The last decade’s mega wave of feminism has put the fight for women’s equality at home, at work and in the streets in the headlines, with governments and companies pushed to at least show they’re listening.
But there are consequences to this ‘progress’, one of which is that arguments for women’s equality become an attractive bandwagon for others – including those promoting racist narratives. Far right racist agitators, and even some in and around government, are selectively using appeals to women’s and girls’ rights to reinforce white supremacy and to justify regressive policies.
This works by using women’s equality to invoke a view that our societies are composed of inherently different and separated communities and cultures, with women’s choices and bodies a key indicator of progress and ‘civilisation’. Women are reduced to a totem; our oppression is not of genuine interest to these groups, they just use women as an indicator of whether a minoritized group meets white ‘standards’ of civility and modernity. Feminists need to be on the look out for this casual but constant exploitation of our values for racist purposes.
In the UK, for example, we’ve seen the incendiary adoption by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) of child sexual exploitation by so-called “grooming gangs” (now shorthand for Pakistani or brown Muslim men) as a rallying call. These are people who have never previously been anywhere near rape campaigning, and who tend to support an extremely traditional, patriarchal notion of the family and relationships (far right groups are usually, for example, in favour of abortion restrictions). The far right and parts of the media have purposefully co-opted horrific abuse of girls and made it entirely about race/ethnicity, whilst also erasing BME victims. The impact has been catastrophic.
The common depiction of some forms of gender-based violence, especially FGM, as exceptionally “barbaric”, is similarly driven by a white supremacist worldview which sees the West as at the pinnacle of development in contrast to unchanging ‘othered’ cultures. There are considerable mental gymnastics involved in selecting and highlighting this one form of abuse, which is about family and community control of women’s freedom and choices, while ignoring the everydayness of half a million rapes and sexual assaults annually in England and Wales. Government data shows that rape and sexual assault are now “effectively decriminalised”. Coupled with rape survivors having no real entitlement to therapeutic support, one can argue that if ignoring rape on this grand scale isn’t a “harmful practice”, then what is?
Looking at political and cultural comment we see that women’s equality arguments are deployed so frequently to reinforce racism it can be hard to keep up. From blaming young men’s mothers for not learning English and helping drive ‘homegrown terror’ (David Cameron, 2016), or more recently their sisters (Allison Pearson, 2020); to the constant obsessing over hijab-wearing women as uniquely unfree and oppressed.
In response to the LGBT-related protests outside schools in Birmingham, the denunciation of Muslim communities as uniquely distant from “British values” by people in and around Government wreaks of racism. And that’s before taking into account how bare-faced this is when it comes from ministers whose government long opposed the change in the law which made Relationships and Sex Education compulsory, or the fact that the school programme concerned is associated with Prevent, which has not been highlighted in the media reporting.
As a result, we have an increasingly mainstreamed, white supremacist narrative which says women are routinely oppressed in the less (white) civilised communities and cultures, while (white) women apparently live free and equal lives here in the ‘West’. Once established, this apparent understanding of and commitment to women’s equality is very useful in the justification of new and ongoing racist policies.
Recently, hostile environment deportations of men who’d lived most of their lives in the UK to Jamaica were partly justified by briefing the media that they included a man or men convicted of sex offences. And, Shamima Begum, a British woman whom the authorities here failed to protect when she was a British child, has had her citizenship revoked, leaving her stateless and still living in a refugee camp. It is hard to imagine a white young British girl being treated this way.
Racism has long been implicit in the judgement of some women’s family planning decisions and family structures, as both indicating that they lack agency and are oppressed, or that they have agency enough to choose to be ‘scroungers’, which then justifies punitive welfare policies. To keep us on our toes however, there is an occasional outbreak of care and compassion for the ‘other’ women, who need liberating, when a decision to go to war needs justification.
The increasing normalisation of racist and far-right narratives within the political and social mainstream has a daily impact on women from Black, minoritised and faith backgrounds, from hate incidents to the outright refusal to value specialist by and for BME women’s VAWG support services. Online, there is hypermasculine fury in response to #MeToo and the flourishing of the “manosphere” where misogyny and misogynoir, conspiracy theories, incels and the alt-right come together in an unholy alliance. Those monitoring racist organising believe that this “manosphere” is now a very significant gateway to the alt-right and actual organising. But again, when it comes to policy making, the Government’s online harms offer is hesitant about specifically addressing gendered abuse online and the well-known fact that women of colour in that space are by far the most attacked and trolled.
All the while, as this very shallow invocation of women’s equality arguments continues, real and deep problems of women’s inequality in law and policy are obscured and persist. The “effective decriminalisation of rape” in the UK has not yet seen a senior Cabinet member speak publicly about it; and the silencing and racialising of BME women and girls who disclose rape to police or, for example, in school has been documented by Imkaan, but policy and practice in this area never looks at ethnicity. The failure to fund support services for BME women who face worse justice, health and economic outcomes than white women is the biggest tell of all.
What are we to do in response to this clear and routine exploitation of feminist concerns by those who in reality think some women are worth more than others?
Feminists need to be on high alert. White feminists need to catch up on spotting this manipulation of feminist values, naming it and calling it out. There is no room for a narrow feminism which thinks it’s working on gender inequality alone – we all know by now what an intersectional analysis and commitment means. We need more solidarity and allyship with marginalised communities than ever. We need to listen to women and men on the receiving end of racist treatment and policies, and ensure this is centred in our campaigning and activism. And if we’re going to be able to do any of this we need to be able to talk about racism within feminism. Urgently. EVAW is committed to strengthening our anti-racist analysis and campaigning. We will share more thoughts and actions here soon.