From Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro to Hungary led by Viktor Orbán, women’s reproductive rights are being targeted
When Brazil, where I am writing from this week, became worried that almost two-thirds of its population was black or mixed race, radical steps were taken. Never mind that the blackness of its population was thanks to its own dependence on African slavery: in the first part of the 20th century, Brazil actively recruited European migrants with the explicit aim of whitening itself, or keeping, in the words of a presidential decree of 1945, “the most convenient features of its European ancestry”.
The resulting class and race inequalities in the South American country are part of a complex mix that has resulted in Brazil’s own variation on the populist theme. Now, under the Trump of the tropics, as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is sometimes described, reproductive fascism is back, and focused – so far – on controlling women’s bodies.
One of Bolsonaro’s early acts in office was to replace the government department for human rights with a department for “family values”, and with a rightwing evangelical preacher at the helm. Damares Alves may have said she would help low-income women, but she is also anti-abortion, and is so comfortable with post-truth leadership that she has claimed the Dutch are taught to masturbate from the age of seven months.
In her wisdom, Alves has in turn appointed another woman to run public policy for motherhood. For this she chose Sara Winter, formerly a member of the feminist group Femen but now someone who credits Christianity with “curing” her feminism.
Populist strongmen love a good female antifeminist. Donald Trump recently appointed Rebecca Kleefisch – a conservative former TV anchor who says women should be subservient to their husbands – as the new head of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. Such appointments must be great fun for populist misogynist men – you get to kill two birds with one stone. First you weaponise anti-women’s rights women against other women, thereby infuriating feminists – who hate you anyway – while simultaneously reducing initiatives that were designed to promote gender equality to a laughing stock, which serves your interests quite nicely.
But when anti-women policies are masquerading as those intended to help women, things get more complicated. Take Poland’s Family 500+ measure, for example, a policy introduced by the ruling Law and Justice party that gives families 500 złotys (£100) a month for each second and subsequent child. As someone who cares equally about the suffering of low-income mothers and child poverty, I’m all for helping families with children. But the idea that assistance for those in poverty is conditional on obedient reproduction is verging on the dystopian.
Every dystopian novel worth its salt provides a chilling caution on coercive reproduction. It’s a message at the core of The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 classic novel that imagines the institutionalisation of fertile women as “handmaids”, for impregnation by the elite. The book’s current revival, both on TV and in a new sequel by its author, Margaret Atwood, is no coincidence of timing. More recently John Lanchester’s novel The Wall has brought dystopia into the Brexit era. In it, young couples are incentivised to become “breeders” as a way out of the brutal military service that has become compulsory because Britain is trying to keep immigrants out.
The juxtaposition of keeping immigrants out and keeping “indigenous” women breeding is no coincidence; nor is it the stuff of fiction any more. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister with a knack for making the dystopian real, has just declared that women with four children or more will be exempt from paying income tax. Three or more children gets you help buying a car, and he announced further plans to increase funding for childcare and kindergartens. “Migration for us is surrender,” Orbán has said. “We want Hungarian children.”
Which makes it helpfully unambiguous that these policies utilise women’s bodies for an agenda that is about anything but gender equality. They may start by pursuing these aims with bribery – just like Theresa May, who now dangles cash in front of poor constituencies in exchange for votes on Brexit, populist movements know people can be bought – but, as our writers keep trying to warn us, they end in coercion. And that’s why it is never too soon to resist.
This feature was first published in The Guardian, Feb 13, 2019
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist