This conversation recorded on August 7, 2017, with Sara Farris, Senior Lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, attempts to link the work she presents in her book, In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press, 2017) with the violence against women that femonationalist discourses deliberately ignore (as these violences are exercised through what we could call “a universalist patriarchy”): domestic violence. The conversation first presents the political concept of femonationalism in the context of Europe, and then proceeds to describe the several dimensions of violence against women in domestic spaces.
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Before we really address space, could you please introduce what you mean when you use this concept of femonationalism?
SARA FARRIS: The concept of femonationalism really describes on the one hand the appropriation, or I should even say, the exploitation of feminist themes and the idea of gender equality, by right-wing parties like the Front National in France for example, particularly in anti-Islamic campaigns. On the other hand, it also describes the endorsement of anti-Islam slogans and ideas by some feminists and “femocrats”. It describes a contemporary phenomenon that we can see in countries like France, Italy or the Netherlands, which are the countries on which my book focuses, but also, I would say, across the Western world. It is quite a new phenomenon in many respects, but there are also certain historical legacies that I describe and discuss in the book.
LL: I thought that it would be interesting to include this conversation in this particular issue because it might create a very productive dialogue with the text written by Mehammed Amadeus Mack about homonationalism. Both his work and yours expose European societies’ claim to be less misogynistic or homophobic than others — in particular the former colonized societies — and how it enables them to hold people originally from these other societies at a greater moral standard than the one it holds itself at. Do you find this dialogue between both aspects (femonationalism and homonationalism) as productive as I suppose it to be?
SF: When I wrote this book I was certainly inspired by the work of Jasbir Puar, who published her book on homonationalism in 2007. I think it is a quite interesting and important phenomenon to analyze from a left perspective, to see how emancipatory projects and people, who we consider on the left, that we associate with left ideas such as LGBT movements, queer movements and feminist movements, how some of them, not all of them, have been ‘seduced’ by nationalist, anti-Islam ideas. Or, if you prefer, how they even have been coopted or how they have internalized, perhaps it’s better to say, certain right-wing ideas and especially certain Islamophobic ideas. This work is really about how feminists, some feminists — I really want to stress some because certainly not all of them — how they have begun to use ideas of gender equality, in particular against Muslim males under the stereotype that Islam is a religion, which oppresses women more than other religions, and in a way that Muslim men are some kind of special group of people who are by definition misogynists, who oppress women and that are unable to respect women’s rights. So certainly the two phenomena, homonationalism and femonationalism, are very connected because in the case of Jasbir Puar’s work, her whole point was precisely to look at the ways in which LGBT movements and queer movements in the United States were endorsing Islamophobic ideas and Islamophobic slogans, somehow allying or colluding with American nationalism. I look at the ways in which some feminists are somehow allying with European nationalisms; Italian, French or Dutch in this Islamophobic war against Muslim men in particular.
LL: Still holding on space for another moment, we can see how in your work there are two very distinct female subjects that are mobilized: on the one hand, white women; we can think in particular of the events in Cologne in New Year’s eve of 2015, as well as more recently what has been the stigmatization of the neighborhood of La Chapelle in Paris for example. This figure crystalizes the trope of ‘our’ women; this colonial idea of a patriarchal and colonial nation “defending ‘their’ women.” And on the other hand, the other figure subjectivized by this femonationalism are women of color and Muslim women in particular, who need to be saved from their own community that are deemed patriarchal when Western societies would not been seen this way. Could you perhaps talk more about those two distinct processes of subjectivization of women through this discourse?
SF: Yes absolutely. My book is precisely devoted to understand this kind of ‘rescue narrative’ and even paradox because I really begin by asking how is that racist discourses about immigrants and about Muslims seem to be so gendered, which means, to make a distinction between the migrant man or the Muslim man on the one hand, as the oppressor, the rapist, and the criminal, and on the other hand, the Brown woman, migrant or Muslim woman, as the victim. One of the first things to recognize is what I call, but what also other authors have called, the sexualization of racism, which means precisely that racism is gendered, sexualized, and plays out, according to a certain sexual and sexualized register. By looking at that I began really to explore how is that these right-wing nationalists seem to want to also save these Brown and Muslim women. So they foreground them as victims, but they also seem somehow to offer rescue to these women. So, in a way, what these right-wing nationalists are doing, as you said already, is precisely stigmatizing the Brown migrant and Muslim men as potential rapists, according to a very classical colonial and nationalist trope, which is precisely the one according to which the women need to be saved from foreign and non-national men. And obviously according to such a trope, ‘national’ women need to be saved, need to be preserved from non-national men because they are the biological reproducers of the nation. So the whole idea is to maintain the racial and ethnic purity of the nation. That is why nationalists very much discourage interracial or interethnic marriages.
On the other hand, my question was really; we can understand, according to a nationalist trope, why these nationalists want to preserve national women. But why do they care about non-national women? Why do they care about trying to save these Brown Muslim women? Why do they offer them rescue? Here obviously the answer is a little bit more complex, but it is important to understand that the same nationalist rhetoric is playing out here, the same nationalist interests. The reason for this is that nationalists conceive of women as fundamentally agentless, as fundamentally the bearers of the collective, the reproducers of the nation. And this applies also to non-national women, to foreign women. The idea that nationalists have, is that, in a way precisely because women are agentless, they are easier to mold, they are easier to assimilate to another culture, and therefore it is very important to work on women, on foreign women, to try to assimilate them. Because women are the ones who then, are going to educate the second generations and so they are, we can say, the vectors of integration, the vectors of those national values. Nationalists want these women to internalize these values and then to transmit them to the second generations. I think the discourse that right-wing nationalists try, not obviously entirely coherently, to put forward is, “ok we have these migrants, we have these women, the women are on the one hand the victims of men who are really the ones who are not assimilable, they are non-redeemable subjects, the women are redeemable precisely because they are fundamentally the bearers of the group and so we need to work on them, we need to subtract them from their communities, save them and at the same time assimilate them to our values in order for them to really become like us.” We can read also through this prism the whole idea that Muslim women need to get rid of the veil, precisely because they need to assimilate to Western ideas of womanhood, they need to learn how to behave in a certain Western way and so on and so forth. I think you’re right there are at least two female subjects that are playing out. I think it’s also important to understand that commonality within the nationalist matrix that foregrounds women in this way.
LL: Perhaps what I should add to this dichotomy is something you write in your book, which is that, we should not think that white feminists, who take part in a homonationalist discourse, are being instrumentalized by nationalist discourse, because it would withdraw their sense of agency in the same way that Muslim women wearing hijab are being often stripped of their sense of agency by the claims that they are instrumentalized by their own community.
SF: Yes absolutely. I’m glad actually you pick up this point. I really stress that it’s important to understand that we are not talking simply about the instrumentalization or exploitation of feminism here. Of course there is that, in the sense that, of course, parties like the Front National or the Northern League in Italy, or the PVV, Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, when they invoke themes of gender equality against Muslims and against migrants, of course, they are exploiting feminist themes because they could not care less about feminism. In fact, they are quite hypocritical when they invoke feminism because, especially in the case of the Front National and the Northern League, they put forward quite traditionalist ideas, anti-feminist ideas of women’s role in society, but they certainly instrumentalize feminism against migrants and the Muslim community. On the other hand, those feminists who endorse Islamophobic ideas, who say things like “Islam oppresses women more than other religions do”, or that say that Muslim women in fact do not choose to wear the veil for instance, I think it would be a mistake to say they are instrumentalized, precisely because as you said, it would be first of all, playing out into the idea that women, feminists, don’t really have a mind of their own, that they are used by others. We need to understand what are the ideological matrixes that actually lead these feminists to deploy these Islamophobic ideas.
My proposal in the book is that they deploy a form of Western supremacism, which means that they have fundamentally internalized, they fundamentally believe in the idea that gendered relations in the West are much more advanced that in the rest of the world, and that this is somehow due to some form of superiority, historical and civilizational superiority, that the West somehow possesses as compared to the rest of the world, and particularly as compared to the Muslim world. This is in some ways not new. We have already examples in the 1920s, as in the case of the suffragettes movement, who supported colonial enterprises in order to obtain the right to vote at home. There was some kinds of trade-off between the participation of some feminists in colonial campaigns in exchange for the right to vote in their own countries. This is just to say, very briefly, that this is not the first time that feminists deploy these forms of Western supremacism, these forms of paternalism towards women from, we say now the Global South, or from the colonies as it was in the past. That is why I really want to stress it’s really wrong to think it’s just about instrumentalization. We need to understand the deep ideological roots of the phenomenon and why some of these feminists are led to say these things, believe in these things and act in this way.
LL: As Françoise Vergès often reminds us, before struggling to obtain the right to vote, the right to have their own bank account, the right to divorce, European women had the right to own human beings through slavery. That’s also something that tends to be forgotten: colonialism needs to be integrated within the history of feminism.
As you know, I am interested in talking about these issues from a spatial perspective, and we can perhaps start doing that. What is obvious in femonationalist discourse relatively to the safety of women is that it exclusively focuses on public space. We clearly saw it with the 2015 sexual assaults of Cologne and their instrumentalization. The least we can say is that if femonationalists are so interested in women’s safety, they are missing the most significant space when it comes to violence against women: the domestic space. If we look at statistics according to which 22% of European women who have suffered from physical or sexual violence by a partner and another that says that 66% of homicides against women in Europe are committed by a partner or a family member, we can affirm that the most dangerous place for women is home — I should say “cisgender women” because things are drastically different for trans women. Is that something that you can talk about in relation to your work?
SF: I think one of the important things to analyze is the fact that femonationalism discourses tend to depict migrant communities or Muslim communities as particularly dangerous for women precisely in light of the fact that these are supposedly backward and misogynist, anti-women cultures, and that these non-Western migrant men; Brown, black, Muslim men, according to these femonationalist narratives, are particularly prone to disrespect women, to be potentially rapists, they are fundamentally dangerous. Certainly within the femonationalist discourse, the idea is that the outside space, and precisely, the migrant neighborhood, the banlieue, or those spaces in the city in which there is a higher concentration of migrants and Muslims, are places that are more dangereous for women. In that sense, we can use the metaphor of the space to see how there is an ‘externalization of danger’ for women in general in those racialized spaces. But this is absolutely against statistics, and what we know about where violence against women takes place. All statistics say that in the majority of Western countries at least the most frequent cases of violence against women are usually perpetrated by men that are very close to the victims, which means, husbands, fathers, boyfriends, friends and so forth. So it is actually the “internal space,”, the domestic space that seems to be more dangerous for women. Statistics immediately deny the femonationalist ideology, the femonationalist trope. Precisely, they show it is absolutely not true that the external space, those racialized spaces, are more dangerous for women. We need to be careful about this.
Of course, I am not saying that there is no violence against women in migrant communities or in Muslim communities and so forth. Of course there is violence, because violence against women takes place everywhere, unfortunately. The point is that, there is no statistics, no study that shows that there is more violence against women in these non-Western migrant communities as compared to national or indigenous communities, whatever you want to call them. And that’s a really important thing to say, precisely because the Islamophobic and racist propaganda according to which men from the Global South are particularly dangerous for women, is incredibly strong. It is something that is being really internalized by Western populations in Europe, in other Western countries and perhaps also in non-Western countries. It is something that we really need continuously to dismantle by really talking about the fact that it does not correspond to reality.
LL: We are now situated in these interior spaces that this issue of The Funambulist is trying to examine. There is another dimension of violence that we need to probably consider, which has to do with the fact that domestic space is not just lived by its residents, but also by potential workers. That’s something you’ve been analyzing, in particular when it comes to female migrant workforce in the industry of the care, something that, following Marx, you refer to as a “reserve army of labor.” Could you tell us about this other dimension of violence?
SF: Yes absolutely. I work on female migration, care or social reproductive work because what migrant women, or women from the Global South, more generally tend to do in Western and European societies, is especially this type of job. They work mostly as carers, nannies, maids, both in private households but also in other places and institutions. One of the themes I tried to discuss in this book is precisely that we need to understand this gendered dichotomy according to which the non-Western men are the criminals, the oppressors while the non-Western women are, instead, the victims that need to be rescued. I think we also need to understand them from an economic point of view. One of the things that I invite the reader to look at, or to think about, is precisely the way in which this gendered racialized dichotomy plays out very clearly in discussions about migrant reserve armies of labor. Basically, if you really think about it, when we read the newspapers, the racist and right-wing propaganda, which unfortunately is not just right-wing, is that the migrants take jobs from nationals, that they are stealing our jobs. When you think carefully about this type of propaganda, it does not really say that migrants in general are stealing jobs, but that it is the male migrants that are stealing jobs. That’s precisely because there is a very gendered type of racist ideology that is taking place here. That is particularly harsh in periods of economic crisis. If we think carefully about this racist trope, we never associate the migrants stealing the jobs to migrant women. That is because, usually, these migrant women are placed in that sector of the economy in which we know almost instinctively, because we observe our societies, our everyday realities, that these women actually do those jobs that, not only are not stolen from national workers, but actually they do those jobs that allow many national women in particular to go out and work outside the household.
What I try to say in this book is that the Marxian concept of “reserve army of labor” is very important to understand neoliberal economies, or capitalist economies more generally. The role that migrants play within these capitalist economies is that of the reserve army of labor. At the same time, we need to carefully observe the role plaid by migrant women, which is partly different, in the sense that at least until now, or in the last thirty years, which corresponds to the time of the so-called feminization of migration, so in the last thirty years, migrant women are not the ones who have, for instance, lost so much their jobs, even in times of economic crisis, but on the contrary, they tend to keep their jobs and there is a rising demand for these migrant women in the social reproductive sector. This is particularly true in the context of the last economic crisis, in which the welfare state is being increasingly de-funded in the majority of Western European countries. This has led to a situation in which lots of these care jobs have been increasingly commodified. One of the ways in which they have been commodified is precisely by hiring migrant women. The reason is that they are usually cheaper, they have little choice but to work for much lower wages, and to accept worse working conditions as compared to national workers, very often simply because national workers might have a wider range of choices. I certainly think it is very important to look at these economic dimensions of this femonationalist ideology and also to work with these Marxian concepts to try to understand what these migrant workers are doing. It is important to do that from a gendered perspective, because otherwise the risk is of applying the same categories that we have traditionally used for male migrant workers also to female migrant workers but that actually does not work, because these women tend to be employed in a very specific sector of the economy.
LL: Something I’m trying to do more and more through these podcast series is to address initiatives that are done to resist these dominant discourses and practices. I would be interested in asking you if you’ve been looking at particular initiatives of the kind. Personally I was thinking of the counter-investigation that had been done in Paris at a journalistic level, in Saint-Denis by Widad Kefti and Sihame Assbague, and in La Chapelle by Leïla Khouiel and Nassira El Moaddem, going back, bits by bits, to every single thing that has been written in stigmatizing journalistic reportages that contribute to femonationalism. The most recent piece was the one in La Chapelle, a North neighborhood of Paris where a certain amount of East African migrants find shelter when they arrive in Paris, and that has been the site of a lot of police violence. There is a strong male presence indeed in the public space that French journalists used in order to write articles introducing the dubious narrative of women being the victims of this presence. So these counter-investigations have been fantastic to debunk the demagogy of the arguments presented in these accounts. Still in France, we can also think of feminist organizations such as Femme en Lutte 93 or Lallab that are doing very important work; I’m sure that you have many others in mind.
SF: I agree that it is very important to carry out counter-investigations and to dismantle the stereotypes that are created against migrants and Muslims. One of the things I am thinking right now are campaigns in the UK particularly led by migrant cleaners in important London universities. I am thinking about the victory of the cleaners and social reproductive workers who have won an important battle for their rights, for instance at the university of SOAS. Something similar is happening at the LSE, London School of Economics. I think these struggles are quite important because one of the ways in which we can, in the long-term, try to dismantle the femonationalist ideology, is also by recognizing the importance of social reproductive work, the importance of recognizing the full workers’ rights of those who work in the sector.
The second thing though to remember is that one of the major strength of the femonationalist ideology is the participation of feminists. One of the reasons why so many people are actually convinced that in fact Muslims are misogynist or that non-Western migrants are potentially rapists and so forth, is not simply because of the mass media propaganda, or the right-wing propaganda. This propaganda, which of course is very strong, has been also reinforced by the endorsement of these slogans by some
feminists. It is also important to understand how the mass media obviously tend to emphasize and foreground the voices of those feminists in particular, who tend to agree with the mainstream and stereotyping ideas. I am thinking of France, where obviously Elizabeth Badinter for example, plays a very big role in reinforcing the idea that Islam is particularly misogynist and an oppressive religion towards women or that Muslim women need to get rid of the veil because it is nothing but an imposition and a symbol of oppression. When a well-known and internationally famous feminist tells you that actually, these women are really oppressed, and that Islam is a religion that disrespects women, of course it really makes you think “well it is a feminist telling us so, who else knows if not her?” and also it’s important to understand that these stereotypes have been reinforced also by the participation not only of white feminists but also of some feminists of Muslim descent, coming from Muslim families or originally from countries with a Muslim majority.
Again, France is quite the emblematic example here because there are a number of women and a number of feminists of immigrant, Algerian or Moroccan descent, who have participated in the femonationalist discourse. I am thinking obviously of, what many years ago was called Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Neither Doormats). But in the Netherlands too I am thinking also of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a right-wing politician and self-declared a feminist who declared war to Islam in the name of women’s rights. I guess I’m saying all of this because I think it is very important to carry out these counter-informative or counter-hegemonic investigations but it is also very important to understand the source of the strength of these ideologies and these discourses. That’s why it is also really important to give voice more and more to Muslim feminists for example, who are organizing against this Western supremacist white feminist and Islamophobic propaganda. Here again there are many examples in France of mothers who have organized in schools against veil-bans. I am thinking also of Muslim women’s organizations in the Netherlands or in Italy. I think it is increasingly important to foreground these women’s struggles, that we give voice to them in order to have counter-narratives.
Transcription by Flora Hergon for The Funambulist.