Liberal feminism is failing both women and minorities. And this failure is coming at what’s perhaps one of the most crucial points in time in recent history for gender and minority rights in Europe and the US.
This is the argument made by Sophia Siddiqui of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in a new article for the Race & Class journal. She parses recent events in Hungary, Poland, and the UK, where conservative forces are waging a war on gender rights. Women’s bodies, Siddiqui points out, have become a battleground for gender irredentists intent on returning to an imagined glorious past of a nuclear family and strictly defined gender roles. The role of women, in the midst of falling birthrates, is to breed and raise their offspring, this being a patriotic duty they should place above all else.
At the same time Siddiqui notes that “racialised minorities and LGBTQ people are treated as threats to the nation”, being the “wrong” kind of “breeders” and subject to violence. Despite this, migrant workers are needed as carers and in other labour-intensive jobs with all of this “now central to the racism that informs mainstream public discourse and the political moves to the far Right”.
Siddiqui defines this as a new kind of racism known as “reproductive racism”. It’s “a system that controls, restricts and exploits reproductive capacities”. And it now forms a large part of not only far-right discourse, but also discussions in some corners of the mainstream, especially in politics.
Alongside this is an element of supposedly liberal feminism that has begun to viciously target trans people and whatever rights they’ve fought for. It’s now hit levels of unrestrained irrationality, especially in the UK. And here in Ireland the same patterns have emerged in the mainstream press, copied almost verbatim from the UK media.
We spoke with the activist and scholar about her new article and the important issues she raised. As well as discussing her work, she highlighted the ongoing resistance across the globe to attacks on gender rights and migrants’ rights.
You focus on Hungary and Poland but the idea of a gender war has very much taken root in the UK as well. In the latter it’s taken the form of supposedly liberal feminists attacking trans people whereas in the former countries it seems to stem from an overtly conservative, if not right-wing, power structure along with the influence of the church. What do you think makes the UK situation different? Or is it different?
In fact, the differences between the Polish/Hungarian and UK situations are not quite as stark as that. All three countries have a mainstream right-wing media culture which is fuelling “moral panics” around LGBT issues, with the Conservative government in the UK beginning to mirror some of the arguments about trans issues put forward by Republicans in the US. On the other hand, you are right to point out that there is a strand of feminism (and a section of LGBT thought) in the UK which is hostile to trans rights and that seems fairly unique in the European context, though the situation is changing fast, and I have also drawn attention to patterns in Spain.
What are the reasons for this? One can only speculate. In countries such as Poland and Hungary, where there are very weak or non-existent protections for women and LGBT people, there is more unity in struggle — because solidarity is the key to survival. I draw very heavily on the work of Polish feminists in my piece, as their radical, liberationist approach speaks more to me than the narrow, separatist, identity politics of many liberal feminists who, because they prioritise gender over race and class, let alone trans rights, have not been so open to the politics of solidarity. This ties up with the importance I attach in the article to moving away from single-issue politics to looking at the relational nature of race, gender and class and how these are reproduced under capitalism.
You discuss “reproductive racism” and define it as the use of “certain women’s bodies as conduits for the production of national identity whilst propelling conspiracy theories of a demographic takeover – with violent consequences for those constructed as a threat”, and that this has been mainstreamed. What role do you think certain branches of feminism, along with the media, play in this?
The media plays a significant role in reproductive racism. Migrant women’s fertility is often demonised in the right-wing press. For instance in the UK we have seen headlines about a “migrant baby boom” or articles about the number of babies born to “foreign mothers”. Such rhetoric can trickle down into the every-day racism that Muslim women and girls face, who are treated as threatening “breeders” of Muslim families. We monitor such racism at the Institute of Race Relations.
As for the role of feminism, we have seen how claims to protect women’s rights can be used to justify racist rhetoric and policy. This was particularly potent during debates around the hijab, which saw anti-immigration and Islamophobic arguments being incorporated by some feminists, who relied on essentialist arguments about Islam that presented Muslim women and girls as passive victims of a patriarchal culture. Such rhetoric ultimately forces Muslim women out of public spaces and can fuel the racism on the ground.
Essentialist arguments, whether they demarcate a racialised culture or sexual identity can have damaging consequences. Ultimately this shows that we need a broader understanding of intersectionality, that does not see the rights of one group in competition with the other, but understands race, class and gender as indivisible struggles.
Do you think there’s an awareness amongst so-called gender critics, who are supposedly liberal or on the left, that what they’re doing plays into nationalist and far-right narratives?
I think this is a very subjective area — and it is difficult to comment on their intentions, which may vary greatly. All I can do is speak from the vantage point of my feminism, which is anti-fascist and anti-racist, particularly at a time when the far right are mobilising through anti-feminist and anti-LGBT measures across Europe. Now more than ever we need a transnational and intersectional approach, to see what is happening across Europe and its implications for all minorities. We need a greater awareness about how anti-migrant, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT activities are increasingly interlinking, as part of a well-funded, international attack.
You argue that this focus on gender is actually a ploy to distract from the failures of capitalism. As we head closer towards complete environmental collapse along with continued crises in capitalist countries, do you expect this focus on gender to worsen or, perhaps, develop in different ways?
Yes, in times of political and economic instability, the family acts as a stabilising force. It is no coincidence that anti-gender movements gained ground following the 2008 economic crash and will likely continue to do so as we hurtle towards further economic insecurity. The creation of “enemy figures” — such as migrants, LGBTQ people or feminists — can provide an easy scapegoat. Gender is used as a screen.
But it’s very interesting to think about how the environmental crisis is also used as a screen, behind which the rights of women and other minorities are attacked. The climate crisis and particularly a focus on population control — that problematises the fertility of women in the Global South and argues we need to control women’s fertility in order to save the planet — has been used by various people on the left and the right as a cover for anti-immigrant and misogynistic sentiments and policies. We know this doesn’t make sense, as countries in the Global South have the world’s lowest greenhouse emissions.
And the other side of the coin is fears of population decline in the Global North. Some key leaders launching an attack on reproductive rights combine their arguments with climate denialism — a “failure to produce children” is “the real extinction rebellion”, said one speaker in a telling speech at a 2019 demographic conference. Or in a different vein, it is worth remembering how two massacres in 2019 (in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas) were perpetrated by gunmen who allegedly self-identify as “eco-fascists”, who shared an obsession with overpopulation and environmental degradation, combining racist and nativist agendas with concern for the environment.
All of this shows that we need to be attuned to the links between attacks on gender and the various, sometimes contradictory ways, that the climate crisis is used to justify racist and misogynistic attacks.
The use of migrant labour, which you also discuss, has become even more apparent as a result of Brexit and the pandemic with reports of labour shortages in industries usually dominated by migrant workers. But at the same time the Conservative government in the UK is doubling down on its exclusionary policies. Is there an explanation for this contradiction?
You highlight a central contradiction here — our society is dependent on migrant labour (particularly highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis) but this labour is constantly devalued, underpaid and restricted.
But this contradiction is central to government policy and the functioning of global neoliberal capitalism. Exclusionary border policies (which make it difficult for people to come to the UK, and hard for them to access services once they are here) produce precarity and enable exploitation by ensuring that wages are low and legal protections are minimal. Border regimes mean that those travelling to the UK for work have to come here in more clandestine ways, taking up precarious work, often in unsafe conditions that are easily exploitable by employers who can use a lack of papers as a threat. That is why there is a reliance on undocumented workers in construction, service, care and domestic work sectors; borders produce illegality, which drives down costs of labour. It’s important to remember that this contradiction has a function.
Is there anyone doing something about the issues you’ve raised on a larger scale and what can realistically be done?
We’re seeing much resistance at a grassroots level, with communities organising against attacks on reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and against the inhumane treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. Last week, Polish mothers supported asylum-seekers at the border with Belarus whilst the All-Poland Women’s Strike protested outside parliament against a parliamentary bill to that would ban LGBT pride parades. Rollbacks on reproductive rights have been met with fierce resistance across the globe; young women and girls have been at the forefront of street protests for abortion rights across Mexico. And attacks on LGBT rights are consistently met with resistance too — with thousands protesting against a proposed anti-LGBT education law in Hungary. It’s crucial to remember that whilst attacks on women and LGBTQ people feel so relentless, these attacks are also being tirelessly opposed on the ground. As local solidarity struggles become transnational, with people seeing continuities between their struggles across the world, we will have something really powerful.
I also think, to get to the root of these issues, we need to track the funding. Researchers at the Global Project against Hate and Extremism, Open Democracy and the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive rights are already doing this by exposing the powerful international and ultra-conservative groups that are funnelling dark money across the world to rollback the rights of women and LGBTQ communities. As long as these groups are able to influence democratic processes, we have a real issue on our hands. More attention needs to be paid to these groups and how they are exporting a rights-violating agenda across the world.
Featured image via YouTube – Screenshot