Anti-feminist agenda being exploited for political gain
The achievements made over recent decades in favor of women’s rights and gender equality have been remarkable. Governments and organizations alike have been hailed for their strong stances in empowering women and embracing their potential. Laws have been amended, services provided and rights protected.
Recently, however, the rhetoric around women’s rights has been adverse for reasons of political gain. In fact, we are observing an erosion of the previously gained women’s rights in some parts of the world and an increase in anti-feminist sentiment, which is being exploited by political groups.
The South Korean president-elect has made the issue of gender equality a cornerstone of his election campaign. Yoon Suk-yeol capitalized on the anti-feminist movement to win last month’s presidential election and will become South Korea’s next leader. He successfully exploited the disgruntled male base, who are increasingly concerned about losing opportunities to women.
In his campaign, Yoon pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which is responsible for promoting and protecting women, youths and families, although he has now backtracked on this promise. Yoon also promised to scrap gender quotas for public sector jobs and to raise wages for military recruits.
In Europe, as far-right populists and conservatives gain more traction and become further entrenched in political institutions, rhetoric around anti-feminism is strongly becoming a winning strategy. Right-wing politicians understand that many gender-related issues are more likely to resonate with society’s mainstream debates, such as the right to abortion, employment quotas and protective rights, without having to resort to extreme xenophobic and racist chants, for example.
A few years ago, a project on gender equality by UNESCO was blocked by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and later by the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science. In Hungary, university programs in gender studies have been banned. In Germany, Alternative for Germany — the first far-right party to enter parliament — promised to stop all gender studies-related funding and research. In Spain, the right-wing party Vox, which has four of the country’s 59 seats in the European Parliament, has risen to prominence on the back of hard-line ideologies, including being anti-immigration and traditionalist. The party has vocally championed repealing Spain’s gender violence law and restricting the right to abortion.
Right-wing politicians understand that many gender-related issues are more likely to resonate with society’s mainstream debates.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
Closer to home, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have accelerated their plans to achieve gender equality. At the center of the political discourse, both governments have capitalized on a long-untapped resource and put the female agenda at the forefront of employment, education, politics, technology and soft power.
In the past six years, Saudi Arabia has introduced various laws designed to promote women’s rights. Last month, for example, the Saudi Cabinet approved the new personal status law with the aim of making families more stable, further empowering women and promoting civil rights. The law helps divorced women become the legal guardians of their children, guarantees their right to alimony, and grants them child support. Also, women can travel, marry and run their family affairs with full independence. The changes have been strongly supported by the youth, specifically the female base.
On the other hand, particularly in Kuwait, the picture seems to be bleak. Kuwait has always been a beacon of progressiveness and empowerment for women. The last couple of years, however, have seen a clear regression. The debate over various women’s issues has been exploited to garner support from ultraconservatives during many political discussions.
Earlier this year, the Kuwaiti Defense Ministry announced that women can enlist in the army starting in the fall, but with very constraining conditions listed by the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs. For example, women can join but only in noncombat roles. They cannot hold any arms. They also require consent from a male guardian to enlist.
Despite passing a domestic violence law in 2020 that set the minimum standard and legal protection procedures for victims of domestic violence, attitudinal challenges facing women in Kuwait are worrisome. The cultural war to constrain women’s lifestyles and freedoms has become a political discourse.
Debating feminism and anti-feminism is not a function of gender but of politics. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in hostility toward gender equality from right-wing and conservative political groups, which are banking on the growing discomfort of some groups. The notion that anti-feminism aligns with core traditional and social values has been manipulated successfully in many areas. As such, it is important to be aware of how political parties and individuals exploit that agenda for political gain.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik