The faltering fight for global feminism

Anti-feminist movements and political parties are rising everywhere. Canada’s feminist foreign policy needs to respond.

By: /
November 18, 2020
EU's Visegrad Four Hold Talks In Poland
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary banned gender studies from Hungarian universities in 2018. Omar Marques/Getty Images

The rise of anti-feminist politics around the world threatens to stall and even reverse progress on gender equality and women’s rights. Yet countries such as Canada that claim to promote a feminist foreign policy have been strangely quiet in the face of these increasingly powerful anti-feminist movements.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many thought the world had moved into a time of political consensus. Liberal democracy was upheld as the preferred model for building prosperous and free societies and for managing the passions of their disparate ideological, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious “tribes.” The challenge moving forward was thought to be technical rather than ideational; there was a need for capacity-building and the sharing of expertise, not persuasion or coercive politics.

Into this milieu, Central European University (CEU) was founded in Budapest, Hungary in 1991, with $880 million of funding from George Soros, a Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist. The mission of CEU was to help facilitate the transition from dictatorship to democracy in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union by establishing a university focused on exploring topics such as human rights, the rule of law, nationalism, media freedom and transitional economies.

From 2015-2018, I taught a course called “Gender, Violence and War” at CEU’s School of Public Policy. During my time at CEU, billboards were erected throughout Budapest demonizing George Soros, and new government restrictions were imposed on NGOs and media outlets, many of which subsequently closed. In 2018, the government of Hungary banned gender studies, and in 2019, CEU was forced to relocate its main campus to Vienna.

In March 2019, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres lamented that “around the world, there is a pushback on women’s rights” from “populist, nationalist and even austerity agendas” which is “deep, pervasive and relentless.”

The feminist interest in the transformation of social norms, something Canada’s feminist foreign policy explicitly champions, whether by questioning traditional gender roles or by supporting LGBTQ2S+ rights, is considered antithetical to the conservatism that underlies many right-wing populist movements. Some of these movements have argued that feminism, and what they often refer to as “gender ideology,” are dangerous.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party, for example, has suggested that feminism harms children and youth and encourages promiscuity. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil tried to pass a law banning “gender ideology” in schools. Hungary’s Fidesz party accuses feminism of challenging the traditional family unit and of being anti-family. Many right-wing ethno-nationalist parties say feminism is based on foreign values that threaten national culture and identity.

While I was living in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in his annual state of the nation speech in 2017, drew a clear line from historic threats to Hungary, such as the Habsburg Empire, to George Soros’s “Open Society” ideals.

“Hordes of implacable human rights warriors feel an unquenchable desire to lecture and accuse us,” Orbán said. “Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters. This is the trans-border empire of George Soros, with tons of money and international heavy artillery.”

Upon hearing Orbán’s speech, I realized that as a foreigner teaching a course on gender at CEU, irrespective of what I thought or how I taught, I could be perceived as a threat to national identity, self-determination and culture. In Orbán’s Hungary, feminism was no longer something to consider and debate in one of Budapest’s grand coffee houses or university lecture halls. It was, instead, a threatening ideology that must be silenced and banished. 

“In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, feminism was no longer something to consider and debate in one of Budapest’s grand coffee houses or university lecture halls. It was, instead, a threatening ideology that must be silenced and banished.” 

***

And yet, despite these threats from Hungary and elsewhere, as well as calls from UN Secretary General Guterres and others to “push back against the pushback,” it is not clear that strategies for responding to rising political anti-feminism have been implemented (or even explored) by the UN or member states, including those such as Canada that espouse a feminist foreign policy.

In some respects, Canada’s feminist foreign policy appears trapped in the 1990’s, focused on implementing a feminist agenda without responding to the ideological and political movements that threaten its acceptance, adoption and sustainability. 

When I returned to North America, after having had a front-row seat for an attack on academic freedom abroad, I was disheartened to see challenges to academic freedom happening in universities in the United States and Canada, too. Pitchforks are pitchforks, whether they originate from the right or left. Universities should be places where people are welcome to civilly discuss ideas that are swirling around in society, regardless of what these are, free from insults and abuse.

At the core of CEU’s mission lies “a set of principles: the pursuit of truth wherever it leads, respect for the diversity of cultures and peoples, and commitment to resolve differences through debate not denial.” These principles, which were under attack in Hungary, should not be under attack here.

The world of cancel culture can make it difficult to discuss unpopular ideas. Energy often seems focused more on labelling, denigrating and raging on social media than on listening, understanding and being open-minded. This can result in fearful self-censorship by faculty and students alike and, if not groupthink, group-talk. Both are problematic. Students should not be protected from exploring anti-feminist and anti-gender ideologies here anymore than they should be shielded from feminism and gender studies in Hungary.

“Canada’s feminist foreign policy appears trapped in the 1990’s, focused on implementing a feminist agenda without responding to the ideological and political movements that threaten its acceptance, adoption and sustainability.” 

Policy practitioners should engage with ideas they don’t like, too. Canada needs to understand anti-feminist ideologies and develop a strategy to respond to them. Concerns with feminism and so-called gender ideology are not fringe views spread by a few strongman politicians. Many right-wing, anti-feminist and nationalist parties, such as France’s National Rally party, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, Poland’s Law and Justice party and Italy’s Brothers of Italy, are led by women. The anti-feminist views of outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump, Brazilian President Bolsonaro, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and other leaders and parties around the world resonate with millions of people, women and men.

Should Canada be talking with anti-feminists as part of its feminist foreign policy? Yes. Canada should support this dialogue as part of our diplomacy. Canada’s feminist foreign policy should include creative strategies to respond to political movements that are concerned about the impact of feminism on traditions, culture, masculinity and national identity. Practitioners of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy should also be aware of the ambivalence within many societies concerning feminist objectives. There is a legitimate question about whether it is justifiable to impose even dearly held Canadian values on others — especially when Canada is in a position of power to push others to, for example, accept aid for reforms or programs they might not otherwise be ready or prepared to adopt. At the same time, unfair and inaccurate characterizations of the objectives of feminist foreign policy must be swiftly debunked.  

Given the rise of political anti-feminism, being associated with feminism can put people at risk. Canada should implement measures to protect those who may become more of a target for harassment or abuse due to their involvement with Canada’s feminist foreign policy-supported programs. While I was a professor at CEU, I had to consider this when inviting guest speakers to my class, such as those working with feminist organizations in Hungary. I did not want involvement with my class to make guest speakers more susceptible to government intimidation or to impede their ability to do their work. Canada should similarly practice “do no harm” principles to ensure those supported by Canada’s feminist foreign policy are protected from dangers they might face as a result.

Canadian diplomats were aware of this need when they scrambled in 2018 to rescue women White Helmets rescuers in Syria, who existed largely due to Canada’s feminist international assistance policy. “I feel it is worth noting that Canada pushed for WH [White Helmets] to include women and funded their efforts to recruit and train women. Now those women are in even more danger due to their work with WH,” a Global Affairs official wrote to her colleagues in an email obtained by the Hill Times newspaper though an access-to-information request.

The integrity and quick action of individual foreign service officers led to the rescue of many — but not all — endangered women White Helmets. Canada should ensure these protections are systematic rather than ad hoc.

Proponents of Canada’s feminist foreign policy need to be careful not to be outmaneuvered by those working to demonize feminism to the detriment of women’s rights and gender equality.

Canada must challenge and refute false anti-feminist claims, grounding arguments whenever possible in empirical data rather than ideological claims. Language that stokes the divide between feminists and anti-feminists often leads to intransigence and stalling, if not regression. Canada’s feminist foreign policy should aim to transcend polarizing and distracting identity politics and focus on building trust and finding shared rationale for addressing and preventing injustices suffered by women, girls and gender and sexual minorities, and for making concrete progress on gender equality.