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Global Contestations of Women’s and Gender Rights

ZiF Research Group, October 2020 – July 2021

Convenors: Alexandra Scheele, Julia Roth und Heidemarie Winkel

In March 2022, the ZiF Research Group Global Contestations of Women’s and Gender Rights finished its work with a closing conference on "Conflicts over Women's and Gender Rights: Ambivalences and Contradictions" and published an edited volume on Global Contestations of Gender Rights. 33 fellows from Africa, the Americas, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe are working together in different formats on the questions of theways in which gender rights are currently contested and notions of gender inequality are reconfigured, and to what extent is the contestation of gender rights across the globe reflected in the empirical reality of multiple local perceptions of equality and related rights cultures?

This research concern unfolds against the backdrop that women's and gender rights have increasingly been called into question and attacked in recent years. This is especially evident in the renewed debates about abortion rights, marriage for all, early sexual education or in the hostility towards feminists and gender studies. Forty years after its adoption by the General Assembly of the UN, most states have ratified theUN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but none has fully realized gender equality. By contrast, gender has been globally reinforced as a category of structural, institutional and cultural inequality. This divide between legally guaranteed gender equality principles and the empirical continuation of gender inequality is the starting point of the research group's work programme.

The research group's fundamental assumption is that human rights and equality principles have never been universal, never inclusive. This was reflected in recent celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2018. However, the group's primary concern is the recent development towards the increasing contestation of gender equality principles across the globe. The presumed normative consensus about equality principles has become disputable in various nationalist political arenas. The demonization of gender politics and rights claims as 'gender ideology' functions as a rhetorical tool in the construction of a new 'common sense' against gender equality. Discourses on gender equality have become a resource for global right-wing alliances and function as socio-cultural instruments for symbolic boundary-making, rather than as resources of social solidarity and cohesion. Meanwhile, the growing neo-liberal permeation of all spheres of life is carrying on apace in the background; it reinforces gender as a constitutive dimension of the un-equal distribution of material and socio-cultural resources. By contrast, neo-patriarchal, authoritarian regimes question whether gender equality principles are part and parcel of the hegemonic global liberal order and instrumentalize religion against equality rights.

Hence, the group's research object is the transformation of the notion and semantics of rights into a shared 'language of contestation' in three empirical arenas in which the contestation of gender equality is particularly manifest:

  1. the gendered division of labour
  2. the instrumentalization of religion
  3. gendered citizenship regimes and sexual rights.

The group will examine, from various disciplinary perspectives and in select local contexts, the social processes in which the semantics of rights (have) become contentious in these arenas. The group assumes that it is not clear how the issue of women's and gender rights has evolved into a contested understanding of gender. Accordingly, the research group aims to develop an empirically and theoretically based framework of the various dynamics and mechanisms which effect the manifold contestations of gender equality in diverse contexts across the globe.

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