RINGS Conference Report: Struggles and developments in Gender Studies and Gender Equality

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Anika Thym März 2021

The 7th annual meeting of RINGS (The International Research Association of Institutions of Advanced Gender Studies) showed important local differences, but also common developments concerning gender equality, diversity and Gender Studies in different countries across the world. On the one hand, increased polarization becomes visible in the resistance to gender equality and Gender Studies. On the other hand, there have been various legal achievements and there is a growing demand for gender theoretical knowledge from the media and by students.

The 2020 annual RINGS meeting took place online and was hosted by the University of Western Cape, South Africa. Member institutions from Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey participated and shared what is going on in their countries concerning gender equality, diversity and Gender Studies.

This blog entry summarizes some striking developments based on the provided country reports, which give insights in current, sometimes quite vehement, social struggles concerning gender relations: struggles about laws and conventions, in politics, academia, civil society and through providing or limiting funds.

Attacks on Gender Studies, sex education, sexual and reproductive health rights

Anti-feminist and anti-genderist attacks are happening in many countries and they usually focus on the same issues: They try to strengthen conservative, patriarchal, heterosexual family roles and binary gender norms, attack women’s and minority rights and fight sex education and sexual and reproductive health rights, especially abortion and birth giving rights.

To mention just a few striking developments: South Africa has seen a surge of anti-progressive “pro-family” campaigning. The U.S. based “Family Watch International” are organizing a global counter-movement to sex education and sexual and reproductive health rights, ironically ‘disqualifying’ them as neo-colonial Western agendas. The Covid-19 pandemic was used to limit abortion rights in Italy and to limit women’s right to decide about ones birth-giving in the Czech Republic.

Estonia and Romania have had a troubling rise of far-right parties, which oppose gender equality, Gender Studies, women’s and minority rights. In Estonia, legal changes are proposed to restrict minority rights, like marriage equality.

The European Commission is acting against these tendencies and started infringement proceedings against Estonia for failing to criminalise hate speech. The commission also proposed increasing the number of shelters for victims of domestic violence in the Czech Republic, but the government keeps ignoring the proposed measures. Not acting here is also a way of acting politically.

Similarly, Hungary is not acting on the European Court’s decision that banning Gender Studies in 2018 was unconstitutional. The Romanian parliamentary initiative to forbid any kind of education about gender, including Gender Studies, has been considered as not-constitutional by the Supreme Court in December 2020, but the right-wing Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) entered parliament during the last elections in the same month, so tensions will probably remain and increase.

Turkey has seen a shift from more to less gender equality. Since the rule of the right-wing AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2000 there had first been improvements for gender equality concerning equal pay, equal treatment, gender equality in the constitution and woman’s human rights in the penal code. However, this situation changed around 2010: An important indicator for the shift was Erdogan’s public statement that he did not believe in equality between men and women. Rather, the party leadership advocated gender justice as complementarity of sex roles. Since then, conservative family-centred policies have been introduced, feminist organisations have been excluded from policy-making processes, there is an increasing critique of the ‘gender ideology’ and the LGBTI+ community has been particularly targeted and vilified.

In the Netherlands and in Belgium alt-right movements argue with homonationalism and sexual nationalism, while holding on to the gender binary. In Germany AfD (Alternative for Germany) politicians like Beatrix von-Storch claimed that German universities lack the required funding to conduct virus research, because of the “immense expenditures” assigned to Gender Studies.

More gender equality and diversity

At the same time, and as part of current polarizing tendencies, advances toward more gender equality and recognition of diversity have been achieved. To mention just a few: In the Netherlands sex markers will be removed from identity cards by 2025 and a tool kit has been developed to help municipalities and companies to address questions related to (eliminating) sex registration. Germany introduced ‘diverse’ as third sex-option and in Belgium the constitutional court imposed on the government to do one of the two: introduction of a third sex-option or eliminating sex registration.

The Netherlands has also made some advances in anti-discrimination laws and shows willingness to respond to the Black-Lives-Matter movement. The removal of colonial monuments and street names are on the national agenda and research on the history of slavery, and on colonial roots of their architecture and their wealth is pursued. In Norway, the Black-Lives-Matter movement and decolonialization have been discussed more than feminism in 2020.

Germany adopted an extensive new National Gender Equality Strategy and new diversity laws in higher education. Many universities approved new documents and policies against harassment in academia. Probably because of the #metoo movement, it has been easier to implement these policies.

Italy installed new laws and governmental groups to assure the implementation of gender equality in all sectors and regions, and senators presented a draft law to introduce mandatory gender budgeting for local authorities, to confront income inequality of 59%. The so-called Zan-bill, against homo-transphobia and discrimination based on disability, is currently discussed and Italian citizens now receive hormonal therapies without any cost for medical transition.

The Swiss electorate approved to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and the implementation of a 10-day paternity leave in 2020, and the parliament approved marriage equality (although with restrictions).

Public imaginary of gender equality

Changes toward more gender equality are happening in the representation of women in government and the public imaginary. In Belgium the new coalitional federal government reflects political and ethnic diversity and gender parity, women are holding policy competences such as defence and the interior, and the prime minister is female for the first time. In Finland, the centre-left government coalition is led by five women, all leaders of their parties, four of them in their mid-30s, including the Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and the country has been among the most successful in confronting the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Switzerland, the late implementation of women’s suffrage in 1971 and the importance of collective memories is currently widely discussed due to the 50 year ‘anniversary’ of women’s suffrage in 2021.

Activism and coalitions work

Many countries report successful resistance and activism to anti-feminist and anti-genderist attacks. While the government of the Czech Republic withdrew the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and the Czech Women´s Lobby decided to stop lobbying for the ratification, such a retreat from the Istanbul Convention has been prevented in Turkey due to strong opposition from feminist movements. In Italy, attempts to limit abortion rights with a motion for life was prevented with public protests. The rise of the far right and their political activities in Estonia have mobilised the left and led to new, also unexpected coalitions, for example concerning marriage equality.
In the Czech Republic online-feminist activism seems to be booming and many openly question gender inequalities. In Romania the women’s movement, the coalition for gender equality and the network for preventing domestic violence on women are active and culturally gender sensitive projects have been more visible.

As part of Portugal’s left-wing trend, policies promoting gender equality have been launched. Right-wing and religious actors do attack these policies, for example with a petition against the teaching of a compulsory course in secondary schools including citizenship and gender equality. However, they were confronted with two counter petitions gathering many more signatures.

Struggles in university politics – on gender mainstreaming and budgets

In university politics, despite the gender mainstreaming duty of all universities in Sweden and the governmental target of 50% of professors appointed to be women by 2030, there has been a backlash concerning the percentage of new female professors: fewer women are appointed in most areas. This shows how we cannot take advances for granted and how important it is to continue gender equality efforts.

Belgium has seen a shift from gender to diversity policies. However, budgets are not increased to cover the increased work load. Similar developments are taking place in Switzerland.

In Australia, political struggles seem to take place more through granting and withholding funding. A recent legislative reform attempts to discourage students from studying social sciences and humanities by increasing their fees by up to 123% with the goal to redirect them to STEM subjects instead. This of course results in difficulties for Gender Studies to attract students.

In India, little funding has been granted for Gender Studies projects and for social sciences in general. A lot of micro-studies are performed, because the government does not provide data on phenomena such as migration. A further worry is that the country is moving towards privatization of education under pressure from the World Bank.

Responses to anti-genderism

In Austria, Germany and Switzerland, the Science Day #4GenderStudies is organized since 2017 every December 18 by the Gender Studies community in order to make the diversity of research in the field visible, demonstrate its social relevance and advocate freedom of science and teaching.

In Romania the local and international academic community and civil society responded strongly to the efforts of prohibiting Gender Studies. One tool was a voluntary evaluation of Gender Studies programs.

In Sweden the Gender Mainstreaming duty of universities, the Gender Equality Authority and Gender Studies were recently attacked in a crowd-sourced book “Genusdoktrinen” (Gender doctrine) by a male high-profile journalist of one of the largest dailies. The Swedish Gender Studies and gender research community and some universities are taking various measures to monitor and counteract this kind of activity.

Demand for gender knowledge

Siding these attacks on Gender Studies, gender equality and diversity, an increase of media requests on these topics is noticeable in many countries. Gender issues are a much-discussed topic. This also shows in the increased interest by students in Gender Studies. In the Netherlands, the Hub for Gender and Diversity based at Utrecht University has become an important link and mediator between national policies and academic work, which has gained national and international attention.

The country reports show how struggles about gender are taking place across the globe, with different local specificities, in the context of neoliberalism and authoritarian right-wing populism. Whether or not we will manage to continue and generalize emancipatory developments will – at least partly – be up to us.


01. März 2021


Anika Thym