Nigel Farage's latest outburst is part of a growing sexualisation of racism, argues Lindsey German
The remarks by Nigel Farage - that membership of the EU will lead to attacks on women like those in Cologne on New Year’s Eve - show how low he is prepared to stoop in his racism.
He is helping to intensify a debate over racism, culture and ethnic minorities in Britain. A defining moment occurred in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, where non-German men (variously described as asylum seekers, of Arab or North African appearance or as Muslims) have been accused of sexually assaulting German women. The accompanying inference is that non-European men and especially men from Muslim backgrounds are pre disposed towards treating western women in this manner. It raises questions about the extent to which the human rights agenda fuses with various assumptions about the attitudes of Muslim men and women and ends up being used to promote agendas of racism and discrimination.
Racism takes different forms historically, but Islamophobia is the first major form of racism which focuses its criticisms so strongly on the behaviour of women. Issues such as the particular dress of Muslim women, their ability or otherwise to speak English, their involvement in work outside the home or their 'integration' into society have become central to much political debate. Conservative politicians whose traditional views would often have stressed the importance of the nuclear family and of women in the home and in subordinate roles to men, now spring to the defence of women’s right to be totally equal in every society, an equality which they fail to notice is missing within their own. They berate Muslims for allegedly refusing to adopt these attitudes while applying them as timeless and universalist values in countries such as Britain or the US.
The argument about Muslims has increased in recent years as Islamophobia has grown, itself greatly amplified by a political agenda which justifies permanent war against mainly Muslim countries. Some of these justifications come from those who claim the wars are in part about defending women’s rights. Imperialist feminism has become particularly acute in the past 15 years since the beginning of the 'war on terror', a war justified in feminist terms by women in the US Democratic Party and the British Labour Party such as Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair. Support for bombing in Afghanistan, the restriction on women's right to wear the hijab in France, and the whole concept of human rights intervention through military means, have all been defended at various points as a means of helping to liberate women in those countries.
The wider issues raised here have also impacted on the left. There have been sharp divisions among feminists. The absolutely justified opposition by feminists to any form of sexual assault by men on women, regardless of the race of either party, cannot be compromised or abandoned regardless of the circumstances. Yet current controversies find some feminists on the side of those conservatives in shared attitudes towards Muslims, in a context where attacks on Muslims and Islam have grown sharply across the western world. They highlight the continuing differences between feminists. They also raise the question why the ideology of feminism, which originated in its modern form from the great emancipatory movements of the 1960s against racism, colonial oppression and war, should at least in part become adopted by social and political forces opposed to their original ideas and be used as justification for much more reactionary politics.
The debate is especially timely given the present candidature of Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency, which is being projected as an advance for women and for feminism. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has described the 'special place in hell' for women who don't support their sisters, expecting those on the left to ignore her own and Clinton’s pro-war politics, and her statement that half a million Iraqi children dead as a result of sanctions was a price worth paying. The deployment of feminist ideology has been used as an explicit criticism of Clinton's left rival, Bernie Sanders, an older white man. Indeed, the new radicalism in politics has seen feminists on both sides of the fence, as we see similar criticisms made against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been attacked for not promoting sufficient numbers of women, despite his shadow cabinet being majority female, and despite his espousal of many feminist causes.
Part of the official ideology of neoliberalism is to promote a vision of diversity and equality, but one evacuated of class and social context. So the adoption of certain sorts of feminism has marked the era of globalisation. Institutions of government and corporations endorse a nominal equality which permeates education, public life, some workplace cultures. The EU, for example, sets great store in a superficial commitment to equality for all its citizens. But this equality is defined within the parameters of a society which is firmly committed to a form of globalisation that has seen both a previously unimagined rise in levels of inequality and ever more polarised divisions between rich and poor; and which has in addition created levels of instability and disruption to the world which now sees wars, refugee crises, shortages of basic resources, as an ever growing feature.
It is this contradiction between the language of equality and the reality of profound disparities of race, class and gender that leads to clashes within feminism. In turn this allows figures such as Hillary Clinton to espouse feminist rhetoric while endorsing policies which reinforce ever expanding inequality.
This is a reflection of a greater contradiction: the needs of capital to encourage ever greater reserves of labour to sell their ability to work on the labour market; and the inability of capital to overcome the oppressions within society which it has helped to create or reinforce. It has therefore been impossible to make the very great changes to the labour market which have been wrought over the past few decades without adopting a certain ideological approach which encourages a nominal equality between the sexes and which accepts diversity (and diversity management) as a prerequisite of a world where old patterns of living have been destroyed and where access to the labour market has the illusion of equality for women, and where migration to work is the norm in many parts of the world.
Yet the position of the oppressed within society is economically and socially very far from this nominal equality which is supposed to be the norm. The promise of equality held out by neoliberal society may be an illusion, but it is a powerful illusion.
The sexual fears of white men about the attraction of 'their' women to men from different racial backgrounds is well documented. The history of the U.S. Deep South, from the Scottsboro boys to Emmett Till, tells the story of how racism and sexism intertwine to produce a particularly toxic effect. It has been dealt with in literature from Doris Lessing to CLR James's reminiscences of pre Second World War London. It has been a feature of racism in different ways across generations of racist attitudes. For example, a strand of anti-Semitism has stressed the supposedly abnormal sexuality of Jewish men (and sometimes women).
In recent years in Britain, such fears have focussed around issues of 'grooming' of young women leading to their sexual exploitation at the hands of Asian, usually Muslim, men. The high profile these cases are given in the media has led to a widespread impression of Muslim men exploiting white women, ignoring the much greater abuse by white men on white women (most sexual abuse of young people takes place in and around the family), or indeed the abuse of Asian women by either Asian or white men.
The current racist attacks by people like Farage in fact attempt to do two apparently contradictory things. They argue that Muslim men are disrespectful to western women, regarding them as not submissive enough and too 'liberated' sexually, even as they desire these women sexually. At the same time, they are apparently uniquely oppressive to Muslim women, wanting them to remain covered up, home centred and accepting sometimes barbaric practices such as FGM, rape in marriage and forced marriage. So Muslim men become doubly damned, practicing the worst of double standards and managing to oppress quite distinct groups of women.
This would all be bad enough, but it gets worse: we do not hear about the full horror of the consequences of these views because of a form of political correctness, which prevents institutions such as the police or government departments from telling the truth about crimes like those which took place in Cologne. According to this view, there is a liberal conspiracy to allow those from ethnic minorities to avoid sanction for crimes and wrongdoing because of anti-racism. Yet the bias towards non-white men as somehow threatening sexually is well established.
At the heart of the ‘Intersectionality’ debate is how different oppressions relate to one another. Does male sexism take on a different character when it is perpetrated by black men? Do middle class women avoid much of the effects of their oppression, and to what extent do they oppress working class men (and women)? Can we excuse the behaviour of men because of their background, race or any other factor? While the answer to these questions might all be negatives, intersectionality forces us to look at such questions in a different way. There is no excuse for a whole number of acts or behaviours, but here is also a mediated response to these acts when considering them as relating to class, race and gender.
The reality of racism is one of the major defining features in the societies of the richest countries in the world. The U.S. was built on the destruction of its own native people, and was never able to fully overcome the legacy of chattel slavery, despite the divisions of the costliest war in its history. Racism is one of the country's great dividing lines, and despite the heroic efforts of the movements of the 1960s and subsequent movements such as Black Lives Matter, it remains as institutionally entrenched as ever. In the European former colonial powers, most notably Britain and France, there are echoes of this institutional racism and the inability to overcome the legacy of empire. Indicators of jobs, housing, education, police harassment and individual racism all point towards a clear discrimination.
Intersectionality theory underlines the need to recognise the reality of this racist oppression. It also points to the reality of women's subordinate role within minority ethnic communities. But it does mean that black and Asian women's oppression - much of this Muslim women's oppression - has to be considered in the light of everyday racism, as well as everyday sexism.
There is in addition a blind spot affecting much of this discussion: the seemingly level playing field on which women in countries like Britain operate. Yet the truth highlighted by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s remains a truth today: regardless of the major advances for women in advanced capitalist countries, their everyday reality is of sexism and women's oppression. This is true from a range of statistics ranging from rape convictions to the gender pay gap. It places women in a subordinate position to men, and this is especially stark when class is taken into account.
The 'human rights' agenda tends to ignore this, or to minimise it in a way which could be characterised as treating it as marginal compared to the questions of forced marriage or FGM. The effect is to prioritise what constitutes the worst sorts of women's oppression and to effectively endorse the less bad forms, by arguing that because they are less bad they are thus manageable. This attitude has the effect of making those forms of exploitation and oppression of women which happen in the developing word the real forms of oppression, whereas those which happen for example in the Palace of Westminster or the City of London almost mere irritations which need relatively minor adjustments to deal with them.
The cultural relativism of this position consigns the treatment of Muslim women to that of ever more oppressive, in the course of which Muslim women are stigmatised as powerless recipients of this most terrible of oppressions. It also implies that the sexual assaults of the sort carried out in Cologne are in some way uniquely bad, whereas the briefest acquaintance with western societies would demonstrate that sexual assault in public places did not arrive with migrants.
Feminism has divided on a range of questions including some of these outlined above. The linking of a simple human rights agenda with the oppression of women without taking into account the legacy of imperialism and the actual reality of racism in the EU and U.S. had led to a bifurcation along lines of women's rights as opposed to wider issues of social transformation. It has also been a feminism which has ignored class, or tried to pretend that its contradictions have been overcome. Yet intersectionality is about the relations between race, class, gender and other oppressions, and has to place a spotlight on the class divisions between women, the way in which a class society creates institutional racism and sexism, and the imperatives of an exploitative system.
There has to be a connection between the fights for economic, political and social equality.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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