In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism

In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism

by Sara R. Farris


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369745
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/28/2017
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sara R. Farris is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality: Individuation, Politics, and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion.

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In the Name of Women's Rights

The Rise of Femonationalism

By Sara R. Farris

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7292-9


Figures of Femonationalism

In this chapter I begin to lay out a critical genealogy of the mobilization of women's rights in anti-Islam and anti-immigration campaigns in the Netherlands, France, and Italy from the early 2000s until 2013. In particular, the next sections will provide a detailed account of the ways in which three right-wing nationalist parties — the PVV in the Netherlands, the FN in France, and the LN in Italy — have increasingly resorted to a gender equality lexicon to advance their xenophobic political agendas. This chapter also traces the participation of several feminist intellectuals and women's organizations, female politicians (including some of Muslim descent), and women's equality agencies (or femocrats) in the campaign against Islam's "patriarchy" and Muslim women's alleged special exposure to misogyny and gender violence. However, before I begin to describe the contours of these femonationalist figures, in what follows I will provide a brief historical framing of the ways in which the stereotypes of the non-western migrant man as misogynist and of the non-western migrant woman as victim to be rescued have gained currency in the western European imagery. It is important to highlight that the current stigmatization of Muslim men as enemies of gender equality and the foregrounding of Muslim women as oppressed victims both build on gendered prejudices that had been applied to non-western, colonized subjects more generally in all three countries. As I mentioned in the introduction, the current positioning of Muslim men and women, with the latter playing the role of the passive object of nonwestern male congenital violence who require protection, can in fact be regarded as a contemporary face of a well-known western topos, namely, that of the "white men [claiming to be] saving brown women from brown men," to use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's apposite formulation. I thus contend that, in the present context, Muslim women play the role of a synecdoche for the western European stereotype of the female Other. That is, Muslim women currently personify in the western European imagery the homogenizing figure of the nonwestern woman as the victim par excellence of non-western male violence. In this sense, the Muslim woman nowadays powerfully embodies the features of what Chandra Mohanty already in the 1980s famously called the Third World woman: that is, the representation of women from non-western societies as constituting a homogeneous "powerless" group defined by their status of victimhood.

Muslim Women as Synecdoche

The mobilization of issues of gender equality to stigmatize non-western migrant men in general has indeed a specific history and trajectory in the western European context. After World War II, when western Europe began to recover from the devastations brought about by the horrific conflict, millions of migrants, mostly male, migrated to and through the continent to fill the demand for labor power in the reconstruction industry. A whole business grew up around these new migrants, with bilateral agreements signed between states and offices across northern European countries that were specifically designed to attract young males to be employed in manufacture and construction. Whether coming from the ex-European colonies (or from countries that were still under colonial rule), or from the Mediterranean region (e.g., southern Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and part of the Maghreb), these male migrants soon became the victims of widespread xenophobia and racism. Despite their crucial role in the reconstruction of western European economies, they were portrayed by the mainstream media and right-wing parties, and perceived by many (northern) Europeans, in negative terms: lazy, uncivilized, aggressive, backward, unambitious, and so forth. It was only from the mid-1970s onward — that is, after the 1973 oil crisis and the policies stopping further immigration flows to the majority of northern European countries — that migrant women entered onto the stage of migration on an unprecedented scale (on which more in chapter 5). Fearing that they would not be able to come back to the "hosting" countries once they left, a number of these male migrants decided to settle in northern Europe and bring in their family members: spouses, mothers, or daughters. From the 1970s onward the geography of migrations also changed, whereby countries of emigration became countries of immigration — as in the case of southern Europe — and were admitted to the western European family. The presence of migrant women from the ex-colonies and the Global South in western Europe thus, at least in its initial stage, was largely the unexpected and paradoxical outcome of policies that aimed to reduce, rather than to increase, the number of migrants present in the continent. And it was not long before these women too became the object of political scrutiny and stereotyping. Typical orientalist gendered dichotomies began to be applied to them: if migrant males were usually depicted as brutes and uncivilized, women were portrayed as passive and submissive. In the Netherlands, Conny Roggeband and Mieke Verloo remind us that it was only at the beginning of the 2000s that Muslim women started to attract increasing political and media attention and to be used as the chief example of the non-western woman as victim of gendered oppression. Before then, women from minority groups in general were referred to as "allochthonous" and discussed in denigratory terms as retrograde — without distinctions of nationality or religion — when compared to the "autochthonous" Dutch women. Until the late 1990s, therefore, women from former Dutch colonies (Surinam, the Antilles, and Indonesia), from eastern Europe as well as from Turkey and Morocco (the biggest migrant communities in the country), were all represented as backward and victims. For instance, discussing the status of Russians in the Netherlands, Gudrun Willett points out that "the Dutch in particular use [sex] trafficking and mafia images in order to define them [the Russians] as 'other' in matters of migration, work, and crime." Russian women, and eastern European women in general, have thus usually been thought of as being "trafficking victims." From the end of the 1990s onward, however, the hierarchy of backwardness became more layered, with Turkish and Moroccan women gradually being placed at the bottom of the emancipation scale, with Surinamese and Antillean women being presented as less backward in comparison. The relegation of Muslim women to the lower echelons of the emancipation league table became more pronounced in the early 2000s under the center-right Balkenende I (2002) and Balkenende II (2003–2006) cabinets. In 2002 the appearance on the political scene of the party named Pim Fortuyn List (on which more below), and its subsequent electoral success involving fierce anti-immigration and anti-Islam propaganda in the name of women's rights, redesigned the Dutch political landscape as well as the ways in which nonwestern migrant women, above all Muslim women, would be framed in subsequent years. As Minister for Integration and Immigration in the Balkenende cabinets, the right-wing nationalist Rita Verdonk has been another key figure in the public contemporary construction of Muslim women as the principal victims of backward and misogynist cultures. Verdonk's interventions strongly contributed to spreading the idea that Islam amounts to unequal gender relations and violence (with an emphasis on honor killings, domestic violence, and forced marriages). Thus, it was particularly in the 2000s that "emancipation policies bec[a]me 'ethnicized'" and addressed above all to Muslim women.

Unlike in the Netherlands, in France Muslim women have played the role of the synecdoche for the western European stereotype of the female Other from the outset, that is, from the beginning of mass immigration to the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the fact that in the early 1980s — that is, when the presence of women in migratory movements tripled due to family reunification — migrants from Portugal were as numerous as those from Algeria, research and political discourses tended to focus on migrants from the latter country. Masima Moujoud notes how, from the very outset in the 1970s, sociological studies on gender and migration in France focused on the "effects" of migration on women, particularly women from the Maghreb. The common denominator among these studies was the assumption that migration was positive for these women since the transition from "traditional" to "modern" contexts would have an emancipatory impact on them. The evolutionary paradigm that informed studies on gender and migration also shaped the widespread conviction that rejecting the values of the society of origin was essential for women's integration into France. Capucine Larzillière and Lisbeth Sal, for instance, remind us that already in 1983 — long before the explosion of the controversy over the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in public schools, culminating in their banning in 2004 — the journal Les cahiers du féminisme echoed this idea by referring to the example of a young woman born in France to Moroccan parents. The journal portrays the young woman as struggling in order to continue her studies as an "escape" from the type of "traditional" life that her family had planned for her. "School thus is established as a place of liberation in which she does not experience either discrimination or racism." Furthermore, there is a long history in France of applying a double standard in the representation of Muslim men and women. Whereas the former are represented as violent and sexist, an image encapsulated in the concept of the Arab boy (garçon arabe), Muslim young veiled women (filles voiles) stand for the submissive victims of traditional families and patriarchal cultures; those who do not conform to this model, instead, are called beurettes emancipées (emancipated girls of Maghreb origin) and regarded as the model that Muslim girls should follow. In this sense, then, in France there is a fundamental continuity between past and present, where Muslim women have consistently been identified as the quintessential embodiment of the non-western woman as backward and traditional. This notwithstanding, we should note that women from postsocialist countries in France too have been consistently identified as victims, as in the case of discussions on sex trafficking. In 2009 for instance, Le Nouvelle Observateur devoted its November issue to the "explosion of sex traffic" with several articles focusing upon women from eastern Europe as the most numerous group in the sex industry (filière).

Finally, non-western migrant women in Italy started to become visible — particularly in academic work — at the beginning of the 1980s. Unlike in the Netherlands and France, which have a longer history of being immigrants' final destinations, and in which initially men had predominantly been the bridgeheads of the migratory chain, in Italy single women constituted a significant number of migrants from the outset. These women mostly came from countries with majoritarian Catholic populations (such as the Philippines, El Salvador, and Cape Verde) and tended to be employed as domestic workers (colf) and/or carers (badanti; sing. badante) in private households. During the 1970s and 1980s, scholarly work that focused on migrant women was dominated by the "tradition-modernity" dichotomy. At the time, nonwestern migrant women, no matter what their country of origin, were systematically considered backward when compared to Italian women, and immigration was cast in these scholarly texts as an opportunity for them to enter a modern country and to acquire a more emancipated model of womanhood. From the beginning of the 1990s up until the present, however, the composition of migrants moving to Italy began to change dramatically. Entry restrictions put in place in other western European countries, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the geographical location of the peninsula, which makes it easily reachable from different areas particularly for temporary migration, were all factors that made Italy increasingly attractive for immigrants from eastern Europe as well as from African and Asian countries. Representations of, and policies targeting, nonwestern migrant women in the 1990s tended to concentrate on eastern European and Nigerian women, as victims of trafficking in the sex industry. In 1998, for instance, with the approval of the first law regulating immigration (Testo Unico Immigrazione), an article was introduced (article 18) allowing migrant women who were forced into prostitution to obtain a special visa if they denounced their exploiter. In the 1980s and especially the 1990s, therefore, two main figures dominated the public imagery regarding non-western female foreigners: the badante, which referred to both care and domestic workers, and the trafficking victim. In the 2000s the stereotype of victimhood associated with women of nonwestern descent was "enriched" by a new figure: that of the Muslim woman qua victim of genital mutilations, honor killings, forced veiling, and arranged marriages. The case of Sanaa Dafani, the young woman of Moroccan origin murdered by her father in 2009, as well as similar cases of gendered violence involving Muslim men as perpetrators, monopolized media attention in the 2000s and began to establish an equation between women's oppression and Islam. Yet in those same years the number of Italian women killed and assaulted by Italian men (partners, fathers, relatives, etc.) reached such heights that some commentators began to speak of a femicide emergency.

All in all, while migrant women from the postsocialist countries have been foregrounded as sex-trafficking victims, those coming from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East have gained the reputation of being victims of specific forms of gendered violence (genital mutilations and honor killings in particular). In short, the representation of the non-western migrant universe as one made of (male) masters and (female) slaves has been somewhat of a cliché from early on in all three western European countries. This notwithstanding, it is important to note that in the 1980s and most of the 1990s it was still a representation that belonged to the rubric of stereotypes surrounding migrant communities from the Global South and postsocialist countries, alongside other prejudices, such as the idea that non-western migrant males were on average more prone to criminal activities than nonmigrant ones and were parasitic on the welfare system or responsible for the low wages of nonmigrant workers. In other words, until relatively recently the ostensible lesser status of women within migrant enclaves was not perceived, and used, as a special reason for disliking non-western migrants. In this sense, the contemporary emphasis upon gender inequalities and the obsessive invocation of the violation of women's rights within migrant (especially Muslim) communities particularly by the nationalist right, but also by several feminists, women's organizations, and neoliberal policy makers — or what I call the femonationalist convergence — might well constitute a novelty of the new millennium. Since 9/11 and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan in particular, which was justified — among other things — by the claim that the West was liberating Muslim women from the oppressive conditions to which Islamic fundamentalists were subjecting them, the issue of women's rights as a central tool for Othering and stigmatizing non-western populations has gained unprecedented currency.

The New Centrality of Gender for Right-Wing Nationalism

One of the novelties of the present neoliberal conjuncture is the centrality that gender issues seem to have acquired within right-wing nationalist parties' agendas. Since the mid-2000s these parties have begun adopting the language of women's rights and gender equality in anti-immigration and anti-Islam campaigns on an unprecedented scale. Seeking to cash in on the general shift of the political spectrum to the right that characterized the beginning of the millennium and to normalize their public image as "modernized" and trustworthy political forces, numerous right-wing parties in western Europe have begun to show concern for the status of women's rights, especially within Muslim and non-western migrant communities. Nationalist right-wing parties' newly found feminist "vocation" is in fact in sharp contradiction with their traditional antifeminist politics and ideology. While advocating women's emancipation as a central value of the European (Christian) social fabric, which Muslims and nonwestern migrants allegedly lack, these parties also promote policies that encourage the maintenance of traditional roles for women. Despite their strong contradictions on the theme of gender issues, their exploitation of women's rights has paid off. As I will show in the next pages, the stigmatization of Muslim and non-western migrant males as misogynists and backward has helped these parties not only become more acceptable in the mainstream but also obtain unprecedented success in recent elections. The following three sections draw mainly on an analysis of the PVV'S, FN's, and LN's positions that were found on their official websites and in national newspapers and magazines and electoral materials between (roughly) 2005 and 2013. Documents analyzed also included political posters, relevant parliamentary discussions, and interviews with party leaders that appeared in the national press.


Excerpted from In the Name of Women's Rights by Sara R. Farris. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction: In the Name of Women's Rights  1
1. Figures of Femonationalism  22
2. Femonationalism Is No Populism   57
3. Integration Policies and the Institutionalization of Femonationalism  78
4. Femonationalism, Neoliberalism, and Social Reproduction  115
5. The Political Economy of Femonationalism   146
Notes  183
Bibliography  229
Index  253

What People are Saying About This

White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race - Gloria Wekker

"In the Name of Women's Rights is an important and timely book. It lays out the hijacking of feminism by the 'unholy trinity' of far-right nationalism, certain prominent factions of feminism, and neoliberalism in the service of an anti-Islam agenda in France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Foregrounding the concept of 'femonationalism'—the ideological formation by which the West is always already superior to the Rest—Sara R. Farris draws on ongoing colonial knowledge formations."

Joan W. Scott

"How and why did the unlikely combination of right-wing political parties, some feminists, and neoliberal policy makers converge in campaigns for non-western (especially Muslim) migrant women’s rights? In this compelling and rigorous book, Sara R. Farris insists that political economy provides an answer: in the face of the privatizing of social welfare provisions, non-western migrant women perform an increasingly important strategic role in social reproduction through care and domestic labor. They have become a regular army of labor, indispensable for the workings of western European neoliberal capitalist economies. The range of empirical and theoretical materials is impressive and the relevance of the book to current debates about Islamophobia and the 'immigrant question' in western Europe is invaluable. Farris is a scholar to reckon with and appreciate."

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