As the final installment of the series “Sex, secularism, and ‘femonationalism,’” Sara Farris, author of In the Name of Women’s Rights, and Joan Wallach Scott, author of Sex and Secularism, discuss their books in light of contemporary politics and the other essays in the series. Their discussion was facilitated by questions posed by Mayanthi Fernando, TIF editorial board member and guest curator of the series.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Mayanthi Fernando: I’d like to start by asking both of you how your respective books speak to this particular moment, when sex, gender, and politics are so intertwined. I’m thinking particularly of the Trump presidency, and the way his policies and style are so deeply patriarchal. How might your books, each of which takes up, in different ways, the sexual politics of popular sovereignty, help us explain the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic?

Sara Farris: To begin with, I would not call it populism. The term has been used to refer to both right-wing and left-wing political formations in such a way as to blur the sharp differences between these political agendas. That is why calling [Donald] Trump, or Marine Le Pen in France, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, “populists” risks concealing the fact that these leaders, and the politics they represent, are right-wing nationalists. I make this argument in chapter two of my book. There, I argue that populism does not help us explain, for example, why these right-wing, traditionally anti-feminist parties have suddenly begun to endorse feminist arguments in their campaigns against immigrants and Muslims. Populism functions through the sharp dichotomization of the political space into an “Us” versus “Them,” “white Westerners” versus “non-white people from the global south,” and so forth. Yet, the way in which these right-wing parties apply a double standard to migrant and Muslim men and women—as, respectively, the “oppressors” and the “victims”—considerably complicates this simplifying dichotomy.

The histories and theories of nationalism (but also colonialism), on the other hand, illuminate why these parties are playing “foreign” women against their men. As Black and post-colonial feminisms have taught us, nationalism and imperialism are deeply gendered; their focus upon the nation-state as the political unit to defend and to which one must pledge allegiance implies a politics of racial purity for which women’s loyalty and the control over their body is essential. Nationalists such as Trump and Le Pen, in fact, want to limit abortion rights and reduce social benefits for foreigners, and they claim to defend women against “patriarchal” Muslims. On the other hand, their constant reference to Muslim women as passive victims of misogynist practices is a legacy of colonial-imperial times when the Western colonizers framed their violent occupations as “civilizing missions.” Let’s not forget these legacies are still very present today in the various neo-colonies, the imperialist enterprises of our times: one only needs to think of how [George] Bush justified the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 by invoking the idea that Muslim women needed to be liberated from the Taliban. These intricate gender and racial paradoxes are at the heart of right-wing nationalisms.

Joan Wallach Scott: I don’t have much to add to Sara’s response here except to say that a psychoanalytic perspective helps us see how Trump’s form of patriarchy works: through a libidinal appeal to the fantasy of the extraordinary power of the primal father—who gets to make the rules and break the rules, who gets to have all the women as a sign of his potency—to protect us from harm and from each other. This is the appeal of authoritarian rulers; the erotic fantasy is at once the source of his support and—because it cannot sustain itself in the realms of economy and politics—the flaw in the façade that threatens its ability to endure. That threat is projected onto enemies and leads to increasingly punitive measures—the security state is the result. How long can these forms of authoritarian nationalism last? I don’t think we have an answer.

MF: I’m also thinking of #MeToo, and how the movement has largely become a question of sex and not labor. How might your two books help us make sense of this separation?

JWS: One of the things that #MeToo exposed was the way in which male power continues to define working conditions for women, despite years of affirmative action, Title IX, and other attempts to end discrimination in the workplace. Although #MeToo did gesture to the issue of occupational discrimination, it has focused mainly on sex, detaching the questions of sexual exploitation from questions of social, economic, and political power. My book argues that those things are not separable: naturalized representations of the difference of sex are invoked to justify political inequality, while those political (and social and economic) inequalities establish the enduring meaning of naturalized gender representations.

SF: The fact that the #MeToo movement exploded within the American film industry and involved Hollywood celebrities might have contributed to somehow marginalizing questions of workplace sexual abuse and exploitation and foregrounding questions of sex (we tend to forget that actresses are workers and Hollywood is an industry). Yet, I agree with Joan: questions of sexual, racial, political, and economic power are not separable, and I can think of dozens of articles and political statements that have appeared in the last year constantly trying to emphasize exactly that. In this sense, I think #MeToo has been tremendously important to open up a debate about sexual violence in the workplace, to create a climate of solidarity among women in which they might feel more encouraged to come out and denounce the abuser, but also to begin to look for solutions and rethink our idea of gender justice.

JWS: On the other hand (just to introduce a more sober assessment), #MeToo has unleashed a climate which tends to portray women exclusively as victims; which takes allegations to be enough evidence for conviction; which makes little distinction between harassment and violence; and which has often undermined due process in the treatment of those accused. I’m not saying that men like Harvey Weinstein and that doctor from Michigan State University [Larry Nassar] shouldn’t be punished, but that there are many more ambiguous instances that need to be handled with attention to their complexities and to due process. As Jacqueline Rose wrote in the London Review of Books a while ago, sex is a messy and complicated phenomenon that can’t easily be governed by reason or law. Some recognition of that needs to be added to the current #MeToo conversation.

MF: I now want to ask a question about method. Joan, you’re a historian who draws on post-structuralism and psychoanalysis, and you approach secularism as a discourse. Sara, you’re a Marxist sociologist who understands femonationalism as part and parcel—perhaps even as an effect—of economic structures. So this is an unusual pairing, gesturing to the possibility of synthesis, as Peter Coviello put it in his response. How do you two think the books speak to each other? Do you think psychoanalysis and genealogy (Joan’s approach) and political economy (Sara’s approach) work together to tell a bigger story? Or are secularism and femonationalism different kinds of phenomena that require different methodologies?

SF: As an Italian Marxist sociologist and feminist, I must say I was not trained in the harsh opposition between Marxism and post-structuralism. I think it is a very American, or perhaps Anglophone, conflict, at least in terms of the vehemence that characterized it and the almost unbridgeable separations that followed from it. I come from a Marxist tradition in which, of course, you read psychoanalysis and [Michel] Foucault alongside [Karl] Marx, and you use them to try to decipher the social reality that surrounds us. The Frankfurt School is one of the best examples of attempts at integrating Marxism and psychoanalysis. Daniel Bensaïd, one of my favorite Marxist thinkers, wrote that we need psychoanalysis to understand revolutionary theory and class struggle at the political level. The work of Marxist-feminist Silvia Federici (i.e., Caliban and the Witch) is a profound, if critical, engagement with Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and Pun Ngai’s book on Chinese factories and female labor is a wonderful example of how Marx and Foucault can be fruitfully combined to understand the disciplining of labor power and gender.

In other words, I don’t regard psychoanalysis and genealogy as anti-Marxist approaches and I refer to both in my book. Indeed, I trace the brief history of right-wing nationalist parties endorsing women’s rights and their colonial legacies in genealogical terms, and I insist that femonationalism must be understood as an ideological formation in the sense of [Louis] Althusser and Michel Pêcheux, whose theories of ideology were deeply influenced by [Jacques] Lacan. This does not mean that Marxism does not have its own specific approach, or have something distinctive to contribute to the discussion. This element, I would suggest, consists in the political conclusions that can be drawn from the critique of political economy. As a Marxist, I do privilege a political economic approach because I think that the material conditions in which we produce our means of subsistence and reproduce ourselves are essential to understand the social and the political. And, as I wrote in my brief introduction to this forum, I also think a political economic approach to the understanding of femonationalism is very much needed in a field of studies (on sexual nationalism, homonationalism, etc.) that has tended to overlook class and material interests. This does not mean, however, that I discard other approaches as unimportant.

JWS: I agree with what Sara has said here. My own thinking, too, is a selective use of theory—whatever helps me explain the object of my research is useful. In fact, in my book, what’s missing is a fuller analysis of capitalism and of the investments of capital in the way in which the views of reproduction I associate with secular modernity (the channeling of sex to marriage and family) are critical to the logic of capital. It’s work like Sara’s that has alerted me to those processes. I don’t think to follow this kind of analysis would discredit or minimize the arguments I make about gender and politics—it would only add more dimensions, more depth to what I’ve said.

MF: Let me follow up with a related question. Sara, you don’t really talk about secularism in your analysis, and Joan, political economy plays only a minor role in yours. Could you say more about why?

JWS: I think this question mixes two registers: secularism is an object of analysis; political economy is a theoretical lens through which to analyze objects. The two aren’t the same. One chooses one’s theory to help address the object one problematizes. Sara’s object is the care industry and migrant women’s labor in it, so it makes sense that political economy is her primary analytic approach. I think she brilliantly invokes the notion of regular and reserve armies of labor to help us understand her object, but I don’t see the kind of economic determinism in her approach that your questions imply. As for secularism and gender—my objects—they didn’t lend themselves to political economy as much as to theories that would throw light on the ways in which sexual difference was invoked to constitute and legitimate relations of power, hence my turn to [Sigmund] Freud and Foucault.

SF: I agree with Joan that secularism and political economy are not on the same level of analysis. On the other hand, I think any object can be analyzed through a political economic lens. This does not mean that other lenses lead to forms of “cultural,” “psychoanalytic,” or “discursive” determinism, just as to analyze an object of inquiry through political economy does not mean that one is an “economic determinist.” It really depends on how these lenses are used and how one conceives of each approach, as exhaustive and sufficient in itself, or rather as complementary. Ultimately, I regard theory as the tool that both helps to advance our political, revolutionary practice, and that is deeply informed by that practice. In other words, I am interested in any theory and approach that helps me understand how to shape a feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist politics.

MF: Sara: Nadia Fadil and Sara Bracke both push against your formulation of “Muslim and migrant women.” Do non-migrant Muslim women play a significant role in the care sector? (The statistics you use are for foreign-born women.) Could you say more about why you put those two categories together?

SF: Non-migrant Muslim women play a very important role in the care sector, particularly in countries such as France and the Netherlands. In France, for example, the former Minister of Women’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem sparked controversy in 2013 after she intimated that she could support a law against the wearing of the Muslim veil by nursery teachers, thereby pointing to the spread of the phenomenon. My own research with Sarah de Jong on the ways in which French work orientation offices address the needs of young people looking for work showed that the daughters of immigrants from Maghreb are systematically channeled toward the care sector. In the Netherlands, the Dutch immigration expert Sarah van Walsum noted that Dutch municipalities put pressure on unemployed ethnic minority women (many of whom are of Moroccan and Turkish origin) to take up low-skilled work in the care sector. It is certainly true that the role of non-migrant Muslim women in the care and domestic sector has not been studied enough, and this will be exactly the focus of one of my next projects.

JWS: I would add that migrant women (not Muslim) from the global south and from eastern Europe are also key workers in the care industry. Sara’s discussion of how they form a “regular army of labor” offers tremendous insight into the importance of reproductive labor for capitalist economies. It’s not just Muslim women who are the object of nationalist concern, but immigrant women more generally who fuel the fires of “femonationalism.”

MF: Joan, early in your book, you quote Saba Mahmood with regard to the form and value of critique: “To critique a particular normative regime is not to reject or condemn it; rather, by analyzing its regulatory and productive dimensions, one only deprives it of innocence and neutrality so as to craft, perhaps, a different future.”1 Tracy Fessenden and Pardis Madhavi pick up on this relationship of critique to crafting a different future, and both gesture to how Sex and Secularism and In the Name of Women’s Rights enable us to uncover new narratives and imagine new political possibilities. Could you both say more about how these two books might help us think otherwise, toward other futures, and toward other political imaginaries and political alliances?

JWS: I think my definition of critique is that it opens new ways of thinking by denaturalizing the taken for granted, exposing common sense as a collaboration with normative regimes. Critique doesn’t provide roadmaps to the future, but stimulates us to think beyond where we are now. This might mean looking to the past for options foreclosed by the consolidation of state or group power (and the accounts that then take it to be the inevitable direction of history)—as Massimiliano Tomba, Gary Wilder, Kristen Ross, and Andrew Zimmerman are doing. These scholars argue that we will find sustenance for our politics in “untimely” pasts still present to us. It might mean historicizing present regimes of truth, providing critical genealogies of them. It might mean looking for the fault lines in current power relations, in order to strategically address them in the quest for alternatives. For me, critique is a method that sharpens my thinking; it provides a diagnosis, but not a cure for the social ills we want to address.

SF: Following from Joan’s last sentence, I just want to say that I regard her book as one that does more than provide only a diagnosis (even though, of course, this is already a very important task and achievement). The way she demolishes with such historical accuracy and theoretical acumen the myth of secularism as women’s best friend is very important for the development and strengthening of our anti-racist vocabulary and politics. Hence, I see her theoretical tools doing what I personally think theory should do: enable our politics to struggle against the forms of domination and exploitation that foster inequality.

In my own book I try to do that too. By highlighting the strategic role migrant and Muslim women play in the care and domestic sector—and hence pointing to one important reason why nationalists and neoliberals might want to “rescue” them—my aim is not only to show the materiality of such a racist ideology as femonationalism, but also to provoke a debate on how we can reorganize social reproduction. Second wave feminists’ focus upon economic equality and the entrance of women en masse in the labor market since the 1970s have been very important. Women, rightly, didn’t want to be housewives any longer and be confined at home. (Here I am referring mainly to the European context, as I know that in the United States the situation was different, since Black women have always worked outside the household.) Yet, the dominance of liberal feminism has also led to the almost exclusive focus on women’s participation in production outside the household, with the consequence of disregarding social reproduction. But the latter has not disappeared; instead it has been either outsourced to migrant and ethnic minority women or it has continued to be done by now “doubly burdened” working women.

In my book I make an explicit invitation to rethink this idea of emancipation as centered upon participation in the (exploitative) labor market and to reconsider the ways in which the commodification of social reproduction has led both to the preservation of gender roles and to their racialization. In other words, I am arguing that we don’t need women to “lean in” in the workplace—which is an entirely individualist and neoliberal strategy and really applies only to a minority of women. We need to demand collectively proper maternity leave policies, free and public childcare and elder care, and proper wages for care and domestic workers. These are some of the demands that inform the political imaginaries and alliances I have in mind.

  1. The citation is from Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 21.