In the Name of Women's Rights

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Readers of Socialist Review will be familiar with arguments from extreme right wing and fascist organisations across Europe — often backed up by leading “feminists” — that demonise Islam as incompatible with “Western” cultural values, alleging Islam is misogynist and homophobic.

Sara R Farris aims to show that “femonationalism” — “the weaving together of right wing nationalism, certain strains of feminism, and neoliberalism” — is underpinned by “concrete materiality” in the key role migrant women workers play in domestic and carework. She focuses on the Netherlands, France and Italy.

Farris covers a great deal of ground: the rise of the extreme right in the countries in her study; the way in which well-known feminists have backed an Islamophobic agenda; the history of immigration policy and the way in which citizenship is now used as a tool to project the supposed superiority of “Western values”.

There is a great deal of interesting material, including a discussion about the use of Marx’s concept of a reserve army of labour. Much of what she says about the convergence of a certain kind of “feminist” agenda with the state on policies on immigration is uncontroversial.

Ferris makes three interconnected arguments. First, the framing of Islam as anti-women has allowed Muslim women (and by extension all migrant women) to be portrayed as victims “in need of rescue” counterposed to “violent” Muslim men.

Second, the neoliberal policies and the needs of “native” women workers are leading to an increasing influx of migrant women to carry out “care” work in domestic households and in the care sector.

Finally, the framing of Muslim women/migrant women as victims in need of rescuing legitimises right wing nationalist parties and governments in making exceptions of migrant women for immigration purposes.

According to 2015 data from the International Labour Organisation, there were 53 million migrant workers worldwide of whom 21.5 million were women. This illustrates the trend towards ever greater numbers of women migrating to find work.

Some 5.2 million women and 3.6 million men worked in private households in the Middle East, Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (broadly the former USSR).

There is migration internally within as well as across continents. So this is not simply a question, as argued by Ferris, of the Global South supplying “carers” to the Global North. It is about the distribution of poverty and wealth internationally and the demand for labour in different economic sectors.

Governments using racism for electoral and other purposes often get caught in contradictions in relation to immigration policies, ramping up racist arguments about migrants then finding that employers want certain categories of migrants to be allowed in.

Whatever merit there might be in Ferris’s arguments, she omits the overall impact of the demonisation of Islam, which is that all Muslim women are the very real victims of racism and Islamophobia.