Event: How is backlash weakening institutional contexts for gender justice globally?

Gender backlash is continually gaining momentum across the globe, and social and political institutions and policies are being dismantled. Gender justice activists and women’s rights organisations are having to mobilise quickly to counter these attacks.

With speakers from Bangladesh, Uganda, Lebanon, Serbia and India, in this official NGO CSW68 event we ask, ‘how is gender backlash weakening institutional contexts for gender justice globally?’ Speakers will discuss: stalling and lack of implementation of the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act (2010) in Bangladesh; the infiltration of conservative religious and political actors in democratic institutions in the context of Serbia and neighbouring countries; anti-feminist backlash as institutional by default in Lebanon; and the legislative weakening of institutional contexts in Uganda, examining Acts which exert control over Civil Society Organisations.

When

  • 11 March 2024
  • 08:30 – 10:00 EST // 13:30 – 15:00 UK Time

Where

  • Online – Zoom

Speakers

  • Pragyna Mahpara, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)
  • Sandra Aceng, Executive Director, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
  • Nay El Rahi, Activist and Researcher, Arab Institute for Women (AIW)
  • Nađa Bobičić, Researcher, Center for Women’s Studies Belgrade (CWS)
  • Santosh Kumar Giri, Director, Kolkata Rista
  • Jerker Edström, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Chair

  • Chloe Skinner, Research Fellow, IDS

Partner Event: BRAC JPGSPH and BIGD hosts Stakeholder Roundtable on Online Anti-Feminist Backlash

Countering Backlash partner BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health (BRAC JPGSPH) held a roundtable discussion on ‘Anti-feminist Backlash in Online Spaces and Creating Counter-Moves’ in collaboration with BRAC Institue of Governance and Development (BIGD) in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 28th November, 2023.

The roundtable was moderated by Nazia Zebin who is the Executive Director of Oboyob, a community-based organisation tackling gender justice for sexual minorities.  The event featured research presentations by Raiyaan Mahbub and Israr Hasan from BRAC JPGSPH and Iffat Jahan Antara from BIGD which set the context for the discussion. The discussions focused on the current challenges of navigating gender justice agendas in the face of rising organised backlash and the delegitimisation of feminism in the consciousness of the mass populace on social media platforms.

Critical insights were shared by experts and lawyers working on issues of digital safety and justice, seasoned NGO personnel, activists, and young movement organisers who are at the forefront of experiencing online backlash as they work on ensuring democratise, safe and gender-friendly digital environments. 

Read the press release for further details

Online violence against women is real violence

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

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

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

বাংলাদেশের পারিবারিক সহিংসতা আইন বাস্তবায়নে নেতিবাচক প্রতিক্রিয়া (ব্যাকল্যাশ) প্রতিরোধ

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

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Event: Counting the cost: funding flows, gender backlash and counter backlash

Major political and social shifts are stifling the possibility of gender justice across the world. Analysing this backlash as operating on global, regional and local scales in this webinar, we ask, where is the money?

While predominant anti-gender backlash movements and actors appear well financed, those countering backlash face significant financial challenges, heightened in the context of rising authoritarianism and shrinking civic space.

In this event, we were joined by leading experts and partners from Countering Backlash and beyond. Isabel Marler from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) presented a mapping of sources of funding for anti-rights actors, and interrogate what is effective in countering anti-rights trends, while Lisa VeneKlasen (Independent Strategist, Founder and Former Executive Director of JASS), explored ‘where is philanthropy on anti-gender backlash’? Turning to national restrictions, Sudarsana Kundu and Arundhati Sridhar from our partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India focused on the impacts of funding laws for women’s rights organising in India.

When

  • 12 December 2023
  • 13:00 – 14:30 UK time

Speakers

  • Lisa VeneKlassen, Independent Strategist, Founder and Former Executive Director of JASS (Just Associates)
  • Isabel Marler, Lead, Advancing Universal Rights and Justice, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
  • Sudarsana Kundu, Executive Director, Gender at Work Consulting – India
  • Arundhati Sridhar, Gender at Work Consulting – India

Discussant

Chair

Watch the recording

Partner event: BIGD discuss the implementation of Bangladesh’s Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act

Countering Backlash partner BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) hosted an engaging and important workshop with representatives of the Bangladesh Government and advocates. The workshop was hosted by BIGD in partnership with the Citizen’s Initiative against Domestic Violence (CIDV) at the BIGD offices in Dhaka’s Azimur Rahman Conference Hall.

The session discussed the implementation of the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act (DVPPA) 2010, and shared key findings and recommendations from BIGD’s Countering Backlash policy brief ‘Backlash in Action? Or Inaction? Stalled Implementation of the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 in Bangladesh‘. Despite being approved in 2010, the Act remains underutilized and commitment to its implementation has been low, often treating domestic violence as a family matter. There is an immediate need for changed norms and attitudes among those who are implementing the Act, along with better victim support, procedural revisions for effective implementation of the DVPPA.

The session featured a presentation by Maheen Sultan, Senior Research Fellow, and Pragyna Mahpara, Senior Research Associate, both from BIGD. Expert insights were provided by Dr Shahnaz Huda, Professor of Law at the University of Dhaka.

The event offered crucial insights and perspectives, emphasizing the ongoing effort to combat domestic violence and create a safer environment for all.

Read BIGD’s update about the session on their website

Countering gender backlash in Africa and Asia

Countering Backlash partner, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), recently participated in the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF) in Nairobi, Kenya and RightsCon in Costa Rica. During the two events, WOUGNET led discussions on the challenges faced by women’s rights advocates and the broader gender justice movement in the face of increasing online gender-based violence and shrinking civic space.  

Joined by Countering Backlash partners BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD – Bangladesh) and NEIM (Brazil), along with a representative from the Ugandan police force, sessions highlighted the emergence of new forces and alliances that are actively pushing back against the progress made in achieving gender equality and justice, both globally and in Africa.

Participants discussed the various manifestations of gender backlash, such as the formulation of restrictive laws and legal frameworks, attacks on human rights and defenders, and the use of digital technology to propagate misogynist narratives.

WOUGNET spoke about the continuous attacks on gender activists and human rights defenders in Uganda, where laws and policies are enacted that restrict their activities, such as the recent Anti-homosexuality Act 2023 and amended Computer Misuse Act 2022. The blocking of online platforms also further erodes gender justice, minimising the potential for collective action and the amplification of marginalised voices.

Countering Backlash partner BIGD reported on their recently published research on online gender-based violence and backlash against women gender justice actors in Bangladesh. Currently, the south-Asian country is seeing a rapid increase in internet usage, particularly on Facebook, though evidence shows that almost 68% of Facebook users are men. According to Iffat Antara (Senior Researcher at BIGD), 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. They also addressed opposition from religious leaders towards comprehensive sexuality education policies and the push for discriminatory legislation such as the Anti-homosexuality Act 2023 of Uganda which argues that children’s understanding of their sexual rights makes them ‘pro-sexual’.

WOUGNET’S role in Countering Backlash

Sandra Aceng, Executive Director of WOUGNET, introduced the organisation’s work. WOUGNET has focused much of its research on online gender-based violence, and is currently implementing a project supported by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) called Our Voices, Our Futures, which aims to improve civic space online in Uganda for the women human rights defenders and feminists. WOUGNET’s goal through this project is to enhance its research on online gender-based violence and empower women actively to actively participate in shaping inclusive policies.

Efforts by the Ugandan Police Force

Francis Ogweng, Assistant Superintendent of Police in Uganda, shared the initiatives undertaken by the Uganda Police Force to promote gender justice. He said that the police are making progress towards promoting gender equality, thanks to the establishment of several directorates and departments that have an objective of reporting, analysing and tackling online gender-based violence, including the Gender Policy 2018. Besides these, there has been increased engagement with men on gender equality work as a strategy to reduce gender backlash in policing. Ogweng reported that senior officers have been promoted to higher ranks as a strategy to promote gender equality.

Ogweng is a He-For-She champion of UN Women and Uganda Police where he has promoted positive masculinity within the police. His role as champion resulted from the Uganda Police’s negative image when it comes to working with women and girls.

Despite the recent Anti-Homosexuality Act, Ogweng noted that there are a number of male-led organisations and Government initiatives promoting gender equality and ministries and other non-governmental organisations have programmes targeting male involvement in gender equality work.

Professor Maira Kubik, a Countering Backlash research partner NEIM in Brazil, defined gender backlash as a setback on rights that have not yet been achieved.

What are the trends in online gender backlash?

Antara’s research in Bangladesh explored online hate and threats of violence towards advocates for gender justice, and women in general, causing them to lose confidence and an interest in speaking out. The findings indicate that the violence women experience online has some common forms. These mainly focus on sexually explicit hate comments labelling women as sex workers, and particularly targeting women feminist activists, lawyers, and journalists. She then suggested the need to identify the severity of online gender-based violence against women on gender backlash and to improve the legal frameworks.

What are some of the achievements in gender justice?

Some of WOUGNET’s work on gender backlash is conducting research to understand the challenges that the communities we work with face. This research has shaped the capacity building work done over the years for women, and our community of practice around laws such as Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act 2011 as amended 2022, Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019, and the Anti-Pornography Act 2014 – three policies that significantly affect the meaningful participation of women in online spaces. WOUGNET also has a toll-free line 0800 200510 in place for the public to report cases of online harassment against female journalists.

Recommendations

In order to reduce gender backlash in digital spaces, laws and policies, panellists recommended conducting evidence-based research on gender backlash, building the capacity of men as anti-backlash actors, and training police officers on online gender-based violence so they can respond effectively to cases reported to their desk for investigation. Additionally, they recommended that the communities should know about some of the existing laws/policies so as to be able to fight for their rights, and to counter backlash.

Authored by: Isaac Amuku, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, and Irene Marunga, Communications associate, WOUGNET

Conference: Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South

Anti-feminist backlash is gaining momentum. It is essential for feminist organisers, activists, and researchers to collaborate to effectively counter this backlash.

The eruption of feminist responses to this backlash is evidence of just how important the concept of backlash is to feminist theorising and mobilising. Around the world, journals have devoted entire issues to the study of backlash. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Working Group on discrimination against women and girls released a paper on gender equality and gender backlash, arguing that in light of the ‘increasing misuse of the concept of gender [and] attacks on gender (equality) and women’s rights,’ it is ‘important to take stock of these developments, to counter the anti-gender attacks, and to clarify the use of the concept in relation to [OHCHR’s] mandate’.

In 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution ‘on experiencing a backlash in women’s rights and gender equality,’, and The New York Times published an article on backlash with the following tagline: ‘The rise of authoritarianism has catalyzed a rollback of gender violence protections and support systems’.

But it is essential that we do not overlook local specificities of backlash. In Lebanon, anti-feminist backlash extends beyond its normative definition as a hostile reaction or response to progress made within or by the women’s movement. Instead, anti-feminist backlash is embedded across institutions and social structures in Lebanon. This makes anti-feminist backlash less of a targeted response to a singular event; rather, anti-feminist backlash is systemic and diffusive in several contexts in the Global South.

This timely and important three-day hybrid conference, live from Beirut, Lebanon, and hosted by Countering Backlash partner Arab Institute for Women (AIW), will bring together feminist and gender experts to share, produce, and build knowledge on anti-feminist backlash. They will compare counter backlash strategies and build cross-sectoral and transnational alliances among anti-backlash actors in the Global South.

The sessions will be led by leading organisations, researchers, and activists from Countering Backlash, the Middle East region and beyond, including: the Lebanese American University, BRAC BIGD, the California State University, the Institute of Development Studies, Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Women’s Studies of the Federal University of Bahia (NEIM), Sakeena, University of Belgrade, and more.

Date and time

20 – 22 June

Location

In-person: LAU Beirut Campus, Arab Institute for Women, Beirut, Lebanon

Online: WebEx

Languages

The sessions will be conducted in English.

Find out more about each day of the conference below.


20 June

Join us on 20 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Brazil, Inida, Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 20 June sessions


  • Keynote Speech / 09:30 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Maya Mikdashi

  • Panel 1: Backlash: Understanding Power Dynamics / 11:00 12:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Lydia Both – Program Director at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)
    • Speakers:
      • Elif Savas: “Gendering the Far-Right: A Comparative Perspective” – Ph.D. Student, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst
      • Hasina Khan: “Muslim Women’s Rights in the Context of Muslim Personal Laws in India: Between State Repression and Patriarchy” – Founder and Member of the Bebaak Collective 
      • Isis Nusair: “Anti-Feminist Backlash, Counter Strategies for Resistance and Modes of Building Transnational Alliances” – Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies & International Studies, Denison University
      • Caroline Ramos: “Redpill Movement in Brazil: Straining a Re-thinking of Identity Politics Under Neoliberalism” – Researcher in Gender and Women’s Studies, American University in Cairo (AUC)

  • Panel 2: Backlash Against Gender Rights: Exploring Global and Regional Perspectives / 13:30 – 15:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Lina Kreidie – Academic Director of the Tomorrow’s Leaders Gender Scholars (TLS) Program, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Amel Grami: “Learning from the Anti-Feminist Backlash in Tunisia” – Professor of Gender Studies, University of Manouba
      • Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu: “Masculinist Backlash and KADEM” – Visiting Faculty Member in the Core Program and the Director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kadir Has University
      • Islah Jad: “The Backlash Against the CEDAWISTS: The Case of Palestine” – Associate Professor and Lecturer on Gender Issues and Politics, Women’s Studies Institute and Cultural Studies Department, Birzeit University
      • Abir Chebaro: “Misogynistic Discourse and Other Types of VAWP as Tools for Backlash on Feminism in Lebanon” – Gender Consultant and Activist

  • Panel 3: Linking Backlash and Crises: Why Now, Why Here, There and (Almost) Everywhere? / 15:30 – 17:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Sohela Nazneen – Research Fellow, IDS
    • Speakers:
      • Nay El RahiResearcher and Activist, AiW-LAU
      • Jerker EdstromResearch Fellow, IDS
      • Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu Visiting Faculty Member in the Core Program and the Director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kadir Has University
      • Teresa Sacchet: “How Far is the Concept of Backlash Helpful in Analyzing Gender-Based Political Violence? Reflections from Brazil” – Professor and Researcher of the Graduation Program in Interdisciplinary Studies on Women, Gender, and Feminism, Federal University of Bahia

21 June

Join us on 21 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Tunisia, and more.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 21 June sessions


  • Panel 4: Countering Backlash Against Gender Rights: Innovative Practices and Lessons Learned / 09:00 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Zina Sawwaf – Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, Social & Education Sciences Department, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Deepta Chopra: “Innovative Strategies to Counter ‘Cyclical Backlash’: Women Protestors in Shaheen Bagh” – Senior Research Fellow, IDS
      • Diana Ishaqat: “Lessons and Experiences: The Anti-Feminist Backlash at the Protection of Orphan Women in Jordan” – Communications and Fundraising Manager, Sakeena
      • Faten Mbarek: “Can Intersectional Movements be a Solution to Counter Anti-Feminist Backlash – Case Study from Tunisia” – Assistant Professor, University of Gafsa, and the Head of Department of Sociology, Higher Institute of Applied Studies in Humanity
      • Sriya Satuluri: “10 Steps Forward And 3 Steps Backwards: A Journey Towards Creating a Gender Just & Violence Free World” – Social Worker and Mental Health Professional, Swayam

  • Panel 5: Misogyny, Morality, and State Repression: Anti-Feminist Backlash in Pakistan, Malaysia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh / 11:00 – 13:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss – Director of the Title IX Office, LAU   
    • Speakers:
      • Azza Basarudin: “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Malaysia” – Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, California State University, Long Beach
      • Tina Beyene: “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Ethiopia” – Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, California State University, Northridge
      • Khanum Shaykh: Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Pakistan – California State University, Northridge
      • Maheen Sultan & Shravasti Roy Nathan: “Reform of the Hindu Family Law under a Muslim Majority State: Intersectional Backlash Dynamics: The Case of Bangladesh” – Senior Fellow of Practice and Co-Founder of the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation, BRAC University / Research Associate, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development

  • Panel 6: Workshop: Grasping Patriarchal Backlash: Briefing and Interactive Gameplay – Chess / 14:00 – 16:30 (UTC+3)
    • Facilitator: Jerker Edstrom – Research Fellow, IDS

22 June

Join us on 22 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Morocco, Serbia, UN Women, and more.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 22 June sessions


 

  • Panel 7: Backlash in the Media: Analyzing the Role of Traditional, Digital, and Alternative Media Outlets / 09:00 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Diana Mukalled – Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Daraj
    • Speakers: 
      • Omar Khaled: “Voices of Change: Exploring the Impact of Alternative Media Platforms in Combating Hate Speech Against Feminism in Lebanon” – General Manager, Spot Cast in Lebanon
      • Nađa Bobičić: “Anti-Gender Discourse in Serbian Mainstream Media” – Research Associate, University of Belgrade
      • Israr Hasan & Sharin Shajahan Naomi: “Online Misogyny in Bangladesh: Facebook as a Site of Anti-Feminist Backlash” – Research Associate, BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University / Gender Expert, BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health

  • Panel 8: Breaking Barriers: The Struggle for Gender Rights and Freedoms / 11:00 – 12:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Gretchen King – Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism and Communication, Department of Communication, Arts & Languages, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Sanae Ansar Ech-Chotbi: “Anti-Feminist Cyberviolence as Perceived by Activists: The Case of Morocco” – Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for Communication and Digital Media, University of Erfurt
      • Nastaran Saremy: “Woman, Life, Freedom Movement in Iran and its Regional Connections” – Ph.D. Student in Media and Communication Studies, Simon Fraser University
      • Iffat Jahan Antara & Pragyna Mahpara: “Silencing Dissent: How ‘Piety Policing’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ are Undermining Gender Justice Activism Online in Bangladesh” – Senior Research Associate, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development / Researcher, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development

  • Panel 9: Case Study on the Feminist Civil Society Platform in Lebanon / 12:30 – 13:00 (UTC+3)
    • Speakers:
      • Representative from the Feminist Platform (TBD)
      • Marianne Touma & Rima Al Mokdad: “Presentation of the Study Findings on Backlash in Lebanon” – UN Women
    • 12:30 – 13:00 (UTC+3)

  • Panel 10: Reflections on Backlash: A Conversation / 14:00 – 15:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Nay El-Rahi – Researcher and Activist, AiW-LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Sohela Nazneen: Research Fellow, IDS
      • Tessa Lewin: Research Fellow, IDS
      • Jerker Edstrom: Research Fellow, IDS

 

Event: Agency and activism – experiences of countering backlash against gender justice

Gender-progressive policies around the world are facing significant backlash. Gender justice activists and women’s rights organisations are having to mobilise quickly to counter these attacks.  

The rise of racist, misogynist, populist and neo-nationalist governments, ideas, and political practices in the last decade has only further incited this backlash against gender-progressive policies. This is also leading to an increase in physical, verbal, and digital violence against women, those in the LGBTQI+ community, and human rights defenders. 

This backlash is being challenged, documented, and researched by  Countering Backlash and SuPWR – both hosted by the Institute for Development Studiesin several countries of Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. Research of backlash against gender-equality policy gains in the focus countries include Uganda’s 2019 Sexual Offences Bill, Bangladesh’s Domestic Violence Act, and discrimination against transwomen in Peru’s labour market. They also look at Pakistan’s laws (and non-existent laws) about un-paid work for home-based women workers and India’s Shaheen Bagh protests.  

This event for International Women’s Day 2023 discussed how organisations, informal collectives and individuals are standing up and fighting to protect and further gender-progressive policies. We were joined by those working in the midst of national and regional struggles in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Uganda, and Peru.  

By watching this event, you will understand the nature and source of obstacles that gender justice actors face, what it looks like in policy areas, and how they are attempting to counter this backlash.  

Panel 

  • Maheen Sultan, Senior Fellow of Practice and Head of Gender and Social Development Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)
  • Pragyna Mahpara, Senior Research Associate, BIGD 
  • Amon Mwiine, Researcher, Centre for Basic Research 
  • Zehra Khan, General Secretary, Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) 
  • Deepta Chopra, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
  • Maria Grados Bueno, Post Graduate Researcher, IDS 

Chair 

Event recording

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.

Event: Defending online spaces for women

Social media has become a key place for gender activists to share their voices, show solidarity and mobilise action, but it has also become a focus for backlash. Online abuse and disinformation can be faced daily by women and those championing gender justice.

To mark International Women’s Day, the Institute of Development Studies hosted an online webinar with an international panel of speakers to share experiences, learning and tactics for countering backlash against gender justice, and disinformation targeted at women that frequently occurs in online spaces.

  • Title: Defending online spaces for women – countering disinformation and gender-based violence
  • Date: Thursday 10 March
  • Panellists:
    • Omaina H. Aziz (volunteer organiser for the Aurat March Lahore)
    • Iffat Jahan Antara (Research Associate, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University – co-author of Countering Backlash pilot study on online GBV in Bangladesh)
    • Pragyna Mahpara (Senior Research Associate, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University – co-author of Countering Backlash pilot study on online GBV in Bangladesh)
    • Chaired by Becky Faith (Leader, Digital and Technology Cluster, IDS)

Watch the recording below.

 

 

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.

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.

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.