© Young Women Initiatives, YouWin, Philippines
© Young Women Initiatives, YouWin, Philippines
10 January 2020

Young feminists weave new narratives in the face of backlash

Author: María Díaz Ezquerro, Ruby Johnson
Published by: ALIGN

Just as gender norms can shift to support gender equality, norms can also tighten to restrict rights, freedoms and opportunities and uphold a strict gender order. While there have been some important gains for gender equality in 2019, we have also seen backlash and attacks on rights, reflecting the fraught space in which gender norms are contested and politicised. 

The past six months have seen rolling political protests across the world, in many cases with women at the forefront, from Lebanon, Chile, Ecuador, Algeria, Iran to Hong Kong - to name a few. They have fought neoliberal policies, inequality, corruption and impunity, and have demanded justice on climate, on violence against women and so much more. While a full  understanding of these diverse protests requires analysis of their political, social, cultural, historical and economic contexts, it is clear – that young feminist organizers are at the heart of mass mobilisation and creative tactics on the streets and in their communities. Their work is challenging gender norms in the political space both implicitly and explicitly.

International Women's Day 2018, Lebanon. © Fe-Male
International Women's Day 2018, Lebanon. © Fe-Male

Yet fundamentalist and anti-rights movements are continuing to gain ground, with more resources and well-organised tactics to push back on women’s rights. They are gaining power to shape norms and influence institutions and policy making, particularly on bodily autonomy, sexual orientation and identity and women’s rights more broadly. The rise of authoritarian, oppressive governments also allows a flourishing climate of fear, control and racism.

Conservative, ultra-right movements, often heavily religious, are pushing forward narratives that legitimise discrimination, violence, inequality and a conservative status quo that reinforces traditional gender norms. The publication 'Restoring the Natural Order: The religious extremists’ vision to mobilize European societies against human rights on sexuality and reproduction' details some of the strategies, such as ‘Strategy 1: to use the weapons of our opponents and turn them against them’; ‘Strategy 2: Like our opponents, frame our issues in terms of ‘rights.

The manipulation of news, the dissemination of misleading information, and the spreading of stigma and inflammatory campaigns are key tactics used by the far right, as is co-opting the language of movements and the scientific knowledge and the mobilisation of the voices of conservative young people. These movements engage as part of civil society and even shape themselves as victims of the system but also claim moral superiority.

The creative and courageous tactics of young feminists

Our work with FRIDA to provide resources for young feminist organisers across the world shows us that there are underfunded yet vibrant young people out there who are challenging harmful norms and stepping up in the political space with both bravery and creativity. Tired of the slow pace of institutional change, weary of the co-option of agendas and frustrated with the persistent injustice, inequalities and other manifestations of the patriarchal system, young feminist organisers are disrupting the backlash against gender equality. They are working to change social and cultural norms by cultivating their own narratives and discourses, while reimagining communities, leadership styles and ways of living that align to their politics and world they want to enjoy. 

These images are part of FRIDA’s Happiness Manifesto. © FRIDA
These images are part of FRIDA’s Happiness Manifesto. © FRIDA

 This can be seen in the strategies they use in the external world as well as within their communities and organisations. They leverage art and digital communications to tell their stories and change minds, building constituencies by cultivating safe spaces of understanding and belonging. And within their own internal practices, they challenge hierarchical leadership models and rigid organisational models, and place care at the centre of their work.

FRIDA’s work to challenge hierarchical leadership and norms in its own organisational culture can be seen in the model of co-leadership for its Co-Executive Directors, which is also being modelled in other parts of organization. It can also be seen in the Happiness Manifesto: a public set of commitments at the individual, collective and organisational levels that was created collectively by FRIDA staff. This helps FRIDA to place care at the centre of its own work, demonstrating how young feminists can ‘hack’ the institutional architecture as well as transform policies and organisations through feminist politics.

Collectively, young feminist organizers are creating new stories in their communities. In Armenia, for example, a young feminist informal collective, FemCollective, has challenged existing narratives about women and their rights by creating new texts and distributing them in public spaces. ‘Forwarding feminist discourse is very important for us,’ says the Group. ‘Therefore we have been aiming at creating some sort of ‘spaces of protest.’ Our narrative dissemination methods include street graffiti, street performances, public readings, zines, articles and leaflets.’ 

FemCollective, Armenia
© FemCollective, Armenia

In Sri Lanka, Widya Kumarasinghe from ‘Everystory - Sri Lanka’ explains that their group’s ‘core purpose is to produce feminist children's books which are trilingual and distinctly Sri Lankan (this was particularly important to us in the absence of such books presently in Sri Lanka) that challenge traditional gender narratives. We hope the books can create conversations and dialogue with parents and children about gender norms, and these conversations will create wider discussions about the feminist characters including the wonderful conservationists, scientists, artists, dancers and sportswomen who will feature, and the inspirations and themes that will make up the books.”

In Chile, the feminist collective Las Tesis has used performance art to claim and re-appropriate public spaces to protest, demanding justice and raising awareness while demystifying traditional messages and influencing narratives around sexual violence. Their performance the rapist is you’ has crossed borders to be replicated in many other countries, demonstrating the power of such collective feminist action.

Resourcing the resistance

Conservative and ultra-right movements are well resourced, as outlined by J. Bob Alotta, Executive Director of Astraea, the Lesbian Foundation for Justice: “this gender ideology movement is extremely well-funded, and well-organized across sectors and regions. While we don’t have a comprehensive map of the funding of these movements, we know the size and scope is significant.”  

This is true for anti-abortion movements in Latin America that receive financial support from – and coordinate their actions with –other pro-life organizations internationally. Similarly, anti-rights campaigns in Europe have received financial support from US lobby groups and organisations for the past decade. In contrast, young feminist groups are vastly underfunded, with an average income of just $5000 per annum, as noted in FRIDA and AWID report.

We are now seeing a battle of ideas and narratives that shape our understanding of the world. Feminist activists call for revolution and rejecting capitalism and neoliberalism, while religious conservative ultra-right groups call for a restoration of the old world order, and ‘family values’ in opposition to sexual reproductive rights and freedom of sexuality and gender identity.

In 2020, feminist and women’s rights will take to the global stage with the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women - Beijing+25 forums, and other key feminist fora. No doubt, the international space will be contested and parallel narratives will dominate the public sphere.

With growing backlash against equality in so many countries, young feminist organisers need support. Funders that are committed to social, climate and gender norm change and justice need to become more responsive to their contexts and needs. Given the risks that they take on a daily basis, funding is vital to ensure that their voices are heard. They need resources that are flexible, responsive, and rapidly deployed so that they can hold governments to account, shift harmful norms and challenge the patriarchy. Specific resources to support young feminist movements to stay safe and prevent burn out are more critical than ever, alongside creative, tailored, and responsive ways to support movements to become more resilient and sustainable.


About the authors

Maria Diaz EzquerroMaria Diaz Ezquerro

Maria is a young feminist from Spain who is usually based in South East Asia. Her expertise is in gender and sexual based violence, trauma and mental health, SRHR, participatory methodologies, peer education and community organizing. Maria is passionate about environmental justice and healing justice movements.  Maria holds a bachelor degree on Psychology from the Autonoma University of Madrid, a Master’s degree in International Development from Complutense University of Madrid, and has specialized in Human Rights and Violence Against Women. She worked in various countries across the globe in a variety of human rights issues. She also did some consultancies for different organizations including APWLD, The Due Diligence Project and FRIDA. In recent years she has been leading the Capacity Building program and Holistic Security work at FRIDA. Currently, she is the Co-Manager of Programs at the young feminist fund.

Ruby JohnsonRuby Johnson

Ruby has over 13 years’ experience in advancing gender justice and human rights with grassroots organizations, international NGOs, Foundations and UN Agencies with a specific focus on working with young women and girls. She recently stepped down as the Co-Executive Director (2013-2019) of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, the first youth-led fund focused on women, girls, and trans*youth. Ruby sits on Comic Relief’s Social Impact Committee, and is an advisory member to the Gender and Adolescence Global Evidence (GAGE) and part of the UNW CSO Partnership Assessment Advisory Group. She has recently been consulting with the NoVo Foundation on their Girls’ strategy. Ruby holds a Masters in Participatory Development and Applied Anthropology in Gender from the Australian National University and a Bachelor in International Studies from the University of New South Wales, Australia.