Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Commentaries Doing feminism in times of anti-gender mobilizations

The authors argue that the current situation of neoliberal capitalism, nationalism, anti-feminism, and racism poses similar (but not identical) threats in different parts of the world, which in turn structures parallel but locally performed resistance. Efforts to create feminist unity in the name of gender studies across different sets of borders also inevitably unveils the cracks and differences dividing feminist communities.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:1 pp 85-88
Published on on May 26, 2020

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This current rise of conservative and illiberal politics, militarization and suppression of the voices of activists and feminist scholars makes it necessary to mobilize an ethic of solidarity to counter the growing movements against transnational feminist knowledge and equality within the European context and other parts of the world. Within the realm of this themed issue, we therefore want to comment on what role academia could take in terms of forming transnational allies to protect against the threats to academic freedom posed by the diverse mobilizations of anti-feminist and anti-gender movements.

While opposition to feminist struggles and gender equality policies has a long history, recent developments mark a distinctly new phase, establishing new regimes of oppression. These regimes of oppression include personal attacks on scholars, cutting funding for research on gender, and attempts to de-legitimize gender studies as merely “ideology” and as a threat to society’s well-being and development. Accordingly, anti-feminist narratives are also promulgated by movements that hold feminism responsible for the “emasculation” of men and for the “collapse” of the Western values system through immigration and multiculturalism. As a result, (anti-Muslim) racism and anti-feminism often coincide. Such discourses co-opt various achievements in (gender) equality won through women’s struggles. Although nationalist movements usually propagate solutions and policies which are against women’s interest, they are often articulated under the banner of the gender equality rhetoric. Therefore, it is also necessary to take into consideration how elements of feminism are appropriated by anti-gender discourses, for example, the role of conservative women’s groups in producing and reproducing anti-gender discourse under the label of feminism.

This is a core reason for us to formulate how we do feminism guided by an ethic of solidarity. The different nationalist and conservative challenges we, as feminists, are exposed to qualifies Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s claim that it has never been so difficult, yet so necessary, to create feminist alliances across geographic, cultural, social, and religious boundaries. We see it as especially important to continue the discussion of what the differences in our experiences in the different countries can bring to the table when continuing our efforts to create feminist alliances and movements of solidary across various borders and boundaries of oppression. At this moment in time, we see that certain feminist arguments easily converge with some of the arguments within different mobilizations of civil rights/identity politics and anti-capitalism/anti-colonialism politics. We can see that exploring the forms and dynamics of gender and gender equality has been transformed into the production of forms of femonationalism, a term Sara Farris used to describe the mobilizations of women’s rights and gender equality organizations that campaign against Islam and Muslim migrants, supported by both left- and right-wing political parties in Europe.

The current situation of neoliberal capitalism, nationalism, anti-feminism, and racism poses similar (but not identical) threats in different parts of the world, which in turn structures parallel but locally performed resistance. Efforts to create feminist unity in the name of gender studies across different sets of borders also inevitably unveils the cracks and differences dividing feminist communities. How do we account for this while doing solidarity that can cut across regimes of oppression? What are the conditions for the possibility of engaging in cross-border scholarly cooperation? What are the ways in which we can challenge the different kinds of brick walls that we experience in institutional, national, and other contexts, and that we need to go up against when establishing transnational cooperation?

Multiple regimes of oppression

Together with established academics, activists, gender practitioners and public intellectuals from across the EU and beyond, we have created a network which works as a platform for examining conceptual, empirical and political issues involved in the rise and development of anti-genderism across Europe, from an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective. Initially, a smaller group was formed from within the network, gathering feminist scholars from Hungary, Turkey, UK, Sweden and Poland. In some of these countries, anti-gender mobilization is well underway, and a turn towards elected authoritarian has been fairly successful. In other countries, this trend is less visible but, nevertheless, present. Our position as gender scholars is not directly threatened in Swedish universities at this time, and we have therefore tried to use the platform that we have at the Forum for Gender Studies (FGV) at Mid Sweden University to facilitate meetings where feminist experiences from different national contexts can be shared.

The work done in the network is first and foremost focused on exploring the ways in how we could act in solidarity across different borders. This border-crossing work includes crossing national borders, but also disciplines, research fields and various cultural borders. We gather experiences across Europe; east to west, south to north. The group initially met for workshops and planning meetings in Stockholm in 2017 and in Ankara in 2018 under the title of Building a European network for feminist solidarities across regimes of oppression. By the time our first workshop began, the situation in Turkey had grown urgent. From the time the declaration of emergency was declared in July 2016, universities have witnessed a tremendous purge in Turkey. Derya Keskin, formerly at Kocaeli University in Turkey, summarized the events in a commentary in Baltic Worlds 2018, noting that in line with the government’s views, most of the university administrations around the country had been trying to get rid of critical voices and the state dismissed thousands of university staff, mostly academics. In a Nordic, and specifically Swedish context, anti-genderism has its own peculiar and complex figuration that transcends and challenges political divides beyond conservative and nationalistic ideologies. During the last few years, we and other scholars have noticed how such mobilisations are articulated in the Swedish context. One example is the increased mainstream media space given to anti-gender writers and debaters. Although anti-gender protests are central to the formation of nationalist and conservative political agendas, in the Swedish case, the perception that “gender ideology” as a threat to universities, education and freedom of expression is also especially salient. We also followed the events in Poland where massive marches for women’s rights were being held during this time. Much of the feminist response to anti-gender politics was focused around abortion rights, since this was, and still remains, a core topic in Poland. Following the Polish case, Agnieszka Graff and Elzbieta Korolczuk illuminated that a common rhetorical trope in anti-gender politics is that gender ideology is an ‘import’ from abroad (in other words western and ‘globalist’) that is being ‘imposed’ from above by the UN or EU, or in some countries through the state itself. The sense of threat is commonly instilled by the use of effectively laden metaphors related to extinction, such as disease, war, and genocide.

One of the workshop’s strengths was the ability to compare events in different countries as they evolved. At that time, gender studies were under threat at Hungarian universities but had not yet been banned, as happened later in 2018. The first-hand awareness of the situation in Hungary created through the project, however, made it easy to stand in solidarity with Hungarian university professors against the banning of gender studies programmes. The experiences from this project revealed both the similarities and differences in the challenges feminist activists and gender scholars faced on local levels in terms of resisting anti-gender campaigns. Some workshop participants felt that their former activist repertoire of resistance needed to be expanded to include new strategies since their space for action had become so reduced. Our standpoint is that these challenges need to be addressed through transnational solidarity among the variety of feminist- and anti-racist struggles in local settings, and it needs to be guided by awareness of the different conditions that anti-gender initiatives create under different contexts. Locally based struggles that develop in response to specific oppressive regimes are important sites, but they might be limited when it comes to challenging the extra-local processes that shape them. As feminist scholars, we have the responsibility to promote a just and equal society beyond our own national contexts, but we also have the responsibility to act in the present and to voice criticism against the culture of extreme individualism and competition and against sexism, racism, and fascism. This will contribute to strengthening and supporting the peaceful movements for human rights — including women’s, children’s, and LGBTQI+ rights — that are crucial in order for democratic societies to flourish. We therefore need to further explore the ways in which we can share this feminist space beyond the borders of the university as well as beyond national contexts.

Feminist scholars around the world have discussed the question of how to make networks of solidarity that are effective across different kinds of regimes of oppression; we are by no means the first to take on the issue. We also know that efforts to create feminist unity in the name of gender studies across different sets of borders inevitably unveils the cracks and differences dividing feminist communities. But we believe that cross-border scholarly cooperation to build alliances which can counteract threats to democracy is necessary. The struggle for a more just, equal and democratic world is not over, and there is a need for alternative visions, as well as various alliances where such visions can be developed and practiced. Philomena Essed points out that social justice work is a kind of leadership. The network has been a way for us to explore how we can actually build such alliances and take on that kind of leadership role.

Actions of solidarity

An outcome of the project was that we identified a set of questions that can guide transnational feminism and solidarity across regimes of oppression and anti-genderism. These questions addressed 1) What the connections between current illiberal trends and opposition to gender equality and human rights are in different contexts. 2) What the most important points of critique and strategies for resistance against anti-genderism and illiberal movements can be and how they can change across time; 3) What the similarities and differences in the patterns of threats against gender studies and feminist activists across national and institutional borders are and; 4) How feminist theory and practice contribute to counteracting anti-gender mobilizations.

Speaking from the context of Swedish academia, the pilot project has been a very important means for us to compare and mirror the different experiences of anti-gender mobilization and conservatism in different national and regional contexts. When working with colleagues from, for example, Russia, Hungary, and Turkey, we have become aware of the fact that in the ongoing struggle for discursive-material power, we must acknowledge and use the institutional positions we currently occupy to create space across regimes of oppression. We have seen that when universities ban gender studies or when scholars are deemed criminals for asking for peace and freedom, cooperation between large scale institutions is not enough. More flexible forms of cooperation need to be made possible. We believe that one of the ways to build solidarity across different regimes of oppression is to decolonize the hegemonic feminism and instead identify, acknowledge and share our different spaces for action.

Our overall comment to the ongoing and diverse processes of multiple anti-gender mobilizations is however that research that map and define the differences between them will continuously be extremely important. But at the same time, for constructive resistance against them, we need practices of solidary that also can go across these differences.


  1. D. Mulinari and A. Nergaard, “The Sweden Democrats, racisms and the construction of the Muslim threat” in G. Morgan and S. Poynting, Global Islamophobia: Muslims and Moral Panic in the West. (Ashgate Walton, S. J, 2012) Anti-feminism and Misogyny in Breivik’s ’Manifesto’, Nora, 20(4):11.
  2. For the case of Sweden see e.g. D. Mulinari, “Gender equality under threat? Exploring the dilemmas of an Ethno-Nationalist Political party”, in L. Martinsson, G. Griffin, & K. Giritli Nygren (Eds.), Challenging the myth of gender equality in Sweden (Bristol: Policy Press, 2016), 137—162; and for the cases of France, Italy and Netherlands see S. Farris, In the name of women’s rights. The rise of femonationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
  3. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique,” Signs, (2013) 38:4, 967—991.
  4. S. Farris, In the name of women’s rights. The rise of femonationalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
  5. D. Keskin, “Criminalizaton of women’s mobilization & the punishing of gender studies”, in the themed issue “Threats Against Academic Freedom” Baltic Worlds, (2018), vol. XI, no. 4: 16—19.
  6. See for example the themed issue “Gender Equality and Beyond: At the Crossroads of Neoliberalism, Anti-Gender Movements, “European” Values, and Normative Reiterations in the Nordic Model”, ed. L. Martinsson, K. Giritli Nygren, and D. Mulinari, Social Inclusion, (2018), vol. 6, no.4: 1—7.
  7. A. Graff & E. Korolczuk, “Gender as ‘Ebola from Brussels’: The Anti-colonial Frame and the Rise of Illiberal Populism”, Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society (2018), 43(4): 797—821.
  8. See C. Kaplan and I. Grewal, “Transnational Feminist Cultural studies: Beyond the Marxism/ Poststructuralism /Feminism Divides,” in ed. Kaplan et al., Between Women and Nation. Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms and the State, (Duke University Press, 2002).
  9. M. Fotaki and N. Harding, Gender and the Organization. Women At Work in the 21st Century (London: Routledge, 2018).
  10. P. Essed, “Women social justice scholars: risks and rewards of committing to anti-racism”, Ethnic and Racial Studies Review, (2013), 36,9: 1393—1410.