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.