Anti-feminism: global hate in local contexts


Conservative and far-right forces are increasingly aligning themselves with Western right-wing extremists in order to combat the growing feminist movements in the Arabic-speaking world.

Illustration: Author of "Antifeminism in the Middle East: Hate is increasing"

Over the past decade, we have witnessed the bitter end of the January Revolution in Egypt, the Syrian Revolution, and the Uprising of 17 October 2019 in Lebanon, as well as Sudan recently succumbing to armed conflict between military and paramilitary forces. All of this has stolen away the final breath of hope that those revolutions dared to raise. During that time, narratives hostile to feminism, women’s rights and human rights have grown louder in the region amid a more oppressive political climate that is directly nurtured and shaped by the ascent of the Right in many Western countries. Feminist movements in our region have begun to feel the disastrous impact of security policies clamping down on those spaces for civil and political action that the revolutions and social movements had created. The movements have been further weakened by various forms of socio-economic violence that have eroded the very foundations of feminism. Important feminist advances were suddenly stopped or reversed – most recently in Sudan and Lebanon, and in Iraq and Syria before that.

The thriving of our regional feminist movements was accompanied by great interest from international feminist funds. Funding accelerated many of the stages that social movements usually undergo more gradually. Moreover, it helped the feminist movement evolve into a pivotal and influential force within civil society and the political opposition as it underwent an historic transition from a traditionally neutral movement to develop a more assertive or even combative stance towards oppressive regimes.

Feminists have applied innovative tools in their organisation and political campaigning as well as generating gender-related content. This has enabled them to profoundly influence the diverse political landscapes of the post-2011 period. And although the rapid spread of the label “feminist” has somewhat deprived the movement of the necessary analytical depth and insight into current feminist narratives, it has nonetheless succeeded in moving feminist issues from the factional to the general sphere, especially in relation to topics such as salaries, sexual and physical violence, political representation, legal discrimination, personal status, and the relationship between the body and sexuality. This has led to a backlash whereby anti-feminist and anti-emancipatory forces have entered into open conflict with the growing feminist discourse and what might be called the “feminist front” that reaches from the Atlantic to the Gulf and has progressed from the streets into the digital world. Although hostility towards feminists, women, and other societal groups existed long before this, in recent years there has been a clearly noticeable change in the nature of the attacks in our region against feminists and their principles. This qualitative change is fuelled and influenced by the rise of the Right and its narratives.

Anti-human rights movements

Amidst this clash with feminists in our region, the outlines can be discerned of what is known as the global “anti-rights movement”, of which anti-feminists are one part. We can observe how the narratives of these movements are aligning with anti-feminist incitement and campaigns promoting hatred towards feminists.

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) defines anti-rights actors as highly influential institutions and groups that oppose the advancement of feminist and queer movements throughout the world. Via self-organisation and advocacy campaigns, these groups seek to combat what they consider the “feminist and gay evil”. They believe that this “evil” seeks to destroy the traditional family and to bring about a fundamental change in gender and sex, thus undermining the roles which they assert nature has assigned to biological men and women. These institutions and groups also seek to criminalise gender-affirming procedures, thereby targeting trans people in particular, whom they refuse to recognise as the gender they know themselves to be.

AWID points to the emergence of global anti-rights groups that have emerged from religious movements and right-wing parties but that are acting under the guise of civil society organisations whose purpose is to defend human rights and the “natural” family against feminist and queer conspiracies. These groups are represented in high-level institutions such as the human rights councils in Geneva and New York, where UN commissions including the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) hold their meetings. Using these and other bodies as platforms, such groups endeavour to influence UN decisions and the language of UN agreements particularly in matters relating to sexual violence and rape, gender transition, the fight against religious extremism, the rights of homosexual people, and more.

Where the global Right and local hate intersect

Our region has witnessed countless responses, narratives, terminologies and national political standpoints that overlap with the discourse and approaches of anti-women and anti-human rights groups. It is difficult to pinpoint direct or overt collaborations between them or to adequately portray the existing climate of aggression and conflict towards feminists. However, we can shed light on the commonalities between them, above all on their forms of self-organisation, the way they create narratives, and their use of language. Moreover, we can determine where the emerging global Right intersects with local expressions of hatred towards feminists and homosexual people.

The far-right rhetoric of Trump or Putin is now also inspiring attacks on feminists in Arabic-speaking countries"

Studying these intersections helps us understand the global context of an invigorated Right in its various guises, including the fundamental and nascent factors that shape the regional and local climate and that have intensified confrontation with feminists in the region. Following the sharp rise in conservative and anti-liberal rhetoric with the rise to power of Donald Trump in the United States, we have witnessed Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention; the victory of the Right in Italy, Sweden and Poland; the enactment of an anti-homosexuality law in Uganda that imposes the death penalty; and growing hatred against homosexuals and feminists in Russia – to name just a few decisive developments. These intersections also illustrate how the Right has gained significant influence over political and legal systems in Europe and America after years of conflict with the underlying historical and social developments that inform global feminist discourse and that surfaced forcefully in the shape of the #MeToo movement. This movement didn’t only open a Pandora’s Box of stories of daily violence against women across the globe, it also facilitated powerful feminist action, such as demonstrations against abortion legislation in Poland and Argentina, that brought their cause to the attention of the global public. The echoes of Western right-wing anti-rights rhetoric resounded in the political and religious institutions in our own regions, as well as among national liberal forces, inspiring their attacks on feminists.

Portraying feminism as a result of Western colonialism is an historical tactic intended to create a link between the fight for women’s rights and the “Western threat”. This is done quite deliberately, to prevent feminists from fully participating in daily life, let alone in political movements, thereby removing their influence and preserving patriarchal power structures. Religious groups typically view discussion of women’s rights as a critique of religion and its institutions, which are now trying to hang on to some sense of authority by grappling with issues relating to personal status.

Some traditional leftist parties, too, have denounced feminism as a colonial product interfering in matters of national factional liberation. They have linked gender emancipation to the betrayal of the working class or the national cause. This is due to their fear of potential changes in political practices, structures, and historical narratives if women, feminists, and other non-conforming people were to assume more significant roles, empowered by the legacy of women in political movements of the past.

However, the vibrant political life that the region has experienced since 2011 has enabled feminist movements in multiple countries to sideline this rhetoric, to get organised, to force traditional leftist parties to question their hateful discourse, and even to create feminist left-wing parties and groups.

The attack against feminists based on their alleged conspiracy to destroy family life, religion, and the natural roles of women and men has failed. But the hatred persists, remaining part of a protectionist mindset in relation to children, family and the nation. Prior confidence that feminist influence on society and politics was low has now been shaken to the core, a fact reflected in the narratives about a “feminist evil” fuelling conflicts between husband and wife, destroying families, and undermining women’s natural and necessary roles. Those narratives are borrowed from the attitudes and logic of the global Right. A quick online search reveals how widespread anti-feminism has become across the globe, reflected in local Arab contexts by the huge amount of translated and localised content of American and European right-wing anti-rights movements.

The state, religious institutions, and men in crisis

Universal feminist struggles have made many women aware of the power of local action. Most importantly, images of the #MeToo movement from around the world reached us and highlighted the potential of forming a broader feminist front that extends far beyond small local groups. An important example of this is the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in Iran, which inspired feminist stances across the region as a whole. Such developments also strengthened the link between women’s fight for justice and equality and the notion of justice and equality for all.

Let us consider, for example, the spontaneous outpouring of solidarity, the public debates and the overwhelming response when young Palestinian woman Israa Ghrayeb was killed by her male relatives. Female friends and relatives of Israa were instrumental in organising the response, and they are not necessarily feminists. Their call for justice inspired protests across the region and compelled the Palestinian Authority to launch an investigation, after its initial reluctance to do so. This event uncovered dozens of cases of femicide in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq where the perpetrators had gone unpunished. It also led to the emergence of the Palestinian feminist movement Tali’at (“Uprising”), which challenged attempts to equate opposition to femicide with betrayal of the national cause – a widely used strategy to blackmail women into silence.

This moment of collective feminist insurgence, sparked by Israa’s story, demonstrates the existence of a significant and potent feminist front – albeit largely virtual – that opposes violence. This front is able to create widespread awareness of murder, abuse, and other types of violence committed against women simply because they are women. It is also capable of raising public debates that compel the authorities to take action, effectively shifting the responsibility for combating violence from solely feminist organisations to women and other individuals who do not necessarily identify as feminists. Moreover, we have witnessed a broader entrenchment of what could be called “feminist principles” on violence, harassment, accountability and discrimination. These principles have come to shape the social expectations of three or four generations of women and non-conforming individuals without them necessarily having to be involved in any form of activism. This suggests that the current attacks and violence against feminists and queer people in our region are rooted in a fear of this feminist front and its principles and are an attempt to subvert its profound impact.

Prior confidence that feminist influence on society was low has now been shaken to the core. The hatred is all the greater.

The outlines of those opposing the feminist front and its rapidly spreading principles can also be discerned. Often, these parties are not actually direct allies but merely draw on their shared hatred of feminists. National regimes constitute important actors in the propagation of hatred and violence, as demonstrated by the actions of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait and others during the proceedings of the UN General Assembly, when they attempted to prevent the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Those governments were taking a stance against a declaration that actively denounced acts of reprisal and sexual violence on the pretext that this document disrespected the local culture in their countries. This shows the length to which such regimes will go to thwart international efforts to strengthen the role of feminists globally and locally.

Criminalising feminist action

Saudi Arabia’s political course over the past six years is just one of many examples where a state has fostered a climate of anti-feminist incitement and hate by criminalising civil action and denouncing feminist thought as a threat to state security. This stance is manifested in many other measures, such as the recent reforms to the male guardianship system, prevention of the formation of civil society groups, the continued detention of activist Tweeters and their prohibition to travel once released, and severe censorship of digital content. In addition, anti-feminist content is given more space in official digital media. Here, we note the use of anti-rights language in general.

Egypt stands out as another example of the criminalisation of feminist practices by the state. In 2021, witnesses in the Fairmont rape case were imprisoned for reporting and testifying – something the National Council for Women in Egypt had encouraged them to do. In another case, filmmaker Islam el-Azzazi, who had been accused of sexual assault and rape, filed a successful lawsuit against two feminists that accused them of defamation, slander, and tortious interference because they shared the testimonies of victims. The state did not investigate the accused in any of those cases. In Lebanon, feminist activist Hayat Mirshad was summoned by special investigators in the Cybercrime Bureau for interrogation after she published testimonies against a serial harasser. Despite several witness reports, no investigation was launched.

Religious groups and institutions

We further note systematic anti-feminist activities by religious institutions, sometimes under the guise of tribal or political action. Recently, Palestine has seen tribal activism in Hebron in opposition to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This was in response to Palestinian feminists demanding a minimum age of 18 for marriage and anti-violence awareness training in schools (which they were then prevented from entering). Moreover, Islamic fundamentalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) launched a campaign against feminist activist Sama Aweidah, accusing her of “vice and immorality” due to her advocacy of CEDAW. The Palestinian security services did not take the threats against her seriously nor did they initiate any investigation into them.

In Lebanon in the summer of 2022, Dar Al-Fatwa (the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon) informed the Ministry of the Interior of its intention to stop pride marches and other forms of activism with the aim of putting an end to the movement altogether. Subsequently, a campaign against homosexuality was organised in support of Dar Al-Fatwa, and Sheikh Al-Aql of the Druze likewise endorsed that position. This atmosphere led to the rise of the so-called “Soldiers of God”, a Christian anti-homosexual (and, of course, anti-feminist) group. Joining together in a sectarian and religious union against homosexuality, they began threatening shops and cafés that sported rainbow flags.

In Jordan last June, a number of Islamic preachers denounced activist Hala Ahed as an “unbeliever” (the act of takfir) and demanded her detention after she had organised an information course on feminism in Amman. The Jordanian authorities, known to be hostile towards Hala, remained silent. Hala also reported the hacking of her phone, possibly by the authorities themselves. A security campaign targeting homosexual people is ongoing in Jordan.

The region is also facing new kinds of campaigns calling for the preservation of the “sanctity” of the family and the “natural roles” of men and women. Such campaigns speak in the name of religion and rely heavily on media marketing. Among them are Fetrah (Innate Human Nature) in Egypt and Mesh Tabi3e (Unnatural) in Lebanon. We must also note the homophobic rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon,1 the call of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq for “non-violent” opposition to homosexuality, and the drafting of a law in Iraq to criminalise homosexuality.

These individuals, parties and organisations also focus their efforts on advocating for anti-feminist and homophobic laws while launching campaigns that warn of the “dangers” of feminism and homosexuality. For instance, the newly founded Lebanese Association for the Preservation of the Family aims to raise awareness of the threat allegedly posed by homosexuality, while the Association of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon launched a campaign “for the protection of family and society”. In addition, there are hundreds of social media pages like Red Pill Arabic spreading localised content that taps into the same sentiments.

The localisation and translation of anti-feminist and misogynistic content in Arab countries is driven by another major player in the region, the ordinary “man in crisis”. He looks to notable right-wing extremists in the West for inspiration, such as British-American former kickboxer Andrew Tate, who announced his conversion to Islam a little while ago, or Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. Their anti-feminist logic and rhetoric is spreading and demeaning women throughout the world. Ironically, plenty of left-wing activists are also reposting the theories of Peterson, who attempts to link feminism to female mental illness. These men in crisis also provide tacit assistance to our security services. For instance, the Egyptian police arrested a female TikTok influencer for “insulting the values of the Egyptian family” on the basis of statements by men, including male Egyptian influencers, that accuse the young woman of prostitution, human trafficking, and offending public decency.

Feminist strategies of struggle and perseverance

The map of feminist organisations and movements illuminates the extent to which our region is interconnected and, at the same time, the extent to which the causes, and thus the approaches, differ from one another – from the fate of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to the struggles of women tea sellers in Sudan. Taken together, however, all these feminist causes also draw a picture of the regimes, organisations and groups that constitute the enemies of human rights, united by their narratives about the protection of family values, as in Egypt, or the depiction of feminism as extremist, as in Saudi Arabia (even though, in the end, this concept did not make it into law). Overlaps can be observed in the reactivation of public order laws in Sudan, the attacks on feminist institutions in Palestine, and the submission to the Iraqi parliament of a law criminalising homosexuality. Tracing the paths of these anti-feminist and anti-homosexual movements, we begin to understand the changes feminism has undergone in our region, particularly over the last few years, as well as the scope of its growing online influence.

In the face of hate campaigns, feminist online resistance manifests itself in continuous self-organisation, albeit in different forms. More importantly, however, it is expressed through local solidarity campaigns, such as those in response to the Egyptian Fairmont case, the targeting of journalist and writer Rasha Azab and filmmaker and writer Selma Tarziar for their solidarity with survivors of sexual violence in Egypt, and the takfir against the general director of the Women’s Studies Centre in Palestine, Sama Aweidah. The growing dissemination of news about femicides, both within families and beyond, also reveals a determination among society for those stories to be heard, to enter into public discourse, and to be understood not as isolated incidents but as systematic misogyny and violence.

Feminists have come to invest heavily in the virtual sphere, as not only does it offer an important space to challenge hateful narratives and calls for violence, it also represents a possible way to escape the tight grip of security and censorship. Feminists have been leveraging the power of the internet to immediately and effectively draw attention to incidents and to galvanise public opinion. Let us remember the case of Wissam and Fatima, detained by their family in Gaza to this day, and that of a woman nicknamed “Mudhila” (“amazing one) in the United Arab Emirates. They are taking advantage of the many opportunities the internet provides to embarrass states, spur authorities into action, activate anonymous but influential groups, and, ultimately, to create transregional movements that can build on an already existing powerful feminist front in the region.

And yet we must not ignore the changes that have occurred in censorship strategies on social media platforms. This kind of twisted censorship is biased against many causes, including the feminist one. Feminist discourse is all too often classified as “hate speech”. At the same time, a wide breadth of hateful content is published on Facebook against women, feminists, and homosexual people under the pretext of “freedom of expression”. Most importantly, however, we must not forget that our engagement on Facebook is governed by algorithms that perpetuate the most-viewed content, effectively ensnaring users within a filter bubble of similar content.

Twitter, too, has undergone dramatic changes in recent times, demonstrating how vulnerable and fragile our feminist front is. In light of Elon Musk’s latest rhetoric and his political convictions, we must be wary of his influence on content and the user experience, and question the platform’s suitability and convenience for communicating the information we wish to share. There is clear evidence of Twitter’s bias in favour of anti-rights movements and its efforts to limit content and divide users.

Of course, the fragility of the feminist front, its vulnerability to censorship, and its subjection to violent content are not limited to the virtual sphere. These are all things that are also experienced on the streets, in the form of criminalisation, physical attacks, and other acts of hate. The number of feminist and women’s rights organisations in our region is dwindling in the wake of a crackdown by security forces, strengthened police surveillance (Egypt, Gulf states), war (Syria, Iraq), or economic and government collapse (Lebanon). This comes on top of the disparagement, hate and violence experienced by feminists and women on a daily basis, be that online or in public, which encumbers feminists’ ability to show solidarity and to fight back. In the real world, too, anti-feminist content thrives much more easily than feminist content.

Many open questions remain about the ways, means and rhetoric that feminists might use to escape the current onslaught. Anti-rights groups in our region are obviously seeking to divide the various human rights causes and their advocates. We are witnessing a blazing attack on the homosexual community, whereby feminists are pressured to remain silent, to condemn homosexuality for their own safety, or to speak out in defence of homosexuals and risk becoming a target themselves. This strategy is dictated by the state, which is using its security and religious apparatuses to undermine feminists.

Crucial questions to be asked include: To what extent are feminist movements and LGBTQ+ communities aware of the globalised nature of the current hate discourse, its recurring narratives and tropes? Are they doing their research into how anti-rights groups have been so successful at winning supporters and asserting links between feminism, homosexuality and the destruction of the family? This kind of research would enable these groups to respond in an informed manner. It is of crucial importance that they identify and gain an understanding of local and regional anti-rights groups that are drawing on globalised right-wing thought. This is the only way feminists can defend themselves and minimise potential harm amidst the current surge of hatred and violence.


1 After this article was finalised, a law criminalising homosexuality was proposed by Lebanese MP Ashraf Rifi and a letter was handed to the Secretary-General of Hezbollah urging the killing of homosexual people.


This article is part of the dossier Feminist Voices Connected.