Patriarchy’s counteroffensive: meet the international anti-feminism lobby

“The feminist movement has managed to become a mass movement and a radical movement at the same time, and that makes it a threat to the powerful, because it challenges relationships of obedience in all spheres of collective life,” from the school to the family, from the factory to the union. Pro-choice activists (dressed as characters from the dystopian novel and TV series The Handmaid’s Tale) during a protest at the Texas Capitol government building in 2017. (AP/Eric Gay)

In August 2018, Argentina’s Senate rejected a bill to decriminalise abortion. Two months earlier, amid a historic gathering of the feminist movement on the streets, Argentina’s lower house of Congress had approved the abortion bill. Those opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion appropriated various symbols representing the feminist struggle – brandishing light blue bandanas to counter the pro-choice green bandanas, for example – and mounted an intense lobbying campaign.

What many people are not aware of is that behind this campaign were international organisations such as CitizenGO, a platform set up by the ultra-Catholic association Hazte Oír, which gained notoriety in Spain in 2010 by leading the opposition to the law on abortion time limits. More recently, it headed a transphobic campaign (also in Spain) with the slogan“Boys have penises, girls have vaginas”, and has called for the repeal of the 2004 Gender Violence Act and all laws promoting LGBT equality.

These are not isolated incidents but manifestations of a well-coordinated international network steered by concepts such as ‘gender ideology’.

‘Gender ideology’ was the pretext used by Pentecostal and Evangelical groups to campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the peace referendum in Colombia in 2016, for example, and during that same year, the notion started to flourish in Argentina, in the context of the heated debate over the legalisation of abortion. In Spain, the far-right Vox party used the same term in its attempt to discredit feminism, making unfounded claims about the existence of a well-financed feminist elite. Similar arguments are used by US President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, whose messages combine misogyny and racism.

The visibility of this discourse has clearly risen alongside the recent surge in the feminist movement, but it is not new: it emerged in the United States in the 1990s, when the notion of gender was associated with Marxism. This is the idea underpinning El libro negro de la nueva izquierda (The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion), a bestseller in Argentina. Its authors, Agustín Laje and Nicolás Márquez, lash out against feminism and homosexuality.

“Lage doesn’t say that feminism is wrong: he says that there is a conflict between ‘real feminism’, the first wave, and the feminism that he calls radical; he argues that equality was achieved in the first wave, and so there is no sense in today’s feminism, other than trying to start a war,” Juan Elman, a journalist who investigates right-wing subcultures in Argentina and around the world, tells Equal Times.

Thirty-year-old Laje is the best example in Argentina of the new crop of young conservative leaders who, like Guatemalan Gloria Álvarez or American Ben Shapiro, enjoy wide global exposure. The author cloaks his ultraconservative discourse in a rebellious mantle that appeals to a young audience: “Laje says the secret of his success is that the left has become conservative; he presents himself as something of a dissenter, as anti-establishment,” explains Elman.

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He adds: “Laje combines humour and a degree of style on social media, offering a portion of young people and teenagers a promise of identity and community. Let’s take a secondary school class in Buenos Aires: most of the pupils are teenagers in the process of deconstructing themselves, they are in favour of abortion and wear the green bandanas; and then there are four or five kids who don’t understand anything, who feel marginalised, threatened by all that. Lage comes along and solves the problem. He tells them: ‘You are right; it is the others, the ideologues who are mistaken’”. In Elman’s view, although this type of new right is still a minority, it “has potential”, especially given its success in recruiting very young people, aged 14 and 15.

“The Christian neofascist International”

Spanish theologian Juan José Tamayo, one of the authors of the collective work Neofascismo. La bestia neoliberal, (Neofascism. The neoliberal beast), in the chapter that studies the relationship between fascism and religion (“The preachers of neofascism”), identifies what he calls the “Christian neofascist International”. That is, the alliance between radical neoliberalism – called libertarianism in the United States – and moral conservatism.

The Atlas Network (formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation) is an illustration of this alliance. It is a US foundation with a libertarian ideology that receives state funds as well as subsidies from large multinationals such as Exxon and Philip Morris, and that in turn finances a whole network of organisations and foundations all over the world, especially in Latin America: 487 partners in 94 countries, according to its website. They all share its conservative values. In Spain, its beneficiaries include the free market think tanks FAES (Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies) and the Juan de Mariana Institute.

Other networks, such as the World Congress of Families (WCF), of which Hazte Oír is a member, the Center for the Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), and Family Watch International (FWI), bring together religious and civil society actors that, according to the 2017 Rights at Risk report published by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), focus their lobbying efforts on the United Nations and other supranational forums. They consider the approach of some UN agencies, such as the WHO and UNICEF, to be “anti-family”.

AWID’s report identifies some of the strategies used by these networks to achieve objectives such as “pushing back against the transgender movement” and eliminating comprehensive sex education.

Examples include the holding of international and inter-regional meetings promoting anti-rights policies under the same thematic umbrella (“life, family and nation”); training delegates to negotiate at the UN; promoting links with politicians who share their interests; working to delegitimise and defund human rights agencies. At the same time, they are seeking to undermine the consensus on international human rights treaties.

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When feminism undermines relationships of obedience

For the Catholic Church, what is at stake is the family and human nature itself. Pope Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis embody the struggle against ‘gender ideology’. It is the Argentine pope (who said that “all forms of feminism end up being machismo in skirts” – although he later went on to qualify his remark) who presents it as a “colonising ideology”, arguing that it is an agenda imposed by the hegemonic feminist movement, rooted in the Global North.

The onslaughts against feminism and the LGBT movement by members of the Christian clerical elite are often furious. In Spain, the bishop of San Sebastián, José Ignacio Munilla, said that feminism was “the devil’s work” and a “suicide of female dignity itself”. His counterpart in Alcalá de Henares, Juan Antonio Reig Plá – awarded by Hazte Oír for his “defence of human dignity” – spoke about gay people going to hell during an Easter sermon. In Argentina, the archbishop of La Plata claimed that “the increase in femicide is linked to the disappearance of marriage”. Further north, in the United States, 36 states of this superpower still have legal “gay conversion therapies” (condemned by the United Nations but supported by religious fundamentalists). Some 700,000 people have been subjected to this ‘therapy’, according to the film based on a true story Boy Erased.

“Fascism promises a kind of stabilising environment for neoliberalism,” summarises Argentine political scientist Verónica Gago.

Given the crisis of capitalism – not only the financial crisis and the economic crisis (that of 2008 and the one about to arrive), but also the environmental crisis, which points to the limits of economic growth, and the precarity undermining wage-earning society – neofascisms are looking for an ‘internal enemy’ towards whom the unemployed, the working and the middle classes, trampled by neoliberal economic measures, can direct their anger.

And that internal enemy is essentially a combination of migrants, feminists and dissident gender identities. But why has feminism become the main enemy of the right? According to Gago, an activist within the Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less) movement, the explanation could be that, “The feminist movement has managed to become a mass movement and a radical movement at the same time, and that makes it a threat to the powerful, because it challenges relationships of obedience in all spheres of collective life,” from the school to the family, from the factory to the union.

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