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Anti-gender politics: religious fundamentalism and political neoconservatism

Theory & ResearchTwo major factors contributing to the current development and consolidation of anti-feminist discourses and policies are the rise of the political right and the spread of neo-conservative religious ideas. Both factors are deeply related to the global wave of authoritarianism. The #CAPS22 conference systematically addressed how these conservative ideas are taking shape as well as their interconnection with anti-feminism, and the panel “Anti-gender politics: religious fundamentalism and political neoconservatism” in specific analyzed these issues in-depth.

The #CAPS22 conference identified actors and platforms at the transnational, regional, and local levels which organize and propagate anti-feminist and anti-LGTBIQ+ agendas, and analyzed their strategies, forms of activism, and the challenges they represent for queer and feminist political action. The panels included reflections from Latin America, Poland, Turkey, and around the world, all of which stressed the how important sexual and gender politics are for contemporary debates on authoritarianism and democracy.

Sonia Correa and Ailynn Torres shared critical perspectives that provided an understanding of the politics of Latin America, with an emphasis on the role that anti-feminism plays in the continent’s authoritarian and neoconservative politics. This debate interrogated the widely shared perception that the return of religious political activism is somehow distinct from (and perhaps also less important than) structural trends now fueling authoritarianism and/or de-democratization worldwide.

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To argue for this perspective, Sonia Correa provided a reflection on the long-term formations and the political effects of right-wing backlash against democratic gender politics, which derive from the actions of the Vatican and ultra-conservative forces. She observed that in 2012–13 grassroots and heterogenous political mobilizations taking aim at radical and progressive gender politics erupted concomitantly in both Europe and Latin America. Specifically in Latin America, the conservative outrage has intensified since 2016. What happened in the region suggests that these conservative movements have rhizomatic features that allow them to synchronize with other movements. Today, so-called “gender ideology” (or its proxies) is decidedly a lingua franca of both religious voices and extreme right, authoritarian, neo-fascist political figures and formations across the globe.

In this framework has become a sort of Frankenstein figure (to use David Paternotte’s expression), containing different contents, discourses and strategies that is taken up by the different political actors. Sonia Correa drew attention to this conception, and the terminology was taken up by other presenters. In that sense, as Sonia Correa argued, the political formations which campaign against so-called “gender ideology”, or which take up a position referred to in this panel as “anti-gender politics”, have a heterogenous and metamorphic makeup at national levels, which can best be described as hydras, whose many heads move in different directions and confuse our ability to read them. In Brazil and Latin America, neoconservative actors have a religious core composed of ultra-Catholic and fundamentalist evangelical forces, which a range of secular (or apparently secular) actors orbit around, including politicians, members of professional corporations, businessmen, neoliberal think-tanks, but also openly fascist groups, and in the case of Brazil, the Jewish right as well as the military.

But the outrage about “gender ideology” operates via several different political rhetorics. One especially popular one is the panic about “cultural Marxism.” Several panelists presented on how religious neoconservatives and authoritarian politicians combine their gender ideology with an anti-communist narrative. Sonia Correa mentioned this in these terms: the deployment of “gender ideology” (as the new face of Marxism) functions as a symbolic glue that contributes to activating conservative tendencies within societies, linking a host of disjointed political affects and sliding signifiers. Ailynn Torres identified the anti-communist rhetoric as one of six meeting points of neoliberal authoritarianism and religious neoconservatism. Meanwhile, Funda Hülagü analyzed the topic from another context (Turkey) and asked whether post-fascist movements and ideologies substitute antifeminism for anticommunism.Ailynn Torres identified six themes which function as points of reference for the political analysis held by both religious fundamentalists and political conservatives: their anti-progressivism and anti-communism; their narrative on “reverse anti-colonialism” and “anti-neoliberalism,” their emphasis on (in)security, violence, and war; their struggle against gender ideology; their political values on family and education; and their political rhetoric under the guide of “freedom”. Ailynn Torres developed an argument surrounding these points which concludes that the relationship between the authoritarian neoliberal right-wing and religious neoconservatism is neither contingent nor sporadic; instead, both parties have a consubstantial relationship.

These debates allow us to formulate relevant questions that will aid in the development of democratic politics and emancipatory strategies against neoliberal authoritarianism. Ailynn Torres devised these questions during her presentation, and the rest of the presenters elaborated on them from different contexts and points of view. Some of the questions included: whether or not all authoritarianism is conservative; whether all conservatism is authoritarian; why, and in what sense, it is essential to recognize the fundamental alliance between authoritarianism, authoritarian neoliberalism, and conservatism; why can’t we talk about authoritarianism today without making that link between authoritarian neoliberalism and conservatism; and why is there so little discussion linking all these issues when we talk about democracy?

The analysis and discussion of these issues allows us to generate conclusions that are both open questions as well as starting points for political processes. In Ailynn Torres’ terms: 1) we cannot think of the political right today without taking neoconservative movements into account, which religiously based neoconservatism is a central component of; 2) unlike in previous decades, sexual and gender politics are at the forefront of current discussions of democracy; gender has become a kind of “symbolic glue” that brings together different disputes about democracy; 3) the assemblages between authoritarian neoliberalism and neoconservatism allow us to carry out deeper and more informed discussions about authoritarian organizing from below and how it functions (in other words, where is authoritarianism located outside of government programs); 4) the analysis of this narrative shows how and in what sense sexual and gender politics articulate broader political processes and helps understand the place that antifeminism occupies within contemporary politics.

Funda Hülagü took the debate to another level by asking whether we face a meta-ideological crisis. While Sonia Correa and Ailynn Torre referred to Catholicism and evangelism, Funda Hülagü spoke about Islam and how the current political situation shows the way in which antifeminism is related to political Islam. Antifeminism is a substitute ideology that not only positions itself against women’s movements (although that is an important part) but also seeks to revitalize political Islamism as a meta-ideology. In other words, anti-feminist politics helps political Islamism reproduce itself. Three specific examples allow us to develop the link between antifeminism and political Islamism:

  1. Antifeminism tries to update Islamic Orthodoxy (gender equality vs. divine creation)
  2. Norm-breaking (gender difference vs. gender complementarity: political Islamism tries to break norms that have settled around gender difference and replace them with gender complementarity, which it upholds as a value.)
  3. Form-giving (Islamic morality vs. “Barbarian Men.” Regarding the policies of violence against women, for example, they argue that the solution is not to punish the aggressors, but neither do they hold them accountable. On the contrary, they say they will teach the aggressors to be good men, husbands, and fathers. Their narrative revolves around constructing a respectable male citizen.)

A number of different questions can be posed to interrogate the complex links between Islamism, fascism, and antifeminism and what shapes they take in the current scenario. 

These issues cut across many contexts in the Global South, as well as some European countries, such as Poland. The situation in Poland demonstrates the extent to which religious neoconservatism and the political right function as an anti-democratic front. Panelist Ewa Majewska showed what this has meant for feminism, women’s movements, and sexual dissidence. The strategies of the feminist movement in Poland and internationally (the Women’s Strike and the anti-racist protests) are forms of weak resistance which challenge the patriarchal notions of political agency. 

Emancipatory counter-strategies are essential for thinking politically about authoritarianism and neoconservatism. Small, everyday acts of resistance (like those Ewa Majewska mentioned, such as posting a selfie online or wearing black) are the first steps towards political engagement for those who have never participated in politics. The 2016 feminist protests in Poland were a global benchmark which showed how powerful the diverse forms of politics can be. It was a new “distribution of the sensible,” as Jacques Ranciere would have it.

All of these forms of protest are extremely important and shift our conception of political agency away from established notions that developed according to male socialization, and towards new ways of non-heroic, ordinary resistance, which includes weak strategies of sustainability, resilience, and resistance, and which allow for the care and affective labor to remain embedded in social life. Ewa Majewska stressed that this unheroic conceptualization of resistance and struggle is particularly useful in the time of war when military action occupies all attention, stressed. It is essential to relocate the politics of reproductive labor and thus reassess the positions classified as “private,” “intimate,” and thus “apolitical,” even though feminists know that they are not.

Altogether, the debates raised in this panel allow us to observe urgent political questions and reach a consensus on our collective analysis. One of the most important lessons is that it is no longer possible to treat feminism and queer politics as marginal political issues, since one of the core projects of fascist and right-wing agendas is to fight against the rights of women and LGTBIQ people. All political analysis and action must begin from the realization that feminism is central to today’s anti-fascism. It is not only impossible to neglect gender issues, sexuality, reproductive justice, and labour in antifascist theory and practice; we need to perceive them as the core of today’s politics. As Ewa Majewska stated, this means anti-fascism is and needs to be feminist today.

This set of analyses, including making the link between the political right, authoritarianism, fascism, and religious neoconservatism visible, and identifying the genealogy of these links, allows us to analyze what Wendy Brown has called the processes of de-democratization. It also allows us to think about geopolitical and global processes. Finally, it will enable us to affirm, as was done in #CAPS2022, that anti-authoritarian, anti-neoliberal, and anti-fascist politics must also be anti-neoconservative.

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