Activists and development practitioners have historically used human rights to advocate for changes in law and policy to protect the rights of vulnerable communities or groups. More recently, academic research on human rights, and development practitioners have noted how ‘gender-restrictive groups are succeeding at using the language and legal tools of the human rights framework to present their anti-rights efforts as right-affirming initiatives’.
Significant efforts have been made to understand how these gender backlash narratives are built, such as research on forms of resistance and backlash, co-option, discourse capture and more. One such narrative tool to build gender backlash is when anti-gender-rights actors create a false narrative showcasing one community’s rights as being detrimental to another’s. This constructed narrative of a competition between the rights of two marginalised communities limits the frame of discourse to these communities, thus protecting existing power hierarchies.
This blog is based on original research for the dissertation for my M.A Gender and Development degree at the Institute of Development Studies. My work, since then, with Young People for Politics, Rejuvenate, and CREA has also been instrumental in writing this blog. In the paragraphs below, I expand on the role of ‘competition of rights’ in serving gender backlash agendas. Here is what I’ve found:
How is the narrative of ‘competing rights’ staged?
Rehana Fathima, a feminist activist from Kerala, India, uploaded a video of her children drawing on her naked upper body as a political act against sexualising women’s bodies, calling for action to reinterpret female bodies. My research on this ‘political act’, and responses to it by the State and other institutions, illustrate the ways in which her feminist gesture was eclipsed by a discourse on child safety.
In encouraging her children to draw on her naked upper body, Fathima was seen to be forwarding her own political agenda at their expense; she was accused of ‘sexual abuse’. My study revealed ‘censure’ from sites of legitimate authority, and ‘discourse capture’ were tools used to stage this competition between Fathima’s right to gender justice and her children’s right to safety.
These trends are seen globally; a more recent example is the trans-exclusionary stance promoted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SR VAW). In November 2022 the SR VAW urged the Members of Scottish Parliament in a public letter to reconsider the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRR), which proposed simplifying the process of gender self-identification for trans persons. The SR VAW argued that the proposed reform provides an opportunity for perpetrators of violence to identify as women and access women-only safe spaces, thus risking further perpetration of violence against already vulnerable cis women.
In both cases, the accusations are not supported by any evidence, but are taken as legitimate concerns due to the authority of the inquirer. This narrative creates a false co-relation between the advancement of rights of one group with risks faced by another. It twists and repurposes the narrative shifting focus from the original cause – in Fathima’s case desexualising female bodies, and in the case of the Scottish GRR self- identification for trans persons– allowing for discourse capture. Additionally, backlash actors form intentional alliances to ensure cohesive action leading to this form of discourse capture. In instances where such overt alliances are not formed, such as in Fathima’s case, there continues to be cohesion across backlash actors because the narrative is built on gender norms coded into the socio-cultural, political, and economic institutions.
In the competition of rights, anti-gender-rights activists identify one group as ‘in need of protection’ and create a moral panic. Fathima’s children were assumed to be incapable of understanding the political act they helped create. Hence, none of the stakeholders engaged with the children to assess if they had consented to participating in Fathima’s political act, which is a valid concern with regards to upholding the children’s rights. In case of the SR VAW, the letter had the support of multiple trans exclusionary feminist and women’s rights groups. The SR VAW decided to represent their concerns, while disregarding the many representations made by feminist collectives who support self-identification for trans persons and oppose the arbitrary correlation between right to gender self-identification and increased risk of violence against cis women. Through this form of narrative building one group is identified as more vulnerable (i.e., children and women respectively in the above cases) and as having homogenous needs. Their rights are considered to be more valuable than those of persons belonging to less normative groups. This narrative of competing rights separates groups into neat boxes, ignoring the many intersections and critical ally-ship across marginalised groups and communities.
Piercing the smokescreen of competing rights
This form of narrative backlash not only disrupts progressive gender rights agendas but is built on and promotes existing gender normative and oppressive structures. While creating counter-narratives is essential, it is also critical to proactively build popular narratives that delegitimise, or create an adverse environment for, the work of backlash actors. Here are four recommendations:
- Human rights are indivisible: Rights are inseparable by nature and the rights of one community cannot be upheld by denying the rights of another.
- Nothing for us without us: All gender-rights discourses must ensure deep representation from the communities of rights holders themselves. Diversity and dynamism in representation is essential to counter backlash.
- Gender is never binary: Discourse on gender rights and development initiatives for gender-based rights must consciously include agendas that challenge gender binaries and represent non-normative forms of thought and action; it must not be depoliticised
- Be an ally –step up and/ or make space: Rights movements cannot exist in silos; therefore cross movement ally-ship is an important aspect of countering gender backlash. Gender rights are intrinsically linked to all human rights. We must learn to step up and give up our space in support of each other across movements.