Gender, religion and identity conundrums and the rise of populism and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America

ICON-S 2021 Conference

By Silvia Gagliardi

“Public Law, (Dis)trust and Dissent”

 ‘Gender, religion and identity conundrums and the rise of populism and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America’

In the context of the 2021 ICON-S Conference ‘Mundo’ on ‘Public Law, (Dis)trust and Dissent’, members of the ERC-funded FIAT project convened and chaired a panel to discuss ‘Gender, religion and identity conundrums and the rise of populism and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America’. The panel attempted to answer the following key question: what role do gender, religion and identity discourses and legal reforms play in relation to the rise of populism and nationalism in these two regions of the world? To respond to this question, the panel aimed to examine the intersections between populism, ‘femonationalism’, feminist politics and religion in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The panel also set out to investigate how nationalists (including femo- and ethno-nationalists) and nativists contribute to, perpetuate, and participate in Othering discourses and extreme populist narratives targeting ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. Finally, the panel was asked to consider the impact of discrimination and/or hate crimes onto individuals/groups in CEE & Latin America, as well as the socio-legal and political crises engendered by reforms affecting gender, religion and identity and their global repercussions.

Against a growing obsession with the so-called ‘gender ideology’ – the origins of which can be traced in the 1990s conceptualisation of it by the Vatican, specifically through the ‘role of the popes in the invention of complementarity and the Vatican’s anathematization of gender‘- the panel zoomed in on the anti-gender movement, also referred to as ‘anti-genderism’. The first paper was jointly presented by Julia Roth (Bielefeld University, Germany) and Ligia Fabris (Rio de Janeiro Law School of Getulio Vargas Foundation). The title of the paper was ‘Gendered Patterns of Contestation to Women’s and Gender Rights in Latin America: Trans Rights in Brazil as an Exemplary Case’. This paper shed light onto the ways in which the discourse on struggles over transgender rights in Brazil functions as an exemplary case that substantiates and allows us to understand the issues at stake in the ongoing global contestations of women’s and gender rights more broadly.

This paper carved out a set of ‘patterns of gendering’ that can currently be observed in right-wing populist discourse. These include the ‘ethno-sexist’ projection of sexism and homophobia onto Others, femonationalist alliances of women and feminists with right-wing projects, or the opposition to ‘gender ideology’. The latter, perceived as ‘ideological colonization’, is presented as an ‘existential threat’ to the nuclear, heteronormative family and the (homogenous) nation. Producing a number of ‘dynamic paradoxes’ that are constitutive for the ‘New Right’, these patterns demonstrate how gender and sexuality function as a lens, an affective bridge, and an arena in the current struggles over hegemony in neoliberal settings. As an exemplary case from Latin America, the paper used the analytical framework built in the first part to analyse the discourse on trans* rights in Brazil and to examine what the debate on trans* rights tells us about ‘negotiations and normativities and hegemonic masculinities and femininities’. 

The second paper was presented by Agnieszka Graff (University of Warsaw) and was titled ‘Anti-gender Mobilization and Right-Wing Populism, Eastern Europe and Beyond’. The paper argued that the anti-gender movement is a well-networked transnational phenomenon, a global countermovement against gender equality. Unlike earlier waves of anti-feminist backlash, the paper posited, the anti-gender movement operates by demonising the very concept of gender: gender ideology is compared to totalitarian systems and described as a threat to Judeo-Christian civilisation. The anti-gender campaigns begin as interventions in specific policy debates targeting e.g. sex-education, same-sex marriage, legal abortion, divorce, trans-rights and the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (Istanbul Convention). The populist frame is persistently employed: propagators of ‘gender ideology’ are presented as corrupt elites, enemies of the common man. This facilitates alliances between religious and non-religious actors. Although the phenomena of right-wing populism and the anti-gender movement interact and often overlap, the paper argues that they are separate actors. Finally, this paper examined the historical sources of the anti-gender movement, its key aims and strategies, and the synergy between religious fundamentalists and right-wing populist parties. It also explained why Eastern Europe holds a special place in the anti-gender movement’s imaginary and its strategy.

The third paper was presented by Dorota Szelewa (University College Dublin) and focused on ‘Gender, Right-Wing Populism and Family Policy Discourses in Hungary and in Poland’. Coming from a comparative research perspective on gender and social policy, this paper analysed the recent reforms and discourses about gender roles as produced by the right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland. In the context of a rapid demographic decline that took place in nearly all Eastern European countries, the paper explained, women started to be predominantly perceived through their reproductive functions. In Hungary, pro-natalist policies providing financial incentives for women to have more children were intensified under the slogans of ‘demographic revolution of the middle class’, while blaming women for falling fertility rates. In Poland, aligned with the Catholic Church, the new government has openly attacked the notion of gender, assisted the introduction of an almost complete abortion ban, at the same time investing heavily in family policies. This paper argued that these developments can be interpreted as re-building and strengthening national identities, using Yuval-Davis’s framework of gendered nationalism.

Commonalities and patterns were found in the ways that the anti-gender movement globally rallies against gender justice, women’s and sexual minorities’ rights, including their rights, inter alia, to non-discrimination and equality in law and practice, their sexual and reproductive health rights and their right to bodily integrity, to mention but a few.  Some ‘usual suspects’ were identified by the panel as ‘enemies of the people’ and advocates of ‘abnormal practices’ that go against the ‘laws of God and men’. These othered agents of disruption of traditional mores and societal values included, among others, communists, immigrants, LGBTI individuals, feminists, Muslims, and foreign agents; however, they seem to vary from context to context depending on the political and social narratives and needs of the elites using them for their specific aims. From the discussions arising within the panel, it emerged that child and women’s protection arguments are used as pretexts to curb or ban the spread and usage of inclusive and non-discriminatory sex education in schools, under the banner of protecting society from paedophiles and other ‘deviant’ people. Characterising ‘gender ideology’ as an ‘existential threat’ while ‘fetishising fertility’, family occupies a central role at the heart of the political project that is ‘anti-genderism’.