'Femonationalism' and why it's no good for Muslim women

Written by:
Farah Elahi
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Runnymede Research and Policy Analyst Farah Elahi reviews Sara R Farris' new text in which she describes how a combination of otherwise separate agendas can combine to create the oppressive phenomenon of 'Femonationalism'. 

What do European nationalist parties; some feminists and neo liberals have in common? A commitment to Femonationalism, argues Sara R Farris in her new book In The Name Of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism

Femonationalism is the theoretical framework she puts forward to analyse the deployment of gender equality arguments within xenophobic campaigns. In particular the book focuses on the invocation of women’s rights to stigmatise Muslim men in order to advance political-economic objectives.

Despite the absence of concrete policies to tackle gender inequality, far right parties have increasingly raised women’s rights within their political rhetoric. On the other end of the spectrum some outspoken feminists and women’s organisations have singled out Islam as especially patriarchal. Finally, some neoliberals who are otherwise anti-nationalist have also used anti-Islam representations in the name of women’s rights.

Farris’s analysis seeks to understand whether the parallels between these three groups are merely coincidental or whether it represents a new unholy alliance. She finds that underlying the anti-Islam rhetoric there is a political-economic agenda informing the debate, which is intimately linked to fear of ‘the other' and Islamophobia.

According to Farris, Femonationalism foregrounds an ideological formation premised on the supremacy of western values. One example is civic integration programmes that urge migrants to acknowledge women’s rights in such a way that presupposes the inherent misogyny of Muslim communities.

Farris defines racism as “the process of categorisation of certain groups of people as inferior according to [biological] and/or cultural markers, and as the practice of their exclusion.” In the case of Femonationalism, she argues that there is paradoxical exclusion of the non-white (particularly Muslim) male and only a conditional inclusion of the non-white/Muslim female. Muslim men are portrayed as sexual threats and enemies of gender equality and Muslim women as oppressed victims and sexual objects. These contentions mirror prejudices that had been applied to non-Western, colonised subjects more generally in the three countries examined: The Netherlands, France and Italy.

Although compelling, this analysis could have been developed further. Much of it focuses on the imperial relationship between coloniser and colonised, which of course persists, but for some might locate the phenomenon in the past rather than a dominant aspect of contemporary narratives.

One of the consequences of exceptionlising patriarchy within the Muslim community is that authorities are able to ignore the persistence of gender injustice within society, and go on to reduce funds for universal programmes as women’s rights are seen as a “migrant/Muslim women-only” issue.

In analysing policies targeting Muslim and non-Western migrant women in the three countries, Farris finds that, despite a rhetoric that invokes women’s emancipation, both integration and labour market policies target Muslim and non-Western migrant women in heavily gendered ways.

Within civic-integration programmes Farris found that migrant women were seen as responsible for the success of second-generation migrant children’s poor educational and work outcomes. For example in the Netherlands in order to gain citizenship newcomers must undertake an exam within three years of arrival, within the syllabus they must cover the “themes concerning good parenting are repeated and visually represented by women, thereby supporting the idea that parenting is, in the end, the women’s job.” Farris cities several examples like this to illustrate the way in which women are addressed as mothers within civic integration programmes, rather than as individual actors. In 2016 David Cameron announced £20 million fund for women to learn English, singling out in particular Muslim women and drawing a link between the isolation of mothers and Islamist extremism.

Within labour market policies Muslim and non-Wester migrant women are channelled towards the very sphere from which the feminist movement had historically tried to liberate women: domestic, low-paying, and precarious jobs. In other words, the policies reinforce gendered roles of women as mothers and caregivers. In particular, Farris highlights the role Muslim and non-western migrant women play in sustaining the social sectors of childcare, elderly care and cleaning. She argues that their presence allows “Western European men and particularly women to work in the public sphere by providing that care that neoliberal restructuring has commodified.” Ethnic minority labour market participation [pdf] in the UK is also concentrated in low wage sectors, specifically ‘Human health and social work activities’, ‘Wholesale and retail trade’, ‘Education’ and ‘Accommodation and food service activities’.

Although Farris’s analysis focused on the Netherlands, France and Italy, it is clear that parallels can be drawn in the UK. An example of this is UKIP’s decision to make tackling the Niqab and FGM its leading manifesto pledge in the 2017 election.

Femonationalism offers a powerful framework through which to understand the way in which Muslim and non-Western migrant women and their rights are used by different groups to further their own agendas or interests. By analysing the different areas of policy together we are better able to evaluate the extent to which the language of women’s rights is being co-opted by different political actors at the expense of all women.

It is a reminder first and foremost to those of us in the rights based sector, resisting both racism and patriarchy, to remain critical of our own practice and the policy solutions we endorse. We must resist interventions that reduce women’s emancipation to a political-economic logic that ends with migrant women constituting a “reserve army of labour.”

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