In a guest post, Iida Käyhkö argues that as the far right is not only racist, but also sexist, the fight against fascism must have feminist politics at its heart.
The far-right movements emerging across the globe offer up a variety of different focal points and strategies — from UK street movements and figures such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) to the US alt-right, and from Eastern European radical right populist parties to Latin American pro-business, proto-fascist parties. The far-right spectrum is by no means a unified global movement, but what they do all share is a transformative vision of the world, promising that (predominantly white) men disenfranchised by the inequalities of a capitalist society can regain power — within their families, their communities and within wider society.
The central promise of all these movements is derived from classical fascism: to make white masculinity dominant within an ethnically homogeneous society. They are not only racist, ethno-nationalist and white supremacist — they are also virulently misogynistic, queerphobic and transphobic in their focus on the nuclear family and on the position of women in society.
A society in which women are confined to their homes and entirely under the control of men is a goal shared by different parts of the far right. These are not only sexist projects but also ethno-nationalist ones: they position women as subservient beings, broodmares for the state and servants to their fathers and husbands. In this patriarchal and racist utopia, women meeting strict criteria — white, straight, cis and aligned with the fascist project — get the questionable privilege of proximity to power within a system that awards them no rights, while all other women bear the most brutal and violent exclusion from society.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the far right cannot be defeated or even effectively matched with classic anti-fascist tactics of no-platforming and street mobilisations alone. The far right in its current formation is a growing international threat, with the capacity to build links with vastly different political and social movements. The vision they offer is enticing for many, and one the anti-fascist movement must be able to counter not only physically on the streets, but politically within our communities too.
This necessarily involves the kind of anti-racist, anti-fascist and feminist organising that is gaining prominence across the globe — and that has always existed on a community-level wherever fascists rear their heads. If we look to recent feminist mobilisations across Europe — in Italy, Poland and the UK — feminist street movements have focused not only on resisting the sexist elements of far-right politics, but also forming and joining street-based anti-fascist actions and building networks of migrant solidarity, for example. These are the kinds of movements capable of responding to the toxic politics seeping out of the far right and into mainstream political discourse.
The growing threat of the right
The far right builds connections across different parts of the political spectrum by downplaying some aspects of their politics and emphasising others. These movements may be able to fly under the radar by pointing to specific figureheads as proof of their ‘progressiveness’. Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor, and Alice Weidel of Germany’s far-right AfD party tokenistically attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of centrist media outlets by being open about being gay while exalting the nuclear family and arguing against feminism and LGBT rights.
Similarly, the far right has taken on women’s safety as a key agenda point. Across Europe, far-right groups position themselves as the protectors of women and children in the face of a perceived threat of sexual violence perpetrated by migrant men, predominantly of Muslim backgrounds. The moral panic surrounding sexual violence is used in an attempt to transform the far right into a movement ‘defending’ women.
So far, this tactic has had some success. The far right are natural bedfellows with many strands of centre-right conservatism, focusing on the nuclear family and undermining women’s autonomy. They are also, of course, integral to racist populist movements across the West.
However, the far right are simultaneously building links to three directions which seem more unlikely, at first. Their rhetoric on sexual violence has enabled them to form an unwieldy alliance with some conservative elements within women’s movements, who have swallowed their line of faux-concern for the safety of women. Secondly, the recently emboldened anti-trans “feminist” crusade has allied itself with many on the right, arguing for a definition of womanhood based on biological sex and scaremongering about the supposed risks posed by trans people to cis women. Finally, the anti-capitalist and anti-globalist stance of many groups within the far right — often amounting to nothing more than poorly disguised antisemitism — is sometimes shakily aligned with some elements of the left, as can be seen in the varied political stances involved in the French gilets jaunes protests.
These are not incidental alliances, but central to the far-right project. The popularisation of fascist ideas in mainstream politics has been one of the central goals of the far right for some time now. It is crucial to understand that the far right in Europe and North America has, over the past decade, pushed overt racism firmly into the mainstream public and political discourse — not that it has ever been far from the surface. In the UK, this can be seen in the rise of commentators like Katie Hopkins, who feel emboldened to launch consistent attacks against people of colour in mainstream media outlets for years on end, in the increases in racially motivated attacks and the persistent and institutional racism and Islamophobia of the Prevent programme. Racist discourse has been normalised by the far right — and it is becoming clear that they are increasingly attempting to similarly popularise misogyny and sexism within the mainstream.
From the phenomenon of “incel”-motivated violence to the consistent mainstream right-wing derision for feminist organising, overt misogyny has resurfaced into public discourse — although, again, we can raise the question of whether it ever left in the first place. The right to abortion is already under threat across the US and Europe, despite the recent win in Ireland. In Ohio, abortion might become a crime punishable with the death penalty, while abortion rights in Poland continue to come under a sustained attack by right-wing lawmakers in collaboration with the far right. It would be unsurprising if attacks on contraceptive rights and the right to divorce were the next to be dug out of the dustbin of history and resurrected as contemporary political issues: the first rumblings of this can be seen wherever older strains of conservatism have been emboldened by the emergence of the far right. In Brazil, Italy and Hungary, policies favouring the nuclear family and undermining women’s self-determination are increasingly being passed or proposed.
Feminist movements naturally stem from the existential threat women face under patriarchy: the violence, sexual assault and harassment and lack of bodily autonomy which almost all women experience at some point in their lives. However, the current feminist proposal for building counter-power also needs to grapple with the ravages of capitalism in the aftermath of a decade of austerity. This makes feminist movements an increasingly vital element in our fight against fascism: a feminist movement dedicated to social liberation in every form is one that can effectively fight fascism on the streets, online and in political discussion. Feminist politics must be fundamentally anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist — or they do not truly serve the interests of women and non-binary people.
Feminist movements are already fighting fascism
The advances won by earlier feminist movements have provided women with partial liberation. Yes, abortion may be legal, but the hurdles placed in the way of people seeking to obtain one remain considerable. Yes, rape within marriage has been criminalised in many states, but women are rarely believed when reporting sexual violence. What’s more, these advances have mostly been felt by middle-class women, and their primary aim has been to ‘liberate’ women into full participation in a neoliberal economy. The fight for equality has been pushed firmly into the workplace, making endless discussions of ‘leaning in’ and women in boardrooms the core of contemporary feminism.
While some women are able to participate in the climb to the top, they do so at the expense of working-class women, often from migrant backgrounds, who become responsible for cooking, cleaning and childcare. The prevailing discourse on ‘equality’ focuses primarily on equality for middle-class women: as long as they can advance to equality with middle-class men, liberal feminists can perceive this as progress. This neoliberal fantasy has been the core of much of European and North American feminist movements since the 1980s.
Women’s movements, however, have never gone away. In Latin America, women have led the popular movements resisting dictatorship and police brutality for decades and in South Africa, women were integral to the struggle against Apartheid. Wherever revolutionary and progressive movements have existed, women have been involved in these struggles. It is indicative of the failures of the feminism of the Global North that these struggles have not been recognised for what they are: the best hope for a mass movement dedicated to women’s liberation. These movements have been misunderstood because they have not been single-issue movements. What we must learn from these histories is that working with and within wider social struggles is the only context in which feminism serves a purpose, and that the fight against patriarchy is usually intertwined with the fight against racism, fascism and capitalism.
In recent years, a new surge of feminist movements have started to emerge across the globe. Ni Una Menos began as a fight against femicide and violence against women in Argentina, and has now become a mass movement in South and Central American countries and in Europe, fighting for abortion rights and supporting trans women and sex worker movements. In India, 5 million women mobilised to form a human chain to protest the exclusion of women from a Hindu temple. In Kurdistan, women from across the Middle East and the world are fighting Islamic State forces and building new forms of non-state democracy founded on principles of gender equality.
And we are catching up in the Global North too. The Polish women’s movement has resisted attempts to limit abortion rights. In Ireland, the Repeal the 8th campaign achieved a historic win in turning public opinion toward backing bodily autonomy for pregnant people. The Ni Una Menos movement has spread to Spain and to Italy, where millions of women were involved in strikes and walkouts on International Women’s Day in 2018. In Glasgow, thousands of women brought the city to a standstill by striking to demand equal pay.
These new movements are developing from struggles in working class and migrant communities, and this is no coincidence. Across the world, it is those who face the most violence, marginalisation and discrimination as women who are leading these movements: women of colour, trans women, sex workers, migrant women and queer women.
The future of feminist anti-fascism
Many movements now engaging in anti-fascist organising do not share the aims and methods of traditional anti-fascist movements. Working-class, anti-racist, feminist community campaigns organising around housing, working conditions and sexual violence have become a new force in anti-fascism — despite the fact that anti-fascist organising is merely a part of what they do, not the basis of their existence. This is because the far right has been emboldened by the political paralysis of the centre-ground, and in order to combat them, we must be able to offer up real alternatives to business as usual. Campaigns demanding better housing, better working conditions, fair wages and an end to racist and sexist policing, for a start, offer a political counterpoint to the narratives propagated by the right.
Women are central to this fight. In London, the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly has mobilised on the streets to counter far-right marches, attempting to bring new forms of organising into anti-fascism and to counter the racist narratives around sexual violence perpetuated by the right. Women’s liberation must be intentionally and seriously placed at the core of our anti-fascist politics, and it is up to feminist movements across the globe to ensure that they actively resist the gravitational pull of liberal feminist compromises. This is best achieved by exactly the kind of organising that is already happening across the world: movements which centre the struggles of those women who are most marginalised in society.
We are not only struggling for the liberation of women but are engaging more broadly with political movements across the left spectrum. Our movements cannot be simply labelled ‘women’s movements’: they are wide-ranging anti-capitalist movements organically formed of different strands of struggle. We fight for LGBT and migrant rights, support prison abolition and workers’ struggles — our movements are rooted in the needs of the communities and the people involved in organising them.
The feminism of these movements is fundamentally anti-fascist — and not just because fascism is bad for women, but because the far right stands in the path toward the future we want. We have seen the feminist horizon: one in which equality is attainable for women who are not middle class, one in which we root out the combined forces of patriarchy, state and capital for good. It is not our aim to destroy the far right and then go home to face the day-to-day grind of so-called ‘women’s work’. Our aims are broader, but they necessarily involve clearing fascism out of our way as we organise to attain our freedom.
Today, on International Women’s Day, women across the world will be walking out of their offices, factories, brothels, schools, bedrooms and kitchens. We strike from paid and unpaid work. We strike to prove that it is in our power to bring the world to a halt and that it is our labour which keeps profits flowing and everyone ticking over from one day to the next.
We don’t want more women in the boardrooms; we don’t want to smash the glass ceiling. We want to destroy the boardroom and burn down the building. We demand liberation for all, not some form of imagined equality within a profoundly unequal global system.
As we strike, you’ll find us on the streets, fighting fascists and demanding liberation for all. You’ll find us in our kitchens, re-imagining how care work is organised within our homes and communities. You’ll find us outside sexual health clinics, providing support. You’ll find us outside brothels and strip clubs, demanding safety at work.
We strike because none of us can be free until we are all free.