By María Lis Baiocchi
This piece is part of APLA’s Speaking Justice to Power Series: On the Gender and the Sexual Politics of Contemporary Patriarchal Ethnonationalist Authoritarianism, edited by María Lis Baiocchi.
On March 23rd, 2020, the state of Texas banned abortion as the COVID-19 pandemic led to suspensions of non-essential health procedures. The abortion ban in Texas was the first of several other restrictions on sexual and reproductive freedom that followed in other US states, prompting swift lawsuits from women’s and civil rights organizations across the country. U.S. abortion bans during the current COVID-19 crisis are not happening in a vacuum: they are taking place in the context of the resurgence of patriarchal authoritarianism and ethnonationalism around the globe, in which state and non-state actors are deliberately targeting the rights of women and the LGBTQI+ community.
In recent years, examples of such targeted restrictions on rights have included, in addition to abortion bans, bills limiting trans people’s access to bathrooms and health care in the United States; a ban on the teaching of gender equality in schools in Paraguay under the premise of “gender ideology;” outright prohibition of Gender Studies programs in Hungary and Romania; a ban on gender research in Bulgaria; and rejection of a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina. The fact that these processes of governance are deeply gendered is, of course, anything but surprising. Anthias and Yuval-Davis (1989) made this very point more than thirty years ago, when they theorized in incisive detail how women and men—and we may add, members of the LGBTQI+ community—occupy different places in the nationalist imagination, how national and state projects conceive of women and men differently and affect women and men in radically different ways. While not surprising, these worrisome trends have been met not only with righteous outrage, but also with incredible displays of creativity, ingenuity, care, and hope in defiance of them. These displays have often manifested in the form of collective, spectacular demonstrations of activism, such as the Women’s March in the US or the #niunamenos marches in various countries of Latin America. They have also manifested in the form of less dramatic, subtle expressions of resistance in everyday life, forms of dissent that ethnographers have long documented (e.g., Ong 1988, Paules 1991, Peña 1997, Scott 1985, Woodcock 2016, and Zlolniski 2003). As patriarchal ethnonationalist authoritarianism becomes more assertive, engaging our ethnographies with these impositions and resistances becomes a more pressing, crucial endeavor.
In this Speaking Justice to Power installment, four scholars with expertise in mobilities, displacement, migration, gender, and sexuality reflect on the politics of contemporary patriarchal ethnonationalist authoritarianism around the globe, its effects, and the multiplicity of responses to it. Drawing from ethnographic research in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, they consider the various local/national forms that patriarchal ethnonationalist authoritarianism takes in different contexts, and discuss the often gendered political possibilities and practices of resistance that have emerged. These ethnographers also provide food for thought about possibilities and practices that expand our imagination of “the political” and its implications for gender, sexuality, and citizenship.
These pieces illustrate the ways in which the current moment should be interpreted as a crisis in Janet Roitman’s sense of the term, who defines “crisis” as a “diagnostic of the present,” as “the means by which history is located, recognized, comprehended, and even posited.” They demonstrate how paying close attention to the gender and sexual politics of contemporary patriarchal, ethnonationalist authoritarianism provides necessary insight into history as it is made, and how such close attention enables us to assess the current state of affairs across a variety of different locales. In so doing, they shed necessary light on how patriarchal, ethnonationalist, authoritarian outbursts often find ultimate expression in commanding control over the bodies of women and LGBTQI+ people—over their reproductive capacity, their personal lives, their movement, their labor, and ultimately and perhaps most importantly, their agency. These scholars find common ground in highlighting how state regimes of bodily control determine and circumscribe women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s agency, through what Lisa Marie Cacho calls the violence of value. These accounts show how state processes of valuation and legibility are simultaneously contingent upon state processes of devaluation and illegibility. They show how this valuation/devaluation dyad that determines who becomes readable and recognizable and, concomitantly, unreadable and unrecognizable for the state and hence, as Cacho (2012) put it, eligible or ineligible for personhood, is deeply gendered and sexed. And they illustrate what a refusal to engage with the gender and sexual politics of eligibility looks like for real people across the world.
Georgina Ramsay’s piece examines how ineligibility for personhood is produced through the curtailment of women’s capacity to be mothers, in a context where motherhood is often experienced by women as a central dimension of their agency. Drawing from fieldwork with internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ramsay discusses how ethnonationalist regimes of state power exercise control not only through direct violence against women and children, but especially through the indirect violence that has disabled the structural social, political, and economic conditions for childhood, and concomitantly, for motherhood to exist.
Motherhood as a form of agency reverberates across other pieces as well, and becomes particularly salient as a form of resistance to dehumanizing regimes of migration and refuge in Mengia Tschalaer’s piece. Drawing from fieldwork with LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in Germany, she speaks to their experiences with the asylum system and its bureaucracy in a context of increased ethnonationalist, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant extremism and an increase in the number of people seeking asylum. She shows not only the trials and tribulations that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers go through by being fixed in a liminal space of extended waiting by the state, but also the discourses and practices they engage in to regain a sense of power, agency, and ultimately, humanity.
Carol Chan’s piece also considers how women contend with and challenge the regulation of their movement and behavior not only by the patriarchal state, but also by patriarchal structures of kinship. Drawing from fieldwork with returning migrant women in Indonesia, Chan shows how women’s migrations from Indonesia go hand-in-hand with the state’s championing of their labor migration as part and parcel of their gendered obligations to care for the nation. This discourse is echoed at the level of the family, where their migration is framed in terms of their responsibility to care as mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. But Chan also shows how their exercise of care through labor migration opens up possibilities to challenge normative gender expectations and formations and, consequently, enables new ways to exercise their agency.
This exercise of agency, and specifically, political agency through care, is the subject of Martha Balaguera’s piece. Based on ethnographic research with human rights lawyers, activists, and Central American migrants crossing Mexico, she discusses the uses and misuses of the law against refugees seeking asylum in the United States through lawfare, as well as the embodied practices that women lawyers employ to fight against it. In so doing, she shows what it means to engage with a gendered politics of care through what she terms “legal accompaniment,” which goes well beyond providing legal advice to confront the increasing authoritarianism of the punitive and carceral US migration system.
These pieces engage with the themes of this Speaking Justice to Power installment from different theoretical orientations and disciplinary standpoints. Yet read together, their careful analyses and commentary show ways in which the structural violence produced by normative regimes of governance determines who may be considered a worthy victim, a worthy migrant, a worthy refugee—who may count and who may not. They also give an account of hope and determination, of the ways in which people around the world contest, problematize, and transgress these normative regimes of patriarchal, ethnonationalist authoritarianism in everyday life.
María Lis Baiocchi is a 2019-2020 PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellow whose research interests and areas of expertise include the anthropology of gender, labor, citizenship, and migration, with a geographic focus on Latin America. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2019. She currently serves as Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Cacho, L. M. (2012). Social death: racialized rightlessness and the criminalization of the unprotected. New York, New York University Press.
Ong, A. (1988). “The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia.” American Ethnologist 15(1): 28-42.
Paules, G. F. (1991). Dishing it out: power and resistance among waitresses in a New Jersey restaurant. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.
Peña, D. G. (1997). The terror of the machine: technology, work, gender, and ecology on the U.S.-Mexico border. Austin, CMAS Books.
Roitman, J. (2011). “Crisis” Political concepts: a critical lexicon Retrieved August 3rd, 2020 from http://www.politicalconcepts.org/issue1/crisis/.
Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, Yale University Press.
Woodcock, J. (2016). Working the phones: control and resistance in call centres. London, Pluto Press.
Yuval-Davis, N. and F. Anthias (1989). Introduction. Woman, nation, state. N. Yuval-Davis and F. Anthias. New York, St. Martin’s Press: 1-15.
Zlolniski, C. (2003). “Labor Control and Resistance of Mexican Immigrant Janitors in Silicon Valley.” Human Organization 62(1): 39-49.