Why aren't European feminists arguing against the anti-immigrant right?

European feminists struggle to navigate a contentious cultural debate as political elites, Pegida and the twittersphere frame the arrival of refugees as a threat to gender equality and western culture.

Inga Ingulfsen
18 February 2016

The New Years Eve Cologne attacks, where around 90 women were victims of coordinated sexual assault and robbery by men of “Arab or North African” origin, caused a rise in temperature in the rhetorical climate surrounding the influx of refugees to Germany. Statements by actors with profoundly divergent agendas, such as Angela Merkel and Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the west) converged when making explicit connections between the alleged cultural values of refugees and the Cologne attacks. In her statement following the events, Angela Merkel expressed concern about patterns of behaviour by “groups of people who do not respect women” and stated that “cultural coexistence must be continually discussed”. On January 4th, 18.000 Pegida supporters, an unprecedented number, took to the streets in Dresden. The protesters were reacting to the events in Cologne, which they see as a result of the arrival of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and the rising influence of Islam in German society.


2000 Pegida supporters protesting in Dresden on February 6th. Caruso Pinguin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The rhetoric is all too familiar and has been well documented by scholars such as Liz Fekete: Islamophobia and cultural fundamentalism join together in scapegoating male, Muslim refugees. They are simultaneously framed as a threat to the safety of young western women and their professed cultural values deemed incompatible with a western Enlightenment culture of gender equality. According to this logic, democracy and gender equality are culturally exclusive, only available to those who possess superior western cultural values. Cultural fundamentalism frames multiculturalism as a project destined to fail and democracy and gender equality as values that must be protected from “alien” cultural practices imported by immigrants. Danish politician Pia Kjaersgaard has attacked multiculturalists for ignoring that immigrants bring with them “male chauvinism, ritual slaughtering, female circumcision and clothes that subjugate women, all of which belong in the darkest middle ages”. Populist elites have benefitted rhetorically when minority women join them in moral outrage of cultural practices imported by immigrants. In the Netherlands the conservative Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who converted from Islam, was applauded when she condemned Islam as a “backward culture that subordinates women” adding that the Prophet was by western standards a “perverse man”. For those familiar with the origin of universal Enlightenment values, this discourse is alarming. Universal rights were introduced precisely because they are the glue that makes democratic co-existence possible in cosmopolitan and culturally diverse societies and cannot by definition be reserved for particular cultural groups.

We also know that this rhetoric is not used exclusively by political elites or movements like Pegida. Twitter research can provide valuable insight on the role of gendered language and arguments in transnational anti-immigrant popular discourse. Tweets make for interesting data because they offer the possibility of analyzing the arguments and discursive tools that inform opinions, and of analyzing how opinions spread, including across borders, by tracking trends, retweets and shares.

In December, shortly after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, I conducted a Twitter analysis to explore whether gendered rhetoric played a role in transnational popular discourse on refugee resettlement and immigration. The search term chosen for the study was the hashtag #refugeesnotwelcome. The hashtag is an explicit expression of opposition to refugee resettlement, used to refer to events in the United States and Europe. It started trending when the White House endorsed the hashtag #refugeeswelcome, shortly after a number of US governors declared they would halt the resettlement of refugees in their respective states. The hashtag was thereby directly associated with the debate on refugee resettlement that intensified on Twitter in the aftermath of the events in Paris and San Bernardino.

The data, comprised of random samples of tweets and images using the hashtag #refugeesnotwelcome, revealed widespread use of gendered rhetoric. 79% of the images and 55% of the tweets invoked gendered arguments or imagery against immigration or refugee resettlement. A majority of tweets explicitly linked the arrival of refugees to gender-based violence or subjugation of women. A second observation is the resonance and spread of tweets with explicitly gendered content among users of the hashtag #refugeesnotwelcome, in addition to the transnational character and spread of the rhetoric on Twitter. This can be seen from the three tweets most commonly retweeted in the dataset. “#RefugeesNotWelcome -> The Rape of European Women by Muslim Men is Still an Epidemic” was retweeted 182 times and was originally tweeted by a user based in the United States. Gendered expressions of cultural superiority are prevalent in the dataset, with gender-based violence as inherent in Muslim culture as a recurring theme. For example, one user praised an article that detailed how migrants arriving in Finland are now briefed on ‘Finish customs’ such as refraining from rape or abuse of women, indicating that migrants must be ‘taught’ to ‘refrain’ from rape. There are indications that the events in Cologne are feeding into this Twitter discourse. Shortly after the attacks the hashtag #rapefugees was trending on Twitter.

The gendered rhetoric of cultural fundamentalism has served to legitimize discriminatory assimilation policies and increasingly restrictive asylum regimes across Europe. In Germany, deportation rules were eased following the Cologne attacks. In Norway, asylum seekers now attend workshops “about western attitudes to sex and sexual assault”. These recent examples are not policy innovations. Instead, they are representative of a trend across Europe in recent decades of restrictive asylum and assimilation policies informed by gendered rhetoric. Some examples include: restrictions on family reunification and marriage policies in Norway, Denmark, the UK, France and the Netherlands as a measure to ‘protect minority women’ from forced or early marriage, the ban on the hijab in France and parts of Germany, the introduction of statements or questions about gender equality and sexuality in loyalty statements and naturalization exams, targeted policing and deportation of Arab men in France justified as a means of combating violence against women.

These policies were actively or tacitly supported by European mainstream feminists, who have occasionally joined the conservative right in expressing moral outrage over the “cultural practices” brought to Europe through immigration. Ironically, these policies often target minority communities in general and minority women in particular; sometimes even resulting in the exclusion and silencing of minority women’s movements. Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that left wing feminist supporters of multiculturalism have avoided the contentious issue of culture and failed to forge a counter-narrative to cultural fundamentalism. Instead, they either remain silent or rely wholly on a simplistic cultural relativism.

A recent example where feminists have been confronted with this dilemma is the resurfacing of the debate on early and forced marriage in Norway. The debate was sparked by the story of a pregnant 14 year-old Syrian girl arriving in Norway through the arctic route, across the Russian border to Kirkenes. She was accompanied by her 23 year-old husband and their 18 month-old child. According to government figures, 61 minors seeking asylum in Norway in 2015 were married at the time of arrival. The youngest was an 11 year-old girl and at least 10 were under 16, the legal age of consent in Norway. The arrival of married minors from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is taking place in a context of asylum restrictions, where even minors risk deportation, and is feeding into an increasingly polarized asylum and integration debate. At one end of the spectrum, social anthropologist Unni Wikan argues for understanding and warns that, if the marriage is free of abuse and violence, the girls may face greater harm if forced to divorce or live apart from their husbands due to the protective function of marriage and the potential damage to the family’s honour. Meanwhile, Norwegian law does not recognize marriages involving minors, and marriage to or sex with children under the age of 16 is punishable by imprisonment. On the opposite end, Lily Bandehy, a Norwegian-Iranian and a member of the conservative think tank Human Rights Service, condemns the child marriages as inherent to an inferior Muslim culture of ‘religious and clan values’, in contrast to European culture in which ‘the Convention on Human Rights is holier than the Bible’. Norwegian feminists who support multiculturalism face serious dilemmas in navigating this contentious landscape. The historical record shows that giving in to either of these opposing positions amounts to surrender to the anti-immigrant right wing parties, who have managed to secure primary ownership over the debate on gender and immigration across Europe.

With a polarizing rhetorical climate, European feminist movements face immense pressure from the dual temptation of cultural fundamentalism and cultural relativism. It is time to forge a different, more inclusive movement. One that is not afraid to engage in difficult conversations about culture. Divorcing from multiculturalism and flirting with the extreme right will only perpetuate the notion that European feminists see equality as their culturally exclusive privilege, and if the historical record has taught us anything, it is that when feminism fails to be inclusive and intersectional it is easily appropriated by conservative political forces and used to legitimize discriminatory policies. Patriarchy is a global system of oppression, not a set of practices that exist within a particular cultural context. If we as feminists want to support the project of multiculturalism, we must start a dialogue with refugees and minority communities, make space for their concerns and voices, and support their active participation in feminist advocacy.

Read more articles in our long running dialogue on migration People on the Move

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