At the end of 2010 I was living in the Netherlands where some colleagues and I organized a conference on the mobilization of feminist ideas in right-wing xenophobic campaigns. Jasbir Puar’s book on homonationalism had been published a few years earlier. It opened up a wide and important conversation on what she calls the collusions between the LGBTQ movement in the United States and American nationalism and Islamophobia. In Europe—following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent bombing of Afghanistan, which was presented, among other things, as necessary to liberate Muslim women wearing a burqa—a number of political analysts, feminist scholars, and sociologists were wondering: how is it that Far-Right-wing parties are now trying to convince us they care about women’s rights and want to fight Islam to defend those rights?
I had worked for several years on issues of female migration, stereotypes, and representations of migrant and Muslim women in Europe, and so I was very interested in all these questions. I was particularly interested in understanding the so-called “rescue narratives” that right-wingers and neoliberals, but also some feminists, were using when addressing Muslim and migrant communities, claiming these women needed to be emancipated from their “backward” cultures. Also, I was not entirely satisfied with the answers provided by previous studies.
In particular, as someone who belongs to the Marxist and social reproduction strand of feminism, I was interested to see whether we could identify a political economic logic behind these rescue narratives. I wanted to explore whether the sudden stigmatization of Muslim and migrant men in the name of women’s rights also had something to do with the position of Muslim and migrant women in the economic arena. The absence of such a political-economic perspective prevented us from understanding the material implications of the seemingly benevolent attitudes of nationalists toward Muslim and migrant women. The risk I saw was to treat such attitudes as pure hypocrisy, or worse, as somehow dictated by genuine, albeit distorted, concern for the fate of these women. By unraveling the economic interests behind the “rescue narratives” mobilized in the case of Muslim women, we see how deeply racist they are. Nationalists and neoliberals are willing to tolerate and claim to be concerned for these women because they are extremely useful for the care economy (a.k.a., they are socially reproductive), as I explain at greater length below.
I began to look into these issues and worked on a project that eventually developed into this book.
Femonationalism is the term I introduce to describe both how nationalist right-wing parties exploit feminist ideas within Islamophobic campaigns, and the ways some feminists and femocrats endorse anti-Islam agendas in the name of women’s rights. I analyze how and why parties such as the Northern League in Italy, the National Front in France, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands have shown “concern” for Muslim women, describing them as “victims to be rescued,” while stigmatizing Muslim and other non-Western male immigrants as women’s worst enemies.
As mentioned earlier, I wrote this book mostly because I wanted to introduce a political-economic perspective into the scholarly and activists’ debates on the new faces of Islamophobia. What I note in the book, more specifically, is that we should pay attention to the gendered double standard the mainstream media apply to migrant men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. We need to decipher its economic rationality alongside its “culturalist” expressions.
Muslim men, as well as immigrant men from the Global South, are usually described not only as potential rapists and women’s oppressors, but also as “job stealers.” They are the unredeemable “bad guys” in all senses. On the other hand, Muslim and non-Western migrant women are portrayed as victims of patriarchal and backward cultures. They are also seen as those who can be assimilated to Western values (because, qua women, they do not really have a mind of their own) and who can positively contribute to Western economies by working in the understaffed social reproductive sector (i.e., social care and childcare) for very low wages. They are the redeemable others.
I think this dichotomous gendered representation, or gendered double standard, which the mainstream media and right-wingers use to refer to migrant populations, reveals the political economic rationality of femonationalism. In other words, I claim in my book that the “rescue” offers that right-wing nationalists send to Muslim women (but also to non-Western migrant women more generally), are linked to the hugely important role these women play in the social reproductive economy. But they are also linked to these political parties’ desires to keep the social care and childcare sectors exactly as they are: racialized, feminized, super exploitative, low status, and low paid.
On the other hand, the book looks closely at the feminists and femocrats who support anti-Islam politics in the name of women’s rights, and what they propose to Muslim women in their race to rescue them from the “bad” Muslim guys.
What I notice here is that, first, these feminists cover the whole political spectrum. They are not just right-wing feminists, or self-proclaimed feminists, like Ayan Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands or Souad Sbai in Italy who have endorsed anti-Islam discourses and policies such as veil bans, but also left-leaning feminists like Giuliana Sgrena in Italy or Najat Vallaud-Belkacem in France. Second, I emphasize the deep contradictions of this anti-Islam feminist front. On the one hand, these feminists and femocrats call Islam a misogynist religion and treat Muslim women who wear the veil as self-enslaved individuals who do not understand what freedom and emancipation really are about. On the other hand, these same feminists fail to mention that many Muslim and migrant women in Europe today are obliged to undergo integration programs—sometimes implemented by femocrats themselves—that push them toward the social reproductive sectors to become cleaners, social caregivers, and childminders.
In what sense is this emancipation for women? Were these not exactly the activities and jobs against which the feminist movement fought in its battle to denounce gender roles and the lack of economic recognition of social reproduction?
Non-Western migrant women currently occupy a strategic role in the social reproductive sector of childcare, eldercare, and cleaning. This makes possible the emphasis on non-Western migrant women as individuals to be helped in their integration and emancipation process, including through job offers. Rather than “job stealers,” Muslim and non-Western migrant women are presented as those who allow Western European men, and particularly women, to work in the public sphere by providing the care neoliberal restructuring commodifies.
My book thus suggests that the double standard applied to Muslim and non-Western migrant women in the public imaginary, describing them as individuals in need of special attention and even “rescue,” operates as an ideological tool strictly connected to their key role (present or future) in the reproduction of the material conditions of social reproduction. We should understand femonationalism as part and parcel of the specifically neoliberal reorganization of welfare, labor, and state immigration policies that occurred in the context of the global financial crisis and, more generally, the Western European crisis of social reproduction.