Panel 1: New Topography of Power and the Future of Gender Justice

Listen to complete plenary session

Christa Wichterich, author, university lecturer and member and part of the WIDE+ caucus
Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, author and senior advisor at KIT Gender
Emma Dowling, senior lecturer in Sociology at Middlesex University London 

 The rise of right-wing populism. Neoliberalism and austerity policies. The ‘refugee crisis.’ Brexit.

These are just a few of the key issues and challenges that framed the WIDE+ conference “Movements, Borders, Rights? Feminist Perspectives on Global Issues in Europe,” which recently took place in Brussels, 24-25th October.

The first panel, the “New Topography of Power and the Future of Gender Justice,” brought together Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, a senior advisor at the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) Gender ( and Emma Dowling, a senior lecturer in Sociology at Middlesex University London.

Mukhopadhyay opened with a critique of the current neoliberal global structure, which has seen the rise of marketization and financialization. Internationally, there has been a shift from the optimism of the 1990s. During this time, good governance was high on the international development agenda – to some good effect – and there was talk about the expansion of human rights frameworks. And yet, this wasn’t matched by what actually happened.

In Europe, Welfare states are on the retreat, with safety nets being dismantled and reduced investment in care, health and education: ‘the world has been restructured to not be able to afford it.’

The divide between the Global South and Global North was once more pronounced. This is no longer so district as precarity, Mukhopadhyay argues, has come to Europe.

Mukhopadhyay’s analysis of the global context set the stage for Dowling’s analysis of Brexit.

The leave vote occurred in the context of crisis and austerity in Europe and partial economic recovery. Whilst the 2009 global financial crisis could have been a catalyst for change, critically interrogating what caused the crisis in the first place, instead it has proved an effective tool for increased austerity structures.

The UK has seen increasing deregulation of the labour market, with a rise in precarity, evidenced by zero hours contract. It has seen increasing privatisation and the dismantling of the welfare state, with a retrenchment in public service provision. Further, in recent decades, there has been a rise in women’s employment met with little change in the sexual division of labour.

In this context, it’s too simplistic to see Brexit solely as a result of anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism, as many have argued. One study interviewed working class women, and found that many felt they experienced disadvantages in, for example, jobs and housing. There was a sense that they have been left out of the advantages of globalization and that there was a need for change. The irony is, leaving the EU will end many protection laws for low paid workers.

Mukhopadhyay and Dowling asked some challenging questions. Mukhopadhyay asked, where do feminists fit in this neoliberal global restructuring? She argues that in exchange for the increasing inclusion of women and feminism in main institutions and their policies, we have allowed the human rights agenda to diminish and facilitated the erasure of a more structural approach to inequality.

In the context of Brexit, Dowling asks, whose voices are being heard? At this moment in time, feminists aren’t seen to be restoring the voices of those who have felt disadvantaged by the current system.

How can we move forward?

We need to build solidarity across places and movements. An approach to challenging neoliberal global restructuring should go beyond the insertion of women and gender into current policies. We need to shift the discussion back to one of rights, which is fundamental to transnational feminisms.

We should look to create links with other political movements, as well as to build on movements and foundations that are already there. Where is the resistance? How can we can hook onto this resistance and build on it? As Foucault says, where there is power, there is the possibility of resistance.

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