Rethinking Populism

The “genocide on mothers”: moral panic underpinning anti-gender campaigns in Czechia

Has the new femonationalism solved the riddle of how to be a strong woman while supporting a fundamentally conservative patriarchal project?

Eva Svatonova
16 December 2019
Sarah Palin hugs presidential candidate John McCain, as her husband Todd holding son looks on, 2008.
Sarah Palin hugs presidential candidate John McCain, as her husband Todd holding son looks on, 2008.
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MCT/PA. All rights reserved.

The new wave of anti-feminism inherent in many contemporary nationalist movements that we are witnessing worldwide no longer constitutes a manifestation of conventional patriarchal resistance to women’s liberation.

Today’s anti-feminist discourses, intersecting with nationalist rhetoric and populist discursive strategies, as well as resentment towards transnational bodies and a resistance to globalization, are veiled as “pro-family”. Effectively, they reframe women’s rights as a struggle for the rights of mothers and motherhood.

While such discourses are ultimately geared towards sustaining and promoting patriarchy, the activists who get their “hands dirty” by engaging in street politics are, very often, strong women who do not necessarily fit into the “obedient silent wife” imagery central to conventional patriarchal fantasies.

This new femonationalist logic cultivates a strong subject position for women especially as “mothers” defending the traditional family, their children, and eventually the national culture. In this sense the new femonationalism has seemingly solved the riddle of how to be a strong woman while supporting a fundamentally conservative patriarchal project.

Istanbul Convention triggers anti-gender campaigning in Czechia

On a sunny Monday, October 28, Czechia is marking the 101th anniversary of the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic. Unlike most Czech people who enjoy the day off work, a handful of activists from various patriotic organizations are busy organizing the “With Light against the Darkness” event - a public assembly where different speakers talk about the dark times in which people are forgetting the importance of the family as the basic unit of the nation. Among them are representatives of the Czech Traditional Family group operating a stand collecting signatures for their petition against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence.

“With Light against the Darkness”[is] a public assembly where different speakers talk about the dark times in which people are forgetting the importance of the family as the basic unit of the nation.

This seemingly innocent and ordinary document has fuelled an unexpected level of emotion among conservative and nationalist actors, serving them as a tool for creating a moral panic in Czech society. Critics of the Convention describe it as a threat to the traditional family and, therefore, the nation. While in other countries such as Croatia, the Istanbul Convention had been a hot topic for a while, Czech society was quite indifferent to it until exactly one year ago – October 28, 2018 – when Czechia was celebrating the same anniversary and the Czech Catholic church held a special mass to mark it.

Monsieur Petr Piťha gives a sermon in St Vitus Cathedral, 2018.
Monsieur Petr Piťha gives a sermon in St Vitus Cathedral, 2018. | Screenshot: YouTube.

During the service Petr Piťha, Catholic priest and former minister of education, gave a speech during which he claimed:

“Freedom either exists, and then all other types of freedom naturally evolve from it, or it does not exist and then there is no freedom at all. Due to the Istanbul Convention and pressure groups such as ‘genderlobbyists’ and ‘homolobbyists’, there will be no freedom. (...) Your families will be torn apart and dispersed. (…) They will kidnap your kids and they will never tell you where they have hidden them, to whom they have sold them and where they have imprisoned them.”

He went on to argue that the ratification of the Istanbul Convention would lead to the introduction of “other pervert laws” that have already been introduced in other western countries and which aim to ruin the concept of the traditional family. These activists, he said, took their ideology from both Marxism and Nazism, predicting that parents who call their son a boy and their daughter a girl will be sent to concentration camps.

His speech illustrates many of the multiple semantics of Czechia’s anti-gender campaigns. On the one hand it plays with the narrative of the past, misusing the national collective memory and constructing feminism as an aspect of totalitarianism in a country that has experienced occupation, both, at the hands of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On the other, it is framed as an attack on the traditional family. The actors involved in anti-gender campaigning frame the convention as a “Trojan horse”, a totalitarian ideology, claiming to be protecting women, while imposing western deviant values on the Czech people, and promoting a sexual revolution that would inevitably lead to the sexualization of children, the legalization of paedophilia, and a total destruction of gender identities.

Combining opposition to gender with reclaiming women’s rights

This discourse is, by no means, confined to Czechia. It is part of a new form of anti-feminism that inspires “anti-gender campaigns”. Built on a populist discourse constructing “us – the normal people” vs. “them – the corrupted NGOs and activists that suck the money from the state for immoral, perverted projects” and “them – the immoral deviants at the fringes of society” referring to the LGBT minority and feminists – these campaigns represent a transnational phenomenon with common roots, localized and translated to fit different national contexts.

It depends on a notion of “gender ideology”, first introduced by the Vatican as a reaction to the 1994 UN conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Beijing conference on women. As Kuhar and Paternotte argue “gender ideology”:

“is a term initially created to oppose women’s and LGBT rights activism as well as scholarship deconstructing essentialist and naturalistic assumptions about gender and sexuality. (…) It regards gender as the ideological matrix of a set of abhorred ethical and social reforms, namely sexual and reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and adoption, new reproductive technologies, sex education, gender mainstreaming, protection against gender violence and others. Ignoring the history of the notion, ‘gender ideology’ authors rely heavily on John Money’s problematic experiments and erroneously consider Judith Butler as the mother of ‘gender ideology’.”

Far-right actors, promoting such discourses nevertheless claim to fight for “women’s rights”. This instrumentalization of women’s rights is known under the term femonationalism. Sara Farris, who coined the term, claims that the convergence of nationalist and feminist discourses helps the far right to justify their xenophobic politics which by no means strive for more gender equality. Although what they preach is not women’s liberation but the cancellation of decades of steady progress in terms of gender and sexual rights achieved by social activism, it is couched in the idiom of women’s rights and empowerment, the “right” of women to be women and mothers and to be liberated from the shackles of work as women’s natural place is in the family. The household is viewed as a haven, the castle where the woman as mother rules. Women are no longer depicted as “obedient, silent wives” but as empowered mothers who, after Sarah Palin’s example, know what’s best.

Such discourses would be deeply unconvincing if they remained only the purview of priests and male conservative politicians. That is where women’s activism becomes crucial. As one of the prominent faces of the Czech populist, far right scene claimed on his blog:“I knew that we would win when we manage to awake and gather together all self-confident, strong and brave women. I knew they wouldn't hesitate to protect their families and children.”

Monsieur Petr Piťha, 2018.
Monsieur Petr Piťha, 2018. | Screenshot: YouTube.

No longer boys against girls but “normal people against the perverts”

The two antagonistic camps are no longer presented as conservative men against progressive women. Now, women defending patriarchal structures come into the picture as powerful, independent, outspoken and politically active actors who, threatened by feminism and its unnatural excesses, fight to restore the endangered gender order and to keep the status quo at bay. As one of the activists made clear when I asked her about her political party affiliation: “I did not engage in activism as a member of a party, but as a mother and a grandmother.” Indeed, one of the organizations engaging in such activism uses the label Angry Mothers.

As their leader stated during an anti-immigration protest in Prague in 2015:

“all women are angry. No wonder. Today, I wish to speak on behalf of women, mothers, and, most of all, angry mothers. Because we, women, are more sensitive when it comes to injustice. We are not afraid to use our instincts that help us protect our kids from dangers and threats. And we feel very much threatened these days.

This more acceptable image of the nationalist, patriarchal movement has been largely the product of the participation in it of women running organizations such Angry Mothers or Czech Traditional Family, but also, of their claim to be actively working for women’s empowerment.

We, women, are more sensitive when it comes to injustice. We are not afraid to use our instincts that help us protect our kids from dangers and threats. And we feel very much threatened these days.”

When I asked one of the activists what she associated with the label, “feminism”, she framed it as the courage to stand up and tell the truth at a time she was not allowed to because she was a woman. In contrast to colleagues at work constantly telling her “to go back to the kitchen” she feels her position is to fight for the truth as an activist. Another activist described how nervous and small she felt when she was delivering a speech against the ratification of Istanbul Convention in the Czech Parliament, but added with pride: “I made it, I stood up for what I think is the right thing!” This anti-gender project provides for women who take pride in both working and taking care of the household, whose understanding of femininity is shaped by life in a post-Soviet country where feminism is still a swear word, and whose feeling is that feminism is threatening constructions of femininity strongly tied to their role as mothers (not necessarily wives) with a sense of empowerment.

Stirring moral panics with folk devils

Both of these women activists comment on the Istanbul convention and gender ideology in their internet and social media activism, while also distributing petitions, attending demonstrations and organizing public debates and seminars. Most of their commentary takes the shape of an emotionally coloured discourse warning that “gender ideology” will lead to sexual revolution, which will leave children vulnerable to sexualization and exploitation, a total destruction of the gender order and traditional family, and eventually the end of the nation and of the white race.

Their activism is an excellent example of how an ordinary piece of legislation can serve as a moral panic trigger. According to Stanley Cohen, moral panic unfolds when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. In the case of moral panics, the very little evidence that might support them, becomes distorted, exaggerated and amplified in order to fuel a society-wide hysterical reaction and to mobilize people. After all, all social movements are organized efforts to either change things or resist change in some aspect of society. And as the members of social movements do not have direct access to policy makers and legislators, one of their few weapons is to attract public attention. This is often better achieved by exaggerating the reality and using the language of moral indignation.

As the members of social movements do not have direct access to policy makers and legislators, one of their few weapons is to attract public attention.

To be able to stir up such a moral panic, moral entrepreneurs need to create powerfully persuasive images of so-called ‘folk devils’ who must be to blame. In this particular anti-gender project, the role of folk devil is ascribed to feminist theorists and activists and NGO workers focusing on women’s rights. In this context, even Judith Butler, the post-structuralist philosopher largely unknown to the majority of Czech society, can become portrayed as the dangerous thinker with the power to poison society with her alarming ideas. Feminist activists, in turn, are seen as the soldiers in a cultural war, the aim of which is the genocide of the Czech white nation through undermining conventional gender order and the institution of the family.

The women I interviewed play a crucial role in spreading such moral panics. Their online posts and public speeches consist of statements depicting the Istanbul Convention as “[the] genocide of children, men and women, fathers and mothers” and drawing on conspiracy theories to suggest that children taken away from their parents by social services do not end up with adoptive or foster parents, but function as blood and organ resources for rich people”. In a gender stereotype reversal, although they do oppose progressive gender policies, they do not do this as passive, obedient wives. Rather, they convert their status as mothers into the duty to nurture the vanishing moral values of the nation, i.e. the imagined extended family. This becomes a symbol of empowerment and valuable capital in their activism.

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