Skip to content

Race, gender and femonationalism

Over the last few weeks, we have been focusing on issues arising from the book published by Sara Farris in 2017, In the Name of Women’s Rights. What is generative about this book is that it allows us to explore several topics that each have a bearing on the understanding of the interdependency of regimes of race and gender.

Farris’ book is focused on the emergence of what she calls the convergence between feminist/queer movements, nationalism and neoliberalism. She focuses on three European countries – The Netherlands, France and Italy – where governments have instituted civic integration programs for new migrants that have often been called for or at least supported by vocal feminist and/or gay rights activists. This has been accompanied by the growing acceptance of far-right wing anti-immigration parties into the political mainstream who often use a language appropriated from feminist discourse to make the case that Muslim, and by extension migrant, men pose a unique threat to the safety of western women and to the freedom and autonomy of women from their own communities. The interests of feminist movements to liberate women from patriarchal domination has thus converged with the racist categorization of all non-white men as sexual threats, and of all non-white women as dominated subjects in need of ‘saving’. This is continuous with the classical colonial narrative, defined by Gayatri Spivak in her famous essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’, with white women replacing men in this instance.

Farris names the ‘surprising intersection among nationalists, feminists, and neoliberals’ ‘femonationalism’ (Farris 2017: 3), which is ‘short for “feminist and femocratic nationalism”.’ (ibid. 4 ). As defined by Farris,

‘Femonationalism thus describes, on the one hand, the attempts of western European right-wing parties and neoliberals to advance xenophobic and racist politics through the touting of gender equality while, on the other hand, it captures the involvement of various well-known and quite visible feminists and femocrats in the current framing of Islam as a quintessentially misogynistic religion and culture’ (ibid.).

Farris explains that femonationalism is an ideology that emerges from the convergence between what are different political projects. She thus rejects the arguments that feminists are merely being instrumentalised by far right wing agendas, a view she explains in the video below would be patronizing towards feminist activists, as well as being an incomplete analysis of the situation. This is the position she attributes to Eric Fassin and Liz Fekete, whose influential paper Enlightened Fundamentalism is one of the milestone discussions of the particular feminist variant of Islamophobic discourse.

She also does not think that there is a collusion or alliance between feminists and/or gay rights activists and Islamophobic parties, as she suggests Jasbir Puar argues in her theorization of homonationalism.

Where feminists, far right wing nationalists and neoliberal policy makers converge for Farris is around a common belief that ‘gender relations in the West are more advanced and must be taught to Muslim women who are otherwise taken to be agentless objects at the mercy of their patriarchal cultures’ (ibid. 7-8).

A central factor in Farris’ approach is her argument that femonationalist ideology thus provides the justification for the implementation of neoliberal ‘workfare’ style policies that target Muslim migrant women specifically whose liberation from male domination is seen as being enabled by entering the world of work (for a critique of the amalgamation of Muslim and migrant women in Farris account see, Sarah Bracke’s review). However, the work that is open to migrant women through these ‘integration’ policies is restricted to ‘a handful of job types: hotel cleaning, housekeeping, child minding, and caregiving for the elderly and/or the disabled’ (ibid. 15). So, paradoxically, by focusing on women’s work outside the home as a means for liberation, western feminists who have supported racist integration policies targeting migrants end up ‘channeling them toward the very sphere (domestic, low-paying, and precarious jobs) from which the feminist movement had historically tried to liberate women’ (ibid.).

Statue of Europa

The overriding framework for the emergence of this convergence is that of European nationalism in which the role of women has always been that of the reproducer of the nation. As Farris reminds us,

‘The representation of the nation as a female body also evokes notions of “genesis,” “birth,” and the “ancestry,” thus operating as a powerful performative metaphor for nationalism’s invocation of myths of common origin, common blood, and kinship’ (ibid. 70).

It is therefore unsurprising that civic integration policies have targeted migrant women as the reproducers of future generations; if women can be convinced to leave behind what are construed as backward cultural traditions, such as the wearing of the hijab, and embrace a western way of life, then – within a rubric of migrants as threats to the nation – their children might be salvageable and the threat allayed.

So, In the Name of Women’s Rights provides us with the tools to think about three interrelated areas of discussion: the gendered critique of race and nationalism, the historical and contemporary problems of ‘white feminism’, and the gendered dimensions of racial capitalism. It is important to note that these are not precisely the ways in which the problems are framed by Farris. And this is where my criticisms of the book enter. What the book does well is to deftly bring together the role of white European feminism in abetting state-sponsored Islamophobia, with a critical analysis of civic integration policies, a nuanced discussion of the emergence of far-right movements in France, Italy and The Netherlands as not merely populist, but rather continuous with a racial nationalism that has much longer antecedents, and an understanding of the feminist paradoxes of neoliberal economic policies that target Muslim/migrant women. However, where Farris’ work could have been enhanced is by a deeper engagement with Black feminist theorizations of the gendered nature of work and by race critical interventions around ‘racial neoliberalism’, such as those engaged with by Gavan Titley and I in chapter 5 The Crises of Multiculturalism (2011).

There are two main critical points to be made about Farris’ approach in the book which hopefully help us to think about how to productively bring together social reproduction feminism with gendered approaches to racial capitalism. I should add that these are new areas for me to explore; so what follows is my attempt to outline some questions for further directions that will hopefully spur future study (both for me and for students/followers of the blog).

Chapters 4 & 5 of In the Name of Women’s Rights explore the economic ramifications of feminist convergence with far right, Islamophobic agendas that Farris argues have been ignored due to a predominant focus on the level of political rhetoric. As she points out,

the feminist and femocratic convergence with anti-Islam agendas is not limited to rhetoric. Rather, it also involves the economic realm and produces very concrete consequences in the lives of the Muslim and non-western migrant women involved as well as for gender justice more generally (Farris 2017: 116).

Building on examples from the The Netherlands, France and Italy, Farris shows how several feminist organisations directly contribute to the development of programs designed to get Muslim and/or migrant women out of the home, which is presumed to be where they are confined due the patriarchal constraints imposed by their ‘culture’, and into the world of work. However, despite the fact that many of the women concerned in fact have professional qualifications, the programmes direct them to work within the domestic sphere (clearing, childcare, aged care, etc.) or in the area of hospitality. As Farris reminds us, it is telling that these are areas that, despite the financial crisis, are still in need of workers. Migration to Europe in the context of increased restrictions needs also to be understood against the backdrop of concerns about an aging population that requires more care workers. The fact that poor pay and conditions in this sector, as well as an increasingly professionalized European workforce, means that there is a need for people to fill these positions. So, European migration policies (like in Australia and elsewhere) are based on ‘the economic needs of EU countries’ (ibid. 120). She cites a 2011 European Commission working paper that states the need to kill a few birds with one stone:

‘Legal migration can help to address these issues, in addition to maximizing the use of the labor force and skills already available in the EU and improving the productivity of the EU economy.” Furthermore, in the changed social, economic, and political context, the two most pressing challenges were identified as “the prevailing low employment levels of migrants, especially for migrant women,” and the “rising unemployment and high levels of “over-qualification”‘ (ibid. 119).

The channeling of migrant women into certain areas of the economy has the dual purpose of justifying the migration of ‘low-skilled’ women into Europe, often through family reunification, while addressing the fear that migrant women, and especially Muslims, are failing to integrate into society. The  focus on Muslim women as a particular problem facing European societies, from an Islamophobic perspective, is also due to anxiety about the Muslim home more generally. Muslim women who are generally thought of as uneducated and unemancipated, under the thumb of their patriarchal husbands, construed as part of a sexist culture, have an undue influence, it is felt, over their children. In an atmosphere of fear and anxiety about the ‘Eurabian‘ takeover of Europe by Muslims and Islam, women are seen as potentially influenceable to reorient their children away from potential radicalization.

If women have to leave the home and go out to work, the argument is from the perspective of feminist organizations who rely on a stereotypically racialised view of Muslim women that is framed by an Islamophobic understanding of Islam as a patriarchal religion that is bad for women, they will provide a more positive example for their children. However, the problem for Farris is that the type of work offered to Muslim and migrant women is not the kind of work that women want to do, nor is it the kind of work that would help women, already excluded and discriminated against in European societies be more empowered. On the contrary, mainly being available in domestic work, the workfare policies these women are forced to comply with (sometimes as in The Netherlands consisting of unpaid labour), reconfine women to the sphere of the home that feminism has fought so hard to help women escape!

Ellen Jacobs, 'Substitutes'. After an afternoon playing in Hippo Playground near 91st Street in Riverside Park, Gemma stands with her son and two of the children she cares for. Gemma has been a nanny for more than 20 years. She says she feels like part of the family but doesn’t want to because she knows she has to leave one day.
Ellen Jacobs, ‘Substitutes’. After an afternoon playing in Hippo Playground near 91st Street in Riverside Park, Gemma stands with her son and two of the children she cares for.

In fact, as those who have written about the migration of women for domestic work have shown, this type of labour distances women from their families rather than allowing them to have more time to be with their children. Although work on the ‘global care chain‘ usually refers to women who migrate alone in order to provide for their family, often leaving their children with extended family, we can see how working in the area of childcare or aged care etc., even for women who live with their families, means doing hours which are spent looking after other people’s children rather than their own.

With reference to Dutch civic integration policies for example, Farris illustrates this by describing the Dutch ‘civic integration abroad’ exam for which applicants must watch a movie called Naar Nederland (Going to the Netherlands):

‘Throughout the movie, mentions of gender equality as a key value of Dutch society are very frequent. For instance, the movie shows topless women sunbathing on Dutch beaches, or pictures of women in bikinis, presumably in order to convey the message that Dutch women enjoy sexual freedom and that nudity is not taboo. In one scene images of a man undertaking domestic chores in the kitchen are accompanied by the narration, “Don’t be surprised if you see a man standing at the cooker with an apron on because in many families men and women fulfill the same roles”‘ (Farris 2017: 93).

Naar Nederland civic integration materials
Naar Nederland civic integration materials

A major purpose of these materials is to inculcate in migrant women an understanding of the special role they have as reproducers of the next generation, a major role of which is responsibility for children’s education:

‘The whole section on children’s education is designed to communicate that “normal” families in the Netherlands are nuclear ones, composed of two parents or sometimes just one, but not enlarged families. Migrant mothers, thus, are put center stage as essential vectors of integration’ (ibid. 94).

Rather than interrupting patriarchal visions of gendered work, confining women to work in the domestic sphere also further entrenches the idea that this is ‘women’s work’. However, while white women fought for the right not to be confined to domestic labour, and today struggle against the ‘double shift’ which sees women having to work both outside and, disproportionately, inside the home, still doing the bulk of housework, the migrant women described in the book, are confined to domestic work both within and outside the home.

This begs the question of whether feminist organizations who contribute to civic integration policies that are based on getting migrant and/or Muslim women into work are really committed to women’s emancipation. It might therefore also be important to look at the extent to which racialised women’s work as carers particularly enables white women and those with more class privilege to have careers. In other words, from a political economy perspective that is attentive to the specific nature of gendered racial capitalism, the work of professional women, who are predominantly though not exclusively white, is dependent at least in part upon the work of migrant and otherwise racialised women, as nannies, childcare workers, etc.

On reading, In the Name of Women’s Rights, what is immediately striking is the lack of much concern with racial capitalism as a theoretical framework that can help us think about the theoretical implications of the analysis of the racialised nature of the ‘workfare’ policies targeting Muslim and migrant women in the countries Farris writes about. Rather, Farris describes in detail the types of workfare policies that channel Muslim and/or migrant women into the domestic sphere of work, and then turns to a Marxist social reproduction framework to help her make sense of this theoretically.

From a Marxian perspective, Farris claims, care and domestic work are considered to be reproductive labour ‘and thus as unproductive from a capitalist viewpoint’ (ibid. 167). But work of this kind in fact needs to be seen as fundamental for the operation of capitalism, because it is the unseen labour that ‘keeps the machine going’. Quote simply, without people (women) cooking, cleaning and caring for children, it would be impossible for workers to be freed up to work outside the home. It is the failure to see this work as ‘real work’ that led to feminists in the 1970s to demand wages for housework.

So, how can we use racial capitalism to think beyond the constraints imposed by the book’s rather Eurocentric theoretical focus?

One place to start may be with Gargi Bhattacharyya‘s new book Rethinking Racial Capitalism. She remarks that there is a problem in the tendency to discuss reproductive labour as women’s work that

‘has remained largely ties to the idea that human beings are reproduced in the relatively private spaces of the family and also that the reproduction of human beings is a matter of reproducing productive workers’ (Bhattacharyya 2018: loc. 847 – ebook).

But from the perspective of racial capitalism, she argues it might be necessary to look at reproduction in a wider sense, beyond the ‘drudgery of housework’ (ibid. loc 853). This work, ‘reminds us that the invention of the “productive economy” obscures the far longer history of social reproduction as the business of life’ (ibid.). She cites Federici and Mies who both speak about colonial exploitation as the ‘parallel process to the invisibilisation of women and their work’ (ibid. loc. 865), a factor also mentioned by Farris. However, she wishes to push the discussion of reproduction beyond the realm of what is necessary to put in place to enable production – the ‘hidden and unvalued work that surrounds and precedes waged labour, and which allows waged labour to be possible’ (ibid. loc. 883) – cooking, cleaning, child care etc., traditionally done any women). She reminds that, in contradistinction to the theorization of the home as intrinsically oppressive to women, for bell hooks (1990), the ‘”home”, despite its many threats and tensions, also represents a necessary space of emotional recuperation in the face of dehumanization, depletion and racist terror (ibid. loc. 924).

This point is perhaps implicitly contained within Farris’ critique in that she opposes the negative associations made by white European feminists of Muslim and/or migrant women’s homes which are always painted to be oppressive places from which women should be encouraged to escape via work. However, she does not offer a theorization of how the home can become, or is, a space of empowerment and/or protection, For example, we might think about the role of parents in teaching children about the realities of racism, a burden brought to light within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in which parents shared the experience of having to educate their children about white violence.

As Bhattacharyya remarks, the ‘labour of remaking human beings against the battering of racial capitalism takes place for the far more usual reasons of love, care, community, survival’ (Bhattacharyya 2018: loc. 930). What if we were to see the role of migrant parents, thus, not being to help their children integrate more easily into society, but to understand that this is a rigged game and that no matter what they do, the structural conditions of racism will subvert any attempt to attain white norms an attempt in vain. Instead, building confidence in community and family can be, and is, a source of strength.

One of the key insights of Black feminist theorizations of reproduction is that ‘fecundity is itself a racial characteristic and that, like weeds, these people can reproduce in the most inhospitable of circumstances’ (ibid. loc. 829). So, it appears that to understand white feminist anxieties about the role of Muslim and/or migrant women as described in Farris’ book, it is necessary to set it against the deeper demographic anxieties that confront so-called ‘immigration’ societies. This was key to our analysis on The Crises of Multiculturalism (2011) which we theorized as mainly a response to the crisis of whiteness that reimagines Europeanness as being supplanted by ‘alien’ religions and cultures (most prominently Islam).

As Bhattacahryya writes, fears about the reproducibility of racialised peoples are cast as fears about the scarcity of resources and who deserves what. In societies in which white people’s birthrate is decreasing, while that of migrants continues to remain higher, this is ultimately an anxiety about too many people of the ‘wrong kind’ getting access to what is seen as rightfully ‘ours’. No matter whether migrants contribute to the economy through taxation and spending, they are constructed as less deserving. Hence, forcing women into ‘workfare’ style programmes may well take the guise of ‘integration’, but actually they index the notion that, as migrants, these women are less deserving of welfare. In practical terms, these beliefs undergird the growing restrictions placed on migrants’ access to welfare, in particular asylum seekers and refugees who often have to rely on charity in order to subsist. Similar policies affecting Aboriginal people in Australia construe them as intrinsically opposed to work and thus as undeserving of state help.

So, to understand why racialised women become the receptacle for white anxieties, we have to set femonationalism in the historical context in which ‘race and reproduction are bound together’ (Weinbaum, 2004: 6) and ‘notions of national belonging [depend] on the idea that race is something that can be reproduced’ (ibid. 17). Race is thus embedded in the sexual, reproductive body and racialised women in particular are held responsible for the intergenerational transmission of race through giving birth to bodies ‘of the wrong kind’. And as Vron Ware has pointed out, with reference to an advertisement for the British Conservative party, this is reproduced in political messaging with white women depicted as symbolizing ‘vulnerability, sensitivity, passion, security, danger, dependence, motherhood’ with ‘her “whiteness”… working in less visible ways to reinforce the racist and masculinist ideology of the commercial’ (Ware 1992[2015]: xviii).

In her latest book, The Woman’s Womb: Race, Capitalism and FeminismFrancois Verges analyses the indifference of French feminist movements to ‘the racial management of Black women’s wombs by the state, racial capital, imperialism, and racial patriarchy’ (Verges 2018: 264). Her book is an exploration of the fact that while French women (and western women in general) were fighting for reproductive rights (abortion, contraception, etc.), Black women in Reunion island were having invasive contraception enforced on them in the aim of curbing their reproduction. A similar situation is described by Dorothy Roberts with regards to the United States in Killing the Black Body.

White women who framed their struggle around contraception and abortion while ignoring the control over Black women’s rights to have children ultimately defended their own rights at the expense of women of colour, according to Verges. She describes a history that is little known on the left, particularly those who advocate a ‘class not race’ attitude to the analysis of contemporary socioeconomics:

‘after World War II, in 1947, the French state declared that the problem in the new overseas departments—the former slave colonies—was their high birth rates, and that the state should launch two policies: one instituting birth control and another arranging for the migration of youth’ (Verges 2018: 265).

In other words, France, which needed migrant labour to rebuild its cities after the war encouraged the migration of youth from the colonies while at the same time seeking to slow down the reproduction of further generations. My reading of what Verges is saying is that it was already projected that the need for migrant labour would be finite and so, while in the short term ‘the wombs of women of color’ could be exploited ‘for the global labor market’ (ibid.), there was a commitment to slowing the birthrate in the long run. This was

‘in keeping with an ideology regarding birth control, widely diffused by the United States and international organizations, that held that Third World women were producing too many children, that they were the cause of poverty and underdevelopment, that their children would threaten world peace and world security, since they would want to migrate, and that they would resent the wealth of the West and seek to destroy it’ (ibid.)

Francoise Verges at the Bandung du Nord conference
Francoise Verges at the Bandung du Nord conference

Feminism in France, according to Verges was neglectful of these questions despite having emerged from a generation that was critical of imperialism in Algeria and elsewhere. Feminists in France operated mainly within an Enlightenment vision of female progress that focused on ‘the creation of white progressive and republican women’ (ibid. 266). Explicitly referencing Farris’ concept of femonationalism, Verges notes that this set the stage for today’s full-blown Islamophobic French feminism which is today being challenged by Black and Muslim decolonial activists in France such as those who organized the Bandung du Nord conference which I attended in May 2018.

As we reel from the nomination of a rapist to the US senate, many women of colour pointed out that Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination could not have been secured without the support of white women. And while avowed feminists opposed him, and the woman who led the charge against him was white, it is nonetheless striking to observe how often white womanhood aligns with patriarchy against the interests of women in general in order to block the extension of more freedoms to the marginalized, with direct effect on the lives of people of colour and women in particular.




Alana Lentin