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.  


  • 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 


Event recording

Backlash against student activists during #MeToo in Kolkata, India

Student politics in Kolkata is dominated by left-leaning organisations who look at the world in terms of ‘class struggle’ and claim to be supportive of all democratic movements – including women’s movements and anti-caste struggles. However, some scholars such as Arundhati Roy have critiqued this claim, arguing that social equity does not always extend to caste.

Kolkata’s female students faced caste and gender backlash during the #MeToo movement. This blog explores how this backlash operates against female students in Kolkata’s public universities during the #MeToo movement, from my recently published paper ‘Caste and gender backlash: A study of the #MeToo movement in tertiary education in Kolkata, India‘ . Here is what I found.

#MeToo and Anti-caste

There is a strong anti-caste critique of the #MeToo movement in India argued by Dalit- Bahujan- Adivasi (DBA) feminists. It manifests in gaps of the Indian feminist movement and with female student activists belonging to the two social identities in the universities.

In my recently published paper, I show that politically left-leaning (or ‘Leftist’) male-dominated political organisations in Kolkata’s university campuses use these gaps to their advantage as tools of gender backlash. They uphold established power structures on campuses, silencing and removing both categories of women – DBA and Savarna – from spaces of power and quashing their #MeToo incidents and demands for redressal.

The #MeToo movement led to these institutions strengthening and developing the proper functioning of the universities’ Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the formation of Gender Sensitisation Committees against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), and stronger redressal bodies on campuses and in political organisations.

But even with these committees, my research shows that female students continue to constantly receive backlash when sharing their #MeToo posts on social media, calling out perpetrators in general body meetings and demanding justice.

How caste and class are used as tools of gender backlash

Backlash to gender equality can be viewed through two broad approaches. The first is as an immediate reaction to progressive change made or demanded by women. The second is inherent discrimination in power structures that affect women’s experiences of backlash differently. My research uses both of these approaches to explore gender backlash.

Two clear themes emerged from my interviews with female student activists belonging to both DBA and Savarna groups. These were the centrality of power and misogyny, and how they operate together to create gender backlash. All the respondents said that the powerful positions in the Leftist political organisations on campuses were held by Savarna men, although the organisations were by principle pro-working class. Issues of sexual harassment and gender sensitisation were most often avoided by bringing up the caste and class of female party members whenever men felt that their power was being challenged.

Respondents described how the leaders of political parties they worked in insisted that they were elite middle-class women and that issues such as calling out perpetrators of sexual harassment online and in general body meetings were middle-class issues and actually did nothing for DBA women.

When I described my experience with the harasser, he confidently dismissed the allegation and retorted with accusing me and other Savarna female members of planning to form a group to falsely accuse men in the party of sexual harassment, malign the party’s image and beat up the men. He kept repeating that urban elite feminists like us do nothing constructive for the women’s movement and marginalised women.

This type of backlash silenced Savarna feminists and did nothing to serve the interests of DBA feminists on campuses. It ultimately removed the crucial need to address sexual harassment from their political activities.

Respondents repeatedly emphasised that Leftist organisations in the universities tend to integrate caste within class, and target their position in society to reverse any attempt to address critical issues like sexual harassment. Being upper caste (and, according to the male leaders, automatically upper class), the groups first need to address the issues of the working class and then gender.

Intimidation through threats of physical and sexual violence and marginalisation using the position of caste and class in society creates effective backlash against upper-caste female students, ultimately silencing them and stalling any progressive change. Dalit respondents mentioned that Savarna women are pitted against Dalit women strategically by Savarna male leaders. Similarly, Savarna women are pitted against Savarna women within the party which is also a subtle form of backlash.

Bridging the rift

The purpose of this study using conventional and alternate conceptual approaches to backlash was to reveal that they can be understood in unison in this case and might also be relevant in understanding and further analysing backlash.

The intersection of gender identity and the position of caste and class in society plays a crucial role in generating gender backlash. Feminist movements must include an analysis of caste and class to understand the needs and aspirations of women belonging to DBA and upper-caste backgrounds.  Anti-caste and anti-class movements need to examine patriarchy and sexism[19] [20]  within their movements.

Both movements should focus on the actual life situations and experiences of women. Concepts of gender backlash that focus on power, and why and how backlash occurs, should also look at the intersection of gender identity and the position of caste and class in society to better understand different groups’ experiences.  Concepts of backlash focusing on intersectionality should look at how power is exercised to generate gender backlash. This combined understanding will contribute to strategies for dealing with backlash and make efforts to mitigate it through activism.

We must bridge the rift between Dalit and Savarna feminists and be inclusive. Only then can the valid narratives emerging within the two different groups of feminists which generate gender backlash come to a stop.

Research Grant
Reclaiming the Gender Justice Agenda for Transgender Communities


The definition of ‘transgender’ in South Asia represents people who identify as being gender fluid, moving beyond a ‘binary’ understanding. The 2011 census in India showed close to half a million people who identify as transgender, though the actual number is much higher. Recent new laws introduced by the Government of India (such as the Transgender Persons Act 2019) have been strongly opposed by the transgender community. The law does not consider fundamental rights, such as access to housing, social protection, separate washrooms, hospital or prison wards, and specific protections from custodial and other forms of violence. Along with existing colonial laws, patriarchal and religious belief systems, and a lack of state support, the transgender community continue to face serious and often violent backlash.

Purpose of research

The research aims to support transgender people to precisely identify the backlash, and enable them to evolve new framings that will be effective in negotiating and countering this backlash. The action will involve a Community Crisis Response and Support Cell (CCRSC) which provides a telephone helpline for members of the transgender community, as well as providing a physical ‘safe space’ for counselling or mediation exercises.

Research Grant
Impact of Islamophobia on Muslim Women in India


Violence against Muslim people and groups is increasing in India. Along with the infamous riots in Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013, sexual violence has emerged as key weapon when targeting women. There have also been significant policy and legal changes in India, targeting the rights of Muslim people, such as proposed ‘Population Policy’ in the state of Uttar Pradesh seeking to control women’s reproductive rights. Many other policies implemented by the ruling BJP party and movements by Hindutva groups are restricting and dismantling the rights of Muslim people and groups.

Purpose of research

This action research will bear witness to, document, and analyse the backlash against Muslim women’s rights in India. It will contribute to efforts to mobilise and organise Muslim women across several states in the country to counter backlash against their rights.

Empty promises: Continuing the fight for trans rights in India

Despite a rich cultural tradition of gender-fluidity, the transgender community in India have been stigmatised as a ‘criminal tribe’ through a colonial-era law. The community has struggled for their rights over decades, and only after significant engagement with the judiciary were they finally counted in the population Census of 2011.

It wasn’t until findings of an Expert Committee in 2013 into the discrimination of the transgender community that there was significant legal change. After a Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender persons had the right to self-identify as male, female or a third gender. It also brought into law that the constitutional rights to life, dignity and autonomy would include the right to a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The government then brought in the ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 (TG Act)’, and issued the Rules in September 2020, which are used to enforce the act.

But the transgender community has seen little change, and still face discrimination in everyday life.


The teacher said to my father, ‘Take your son away, keep him somewhere else, I cannot teach him in school. Only if he behaves properly, I’ll be able to teach him in school’. I tried really hard but I was never able to behave ‘properly’. … my walk was different; my voice was different…”

A poster created by the Centre for Health and Social Justice. The text is in Bengali and reads '" 'You shouldn't come looking like this, You shouldn't walk around like this, You should walk like a boy.' This is how I would be thrown out of school." A representative of the transgender community Why does this injustice continue in Education despite the guarantees in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the Rules (2020)?'

The poster reads: “‘You shouldn’t come looking like this, You shouldn’t walk around like this, You should walk like a boy.’ This is how I would be thrown out of school.” A representative of the transgender community. Why does this injustice continue in Education despite the guarantees in the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 and the Rules (2020)?” Credit: Centre for Health and Social Justice.

Discrimination remains

The TG Act and Rules have many provisions, including a simpler process for self-identification, setting up a Welfare Board and a Transgender Protection Cell, and creating separate infrastructure in hospitals, jails, shelter homes, as well as separate washrooms everywhere, yet none of this has been implemented.

“Despite the reading down of Section 377 or the passing of the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, we have not received any opportunities or benefits that have been promised to us in law.

The only change is that in forms and documents there’s been the addition of the word “Others” or “Transgender” but these terms really have no benefit for us.”

The disregard of the mandatory Equal Opportunity policy in all establishments leads to continued discrimination against the community in all social settings, including families, neighbourhoods, educational institutions, public places and limits opportunities to find employment. Many in the transgender community have not had access to schooling, and are not able to read the TG Act and know what their legal rights are.

When we approach the police, their response is, ‘Wait outside; do you expect us to listen to you right away? Are you going to give us instructions?’”

Demanding action for trans rights

The Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) (partners of Countering Backlash) and the transgender collective Kolkata Rista, led an event in July, sharing findings from a recent scoping study they conducted. The event brought together members of the transgender community along with senior officials from the police department, the health and AIDS Control department, and correctional facilities, to showcase three short films and posters which highlight the discrimination transgender people face in education, healthcare, work, and from the police.

The event started the creation of a support system for the transgender community with the institutions  that attended, who must use their power to enact positive social change. Kolkata Rista also launched a community crisis response and support cell with a helpline which will respond to any incident of violence or harassment and discrimination faced by the transgender community in Kolkata. It will include a safe space for shelter and medication or counselling.

The scoping study carried out by CHSJ with people in the transgender community brought out the lack of meaningful change in their situation despite their aspirations for self-improvement. The study also found that key people in the police department, health department and HIV/AIDS prevention programmes who have the power and knowledge to enact change have not yet carried out training for their staff on the TG Act of 2019 and the Rules.

Watching the stories of their own lives and struggles unfold in the films was an emotional experience for the community members. They shared painful experiences of rejection and humiliation and how a lack of opportunities to make changes in their lives affected them. The police officials and those leading AIDS programmes pledged that they would do more to provide meaningful support after watching these films and hearing their stories.

Now, those words must become action, and we must keep a vigilant eye on progress to make sure that rights are realised.

Event: Reclaiming Trans Rights in India: Unsettling Patriarchy?

Despite a rich cultural tradition of gender-fluidity, the transgender community in India have been stigmatised as a ‘criminal tribe’ through a colonial-era law. The community has struggled for their rights over decades, and only after significant engagement with the judiciary were they finally counted in the population Census of 2011.

The Supreme Court of India ruled in 2014 that transgender persons had the right to self-identify as male, female or a third gender. It also brought into law that the constitutional rights to life, dignity and autonomy would include the right to a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. The government then brought in the ‘Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 (TG Act)’, and issued the Rules in September 2020, which are used to enforce the act.

But the transgender community has seen little change, and still face discrimination in everyday life.

Re-watch the discussion with Countering Backlash about reclaiming trans rights in India, and how individuals and organisations unsettling the patriarchy and patriarchal masculinities.


  • Tuesday 6 September


  • Jashodhara Dasgupta, Consultant Researcher, Countering Backlash Project at the Centre for Health and Social Justice
  • Santosh Giri, Founder and Executive Director of the transgender organization Kolkata Rista
  • A Social Anthropologist and Community Activist


  • Jerker Edström, IDS Fellow and programme convenor for Countering Backlash

Event Recording

Event: Engaging men and boys on gender issues in India

Global progress on gender equality is under attack. Engaging men and boys on gender issues is a key way we can counter gender backlash.

This seminar was a collaboration between Countering Backlash, Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), and Men end FGM for a discussion about methods, lessons learnt and reflections on working with men and boys on gender issues in India and Kenya.

Mr Harish Sadani from MAVA spoke about his work on gender and masculinity, which he has been involved in for over three decades. He showcased part of a documentary he produced – “Yuva Maitri: Young Men Breaking the Moulds” – which focuses on the tools and methodologies used to engage young men on contemporary gender issues.

Mr Sadani also discussed the process and methods used, reflecting on the challenges he has been facing while addressing gender-based violence, in the current political context of India. He shared the outcomes and insights of a unique international travelling film festival on Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, which he has been running over the past five years.

Our discussant, Tony Mwebia, commented on what we have seen and heard, with some reflections on working with men to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.


  • 14 July at 13:00 UK Time


  • Harish Sadani, Executive Director of Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) India
  • Tony Mwebia, Executive Director of Men End FGM Foundation in Kenya and MA Gender and Development student at IDS


  • Jerker Edström, IDS Fellow and programme convenor for Countering Backlash

Event recording

Due to a technical issue with Zoom, only the half of the event has been recorded. However, you can view Harish Sadani’s presentation slides here, and watch MAVA’s full documentary.

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.

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.

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.

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.