🌈 The insidious link between autocratisation and gender-based violence

Women and sexual minorities are facing unprecedented levels of targeted political violence. Andrea Krizsán and Conny Roggeband argue that gender-based violence has become a tool for right-wing populist parties and governments to promote and sustain an exclusionary ideal of the nation and 'the people' as white, patriarchal, and heteronormative

Creating 'enemies of the state' to legitimate violence

Patriarchal populists cherish a racially and religiously homogenous social order built on the patriarchal 'traditional family' and nation-state. This ideal is accompanied by a political vision that is majoritarian and anti-pluralist, including an exclusionary definition of the demos.

Those who contest this right-wing populist ideal of the gender and sexual order are targeted as enemies. Depicting certain groups and actors as threats or enemies of their political project legitimates the use of violence or other forms of discipline and punishment against them. Gender-based violence is thus both a tool and a product of these political forces. Patriarchal populists such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India and the Spanish VOX party use violence to promote and sustain their envisaged political community, and the project underpinning it.

Physical threats, online intimidation

Targets of gender-based political violence include political opponents in formal politics but also civil society activists and journalists. Defenders of gender and sexual rights receive threats, intimidation and direct violence in the physical world. In cyberspace, they are subjected to anti-feminist harassment.

Academics producing and disseminating critical knowledge, who challenge patriarchy and essentialist understandings of gender, sexuality and race, are increasingly coming under attack. Critical civil society actors, including prominent feminist and LGBTQIA organisations, find themselves targets of state-sponsored and state-condoned violence. This violence may be extra-legal measures like gender-based violence, smear campaigns and intimidation. But it also manifests in state-sponsored actions limiting the space or resources of civil society to perform its democratic role.

Feminist politicians encounter appalling levels of misogyny – sometimes from political actors at the highest level. They must also confront also cyber-bullying and threats of physical violence from actors outside of politics.

Feminist actors in civil society, such as those in the media and academia, may face sanctions because of their perceived threat as 'foreign agents'

Feminist actors in civil society, such as those in the media and academia, may face sanctions because of their perceived threat as 'foreign agents', as we currently see Hungary and in Russia. Feminists are barred from political and policy access, or their funding may be cut on ideological grounds. They are blacklisted, doxed (private data made public), attacked or persecuted through state auditing and control procedures. In 2016, Polish Law and Justice party forces raided NGO offices working on gender-based violence. The targeting of specific groups can also intimidate other activists working on similar issues. Such intimidation may lead to self-censorship, to the reframing of political priorities – or even to retreat from activism entirely.

Political violence invades the 'private'

Gender violence as a tool of such autocratising projects also extends beyond the sphere of politics. It trickles down into the realm of the private, and into everyday social life. Indeed, it forms part of a continuum in which political violence is intimately connected to various forms of interpersonal violence.

Exclusionary political ideology – especially if articulated at the highest political levels – and gender violence against prominent political actors legitimises and stimulates misogyny and homo- / transphobia in any sphere of life. It encourages violence in intimate relationships, labour organisations, in the streets and in cyberspace. In addition to discursive legitimisation, state negligence, omission, and failure to respond to violence also implicitly condone gender-based violence.

To combat this, protecting the (mostly female) victims of violence should be the core focus of state action. Yet in the context of an ideology of strict gender hierarchy, protecting and idealising the traditional family and gender complementarity becomes the guiding principle. Misogynist and homo- / transphobic political discourse may also influence street-level professionals' approach to victim protection principles, even when enshrined in policy. Anti-gender discourse discourages victims of gender-based violence from coming forward with accusations. It can even lead to services operated by women’s rights groups being labelled enemies of the national project. Organisations targeted by foreign-agent laws in places including Republika Srpska (in Bosnia), Hungary and Russia all prominently target gender equality and LGBTQI organisations.

Reframing the problem of gender-based violence

The path of policy changes may have the effect of endorsing gender-based violence. Indeed, we see this in the fierce opposition to the Council of Europe Convention's initiative to eliminate violence against women, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention.

Anti-Istanbul Convention campaigns have taken place in most post-communist European countries. Such protests have led to governments in Russia and Azerbaijan refusing to sign the Convention. And in countries including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, protests have led to non-ratification. Even Turkey, the country in which the Convention opened for signature in 2011, withdrew from the Convention ten years later. Contestation undermines existing and future policies and services combatting gender-based violence.

Patriarchal populists defund and dismantle feminist infrastructures such as shelters, and legal and psychological services established to deal with violence. Sometimes they remove such infrastructures entirely; sometimes they replace them with alternative services operated by conservative or market-driven actors. In Croatia, Hungary and Italy, for example, state funding and tendering processes have systematically favoured conservative organisations, or organisations without relevant experience, who put in a lower bid.

Right-wing populist leaders culturalise gender-based violence, associating it with migration, poverty and alcohol or drug abuse

Excessive focus on law-and-order responses and criminalisation shifts focus away from preventing violence and protecting the victims. It reframes the problem of gender-based violence, linking it, conveniently, to ‘deviant’ groups or to particular social categories, and denying gender inequality as a root cause.

Right-wing populist leaders culturalise or pathologise gender-based violence, associating it with migration, poverty and alcohol or drug abuse. Italy's ruling party Fratelli d'Italia depicts migrant men as the main perpetrators of domestic violence. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán proposes migration restrictions to address gender-based violence. In so doing, these actors deny the structural gendered character of such violence, externalising the problem away from the ideal Christian 'normal' family, which they uphold as a safe haven from violence.

The unresponsive state

But policy changes and backsliding are not the only way patriarchal populists sanction violence. They also condone gender-based violence through state negligence, omission, and failure to respond to violence. As Mary Hawkesworth points out, the failure to investigate, prosecute and punish gender-based violence exacerbates rather than mitigates violence. It puts women and sexual minorities beyond the protection of the law and the state.

Failure to enforce existing legislation or investigate violence gives victims the impression that the state can act with impunity. Moreover, it normalises vulnerability and threat. Non-responsiveness of state institutions and law enforcement agencies renders them complicit in perpetuating the problem of gendered violence.

Unresponsive states communicate the implicit message that those who transgress gender roles and norms are ripe for victimisation and violation

This ‘femicidal state’, Hawkesworth argues, operates on a racialised gendering mode. It depends upon, and forges, homosocial politics: alliances between privileged men, law enforcement agents, and politicians. It cements gendered and racialised power inequalities, and controls the movement and space of female and feminised bodies. Unresponsive states communicate the implicit message that those who transgress gender roles and norms deserve victimisation and violation.

Condoning gender-based violence in the political and private sphere is an effective tool to control bodies and obstruct political participation and collective mobilisation. Autocratising regimes and actors fear the collective mobilising power of women and sexual minorities. They suppress this not only by curtailing civic space and obstructing women's and minorities' participation in the formal political arena, but also by instilling fear, and leaving them unprotected against violence in their private lives.

No.14 in a Loop thread on Gendering Democracy. Look out for the 🌈 to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Andrea Krizsán Andrea Krizsán Senior Research Fellow, Democracy Institute, Central European University, Budapest / Professor, School of Public Policy, Gender Studies Department, Central European University, Vienna More by this author
photograph of Conny Roggeband Conny Roggeband Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam More by this author

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