Why gender equality policies need to be more radical in hostile times

Prominent antifeminist mobilizations across Europe continue efforts to eclipse a feminist future. These mobilizations happen within a wider political project of autocratization, a systematic and visibly successful endeavor to change society.

The CCINDLE project focuses on how feminist responses to these mobilizations can be strengthened. This blog zooms in on one institutional base for feminist responses: gender equality policies. I asked myself: how well are existing gender equality policies in Europe equipped to respond to the current anti-gender campaigns? Gender equality policies have undoubtably brought successes, thanks to the relentless and hard work of many dedicated institutional feminists. They are based on negotiated feminist understandings of gender inequality that had to overcome loads of resistances. 

Yet, my argument here is that these understandings are a weak base for countering the anti-feminist autocratic project. This is a very serious and hard to solve problem. Articulating these problems, painful as it might be, can be a first step.

I see four problematic understandings that prevail in existing gender equality policies in Europe. They are articulated below to clarify what exactly is problematic, and to see where we could look for counter examples.

The first is the understanding of what issues of gender inequality are to be tackled. Anti-gender campaigns strongly target issues such as bodily and sexual autonomy, reproductive rights and heteronormativity. This has already resulted in problematic changes across Europe, restricting reproductive and sexual autonomy, and blocking sexual kinship rights. In contrast, gender equality policies are strong on economic issues (paid and unpaid labor), political representation issues (quota), gender-based violence issues and on addressing gendered stereotypes and norms. The lack of attention for bodies, sexuality and kinship in gender equality policies leaves gender equality policies ill equipped to respond to this core part of antifeminist mobilization. It also hinders coalitions with queer and anti-racist movements that are in the crosshairs of antifeminist mobilizations.

The second problem is the understanding of what gender is, and wat it is compared to sex. An example: Article 8 TFEU: “In all its activities, the Union shall aim to eliminate inequalities, and to promote equalities between men and women”. While the first part of that sentence gives space to call for the displacement of gender binary categories in societal organization, the second part cements the gender binary. We know that binary categories are a key ingredient of durable inequality. Whether seen as biological or as constructed as different through different lived experiences, binary gender categories pop up in every ‘equality between men and women’; It is also used as synonym for gender equality in gender equality policies, indicating their reformist approach. Strategies of displacement of binary gender categories, as well as coalitions of institutional feminism with more radical queer politics are impeded by this, as are adequate responses to anti-feminist campaigns, where anything but ‘biological’ sex is framed successfully as ‘gender ideology’.

Such understandings of gender cannot address anti-feminist campaigns that are based on a solid essentialist understanding of gender as binary biological sex, as firmly linked to sexual and social complementarity of ‘women’ and ‘men’, embedded in a nationalist sexual order that is a base for racist, homophobic and transphobic exclusions and dehumanizations.

The third problem is the lack of systemic understanding of social and political intersectionality, or how sexist oppression is related to other systems of oppression (although there are moves that could lead to stronger intersectional based policies, as in the EU directives on pay transparency and equality bodies). There is ample criticism on the flimsy way in which intersectional understandings of feminism are found in gender equality policies. Although this is a decades-old discussion, we are nowhere yet when it comes to a more fundamentally intersectional understanding of gender inequality as deeply intertwined with racism, classism, and cis-heteronormativity as other analytically distinguishable systems of oppression. Sadly, in gender equality policies, references to racism and xenophobia, to femo- and homonationalism are scarce, and as a result, intersectionality manifests itself mostly as attention to various forms of ‘diversity within the category of women’, and to various kinds of ‘vulnerable women’.

This problematic understanding of sexist oppression is a very deficient starting point to address the campaigns of the anti-feminist project with its coherent vision of autocratic led nations consisting of a natural order with nativist boundaries where, at most, some mitigations to the worst effects of capitalism can be expected for ‘selected’ groups of citizens. This too is hindering broader coalitions with queer and antiracist movements.

The fourth problem is especially problematic because of how deeply embedded the anti-gender project is in a wider political project of autocratization. This necessitates an understanding of democracy as deep democracy, and recognizing the problematic quality of current European democracies. Yet, all too often, in gender equality policies, democracy merely pops up as political representation in already existing institutions, as the need for more ‘women in politics’, and much more rarely as support for feminist civil society. One relevant flaw is the prevalence of technocratic approaches to policymaking, rather than participatory engagement with feminists and other inequality fighting social movements. Other flaws of European democracies, such as colonial or fascist legacies  are hardly in focus either, obscuring very relevant intersectional dimensions. The shallow understanding of democracy limiting its attention to the number of women in politics, neglecting participatory policy processes and obscuring problematic intersections, does not create spaces for highly needed struggles about feminism. Combined with a blindness towards intersectional dimensions of problematic legacies, this leaves gender equality policies ill equipped to counter the autocratic nature of the anti-feminist project. While it is certainly scary to open up the can of worms that ongoing feminist struggle is, it is also what keeps feminism as a movement alive and capable to address the changing and complex nature of sexist oppression, in the current intensification of anti-feminist mobilizations we see expanding across Europe by coalitions of power holding actors.

I am sorry this blog has given such a sad rendering of how mainstream gender equality policies are ill equipped to engage with the current anti-feminist project in Europe. It is a very sketchy rendering that does not dive into initiatives that are exceptions to this. We need to focus on those to radicalize gender equality policies to counteract the autocratic antifeminist societal project. We surely see better conditions for engagement in feminist movement responses, with stronger sets of actors that pay attention to issues of bodies, sexualities and kinship, that displace the binary, that are more aware of and actually practice intersectionality as a systemic dimension of sexist oppression, and that are more fundamentally critical of the democracies they are functioning in.

We know that at the level of feminist agency in political institutions, there are people pushing gender equality policies beyond its current limits. They create viable alternatives. Constructing alternatives from the margins shows that feminist futures are possible. Coming work in CCINDLE is looking into this. Follow us and stay tuned for further CCINDLE blogs!

By Mieke Verloo