Some puzzling developments can be observed in West European populist radical right politics. These highly masculinised political parties, championing traditional models of the family, are increasingly mobilising gender equality issues to attack migrants, in particular by depicting Islam as incompatible with women’s rights (see suggested reading one). In the context of rising hostility towards Muslims, the issue of gender equality is a battlefield for anti-immigration actors. The echo of the Cologne events on New Year’s Eve 2016 testifies to the transnational relevance of this rhetoric. These parties thus aim to ‘modernise’ their public images and address a wider audience beyond their traditional (largely male) constituencies.
Indeed, the traditional ‘gender gap’ in the vote for populist radical right parties has declined, as more women vote for them: in the 2012 and 2017 French presidential elections, and in the 2018 Italian political elections, it disappeared altogether. New female populist radical right leaders have emerged and there is evidence that, in some contexts, a growing number of women are joining these parties as members. The worsening of working conditions in the feminised non-skilled service sector can lead working-class women, too, to perceive themselves as ‘losers of globalisation’, making them more likely to be attracted by populist radical right parties’ attacks on immigration and the global elites. In addition, because women rely more heavily than men on public social and health services due to their position in the sexual division of labour, the recent emphasis on social issues and welfare chauvinistic claims by various populist radical right parties may hold particular appeal. The populist radical right has also increasingly emphasized and securitised the issue of violence against women, targeting racialized men as rapists.
How do we tackle this gendered propaganda of the populist radical right? It is necessary to make room in the public debate for alternative frames beyond those associating crime, particularly violence against women, with immigration. For example, migrant and racialised women importantly support native middle-class (but also working-class) women in carrying the burden of reproductive labour: they are largely employed as precarious domestic workers in societies increasingly affected by welfare state restructuring and the commodification of care. This can be a starting point for positively reframing issues of gender and immigration in public debates and for challenging the potential appeal of welfare chauvinistic propaganda for women (see suggested reading two).
Further, mainstream parties could engage more critically with what feminism means. Clearly feminism is a contested idea. Gender issues have become a legitimate basis for claim-making: different actors, positioned from the left to the extreme right of the political spectrum, claim to act for the rights of women. On one hand, issues of immigration and multiculturalism as well as the ‘co-optation’ of feminism by anti-immigration actors have created deep divisions among feminists since the 1990s. On the other hand, we can observe a merging of feminist and neoliberal discourses: liberal feminism has partly shifted towards an individualising view of women’s emancipation based on market competition, privileging issues of representation and identity over structural issues.
Engaging with these issues, those aiming at opposing populist radical right politics could target those precarious female workers who are conscious of gender inequalities in society, and who are concerned about how immigration and economic globalisation will transform their lives. Young women who benefit from the social, economic and political advances brought about by feminist movements, and who tend to take them for granted, might be attached to these rights. It is important to promote awareness among these women that feminist politics aims at advancing civil, social, economic and political rights for women, and that gender inequalities go beyond the issue of violence against women. These rights are not directly threatened by immigration but are eroded by long-term changes in our economies and in social policies. Moreover, it is important to convey that women’s lives are more likely to be negatively affected by the decrease in welfare state services than by immigration; that sexism and violence against women are unfortunately complex problems which affect women across different class and ethnic backgrounds; and that these problems will not be solved by more restrictive immigration policies.
At this time of economic hardship and highly polarised public debate on immigration, as well as on gender and sexuality, we need more than ever dispassionate international exchange among scholars and activists around the articulations of gender inequalities and racism in our neoliberal societies.
This blog post is an output of the British Academy Mid-Career fellowship Gender and the populist radical right in Europe (2018-2021) (award n. 170054) and is based on data collected through the European Research Council Starting grant Gendering Activism in populist Radical Right Parties: A Comparative Study of Women’s and Men’s Participation in The Northern League (Italy) and The National Front (France) (2012-2014) (award n. 312711).