Analysis. How can we understand and describe what appears to be a global trend of increased contestation and political polarization around gender and sexuality? This was one of the main questions in a roundtable discussion at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). Emil Edenborg, Research Fellow in the UI Global Politics and Security Programme, writes about the discussion on how ”traditional values” has become a political battleground.
“Why is everyone afraid of women?” asked Swati Parashar, researcher in gender and international politics at Gothenburg University, describing how women’s rights and family values have become a hotly debated issue in Indian politics before and during the parliamentary election in April-May 2019. Sexist and misogynistic statements were made indiscriminately by all parties. These elections resulted in a massive electoral victory for the ruling National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist party BJP and its prime minister Narendra Modi.
Modi’s India is one of several countries where a nationalist regime promises to revive the nation’s greatness and civilizational heritage by reclaiming “traditional values”, turning women’s freedom and gender and sexual equality into political battlefields. Also in Brazil, Russia, Hungary and the United States, authoritarian nationalist leaders are currently targeting women and LGBT people, portraying issues such as abortion, feminism, same-sex marriage and transgender rights as contrary to family values and in some cases as threats to national security and social unity.
Voters attend speech by PM Narendra Modi for 2019 election in Mumbai. Photo: Hari Mahidhar/Shutterstock
Abortion rights have come under increasing pressure in Latin America and the United States, and are challenged by conservative Christian movements as well as some right-wing nationalist parties in Europe. In some countries, the idea that children must be protected from what is seen as dangerous influences distorting their “natural” gender and sexual identities has motivated laws prohibiting the dissemination of information about sexuality and gender identity to minors, as when Russia introduced a law against “gay propaganda” in 2013. In the United Kingdom, there is currently a political controversy around the issue of LGBT-inclusive education in primary schools, with parental organizations protesting what they perceive as “promotion” of homosexuality.
These mobilizations against gender and sexual rights that we are currently witnessing around the world were the topic of a roundtable discussion at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs on 21 May 2019. Among the participants were researchers, representatives of women’s organizations and LGBT rights defenders, as well as practitioners from government agencies working with international aid, development and peace processes.
One of the main questions of discussion was how to understand and describe what appears to be a global trend of increased contestation and political polarization around gender and sexuality. David Paternotte, sociologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and one of the roundtable speakers, is co-editor of the book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing Against Equality (2017) which examines how conservative movements, with the Roman Catholic Church as the main actor, organize to resist what they describe as “gender ideology”. This is an elusive term which these movements use to refer to everything from feminism, gender equality policies, abortion, same-sex marriage and trans rights, to academic gender studies, all perceived as endangering the “natural” heterosexual family which is seen as a fundament of society.
Pro-life event March for Life and Family in Gdansk, Poland, June 9 2019. Photo: Jakub Kulakowski/Shutterstock
According to Paternotte, the increased contestation of gender and sexual rights which we are seeing in many parts of the world is not a “resurgence” or “return” to old values, but something new and different. We need, he argued, to rethink the concepts we use as they may be inadequate to grasp what is happening. For example, the term “populism” has become a word used to describe everything we do not like, lumping together different movements and political leaders which may have little in common, glossing over important differences and specific contexts. Recently also the term “anti-gender”, Paternotte suggested, has become used too loosely, sometimes to describe every kind of resistance to gender equality and sexual rights.
When discussing global and transnational aspects, it is crucial not to lose sight of different local contexts, as these mobilizations do not take the same form everywhere. For example, in some cases the actors are sincerely concerned with gender and sexuality, while in other cases, feminism and/or LGBT rights are used instrumentally as convenient scapegoats, becoming casualties on the way to something else.
Swati Parashar argued that after Trump and Brexit, the term “populism” is used to describe too many different kinds of political movements around the world in a way that ignores local histories and dynamics, similarly to how, after 9/11, the term “Global terrorism” was used to describe local resistance movements and insurgencies in many countries. Instead, she suggested paying attention to complexities. In the specific context of India, “traditional values” have been invoked by all political sides to stigmatize women politicians without children, to uphold hypermasculine ideals, or as in the case of a former Supreme Court judge, to argue against criminalizing rape within marriage.
Delhi Queer Pride Parade in november 2018. The first pride parade in Delhi after the Supreme Court verdict on section 377. Photo: Aamir M Khan/Shutterstock
At the same time, some progressive gender policies have been introduced, as when the Indian Supreme Court in 2018 revoked section 377, the British colonial law prohibiting homosexuality, a move that was welcomed by many, including some Hindu nationalists, as shedding the foreign, colonial past and returning to India’s rich traditions of gender and sexual diversity. Always when “traditional values” are invoked, Parashar argued, it is through a very selective reading of histories and national mythologies, without the nuance, messiness and contradictions.
That the current rise of movements attacking gender and sexual rights is not simply the return of tradition but something qualitatively new was also stressed by Andea Petö, professor of gender studies as the Central European University. The university was formerly located in Budapest but is currently moving to Vienna after its permit to issue diplomas for new students was suspended, following a campaign accusing its founder George Soros and his Open Foundation of conspiring against Hungary’s national interests. The nationalist government of Viktor Orbán has targeted research and higher education in general and, in particular, gender studies, which was removed from the national study list in 2018.
Gender, according to Petö, works as a “symbolic glue” which binds together unlikely actors who normally would not work together, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, who have united in their opposition to what they describe as “gender ideology”. Hungary has come to function as what Petö calls a polyporic state (referring to a polypore, a parasitic mushroom living on other organisms), which constructs a parallel civil society by creating government-operated non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), for example alternative women’s organizations promoting “traditional” family values instead of feminism. In this context, everything becomes a question of security, as academics, feminists, migrants and George Soros all are portrayed as enemies of the nation. The policies of the Hungarian government promotes a restrictive and heteronormative ideal of the family, excluding for example poor and Roma families from support.
Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the World Congress of Families in Verona, March 30. Photo: Mario Confente/Shutterstock
Whereas the resistance to gender and sexual rights takes different forms in different places, these movements are globally interconnected. In March 2019, rightwing nationalists and Christian conservatives – both Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical – met in Verona for an international meeting of the World Congress of Families, a transnational organization formed in the 1990s by American and Russian religious groups opposing LGBT rights and abortion. Anti-rights organizations network transnationally and form alliances to push their goals, for example to push pro-family resolutions at the United Nations. The vague notion of “traditional values” functions to allow actors to work together despite religious differences and political disagreements.
At the roundtable, several participants from rights defender organizations spoke of how the international negotiation context has changed in recent years. The Trump administration is now including anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups within their international delegations, groups that until recently were protesting outside those meetings. Moreover, countries copy and take inspiration from other countries. For example, Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda” ban has functioned as a blueprint for similar laws proposed in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and other neighboring countries. The role of American evangelical movements in promoting and economically supporting anti-LGBT policies in sub-Saharan Africa is another example. However, Paternotte stressed that one should not exaggerate the global influence of the US Christian Right, as local actors not are not blindly importing conservative values but know what they are doing and have their own domestic agendas.
Pro-life rally at the New York State Capital Building in Albany. Photo: Danielle W Gagnon/Shutterstock
That the transnational mobilization for “traditional values” must be met with decisive and creative strategies was emphasized during the roundtable. Andrea Petö ended her talk on a hopeful note, speaking of how academics in Hungary outside the field of gender studies went on a solidarity strike, and scholars who had not previously cared about gender studies started quoting gender scholars and emphasizing the gender element of their course. The example from Hungary, Petö argued, shows that the ideal of the ivory tower academic who is detached from society must be abandoned in favor of more politically and socially engaged research, and it is crucial to go outside one’s own bubble and start speaking to those with whom we disagree. Mirroring the new coalitions that are formed uniting actors who oppose gender and sexual rights, to defend hard-won victories achieved by feminists and LGBT activists, it is necessary to form broad, diverse and sometimes unexpected alliances.