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Combating gendered violence in the face of right-wing populism

In my 2013 book, I noted a troubling trend in the trajectory of European Union policy. The 1990s and early 2000s had been characterized by important victories for a dynamic network of transnational feminists. Advocates from a wide array of countries utilized the various political opportunities of multilevel governance to push for European legislation framing gendered violence as a widespread problem in Europe. Furthermore, the network was able to secure invaluable resources aimed at facilitating the growth and capacity of advocacy organizations. A significant shift began, however, with the conservative turn of the Commission in 2004. In Commission documents, gendered violence was reframed in more narrow terms and focused on “cultural” forms of violence such as “honor killings” and “female genital mutilation.” In this new framing, less emphasis was placed on gendered violence as a “European” problem impacting women from all social locations, and more as something “foreign” or “imported.” The strongest and most comprehensive actions and initiatives addressing violence against women by the Commission during this time period were those aimed at addressing the issue in countries outside of the European Union, including prospective member states as well as developing countries receiving European foreign aid. Programming that had previously focused on building capacity throughout existing European member states was quietly defunded and/or folded into other initiatives.

This reframing of violence using simplistic and essentialist understandings of “culture” is harmful in several ways. First and foremost, this reframing is rooted in and reinforces xenophobic and racist discourses. The culturalization of violence serves to justify and further the marginalization of already vulnerable groups, positing “other” women as perennial victims and men as the “barbaric other” (a tendency noted in the seminal piece by Spivak 1988). Here, women’s rights and human rights discourse are co-opted to construct and racialize others as being apart from and less than. European culture is characterized as upholding women’s rights and “other” cultures are seen as violating them. If the concern is for women in immigrant and minority communities, feeding into these oppressive discourses is not making them safer. Using one axis of oppression to justify oppression along another dimension does not reduce, but increases the precarity of their societal positioning. Furthermore, it increases the precarity of all women. This shift to focusing on specific culturalized forms of violence is a shift away from the gendered violence broadly experienced by all groups of women. It is a reactionary unraveling of efforts to make gendered violence visible and denormalize the most common manifestations of it. Culturalized framing incorrectly locates gendered violence as occurring outside of “European” communities in direct contradiction to the plentiful evidence that gendered violence is indeed prevalent in even the most gender egalitarian of European countries. When gendered violence is no longer visible as a salient problem within European society, then it is easier to take away the necessary resources to combat it.

 Fighting for women’s rights but ignoring or even allowing other forms of oppression to exist means that the movement is not truly fighting for all women’s rights.

Several years later, this toxic trend has continued, exacerbated by the growing resurgence of nationalistic populism and its accompanying xenophobia and racism. The economic crisis, followed by the refugee crisis have facilitated a rise in right-wing nationalism not only in Europe, but also in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic we see the co-option and reframing of feminist and human rights discourses about gendered violence to further exclusionary agendas. During his campaign, then presidential candidate Donald Trump characterized Mexicans as rapists and then repeatedly called for building a wall to keep them out of the United States. After the shooting in a gay night club in Miami, he characterized Islam as incompatible with Western values and institutions, stating “Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay, and Anti-American” before calling for a broad ban on Muslims coming into the United States. This rhetoric has continued since he has taken office, and has even utilized the unsubstantiated propaganda circulated by right wing groups in Europe, associating refugees with rising rates of rape in Sweden and Germany. At the same time Trump has been touting women’s rights and LGBTQ rights against immigrant groups, his administration has been swiftly undermining legislation and programs aimed at upholding these rights. One of his first executive actions cut the funding for the Violence against Women Act’s grant program. A month later his administration rescinded an important regulatory document establishing transgender protections under education policy. While seemingly inconsistent, these types of contradictions are characteristic of the culturalizing trend, as is the disconnect regarding the politician’s own alleged actions and attitudes towards women. The violence of the constructed other is pathologized, thus justifying their othering, while the violence of the dominant group is normalized and excused.

The seriousness of this trend and its detrimental impact on efforts to combat gendered violence should not be underestimated. It is imperative that advocates resist these exclusionary narratives. That resistance starts by reviewing the strategies, tactics, and discourse within social movements seeking to combat gender violence. Efforts that only focus on a the single-axis of gender oppression, miss the multitude of ways that gendered violence is experienced in concert with racism, xenophobia, homophobia, classism, and other forms of oppression. Prioritizing one dimension of oppression over others leaves a movement more vulnerable to having its message and cause co-opted. Fighting for women’s rights but ignoring or even allowing other forms of oppression to exist means that the movement is not truly fighting for all women’s rights. This not only undermines potential solidarities necessary for a strong movement, but it can become the basis for undermining the goal of combating gender violence altogether. Resisting this trend is imperative to effectively combating gendered violence.

Featured image credit: Protest Against DSK at the Cambridge Union Society by Devon Buchanan. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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