This collaborative study examines the ways in which collective action and the involvement of men may influence the prospects of effectively changing community perceptions and values regarding sexual and gender-based violence. […]
Lebanon’s 2022 parliamentary election was held in the midst of economic turmoil, and the first since the October 2019 uprising and the world’s largest ever non-nuclear explosions that devastated Beirut’s port. Despite ongoing commentary that there would be a low turnout, 49 per cent of voters cast their ballot – on par with the 2018 figure.
This year’s elections were defined by political and gender activism, opening a window of opportunity to discuss issues from civil marriage to secularism.
The October 17th MPs
For the first time since the first post-war 1992 parliamentary elections, alternative political groups, who reject traditional sectarian political parties and advocate for a feminist and secular agenda, won over 10 seats in the Lebanese parliament – unprecedented in the contemporary history of Lebanon. These groups, known as the October 17th Ministers of Parliaments (MPs) or as ‘Change MPs’, hail from the various strands of society that joined together for the October 2019 uprising – a revolutionary movement that seriously dented the Lebanese neoliberal sectarian system.
It was a long-awaited opportunity for many Lebanese to reinvent themselves and their relationship with their country and politics – a reinvention that saw people pour into the squares and streets to protest. It represented a break from the corruption, patriarchy, and sectarianism in the country. This moment and the deliberate mismanagement of the multiple crises that followed it, culminated in the recent win of Change MPs in parliament.
These MPs are in a position to bring the demands of protestors and civil society at large to the table, especially in issues such as civil marriage. If this group of diverse parliamentarians succeeds at building alliances and coalitions over strategic demands, their leverage will certainly grow. Whilst change in Lebanon tends to be excruciatingly slow and incremental, at best, this gradual shift in representation could make progressive change significantly more likely.
Women’s representation in the new Parliament
Despite these successes, an enduring feature of Lebanese politics perseveres. Having won the right to vote and stand for elections in 1953, Lebanese women only entered parliament 10 years later when Myrna Bustani was elected, replacing her late father.
The percentage of women in parliament has remained low since then, with only three to six women being voted into parliament over the last five elections. While in 2018 women represented only 11 per cent of running candidates, they represented 15 per cent in 2022 – the majority of whom came from the capital district in Beirut. The number of women elected in 2022 rose from six to eight – half of whom are from four of Lebanon’s major political parties.
Although the representation of women in parliament remains low, 2022 has the highest number of women from alternative political groups in Lebanese history – four in total. Their unprecedented win and that of the Change MPs in general represents a challenge to the traditional make-up of the Lebanese parliament. Yet, whilst these Change MPs have made commitments to human rights priorities, openly challenging the sectarian political establishment’s general resistance, backsliding and backlash against rights remains a daunting call to many, and politically risky. The heightened sectarian, political and economic tensions in the country are all linked, and act as a major impediment for positive and progressive change.
New Voices in parliament are a window of opportunity to counter backlash
Although priorities in Lebanon today are focused on economic reforms, the incoming parliamentarians are expected to revive debates around several human rights and gender justice issues, particularly civil marriage. In May 2022, shortly after the end of the elections, the civil marriage debate spiked again and galvanised discussions on social media. Several clerics took to social media to spew false information about all forms of civil marriage, demonise the ‘Change MPs’, and incite hate and violence against them. Until recently, ‘backlash’ against civil marriage has been one of the most contested topics brought up by the media.
Indeed, while some Change MPs claim to hold a feminist agenda, the battle against the embedded norms and practices, as expressed by the ‘old guards’ in parliament, complicates the chances of progress and reform.
Countering backlash in the political system
The political stand-still, the ruling parties’ mismanagement of the Lebanon’s crises, and the very design of the sectarian power-sharing political system, all conspire to ensure resistance and regular backlash against progressive reform. And entrenched patriarchal culture is a central to it.
Challenging discriminatory laws and practices through new voices in parliament – coming from the fringes of the country’s rigid political institution – is itself a symbolic ‘win’ against backlash forces.
The four-year parliamentary journey for the newcomers is marred with challenges amidst a tense political landscape, a crumbling economy, and patriarchal sectarian barriers. In 2022, the battles of civil, political, economic and gender rights have seeped into parliament after having flooded the streets. The Change MPs agendas remain promising and the prospects for change remain high as many young people in Lebanon see in them a long-awaited beacon of hope.
Advocates for Social Change – Kenya (ADSOCK) see victim blaming and ‘what-about-ism’ (‘but what about men and boys?’) around sexual and gender-based violence gaining ground in the country. The organisation’s latest resource book ‘Paradigm Shift: Countering Backlash Reclaiming Gender Justice‘ provides practical ways individuals and organisations can counter this backlash.
Phil E. Otieno, Executive Director of ADOSCK, shares some reflections from their work on this.
Developing methods and knowledge
At ADSOCK we engage with a range of partners and actors in the field of gender, identifying what drives patriarchal backlash. We have been able to document how male supremacist ideologies are installed and flourish in combination with other oppressive ideologies through our capacity building workshops, and we have seen how male resentment is mobilised within diverse contexts in Kenya.
Our activities are complemented by knowledge strengthening for different audiences, by designing and delivering training workshops and modules, developing and sharing Social Behaviour Change and Communication Materials (posters, stickers, t-shirts), and the ‘Paradigm Shift: Countering Backlash Reclaiming Gender Justice’ resource book. This has been important in supporting our trainers and audience (a range of local and national gender justice actors) in understanding forms of gender backlash and by providing them with real examples of promising interventions to counter patriarchal backlash.
The resource book is one of the best, because it has all the materials that a trainer needs for proper grounding on patriarchal backlash and other elements of gender inequality
Anne, ADSOCK Trainer
We include 17 modules which provide step-by-step guidelines and practical resources that help the user in understanding a particular module and how to apply the information acquired. Feedback from practitioners and those using the resource book (particularly men) have shown that module three – ‘Roadmap to male allyship’ – and module 11 – ‘Understanding and Countering Patriarchal Backlash’ – have been of most interest and use.
The resource book is empowering and is loaded with very insightful information on Backlash including the module on male allyship towards gender equality
Steve, Family Health Options Kenya (FHOK)
Since inception of the project, we have conducted four workshops that brought together a diverse range of stakeholders for challenging and reflective debates and learning. They have included; women’s rights organisations, civil society organisations, university students, member of the LGBTIQ+ community, Kenya Police Service, persons with disabilities, media personalities, religious and cultural leaders, county leadership among others. The trainings helped to contextualise situations and how we internalise contested ideas.
In the workshops, a vast majority of men felt that gender equality is a ‘Western phenomenon’ (non-African) and a system aimed at destroying the so-called ‘African’ family. We also found that there is discomfort in some language, with many people feeling gender equality should be anchored in Pan-Africanism for it to be accepted. A vast majority of men expressed that ‘men are in crisis because of the feminisation of society’.
Another common trope in patriarchal backlash is ‘What-about-ism’ and victim blaming regarding sexual and gender-based violence, which is slowly but surely gaining ground in Kenya. Interestingly, we found that conversations about the ‘boy-child’ being ‘left behind’ is advanced by both men and women. This has led to a stereotyping and labelling of human rights defenders and feminists as ‘angry individuals’.
We believe that ADSOCK’s Resource Book will help people by providing an understanding of the importance of gender equality, accountability towards social justice (including identifying how patriarchal backlash happens). It also provides knowledge on how gender backlash is manifested both in online and offline spaces, critical factors contributing to the success and failures of different actors in their work on gender equality, as well as methods and approaches for challenging the status quo.
Curbing Erosion of Gender Equality and Women’s Rights
There is a need to document and analyse how backlash mobilises forms of male resentment across different contexts in Kenya; how can we tackle restrictive masculinities that may hinder men’s engagement in gender equality initiatives? A comprehensive male-engagement process is needed to ensure women are not targeted or ostracised by men’s organisations who believe that measures to address entrenched gender inequality are unfair and a form of ‘reverse discrimination’. Engaging with men and boys in the promotion of gender equality is one in many strategies for tackling the ever-growing problems of inequality, injustice and oppression.
To sustain the campaigns on gender equality, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) need support with resource mobilisation and the development of advocacy and awareness messages. CSOs also need support in building knowledge and action towards political mobilisation, along with allyship in movement and partnership building for gender and social justice. This is incredibly important in political spaces. Shifting norms concerning women’s leadership, leading towards a more transformative role for women’s collective agency – in both formal and informal settings – which both depends on and determines their individual agency. It also calls for men’s reflective allyship and support without mansplaining, patriarchal protectionism or ‘bro-option’.
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.
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:
- How are movements sustaining thriving, robust and resilient spaces and alliances in a world of multiple crises?
- 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.
In Jair Bolsonaro’s 2019 inauguration, he swore to ‘combat gender ideology’ and ‘preserve’ familial values. ‘Brazil will once again be a country free of ideological bonds’ he declared – as if what he was stating wasn’t ideological at all. This positioning led to gendered cultural and social approaches and policies being dismantled. Funds to prevent violence against women have been cut, teenage abstention is promoted instead of sexual education, LGBTQ+ groups are excluded from public television; these are just some examples explored in my article ‘Brazilian far-right neoliberal nationalism: family, anti-communism and the myth of racial democracy’.
This type of backlash isn’t new
‘Gender ideology’ is an expression frequently used in Brazil by the far-right to attack progressive public policies, pro-women and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. But this is not recent. As numerous researchers have identified, ‘Gender Ideology’ is a term that was first propelled onto a global level in 1995, as a reaction of the Catholic Church leadership to the World Conference on Women in Beijing, when the word ‘woman’ began to be substituted by the word ‘gender’. With the passage of time, the expression was taken up by other Christian groups and gained social popularity in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, France, Hungary, Peru, Poland and the United States.
In Brazil, one of the main disputes of ‘gender ideology’ was in the educational sector between 2014 and 2016. The word ‘gender’ was banned and simply excluded from several state’s education plans when approved by City Councils and State Assemblies. Elected officials frequently argued that ‘sexual orientation’ (they don’t use the word ‘gender’) doesn’t concern schools or education, but only the ‘family unit’. This ignores the reality that gender does indeed cut across the entire school experience.
Gender ideology as a neoliberal tool
Bolsonaro’s discourse against gender ideology and women’s and LGBTQ+ people’s rights gained materiality by his agenda, implemented by the Ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights and the Ministry of Economy. Neoliberal reforms and policies promoted by his government and his predecessor, Michel Temer, led to the intensification of poverty and to the dismantling of the social assistance system (such as changes in the ‘continued benefit’, a guarantee of a minimum wage per month to the elderly aged 65 years or over or to the disabled person of any age), which made women’s lives – especially those who are black, indigenous and trans – worse.
The defence of conservative thought might sound contradictory to liberal and neo-liberal ideas. However, neoliberalism and ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative’s thoughts are an ideal marriage in Bolsonaro’s Brazil – and of course I’m using the word ‘marriage’ in a provocative way as Bolsonaro and his supporters defend a traditional, restrictive family model.
As I argue in my recently published article ‘Brazilian far-right neoliberal nationalism: family, anti-communism and the myth of racial democracy’, with Sue Iamamoto and Renata Summa, it is necessary to understand the various cross overs between neoliberalism and neo-conservatism, which we do not see as opposing schools of thought. As Verónica Gago accurately explains, ‘the privatisation of public services or the restriction of their reach is translated into the fact that these tasks (health, care, food, etc.) must be supplied by women and feminised bodies as unpaid and mandatory tasks’.
The promotion of a heterosexual, patriarchal family, strengthening the sexual and racial division of labour, fits well to neoliberal plans that weakens public services which were already far from being universal. Afterall, somebody still has to take care of the children, the elderly, the family and group’s health and survival in general. Services that could be offered by the State become once again unpaid or precarious work. As Wendy Brown argues, the defence of the ‘family’ is also a neoliberal attack on social policies that battle inequality, whether in its gender, race, or class expressions.
An ideological ‘crusade’
During Bolsonaro’s first year as President it was commonly mentioned, especially by the hegemonic media, that the government had two, even three, different branches: the economic, the ideological and the military. Going to the end of his first term, it became evident that such distinction did not exist. The far-right Bolsonaro government is an assemblage of all those actors and the fight against women’s, black, indigenous and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. Presented as an ideological ‘crusade’, this is the ground where the disputes are happening in Brazilian society.
But there is resistance.
Here is an example: before the first term of the elections in 2018, thousands of women from all over the country occupied the streets in the #EleNão (#NotHim) movement against Bolsonaro. They headed back to the streets on 4 December, 2021.
The special issue of the Gender & Development journal covers empirical cases and current thinking on the rapidly evolving terrain of gender justice and feminist organising. In the last decade, we have witnessed a rise in racist, misogynist, populist and neo-nationalist governments, ideas and political practices that challenges the policy and discursive gains made. Further challenges to gender equality gains made in the world of work and labour rights comes from Covid-19 and its global impact.
Yet, feminist and women’s rights organisations and gender justice actors are mobilising around various issues – violence against women, denial of abortion rights, LGBTQI rights, weakening democracy, immigration laws and many other issues. The struggle against backlash is interconnected.
This event covered IDS members’ and partners’ work on manifestation of backlash through the co-option of feminist/gender equality agendas around the world and in international policy circles, the rise of ‘femonationalism’ in Europe (particularly Italy), the Shaheen Bagh movement and the strategies used by the women to counter democratic backslide and erosion of citizenship rights in India, and Hazara women’s protests against state violence and how participation in street activism affects women’s political leadership.
- Title: Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis
- Date: Wednesday 10 November
- Panellists: Tessa Lewin (IDS Research Fellow), Daira Collela (IDS alumnus), Deepta Chopra (IDS Research Fellow), Miguel Loureiro (IDS Research Fellow), Jalila Haider (human rights lawyer, and Sussex Alumnus), Lean Karlsson (Sida). Chaired by Sohela Nazneen (IDS Research Fellow)
Watch the recording of the event below.
Billionaires burning inordinate amounts of fossil fuels to undertake their own personal joyrides into space have occupied international headlines this month, in what has sickeningly been dubbed the “billionaire space race”.
Meanwhile, rolling news of floods, fires, and droughts continues, as the UK Prime Minister’s COP26 spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, called for the masses to mitigate climate chaos by ceasing to rinse their dishes before putting them in the dishwasher!
And yet, there are currently no regulations around rocket emissions, with one rocket launch producing up to 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere – where it can remain for years.
In a year in which the sea itself has set on fire, Richard Branson, boyish and grinning, became the first man to ‘penetrate virgin space’ in his own private spacecraft – Virgin Galactic’s euphemistically termed “Unity 22”.
As he told observers, “For all you kids down there: I was once a child with a dream, now I’m an adult in a spaceship!” He continued “to the next generation”, “if we can do this, just imagine what you can do!” He’s doing it for the children!… as he allegedly inspires ‘unity’ in an earth-shattering performance of the worst excesses of capitalism.
Days later, Jeff Bezos burst forth – unfettered as ever – into the ‘brave new world’ of space colonisation in an enormous fossil-fuelled penis, also termed ‘New Shepard’ – Blue Origin’s first “rocket for space tourism”.
Upon landing, decked in a blue space suit and a cowboy hat – lest we forget the settler colonial overtones of his mission – he thanked each and every Amazon employee, to scattered laughter from the audience, “because you guys paid for this”. Yes, they did pay for this, through the now well-documented exploitative practices that have further enabled Bezos to amass unprecedented wealth, alongside his “aggressive” tax avoidance and strategy of total market domination.
Other than massaging already over-inflated egos, other than ‘inspiring’ the children of this increasingly plundered earth, what is the ultimate goal of this ‘space race’?
At this point, this is a massively destructive billionaires’ game, that one day promises to be highly profitable for those same billionaires as ‘space tourism’ gains traction.
Yet, as journalist George Monbiot observes, it is also “being sold to us as some kind of desirable future, as something we should aspire to”.
Indeed, it is bizarrely being peddled as an antidote to the climate destruction that capitalism has wreaked. In his terrifying post-flight triumph, Bezos informed listeners, “we are building a road to space, so that future generations can build the future.”
He continued even more ominously: “We live on this beautiful planet […] and we have to keep it safe and protect it, and the way to do that over decades is to move all heavy industry, all polluting industry out into space.”
According to Bezos, therefore, burning exorbitant fossil fuels to enable his quest for space colonisation is a mere move to “keep this planet the gem that it is”.
The vision, then? Seemingly, to burn this planet, to plunder another, under the ultimate control of white, male billionaires – such as Bezos, Branson and, also, Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX also seeks to reduce space transportation costs to enable colonisation of Mars.
Indeed, aiming to get a million people to Mars in the next 50 to 100 years, Musk’s published vision outlines the nightmare of space colonies, created by billionaire potentates – also animatedly outlined by Bezos.
What has this got to do with backlash?
First of all, let’s look at what this has got to do with gender as it intersects with race, capitalism and coloniality.
Obviously – indeed, too obviously – there is the phallic symbolism of Bezos’ rocket. And then there is the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of those now privately undertaking space colonisation (all of them).
The colonial imaginary and its destructive realities have long been predicated on white male pioneers conquering ‘virgin lands’ and plundering resources for capital gain. In the ‘billionaire space race’, this symbolism and extractive plan is all too clear.
Normatively, however, these ‘pioneers’ then variably eliminate, assimilate or debilitate the indigenous peoples of that land. In this case, let’s hope – for their sake – there are not sentient beings on Mars. And so, rather than the indigenous peoples of the colonised space, it is those most marginalised on the increasingly scorched earth that will be dispossessed by the intergalactic colonial endeavours of these billionaire white men.
The climate crisis, in its advancement and in its effects, is highly gendered and racialised. If billionaires can launch themselves into space at will, it is those most subjugated by intersecting oppressions of coloniality, race, class, disability, age and gender who will be disproportionately debilitated under the heightened ravages of climate destruction.
Moreover, as Bezos himself pointed out in thanking Amazon employees, it is their labour that will pay for it.
So, now, what has this got to do with backlash?
Backlash is not only the explicit act of rolling back policy and legislation that relates to gender or social justice more broadly.
Backlash is also the continued hegemony of white, capitalist-enriched heteropatriarchy, despite moves to topple its power. It is the continued impunity bestowed upon some – at the expense of many – to destroy and degrade the earth and its diverse inhabitants. Moreover, backlash can be the packaging of these realities as desirable, possibly equitable and even liberating, in the deployment of notions of rights, freedom and ‘protection’.
As billionaires joyride in their phallus-shaped fuel guzzlers, they talk of colonising space as the final frontier. As they do, they reassert the power of a white, heteropatriarchal manhood, empowered by having “mined rare earths, fabricated massive technologies and invested in capital’s projection to send him and his white brethren” into outer space, to use the words of Scott Morgensen.
In spite of the knowledge of steps required for greater social and ecological justice, the ‘billionaire space race’ powerfully symbolises the continued power of those white men endowed with the spoils of capitalist destruction and energised by colonial aspiration to do as they wish – and tell us it will be good for us.
Let’s hope that COP26 will focus less on rinsing dishes and freezing bread, and more on regulating the behaviour of these billionaire overlords. Indeed, suppressing their power is the only hope we have.
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
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!
Activists, researchers, activist researchers and policymakers share experiences, concerns and tactics, asking “can work on masculinities help to counter patriarchal backlash?” and much more. This fifth and final debate in the series ‘Countering Patriarchal Backlash’ will focus on critical challenges and potential solutions for mobilising to counter backlash through different strategies, like intersectional alliance building and men’s engagement in feminist and other social justice struggles.
Starting with reflections on key insights, dilemmas and directions recommended from the series, this debate will take a forward-looking perspective to discuss central questions posed, as we are all facing backlash and explore ways forward. What should we do? That is, as activists, researchers, organisations, networks, and movements? How should we link across social justice movements and counter the onslaught through alliance building, whilst holding ourselves and each other to account? This pair of facilitated two-way conversations – wrapped up with a plenary debate – will be guided by the co-chairs and focused on the ‘road ahead’.
- Title: Uniting to Counter Backlash: A Roundtable Discussion Looking Forward
- Date: Tuesday 1 June
- Time: 9-11am EST; 2-4pm BST; 3-5pm CAT; 6.30-8.30pm IST
- Panellists: Lina Abirafeh (The Arab Institute for Women, AiW/LAU), Bafana Khumalo (Sonke Gender Justice), Neil Datta (European Parliamentary Forum for SRHR) and others, with Joni van der Sand (MenEngage Alliance) and Jerker Edström (Institute of Development Studies) as co-hosts.
COUNTERING PATRIARCHAL BACKLASH AGAINST GENDER JUSTICE SERIES
Global progress on gender equality is under threat. So is democracy, freedom of opinion and assembly, and the very notion of human rights. Women’s and human rights actors and organisations in diverse contexts are facing conservative backlash to their work, including from religious fundamentalist groups, “men’s rights” groups, political parties and think tanks, media corporations, new movements and states who are anti-womens’ rights and dispute key aspects of gender equality.
New forces are pushing back to reverse many gains made for gender justice as well as to frustrate implementation of commitments and forestall further progress, but this backlash is also far deeper, more insidious, and complex than the recent trend of religious fundamentalisms, or a mere pushback on gender policies. While these are visible manifestations of patriarchal backlash, other actors and forces are also at play in nuanced ways, often under the radar, deploying and producing old and new power hierarchies across intersections of identity, beyond and including gender.
Such diverse, diffuse and networked backlash ‘others’, demonises and disempowers those who seek to advance gender justice. It entrenches binary understandings of gender and re-valorises patriarchal gender roles, appealing to ‘traditional family values’ founded on patriarchal ideologies of male supremacy. These forces tend to deploy polarising politics, mobilising populist narratives, promiscuously comingling misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia, with scant regard for evidence or truth.
Our series at the MenEngage Ubuntu Symposium explores this pressing global trend, advancing understanding of these movements and how the men and masculinities field can strengthen efforts and better support feminist movements to counter this backlash.
Our understanding of backlash must go beyond simple linear visions of social change – as in ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Diverse forms of patriarchal backlash appear to function in interaction with arrays of other oppressive dynamics, including de-democratisation and the capture of civic space, the rise of populism, ‘strongman’ demagogues and a global rightward turn, predatory capitalism, inequality and precarity. Furthermore, some argue that ill-conceived policy and practice on gender in development may itself play into the hands of backlash forces, who are said to be co-opting existing policy processes for gender. Yet, all of this is happening in plain sight. New opportunities, mobilisations and intersectional strategies in struggles for gender justice are likely to evolve.
The series will result in several knowledge products in line with the overall knowledge development strategy for the symposium. Products may include bitesize videos, a learning page on the Alliance’s website including webinar recordings and related reading materials and a report/thought piece providing deeper analysis and focused on promising practices and ways forward for the Alliance.
Ever since the inaugural celebrations of the International Women’s Day 110 years ago, humanity has been exhorted to challenge the status quo to actualise women’s empowerment and, ultimately, equitable benefit for all. Uganda too, in both its colonial and post-independence times, has not escaped this clarion call.
I argue that the pursuit of gender justice always intersects with the long arm of tradition, for better or for worse. Human agency enacted in the struggle for gender justice is hence often circumscribed, though not entirely determined, by institutional structure. In the latter, therefore, lie the real stakes for gender justice.
Social custom and the struggle for gender equality in colonial Uganda
Colonial Uganda offers us a myriad of cases showcasing how access to justice (or the lack thereof) is a profoundly gendered process. The ongoing doctoral research of Sauda Nabukenya—into litigation and the pursuit of justice in both Ganda native and British colonial courts in Uganda—recently unearthed an array of archival material from the basement of the historic Mengo Court. One case in particular stands out, namely Lukiko v. Simon Petero Wakiwugulu Kigozi. The stakes in this case made it travel from the Buganda native court at Mengo through the appellate British court of Judicial Advisor of Buganda to Her Majesty’s High Court of Uganda at Kampala.
In March 1941, Irene Drusilla Namaganda, widow of the King of Buganda, Kabaka Daudi Chwa, married Simon Peter Kigozi, a mukopi (Ganda commoner). Following their exchange of nuptial vows at St Luke’s Church of Kibuye, the couple proceeded to the Lubiri (the official residence estate of the Buganda king) for wedding celebrations. Thereafter, the couple moved to the Lusaka (the official palace of the Namasole, that is, Buganda Queen Mother) where they spent their first night as newly-weds. Soon after, Kigozi was sued by the Lukiko (Buganda legislative assembly) in the Principal Court of Buganda at Mengo and later convicted on two grounds of abomination, namely (i) marrying in the Lubiri and (ii) sleeping with the Namasole in the Lusaka, all supposedly in contravention of Ganda custom.
Plaintiffs from the Lukiko argued that the Lusaka belonged to the Kingdom. When the British colonial authorities, drawing on both the letter and spirit of the 1900 B(U)ganda Agreement, appeared to sympathise with the defendant, the Lukiko decided to prosecute Kigozi under a criminal rather than a civil suit. They particularly considered his sleeping with the Namasole in the Lusaka—however legally married to each other they might now be—to be “an unlawful use of the kingdom’s property” and a disturbance to the social peace of the kingdom. Kigozi’s acts were henceforth interpreted and prosecuted as a criminal offence against social order.
Deeply dissatisfied with the Mengo Court decision, Kigozi appealed to the British Judicial Advisor’s Court and later to Her Majesty’s High Court at Kampala. Kigozi’s appeal was lodged on the premise that no Buganda native court had any jurisdiction over the case given that his was a legal marriage under the British Protectorate law. In his series of appeals, Nabukenya tells us, Kigozi challenged the use of Ganda custom as the basis for convicting him criminally and decried his sentence as “repugnant to justice and morality”. The British judges nonetheless upheld the decision of the Ganda native court as Her Majesty’s Chief Justice ruled that native courts did have the power to define offences against social peace as they saw fit.
Customary practice and the fight for gender justice today
On 3 July 2020, His Lordship Justice Godfrey Namundi delivered a landmark ruling at the Family Division of the High Court of Uganda at Kampala. In a civil suit, the plaintiff (Herbert Kolya) sought (i) an order directing the defendant (Ekiriya Mawemuko Kolya) to provide an account of all the assets of the estate of the late Israel Kimomeko Kolya (who had died, testate, in 1997) and (ii) an order directing the defendant to distribute the property in the estate of her late husband in accordance with his will. The plaintiff was a paternal grandson of the late Israel Kikomeko Kolya and of his wife, the defendant.
In his will Israel Kikomeko Kolya bequeathed to the father of the plaintiff (the late Herbert Lukanga Kolya) his home at Kibuga, located in one of Kampala’s residential areas within the city centre, as well as other properties on the outskirts of the city. The plaintiff, being an administrator of the estate of the late Herbert Lukanga Kolya (the late Israel’s eldest son), claimed that on 5 April 2000 the defendant obtained letters of administration to the estate of the plaintiff’s grandfather from the Chief Magistrate’s Court of Mengo without annexing the will. Yet, the late Israel Kikomeko Kolya had made a will on 27 January 1997. The defendant filed a defence denying all allegations and averred that she was legally granted letters of administration of the estate of her late husband.
In his ruling, Justice Namundi specifically underscored that the land and home at Kibuga was a matrimonial property. Making reference to Articles 32 (1) (i.e. customs, cultures and traditions that are against the dignity, interests or welfare of women are prohibited) and 31 (1) (i.e. men and women are entitled to equal rights in marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution) of the Ugandan Constitution, Justice Namundi accordingly dismissed the plaintiff’s claim in the form it stood. In a society in which it has not been uncommon for matrimonial property to be held in the husband’s name and for the husband to bequeath it to the eldest son subject to the wife’s right to live there for life or until she remarries, this ruling appears revolutionary.
But progressive as Justice Namundi’s ruling looks to be, the enactment of gender justice here still relied on feedback from a gerontocratic customary practice: In an affidavit presented before court it was reported that upon the demise of both Israel Kikomeko Kolya and Herbert Lukanga Kolya, bereaved family members met as is customary of post-burial arrangements in Ganda society. A decision was reportedly made by older family members present in that meeting to dispense with the late Israel’s will, for the latter (in the wisdom of majority of older family members present) was defective. It was on the basis of that family decision that the Chief Magistrate Court of Mengo granted letters of administration of the estate of the late Israel Kikomeko to his widowed wife (the defendant) without annexing the will.
The judgement from the Family Division in the High Court of Uganda at Kampala (which heard the appeal) essentially rubber-stamped the decision of the Chief Magistrate Court made back in April 2000. The will in question was in itself an ostensibly patriarchal-conservative writ. Yet, the Court eventually stood with the defendant only through a recourse to another piece of evidence stemming from a gerontocratic customary practice. Differently put, on her very own, the defendant’s claims could not stand the test for gender justice.
The making or breaking power of tradition
Placing these two lawsuits on a historical continuum of struggle for gender justice shows how social custom in the 1940s was summoned to deny the widowed woman the right to take her newlywed husband ‘home’, whereas in the 2000s, thanks to a gerontocratic customary practice, the older woman’s rights as a widow overrode the patriarch’s will to bequeath the ‘matrimonial property’ to his grandson. That an older widowed woman is rendered justice in a lawsuit comprising a young man as plaintiff, and that a newlywed man was denied justice in a case involving a young widowed woman ensnared in patriarchal power also speaks volumes about the intersectionality deeply enmeshed in the struggle for gender justice.
Age, class, marital status, health status, legal status or pedigree, among other identity markers, can amplify gendered harms and further frustrate the pursuit of gender justice. To truly reckon with tradition as a force for gender justice would mean ensuring that justice for individual women is not the product of a gerontocratic system that is somehow viewed as ‘natural’ despite the fact that, in many regards, it disempowers women. It would also mean that peace among men is not pursued through resort to an entrenched regime of violence against women. Only then shall we contemplate the real dividends of gender equality.
Global progress on gender equality is under threat. We are living in an age where major political and social shifts are resulting in new forces that are visibly pushing back to reverse the many gains made for women’s rights and to shrink civic space. This push back is not just about ‘men’ or ‘women’ however, but also the gendered structures through which power is enacted or shut down.
The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the UK is a symptom of broader backlash on gender equality and progressive values. Following the heated debate in the House of Commons, the controversial policing bill was passed after its second reading on Tuesday.
If accepted in parliament this Bill will:
- Introduce new police powers to decide where, when and how people can protest
- Impact the ability to organise including how trade unions protest and picket
- Increase penalties for those breaching police conditions on protests
- Creates new trespass offences
One component of the Bill is a proposed 10-year prison sentence for ‘damage to statues’ – standing in direct contrast to the much shorter sentences (very rarely) served for sexual assault. It represents a clear disregard for the call precipitated by the Black Lives Matter movement to remove and dismantle statues that commemorate colonialism; those who ‘damage’ these stone homages to slavery, racism and colonial patriarchies are vilified, while the pervasive and normalised threat of sexual assault continues to be routinely disregarded.
Chloe Skinner, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, examines global manifestations of backlash, working in partnership with academics and activists in Bangladesh, India, Uganda, Kenya, Brazil and Lebanon to counter backlash against gender and social justice. The Countering Backlash programme explores the many forms of backlash and how they often appear in seemingly innocuous and hidden ways.
Chloe argues that this Bill embodies ‘patriarchal backlash’ as an archetypal exemplar of the clampdown on even the possibility of moves toward gendered, racial and social justice. She states that “white and male supremacy live on, palpably demonstrated by the restrictive and regressive laws laid out in the anti-protest bill.”
Comparisons can be drawn to India, where Countering Backlash partners Gender at Work highlight the extent of the government’s effort to curb dissent in the country through draconian laws and policies. As the programme demonstrates and explores, backlash is global. To counter it, we must understand its diverse manifestations – from the subtle to the spectacular, the hidden to the explicit. The proposed anti-protest Bill in the UK is one such expression to resist.
On 18 March at 1pm, Countering Backlash partners will also be participating in the IDS event “Global perspectives on countering backlash against women in politics” chaired by Liz Ford, Deputy Editor, Guardian Global Development.
Join Countering Backlash for the third session in the ‘Countering Patriarchal Backlash against Gender Justice’ Ubuntu Symposium. This discussion will explore anti-feminist backlash and co-option in policy spaces and its implications for policy and practice on gender equality.
- Title: Hijacking Gender? Backlash in Policy and Practice (Ubuntu Symposium Concept Session (3))
- Date: Thursday 11 March
- Time: 8am EST; 1pm GMT; 3pm CAT; 6.30pm IST
- Amon Mwiine, Makere University
- Tessa Lewin, Institute of Development Studies
- Sudarsana Kundu, Gender at Work
- Laura Turquet, UN Women
- Lena Karlsson, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, (Sida)
- Jerker Edström (co-chair)
- Andrea Cornwall (Chair)
In part picking up on issues identified in the Backlash, Body Politics and Online Misogyny and Understanding the Global Tide of Patriarchal Backlash sessions, this unlikely combination of activist researchers and policymakers will bring a unique set of contrasting perspectives to debate critical issues of how backlash ‘engages’ with – and impacts on – policy and practice on gender justice and equality itself, at both national and global levels.
The discussion will cover observations on backlash machinations in gender(ed) policy spaces, such as international conferences and commissions, how policy frameworks and approaches are restraining or enabling backlash in policy processes at country levels, and how progressive actors in development agencies experience the realities of international policy co-option and backlash, including any resulting tensions and/or trade-offs. We also explore the implications of this for policy and practice on engaging men in gender equality strategies.