By LEÏLA PRUD’HOMME,
2nd-year student in the European Campus of NANCY
Over the last months, the domain of gender studies has been touched by several backlashes. As gender theories experience a new effervescence and democratization, radical opponents are also organizing themselves to undermine gender theories and safeguard heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinities. Examples of backlash can be seen in Romania and Denmark, where pressures have been put on the teaching of gender studies, in Hungary where the elimination of the field from the Hungarian public schools has been voted, in Poland where trans-free spaces are in place and in Turkey since it withdrew from the Istanbul convention whose aim was to protect women and children from domestic violence. Those events are not minor or isolated and are part of larger anti-gender movements, whose ideology opposes gender on three levels: as a concept i.e., as a social construct, as an ideology/theory i.e., as opposing the dogmatic social positions, and as a social practice and political project, i.e. as a quest for an organization of society lacking gender-based discrimination and violence. It is also interesting to observe that anti-gender ideas are mainly promoted by right-wing populists or ultra-conservative religious movements and that the means used by the latter are recycled by anti-genderism to (re)organize and (re)affirm itself.
The following article aims at highlighting the intertwinements present in matters of origins, goals and means between anti-gender ideology, neoliberalism and right-wing populism.
The anti-gender ideology: a defender of the divine traditional family and natural hegemonic masculinity in line with the neoliberal vision.
The increasing precarity and social inequalities occurring under neoliberalism made room for social and economic anxieties within societies. As Grzebalska, Kováts and Pető argue, opposition to ‘gender ideology’ “has become a means of rejecting different facets of the current socioeconomic order, from the prioritization of identity politics over material issues, and the weakening of people’s social, cultural and political security, to the detachment of social and political elites and the influence of transnational institutions and the global economy on nation-states.” Indeed, as neoliberalism encouraged the vanishing of social services, the family was erected as the last mean to provide for individuals. As Wendy Brown argues, the indispensability of the family was supported by neoconservatives such as Kristol and Hayek who believed that ‘traditional values’ are essential complements to the free market in a consumerist society in order to ensure social stability and moral meaning. This reaffirmed patriarchal norms and care work within the family and troubled emancipation from this social cell. Since gender questions among other things the social organization of the family, it is seen as a destructive force of the latter organization. This phenomenon is emphasized by the erosion of the community once again favoured by neoliberalism. To a certain extent, the Second Act of the Second Wave of Feminism (80s) also has its part of responsibility: it put aside the economical critics and call for redistribution expressed by the First Act (60s) to focus mainly on recognition and cultural politics following a post-socialist momentum.
Anti-genderism aims to reverse the progressive legislation won in the last decades by LGBTQI+ and feminist movements. In attacking ‘gender’, Butler argues that
“[Anti-gender movements] oppose reproductive freedom for women and the rights of single parents; they oppose protections for women against rape and domestic violence; and they deny the legal and social rights of trans people along with a full array of legal and institutional safeguards against gender discrimination, forced psychiatric internment, brutal physical harassment and killing.”.
Those progressive measures occurred following the Sexual Revolution, meaning the modern feminist struggles for the rights of sexual minorities. This, in turn, is seen by the anti-gender ideology as a dissolution of the ‘natural order’, i.e. the difference between men and women that make society function properly.
Thus, anti-gender ideology erects itself as the protector of both the natural or divine heteronormative family and hegemonic masculinity. As gender challenges biological sex and undermines the normative character of heterosexuality, it frightens people worried that men will lose their dominant position. The questioning of the social status of men in general and the role of the father in the family is not acceptable for people rejecting the concept of social construct. In a speech given in 2019 in Verona, Ignatio Arsuaga, who is one founder of the pro-life and anti-gay marriage organizations HazteOir and CitizenGo claims that the enemies of the family include “Gramscians, leftists, cultural Marxists, radical feminists [and] LGBT totalitarians who want to control our sons and daughters, who want to shut us up”. Gender studies have inherited a lot from the materialist Marxist tradition, also they cannot be compatible with ideologies believing in the natural organization of social relations.
This disregard of scientific truth by the use of contradictory arguments is another feature of anti-gender ideology that links it to neoliberalism. As anti-genderism rejects the concept of social construct, it is unable to understand the work of gender studies scholars. Thus, the critics addressed to the latter are based on thin and phantasmagoric caricatures. The rhetorical strategies mobilized by anti-genderism are typical of fascist movements since they aim at maximizing the fear of infiltration and the destruction of the alleged dominant culture. Umberto Eco argues that “the fascist game can be played in many forms” and that fascism is “a collage, a beehive of contradiction”. Therefore, fascism encourages reactionary attitudes, composed of irrational claims and incoherent accusations. This scorn for truth is shared by neoliberalism since it considers that the limited reasoning capacity of the masses prevents them from attaining the truth. We can here think about Trump that openly spread false information. It is no surprise that the contempt of truth leads to the discrediting of scientific reasoning and this of social sciences and gender studies.
Anti-gender movements: a ‘symbolic glue’ bringing together various actors and ideas on the right.
I chose to divide the anti-gender ideology and movement in my structure in an attempt to provide a better understanding of the differences between the ideological roots of anti-genderism mainly based on natural or divine assumptions, and the concrete strategies of anti-gender movements, that are deeply intertwined with those of right-wing populists.
First of all, anti-gender movements are in the business of nation-building. They reject social modernity and liberal progress in favour of white supremacy, the heteronormative family and against all critical questioning of norms; which is why they reject scholar fields such as gender studies, postcolonial studies or critical race theory because they are seen as inducting an infrastructural collapse. On that matter, Eastern and Central European scholars such as Hodžic and Bijelic have observed anti-genderism primarily as a political strategy, a way to oppose “laws and policies concerning sexual and reproductive health and rights in the European Union”.
Second of all, in the same manner as neoliberalism and fascism, anti-gender movements are in favour of strong governments. Following the conception of its founding-fathers Rougier and Lippmann, neoliberalism needs a strong state (equipped with repressive police) to maintain “a legal order such as the possibility of free competition is always safeguarded ”. Later, neoconservatives such as Hayek and Kristol theorized that ‘traditional values’ should be promoted by the government in schools, families and civic spaces in order to counteract the nihilist and moral degeneracy that accompanies consumerism. The pattern which induces the paternalistic state is perpetuated by anti-gender movements by encouraging the intervention of the state in university programs, the censoring of the press, arts and television programs, the negation of trans people of their legal rights, the ban of LGBTQI+ people from public spaces, the undermining of reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at children, women and LGTBQI+ people. The Russian “gay propaganda law” of 2013 is an example of authoritarian measures to undermine education and support services to LGBTQI+ youths.
On one hand, ultra-conservative religious institutions such as the Evangelical Christianity or highly conservative Islamist governments (i.e. Egypt and Saudi Arabia) are evenly restricting women’s control over their bodies, fertility and forbidding gender non-conforming people and LGBT people their rights to protection against violence and discrimination. We can here think about the 2017 ‘rainbow flag arrests’ following a concert in Cairo. Anja Hennig argues that “Religious and political opponents of gender-sensitive reforms reject “gender” as a social category because it clashes with a naturalist hierarchical understanding of gender relations and with the anti-pluralist conception of a homogeneous society and/or nation.”. Therefore, anti-gender movements can be viewed as a ‘symbolic glue’ bringing together various actors and ideas on the right.
On the other hand, what Graff and Korolczuk call an “opportunistic synergy” is easily occurring between anti-gender and right-wing populist movements, as both trends are born in reaction to the crisis of the neoliberal model. Populist parties such as Vox in Spain and Lega in Italy work with ultraconservative networks such as CitizenGo or the International Organization for the Family to include anti-gender measures and engage in large-scale campaigns against women’s and transgender’s rights in their political agenda.
Likewise, Sauer argues that anti-gender movements use populist means to reaffirm masculinity “by offering points of reference for the reestablishment of traditional gender constellations and for the abolishment of gender equality”. For instance, the use of a charismatic leader such as Salvini in Italy might increase the self-confidence of subordinate masculinities. Furthermore, contemporary anti-gender discourse is (re)arranged as a populist discourse, in that it constantly opposes innocent, gender-conservative people, whose interests it defends, to corrupt, depraved elites spreading ‘gender ideology’. Graff writes “Anti-gender actors consistently position themselves as warriors for justice and defenders of ordinary people against the corporate greed of global capital.”. Therefore, anti-gender movements list the UN, the World Health Organization, pharmaceutical companies commercializing contraception and medical establishments proposing IVF and abortion, aside from Bill Gates and George Soros, as their enemies.
To conclude, anti-genderism and anti-gender movements are not only based on a misunderstanding of the concept of gender, but also on opposition to the emancipation from dogmatic social positions that propose gender studies. Thus, as we accentuate our effort in explaining the core and goals of gender studies, we must show no tolerance to populist and religious ultraconservatives which strategize the discrediting of scientific truths, in an effort to make the people understand that they do not get to decide over women’s and LGBTQI+’s bodies, sexuality and lives. Moreover, feminists of the third Act of the Second Wave bear the responsibility of not reproducing the previous errors of exclusion and domination. As Nancy Fraser argues, the third Act must struggle “simultaneously on three fronts […] redistribution, recognition, and representation”, which means it should be intersectional and join with other anti-capitalist forces.
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