This week we learned that US conservative state lawmakers have proposed more than 110 ‘anti-trans bills’ across America. Coming only a month after a UN envoy – on the 10th anniversary of the Istanbul Convention – warned of a pandemic of violence against women, we have seen a growing number of countries beginning to withdraw from the Convention, including Poland and Turkey itself over recent months.
This patriarchal backlash is not isolated. Conservatives in countries like Brazil, Bangladesh, Hungary, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Russia, Uganda and many more are also busily dismantling women’s rights along with minority group protections. As part of the Ubuntu Symposium, Countering Backlash and the MenEngage Alliance hosted a series of dialogues exploring this global trend of patriarchal backlash.
Understanding the global tide of backlash
The first session in this series threw the net wide, geographically and historically. In conversation with David Tshimba, Alan Greig challenged our understanding of the archetypal idea of backlash as a ‘restorative reaction’ to challenges by women to men’s power, by also describing the ‘white’ and ‘proprietorial’ character of male supremacy in the USA, rooted in a libertarian history of white European settlers (and slave-owners).
David described a differently racialised dynamic in Uganda, with more ‘pre-emptive strikes’ (non-implementation of commitments to equality) by patriarchal power brokers, rooted in long histories of colonialism and resistance to Western influence. Similar dynamics were described in a discussion on Indo-European ethno-nationalist backlash between Sana Contractor in India and Eva Zillén in Europe. Not only racialised, the ethno-nationalist character of such backlash blends xenophobia with misogyny and homophobia in step with resurging far-right authoritarianism and restrictions to civic space.
In conversation with Deniz Kandiyoti, Sonia Corrêa traced the Catholic church’s mobilisation to push back on gender and sexual rights back to the ‘moral majority movement’ in the 1970s and taking shape in the ‘gender trouble of the Catholic cradle’ between the Cairo and Beijing conferences in the 1990s. Deniz described the re-entry of religious conservativism into public politics as essentially a ‘broader strike’ than on gender equality; a rapprochement between religion and the state where the objective is power and influence, with gender and minority rights as collateral damage.
Body politics and online misogyny
We then went on to explore backlash in terms of body politics and online misogyny. Sabina Rashid in Bangladesh, Maria Alicia Guttiérez in Argentina and Neil Datta in Europe discussed sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and women’s sexuality and bodies as a core site of contestation, but with intersectional ‘othering’ (particularly excluding sexual and ethnic minorities).
Religious, neoliberal and populist political pressures were often highlighted as coming together opportunistically in backlash campaigns and trends. Alex di Branco in the USA and Becky Faith at the Institute of Development Studies debated online misogyny, toxic masculine hate campaigns and the complex levels of in/visibility of backlash dynamics online, in platform architectures and the digital economy.
At this point, several contradictions around backlash emerged: Backlash politics often appeals to some romanticised patriarchal past but are often also infused with a nihilistic attitude to the future. Various backlash actors commonly promote anti-global sentiments, but they are also transnationally linked-up. We see a bewildering array of diverse actors and aims, but they tend to unite around shared interests in opposition to ideas of gender equality or diversity. Backlash takes us by surprise by appearing episodic, but it recurs periodically and comes out of longer trends and broader systemic crises. A narrow understanding of men lashing back at women over losing privilege – whilst that is also part of it – is woefully inadequate for understanding this.
Beyond that ‘reactive’ type, we also see; ‘pre-emptive backsliding’ by privileged elites and corporate interests, ‘projects for broader change’ such as religious/theocratic or fascist/ethno-nationalist ones, which are not primarily about gender but are based on patriarchal ideologies and, finally, ‘opportunist and populist alliance building’ between disparate interest groups uniting around divisive ideas against gender and diversity.
Three key sites of contestation emerge in these struggles: ‘The Nation’ (ethnically bordered and ordered), ‘the Family’ (culturally traditional and religiously male-headed) and ‘the Body’ (sexed as male or female, and ‘naturally’ heterosexual).
The hijack of gender in policy, in practice
We also asked how backlash plays out in the spaces and processes of policymaking around gender justice itself, essentially ‘hijacking gender’. Amon Mwiine and Sudarsana Kundu compared dynamics of co-option and depoliticisation of gender policies within national politics, balancing commercial and political interests with international and neoliberal opportunities and pressures, across Uganda and India.
Tessa Lewin at IDS reflected on this and proposed a way of reading it in terms of ‘overt-through-hidden’ attacks on gender justice, where the notion of ‘discourse capture’ may help to read the hijack and resignification of the terms.
Andrea Cornwall from the UK described her participant observation research over years of attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women; seeing increasingly professional strategies used by conservative groups for the capture and repurposing of spaces and narratives, including the building of ‘discourse coalitions’ using ‘gender’ as an organising principle, and nimbly moving from side-events into main-stage official spaces and vice versa.
Moving to experiences of backlash from within international co-operation agencies, Lena Karlsson described Swedish experiences of block formations by governments and the importance of finding likeminded allies in defence of multilateral frameworks for gender equality. Laura Turquet described some of the politics at the level of UN Women, negotiating the politics of data and evidence to inform gender policies, including some politics surrounding the recent ‘Families in a changing world’ report.
Backlash actors target international policy spaces and professionally engage to shift the narratives and rules of the game, but these are also spaces where many actors on the inside remain committed to gender justice and in need of support to reverse the erosion and shore up its defence.
Implications for defending gender justice
Finally, the dialogues touched on movement-building, by sharing experiences of CSO members of MenEngage, as well as on uniting to counter backlash.
In this closing session (five) Bafana Khumalo from South Africa and Lina AbiRafeh from Lebanon, debated men engaging with feminist struggles against backlash. Lina cautioned that not all men may be relevant as allies in this fight and that young men have shown themselves to be more open and effective. Bafana underlined the need to challenge men with good evidence and to also challenge powerful people in for example religious groupings with explaining the benefits of equality and exposing hypocritical stances on male privilege.
Neil Datta from Europe and Aarti Narsee in South Africa debated the gendered politics in the broader political economy, with Neil urging us to face the entire challenge – located in three bigger projects: theocratic, hyper-capitalistic and authoritarian, respectively. Aarti shared developments from Poland of civil society alliance building in defence of abortion rights, breaking out from the usual silos and engaging across gender, anti-corruption and civil rights issues.
It was a rich set of discussions, highlighting the challenges we face globally. Yet there were also lessons to be learned and examples of movements and coalitions to push back against this patriarchal tide. It is hard to sum up, but there were some important takeaways. Unsurprisingly, it is not only women that suffer from patriarchy, but most men and other genders do so as well. By the same token, most – if not all – of us can benefit from feminist progress, if we can rescue it from hijack.
In this, we must focus on – and expose – how power moves and ally with organisations working on broader issues of justice. A singular focus on gender often means we cannot understand or resist backlash, because it is about much more than gender. For men in this struggle, we must listen to women and other marginalised groups and ‘pass the mic’. Finally, if we are to resist and turn the tide, we must hold each other and ourselves to account.
Join in and do the right thing!