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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

GenderBabel: The Multivocality of “Gender” and “Gender Equality Politics” as a Source for Illiberal Appropriation and Contestation. A Norm-diffusion Perspective

Comparative Perspective
Anja Hennig
Europa-Universität Viadrina
Anja Hennig
Europa-Universität Viadrina

Although liberal democracies are still far from gender equality, opposition to “gender” and gender equality politics is on the rise. Simultaneously, right-wing actors appropriate gender-equality as argument against the accommodation of Muslims. Going against the grain of the recent literature on these phenomenona, this Paper shifts the analytical perspective from actors and arguments to the nature of “gender equality” as an international norm. To explain why gender equality is increasingly contested, while also suiting illiberal purposes, I present a twofold argument.

First, following the literature on international norm diffusion, norms (1) evolve through processes of contestation and appropriation and (2) become most successfully internalized if their scope and meaning remains unspecific. These conditions hold particularly true for the norm of gender-equality. The term gender is multivocal – it refers to structural relations between men and women, to the post-structuralist notion of fluid gender identities, to homosexuality or only to women – and this suits its international codification. These multiple meanings facilitate a selective appropriation by different actors, making it a versatile slogan for those protecting traditionalist moral values and family models.

Secondly, internalized norms legitimize (trans)national political action. For example, the European Union tends to incite member-states to implement gender-mainstreaming measures. According to a populist interpretation and a selective understanding of gender, such policy epitomizes the imposition of an elitist project and state interference into moral issues. A striking example is the “we vs. them” rhetoric within the “gender-ideology frame”.

This Paper discusses these arguments in the light of two case-studies: the opposition to gender-sensitive school curricula by Catholic inspired networks in Italy and France and the political campaign of the German right-wing party AfD.
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