In October 2018, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government announced it would ban Gender Studies from its approved list of accredited programs. Nine days later, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump attempted to narrowly define federal definitions of “gender” to exclude transgender people, and to eliminate “sexual and reproductive health” and “comprehensive sexuality education” from diplomatic language.
Despite the significant differences between U.S. and Hungarian politics, the fact that these two controversial leaders made such similar political decisions, and at nearly the same time, is not a coincidence. I have watched with growing concern as the success of political leaders across the globe seems increasingly linked to their willingness to express hostile sexism, racism, and xenophobia, and as their rhetoric belittles or openly attacks women and LGBTQI communities, migrants, racial minorities, and people of other faiths. Our bodies have long been targets of violence and humiliation—but the events of the past few years have been particularly appalling.
In countries such as Poland, the Philippines, and Brazil, for example, political leaders and candidates representing the populist right are eager to be seen attacking so-called gender ideology, (which is, in truth, nothing more than a new name for the same old bigotries). And both scientific studies and recent headlines have shown, violent rhetoric doesn’t just fuel oppressive policy; it leads to innocent and already-marginalized people getting hurt—or worse.
In light of these disturbing developments, it may seem odd that I remain resolutely optimistic. I am able to hold on to hope because of our work at the Open Society Foundations, which connects us to thousands of courageous human rights advocates and civil society organizations who are refusing to be intimidated into silence and submission. And it’s by taking a closer look at their strategies, tactics, and remarkable bravery that the rest of us may see a path out of this darkness.
Last year in Brazil, for example, the Brazilian and women-led movement EleNão! (NotHim!) mobilized thousands of people in more than 30 cities against then president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Then, in October, over 1,000 black women ran for Brazil’s Congressional and state assemblies—a 60 percent increase since the last election in a country where black women are woefully underrepresented in political office. In India, meanwhile, women journalists sparked a #MeToo moment leading to the resignation of M.J. Akbar, a top cabinet minister in Modi’s BJP government, who was accused of sexual harassment by no fewer than 21 women. It was a transformational moment for Indian women to finally see a powerful man held accountable for his actions.
While these individual stories are inspiring, feminist scholars and activists have long debated where the collective fight for gender justice is headed—a pressing question as authoritarian governments gain steam around the world. University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild asked in her landmark book with Barbara Ehrenreich, “Are women asking ourselves, in the struggle: equal to what?” This question is distinctly different than Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In model, which calls for women and gender non-conforming people to make reforms within male-dominated structures. Hochschild and Ehrenreich are calling for change that imagines a new world for us all—regardless of gender, sex, race, class, religion and other structured forms of bias.
To do it, we must reimagine expectations of people in power in order to develop more transparent, inclusive, and responsive governments. The change can start by electing more women into political office and normalizing their roles. Open Society’s grantee Instituto Liderazgo de Simone de Beauvoir recently launched the Florece Resistencia (“the Resistance is Blooming”), a collaborative platform that seeks to lift up voices of the female leaders from across Latin America that are working to create more just and democratic societies.
Change can also happen in our homes and workplaces. In South Africa, our grantee the International Domestic Workers Federation has challenged the servitude, violence, and vulnerability that face women who perform household tasks for middle- and upper-income families. Working with domestic workers associations from Hong Kong to Amman to Cape Town, the Federation has spoken out in defense of worker rights, a living wage, and the right to live lives of dignity and freedom rather than forced labor. Most recently, Ashoka, UN Women, and Open Society honored their president, Myrtle Witbooi, for her years of advocacy on behalf of her sisters in this movement.
And the change can come by reimagining power within philanthropy. In our Women’s Rights Program, we are actively engaged with peers seeking to diversify and democratize philanthropy so more resources are controlled and mobilized by nontraditional actors, such as women’s funds. Groups like the U.S.-based Groundswell Fund, are helping to democratize philanthropy while supporting reproductive justice organizations and intersectional organizing work. Women of color lead over 90 percent of the organizations they support, which has led to a stronger, more effective U.S. movement for reproductive justice.
In many ways, women’s bodies may remain a central battleground in the struggle for truly open and free societies. Such societies can only exist when all people have voice, agency, and power. They are simply unachievable when in most nations across the world, more than half the population is excluded from full and equal participation, simply by virtue of their gendered identities. The Women’s Rights Program is determined to sharpen our focus on intersectional gender justice and ensure that it is visible and central in our quest for open societies.