H-Diplo Review Essay 182 on In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism

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H-Diplo Essay No. 182
An H-Diplo Review Essay
11 December 2019

Review Editors:  Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Diane Labrosse
Production Editor:  George Fujii

Sara Farris.  In the Name of Women’s Rights:  The Rise of Femonationalism.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.  ISBN:  978-0-8223-6960-8 (cloth, $99.95); 978-0-8223-6974-5 (paper, $26.95).

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/E182

Reviewed by Sara Salem, London School of Economics and Political Science

The (mis)uses of women’s rights in the name of furthering imperial and racist projects is nothing new; as a project it has spanned over four hundred years and has been deployed by many different actors, often in contradictory ways. Despite this continuity, the particular ways in which it has been deployed, the ends it has been deployed towards, and the range of actors involved, have changed over time. Our current political moment is witnessing a global deepening of racist, imperialist, and right-wing nationalist forces. It is this context in which the continuing use of women’s rights needs to be addressed, analysed, and understood. Sara Farris’s book In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism examines the demands for women’s rights from an unlikely collection of right-wing nationalist political parties, neoliberals, and some feminist theorists and policy makers. Farris focuses on France, the Netherlands and Italy in order to reveal the exploitation and co-optation of feminist themes by anti-Islam and xenophobic campaigns, which she terms “femonationalism.” She shows that by characterizing Muslim males as dangerous to western societies and as oppressors of women, and by emphasizing the need to rescue Muslim and migrant women, these groups use gender equality to justify their racist rhetoric and policies.

This book adds to a range of literature that has intervened in a long-standing debate on the topic of feminism, race, and capitalism. This body of work[1] has explored crucial questions, including: what are the contemporary articulations of feminism and racism globally? How does neoliberalism constitute the context in which these articulations play out? In what ways can these articulations be resisted? And how are feminists implicated in these very processes, in contradictory ways? In this piece, I briefly discuss three points in relation to Farris’s book in order to critically engage the question of femonationalism and the continued (mis)use of women’s rights in contemporary racialised and Islamophobic discourses.

Farris engages with the question of feminism, social reproduction, and nationalism throughout the text, highlighting the centrality of unpaid gendered work to the economies of European nation states. She incisively points to the racialised dynamics underpinning this social reproductive work, showing how migrant women in European contexts—under the pretext of becoming productive working members of society—are being pushed into volunteer positions such as domestic work and other social reproductive tasks. Jobs that require mothering skills in particular are made available to these migrant women. This in turn frees white European women to participate more in the “formal” economy as they have now displaced their social reproductive burdens onto migrant women. This not only lays bare a problem within liberal feminism’s fight for women to enter the paid labour market because men did not pick up the social reproductive burden in the home, it also reveals, once again, fissures within the feminist movement itself.

What we see with the racialised displacement of social reproductive work onto migrant women is once again a division of labour whereby white women are able to make career and personal choices without the burden of reproductive work. This echoes historical instances where a similar racialised division of labour in relation to care work exhibited itself, particularly in settler colonies and colonial contexts. The spectre of universal women’s rights and global feminism raises itself once again. This brings me to my second point, on the convergence of neoliberalism and feminism. The book incisively shows the ways in which neoliberalism is to blame for some women ‘getting ahead’ at the expense of others. I want to highlight in particular the role of liberalism and liberal feminism in relation to neoliberalism, and the ways in which liberal feminism is not neatly separable from the current neoliberal conjecture. While some have argued that neoliberalism has unwittingly co-opted feminism over the past few decades and in some ways changed it, I find it more useful to think of how liberal feminism has always had these tendencies embedded within it. Farris highlights this by showing the coming-together of feminist, neoliberal, and far-right discourses around migrant and Muslim women in Europe. Not only has liberalism itself been part and parcel of imperialism from the very start, liberal feminism in particular has played a constitutive role in the gendered justifications used for empire and occupation.[2]

Liberal notions of liberty, democracy, human rights and more recently women and minority rights, and what these categories mean, are part and parcel of imperial and racist pasts and are not so easily separable from them—even if they are packaged differently. What underlies both modes of liberal governance—colonial rule on the one hand, and current European regimes on the other, is the idea that the European way of life is superior, more progressive, and more humane—and that this is especially the case when it comes to women. So it would seem that while the focus today is—for obvious reasons—on the right wing in Europe and the U.S., in many ways it is liberal feminism that has been the quintessential imperial form of feminism.

This uncomfortable reality brings to mind the invaluable work done by black and transnational feminists who have long articulated the problematic tendency to misuse women’s rights in the service of white supremacy and empire.[3] Gayatri Spivak’s famous line—“white men saving brown women from brown men”[4]—highlighted the centrality of ‘saving’ women of colour from what was seen to be their main source of oppression: men of colour, and the various religious, cultural and traditional belief systems they propagated. One group of women with whom we have repeatedly seen this drive materialise is Muslim women.

A final point I want to make is to raise the tension between European nationalism and whiteness. Farris discusses the similarities between the policies of all three nations and throughout the book touches on whether we can see these policies as nationalist or as European. She argues that “ by developing the civic education material to be presented to those immigrants seeking to reside in their territories, nation states have used this as an opportunity to revive, or to reinstate, the imagining of their national communities in relation to those Others against whom contemporary western European nationalisms have been reconstituted and reinvigorated” (110). While I certainly agree that the nation question is analytically very interesting because it highlights the differences between European nations, I wonder whether the connection between nationalism and race is equally important to highlight. Can we understand the connections between many of the policies we see in different European contexts as connected by race? What is the role of white supremacy? Can we think of European nationalism—and thus femonationalism—separately from white supremacy, which forms the basis of this very nationalism?

I believe that this would also allow us to connect race, social reproduction, and gender to other historical and contemporary spaces. In many ways, the history of women of colour providing care and labour for white women and their families is not a new phenomenon but rather one that has cropped up across time and space. A recent article exploring this in the Brazilian context is an incisive example of this phenomenon and its connection to whiteness.[5] It seems to me that a stronger focus on whiteness—rather than nation—allows for a more global analysis of the continued use of women’s rights to further racist and imperial projects. A focus on whiteness may also allow us to confront the reality of a long-shared history between capitalism and white feminism that stretches back further than our current neoliberal moment. How has the project of whiteness been connected to capitalism since its inception? How has gender been part of this? And how have some strands of white feminism positioned themselves vis-à-vis not only liberal capitalist ideas but participated in one of liberal capitalism’s major projects, colonialism? While it is true that there are important exceptions to this, such as socialist feminists, it seems to me that even among anti-capitalist white feminists there has been a problematic history of using women’s rights to create a global racial hierarchy. It is this past that we need to continually confront in out attempts at feminist solidarity.

In the Name of Women’s Rights is an important contribution that highlights the urgency with which we need to confront racism in the European context. Farris carefully documents the deployment and mobilisation of racist tropes to further projects of white nationalism, all in the name of “saving Muslim women.” Farris crucially notes the convergence of various actors around this project, showing that it is not just the far right that is involved. This intervention is extreme necessary in a context in which the far right too quickly gets the blame for racist statements, acts, events, or instances. Until we take seriously the structural and institutional basis of racism in Europe, as well as the massive consensus that exists across society that supports it, we will remain trapped in the bounds and violence of white supremacy and its gendered politics.


Sara Salem is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Sara’s research interests include political sociology, postcolonial studies, Marxist theory, feminist theory, and global histories of empire and imperialism. She has a forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press entitled Anticolonial Afterlives in Egypt. Her recently published articles include “On Transnational Feminist Solidarity: The Case of Angela Davis in Egypt," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43:2 (Winter 2018): 245-267; “Reading Egypt’s Postcolonial State Through Frantz Fanon: Hegemony, Dependency and Development, Interventions,” Interventions: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies 20:3 (2018): 428-445; and “Intersectionality and its Discontents: Intersectionality as Traveling Theory,” European Journal of Women’s Studies 25:4 (2016): 403-418), among others.

© 2019 The Authors.

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[1] See, for example, Angela Davis. Women, Race, & Class (New York: Vintage, 2011); Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Feminist Review 30:1 (1988): 61-88; Bell Hooks, Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (New York: Routledge. 1994).

[2] Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915. (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes.”

[3] See, for example, Hooks Ain't I A Woman; Davis, Women, Race, & Class; Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes”; Lila Abu‐Lughod. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others,” American Anthropologist 104:3 (2002): 783-790.

[4] Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow Sacrifice,” Wedge 7-8 (1985): 120-130.

[5] Cassie Roth. “Black Nurse, White Milk: Breastfeeding, Slavery, and Abolition in 19th-Century Brazil.” Journal of Human Lactation 34:4 (2018): 804-809.