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Feminism gone bad? Women’s organisations and the hard right in Germany

What kind of campaigning could outweigh the increasing power of implicit and explicit alliances by far-right actors and certain anti-Muslim German feminists?

lead lead lead Kübra Gümüşay (2016).Wikicommons/re:publica/Gregor Fischer. Some rights reserved. The populist radical right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been working to get to the top of the party polls since its foundation in 2013. Currently, it is the second strongest party in Germany, with polls which estimate that if elections were held today, the AfD would receive 18 % of the vote (ARD, 21 September 2018). In its climb in the popularity stakes, AfD is forming a curious range alliances with political leaders. In the traditional political spectrum, feminists are often placed at the left end of the continuum. However, contradicting this, feminists and women’s organizations in Germany have of late been entering into implicit or unintended alliances with the AfD as they make common cause against the so-called “Islamization of Germany”. We have identified three strategies of feminist and far-right political actors that result in the articulation of overlapping goals.

Strategy one: public defamation as a strategy of both the far right and German Muslim women

Seyran Ateş is a self-defined female imam, the founder of a liberal mosque, and as a lawyer a long-standing fighter for women’s rights in Germany. She appears frequently in the media, and in public debates, and is well-known for her statements which aim to undermine what she sees as the regressive, anti-women, anti-gay stance of German Muslims.

Based on the well-known proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, the German far right is showing its solidarity with women like Ms. Ateş in the fight against so-called radicalization and political Islam in Germany – or, against the ‘Islamization of Germany’.  Ironically, in supporting Ms. Ateş’s political stance in an open letter on its party website, the AfD aims to attract “native” Germans who fear Islam, using a strategy earlier adopted by public intellectuals as well as the Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident/West).

As the far right shows solidarity with certain women’s rights supporters to counter the so-called ‘Islamization of Germany’, one common strategy is to work to prevent the public engagement of specific Muslim women who are wearing headscarves by publicly defaming them. One of their targets has been young journalist and self-defined “intersectional feminist” Kübra Gümüşay, a German Muslim who wears a headscarf while being politically active.

In a recent digital petition platform, Necla Kelek, from the women’s organization terre des femmes and Seyran Ateş announced that they wrote a petition together in order to remove Kübra Gümüşay from a public panel on The New Mainstream – Far Right Ideologies and Movements in Europe (17-19 September 2018) that was part of the German Hygiene Museum’s exhibition on racism in Dresden. They claimed that Gümüşay allegedly supported political Islam (in their words, “orthodox-conservative Islam”) (Note that the organizers announced that the accusations were unsupported in a public statement. They rejected this claim, and included Gümüşay in the panel.)

Strategy two: “Saving Muslim women from Muslim men”

Gender equality stands as a litmus test for immigrant inclusion in Germany. It has become an almost universally-held liberal value, central to current human rights concerns and dominant in policy-making language. However, gender equality is actually difficult to define, often deriving its meaning from the context within which it is used. Gender equality is actually difficult to define, often deriving its meaning from the context within which it is used.

It is exactly this open-endedness of the concept that makes it seem so useful in political contestations: it signals a desire for liberation and freedom while it can be used in exclusionary ways. Terre des femmes (women’s earth), a non-governmental women’s organization in Germany, is deploying exactly this ambivalence between liberation and exclusion, in order to support an old-fashioned, homogeneous feminist agenda. Terre des femmes is the major women’s organization campaigning against violence against women in Germany, as well as sex-work and human trafficking. They represent a feminist voice that is attracting increasing representation from immigrant women or men who promote anti-Muslim politics, such as Seyran Ateş who we discussed above and sociologist Necla Kelek, who is on the executive committee of terre des femmes. Author of several books condemning the religious practices of Turkish immigrants in Germany, Kelek openly supported politician Thilo Sarrazin, who wrote two books on how Germany is ‘abolishing itself’ via the (alleged) threat of Muslim immigration and Islamization. (Both books became best sellers).

On 6 March 2018, terre des femmes organized a film-viewing for Women’s Day whose main theme was to teach refugees about gender equality. Around five hundred people were in the audience, filling a cinema in central Berlin. During the panel discussion, the vice director, Inge Bell, was moderating four speakers, one of whom was an elderly Iraqi man who spoke only in Arabic. The Iraqi man said that the biggest problem in his country was that women are treated as slaves and that he did not want his daughter to be a slave. He concluded his speech with the declaration, “We need to be liberated.”

The discussion finished with applause from the audience. Inge Bell the moderator, turned to the Iraqi man with a question on whether the film they had just viewed helped to transfer “our values” to immigrants – our values standing in for gender equality. Christa Stolle, the federal leader of terre des femmes, then presented each of the participants with a copy of Brochmann and Dahl’s book on women’s anatomy Viva la Vagina (2018), including the Iraqi man who smiled shyly at the audience.

Feminists engaged with terre des femmes in previous years have made tremendous inroads into formal politics, positioning themselves as the guardians of gender equality. But they are also coopted into a colonial language of “saving Muslim women from Muslim men”, which aligns them with the far right and denies agency to women who do not agree with their kind of feminism. Thanks to this current political stance, some of their members and supporters have left terre des femmes in protest. We see a further iteration of this “saviour” discourse, in the last decade, which is accusing Muslim women as being “perpetrators” of ‘Islamization in Germany’, as shown in the first strategy, above.

Strategy three: evoking German nativism by creating moral panic

This strategy is the most explicit alliance between feminism and far-right politics, as it appeals directly to a large voter base of both the radical and extremist right. In January 2018, a group of self-defined feminists founded the120 Dezibel (120 Decibels) campaign, which they introduced as a “genuine outcry” (wahre Aufschrei). In the summer of 2017, its leading actor, Paula Winterfeldt, stated at a rally held by the extremist right Identitäre Bewegung (Identity Movement) in Berlin that she yearned for a return to the “good old days” when German women carried “deodorant spray instead of pepper spray in their bags”. The group’s founding members now invoke this increase in everyday sexism against German women by calling themselves 120 Dezibel, the volume level of pocket alarms. For them, both pepper spray and 120-decibel pocket alarms symbolize the alarming risks of everyday sexism to German women since Northern African and Muslim refugees crossed the German border. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s inauguration of a German ‘welcome culture’ in late summer 2015 triggered the rumour that white German women are at an increased risk of violence. For instance, the far-right monthly Compact magazine headed its February 2016 issue, “Fair game woman: The bad ending of welcome culture”.

The radical right AfD and other extremist right actors have subsequently spread the 120 Dezibel campaign via their online channels. The AfD politician Leyla Bilge, a convert from Islam to Christianity, claims to have emigrated from Idil (Turkey) in 1974 because Muslims were violently chasing Christians (in the pre-election period of the 1974 local elections the Aramean mayor of Idil was killed, allegedly by supporters of the Muslim contender).

Reflecting the alliance strategy of coopting women who can claim first-hand experience as Muslims (even when converted or atheist), Bilge organized a Women’s March on February 17, 2018 in Berlin. She states that ‘the German’ has to be shaken into a rage against “the deluded elites” (media and politics) if the German nation (read: women) is to be protected from Muslim men. In this way, the 120 Dezibel campaign speaks to and very much reflects an overlapping populist discourse from the German far right, about the need to counter morally inferior elites in the name of the general national will. For them: German borders need to be sealed against any further entry of Muslim or North African immigrants and the internal ‘invasion by Islam’ halted immediately, if German women are to be safeguarded from Muslim men who pose a serious pollution threat to the pure German Volkskörper (the pure German body).

Calling themselves, “The daughters of Europe”, the 120 Dezibel campaigns speak to an anti-Muslim discourse by creating public fear of Muslim men as criminals, while simultaneously promoting a victimized Muslim women stereotype. Their supporters tweet #No Hijab Day in German social media: “(there)…are still imprisoned in Iran women who defend themselves against forced veiling. Real solidarity would mean taking off the headscarf for a day.”

While 120 Dezibel is appealing to German young women who connect to the world through social media, Ring Nationaler Frauen (the National Women’s Circle), the extremist right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD)’s women organization, try to bring back German nativism by referring to Trümmerfrauen, women who worked in the rebuilding of Germany after WWII. A number of the AfD’s 2017 federal election posters reduce women’s task to the topoi of reproduction, sexuality (as channeled via the liberal freedom of nudity as opposed to illiberal Islam), and nativist diversity (German regional folklore and history). Indeed, a look at the AfD party programme finds women’s issues associated with opposition to the headscarf, gender ideology and quotas, and reproduction framed as activism against ‘misled feminists’ who value working women, yet devalue the traditional family, i.e. women who deliberately chose to care for their family as housewives.

On the extremist right end of the spectrum, we find accounts that essentialize women even further, by referencing their Germanic roots. This includes a romantic remembrance of Germanic times before Christianization, entering from ‘the Orient’, invaded the Occident (middle and northern Europe). Allegedly, Christianization infiltrated an Oriental women’s silencing culture into Germania. Such a view postulates that native women are images of the Germanic (female) god Frauja, powerful though loving wives and mothers who defend Germania “with shields and swords”. As such, it is unsurprising that the far right’s recent invocations of German women’s past largely circle around the myth of the Valkyrie – Germanic (Nordic) women generally portrayed as powerful, white, blonde and tall.

Interestingly, radical and extremist streams of the German far right unite in an exclusionary oscillating between civic (liberal values-based) and nativist (ethnically-based) nationalism when addressing feminist politics, while the extremist right tends to revert to nativism more frequently. The third strategy focuses on the perceived victimization of white German women but then returns to anti-feminist tropes of women as carers of the nation, while asking them to recall their actual power as ethnic descendants of Frauja. If they accepted their Germanic roots, white German women would care for their ‘traditional family’ as loving mothers and wives, while defending the nation’s survival as their husbands’ comrades.

Together, the sense of  Muslim ‘pollution’ as a social threat combined with a female power exclusive to ‘us natives’, facilitates intense feelings of the need to act now, based on a ‘German’ value system or ethnic culture that  celebrates Germany’s (and German children’s) festive rebirth.

German Muslim women reclaim feminism

German Muslim women have initiated a number of ways of countering these strategies. Journalist Kübra Gümüşay, the subject of the petition that aimed to prevent her from speaking out against the far-right, is an example of a new generation of young German Muslim women who disrupt the connections made throughout anti-headscarf arguments, in which feminism provides both a clear-cut analysis of the headscarf as oppressing women and a clear-cut solution, namely that it should be banned. She is not the only German Muslim woman who combines her religiosity with a new understanding of Germanness, a feeling of being at home in Germany, that is not based on blood or ancestry but based on civic participation to German society.

Young German Muslim women like Gümüşay publicly confront feminists who claim a homogeneous understanding of feminism for themselves, without paying attention to other forms of feminism. For example, the high-brow German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit reported in 2011 that Saliha Kubilay, a young Muslim woman, asked veteran German feminist Alice Schwarzer during a public discussion at a university: “Where in the feminist movement did you stop progressing so as to fail to grasp to this day that Islamic feminism has been long present in Germany?”. Kubilay argued that Schwarzer’s brand of feminism ignored the diversity of feminist perspectives in Germany. In doing so, Kubilay showed how postcoloniality inflects Germany’s feminist debates. By claiming the feminist frame as her own, Kubilay suggests that feminism is not in the gift of white western women, but that there is a synergy between immigration, postcolonialism and feminism in Germany. People of color, Muslim women and others are claiming feminism for themselves. But they are often confronted with public defaming, as well as active protectionist and exclusionist strategies to prevent Muslim women from public participation in democratic events. People of color, Muslim women and others are claiming feminism for themselves.

In her public struggle as the first woman to bring the headscarf debate before the German Constitutional Court in 2004, a history teacher Fereshta Ludin, offers yet another take on feminism, arguing that she did not fight to wear her headscarf, but for self-determination over her own body. She claimed her own liberation, refusing to be emancipated through a governance feminism that equates uncovering with freedom. Such varied articulations of feminism, postcoloniality and wearing headscarves do not resonate with an anti-Muslim or anti-Islamization feminism. See the veteran feminist Alice Schwarzer’s magazine Emma, which publishes articles associating headscarf-wearing women with radicalization and political Islam and ridiculing their feminism. In fact, Übermedien, a media-watch magazine, reported that this magazine’s readership had become increasingly far-right.

Headscarves

The headscarf continues to be the piece of cloth over which ‘whose feminism is right?’ battles are fought. Betül Ulusoy, a legal scholar who was denied an internship at the reception desk of a Berlin municipality because of her headscarf, is frequently asked why she still wears it. She denies doing so because she is a true-believer, or because her family is pressuring her to wear it. She frames her argument instead in the classic terms of feminist liberation: "This means that a woman must decide for herself, whether she wears a mini skirt or a scarf. This decision is then neither negotiable nor evaluated by outsiders. It is her freedom alone." (Ulusoy’s Blog). Contrary to the common media hype in Germany that Muslim women are wearing headscarves because they are pressured by their families to do so, Betül shows us that wearing the headscarf means her self-determination over her body as a woman. This controversy, denying employment to Betül Ulusoy in a municipality in Berlin state because of her headscarf, does not only appear from the outset as a controversy between religion and secularity, but also reverberates with the fundamental question of whether women have self-determination over their bodies in Europe.

Betül Ulusoy und Riem Spielhaus diskutieren, 2015. Wikicommons/re:publica/Gregor Fischer. Some rights reserved.This controversy reverberates with the fundamental question of whether women have self-determination over their bodies in Europe.

The colonial gaze

Women’s embodiment continues to be hotly contested in these struggles over feminism, liberation, and who get to stand for being German. Long-standing colonial tropes of unveiling women as liberation are clearly powerful in German debates. Many have argued that the nudity of colonialized women served as a spectacle for the European public during the colonial era; currently, in the German media, uncovering women is celebrated as a sign of Muslim women’s integration into a gender-equal European society. Women’s embodiment continues to be hotly contested in these struggles over feminism, liberation, and who get to stand for being German.

As Michigan anthropologist Damani Partridge argues, in the German context, wearing headscarves is placed in sharp contrast with female nudity and sexual accessibility in public.  Such a contrast is displayed in advertisements (the nude model ads in the subway stations that Partridge analyzes) and election campaigns in 2017, where the AfD posted gigantic posters of young slender women with tiny bikinis walking on the beach throughout the country with the slogan: “Burkas? We stand for Bikinis!” 

In May 2011, Sıla Şahin became the first Turkish-German film actress to pose nude in Playboy. Deutsche Welle (2011), Germany’s international broadcaster, asked whether this was the ultimate act of integration, and Şahin responded that she was, indeed, liberated by posing nude (“Breasts with Migration Background” Die Zeit, April 19, 2011). Playing on this desire to witness women’s unveiling, Fereshta Ludin’s autobiography was entitled “Enthüllung der Fereshta Ludin” (The Unveiling of Fereshta Ludin, 2015). On the cover, she pretends to take off her headscarf. Şahin’s appearance in Playboy and Ludin’s cynical book cover bring home to us how the colonial gaze on Muslim women remains a dominant trope that resonates well with the general public.

Women’s organizations in Germany play a very important intermediary role in strengthening the far right’s strategies in the unveiling regime. In some ways, they play the role of mediating between two worlds; those who argue for strengthening a nativist German public understanding of women’s rights, such as the radical right politics of the AfD and those who are arguing for a diverse German feminism, which includes Muslim women with and without headscarves.

Breaking down the cooptation – Inclusion and #No Excuses

The perverse alliance of feminism and the far right clearly fails to address major ongoing relevant issues: 1) the historical colonial and exploitative relations between the global North and the global South – the destruction, appropriation in colonial and neocolonial contexts, the political support by the global north of corrupt political regimes in the global south, as well as the export of weapons that sustain highly destructive, never-ending wars; and 2) the ongoing, unaddressed, racialized sexism and sexual violence perpetrated by immigrant and nonimmigrant alike across European societies – violence against women, children, members of LGBTQI communities, heteronormativity, sexism, and gender inequalities.

Following Deniz Kandiyoti’s (2016) plea in openDemocracy for understanding violence against women in its larger political context, feminism’s cooptation by the far right must be situated within the critical historical moment that finds us caught up in the debates on immigrant and refugee integration in Europe. A further question to ask is how anti-Muslim racism must be linked historically to other forms of racism and colonialism if we are to make sense of the alliance between feminism and the far right. Only through such a political framework will we be able to fully grasp the relations between contemporary racism and sexism and then to challenge them.

Alternative feminisms

Alternative forms of feminism should be strengthened, and encouraged to create spaces of equity and inclusion in Germany. A good example of this is the Internet campaign #aufschrei (outcry) started by a young feminist, Anne Wizorek and her friends in 2013.  Similar to #metoo, the campaign started as a response to the everyday sexism they experienced in German society, calling on women to break their silence against sexist comments in Germany.

Anne Wizorek, 2014. Wikicommons/re:publica/Sandra Schink. Some rights reserved. But their public statements were downplayed by German men, including the previous German president, Joachim Gauck, who labeled their campaign against sexism “Tugendfuror” (literally, “virtue furore”), an obscure word which may be interpreted as hysteria, thus downplaying sexism and violence against women in German society, and playing up women’s over-emotionality.

Building on Wizorek’s 2013 #aufschrei campaign, journalist Kübra Gümüşay, along with several other prominent intersectional feminists from various fields, started a new internet campaign, #ausnahmslos (without exception). Gümüşay pointed out that while there is violence against women in Muslim communities, German society should be able to discuss this violence against women without resorting to the racializing discourse of the far right.

Such a racializing discourse commonly stereotypes Muslim men as violent criminals and Muslim women as submissive victims, and more recently, portrays Muslim women as the agents of Islamization of Germany. What Gümüşay suggests is that everyone should be treated as though they are already full members of German society, including being punished for sexual violence and including having the right to protection from such violence, regardless of ethnic or immigrant background.

The #ausnahmslos campaign thus called for full participation, with the rights and obligations of native citizens being extended to immigrants and refugees. The question is whether these campaigns and strategies will outweigh the increasing power of the implicit and explicit alliances by far-right actors and certain anti-Muslim German feminists. 

Note: This paper was previously presented at the Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Conference on “Populism and Democracy”  at Tuft University’s European Center in Talloires, France, 15-17 June 2018. We thank the conference organizers and participants for their feedback.

About the authors

Gökce Yurdakul is Georg Simmel Professor of Diversity and Social Conflict at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Chair in the Department of Foundations of Migration Research at the Berlin Institute of Migration and Integration Research (BIM). She has published books and articles on immigrant integration, citizenship, Islam in Europe and issues of Muslim women in Western Europe and North America. Her most recent book is The Headscarf Debates: Conflict in National Narratives (2014, Stanford University Press, with Anna Korteweg).

Özgür Özvatan currently works as a lecturer in Social and Political Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin and is a research fellow at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM). He is a PhD candidate in the International Doctoral Program of the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS). His research interest include European party politics, EU-Turkey relations, and the far-right.

Anna Korteweg is Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses on the ways in which the problem of immigrant integration is constructed in the intersections of gender, religion, ethnicity and national origin. From this critical vantage point, she has analyzed debates surrounding the wearing of the headscarf, so-called “honour-based” violence, and Sharia law. Current research projects focus on racialization and LGBTQ/gender rights construction in refugee politics, the criminalization of migrant status, and the citizenship implications of refugee sponsorship in Canada.


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