The Backlash podcast episode 1: women and the far right

We talk to three women who know more about the far right than most: councillor Jolene Bunting in Northern Ireland, researcher Marilyn Mayo in the US, and Akanksha Mehta at the University of Sussex.

Lara Whyte
22 February 2018
Jayda Fransen (right), deputy leader of of far right group Britain First, 2017.

Jayda Fransen (right), deputy leader of of far right group Britain First, 2017. Picture: Claire Doherty/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.50.50, openDemocracy’s gender and sexuality section, is investigating the global backlash against women’s and LGBTQI rights. Rising nationalist and extreme right-wing populism have been identified including by UN experts as major threats to our rights. And yet women around the world are also joining some of these movements.

In the first episode of 50.50's new podcast – The Backlash – we speak to three experts on women’s participation in the far right: councillor Jolene Bunting, a Belfast politician and supporter of the far-right, anti-Muslim group Britain First; researcher Marilyn Mayo, senior fellow at the Anti-Defamation League in the US; and Akanksha Mehta, at the University of Sussex. 

Listen to the episode here. You can also read a (lightly edited) transcript below. Follow The Backlash podcast on Twitter and let us know what you think.

Trigger warning: this episode contains some distressing material, particularly in the comments of Councillor Bunting. So if you are exhausted by hate and would prefer to sit these out – skip the first five minutes.

Listen on itunes here.

The Backlash podcast episode 1: Women and the far right – transcript

Lara Whyte (LW): Hello and welcome to The Backlash: a podcast series tracking threats against women’s rights, brought to you by 50:50, the gender and sexuality section of openDemocracy. I’m Lara Whyte and I am your host.

This month, we are kicking off by looking at the rise of the far right – and in particular the many women who are enlisting. Who are they, what are they doing and why? I’ll be speaking to three women who know more than most about this: councillor Jolene Bunting, a Belfast politician and supporter of the far-right group Britain First; Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Centre for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the US, and Dr. Akanksha Mehta, lecturer in international relations at the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex.

For those of you listening from outside of the UK, it’s important to stress that Britain First are not in Parliament – they're a far-right, anti-Muslim group with no elected political representation at the moment. Last year, Donald Trump retweeted three of this group’s videos; fake content pillaged from other sources and re-purposed as news. Old ideologies using new technologies. Here’s deputy leader Jayda Fransen (JF), speaking in Belfast late last year.

JF: The biggest threat to civilisation across the world is Islam. Without a doubt, just switch the news on. And it could be in London, it could be in Manchester, it could be in Germany, it could be in Brussels, it could be in Africa. We are at war with Islam. The world is at war with Islam.

Deputy leader of Britain First Jayda Fransen (centre) and Jolene Bunting (right).

Deputy leader of Britain First Jayda Fransen (centre) and Jolene Bunting (right). Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.LW: Independent councillor Jolene Bunting (JB) represents a very small part of north Belfast in Northern Ireland. She was banned last year from Facebook for 30 days, as part of its attempt to clamp down on hate speech. I start here by asking her: did she not think Britain First were bit extreme?

JB: It’s extreme to plant a bomb in an airport. It’s not extreme to speak about something. There are hundreds of girls now living with the trauma of being raped by the Asian Muslim grooming gangs. But no one wanted to talk about that... and that’s where the problem comes [from]. And if we look closer into that, and we look at the Islamic teachings, and the life of the prophet Mohammed, he thought that it was OK to have sexual intercourse with a 9-year old child – and that’s a fact; that’s not me being derogatory. I’m not one to put anyone down, but that’s a fact, and if we don’t look at that then we’re never going to get to the bottom of these grooming gangs.

LW: So you’re linking these grooming gangs directly with the prophet?

JB: Well... how I have come to that is I have looked at their religion, and I have seen a pattern.

LW: So Jolene, Britain First don’t have any councillors or [elected] politicians; do you think they’re trying to get you to join?

JB: I don’t know. I actually approached Britain First. I invited them to an anti-terrorism rally... [where] Jayda, she was pointing out things which were in the Koran, which may harm our society. She was then subsequently arrested for it.

LW: When you invited them over to Belfast – I can see the benefit from Britain First’s point of view, because you’re an elected official, and they don’t have that; but what is the benefit to you and your constituents?

JB: The benefit for me of inviting Britain First over was to speak to English people, so that English people can hear what is actually going on in Northern Ireland. Jayda Fransen is one of the most powerful women I have ever come across. She’s one of the most inspirational women I’ve ever come across. She knows exactly what the problem is, and she knows how she needs to fix it. And she is determined, and she doesn’t care who or what steps in her way. She is determined to stand up for her country and do what’s best for her country.

"Jayda Fransen is one of the most powerful women I have ever come across... and she doesn’t care who or what steps in her way. She is determined to stand up for her country." 

LW: Do you think Britain First are going to ask you to formally join them, and then your political career would be on a Britain First platform? And do you think that would work?

JB: They haven’t asked me thus far, and I don’t know that they ever would ask me. However it’s something that I would have to consider. Being an independent is quite a hard platform; being on your own is always going to be harder than having a party to hang to. Britain First has been more than welcoming to me.

LW: That was independent councillor Jolene Bunting there, and this is The Backlash – brought to you by openDemocracy 50.50.

Marilyn Mayo (MM) has been studying far-right movements in America for more than 20 years. She is senior fellow at the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League in the US. I reached out to her to ask about the rising numbers of women participating in extremist right-wing movements. Is this a new trend? And if so, what is so new about it?

MM: Women have come into the alt-right in various ways. I can think of a number of women off hand who are playing sort of a dual role, espousing traditional roles for women while at the same time trying to make kind of a voice for themselves. You do have more women interested in the movement. They’ve always played kind of a secondary role to men in the movement though, even in years past. A lot of men in the alt-right have misogynist points of view, really do believe that women should take the back seat, that women should just be in traditional roles, that women shouldn’t be the voices that people respond to in the movement. I think it’s been a very mixed bag for the women.

LW: And do you think the alt-right in general is actively trying to recruit women? Do you think it has the strategic sense to realise that it needs more women in order for the movement to grow?

MM: There are groups that have talked about women and their roles in the movement; they don’t want them to be necessarily the leaders of the movement. They think that women play important roles in terms of supporting them in the movement... but I think it’s a double-edged sword for a lot of them because when they do get very active ,and start to have like a voice, they get criticised by men in the movement. And part of the alt-right movement, or part the men’s rights movement that's fed into the alt-right, they’re pretty misogynistic just in general. But there are a lot of women that support the views of the alt-right. 

"Women have come into the alt-right in various ways... but I think it’s a double-edged sword for a lot of them because when they do get very active and start to have like a voice they get criticised by men in the movement."

LW: So a lot of the young women I’ve met [in the growing right-wing scene] are in their early twenties. One thing they had in common was distrust, fear, you could even say hatred, of feminism.

MM: On this they’re in agreement with the men, even the men who attack them: that feminism has been a detriment to women in many ways, because it’s made women less likely to take on traditional roles of being a wife and a mother... they think that feminists have destroyed relationships between men and women in certain ways, and they’re very much promoting themselves a traditional role that women should have.

LW: What I find quite weird about that: so Lauren Southern, for example, she’s a spokesperson for a movement that thinks women shouldn’t really speak much.

MM: I agree with you that there’s a lot of irony in that, and she’s been attacked in the alt-right, by men in the alt-right, for having that activist role. She’s kind of played it both ways, from what I’ve read from her, promoting herself yet at the same time taking on these traditional roles. It’s sort of inherent in the role that they’re playing, that once you take on a leadership role, you’re seen in a certain light, as a spokesperson, but you’re still promoting this idea that women should take on traditional roles as mothers and wives.

Alt-right videocasters Lauren Southern and Brittany Pettibone.

Alt-right videocasters Lauren Southern and Brittany Pettibone. Photo: Jeremy Breningstall/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.LW: Do you think it’s significant that many of these women are so young that they’re not mothers and wives yet? I just had this feeling that there was a lot of young women and a lot of old men, and I wasn’t quite sure where the older women were?

MM: I’ve seen a lot of controversy over this in the alt-right, and the white supremacist movement, asking why these women are not having babies. And many of them say they’re not ready, or they haven’t met whoever they want to meet to do that with. But I think that young people generally are still forming their political ideas, and these women have been kind of buoyed up by the social media apps of the alt-right, and getting into the rejecting of political correctness, and other aspects of this world. There's a lot of irony, and I think that young people have been attracted to the movement in general because there’s this ironic humour and view of the world. There's something about it, especially the meme culture and things like that, where people are responding to that irony and bigoted humour... I’m thinking of people like Milo, getting up and attacking women and attacking feminists and attacking transgender people, and thinking that it’s really funny.

LW: Have you been surprised by what has been going on or have you been calling this for a while? 

MM: You know, having looked at this for 20 years, there are movements that come and go, and there are waves of activity. I think different movements are created within the context of the time we’re living in. There’s certain things that made the alt-right unique, and that has a lot to do with social media, and the environment created by the polarisation in the United States right now, that’s so deep... the Trump effect, and things like that. 

Most of the time, the white supremacist movement has been dominated by men. And there have been waves of activity when they’ve been more active than other times. When I first came to ADL for example, in the 1990s, the neo-nazi movement was the most active movement. And it’s not as active as it once was, though it’s getting active again in the United States; there are a number of groups that are openly calling themselves neo-national socialists.

Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017.

It was a bit of a phenomenon that happened given a bunch of other currents in the United States, when the alt-right came to life – like the Trump campaign, and then when you had the Unite the Right rally [in August 2017], in Charlottesville, which was the biggest white supremacist gathering in decades. A lot of it had to do with the way it was presented and advertised, like through social media, blogs, people networking online. All sorts of things that didn't exist so much, years ago. Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.LW: Because it’s almost a surprise that they’re attracting women – like say for a young woman who’s curious about these movements, what do you think they’re finding there, that they might not have found say 10 years ago?

MM: Well, it’s a younger grouping that is involved in terms of the alt-right. It’s definitely a younger demographic than we’ve seen in the past, you have people as young as high school age, maybe even younger, being part of the movement. So there’s definitely a youthful element that’s a little different. And it was more that the women that were involved, for example in racist skinhead groups, were more like the girlfriend of the racist skinhead. I think now you have young women sort of coming into it on their own, and people like Brittany Pettibone, Tara McCarthy and Lauren Southern and others are sort of seeing themselves in leadership roles in ways that maybe women didn’t before – again, even though they’re espousing this traditionalism.

"It’s definitely a younger demographic than we’ve seen in the past, you have people as young as high school age, maybe even younger, being part of this movement."

LW: And so, Marilyn, do you think we need to talk about white women and why they’re so angry that they voted for Trump, that they're joining these movements? You tend to think of the far right as angry young men, but is it time we changed that view a little bit – or is it still a bit premature, are women still playing small roles, that are getting amplified for propaganda reasons?

MM: It’s still mostly I would say a male-dominated movement, but women are increasingly asserting themselves within the movement. But again, I want to emphasise that it’s still a two-edged sword for them because of the reaction they get from the men. We may be talking about two different things in some ways too, because when you talk about white women who are angry and voting for people like Trump, for example, they’re not necessarily part of the alt-right or the white supremacist movement, they might be angry for other reasons.

So it is important to talk about women. We’ve seen a lot of overlap between extremists in the US and then abroad in Europe; certainly there’s always been a relationship for example between white supremacists in the US and the BNP; there’s a lot of support in the alt-right for groups like UKIP, and Britain First, and things like that. I think that given the way we communicate these days, the impact of a group geographically is such that their material, their ideas, are easily transmittable just across the world.

LW:  Marilyn, final question: do you think it’s kind of become cool to be racist?

MM: I think that some people feel that way. I think they feel that it’s actually OK now to be openly racist; I think that we’re seeing that more and more especially in the United States where we have young people in colleges who are openly being racist and expounding these views, I think people have become much more willing to express their racism and their anti-semitism very openly.

"I think people have become much more willing to express their racism and their anti-semitism very openly." 

LW: Marilyn Mayo there. Of course this isn’t just a western story. Extreme nationalism is raising its ugly head all over the globe, and more women are participating worldwide. In India, the Hindutva movement believes in an extreme version of religious nationalism: that Indian culture is identical with Hindu culture. And it’s a violent movement. I asked Dr. Akanksha Mehta (AM) from the University of Sussex about the growing role of women in this movement.

AM: I did fieldwork in different places in India, in Delhi, in Bombay, in Nashik, in Puna... this was in 2013-2014, when the campaign elect Narendra Modi was ongoing. He was elected in May 2014, while I was in fieldwork.

There was a lot of honesty and openness on their part to just share with me what they were thinking, feeling, doing, writing and so in that sense it was not difficult to gain access, it was difficult to process the ethics of it and think about what they were doing and how I was writing about it and whether I was complicit in what they were doing by writing about it, more of those sort of ethical questions.

 They’re really proud to be nationalists, they’re really proud to be, as they say, Hindus, but they conflate Hindu with Hindu nationalism, so they’re in this sense very open and proud of being on this side of the political spectrum, of not being what they call ‘anti-national,’ or not being ‘secular,’ or not being ‘on the left.' 

"They’re really proud to be nationalists, they’re really proud to be, as they say, Hindus, but they conflate Hindu with Hindu nationalism."

For some of them, they see this work as not politics  because they see politics as still a very dirty game played by politicians and 'high-rankings', and so they see themselves as just doing the work they need to do to keep the nation alive... So it’s a very complex terrain but they’re absolutely identifying as being right-wing women, as being nationalist women, as being pro-certain things and anti-certain things and they’re very open about all of that.

I think for many of them, their husbands or fathers or brothers have been going to the weekly meetings, have been part of the sort of family structure of the movement for a really long time... But there are also lots of younger women, who may not have these kinds of backgrounds, who have gotten involved I think mainly through social media to begin with. There has been a lot of Hindu right-wing activism on social media; a lot of Hindu right-wing organisation and mobilisation on social media, especially on Twitter.

"there’s been a lot of Hindu right-wing organisation and mobilisation on social media, especially on Twitter."

I can see some patterns there, in terms of older women being more involved through families, and younger women being more involved through finding their own way. But these are not set in stone, because there are a lot of younger women as well that have joined because their families have been part of the movement for decades.

Supporters at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's road show, March 2017, Varanasi, India.

I think they get a sense of mobilisation, a sense of being part of something, being politically involved, gaining more access to public space, political space... So women are actively involved, they stand for something, they’re going to meetings, they’re going to protests, they’re putting together different kinds of organisations, they’re putting together different types of events, so there’s definitely a sense of achievement and a sense of community that’s coming through.  Supporters at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's road show, March 2017, Varanasi, India. Photo: Hindustan Times/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Through the movement, they’re able to move to say a bigger city to start a job, because they have these networks. So they have other families looking after them, friends, they have all of these other people that they’ve met through the Hindu right-wing who will watch out for them, and so hence their parents will let them move to a big city. So it has very much to do with women being able to mobilise and being able to gain access to spaces that they may not have been able to earlier, and then using that mobilisation to then bargain for space within the home – so being able to tell their husbands that they’re not going to be able to cook today, because they have to go to a meeting, and sort of arguing within their domesticity, changing those roles.

"For a lot of the women in the movement it’s also jussurpriset about a sense of community, friendship, intimacy... and using that mobilisation to then bargain for space within the home."

I think what surprised me most was how open and frank and honest the women were, because they had absolutely no fear of being persecuted or being charged with some sort of law for the kinds of hateful, violence-inciting things that they were saying and doing. So that was quite shocking. They were so comfortable in what they were saying without any fear that they could be held accountable for any of this. I expected that yes, of course there are lots and lots of people who hold these kinds of politics and views. But I expected that they would hold them with a least some acknowledgement that oh what I think is a bit extreme and what I think is violent, but it’s necessary... they really had nothing to hide. 

LW: That was Dr. Akanksha Mehta from the University of Sussex there. That is it from us – thank you very much for listening. Our series on women and the far right is part of openDemocracy’s partnership with the World Forum for Democracy.

Tweet us at @5050oD or @Backlash_Track, or email us or find us on Facebook. 50.50 is an independent feminist media platform. Support our work. Help us get a better microphone, and help us track the backlash against women’s rights.

This episode of The Backlash was presented and produced by Lara Whyte. Thanks to Simone Lai for audio editing and music production.


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