The promotion of anti-feminist ideas and a misogynist agenda, warns 2019 AsiaGlobal Fellow Cecilia Milesi, is driving right-wing extremism and violence primarily in the West, worsening divisions and spurring global campaigns to counter not just the advancement of women but also the marginalization of groups including migrants, minorities and LGBTQ+ communities.
Protesting gun violence in Los Angeles, March 2018: Mass shootings have become everyday news in the US, a country struggling to counter racist and pervasive discriminatory social norms and behaviors despite years of civil rights campaigning (Credit: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock.com)
While the world is well into the 21st century, women and marginalized groups across the world continue to be target of violence in ways that diminish any emerging hopes for real progress in securing human rights and peace. As if there were not enough challenges for humanity, now far-right groups and right-wing political parties, particularly in the West, have exacerbated the situation. For these extremists, countering feminism has become a mobilizing motivation to recruit followers. According to them, the liberation of women must be stopped to prevent the slow decay of society. Rightist groups are getting together to “protect men” from the growing and more vocal anger of women. Anger – a powerful force in driving activism to promote human rights – is now perceived as “dangerous”.
Before, violence against women was portrayed as a feature of “backward” cultures and political, religious and social groups that were “unenlightened” by the progression of rights around the world since the end of the Second War World. Today, however, in countries from Europe to the United States and Australia, right-wing groups are pushing the notion that keeping women at home is a pre-condition to maintaining order and ensuring development. For these groups, keeping women under tight social control is essential for men to continue leading the path towards orderly socio-economic progress.
In Western countries, there is even a debate over whether such groups should be categorized as terrorist. This is because their members have been associated with the killing of women and marginalized people, including through mass shootings in several countries. Right-wing organizations are gaining more supporters and globalizing their ideas and actions, establishing solidarity platforms using digital communications platforms and social media. Research has shown that many right-wing extremists no longer limit themselves to a narrow nationalist agenda but instead imagine themselves as participants in an international struggle against a global enemy including feminists.
Let us examine the ideas of these right-wing extremist groups, which are mainly in the West, and the evolving challenge they pose to women and gender rights advocates around the world.
Control of fertility and birthrates
For right-wing groups, the management and control of fertility and the birthrate is a paramount precondition for preventing the decadence of society. Men cannot succeed if women have control of their fertility and have a say with regards to the “if, with whom, how and when” of having children. For these organizations, the number of births in the West should be increased so as to avoid the so-called “great replacement” – the substitution of white people by migrants “invading” the developed world from the Global South. Furthermore, if children are to be brought into this world, they must be raised by a dedicated mother who stays at home to provide them education and ensure that they grow up to preserve the social order.
At the same time, right-wing misogynist groups blame feminists for limiting sexual encounters (due to so-called feminist “high standards”) and, as a consequence, promoting a low birthrate in the West that is opening the way for “dangerous” migration from poorer developing economies. Consider the 21-year-old White man who was accused in 2019 of killing 22 people in El Paso, Texas, is alleged to have posted a four-page document outlining his motivations. Its most consistent theme was the danger of Hispanic “invaders who have close to the highest birthrate of all ethnicities in America.”
According to many such manifestos or articulations of motives found by investigators of mass shootings, there is clear evidence that, for these extremists, controlling white female sexuality and reproduction is essential. On February 19, 2020, a shooter opened fire at two shisha bars in Hanau, Germany, killing eleven people and injuring five more. The gunman, who later killed his mother and himself, shared a manifesto detailing his racist and white supremacist motivations for his actions. The perpetrator expressed misogynist outrage against women, blaming low birth rates in the West on feminism and conflating this with the perceived threat from mass immigration, citing the radical “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.
The recent killing of 10 African Americans, most of them women, in Buffalo in the American state of New York was inspired by this radical thinking. Mass shootings are becoming everyday news in the US, a country struggling to counter racist and pervasive discriminatory social norms and behaviors despite years of civil rights campaigning and the inspiring activism of the Black Lives Matter social movement of recent years.
These are just a few examples of anti-feminist and anti-minority violence that are generating great concern among women groups and policymakers.
Woman jeopardizing men’s ability to succeed
Western conservative and right-wings groups are also promoting the idea that women are a hindrance to the success of men. For them, women are competitors that are trying to take traditionally positions of power held by men. They regard “quota” mechanisms aimed at ensuring the strong representation and participation of women and the regulations to prevent discrimination and harassment against women as challenges to the position of men and their role in “protecting” national development and social order.
There are also women supporting the traditional order who are joining groups to attack the feminist position. A European Social Survey analysis of data from seven countries showed that women account for more than 40 percent of votes for the populist radical right. Women are more visibly active in radical-right movements than ever before. Right-wing conservative parties gaining power across Europe – for example, Vox in Spain or the anti-Muslim English Defence League in the UK – are open to women (and in some cases, even people who are LGBTQ+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer or of other sexual identities). Their rhetoric is clear: Women are becoming “too powerful” are a problem – they are trying to change social norms and this is a threat to national security and progress. Further, many groups offer “protection” by spreading ideas such as that migrants are a danger to women because of supposedly “backward” and “violent” behavior.
Mobilizing new recruits in the online space
For all of this extremist activism, the internet is the battlefield. Research and articles are sounding alarms as it is becoming clear that what is called “the manosphere” is becoming a vital space for men to organize radical right-wing action against women and groups including migrants and LGBTQ people. The manosphere is a network of online male communities that encourage anti-feminist and sexist beliefs accusing women and feminism for the problems faced by society. These communities boost resentment and hatred, with several investigations finding that they are the source of inspiration for attacks against women and girls, as well as mass shootings and other terrorism.
Manosphere groups have their own websites, which are attracting increasing traffic, even up to millions of viewers. They can also be found on popular social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.
Controlling women entering politics
Female politicians from Australia to Europe and the US are revealing how they are the targets of sexist threats from right-wing groups and their adherents. For example, politicians such as Katharina Schulze of Alliance ‘90/The Greens in Germany and Sibeth Ndiaye of En Marche ! in France have been targets of coordinated attacks, centering predominantly, but not exclusively, on their gender. They are disproportionally singled out when compared to their male party colleagues who hold the same political views.
In this respect, it is interesting to note that two women leaders of the conservative Christian Democratic People’s Party (PP) in Spain recently felt abused by some male party authorities. Isabel Natividad Diaz Ayuso called accusations of corruption leveled at her a "cruel and unfair smear campaign" when it was reported that detectives were privately hired to gather information on her. The harassment ended with the dismissal of the former PP's president. In a recent book, Politicamente Indeseable, PP legislator Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo y Peralta-Ramos recounts in detail how she was harassed as her popularity was rising. As Europe remains behind with its ability to promote women's participation in politics, these cases might indicate a concerning trend.
In the United States, misogynist discourse is also gaining supporters, with anti-feminism an easy entry point to the online far right as well as a mobilization rallying point for conservatives, including followers of former president Donald Trump. Misogyny is used predominantly as a primary outreach mechanism among the Republican Party’s most extreme members. Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known familiarly as AOC, has received sexist abuse not just from online trolls but even in public from Republican legislators. In 2020, Rutgers University Professor Mona Lena Krook, author of the book Violence Against Women in Politics, wrote in The Washington Post: "Sexism and misogyny may not be the only source of abuse. Politically active women such as Ocasio-Cortez, who inhabit the intersection of more than one marginalized identity — including those based on race, class, age, sexual orientation and religion — may be more likely to come under assault. The same is true for women who are more visible politically or who express open support for feminism and other social justice causes."
Raising walls in a time of war and tension
As Europe is engrossed in the war in the Ukraine and bellicose and nationalist rhetoric gains space across the political spectrum, it would not be a surprise that men will be portrayed as the “saviors” and “protectors” of the European spirit. If this is the direction of future political developments, it will not be surprising to see this affecting the pacifist stand of feminist groups across the region – including those which have recently gained some power by promoting “feminist foreign policy principles” of disarmament and the need for dialogue among emerging powers. War is the perfect fuel to nurture policies aligned with control, hierarchy, the use of force and discriminatory values as enablers of security.
The US, meanwhile, could again experience a wave of even more extremist discourse, which has been stoked by Trump and his enablers and followers, as the political calendar proceeds through mid-term elections through to the next presidential ballot in 2024. A United States deeply damaged by the pandemic, the January 6 insurrection and intensely preoccupied with countering Russia and China might mean that policy interests will more and more place the ideas of protecting borders, creating employment only for locals and focusing on national-security measures at the center of the political discourse. All of these may well impede or even roll back progressive and inclusive feminism.
The walls are rising again. With growing vehemence, this is happening largely in the Global North. Mobilized women everywhere must continue to unite in pushing forward their vision of liberty, dignity and rights for all. In difficult times, it is the right time to nurture the idea that it is possible to create a world offering opportunities for every human being.
An Arabic version of this article was published in the Al-Mashhad magazine, issue no. 4, March 1, 2022, pp 47-53.
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2019 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong