Interview conducted by Michelle Wiesner from the “Becoming Bruxellois from Afar” project

This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by a group of Groningen students as part of their Eurocompetence II project. The interviewees all work in Brussels institutions and were asked questions related to the Euroculture’s 2020 IP topic: “A sustainability Europe? Society, politics and culture in the anthropocene”. Here, Michelle Wiesner asked Lucille Griffon of EuroMed Rights about her perspective on sustainability, particularly about gender justice, a vital factor in progressing towards a more sustainable society.

MW: Could you please give us a short introduction about EuroMed Rights and its work in Brussels?

Lucille Griffon: EuroMed Rights is a network of around 80 human rights NGOs, located in 30 countries of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. We have 3 offices: one in Copenhagen, the headquarters, one in Brussels and another one in Tunis. We work with country programs: Israel/Palestine and the Palestinians, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey and another Mashrek country, and regional programs: women’s rights and gender justice, migration, economic and social rights, shrinking space. The country programs, migration and shrinking space are in Brussels. The work they do there is mostly related to advocacy towards EU institutions.

MW:  What is your position within EuroMed Rights and how did you get into this working field?

LG: I am the women’s rights and gender justice programme officer/also programme officer for gender mainstreaming. I got into this working field after two internships in the women’s rights domain (one in Brussels for a regional institution, another in Paris for a feminist association). My background is in political science (sciences po), and I have two masters in gender studies, one from Toulouse University related to social policies and another from Utrecht University on gender and postcolonial studies.

MW: To which extent do the NGOs in your network cooperate with one another and how does your coordination role look like?

LG: They cooperate mostly by sharing best practices. That is the whole purpose of the networking activities we try to promote and organise every six months: learning from one another, creating regional solidarities. Organisations also team up on regional campaigns, and/or show solidarity with struggles at national level. My role is to ensure that they get relevant information through monitoring at EU and UN level mostly. I also organise “working group meetings”, which happen every 6 months and where all 30 members of the Women’s Rights and Gender Justice working group gather. More generally my work contains a whole set of organizational tasks, strategizing and knowledge production. For instance, I set strategies for the upcoming months, produce advocacy content on relevant topics, organise communication campaigns and training, produce knowledge and monitor developments at regional level and try to link up to relevant non-member organisations and decision-makers. I coordinate the group by sending regular updates and working with task forces.

MW: One of the themes of EuroMed Rights is ´Women’s Rights and Gender Justice´. My next questions reflect on this topic. How do populist or religious discourse maintain and justify gender inequalities or stereotypes on both sides of the Mediterranean? 

LG: That is a very important question and it is difficult to provide a comprehensive response in a few lines. The question of anti-equality narrative (be they anti-gender, anti-feminist, anti-LGBTI) is central to our 3 years strategy. The strategy populist and or religious conservatives/fundamentalists use is to create an artificial division between “us” and “them”. They all play with the idea that there would be an original, indigenous society with innate values, and that gender equality is an attempt to destroy this essence. The narrative is: “they” are the protectors, and “we” are the destroyers. “We” destroy the family, cultures and traditional norms. “We” lead societies to a state a confusedness. “We” harm children. “We” promote homosexuality and the third sex, etc. It is often linked to a form of anti-imperialism. In western Europe, “we” are accused of pushing a US agenda, in some parts of Eastern and Central Europe, “we” would be influenced by Marxist ideas and in some parts of the MENA, “we” would be agents of the “West”.

In times where people are worried about their future, because of economic, social or even political uncertainties, the narrative of protection against foreign influence is reassuring. My personal thought is that this discourse is only getting stronger as the left fails to be what it should be: protecting people from the destructive aspects of capitalism, offering another model for our societies. Of course, the actors I mention here are very different from country to country, and there are subtleties in their discourses that are very much embedded in national construction and history. That is more for the “maintenance” bit of your question.

How do they justify inequalities? Well, they do not really mention inequalities as such. They use other terms such as “complementarity”. They play with the idea of choice, hijacking the feminist discourse: gender equality would mean the imposition of a new lifestyle, and what they do is letting people choose. We know that in a structurally unequal world, the idea of choice is arguable. And again, there are no such things as inequalities if they are understood as natural.

MW: What similarities and differences do you see concerning gender politics between the two sides of the Mediterranean?

LG: First of all, I think the distinction between the two sides of the Mediterranean is artificial. In Europe, very different political, social, economic and cultural realities co-exist, likewise in the MENA. It depends therefore from country to country. I guess there is a commonality between Eastern/Central Europe (former USSR) and some parts of the Middle East as they have lived through periods of imperialism; the discourse of the “external influence” is understandably much stronger as the memory is vivid.

Certain governments display themselves as pro-feminist, as a strategy to further hide other human rights violations (in that sense, the gender politics of the Israeli gov. is enlightening). Other countries have a stronger neoliberal feminist agenda, which focuses extensively on the economic benefits of women entering and staying in the labour market (France). In general, nowhere are women equal to men, on both side of the Mediterranean patriarchy is still a reality. It simply takes different forms and is embedded in political, economic and social history and structures.

MW: What role does feminist civil society play for social equality and the prevention of violence against women, especially in non-EU countries of the Mediterranean?

LG: They play a crucial role, by trying to raise awareness of the severity of the issue, including towards decision-makers. They try to shift narratives and norms on violence against women by promoting a human rights approach. In most countries, not necessarily in the Global South, they are the ones providing care services for survivors. Without vibrant, loud and united feminist organisations and movements, women’s rights will not progress.

MW: How do you include gender mainstreaming in all areas of your work and how could other organisations catch up with it?

LG: It is an everyday challenge, which necessitates attention and will from all colleagues and partners. We are currently building a new strategy for gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is applied at the organisational level, programme level, and political level. Look at the structures of your organisation, to see where and how decisions are made. From there you can set rules and accountability mechanisms. In the case of our upcoming new strategy and to cite a few measures, all programs must produce a gender analysis of their domain of expertise, so that their strategies and activities be adopted. The gender analysis must be reflected in the strategy and in the planned activities.

A gender mainstreaming referent sits at the highest level of our network: the Quartet. Working groups have to include in their groups at least 1 feminist organisation in 4 organisations from the same country and elect gender focal points. There is also quite some administrative work to be done, updating political papers, terms of reference, HR procedures etc. The crux of gender mainstreaming is human resources. You need to dedicate a (qualified) colleague to it and train (the more, the better).

MW: And the last question, can you please tell us where do you see Europe in five years?

LG: The current pandemic is reshuffling the cards and will speed up current political agendas. I cannot foresee the future, but I would hope that the health crisis has opened people’s eyes on the necessity of public services and that further dismantlement will become politically indefensible. The question is now which political parties will benefit from it? Will it be nationalist, populist anti-migrant parties? Or will it be a progressive, environmentalist left? How will the neoliberal discourse of centrist parties shift? I hope that Europe will be able to take a drastic turn towards environmentalism and rebuild en profondeur after the crisis, with human rights, gender equality and social justice at core. I hope for a more social Europe, but for that, there are major political victories that will have to happen within member states, so as to shift the current reluctance from certain governments to build and share risks as a union. We will be there throughout to defend the rights of all.

Picture credits: personal file

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