The rise of populism is a threat to women everywhere

From Donald Trump in the US to the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, far-right populists are eroding women's rights

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 29: Women protest against the far-rights presidential candidate on September 29, 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The protests occurred simultaneously in several Brazilian cities, against Jair Bolsonaro, the far rights presidential candidate. Protests included an internet campaign (#elenão and #himnot) which was joined by many women from various countries. Corinthians fans, Brazil's biggest soccer team, and other social groups also joined. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)
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"There is a sense of established power being threatened by women gaining respect." So says Susana Malcorra, the former foreign minister of Argentina.

From President Donald Trump in the US to President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, so-called political "strongmen" are steadily whittling away rights that women have struggled for decades to gain. The rising tide of populism that they embody is such a concern that a group of 30 female leaders at the highest global level, including Malcorra, released a letter in advance of International Women's Day.

The Group of Women Leaders for Change and Inclusion comprises the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, Ethiopian president Sahle-Work Zewde and the former Irish president Mary Robinson. They believe that right-wing populism is seeking to “halt and erode gender equality” and that this isn’t just damaging to women, but to everyone.

To some, this letter will be surprising. After all, the momentum of the women's rights movement has been growing, especially over the last 10 years. In some countries, we are witnessing heartening shifts, ranging from moves for better healthcare to equal pay. While few of these measures are fast or wide-ranging enough, people are at least talking about women's rights and freedoms and pushing to change policy around the world.

The numbers tell a different story, though. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report states that progress towards gender equality is slowing. In fact, it will take eight years longer to close the gap than was predicted in 2017.

However, we should be most concerned about the prevailing social and political mood. In some circles, the empowerment of women is seen as an existential threat to men. That’s why we hear comments about women demanding too much change and moaning unnecessarily, and questions such as “Why do you need International Women’s Day when women have everything already?”.

Machismo brings with it an essentialising of gender roles, where men are men, and women are with the kids and in the kitchen. It’s why we have strangely patriarchal figures such as Jordan Peterson who believe that women just need to be quiet and take care of their men.

But it’s more than just talk. Laws are actually being changed. Take, for example, legislation around domestic violence in the US. The Trump administration quietly altered the definition to include only physical harm. Its broader meaning, which takes into account psychological abuse, coercive control and manipulation - all of which are now widely accepted by experts as being part of gender-based abuse - will no longer be recognised.

In some circles, the empowerment  of women is seen as an existential threat to men

Populism has swept into power on the back of a largely male desire to return to how things used to be, born of an aggrieved sense of being “left behind”. It's why Mr Trump's brand of admissions of sexual assault are brushed of as "locker room" talk. It’s why Mr Duterte can joke about rape with little to no comeback.

The current crop of populist leaders are not friends of women. Which is why it is alarming that some women are active participants in their rise.

Consider all the white women who voted for Mr Trump, based on the idea that race is more important than sisterhood. Then there are women such as Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National in France, and Pia Kjaersgaard, the co-founder of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party.

Populist movements also cast women as objects of honour, empathy and compassion. But only when it’s convenient. Think of how Ivanka Trump’s image as the "perfect wife" was used. Who can forget the day she posted a picture online of herself cuddling her child while news was breaking about her father’s policies of separating children from their parents at the border. Look at how the idea of immigrants as a threat to white women has been propagated time and time again.

By setting people against each other in this way, reinforcing gender boundaries and manufacturing issues that will prevent women coming together and speaking with one voice, populists are playing the oldest trick in the book: divide and rule. We must not fall for it and need to be prepared to, as Malcorra said, “fight back”.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World