This collection explores different processes by which activists and other actors have worked for change, interrogates what we mean when we talk about ‘solidarity’, and questions the usefulness and place of law. […]
We live in illiberal times. The systematic attack on women’s rights, and human rights more broadly, is a global emergency. The overturning of Roe vs Wade – the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling that established access to abortion as a constitutional right – is the latest assault. Overturning the right to abortion will not mean less abortions, but less SAFE abortions, in particular for poor women.
Overturning the right to abortion will not mean less abortions, but less SAFE abortions
Global backlash against rights
In terms of the rule of law, the overturning of Roe vs Wade will erode public trust in a much-respected institution crafted to protect the law and rights of citizens. The fact that since we knew this was coming after the leaked draft last month makes it no less shocking.
Many see the reversal of rights as a part of a global backlash driven by right-wing populist forces and their allies; one against women and LGBTQI+ people, based on the perceived gains of rights movements since the 1980s (as argued by Goetz in 2020 and Petchesky in 2005). Others claim that the idea of a backlash assumes progress that many have not yet seen. Whichever side of this debate you are on, there is no denying that the impact of this week’s Supreme Court decision will reverberate beyond US borders, and significantly strengthen anti-abortion actors elsewhere.
Countering the anti-abortion lobby
Access to abortion is regarded as a fundamental human right
As feminists, access to abortion is regarded as a fundamental human right. Between 2015 and 2019, over 120 million unintended pregnancies occurred worldwide, 61 percent of these ended in abortion. Since 1994, abortion rights have been rolled back in Poland, Nicaragua, El Salvador; in many other countries where this right does not exist for women, abortions are accessed secretly, often unsafely. While the anti-abortion forces have lost in Ireland and Argentina – their energy at the global and national levels has not dissipated, despite growing public support for abortion rights in many countries. In the US about 85 percent of Americans view abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.
The anti-abortion lobby in the US and around the world is a diverse set of individuals and groups. They have strong transnational links that have long infiltrated the international arenas and institutions where ‘global norms’ and human rights are debated. Before Roe vs Wade was challenged in the US supreme court, the US government (under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Donald Trump), used the ‘global gag rule’ to restrict funds to organisations working on sexual and reproductive health if they provided any information on abortion services or advocated for abortion law reform. This rule has had a significant impact on women’s and girls’ access to reproductive services around the world.
What does the overturning of Roe vs Wade mean for other hard-won rights in the US? For contraception? For same sex marriage? People are fearful that these too will be reversed.
Our rights need to be fought for
In development studies, we tend to see history as a linear, progressing towards greater well-being, and more rights for more people. Since the 1950s, this idea has been tied up with notions modernisation and an ‘extractivist’ model of development. As a result, it has been significantly compromised by both of what constitutes progress and of its presumed linearity. Rights are not won forever; their maintenance requires vigilance and on-going struggle, or they are at the risk of reversal. We cannot assume that many of the rights enshrined in international laws are universally regarded as either valid or intrinsic.
We must mobilise urgently, with renewed commitment, and in preparation for an on-going struggle to counter backlash and to defend our hard-earned rights.
This report argues that neither Egypt nor Lebanon are said to offer social or legal environments that are supportive of sexual and gender nonconformists (SGNs). […]
This audit analyses key aspects of public policies in education and sexuality in Brazil, which were designed as part of the wider 2004 programme ‘Brazil Without Homophobia’ (BWH – Programa Brasil sem Homofobia). […]
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.
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.
This paper analyses the contents of the Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 (AHB), traces its background and status as of the time of writing, analyses the legal issues that were likely to arise before it became law and the issues that did arise with the bill still in its pre-passed state and, finally, discusses some of the positive aspects of the bill. […]
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.