Rethinking Populism

Charting the waters: populism as a gendered phenomenon

Take this first “walking tour” of openDemocracy’s rich archive of material dealing with the complex relation between populism and gender.

Spyros Sofos
27 January 2020

While populist discourse and practice express the desire to restore the clear and unambiguous gender roles circumscribed by patriarchy, they also invite women to become vocal, engage in activism, and in leadership.

Looking back at the work on populism that has appeared on openDemocracy, references to women or to gender are not uncommon. There is a fairly widespread recognition that gender features in the emergence of populist politics in some form. What is equally interesting, is that not many of the articles reviewed explore how gender can be meaningfully deployed in our exploration of populism.

For this ‘walking tour’, I have selected articles that explore the actual ways populism is a gendered phenomenon and have organized these in terms of different perspectives, emphases and ways of approaching the gender issue.

The articles included in this anthology have been selected despite, or, perhaps, precisely because of the conceptual divergences among them. What is more, on several occasions, the definitions of populism relied on are implicit or fuzzy and some of the approaches mainly empirical. And finally, a couple of the articles do not use the term itself. This choice was deliberate as #rethinkingpopulism aspires to mobilize this diversity of opinion within the populism oeuvre, to break the monologues, to encourage comparison and juxtaposition, and foster debate. Accordingly, this ‘tour’ represents one of many alternative ways of approaching the rich material available.

Enjoy the walk!

The politics of machismo: masculinities, femininities and populism

The relationship between populism and a combination of sexism and masculine aggressiveness is a common theme in many of the contributions.

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the USA, and his macho discourse and style have contributed a central case study. In Trump’s macho populism, Pablo Piccato and Federico Finchelstein see this association not merely as an issue of political style or a personality trait but argue that Donald Trump's treatment of women “is rooted in populist and fascist ideas that exalt male power and promote misogyny”. They argue that this machismo characteristic of populist leaders mixes aggressive capitalism and entrepreneurship with repressive gender stances, and point out that this links Trump with Berlusconi, Bucaram, or Duterte, to mention a few leaders.

Ornette Clennon, in Populism, the era of Trump and the rise of the far-right, makes the link between such identity politics and fascism clear by drawing on the work of Aimé Césaire, David Olusoga, Casper Erichsen, Molefi Kete Asante, C. L. R. James and others, while, in Under Trump, we are all women, Soraya Chemaly suggests that the aggressive sexism of populist politics and leadership is one of the manifestations of a broader movement that seeks to disenfranchise and roll back rights gained with difficulty not only by women but by other marginalized and discriminated segments of the population.

References to this deeper meaning of the implications of the machismo of populist politics can also be found in several of the papers presented below. Sara Garbagnoli’s discussion of the “celodurismo” (permanent hard-on) “that the League claims for its leaders” and the litany of examples of machismo she produces, such as the “filthy gesture” that Umberto Bossi addressed to a female minister and the inflatable doll that Salvini waved during a meeting, again comparing this to the former female, Speaker of the House, Laura Boldrini – is a case in point; as is Amrit Wilson’s discussion of Hindu populism’s conflation of communal aggression and the assertion of Hindu masculinity.

Anti-immigrant sentiment: time to talk about gender? meanwhile, summarizes a debate that took place in the third annual Migrant Voice conference in London back in 2013, Nikandre Kopcke brings to the fore the link between the debate on immigration (largely dominated by the populist far-right) and gender. “What is rarely discussed is how gender figures in this picture” she says, pointing out that anti-immigrant sentiment ”represents a rejection of ‘feminized’ populations – of people who are at a social disadvantage and less able to take care of themselves”.

Concepts of ‘the nation’ constructed by far-right nationalist organizations such Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France, the Tea Party in the United States, and the BNP and UKIP in the UK are marked by “masculine” qualities such as strength, might, and prowess. Indeed, Kopcke says, all of these groups are concerned about the threat that immigrants pose to a national illusion that is distinctly masculine.

Dorit Geva, on the other hand, while exploring Marine Le Pen’s “goosebump” politics, complicates the picture by demonstrating how the iconic female right-wing populist leader deploys performative practices that cross, and test, the boundaries of the feminine and the masculine – adopting both “masculine” and “feminine” personas and neutralizing the contradictions this entails.

Soumi Banerjee and Eva Svatonova cite this same blurring of the boundaries between masculine and feminine in other cases. Banerjee, focusing on aspects of the politics of gender in the Hindutva movement, notes the ambiguity inherent in the simultaneous commitment of the movement to maintaining a regressive patriarchal order that turns women into the wards of men and stresses their maternal roles, and its utilization of Hindu mythology in inspiring women into action to protect the very patriarchal order that seeks to confine them in the domestic arena.

Drawing on her ethnographic research, Svatonova casts a closer look at the explosive mix of femonationalism and populism in the Czech Republic, the way women are encouraged to become activists to protect “traditional family values”, and the gender roles that sustain and are informed by them.

Populism wages war on women and LGBTIQ+ communities

Several articles seek to uncover the patriarchal bias, anti-feminist, and anti- LGBTIQ+ agendas of populist movements, parties and politicians in a body of work on right-wing populism in Europe. Claudia Torrisi, in her The war on Europe’s women and LGBTIQ people has only just begun takes further her earlier analysis of the formation of Italy’s new government after the general elections of 4 March 2018 and its implications for women and minorities. Torrisi suggests that despite the failure of the far-right to make significant advances in the 2019 European parliamentary elections, right-wing populist agendas have now been normalized and mainstreamed.

With it, she argues, an ambitious project of pulling back women’s reproductive and social rights and delegitimizing LGBTIQ+ rights and identity politics, is all summarized as a campaign against the ‘gender ideology’ that threatens the family with its European ‘Judeo-Christian roots’ and endangers children through their ‘hyper-sexualization’. The article draws attention to the transnational connections of this “anti-gender ideology” movement and to the crackdown of the emboldened populists on dissent and critical voices.

These trends and their social-historical context are also examined by Sara Garbagnoli in her article Matteo Salvini, renaturalizing the racial and sexual boundaries of democracy. Garbagnoli discusses the centrality of anti-gender ideology in the discourse and policy of the Italian government formed in June 2018 and its articulation with an aggressive anti-immigrant nationalism. She identifies the convergences of Italy’s populist right agendas with those of its counterparts in France, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Brazil and Hungary. The League’s homophobia and transphobia and the machismo of its leadership, Garbagnoli argues, are naturalized through the claim of the far-right that the “ideology” promoted by “feminist and homosexualist lobbies” endangers the nation’s survival.

In Getting to know you: mapping the anti-feminist face of right-wing populism in Europe, Oriane Gilloz, Nima Hairy and Matilda Flemming take a closer look at the agendas of three leading far-right populist parties in Europe –the Front National, in France, the Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands, and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany – back in 2017. They identify that core elements in these include the restoration of “traditional” gender relations, the protection of the nuclear family, ending gender mainstreaming, gender equality, reversing marriage equality legislation and LGBT rights and “terminating the promotion of gender research”.

Christoph Sorg also discerns the deployment of a similar discourse by Germany's extreme right in We have created a monster. Right-wing populist narratives, he argues, perceive “genderism“ as an ideology aiming to confuse men and women and thereby destroy the organic unity of the German people which posits women as childbearers in the service of the nation. Increasing social rights for women and LGBTIQ are thus not seen as the product of decades of social struggle but part and parcel of a conspiracy to undermine the German nation by “globalist elites” and their local agents.

Indeed, at least at first sight, not much has changed since 2016 when Sorg mapped the ideology of the German far-right, in terms of this emphasis on patriarchal norms. Feyda Sayan-Cengiz and Caner Tekin suggest as much in their own analysis of The ‘gender turn’ of the populist radical right. However, drawing on the recent discourse and campaigning of the Rassemblement National (the Front National successor in France) and the Alternative für Deutschland, they tease out the apparently contradictory logics that underlie them. They identify a relatively new emphasis on women’s equality, and women’s presence in the job market that allows the populist radical right to appeal to broader constituencies. Indeed, this is an element of the strategy of far-right populists we will turn to shortly.

Misogyny and gender violence

Echoing the argument that (far-right) populism wages war on women that I have outlined above, another cluster of articles that have appeared in openDemocracy, go further in identifying the manifestly misogynist and violent traits of populism.

Deniz Kandiyoti’s The gender wars in Turkey: a litmus test of democracy? takes its cue from the highly emotional political contestation prompted by the gruesome sexual assault against, and murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20 year old student from Mersin, whose mutilated and partly burnt body was discovered in a riverbed in early 2015. She discusses the confluence of patriarchy and Turkey’s AKP agendas.

Kandiyoti charts and analyses diametrically opposed reactions to the female student’s gruesome death. On the one hand, she argues, a set of arguments posit men both as custodians and protectors of women, and as potential predators and therefore conclude that the solution to the putative vulnerability of women is segregation. The implicit admission of such interpretations is that the public domain is unsafe, and thus out of bounds for women. On the other hand, critics of this logic condemn the mentality that puts women in peril unless they are segregated, and stresses that what endangers women and makes them feel out of place in the public domain is a culture of justifying violence against women and its embededness in moral judgements, social sanctions, institutional indifference and judicial decisions. Proponents of the latter line of reasoning cited cases where threatened women seeking police protection were ignored and legal judgements where men found to have exercised violence against women were given minor sentences, while female victims were deemed to have acted “provocatively”.

It is in this context that Kandiyoti situates President Erdogan’s othering of feminist advocates of women’s rights as having “no relation to our religion and our civilization” instead of affording them protection. In her No laughing matter: Women and the new populism in Turkey, she demonstrates that the logic of protection is not only ideological, but extends beyond the practices of segregation to the expansion of welfare entitlements aimed specifically at women. Although this protection is experienced by many poorer women as “citizenship through entitlement”, it also comes with strings attached – loyalty and appropriate behaviour.

Thus women “who have absorbed the party's message about their god-given vocation as mothers and home makers” become the deserving, whereas women that challenge such roles and, more importantly, the government and its policies, are excluded. The telling example of the Prime Minister doubting the virginity of a female protester brutalized by the police during protests in Ankara in 2011 implied that women breaking the norms of modesty and sexual propriety do not belong to the deserving.

The issue of propriety with particular reference to women’s reproductive rights is also discussed in some detail in Sertaç Sehlikoğlu’s Vaginal obsessions in Turkey: an Islamic perspective. Although not explicitly using the term “populism”, Sehlikoğlu discusses the debates on the redrafting of Turkey’s abortion legislation that took place in 2012-13 in the context of the AKP’s pro-natalist message typical of the period. In these debates, the author suggests, abortion – which, although legal, was already shunned, while women seeking it were faced with ill treatment – was treated as tantamount to the murder of a member of the nation.

The right of women to a caesarean section was disputed on the grounds that it was likely to avert a subsequent birth. Women’s reproductive rights, Sehlikoğlu argues, became the object of intense discussion by politicians in a way that contradicted the Islamic notion of privacy, as did the vilification of women who sought to exercise them or fought to uphold these rights.

Moving East, to India, Amrit Wilson’s Gender violence, Narendra Modi and the Indian elections identifies the ways in which the Hindu nativist BJP and its sister organizations target minority women, and encourage the exercise of violence against them by urging Hindu men to demonstrate their masculinity by raping the women of these communities. At the same time, Wilson argues, the Hindutva movement advocates the intensification of surveillance and control over women in general and invokes the need to "protect" Hindu women from the sexual deviance of males from religious minorities and Dalits to justify violence against the latter communities.

The instrumentalization of gender in nativist-populist agendas

Another important perspective relates to the use of gender in the discourse and practices of populist movements, parties and leaders in order to advance their nativist and populist agendas. Feyda Sayan-Cengiz and Caner Tekin link the gender sensitivity of right-wing populism to the culturalization of migration, effectively arguing that protecting “the right women” from unwanted invaders, migrants from primarily Muslim countries, or issues of gender equality, particularly in campaigns against Muslim right-wing nationalists as discussed elsewhere in Niki Seth-Smith’s interview with Sara Farris, has become a staple and significant ingredient of the populist diet.

Similar arguments that explore the instrumentalization of women’s rights to vilify and to other Muslim migrants are developed in some detail in discussions that focus primarily on the alliances of feminists with the far-right, or on the appropriation of women’s or LGBTIQ+ rights discourse by the latter. Anders Rasmussen in Headscarves and homosexuals - feminist ideals in xenophobic politics explains how the condemnation of ‘Muslim’ homophobia by the Danish far-right Danish People’s Party, in addition to contributing to the stigmatisation and further marginalization of Danish Muslims, distracts public attention from a debate yet to be had in Denmark on the more general cultural and structural discrimination experienced by people with “different” sexual preferences.

At the same time, Rasmussen points out that the Danish People’s Party’s concern for the welfare of homosexuals when it comes to denouncing Muslim homophobia, is absent from their own policies. Christine Delphy’s Race, caste and gender in France likewise focuses on the criminalization of Islam in the name of feminism in France, albeit not only by the populist far-right, and argues that this appropriation of feminist discourse by proponents of a racist agenda is fundamentally paradoxical as anti-racism and anti-sexism must work together.

But, whereas appropriating the feminist and LGBTIQ+ agenda is a successful strategy for the populist right, Gökce Yurdakul, Özgür Özvatan and Anna Korteweg note the increasing power of implicit and explicit alliances between far-right actors and anti-Muslim German feminists in Germany and search for a strategy to stem this trend in Feminism gone bad? Women’s organisations and the hard right in Germany.,

Women join the populist advance

Yet another set of articles focuses even more on the motivations of women who join far-right populist organizations. In Why we’re Right: young women on the UK’s growing right-wing scene in their own words, Lara Whyte explores a set of highly pertinent questions in a conversation with four women who have joined the populist right: what attracts women to the politics of the right, and what is it about movements of the left and feminism that some young women who opt for this find unappealing?

While, in Why are women joining far-right movements, and why are we so surprised? – the introduction to 50.50’s special series on women and the far-right – Lara Whyte and Claire Provost, drawing on the work of several researchers, suggest that women joining far-right movements is not something new and explore key aspects of its long history.

The 50.50 project revisits this question in The Backlash podcast episode 1: women and the far-right, with Lara Whyte, with the help of councillor Jolene Bunting in Northern Ireland, researcher Marilyn Mayo in the US, and Akanksha Mehta from the University of Sussex, addressing who are the women enlisting in the populist far-right, what are they doing in these organizations and what the reasons that push them into this embrace.

In the context of the same project Ruth Rosen explores the emergence of the Tea Party and the new right-wing Christian feminism and suggests that many evangelical Christian women join the organization with the intention of entering the public sphere “or even running for office to eliminate abortion, protect marriage, contain sexual relations, oppose gay marriage and clean up the mess made by the sexual revolution”, while reclaiming the term “feminism” in the process.

Moving away from the global North, Isabel Marler and Macarena Aguilar examine the role women play in Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalist movement - MaBaTha. In What’s attracting women to Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalist movement? they argue that women involved in the nationalist movement see it as their job to promote women’s interests and, at the same time to protect patriarchal and inegalitarian aspects of their religious traditions, considering this contradictory mix as unproblematically complementary, and resulting in “little dissonance between their sense of fighting for women’s equality and their involvement in a hugely discriminatory movement”.

Ultimately the majority of the contributions reviewed seem to suggest that populism and gender come together in complex and ambiguous ways. Whereas populist discourse and practice do not shy away from expressing the desire to restore the clear and unambiguous gender roles circumscribed by patriarchy, they also invite women to become vocal, to engage in activism, and even in leadership. It is this validation of women, this invitation extended to them to enter the public domain, and ultimately, the articulation of calls to women to uphold patriarchal norms but outside the home, in the streets, the squares, the community and the political arena to which we must now turn our attention.

Note: Thanks to Tialda de Vries for her help in identifying the articles reviewed

Masculinities, femininities and populism

  1. Trump’s macho populism, Pablo Piccato and Federico Finchelstein (3 October 2016)
  2. Populism, the era of Trump and the rise of the far-right, Ornette Clennon (4 December 2016)
  3. Under Trump, we are all women, Soraya Chemaly (28 January 2017)
  4. Matteo Salvini, renaturalizing the racial and sexual boundaries of democracy, Sara Garbagnoli (1 October 2018)
  5. Anti-immigrant sentiment: time to talk about gender?, Nikandre Kopcke (17 June 2013)
  6. Marine Le Pen’s goosebump politics, Dorit Geva (16 December 2019)
  7. The politics of gender in the Hindutva movement, Soumi Banerjee (16 December 2019)
  8. The genocide on mothers: moral panic underpinning anti gender campaigns in Czechia, Eva Svatonova (16 December 2019)

Populism wages war on women and LGBTIQ communities

  1. The war on Europe’s women and LGBTIQ people has only just begun, Claudia Torrisi (30 May 2019)
  2. Getting to know you: mapping the anti-feminist face of right-wing populism in Europe, Oriane Gilloz, Nima Hairy and Matilda Flemming (8 May 2017)
  3. The ‘gender turn’ of the populist radical right. Feyda Sayan-Cengiz and Caner Tekin (16 December 2019)
  4. We have created a monster, Christoph Sorg (21 March 2016)

Misogyny and gender violence

  1. The gender wars in Turkey: a litmus test of democracy?, Deniz Kandiyoti (30 March 2015)
  2. No laughing matter: Women and the new populism in Turkey, Deniz Kandiyoti (1 September 2014)
  3. Vaginal obsessions in Turkey: an Islamic perspective, Sertaç Sehlikoğlu (18 February 2013)
  4. Gender violence, Narendra Modi and the Indian elections, Amrit Wilson (13 March 2014)

The instrumentalization of gender in the nativist-populist agenda

  1. What is ‘femonationalism’?, Niki Seth-Smith (13 July 2017)
  2. Headscarves and homosexuals - feminist ideals in xenophobic politics, Anders Rasmussen (26 November 2012)
  3. Race, caste and gender in France, Christine Delphy (12 June 2015)
  4. Feminism gone bad? Women’s organisations and the hard right in Germany, Gökce Yurdakul, Özgür Özvatan and Anna Korteweg (3 October 2018)

Women joining the populist advance

  1. Why we’re Right: young women on the UK’s growing right-wing scene in their own words, Lara Whyte (2 February 2018)
  2. Why are women joining far-right movements, and why are we so surprised?, Lara Whyte and Claire Provost (31 January 2018)
  3. The Backlash podcast episode 1: women and the far-right, Lara Whyte (22 February 2018)
  4. The Tea Party and the new right-wing Christian feminism, Ruth Rosen (5 July 2010)
  5. What’s attracting women to Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalist movement?, Isabel Marler and Macarena Aguilar (30 January 2018)

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