Kapuscinski Development Lecture with Emeritus Professor Deniz Kandiyoti

Melissa Toman (SIPA'22)
March 10, 2022

On February 15, Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul, in partnership with the European Commission and United Nations Development Program, hosted the third installment of the Kapuscinski Development Lecture Series featuring Deniz Kandiyoti, Emeritus Professor of Gender and Development Studies at the SOAS University of London. Titled “How Did Gender Move to the Center of Democratic Struggles?” the talk addressed how the politics of gender has come to occupy a central place in debates over citizenship, national belonging, and the future of democratic governance.

The lecture began with introductions and opening remarks from Merve Ispahani, Academic Programs Coordinator at Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul; Bharati Sadasivam, Regional Gender Advisor at United Nations Development Programme; and Brigitte Luggin, Policy Officer in the Unit for Gender Equality, Human Rights, and Democratic Governance at the European Commission.

Deniz Kandiyoti began her lecture by recognizing the overt manifestations of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia in the 21st century that have become mainstreamed by elected populist leaders. The creation of polarized societies has led to vital issues being at stake, such as ideas of citizenship, national belonging, and the future of democracy. Her research focuses on politics of gender, introducing the terms of masculinist restoration and patriarchal bargaining to the terminology of gender in addition to the concept of gender crisis. 

Professor Kandiyoti argued that gender violence is political violence and that around the world we can see various milestones that have brought us to where anti-gender platforms and movements are flourishing and have become the hallmark of ascending right-wing populists. She cited specific examples, such as anti-LGBT laws and rhetoric in Hungary, as well as the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Based on examples such as these, she claimed, we are living in a world where men and women are locked into cursed identities where women are denied basic rights.

The lecture went on to discuss the concept of backlash, or resistance by those who feel threatened by change in the status quo and perceived loss of power when marginalized or disadvantaged groups challenge power structures. Backlash can be overt, such as threats and acts of violence, or covert, such as in measures to silence groups. A study on Counter Backlash was coordinated by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK developed a framework that attempts to make sense of these changes, describing three different types of phenomena: defensive responses that are reactive in nature and resorptive in intent, such as men’s movements against alimony and custody arrangements, which are relatively new to regions like the Middle East; responses which are offensive in nature and hark back to a paradise lost of patriarchal gender harmony or complementarity, such as in references to a pre-colonial historic past or golden age to justify male dominance; and movements for male entitlement, which can often resort to violence and terrorism.

Despite these threats, Professor Kandiyoti argued that society needs to be beyond backlash to account for the fault lines running through feminism and gender politics. Internal contradictions and unintended consequences of global encounters have impacted rights advocacy, especially in the global south. Countries may vocally support gender equality practices, but maintain discriminatory practices. She argued that the dysfunctions of institutionalized gender equality machineries, bifurcations between social justice and gender equality goals under neoliberalism, and the invocation of women’s rights in pursuit of militaristic, geopolitical ventures has fed into key populous tropes such as elites vs people, us vs them, and foreign vs indigenous, catapulting gender to the center of the debate in unproductive and unhelpful ways.

The discussion also included a Q&A session where Professor Kandiyoti addressed topics such as the role of democratic states in developing creative policies to address gender equality, gender bias in Turkey, the involvement of men in feminist movements, and the cooptation of gender politics and NGOs as backlash agents. 

Professor Kandiyoti ended her presentation with the questions ‘where do we go from here?’, as we are witnessing forms of citizen-led activism and mobilization on an unprecedented scale. She also pondered about the implications for such movements developing a new understanding of power relations and social hierarchies, including those based on gender. Professor Kandiyoti emphasized the importance for countries to develop more creative politics of coalitions and alliances. The challenge society faces now is finding the imagination and wisdom to forge a new politics of feminist solidarity that resonates around the globe by harnessing the aspirations of younger generations.

Our full interview with Deniz Kandiyoti is available here.