presidential election. He is still yet to formally concede, but at present – in these bleak times –  progressives everywhere have cause for celebration. This is especially the case on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Let us recognise the significance of a man who uttered the words “grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything” being voted out of the White House. Let us celebrate that the man who defended “some very fine people” amongst the white supremacists, nationalists, and neo-Nazis who attended the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville will be evicted. Let us acknowledge that the man known for inciting violence and hatred through misinformation on Twitter – not least through his public broadcast for militia group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” – is set to pack his bags.

Work to be done

But for social justice activists around the world, there is much work still to be done.

There may only be one Donald Trump, yet he still received over 70 million votes.

Moreover, populist iterations of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, racism and ethnonationalism continue to be waged across the globe by the likes of India’s Modi, Brazil’s Bolsanaro, Hungary’s Orban and the Philippine’s Duterte, among others.

The latter of whom enjoyed an 84 per cent popularity rating a year into his presidency, despite likening himself to Hitler, declaring that he was “happy to slaughter” millions living with drug addictions, and ‘joking’ that Filipino troops could rape up to three women at the height of a war against ISIS in Southern Philippines. He also suggested that they shoot female rebels in the vagina because “they are nothing without it.”

Misogynistic, racist and ethnonationalist messaging, posturing and politics are not confined to the U.S., nor to Trump.

The possibilities of transformative gender and social justice have been stifled and squashed through the rise of the far-right globally, and the reign and popularity of populist demagogues in the increasing number of illiberal democracies worldwide.

Patriarchal backlash is manifesting violently and viscerally the world over, and analysis of both its global and context-specific manifestations is necessary if we are to counter it.

Many faces of backlash

In examining patriarchal backlash – indeed any form of violence – it is essential that one does not only focus on the exceptional and the spectacular, but also the subtle and insidious.

That which lies beneath the waterline or even that which masquerades as ‘progress’ while reinforcing problematic binaries can be equally as damaging to gender and social justice.

The problems posed by the Dutertes and the Trumps of this world in this regard are clear; less clear is the more subtle co-optation of feminist and other gender justice agendas, the erosion of their radical potential through depoliticisation and the hollowing out of their transformative core.

Countering Backlash is a programme that seeks to untangle these strands and render visible the many ways in which backlash operates, so that we may effectively resist its many faces.

Celebrate, recharge, but then, resist

Donald Trump’s defeat is a blow to the populists and the right-wing worldwide. His presidency offered legitimacy to those publicly and violently proclaiming hate – whether gendered, racial, ethnonationalist or class-based – and being voted into office regardless.

But we cannot let his defeat be a distraction. Populists peddling hate remain in power elsewhere, and Trump’s voter base has not been deterred by his loss in the election.

These figureheads represent the continued, even growing, normalisation of violence (in its many forms and manifestations) against anyone considered the ‘Other’, whether women, migrants, LGBTQIA+ individuals, or those racially, ethnically or religiously marginalised.

Both overt and insidious backlash against struggles for gender and social justice live on; from remarkable and episodic forms of violence, to the hidden and everyday dynamics of oppression, backlash rages to put the ‘Other’ back into their proverbial place.

In order to contest backlash, we must work and listen across diversity and all the intersections of identity. This means decolonising theory and practice and shifting our focus to all sites in which backlash operates.

Countering Backlash works in partnership with scholars and activists across the world so we can build the solidarity and understanding necessary to counter violent pushbacks and hidden co-options. Collaboration and co-creation are the greatest tools in the box to mutually resist coordinated and global attacks on gender and social justice.

For now, celebrate and recharge, but then, resist.

The state of anti-feminist backlash in Bangladesh

Our perspective on anti-feminist backlash in Bangladesh is based on understandings of structural, political, economic and social forces, and the dynamic power exchange between distinct groups which lead to progress or backlash. In this non-linear narrative of progress and backlash, different masculinities have emerged which are intersectional, multidimensional and non-essentialist. Multiple actors such as state and international power (e.g. international donors, neighboring countries) at the macro level, as well as, family and community at the micro-level play an important role in anti-feminist backlash in reproducing the notion of hegemonic and toxic masculinities.

The history of anti-feminist backlash in Bangladesh has been rooted in targeting state and non-state development interventions advancing women’s empowerment through education, employment and political participation, particularly in rural areas. In anti-feminist backlashes, NGOs and women’s rights groups were particularly targeted. In the contemporary backlash, the targets have been activists, intellectuals, writers and NGO professionals who challenged the gender norms and asked for women’s equality, freedom and choice in sexuality, family, property and political space. Certain areas including advancement of LGBT rights, women’s equal share in property, family laws and challenging of traditional concepts of modesty by feminist movements within the country have come under higher scrutiny and garnered negative attention from antifeminist agendas and movements.

Complex dynamics of masculinities with feminist agendas

The different forms of backlash were dominantly perpetuated by the prevailing patriarchal power structure, fringe religious groups and some community male leaders against women’s empowerment agendas. Many of the women empowerment agendas have been viewed as a sign of Western aggression and perceived as corrupting existing dominant culture and religious beliefs. Women’s greater presence in the public sphere, as well as, their economic and social independence through active employment have been undermined by resistance from patriarchal structures who are at unease with the increase in women’s agency and autonomy. However, these contentions of men about over representation and equality of women seems mythical and are debunked when we turn our eye to some serious violations of human rights and dignity against women.

On the other hand, a considerable number of male allies, activists and male-led organizations have acted as leaders, grassroot community workers and policy makers to develop interventions for women’s empowerment alongside women’s leaderships. Examples of male leadership include Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Dr. Muhammad Yunus who were pioneers in women’s microcredit programme and girl’s education through NGO’s interventions in Bangladesh.

Contested spaces for women’s advancement

Women are particularly targeted in the global trend of shrinking democratic spaces with laws that enforce discriminations like inheritance laws, absence of legal protection in issues such as marital rape, use of women’s ‘immoral character’ as defence in rape cases or cyberbullying that indirectly threaten women’s voices and freedom in both private and public space. Violence against women, rape, sexual harassment, attacks on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, and cyberbullying show increasing social and psychological vulnerability in this highly contested spaces where the voices and dignity of women and other vulnerable groups are constantly threatened.

On the other hand, we have witnessed the historical backlash against women’s education and empowerment in rural areas losing power over time due to various factors. These factors range from the changing gender expectations within these rural communities, increasing support from local communities for women’s advancement; the government’s strong determination and position as signatories to various global bodies (i.e. CEDAW); financial support and increasing pressures from donor communities; lastly the enormous contribution from NGOs and civil rights (i.e. women’s movements).

Engaging men in steps towards gender equality

Bangladesh has made remarkable strides towards gender equality on various fronts within a relatively short period; from significantly reducing maternal mortality, achieving increasing levels of secondary school enrollment by girls, increasing number of women in local government administration, justice sector and law enforcement agencies to the case of the recent rape law being passed which states death penalty for the perpetrator. In the Bangladeshi context, within recent decades, the development sector has attempted to activate ‘engage men and boys’ strategies into their programmatic approaches. This has largely been mobilised in order to create more effective methods in tackling issues of gender-based violence, maternal health, sexual and reproductive health outcomes. The inclusion of strategies to engage men and boys in development agendas have shown that there has been an increase in overall realisation of taking masculinity and men’s roles in women’s empowerment into account, without which women’s participation in development does not guarantee their empowerment, health, agency and welfare within a patriarchal society.

Feminist and progressive politics face a backlash in India

India is in the throes of a period of seismic backlash against feminist and progressive politics, and the pace of change, particularly since the outbreak of the pandemic, has been breakneck with serious consequences for women’s equality and human rights. The pandemic, as elsewhere, has brutally exposed, exacerbated and deepened already existing fault-lines and structural inequalities that inhere in Indian society 

health crisis rages on with serious knock-on effects on the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the country, with particularly egregious effects on those in already precarious contexts such as informal workersand especially women in informal work. The pandemic has also brought to the fore, in all its technicolour terror, the drivers of the backlash against progressive and feminist politics. The rise of a right-wing dominant-caste Hindu nationalism, and an increasingly authoritarian, hypermasculine state in thrall to a neoliberal capitalist agenda have determined the social, political, and economic contexts of the country over the last 8-10 years, and in turn the contours of the current backlash faced by contemporary progressive and feminist politics. 

This was perhaps emblematically captured in the early days of the pandemic by the heart-wrenching scenes of thousands of migrants walking home in the face of callous response by the government to its most vulnerable citizenry, and its vilification of Muslims which began with the discredited characterisation of the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi as a major source of the pandemic, and which spiralled into hate speech and crimes against Muslims, including social and economic boycotts and religious segregation at hospitals. 

Instead of attending to the structural inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, the government’s response has been to accelerate the pace of its political agendawhich together with an increasingly legitimised ‘lynch mob culture’a complicit media, and a judiciary that has had its independence called into question, bring fresh stories of the pushback against the assertion of constitutional rights and democratic accountability every passing day. 

Far-reaching legislative changes  

In the past several weeks alone, having scrapped Question Hourkey mechanism for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability for the monsoon session of parliament, the government violated parliamentary procedure and rushed through several legislative changes amidst a boycott of parliament by the oppositionIt passed three ordinances making sweeping reforms of the agricultural sector which will adversely and disproportionately impact a majority of women farmers and agricultural workers, who form the bulk of the small and marginal sections in Indian agriculture. It also passed three further labour laws in continuation of a process of labour law reform which further retrenches labour rights and continues to invisibilise women workers, the vast majority of whom work in the informal sector.  

In a pushback against democratic accountability by civil society, the government has also recently made further changes to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act through an Amendment which has increased the cost of compliance for non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funds which will seriously impinge on the work of smaller organisations that work in remote locations on the rights of the most marginalised sections of society, including women. 

Another significant recent legislative change has come in the form of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019. In December 2019, in its ‘chronological pursuit’ of redefining the fundamental social and political compact of citizenshipthe Government passed the CAA in the midst of a furore of protests across the country, which continued until a national lockdown was imposed owing to the pandemic 

The CAA provides a fast-track route to citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians) from three neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh), who were residing in India before 31st December 2014. What makes this discriminatory provision particularly insidious, however, is that if the experience of the National Population Register (NPR) exercise in Assam, where an unprecedented 1.9 million people were rendered stateless, is anything to go by, the CAA will indeed disenfranchise and render stateless those on the margins, including poor and Muslim communities, of which a disproportionate number will be women. 

Use of ‘lawless laws’ to crush dissent 

Another of the seismic shifts we have seen over recent years has been the concerted efforts to shrink spaces for deliberative democracy in the public sphere and close spaces for dissent, which has happened in tandem with the alarming erosion of civil liberties and state reprisals against political dissenters and human rights defenders through false charges, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment through the use of draconian laws such as sedition and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).  

The amendments to the FCRA restricting the functioning of civil society and the recent Supreme Court judgement that curtails the right of peaceful protest, and the announcement by the Uttar Pradesh government of a special force to provide security for a range of public institutions and places which will have extensive powers of search and arrest without a warrant add to this picture of a police state that is shrinking the spaces for dissent. Not surprisingly, India has fallen sharply on several indices that monitor the health of democracies. 

Recent state arrests and reprisals – to whose number there have been regular additions, most recently with the arrest of an 83-year-old Jesuit priest and Adivasi rights activist, Stan Swamy – have focused on two sets of ‘events’ – the anti-CAA protests and the Elgar Parishad gathering, which was a precursor to the violence that erupted at the site of the Bhima Koregaon war memorial. Some of the women human rights defenders who have faced reprisals and arrests include Sudha BharadwajShoma SenDevangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Safoora Zargar.  

An overwhelming number of feminist groups in India have decried the arrests of women’s rights activists. The recent alarming curbs to civil society and the rise in arrests have also received the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet who has made appeals to the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs 

Given these egregious and alarming changes currently underway in Indian society, it is imperative that we document and analyse both the contours of the backlash and the ways in which progressive and feminist groups are mobilising to counter the backlash against women’s rights and gender justice.

Continuing the fight for women’s rights in Lebanon

While the Arab region represents a diverse configuration of countries, their one commonality is their poor standing in terms of women’s rights. They share patriarchal structures and increasing conservative movements combined with a lack of political will to advance the gender equality agenda, resulting in a backlash against women’s rights.

Lebanon is no different than other Arab countries, where poor performance in terms of gender equality manifests in social, economic, and political shortcomings. Despite some recent gains, sectarian and patriarchal systems hinder gender justice. Outstanding inequalities were further exacerbated with COVID-19 and Beirut’s devastating blast at the beginning of August.

And yet, despite a steady wave of setbacks, Arab women are the face and the force of revolutions across the region. Arab women are leading the charge and demanding change in opposition to the stagnant political and socioeconomic environment that denies feminist demands.

Women’s rights under attack in Lebanon

Lebanese women-led national uprisings from October 2019 onward, demanding long-overdue legislative reforms to ensure full human rights. The legal structure in Lebanon regards women as second-class citizens and dependents. Matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance) are determined by religious structures where the absence of civil codes that govern the lives of citizens has sustained and promoted grave discrimination against women, putting their freedoms and bodily integrity in the hands of conservative religious courts. Women are also still fighting for the right to pass their nationality to their children and calling for long-overdue reforms due to government inaction.

Quotas in the parliament and cabinet are absent, even though women comprise 50 per cent of society. At present, only 6 out of 128 members of parliament and 6 out of 30 ministers are women, reflecting a dismal rate of women’s political participation and representation. Accountability to survivors of gender-based violence is limited in Lebanon. Despite having a law that criminalises domestic violence, the law overlooks certain types of violence – specifically, marital rape – removed to placate religious authorities. Further, women and girls from marginalised groups often face difficulties accessing justice in Lebanon. This has worsened as a result of stay-at-home orders and other restrictions on mobility as a result of Covid19 restrictions. In the wake of the global pandemic, the worsening financial crisis, and the Beirut blast, rates of domestic violence have continued to increase.

The financial crisis has also doubly affected women and girls in Lebanon, especially refugee and migrant communities. Family structures and state institutions often deny women access to various sectors of the labor force and relegate them to the informal economy, where they are underpaid or unpaid. Worse, women are often among the first to be laid off and often experience a doubling of domestic responsibilities during times of financial crisis.

Poor Lebanese, migrant, and refugee women are struggling to survive financially. Women employed in the healthcare sector – specifically nursing, which is overwhelmingly composed of women – face increasing emotional and physical demands as they sit, quite literally, on the frontlines against the pandemic.

To move forward we must put women’s demands at the centre

In the aftermath of the Beirut blast, women’s rights organisations released a Charter of Demands, laying out a gendered disaster response plan. The Charter identified the need for a feminist agenda ensuring women’s representation and leadership in all decision-making bodies for the response.

Lebanon, like many developing countries, suffers from NGOisation (pdf) of the women’s movement, meaning that the priorities of women’s organizations are often shaped by funding trends, placing them at the whim of donor demands. To counter this pressure, women’s groups must collectively reflect on feminist priorities, creating a unified movement to push for gender equality on their own terms, building a unified movement.

Countering anti-feminist backlash demands that women’s rights activists and groups engage all members of society. Importantly, this includes men, who are indispensable partners in fighting against gender inequality and challenging patriarchal norms. In Lebanon, anti-feminist backlash does not stem only from men, therefore it is critical to include those men in support of gender equality as advocates for the cause.

Countering Backlash: Reclaiming Gender Justice builds partnerships and forms strategic collaborations to counter backlash against women’s rights by bringing together academics, activists, and researchers to exchange ideas and build a shared agenda that will fuel this movement.

There is global commitment and momentum to end inequalities – Lebanon must follow suit.