Vocabularies of backlash in South Asia

South Asia

In recent years, ‘backlash’ has gained increased recognition as a conceptual frame through which to understand and address disparate forms of resistance and repression encountered by women’s struggles across the globe.

This contemporary interest has been prompted by the global intensification of attacks on women’s rights and gender equality, and backlash has come to (re)occupy a place of central activist and academic interest. This is 30 years after Susan Faludi first introduced the term to describe episodes of acute opposition to women’s rights and feminist aspirations. Yet, there remain challenges confronting the conceptualisation of backlash that make context vital to its application.

In South Asia, vocabularies of backlash recognise the fluid temporalities of backlash, as well as the multiplicity of actors, agendas, modes of action and claims for power at play. Privileging the voices of women from South Asia enables an understanding of the contextual experience of backlash and provides lessons for overcoming the broader challenges of conceptualising and responding to backlash.

Conceptualising backlash: key challenges

The resurgence of interest in studying and addressing backlash has evolved alongside important cautions around the conceptual, empirical, and political challenges of doing so. The substantial diversity in actors and ideologies implicated in backlash and the range of strategies employed towards the repression of women’s rights internationally, mean it cannot be considered a singular or uniform phenomenon. Backlash as a framework must be elastic enough to capture this diversity, while retaining some conceptual specificity.

This is evidenced in South Asia where experiences of backlash do not readily map onto the ‘anti-gender ideology’ narrative that holds for much of Europe and Latin America, and increasingly informs global scholarship on backlash. It makes clear the need to resist the universal application of ‘global’ terminology, while developing conceptual vocabularies that speak to the specific histories and contemporary realities of women’s struggles and the regimes of power they are working within and responding to.

In ‘Sustaining Power: Women’s Struggles against contemporary backlash in South Asia’ (SuPWR), we suggest that the answer lies in developing a conceptualisation of backlash based on privileging women’s own accounts from within struggles in South Asia. This blog post marks the initiation of such an effort, offering preliminary reflections on the terms used by women’s struggles in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan to understand and respond to backlash. While these terms also disclose important insights into the specific experiences of backlash in South Asia, this blog post focuses on the lessons they offer for how to overcome some of the broader challenges associated with conceptualising backlash.

On the question of temporality

A range of the terms used to signify backlash in Hindi, Urdu, Nepali and Bangla align with the narrative grammar of action-reaction, conveying an account of progressive change followed by a conservative/retrogressive response. Pratikar (retaliation), Pratikriya (reaction), Pratigaman (regression) and even Virodh/Pratirodh (resistance) frame backlash as experienced in directed response to a specific instance of (a real or perceived) assertion or achievement of gender equality.

At first glance, these terms might appear rooted in (and reproductive of) a linear, teleological understanding of history as unfolding through a series of successive steps in the ‘march towards progress’, and countered by (an almost inevitable) resistance to change, reaching out from the ‘darkness of the past’. While the action-reaction narrative of backlash no doubt centrally informs experiences of backlash in South Asia, a narration of backlash as exclusively or inevitably following this logic carries two key limitations:

  • it ignores they ways in which feminist ambitions are often co-opted/folded into institutions of power rather than explicitly opposed
  • it risks misattributing instances of backlash to specific gains when they might have longer histories.

Attending to other terms used to describe backlash in South Asia provides potential pathways out of this bind. Badha/birodhita (barrier or opposition), pareshaan(i) karna (create issues/cause trouble), kathinaion (difficulties), ghalat baatein (delegitimization, often through personal attacks), saath ne dena/pashe na thaka (refusing support) all describe backlash in ways that indicate that it often precedes, and even fundamentally hinders, the possibility of progressive change.

Additionally, phrases like ‘le liya’ (took), ‘naam jodd diya’ (claimed), as well as ‘used’ and ‘manipulated’ capture logics of co-optation, instrumentalisation and the domestication of feminist projects and aspirations recognising these, too, as forms of backlash. Importantly, then, vocabularies of backlash in South Asia transcend the formula of progressive action proceeded by conservative reaction, to more generally articulate backlash as an ‘active project’ of continually constructing and buttressing inequality.

Recognising multiplicity

A second challenge posed by dominant conceptualisations of backlash is the implicit construction of an us/them binary, constituted by two internally consistent and polarised collectives; one composed of those uniformly invested in a shared vision for gender equality, the other equally united in their opposition to the same. This us/them narrative risks disappearing or collapsing the diversity of actors, investments, and interests at play across both sides of the divide, obscuring the complex interactions that constitute contemporary domains of struggle over power. Vocabularies of backlash in South Asia resist simplistic us/them binaries and the dangers they entail in two crucial ways.

Quite strikingly, one of the key terms used to represent backlash in Hindi, Nepali and Bangla, pratirodh (resistance) is used across contexts to represent not only patriarchal push-back against gender equality but is equally employed to describe women’s efforts to secure rights, as well as to signify women’s collective strategies in the face of backlash. Pratirodh as a mode of action or contestation thus unifies actors across the imagined us/them divide, eroding this distinction and presenting a more fluid understanding of power and struggles over it than that indicated by rigid us/them distinctions.

Second, women from within struggles in South Asia often conceptualise forms of backlash as emerging not simply externally, but also from within movements themselves or from presumed allies: terms like saath na dena, pashe na thaka (refusing support), shomolochona (criticism) and ackromon (attack) signal internal divisions/pushback as well as articulations of backlash acknowledging the multiplicity of feminisms, as well as the heterogeneity of the opposition they encounter (both from within and without). Vocabularies of backlash in South Asia are thus able to capture and account for, and indeed emphasise, the multiplicity of actors, agendas, modes of action and claims for power at play in women’s struggles for equality.

Through SuPWR, we hope to privilege the voices of women engaged in struggles against backlash for gender equality in South Asia. By capturing their located accounts of backlash and their conceptualisations of power, we can better understand the strategies they employ to sustain gains in the face of mounting resistance.

This blog was originally published on the IDS website