Strategies to challenge backlash against women’s rights in South Asia

South Asia

Even as International Women’s day (IWD) – a global day to celebrate women’s achievements and women’s rights – is upon us in 2021, the struggle for gender parity continues across our world, with its increasing and multiple contradictions and fissures.

On the one hand, Covid-19 has blurred the boundaries between the home and the office and thrown into sharp relief the disproportionate role that women play in providing care (both paid and unpaid), and the importance of women to the economy. Yet on the other hand, there is a lack of policy measures in response to women’s needs. Instead, recent political and economic shifts to the right have led to shrinking civic space, intentional backlash and repression against women’s rights as workers, as equal members of the household and as citizens.

Women everywhere bear the brunt of patriarchal backlash. This takes the form of intentional (and often vicious) attacks on their civil, personal, political and social rights, such as the vilification and physical assault of activists, co-option of agendas, legal persecution of women human rights defenders, intimidation of elected women representatives, and increased intimate partner violence.

Yet, despite this repression and backlash, women’s struggles continue to galvanise to fight for their rights. Even as the forms, nature and sites of backlash are diversifying, women have not been passive. Instead, we see them coming together to resist and intensify their efforts to build intergenerational and intersectional movements, such as #Mesh_Basita in Lebanon and the Aurat march in Pakistan, using both face-to-face and social media strategies. It is fitting, then, that the theme for this year’s IWD is ‘Choose to challenge’. But what does this look like on the ground for women’s struggles in South Asia?

‘Choose to challenge’: Resisting backlash in South Asia

Nowhere is the struggle for sustaining power and women’s rights more visible than in the context of South Asia. Characterised by rapid economic, socio-cultural and political changes on one hand bringing women to the forefront; and resurgence of traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity on the other, there has been an intensification of power struggles in homes, communities, offices, markets and institutions of the state across the South Asian region.

So, in the face of this patriarchal backlash, how do women collectively retain their gains in economic, social and political rights? The research project ‘Sustaining Power: Women’s Struggles against contemporary backlash in South Asia’ (SuPWR) aims to respond to this question by examining how contemporary changes create new and multiple forms of backlash in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan; and how women’s struggles for power in these countries are variously challenged, opened up or are closed down by these changes.

Defending women’s rights

We aim to assess what works to defend women’s rights and explain why some struggles are more successful than others in sustaining gains. We think that success of women’s struggles depends on a) the types of strategies they use to counter different types of backlash; b) the ways in which struggles include voices and perspectives of different groups of women; and c) the ways in which struggles connect to other movements and groups across local, regional and national levels. The central research question therefore is: When, how, and why do women’s power struggles succeed in retaining power and sustaining their gains against backlash?

To answer this question, we will study 16 cases of women’s on-going collective struggles in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to identify effective strategies used by the struggles to counter intentional backlash in four key institutional spaces – in their homes and families; in their communities; in their workplaces (formal offices or informal marketplaces or their homes); and over issues of participation, representation and voice with the state. We focus on contemporary, situated stories that capture the many and varied forms of organising as well as the power struggles and relations between and within struggles.

Of course, a study of situated accounts of strategies to counter backlash must be grounded in the perspectives of women involved in these struggles. Accordingly, using an innovative, mixed-methods approach, this project privileges women’s realities and their intersectional experiences of their struggles, their own conceptualisations of power, and how these evolve over time. Our approach will combine comparative political economy analysis with qualitative case studies, using participatory methods (expanding out from the toolkit we developed for research on women’s economic empowerment and care), longitudinal process tracing and historical methods.

Choose to challenge

The IWD theme of ‘choose to challenge’ is also a call to action. Yet challenging the patriarchal order is no benign process. Our research attempts to capture the nature and forms of backlash from the patriarchal order in South Asia when it is challenged; and perhaps more importantly, how women come together to fight against this backlash – using collective strategies and experiences to retain power in the face of backlash. In doing so, women’s own experiences and interpretations of their struggles as they evolve and adapt to contention over time might be key in our journey towards gender parity.

This blog was originally published on the IDS website