Abstract by Prof. Dr. Sara Farris

The Racialisation of sexism and the sexualisation of racism

In the second half of the 2000s sociologists and political scientists seeking to understand why the PVV, FN and LN began to mobilize issues of women’s rights in anti-Islam and anti-immigration campaigns resorted to theories of populism. A number of elements were noted as strikingly dissimilar to traditional far-right or fascist leitmotifs: the adoption of themes such as gay and women’s rights; the emphasis upon not only the Christian Jewish roots of Europe; their growing capacity to attract voters who do not position themselves on the Right, or who were not a traditional constituency for these parties (particularly women); the appeal to the people as the only legitimate sovereign; and an emphasis upon the community rather than the state. A turn to the conceptual apparatus of populism was thus regarded as necessary for a clearer understanding of these parties’ seemingly philogynist agendas.

Whether comprehended as the primacy of the charismatic leader over the political program, or the abandonment of classical and outdated ideologies of the twentieth century, most theories of populism have agreed on a characterization of the populist party as one that attempts to foment the people against a challenger to their interests (the state, the political elite, the immigrant and so forth). In other words, although the term populism has been conceptualized in a variety of ways, all definitions concur in what I would call a ‘formalistic’ understanding of populism. According to this perspective, populism ultimately is the politics of dichotomizing the political space into an “us” (the pure people) versus “them” (the corrupt elite or the foreigner). Populist politics, that is, is not defined by its content, but by its form. The instrumental mobilization of women’s rights in anti-Islam and anti-immigration campaigns by the Dutch, French and Italian parties I examine in this book could thus be understood in terms of these parties’ identification of a clear enemy (the male Muslim and immigrant in this case) against whom the people can articulate their anger and demands. The Schmittian formalistic logic of friend/enemy, which defines politics as a battlefield between two supposedly internally homogenous and conflictual parties – regardless of the nature of the demands of these parties – is thus regarded as the core of the populist ideology. One should note that it is precisely the formalism of the predominant definition of populism that enables both left-wing and right-wing parties and movements to be labelled as populist. Ernesto Laclau – particularly in his book On the Populist Reason – has played a central role in establishing and deepening this formalistic approach to the study of populism.

In this paper I aim to demonstrate that the concept of populism is unable to help us to analyze the reasons why right-wing parties resort to women’s rights. In order to lay out my argument, I first reconstruct some of the most influential interpretations of right-wing populism in western Europe. Here I will pay particular attention to Ernesto Laclau’s important and influential contribution, arguing that its limitation become apparent when we consider right-wing parties’ sudden embrace of feminist-friendly themes. On this basis I show that theories of nationalism, particularly as developed by post-colonial feminists and within critical race theories, are better suited to decipher both the novelty of the way in which Muslim and non-western migrant woman are represented as victims to be rescued, as well the historical regularities upon which such representations draw. Ultimately, I contend, if we want to grasp the reasons for the sudden and instrumental mobilization of gender issues by these right-wing parties – that is, one fundamental dimension of femonationalism – we need to understand populism not as the master signifier of contemporary right-wing politics vis-à-vis women and non-western migrants, but rather as a political style or a rhetorical device whose conceptual signifier lies in nationalism and its historical institutions.