Feminist policy as collateral damage?

Austria's conservative-Green government continues ethnicized gender policy

About a year ago, the so-called Ibiza affair resulted in an early end to the conservative-far-right government (1) that had been in power in Austria since 2017. The reason was the release of a video secretly recorded on Ibiza. In it, then FPÖ vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, as well as FPÖ vice chair, Johann Gudenus, indicated that they were open to corruption and gaining control of non-partisan media. They were also willing to circumvent party financing legislation. From a feminist point of view, however, the successor conservative-Green government is hardly an improvement.

 (1) Conservative party = ÖVP. Far-right party = FPÖ (Translator’s remark)

empty seats/chairs in parliament from above

The conservative-far-right government’s long shadow

Although the conservative-far-right government in Austria had been in office for less than two years, their anti-feminist agenda had devastating implications for feminist organisations, women’s policy institutions, as well as women and LGBTIQ* persons. This included the revitalisation of a conservative concept of family as well as the reinforcement of the binary gender system, and the associated perceptions of gender difference. The government manifesto, for instance, stated that the “specificity of the two genders […] creates added value for society” and that the “difference between men and women (1)” needs to be recognized. They defined “family” in a traditionally heteronormative manner exclusively “as community of man and woman with common children (2).” Moreover, at the political level there was the plan to introduce mandatory counselling before abortions and to abolish subsidies that secured the existence of numerous women’s projects. The government also implemented socio-political measures (including cuts of social benefits, child-care places, and minimum pensions) that mainly affected women. The FPÖ even tried to prevent marriage for all - despite a decision to the contrary by the Constitutional Court that came into effect in 2019 while the conservative-far-right government was still in power. Former Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), issued a decree blocking the right to gender-neutral registration (third gender) in the civil registry (ZPR) and in official documents that had also been mandated by the Constitutional Court (the Regional Administrative Court of Upper Austria rendered this decree unlawful in March 2020).

NGOs working in the field of sex education were to be banned from sex education classes in schools in order to guarantee “ideologically neutral sex education (3).” Government measures to prevent violence focused primarily on “immigrant refugee women (4).The government depicted violence as a problem which occurs predominantly with immigrants, thus externalizing violence as racist. Gender equality and discrimination issues as well as male violence in the broader Austrian society, however, were largely ignored. The coalition of ÖVP and FPÖ responded late - and in the usual law-and-order manner - to the high number of femicides that had been committed in recent years. The parties jointly initiated a violence prevention package that was adopted by the interim government in September 2019 despite strong protests of the opposition as well as victim protection and women’s organisations. The criticism of these groups focused on the obligation to report suspected cases without the consent of the affected person(s), as well as higher fines that would hardly prevent perpetrators from committing crimes. Populism during the debates was also a focus of criticism.

In summary, it is fair to say that the conservative-far-right government’s objective was to employ various means to roll back gender political achievements of the last decades. These included: making feminist work impossible by abolishing funding; ignoring inequalities in the broader society by ethnicising gender equality and violence protection issues; and reinforcing patriarchal interdependencies through socio-political welfare cuts that primarily affect women. This was backed by a women’s and gender policy that was advanced primarily as family policy. It had the goal of re-establishing an allegedly natural gender order and associated gender roles, i.e. re-establishing traditional gender policy ideas.

"Common sense policy“

The bar was set pretty low for the successor government to improve the anti-feminist direction of the conservative-far-right government’s gender policy. On the positive side, there is a historically high number of women in the current conservative-Green government, as well as an envisaged National Action Plan against violence, and the revocation of financial cuts for women’s policy projects. Furthermore, NGOs should once more be able to provide sex education services, and mandatory counselling before abortions are no longer mentioned in the current coalition agreement. Even the support for the citizens’ initiative #fairändern (which aims to ban late-term abortions) seems to no longer be an issue. Multiple FPÖ and ÖVP policymakers had campaigned in support of the initiative which sought to change the existing Austrian provision permitting abortion within the first three months of pregnancy.

These few positive examples, however, cannot obscure the fact that the current government’s gender policy provides significant cause for concern from a feminist-antiracist perspective. The differences between the two governing parties are most obvious in this area and highlight the lack of assertiveness of the Greens. This enables the ÖVP to continue the political project it began during their previous term in office. In the current coalition, the Green party has acquiesced to policies such as: the ethnicisation of gender equality and violence protection issues; the often-criticised preventive detention scheme (for allegedly dangerous asylum seekers); the non-ratification of the UN Migration Pact, and the expansion of the headscarf ban. At present, other progressives including NGOs, antiracist and/or feminist groups are more critical of such policies than the Greens.

Despite commitments made during their election campaign the Greens also failed to achieve their longstanding goal “of establishing a separate Women’s Ministry” and to “earmark funds (5)” for it. The increase in the women’s budget from 10 to 12 million appears more like an inflation adjustment measure than the “substantial” increase committed to by the parties in the government coalition agreement. The fact that the women’s agendas were reserved for the ÖVP and a proven antifeminist, and that they are run by the Ministry for Women and Integration, is a clear step backwards - even when compared to the conservative-far-right government. Although the “Women” chapter in the government agreement does not distinguish between different origins with regards to the goal of ensuring that “women can lead a self-determined, economically independent life free of violence and fear of discrimination (6)”, political reality paints a different picture. Current Minister for Women and Integration, Susanne Raab, sees the primary risk for Austria’s women being “when a large number of patriarchal cultures are coming to us” (7). In early March, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day, she announced that her legislative agenda would place particular emphasis on combating “culturally driven violence.” She wants to ensure that “no new forms of violence due to immigration will emerge.(8)"  Shortly after her swearing-in, she revealed her lack of sensitivity to discrimination when stating that she “had never personally experienced sexism at the workplace (9).” In contrast to the conservative-far-right women’s minister - who had at least described herself as “a pragmatic feminist” - Raab never tires of repeating that she is not a feminist but wants to do “politics with common sense(10).” Statements like this not only appeal to anti-feminist groups, but because she does not fundamentally challenge sexist structures, they also illustrate that Raab does not pose a threat to the conservative establishment in her own party.

Feminist politics? Collateral damage!

At first glance, one could say that on an ideological level, the government agreement contains numerous rhetorical commitments to strengthen women’s rights and the promotion of women. Concrete implementation measures, however, are largely non-existent. Hence the likelihood of these promises remaining unfulfilled is extremely high. The Austrian example once again illustrates what happens when you leave women’s policy to conservative forces.

The fact that the gender equality and violence agendas are still primarily regarded as a problem of immigration - and have become a key tenet of the conservative-Green women’s policy - has had a number of political consequences. It encourages racist narratives and fear mongering that demonstrate both the extent to which right-wing extremist policies have been adopted by 'mainstream' conservative parties and the ever-shrinking differences at that end of the political spectrum. It also reinforces existing conditions of discrimination by omitting reference to structural discrimination, sexism, and sexualized violence in the broader society. Further political measures to achieve the stated goal of women’s and gender equality policies are clearly being neglected. Fundamental improvements for women and LGBTIQ* persons are unlikely - especially as many related demands clash directly with the political interests of the ÖVP which are based on traditionally heteronormative gender concepts. The Green's declaration to fight for feminist issues through other political offices has – so far – produced limited results. Feminist politics seem to have become one of the many collateral damages of the Greens’ participation in government.



(1) ÖVP/FPÖ (2017): Zusammen. Für unser Österreich.Regierungsprogramm 2017–2022. p. 105, Online at: https://www.oeh.ac.at/sites/default/files/files/pages/regierungsprogramm_2017-2022.pdf (Accessed on 12.5.2020)

(2) ÖVP/FPÖ (2017): Zusammen. Für unser Österreich.Regierungsprogramm 2017–2022. p. 9

(4) ÖVP/FPÖ (2017): Zusammen. Für unser Österreich.Regierungsprogramm 2017–2022. p. 107

(6) ÖVP/Greens (2020): Regierungsübereinkommen 2020 – 2024, p. 272 Online at: https://gruene.at/themen/demokratie-verfassung/regierungsuebereinkommen-tuerkis-gruen (Accessed on 12.5.2020)