Backlash in feminism - Out of reverse gear


Violence against women, gender pay gap, homo hatred - the gender backlash is in full swing worldwide. That is why we need encouraging feminism.

Frauendemo in Chile

Marriage for all, third sex as option for civil status entry and possibly soon a constitutional change against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The World Health Organization has finally depathologized transgender, homosexuality has been legalized in India, and marriage for all has been officially recognized in Taiwan. The #MeToo debate is reaching more and more sectors, and in Ireland the right to abortion has been won through a referendum. Much of what women in particular have fought for since the 1960s seems to have been achieved. You might think: Everything is going pretty well for us feminists* and LGBTI activists*.

Unfortunately, it is not. The achievements have caused a strong counter reaction. In the technical language of gender politics, we are now talking about a massive backlash or a rollback. Why socio-political organizations such as the Heinrich-Böll- Foundation continue to keep gender policy and feminism as one of their main concerns on the agenda will be explained here in five theses.

Five theses on why gender policy has not been settled

Firstly, the gender backlash is in full swing worldwide and our achievements must be defended.

In 2019, abortion is being discussed over and over again in Germany. Paragraph 219a, once drafted by the National Socialists (Nazis), remains with a compromise despite considerable protests. Although doctors may in future, point out that they carry out abortions, they must refer to other then their own websites for further information. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn wants to implement a study to the tune of five million euros to prove the negative psychological effects of abortions.

In Hungary, gender studies have been banned as a subject of study; in Poland, sex education classes are to teach people that masturbating leads to porn addiction. In Tanzania pregnant girls are excluded from school. In Brazil, homophobic President Jair Bolsonaro, shortly after his election, ordered the Ministry of Education to close their Diversity Department and that references to sexuality, to LGBTI, to feminism and violence against women are to be banned from education. It remains to be seen whether the latest decision by the Brazilian Supreme Court, to recognize homophobia as a racist crime will change its policy. A few months ago Brunei implemented a law which allows people who have sex with same sex partners to be stoned to death.

Opponents of abortion try to influence UN delegates

We feminists* also observe that antifeminist rhetoric is increasingly normalizing. So the second thesis is: Global, ultraconservative alliances are trying to undermine human rights treaties - especially those that protect women's and LGBTI rights.

It can be observed worldwide how global alliances emerge in the ultra-conservative and fundamental-religious realms. Studies show that they now coordinate themselves extremely well and pool their resources. They are doing this frighteningly well through clever networking and uniform narratives.

Behind this are organizations like the "Centre for Family and Human Rights" or "Family Watch International" from the USA, but also the Vatican, the Russian Orthodox Church, or the organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations). For example, they influence UN delegates and tactically unite as an unholy alliance across religions, states and the usual alliances.

Gender policy too often gets nowhere

Family Watch, for example, develops briefings for UN delegates with titles such as "Binding Obligations of States to Protect the Family". These briefings set out the obligations of states to protect the family as an institution from what they call hidden dangers to life, family and children. The same organization publishes a handbook that translates as "What we have to know about homosexuality". This organization therefore always combines the protection of the family and the right to life with the fight against what it calls gender ideology.

The third thesis is therefore: A weakened multilateralism, diluted UN resolutions and the low binding effect of international conventions lead to a weakening of gender-political concerns.

So far, there have been a number of instruments that have obliged nation states for implementing gender policy. These include the UN Women's Rights Convention (CEDAW), which has been in place since 1981, the Yogyakarta Principles, which have concerned human rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identities since 2006, and the Istanbul Convention. The aim of this EU Council treaty is to protect women against domestic violence –a year ago Germany ratified the convention.

However, every third woman still experiences physical or verbal violence in the course of her life - mostly within, but often also outside a partnership. Sexual harassment does not appear at all in these statistics. In some regions, up to seven out of ten women suffer violence by their partner. In 2017, 87,000 women died violently worldwide. In more than half of the cases, the perpetrator was an intimate partner or a family member. Women are most at risk in African countries.

The rights of the LGBTI community have a signalling effect

Thesis number four: The situation of the LGBTI community is a good indicator of the overall human rights status of a society. Where the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, intersexuals and trans-people are undermined, the rights of other minorities as well as the rights of women are often attacked.

Only five countries in the world - Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Malta and Great Britain - have constitutions that explicitly guarantee equal rights for citizens* on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In at least 72 countries worldwide, homosexuality, intersexuality and transsexuality are criminalized; in at least 45 countries, LGBTIs have been imprisoned for their identity in the past three years. In eleven states, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Kenya, homosexuals had hoped for decriminalization until two days ago, but now a court has decided to retain the archaic laws of British colonial times.

The Internet as a mouthpiece for feminist concerns

The fifth thesis: Feminist mobilization works - digitally, but also still on the street. With the Hashtag MeToo, this mobilization has manifested itself globally and digitally in the last two years. Since then, the huge extent of sexual violence and everyday systematic inequality between the sexes has been discussed, and more hashtags have developed in different countries. In Spain, for example, under #CuéntaLo, in Brazil under #PrimeiroAssédioin and in the Ukraine under #Iamnotafraidtospeak, thousands of women have commented on their experiences with sexual violence. Sexual violence within organizations has been uncovered, many have given themselves internal guidelines on how to deal with it.

However, only 23.3 percent of all parliamentarians* worldwide are women and only 7.2 percent of heads of state. In the USA, there are more than 100 women in Congress - out of a total of 535 MPs - who are happy to say that this should not be a reason to rejoice as long as the Congress is not made up of equal numbers of women and men. Women in the EU still earn on average 16.1 percent less than men. The latest Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum shows that - at the current pace - women and men will not have the same chances on the labor market in Germany for another 217 years.

Compelling the backlash with solidarity

Since the backlash became so obvious, more and more young feminist organizations have organized around the world to counter this. They represent different social groups. They are committed to climate change and judicial reform, sexual and reproductive rights.

But, even within feminist movements there are debates, as can be seen from the debate on the so-called TERFs. The abbreviation stands for "Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists" and is used for feminists who do not accept trans persons and agitate against them.

But if we want to oppose this backlash, it is through solidarity. We need a worldwide feminist movement, across generations, across national borders, across genders and across possible political concerns, in order to counter the growing nationalism and anti-feminism. Only then can the three waves of feminism - marked in the 18th century by the ideas of the French Revolution, in the 60s by the desire for more participation and rights to self-determination, and in the 80s by the participation of the homosexual movement - be followed by a fourth wave.

Jana Prosinger ist Head of International Gender Policy and LGBTI Programme in the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.

This article was first published in German as a guest contribution on 26.05.2019 on