New courage instead of new taboos - overcoming dilemmas of gender politics in the EU

Why do feminism and gender serve as negative projection screens within society? How should progressive forces in the EU deal with the right-wing backlash?

Left-wing and social democratic forces believe that true equality between women and men can only be achieved if economic inequalities are combated at the same time. However, the "Backlash Report" adopted by the EP on 13 February 2019 excluded such a position. This can be interpreted as an effect of the political shift to the right, which is leading to crucial elements being omitted in the search for common ground.

“Experiencing a backlash against women’s rights and gender equality in the EU”[1] is the rather symbolic document which describes the specific forms of “resistance to progressive social change, regression on acquired rights or maintenance of a non- egalitarian status quo" in the area of women's rights and gender equality and calls on Member States or the Commission to make changes.

A comparison of the text submitted to the plenary[2] with the final draft reveals a striking difference: Parliament has not accepted paragraph 23, namely: '[The European Parliament] points out “that the long-term effects of austerity measures in many Member States are adversely impacting on the economic empowerment of women and on achieving gender equality, with rising unemployment, labour market deregulation, increased precariousness and low pay levels impacting on women in particular, while cuts in public services, especially health and education, as well as in welfare benefits, are further disempowering women.”

This omission is by no means a minor essential compromise but an indication of the price to be paid for seeking common ground involving all progressive forces[3] in the event that there is a shift to the right: paid for by those parties that are convinced that equality between women and men will not be possible if we do not help to tackle the economic inequalities that help to maintain and promote gender inequalities. And paid for - by the affected parts of our societies.

The ambiguity of gender and its political consequences

The concept of gender also poses an additional hurdle. Hungary signed the Istanbul Convention[4] in March 2014. Since then, its government has been reluctant to ratify it. And, for the past two years, it has been invoking a common argument that other countries have used for years: they will not ratify it because it is the Trojan horse of so-called "gender ideology" and propagates countless gender identities. Needless to say, the Convention does not contain a definition of gender along those lines; instead, it is describing gender as "the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men". It does not, therefore, question that biologically there are two sexes. However, an MEP recently confirmed unintentionally – after a meeting with representatives of the Hungarian government – what the government regards as an excuse for non-ratification. In response to the government's objections as to why it had not ratified the Convention ("there are only two sexes"), the MEP did not affirm the gender definition provided by the Convention but reinforced her own position ("but there are transgender and non-binary people").

On the one hand, this story clearly illustrates that not being aware of the local context, one can, especially in the case of increasingly authoritarian regimes on the lookout for scapegoats, play into the hands of such governments. On the other hand, it shows that different progressive demands and actors use differing gender definitions.[5]

Whatever we may think of non-binary gender identities, one thing is certain: there is no consensus about them in the progressive camp, let alone in society. And when progressives call the fact that humans exist – except few exceptions, the intersexuals – as male or female, a right-wing ideology, as often happens, it should come as no surprise to them that a gap opens up between their agendas and the people within the societies they seek to represent.

Right-wing danger, new taboos

On 7 March 2019, a debate took place in the European Parliament in which I participated as a moderator and panelist. Organized by the S&D Group and associated foundations, the theme was the gender backlash[6]. We tried to examine critically those developments that explain some of the backlash: the unfulfilled promises of the transformation processes in the East-Central European region, the East-West divide and class inequalities, and the often socially sensitive gender politics adopted by right-wing parties. The key contentious issue during the debate concerned the political consequences that should be drawn from the right-wing backlash. Some said that self-reflection is a precondition for moving forward; others that this was tantamount to capitulation, arguing that this was a power struggle and that the Right knew how to drive a wedge between us, and that we should not fall into their trap.

It seems, however, that progressives confuse right-wing parties with their voters. If only for tactical reasons, it is careless to brand the latter constantly. However, those who strive to understand why feminism and gender can serve as negative projection screens within society must ask critical questions of themselves and not shy away from conflict. Instead of innovation and renewal, the right-wing threat primarily generates new taboos and suicidal preservation of the status quo.  

We should not allow the Right to back us into a corner. This is, however, precisely what the International Planned Parenthood Federation representative pleaded for during the debate as mentioned above by stating: "We cannot afford internal debates now, we have to contend with the Right".

If we disregard the fact that gender debates take place within a power structure and are linked to political intentions, we might indeed become useful idiots of the Right. But we have a responsibility to look deeply and critically on our agenda as well. We will fail to do so if we limit our current scrutiny of equality policy to a mere power struggle and believe that the demand for such political parties and movements within society is wholly derived from medieval attitudes or fake news brainwashing. We urgently need an alternative that goes beyond the customary dichotomy of regression vs. progression, which is alien to large sections of society and merely serves to mobilize the elites.

We will therefore not be able to spare ourselves the debates in the progressive camp in the next five years. What I fear, however, is that a strengthening of the right-wing populist parties in the European Parliament could instead put the gender equality agenda on the defensive. Perhaps there will continue to be only the lowest common denominator. In doing so, we risk clinging to issues that do not hurt anyone’s interests and defining issues as the spearhead of progress which will continue to play into the hands of alienating progressives and many (merely seemingly reactionary) voters. And this will certainly not strengthen the legitimacy of the feminist project in our societies.

[3] This refers to the liberal, green, social democratic and left-wing parties and social movements.

[4] Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence