06 Dec

Troubled times for gender equality

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Kathleen Lennon & Rachel Alsop

We are living in troubled times for those seeking to promote gender equality. Despite progress in women’s rights, and the recognition of gay marriage and the chance to legally change assigned gender identity in some places, there is alongside a backlash against gained gender equality in many parts of the world, as well as the ongoing oppression and marginalisation of women and gendered and sexual minorities in many others.

Gender rights intersect with the rights of other marginalised peoples. The interweaving of nationalism and right-wing populism manifest in Trump’s USA is found in many other parts of the world. Trump’s opposition to gender and sexual rights, and their interconnections with his anti-immigration policies, are typical of such populism. The same pattern is repeated elsewhere: chauvinistic nationalism is accompanied by attacks on gender rights. Poland, Hungary, and Brazil are striking examples, but there are strands across the world. Far right groups are anti‐feminist, anti‐LGBTQI rights, nationalist, racist, and Islamophobic.

There is an interweaving of such right-wing populism with religious fundamentalism, which informs the attack on gendered rights. In Poland, for example, the nationalist Law and Justice party, closely aligned with a conservative Catholic Church, was elected in 2015 and again in October 2019 with its majority increased. It has tried to impose a full ban on abortion which was narrowly defeated. But attempts to restrict access to abortion are ongoing, and LGBTQI+ people in Poland continue to encounter discrimination. In Hungary, there are parallel developments in which church and state seek to roll back women’s reproductive rights and the rights of sexual minorities to reinstate a traditional model of the family as a natural, God-given, institution which is under attack. Jair Bolsonaro became President of Brazil with a campaign that targeted the rights of women and was abusive to the LGBTQI+ community. His campaign was supported by conservative Pentecostal groups and was accompanied by alarming increases in violent deaths related to homophobia alongside racialized violence and increased violence against women. Bolsonaro said his view derive from the Bible, “the toolbox to fix men and women“.

The authoritarian attack on gendered rights is not only found in states with unholy alliances with varieties of Christianity. Turkey, as part of its post-2016 coup launched a crackdown on civil society, put LGBTQI+ defenders in prison, and fired rubber bullets at a Pride march in Istanbul. Turkey’s president Erdogan consistently reinforces women’s traditional role within the family and society. ‘declaring that women are not equal to men …and that biological differences meant women and men could not serve the same functions, adding that manual work was unsuitable for the “delicate nature” of women’ (Agence France-Presse 2014). Here the resurgent nationalisms target Kurdish peoples, resulting in the horrifying attack on Kurdish communities within Syria. Migrants from Syria who are targets of the right across Europe are also vulnerable in Turkey. A recent AIDA Turkey report, suggests ‘the vulnerability of migrant women, especially of single women, to all types of sexual harassment and assault is high and invisible. This makes them a potential target of not only the local population … which are generally very conservative, but also of male public officials who mostly rely on the impunity tradition of the Turkish state.’ 

Within a larger attack on intellectual inquiry, gender theory, as a sphere of academic endeavour, has become demonised by religious leaders and alt right political parties as corrupting of the social order, and dangerous if taught in any form to children or young adults. In November 2017, while attending a conference in Sao Paulo Brazil which she had helped to organise, the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was faced with a protest in which her effigy was burned as a witch and she was accused of destroying the family. It appears that far right Christian groups organised the protests, and since then the countries far Right president Jair Bolsonaro, has initiated measures promising to combat “gender ideology”.

This attack was not an isolated event. In many other countries gender theory is being targeted. Anti-feminist campaigns, demonising so-called ‘gender ideology’, have been mobilised in various parts of the world, from Europe to the Americas to Australia. Gender studies has been effectively banned from universities in Hungary, a member state of the European Union. In Poland, another EU member state, gender is suddenly the focus of endless and heated debate. Poland’s Roman Catholic churches highlight gender theory as a threat to the family. The role of the Catholic Church is important here. From as far back as the 1990s, when the United Nations introduced the term gender into its documents, its use was attacked by some Catholic groups. However, in the last few years that attack has intensified. Pope Francis complains that ‘indoctrination in gender theory’ is going around the world, undermining the natural and God-given division between the sexes, and suggesting that sexual behaviour is not governed by objective moral norms.

What is clear in all these attacks is that gender theory is opposed because it is viewed as denying gender essentialism, suggesting that the divisions between the sexes, and the distinct characteristics and social positions assigned to each, are variable and susceptible to change. Gender theory, it is claimed, involves rejecting the naturalness of sexed difference, the primacy of the heterosexual family, and the fixity of gendered identity. In fact, while gender theory is a broad area of study, which includes many theorists who would endorse some versions of gender essentialism, the current politics of the right indicate the danger of gender essentialist positions. These apparently theoretical debates have highly political consequences. Alternatives to gender essentialism are explored in our book, Gender Theory in Troubled Times.


Kathleen Lennon is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hull. Rachel Alsop is Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of York. Their new book, Gender Theory in Troubled Times, is now available from Polity.