Interview with Emeritus Professor Deniz Kandiyoti on Gender and Politics

Emeritus professor Deniz Kandiyoti has been researching and teaching gender and development studies for over 50 years, as well as working with the UN system. In advance of her Kapuscinski Development Lecture on “How did gender move to the center of democratic struggles?”, she spoke on the intersections of gender and politics and the changes she’s seen. 

January 31, 2022

Click here to register the Kapuscinski Development Lecture with Deniz Kandiyoti, Professor of SOAS, on 15th February at 16:00 CET / 15:00 GMT / 18:00 TRT.

Women's rights and gender equality platforms can only have a global resonance if they are in tune with democratic struggles which are not only about gender issues but about governance more generally. This is the moment when gender must insert itself into anti-authoritarian struggles everywhere. And I think that sociologically speaking, this an is opportune moment since we are witnessing cross-gender alliances of men and women resisting autocratic regimes. Awareness of the meaning of anti-gender politics and the types of political package they form part of is growing. The time has come to abolish any walls between the politics of gender and politics, pure and simple. 

We've been witnessing serious alliances of anti-gender groups all around the world. In light of these ideologies across geographies and religions, how do you see the current challenges for women's rights movements and their potential future?

The anti-gender movement is not of very recent origin. Already in the 1990s, there was a concerted effort to discredit the idea of gender as socially-constructed and to establish that gender relations are not a matter of civic debate or human rights but of doctrinal or cultural imperatives. This came to a head by the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing where the term gender was officially adopted by UN agencies and the donor community, alongside tools such as gender mainstreaming, gender analysis, and gender training. There yet has to be a full reckoning of the consequences of this shift. 

When I look back at the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was explicitly on women's rights and women's marginalization in the development process. By the time we got to the mid-90s, this discourse had shifted in complex ways. On the one hand, you had development theorists and practitioners who introduced gender as a relational concept and argued that development interventions necessitated taking account of the full set of relations between men, women, and different generations, as well as the differences of class, caste, ethnicity, and race. So when gender was initially adopted by the UN and bilateral and multilateral funding agencies this stemmed from a critique of the women and development approach and its limitations. Meanwhile, in academia, post-structuralist scholars introduced another meaning of gender not only as fluid and performative but ultimately, abolishing the sex/gender distinction and presenting sexuality itself is a construct. This coincided with a historical moment when sexual liberties platforms and constituencies of LGBTQI rights advocates were becoming more vocal and effective in social movements of the north. This created some conundrums for women’s rights activists whose most basic citizenship rights were still unaddressed in many countries of the south. There remained a stubborn gap in the language, means, and temporalities of women's rights struggles in the north and the south, both in civic space and in the development sphere.

For example, in 2001, when Afghanistan was incorporated into the UN system after the fall of the Taliban, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, was created to monitor international benchmarks in gender equality, adopting gender mainstreaming. As I witnessed the interactions between foreign technical experts and local Afghan women's rights advocates, I could not help noticing a divergence in language and understanding. In a context where most women (and men) continued to live out coerced identities the term gender and its implied fluidity was difficult to explain. Yet this was no simple rejection of “Western” concepts or standards since the same women's rights advocates were trying hard to make the most of international standard-setting instruments, such as CEDAW, which their government had become a party to,  in a bid to increase their weak bargaining power. 

So what does this imply and how does it relate to the present? Essentially, with the global rise of populisms came the contention that gender, with its baggage of fluidity and sexual liberties, was the preoccupation of a privileged elite that is estranged from the grassroots of their own societies, which are assumed to be conservative and/ or religious. Gender issues started being used as a widespread instrument of demagoguery and populist propaganda. Anti-gender ideologies became part and parcel of xenophobic nationalisms, claiming that gender equality platforms were anti-national and an alleged product of the liberal West-despite the glaring fact that anti-gender ideologies were thriving in the heartlands of Europe and in the USA. 

Yet during the Arab uprisings, and global youth protests across the world, we saw a new generation coming at these issues from a different angle. Many realized that the type of top-down patriarchy that was imposed on them as an adjunct to the autocracies they opposed was actually an issue of governance and not of culture.  We have seen many manifestations of anti-authoritarian youth protests across the world that offer potentially new political texts on gender. 

You question this abstract notion of patriarchy as used in contemporary feminist theory, and argue that these patriarchal systems are culturally and temporarily diverse. Can you expand on this?

Initially, I presented patriarchy as a form of social contract where male dominance and privilege came with the promise of protection and provision for the needs of women and children. That was the deal that I called the “patriarchal bargain”. However, through time, and especially with the deepening of neoliberal policies across the world, there was an erosion of the material bases of this system. Large-scale unemployment and precarity for men and youth meant that in many parts of the world the original terms of the patriarchal bargain were simply unfulfillable, ushering in a so-called crisis of masculinity.  Women’s employment was booming in many regions and they were sometimes becoming the main breadwinners. For instance, when we look at the export-led industrialization of Southeast Asia, we see that this boom was as much “female-led” as export-led with a workforce dominated by young women in factories. The concept of “classic patriarchy” was no longer valid.

Now, does this mean that the era of male dominance is over? Not at all, because we have numerous polities where male privilege is ideologically and legally enforced, even though the material basis for it may be deeply eroded. You have to deploy different means of coercion and persuasion when male privilege is contested and no longer hegemonic. What made me acutely aware of this phenomenon – which I call masculinist restoration - was changing forms and functions of violence against women. 

When we think of violence against women, we're mainly thinking about domestic violence, because most women are abused at the hands of people they know, fathers, brothers, husbands, ex-husbands, or members of the same neighborhoods. What I started noticing more and more were forms of violence that were taking place in public spaces throughout the world, and perpetrated by anonymous actors. My first wake-up call came, I think, with a series of femicides in Mexico, where Ciudad Juarez factories employed a lot of young women who were being serially murdered. Then you started seeing many other instances, like a woman doctor, being gang-raped on a bus going back home in Delhi, or some guy slapping a nurse on a bus in Istanbul because he didn't like her attire. This type of violence led me to reflect about its causes. In the case of the Arab uprisings, which I studied between 2011 and 2014, there was a form of aggression that although it masqueraded as gender-based violence, was in fact a clear instance of political violence. It was a method of dissuading people who wanted to demonstrate, scaring them off by telling their women: you go out there, and you risk rape, you risk molestation. 

It is one thing to try and control women who are yet to achieve public presence and visibility and quite another to try to put the genie back in the bottle once they have. If you have a protest in Cairo women are, of course, going to participate- so now you must try to intimidate them into submission. In Turkey, there was a notorious case of the rape and murder of a young woman making her way home from university. What followed was a debate about women’s right to mobility and freedom of movement, or whether they should be restricted and protected by being allocated separate buses. The whole discourse was about managing women's public presence. 

When governments try to contain social transformations in the sphere of gender, they have to invest heavily in propaganda and indoctrination about women’s domestic vocation going as far as suggesting that obedience to men is a religious duty. A lot of effort and material resources are required to bolster a gender order that is sociologically defunct. That is why I argue that patriarchy as we knew it no longer exists, and that reinstating and keeping male dominance alive, ideologically and culturally, requires a great deal of effort. 

How should we understand the political struggle for defending women’s rights?

We must start by acknowledging the totally instrumental approach that governments worldwide have adopted vis a vis women's rights and how gender equality platforms have been used instrumentally for domestic and geopolitical purposes. This scenario is played out in different ways in different countries. A good example may be the initial enthusiastic acceptance of the Istanbul Convention by the Turkish government only to be followed by its rejection five years later.  When you look at anti-gender movements across the world, you see that the political struggles vary, the actors change, the rationales and timing change, but essentially, there is a dynamic which is entirely political although it is being masked with reference to cultural values. These contradictions go back such a long time that you can start tracing them from the 1970s onwards backlash was inevitable as well as resistance to it, which I will talk more about in my lecture.

Deniz Kandiyoti is an Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She holds degrees from the University of Paris (Sorbonne) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She was also on the faculty of the Middle East Technical University (1969-74) and Boğaziçi University (1974-1980) in Turkey. She has worked on Turkey, post-Soviet Central Asia, and Afghanistan and developed comparative perspectives on state, gender, and power in the broader Muslim world. She made key theoretical contributions to analyses of patriarchy and male dominance. She is the author of Concubines, Sisters, and Citizens: Identities and Social Transformation (in Turkish, 1997) the editor of  Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey (2002), Gendering the Middle East (1996), Women, Islam and the State (1991) Gender, Governance and Islam (with Nadje Al-Ali and Kathryn Spellman Poots, 2019) and numerous articles on gender, women’s rights, Islam, development, and state policies. She has also acted as a consultant for UNWomen, UNDP, UNESCO, OSCE, UNIFEM, British Council, DFID, and UNRISD and monitored the gender effects of the Arab uprisings from 2011 as guest editor for 50.50 open Democracy.

Click here to register the Kapuscinski Development Lecture with Deniz Kandiyoti, Professor of SOAS, on 15th February at 16:00 CET / 15:00 GMT / 18:00 TRT.