ECPS-MEP-Video-Panel8

Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe

Please cite as:

Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Report on “Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0050           

 

This brief report offers a summary of the 8th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” which took place online on January 26, 2023. Professor Dr. Agnieszka Graff moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished populism and gender scholars.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides a brief overview of the eighth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism (MEP) panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” held online on January 26, 2023. Moderated by Dr.Agnieszka Graff, Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, and a feminist activist, the panel featured speakers Dr.  Elżbieta Korolczuk, Associate Professor in Sociology at Södertörn University, Sweden, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, Professor in the Department of French & Italian and affiliated with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis, Nik Linders, PhD candidate at Radboud Social and Cultural Research for Gender & Diversity Studies, Dr. Pauline Cullen, Associate Professor in sociology at Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Maynooth University, Ireland.

Panel moderator Professor Agnieszka Graff began her speech with an overall assessment, choosing to define the word “gender” with two distinct meanings. Firstly, she explained its function in gender studies within the field of sociology. Secondly, she addressed the meaning that gained popularity following the rise of anti-gender campaigns across Europe, ascribed to the word by both right- and left-wing populist parties. Specifically, gender is portrayed as something unsettling, casting doubt on liberalism itself and warranting challenge. In essence, it represents excessive individualism, consumerism, and the erosion of communities due to declining fertility rates.

Professor Graff’s speech focused solely on the cultural repertoire amassed by anti-gender campaigns. According to Graff, this repertoire varies across different countries: Italian anti-gender imagery exudes chicness; Polish anti-gender repertoire leans towards raw, peasant-oriented themes; the French anti-gender narrative often incorporates references to the French Revolution. Despite these differences, there are resonances between these images, with recurring motifs such as dissolving families juxtaposed against images of united families often depicted in silhouette. Additionally, there are perverted image of people whose gender is ambiguous and threatening, along with disturbing portrayals of alienated and suffering children, sometimes represented by fetuses but more commonly as four or five-year-olds appearing terrified or even being depicted as for sale with barcodes attached. The underlying idea behind these images is to establish a link between gender equality, sexual rights, and the capitalist system, portrayed in its most menacing form. Consequently, anti-gender propaganda presents itself more as a cultural phenomenon rather than a collection of arguments. It operates in close alignment with populism on various fronts: one being the association of gender with elite versus ordinary people gender conservatism, and another in the economic dimension where both discursive and political-institutional connections come into play.

Professor Graff then presented three significant examples from European countries, each illustrating the collaboration between politicians and ultra-conservative organizations in targeting gender ideology to mobilize electorates. The first example is from Poland, where several local authorities staged protests in response to the mayor of Warsaw signing a declaration against discrimination towards sexual minorities. The second example comes from Spain, where Vox has collaborated with HazteOir, a conservative Catholic community founded by Ignasio Arsuaga. Together, they launched a campaign known as the ‘stop feminazis buses’, arguing that the issue pertains to domestic violence rather than gender violence specifically. The third example is from Hungary, where parliamentary elections coincided with a referendum on children’s education, gender identity, and sexuality. Citizens had to vote on whether to support the implementation of events concerning sexual orientation for minors in public education institutions without parental consent. The referendum aimed to legitimize Viktor Orban and his party as defenders of children. These examples demonstrate that populist actors strategically use anti-gender rhetoric with both long- and short-term objectives: the former to portray themselves as defenders of ordinary people adhering to traditional gender roles against perverse elites, and the latter to intensify campaign efforts to garner a larger share of votes.

The aim of the introductory speech is to not only inquire about the impact of gender on populists but also to explore the consequences when individuals label those parties, often referring to them as illiberal movements, using the concept of populism.

Dr. Elżbieta Korolczuk: “Explaining the Relation Between Populismand Gender in Europe”

The adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity.

In her presentation, the first panelist, Dr. Elzbieta Korolczuk began by emphasizing that the rise of the anti-gender movement can be attributed to the alignment of far-right parties with populism, particularly their adept adoption or proposition of a populist version of anti-gender rhetoric. The objective of her speech was to explore the theoretical connection between populism and gender, highlighting the gaps in existing literature on this subject. These gaps stem from the predominant focus of analyses on either the supply or demand side. For instance, some scholars argue that gender is significant for the supply side, as the presence of a charismatic leader is often crucial in populist politics. However, exceptions like the case of the uncharismatic Polish populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński challenge this notion. On the demand side, women have been increasingly identified as more inclined to vote for right-wing populist parties in recent years.

Dr. Korolczuk suggests that the most insightful conceptualizations of the relationship between gender and populism are currently being proposed by scholars engaged in anti-genderism or anti-gender campaigns. Some propose viewing anti-gender rhetoric as a means to sanitize extreme discourses, while others advocate for an engendering approach, focusing on ethnic scandals, the gendered nature of social inequalities, or even the concept of gender colonization. Additionally, scholars discuss populism as a project of masculinist identity politics, underscoring the effectiveness of right-wing parties in identity politics compared to the left. 

Another perspective is to examine the common roots of populism and illiberal anti-gender mobilization in both their economic and cultural dimensions. These conceptualizations enable us to recognize similarities between different movements while also cautioning against oversimplifications, advocating for a dynamic and relational approach. In essence, the proposal articulated is not merely to explore how populism is ‘gendered’, but rather to examine the role of gender in shaping relationships and specific discursive structures employed by populist leaders. An important aspect here is also the organizational and financial dynamics of this relationship.

In summary, according to Dr. Korolczuk, the adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity. In conclusion, these narratives enable populist leaders and parties to bridge the cultural and economic arenas, as seen in the cases of Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, positioning themselves as protectors of social welfare provisions for children.

Dr. Eric Louis Russell: “Language of Reaction: European Populist Radical Right and LGBTQA+ Rights”

Language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

The panel’s second speaker, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, approached the topic from a slightly different angle, drawing on his background as a critical linguist and his research agenda focused on how language activity reflects Weltansichten, or cognitive contexts. Expanding on this, language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

Regarding discourse, according to Dr. Russel, it can be viewed in various ways: as textual, oral, or multimodal; as the ‘bounded residue’ of language action in a specific domain; and as describable using linguistic methods. Based on this, certain core features of populist discourse can be distinguished: the representation of a ‘strong man’ as a savior; the reframing of modernity juxtaposed with the ‘allochthonous Other’; the portrayal of autochthonous people as under threat; a narrative of role reversal with victims depicted as victimizers, such as LGBTQ+ communities; and complex intersectionalities with hegemonic structures.

A final theoretical consideration is the phenomenon of enregisterment, the process by which a linguistic repertoire becomes associated, within a culture, with particular social practices and individuals engaging in those practices. In this sense, the populist linguistic repertoire serves to connect different cultural domains with various practices. The mechanism operates through the circulation of register, its clasp, relay, and grasp. In other words, it links to areas of social action, connects across different arenas, and ultimately implants into a new arena, often with superficial or contradictory meanings.

The first example presented pertains to Dewinter’s populism in Flemish Belgium and his discourse. The warranting principles rely on superficially pro-LGBTQ+ stances, while in reality being homophobic, thus reinscribing LGBTQ+ people as instruments of both populism and illiberalism. This represents a table-turning strategy, re-articulating them in a manner that can be perceived as homophobic. 

Another significant example is Poland, where discourse revolves around using gender to denote an ideologized ‘Other’ by the Law & Justice Party (PiS). The clasping of registers of nationalism and historical victimization is employed to rearticulate traditional discourse formations of sex, personhood, and belonging to the Polish nation. These example illustrates how populist discourse practices ultimately extend into various domains, portraying gender ideology as a threat to Polish existence.

A final example concerns Italy after the election of Georgia Meloni as Prime Minister, which sheds light on key elements of the linguistic landscape surrounding non-binarity and non-binary linguistic interventions in Italy. While the predominant populist reaction denies the potential expansion of identity beyond man/woman binaries, other reactions assert various mechanisms of representation through language. Here, the articulation of language is crucial, as it reflects both the actor’s ideational world and their material reality, including or excluding categories and possibilities.

Dr. Russell also provided some concluding remarks on the issue of futurity. Given the central role of language in populism, there should be greater focus on the ecological systems of meaning-making and how they can be disrupted, as well as on the pathways through which illiberalism hybridizes and grafts onto pre-existing meaning-making processes, and how these can be disrupted.

Nik Linders: “Gender & Sexuality in Dutch Populist Voter Profiles”

While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

As the third panelist, Nik Linders focused on examining the attitudes towards gender and sexuality among the Dutch popular radical right electorate, and how these attitudes intersect with other beliefs often associated with populist radical right politics. Pim Fortuyn, the first Dutch populist radical right politician to gain popularity, positioned himself as a gay politician, arguing that his sexual orientation uniquely qualified him for leadership and presenting a form of progressive radical right-wing populism. While his positions were primarily directed against immigration and Islam, they were also informed by the amalgamation of Dutch identity with what he termed ‘sexual modernity.’ His somewhat progressive stance and legacy on gender and sexuality continue to resonate in parts of the Dutch electorate and contemporary political parties.

Turning to the present and the 2021 elections, we observed three populist radical right parties with varying positions on gender and sexuality: PVV, FVD, and JA21. The PVV is the most progressive among them, consistently supportive of gay and lesbian rights as well as transgender rights, even outside discussions on Islam or immigration. FVD, on the other hand, is the most conservative on the topic, as evidenced by their sarcastic campaign slogan “how many genders do you have today?” However, they still publicly position themselves as pro-gay rights. As for JA21, while they do not explicitly address gender and sexuality, when they do, they appear to be more progressive than FVD.

The speaker discussed how these positions were correlated with the preferences of the Dutch electorate, utilizing nationally representative survey data from the Dutch parliamentary election study and employing latent class analysis. In his study, along with other colleagues, they identified different voter profiles within the populist radical right electorate. They selected respondents who not only claimed to have voted for these parties but also expressed the intention to do so.

The first item extracted from the dataset measures whether the respondent supports adoption by same-sex couples. The second item assesses support for sex change operations, while the third item examines whether the respondent believes there is something wrong with individuals who identify as neither man nor woman. These items serve as pivotal points in the Dutch public political debate and thus act as reliable proxies for gender and sexual preferences.

To complement these measures, according to Linders, other issues such as nativism, colonialism, nationalism, anti-Islamism, and anti-immigration were included. It’s important to note the distinctions between nativism and nationalism: while nationalism refers to the belief that anyone could theoretically assimilate into the national identity through adaptation to the idea of national hegemony, nativism specifically pertains to individuals born in the Dutch context, i.e., in the Netherlands to Dutch parents, who are considered the only ones legitimately entitled to become part of the citizenry.

Linders stated that the researchers identified five profiles of voters: gender-conservative; solely nativist; undecided or divided on gender; gender-moderate; and atypical for the populist radical right, yet gender-moderate. One key finding is that only 9% of the electorate consider voting for parties that are truly gender conservative. Despite some evidence of increasing sentiment in this direction, the majority of people still generally don’t feel threatened. Consequently, an important distinction between progressive and moderately progressive voters can be drawn on three levels.

First, there appears to be an overlap between conservative or orthodox religiosity (Christianity) and the more gender conservative outlook, as evidenced by the relatively higher popularity of the Dutch Orthodox party among the small gender conservative group.

Second, considering that 60% of the profiles are men, it’s notable that the most gender-progressive group consists of 55% women, while the most gender-conservative group is composed of approximately 73% men. This indicates that the anti-gender sentiment remains closely linked with an overrepresentation of men and masculinity.

Third, while all groups consistently exhibit highly nationalist conservative tendencies, only the truly conservative group and the group that is undecided or divided on gender and sexuality attitudes demonstrate ethno-nativist thinking. This suggests that individuals with gender-progressive values are placing less stringent demands on what nationality means to them, and that gender essentialism aligns with traditional ideas about the family and nativist notions about citizenship.

In conclusion, Linders offered an analysis of the relationship between anti-gender sentiment and populism. While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

Dr. Pauline Cullen: “Populism and the backlash against gender equality: Feminist responses to right-wing populism in Europe”

The resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. There is also a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice. Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations, their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

As the final speaker, Dr. Pauline Cullen presented the findings of her paper published in the Journal of European Politics and Society. The central question addressed in the research was how the rise of populism has impacted political opportunities for civil society organizations in the European Union (EU). The study focused on feminist civil society organizations, specifically an urban women’s lobby with a transnational scope, funded by the EU and emblematic of European elite technocrats.

The main argument of the paper is that feminist opposition to anti-gender equality interests and ideas is complicated by the co-optation of constructions of gender justice by right-wing populists, along with the proximity between right-wing populist ideas and feminist critiques of economic governance based on austerity. The findings suggest that while feminist and pro-gender organizations work to counter right-wing populist grievances, they are still constrained by EU imperatives and weakened by multiple crises.

Furthermore, the study highlights that these grievances, along with the ideas, actors, and institutions behind them, benefit from the absence of a strong political commitment to gender equality at the European level, the neoliberal instrumentalization of gender equality, and the lack of tactics from the center-right flank.

From a sociological perspective, European integration can be viewed as a relational ecosystem comprising organized societal groups that often benefit from the financial opportunities provided by the European Commission. This enables these organizations to serve as agents of policy integration and disseminators of EU policy ideas. As a result, women’s and feminist civil society organizations have experienced a decline in influence, particularly in terms of access.

Conversely, populist forces have created a challenging environment for these organizations. Currently, we observe a more crowded and conservative landscape of right-wing competitors operating at the European level and exerting influence across European institutions.

In response to this evolving landscape, according to Dr. Cullen, these organizations have attempted to adapt, drawing on insights from the social movements literature. Strategies include adaptation, exit, abeyance, professionalism, radicalization, and the adoption of new managerial and communication techniques. Furthermore, there are emerging collaborative efforts to establish common frameworks and approaches while maintaining strategic differentiation based on the focus of each civil society group.

The challenge lies in avoiding the reinforcement of right-wing populist anti-feminist frames and staying focused on equality and democracy. This involves minimizing conflict, engaging in less visible front-stage actions, and emphasizing more informal and backstage initiatives, resulting in a general decrease in their formal presence.

Dr. Cullen’s paper also explores the dynamics of the relationship between feminism and populism at the national and regional levels. There is a growing recognition of a backlash narrative, acknowledging the long-term impact of these processes, which have become embedded in the institutional fabric, reinforcing social gender conservatism and nationalism. This perpetuates existing patriarchal power relations through the guise of seemingly reformist agendas.

Ultimately, European civil society groups face challenges when aligning with EU values that are often technocratic and insufficient for their broader scope and goals.

One notable aspect, Dr. Cullen said, is that both European feminist civil society groups and right-wing populist movements share a common critique of the European project, viewing it as undemocratic, disconnected from the realities of European women, and committed to austerity measures. The challenge for feminist organizations is to craft frames that acknowledge the limitations of EU integration for gender equality while avoiding alignment with right-wing populist narratives of Euroscepticism.

Merely employing tactics of vilification, debunking, and frame-saving may not always suffice, as they tend to construct adversaries in a negative light. The central argument suggests that by employing specific framing and counter-framing techniques aimed at depoliticizing gender equality, particularly as a European ideal, and portraying feminism as a project for the common good, it is possible to revitalize a stagnant policy context. This approach can be directed towards EU elites to highlight the link between illiberal threats to gender equality and broader threats to European democracies.

In other words, gender equality should serve as the battleground for shaping Europe’s future. By reframing the discourse and emphasizing the importance of gender equality in safeguarding European democracies, feminist organizations can contribute to a more inclusive and democratic European project.

Dr. Cullen’s conclusion highlights that the resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. Additionally, there’s a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice.

Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations (CSOs), their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

Some current strategic developments include the emergence of “feminist Europe 2.0,” represented by organizations such as the European Institute for Gender Equality. Other strategies involve incorporating gender experts into policymaking, fostering feminist critical voices within EU and national institutions, disseminating feminist critiques through academia and research, and empowering and establishing feminist think tanks.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Revealing the Intricacies of Gendered Islamophobia and Populism through the Lens of Transnational Feminist Endeavors

As transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.

By Hafza Girdap

Societal perceptions in the Global North often oversimplify and stereotype immigrant women from the Global South, particularly focusing on Muslim immigrant women. This tendency is magnified within transnational feminist studies and civil society works, where categorization frequently portrays these women as a homogeneous group, primarily depicting them as victimized bodies.

The exclusive emphasis on rights, coupled with the need to consider global governance frameworks linked to class privilege and education, impedes a comprehensive understanding of this complex issue. A significant challenge faced by transnational feminist work is its struggle to transcend established affiliations such as nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion.

Recent research and activism on racism and Islamophobia, while valuable, fall short without a nuanced gender analysis. Existing approaches either overly prioritize gender or disproportionately underscore race and religion, neglecting the intricate and intersectional impact of these factors on the everyday experiences of Muslim women and women from the Global South. Addressing this gap necessitates treating these women as ‘complex subjects’ and meticulously examining their identity formation within diverse circumstances, thereby accentuating their diversities across multiple temporal and spatial signifiers.

Clarification of Some Crucial Terms

In this particular context, it becomes essential to elucidate terms like Islamophobia, anti-Islam, and anti-Muslim, given the influential role of framing and mobilization in identity politics. Islamophobia is defined as an irrational, emotional fear, while anti-Islam signifies a theoretical shift from reaction to action, aligning with the prevalent agency-oriented perspective in social movement analysis (Berntzen, 2019).

The incorporation of liberal viewpoints that depict Islam as a threat to Western civilization and as an ideology incompatible with democratic and progressive values provides justification and legitimacy for the transnational mobilization of far-right groups. Central to the discourses of this liberal far-right are discussions surrounding women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and their alignment with Islamic traditions. Termed an “ideological duality” (Berntzen, 2019), the anti-Islamic far-right espouses a semi-liberal worldview and approach towards Islam, portraying it as incongruent with modernity, human rights, and liberal principles. 

Identity Formation and Intersectionality

Stuart Hall’s (1990) concept of identity as an ongoing process significantly shapes the (de)construction of identity. As a Muslim immigrant woman scholar and activist, I consistently underscore the impact of various elements within the identity process, focusing on the experiences of exploring (Muslim) immigrant women as they navigate self-discovery and re-identification within the realms of interaction, adaptation, and religion.

The concept of “cultural identity” and its intersection with politics, gender, ethnicity, and race gains particular significance in this context. Understanding identity formation necessitates the consideration of both origin and resettlement spaces, along with the influence of temporal and spatial factors.

Extending racialization theories, particularly focusing on the experiences of Muslim women, becomes imperative. This involves scrutinizing the impact of contextual factors on the reidentification experiences of Muslim immigrant women, intending to challenge prevailing paradigms such as whiteness and populism, evident in far-right, far-left, and even liberal politics.

This analysis explores the nuanced ways in which Muslim and non-Western women grapple with otherness and double-marginalization at the intersections of gender, race, class, and religion, both as migrants in Western contexts and as local women in their homelands.

Transnational Feminism and Analytical Tools

Scholarly work, grassroots activities, and political mobilization must meticulously consider the push factors for migration and subsequent reidentification experiences of these women. Addressing hegemonic masculinity in their homelands and its impact on citizenship discourse, with a focus on heteronormative requirements, adds depth to the understanding of challenges faced by Muslim women.

Transnational feminism emerges as a pivotal analytical tool in comprehending the construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction of identities among immigrant women. It is imperative to critically examine terms like “Third World Women” and “women of the Global South” to highlight the complexities and pitfalls of homogenizing diverse groups. An intersectional analysis becomes necessary, considering historical, regional, ethnic, racial, and religious factors.

Knowledge Production and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

In light of these considerations, knowledge production becomes a critical practice aimed at dismantling prevailing knowledge frameworks dominated by Western perspectives. This strategic approach is essential to challenge Islamophobic populist discourses impacting particularly Muslim immigrant women.

As the term ‘Global South’ transcends a metaphor, encompassing narratives of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and ongoing disparities, scholars and activists must continue developing concepts and practices of solidarity drawn from experiences in the Global South. Emphasizing the importance of recognizing diverse experiences, challenging binary constructions of identities, and engaging in transnational alliances is crucial. Grewal and Kaplan’s (1994) idea of a “politics of location,” delving into the tension between temporal and spatial theories of subjectivity, provides a valuable framework. Discourses and language use, aligned with Bell Hooks’ (1989) concept of a “dialectical space,” prove instrumental in dismantling binaries and discriminations.

Resistance and Counter-Hegemonic Discourse

Such an understanding underscores the potential of resistance through the creation of spaces that facilitate the transformation of the current reality. It also highlights the importance of challenging enduring colonial and discursive homogenization through counter-hegemonic discourse. Research and civil society engagements contribute to the generation of diverse perspectives and epistemologies, particularly through the experiences and agency of Muslim immigrant women.

In conclusion, attention to the emotional impact of activism on immigrant women and the potential for reduced emotional distress when actively advocating for equality is essential. The ability to reconceive culture and religion as spaces that allow reasoned, autonomous, and democratic participation, aligning with the approach of exploring reidentification experiences “on them, by them,” becomes pivotal in transnational feminist work challenging any forms of (gendered) populism. This includes far-right, far-left in Western contexts, as well as authoritarian, Islamist populism in the Global South. Contextual factors in origin and resettlement spaces play a crucial role in adaptation and integration processes, influencing the manifestation of identities.

Highlighting the transnational impact of the growth of the far-right and an anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America, an anti-Islamic activism of pioneering movements and political parties in Europe is conducted through hypocritical discourses and acts by far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals. This is done to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. Women’s and gender-based rights are conveniently claimed by these politicians and other social actors, for instance, to “denigrate Muslimness.” 

Thus, a significant shift is observed within the approach of populist rhetoric, particularly of the far-right, towards Islam and Muslims. This is actually a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, the far-right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance through a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, and the preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage (Berntzen, 2019).

By framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology posing a threat to Western civilization, the far-right appears to shift from its traditional, radical, and authoritarian stance to a more liberal, modern, and rights-based strategy. This strategy places a greater emphasis on the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). 

Consequently, as transnational feminist scholars and activists, it becomes imperative for us to intervene in feminist epistemologies by carefully discerning the nuances among the concepts of anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobia. An essential focus lies in understanding the ongoing transformation of the new transnational anti-Islamic movement from ethnic-based nationalism and oppressive authoritarianism towards a liberal standpoint that advocates equality, justice, and democratic values. This involves active participation in knowledge production through the experiences and agency of the complex subjects central to debates: Muslim immigrant women.


References

Berntzen, L. (2019). Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century. Routledge.

Hall, S. (1990). “Cultural identity and diaspora.” In: J. Rutherford (Ed.) Identity: Community, culture, difference (pp. 222-237). Lawrence & Wishart.

Hooks, Bell. (1989). “Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media36, 15–23.

Grewal, I. and Kaplan, C. (Eds.) (1994). Scattered hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices. University of Minnesota Press.

Turkish women protest against violence towards women. A woman carries a banner that reads "Stop violence, abuse, rape" during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey on April 4, 2015. Photo: Deniz Toprak.

Unmasking Gender (In)Equality: Turkey’s Post-2023 Election Landscape

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.

By Hafza Girdap

The parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey were held in May 2023, representing a pivotal moment amid concerns of a democracy in decline, eroding rule of law, and a worsening state of gender equality. On May 14, 2023, President Erdogan secured 49.52 percent of the vote, while his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu received 44.88 percent. The subsequent runoff election saw Erdogan’s share increase to 52.18 percent, with Kilicdaroglu holding 47.82 percent. The electoral process was marred by numerous controversies, including allegations of interference, leading Turkey to depart from its international legal commitments.

During the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, the ruling AKP secured 268 seats out of the 600 available in the assembly. Leading the People’s Alliance, the AKP and its coalition partners captured 322 seats in total. Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) under Kilicdaroglu obtained 169 seats, further reinforced by an additional 212 lawmakers from its Nation Alliance coalition. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), running as the Green Left Party (YSP) due to a court closure case, managed to secure 61 seats. While not formally aligned with Kilicdaroglu’s alliance, the HDP strongly opposes Erdogan and provided unwavering support to the CHP leader.

As a member state of NATO, Turkey currently witnesses the incarceration of prominent political and social figures, severe restrictions on media freedom, and the persistence of self-censorship, despite judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. Criticism at home and substantial reports from international and intergovernmental organizations collectively assert that Erdogan’s government has stifled dissent, eroded civil and human rights, and exerted control over the judiciary and other state institutions, leading the country towards both democratic and economic repercussions. In the face of an economic crisis spurred by Erdogan’s unconventional economic strategies, the Turkish lira has plummeted to record lows against the dollar. Additionally, Turkey, under Erdogan’s leadership, has showcased its military influence in the Middle East and beyond, forged closer ties with Russia, and experienced increasingly strained relations with the European Union and the United States.

With this background of Turkey’s 2023 elections and the ongoing democratic regression in mind, it is important to underscore the gender-related aspects and consequences of this situation. Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks elucidate: “Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.”

Rasim Ozgur Donmez and Fazilet Ahu Ozmen emphasize in their book that “the Turkish Republic has been rooted in hegemonic masculinity,” where hegemonic masculinity denotes the patriarchal dominance of the mainstream class or ethnic group, as well as the dominance of men over women. [1] Against this backdrop, a critical analysis of the results of the recent pivotal election reveals that the Green Left Party holds the highest proportion of gender representation, boasting 48 percent female deputies among its total seats. Among the 600 parliamentary members, 50 female members were elected from the AKP, 30 from the CHP, 30 from the Green Left Party, 6 from the İYİ Party, 4 from the MHP, and 1 from the TİP, making up slightly over 20 percent of the total with a collective of 121 women MPs.

Nilden Bayazıt, the General Director of the Ben Seçerim (I Elect) Women’s Platform, interprets these results as a reflection of the fact that “political parties generally do not prioritize women’s inclusion in their candidate lists.” Berrin Sönmez, the Spokesperson of the EŞİK platform (Women’s Platform for Equality), concurs, stating that “in a period focused on elections and alliance negotiations that concern women’s rights and lives, candidate lists should have unequivocally favored equal representation.”

Didem Unal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, underscores that “AKP’s election campaign demonstrated that anti-genderism was a useful rhetorical tool for the party to reinforce populist antagonisms juxtaposing ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ ‘Anti-genderism’ here denotes an ideological and strategic opposition to a broad spectrum of feminist principles and socio-political reforms and a construction of fears and anxieties around gender in the name of protecting ‘national values’.”

In light of these ideas, it becomes evident that not only the discourses during political campaigns but also the more prolonged language and strategies employed by the AKP have set the groundwork for the state’s transition towards increasingly authoritarian actions and policies, alongside perpetuating gender-based inequalities and injustices. The oscillation between prohibition and subsequent allowance of headscarves in public positions serves as an illustration of how Turkey’s political history, marked by its gendered nature, is further highlighted by a security-oriented perspective. This perspective manifests through matters linked to women, attributing distinct significance and connotations to their roles, status, and lived experiences.

Amidst the gender-focused discussions and measures of the current conservative ruling party deeply rooted in Islamic principles, the AKP, the decision to lift the ban on headscarves arrived after years of restrictions imposed on their use within state institutions. Nonetheless, the gender-related policies implemented by the party did not result in a genuine expansion of freedoms and rights for women. Instead, these policies exposed persistent patriarchal frameworks within the party’s leadership, projecting the archetypal conservative woman as primarily a mother, homemaker, and caregiver. Consequently, the removal of the ban essentially became insignificant in terms of advancing women’s rights.

Following a September 2010 referendum that curtailed the authority of both the judiciary and the military, while concurrently augmenting President Erdogan’s influence in judge appointments, Turkey has increasingly steered towards an authoritarian form of governance. At present, the Turkish government is employing an Islamist narrative to consolidate its backing among the predominantly conservative populace—comprising the majority of voters—by fomenting public discontent against progressive movements linked to Westernization and democratization. Over the past decade, opposition to women’s perspectives, notably those aligned with feminism, has undergone a pronounced surge. Women’s societal roles have gravitated towards more traditional paradigms, with the government deeply enmeshed in shaping personal choices and behaviors. Significantly, areas such as family size, abortion rights, public displays of female laughter, and even childbirth methods have come under state control, frequently in collaboration with influential figures, including male religious leaders. These discussions have persistently framed women’s roles within the context of traditional and Islamist ideologies. Manifestly, a substantial segment of Turkey’s populace endorses this approach, believing that the country as a notable regional power is countering Western imperialism while upholding Islamic conservatism.

The ruling party and government have consistently disregarded calls for the implementation of gender quotas in the political sphere, and their efforts to address gender-related disparities and discrimination, particularly concerning sexual orientation, have proven insufficient. This ultimately culminated in Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. As the influence of the AKP government solidified, individuals with diverse ideologies and political stances found themselves subjected to various forms of organized and societal aggression.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.

In 2022, 334 women lost their lives due to femicide in Turkey, and in 2021, the number was 280. The significant rise in femicide cases is largely attributed to the issue of impunity. This underscores the critical impact of the mindsets, language, and discourses employed by state representatives on women’s tangible engagement in politics and decision-making roles within society. This extends to encompass the actual implementation of laws and actions that influence women’s participation and status.


[1] Dönmez, & Özmen, F. A. (2013). Gendered identities criticizing patriarchy in Turkey. Lexington Books.

Painting portraying a Kurdish woman in traditional costume by the artist Khairy Adam.

Surveying the landscape of women’s rights: Observations from a researcher

The intertwined dynamics of the ‘patriarchal trifecta’—forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and so-called honor killings—create a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing each other’s harmful effects. For example, a woman compelled into a marriage against her will not only faces the trauma of forced marriage itself but also a heightened vulnerability to marital abuse due to a lack of communal and societal safeguards. Similarly, a woman subjected to FGM, whether in her youth or later in life, faces an increased likelihood of being coerced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. Her limited social agency and societal constraints make it difficult for her to resist such pressure.

By Shilan Fuad Hussain*

As researchers, especially on topics related to gender studies and cultural analysis, we must constantly decide the degree to which our investigations will inform and/or transform the world we are studying. Considering this, I have decided to investigate issues surrounding Kurdish women which are both personally and professionally important to me. 

My research, which is connected to my Marie Curie Fellowship and ongoing, looks at the status of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), or what could equally be defined as Southern Kurdistan or Bashur. The more specific focus of my exploration, connected to this issue of women in the KRI, investigates how gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) – such as honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM), and marital or familial violence – form an intertwined relationship. Which is not just true for the KRI, but everywhere in the world. As these specific assaults on women, seem to go hand-in-hand with places that lack institutional protections and structural barriers to lessen their occurrence.

As part of my postdoctoral fellowship research, I have begun exploring what I deem to be the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ of forced marriages, FGM, and so-called honor killings – which should more accurately be called “misogynistic murder,” but for the purposes of this topic I will utilize the commonly accepted term. It seems this trifecta forms a symbiotic relationship, in which they reinforce one another.

So, for instance, a woman who is forced into a marriage against her will, is more likely to also lack the communal or societal protections to ensure that she is then not abused by her husband, so in some of these situations there is a correlation, if not an outright causation – which is up to us as scholars to seek out.

Moreover, a woman who experiences FGM either in her youth or later years is also disproportionately likely to be forced into an arranged marriage against her will and lack the social agency or societal flexibility to refuse. Likewise, in the case of honor killings, a woman who is murdered by her father or brothers, is also more likely to both have had FGM carried out on her or be in a situation where she is likely to be placed into arranged or forced marriage. 

I believe understanding this trifecta of oppression against women globally, but in particular in the KRI regarding women, is of utmost and critical importance. My research thus far aims to do that, and by its full completion, will hopefully have achieved this goal. 

To this point, my literature review and interviews I have conducted so far paint a picture on the topic which is nuanced and contains both positive developments and work that still needs to be done. For instance, it is important when analyzing the state of women in the KRI, to understand it in the context of the region historically, and at the present time. Often times, I believe researchers, particularly in or from the West, arrive in “exotic” new environments, and expect that all of the cultural norms they are used to are universal. 

These presumptions then also usually fuel the foreign NGOs and institutions that have considerable funding but tie those resources to the quote “natives” fixing their outdated ways of living. So, while these drives to increase human rights globally can have positive gains, they can also begin to resemble the colonial ethnographies of the past, where Europeans showed up to observe and then speak for those they observed, while critiquing from a place of privilege. 

In my case, as a woman from the KRI, I am not investigating a foreign place that I do not understand, but my own community, and I am able to do so with the understanding of the many overlapping cultural complexities that inform these phenomena. For instance, my early investigations have shown the role that religion, tribe, political persuasion, and rural versus urban geography can play in these issues. In this, there seems to be a discrepancy in the prevalence of this trifecta, based on if the individuals live in the main urban centers of the KRI – Hewler (Erbil) and Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) or if they derive from a village or smaller city. 

I am also looking at the role that faith plays and if there is a difference in how religious a woman’s family is. This in turn, is connected to the role that upbringing can sometimes be fate, so I investigate how much formal education a woman has had and if she is allowed to work outside of the home. As again, there seem to be certain factors that begin to appear so frequently together, that they appear to form the words of a song. And what my research on these issues has shown me thus far is revealing. But as with any research, each ‘answer’ only begets another question. 

For example, it seems that the constraints of religious conservatism are blunted by women gaining access to formal education, but is this really a case that more open-minded families are likely to allow their daughters to get education in the first place? Or is economic class connected, as wealth seems to have a similar progressive effect, and wealthy families are also more likely to allow their daughters to seek formal education? The tangled web of causality it seems is never fully discovered and I acknowledge that no research is ever fully complete – but blocks built atop one another. 

You also cannot study women’s equality in the KRI, without looking into the governmental policies there. So, for example, there have certainly been some gains for women in the KRI based on laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since their de facto autonomy was established in 2003. These gains are particularly present when compared to the rest of Iraq, which has actually been backsliding on women’s rights, since Baathism ended. Which is ironic, as Saddam’s rule was particularly brutal and oppressive for Kurds and especially women, but overall, the Arab women of Iraq, have seen their personal freedoms decrease in many ways under the new less-secular post-Saddam regimes. 

In contrast, the KRG governing the KRI for instance, has made some legal gains and set in place protections on the recommendation of the UN and other world bodies, for several reasons. The most generous answer would be that it is because they are the right thing to do and the majority of men in society are ready for such progress. And the strategic or perhaps cynical answer would be that they are the prescriptions demanded from the international bodies that I mentioned earlier, who give their resources to the KRI and then uphold the place as a quote beacon of women’s rights in the Middle East. 

The geopolitical motivation for upholding the KRI in this way, also serves Western interests as it can potentially justify Western intervention in other places, who still do not guarantee their women full freedoms. But that is more an aside and would be a research study in itself. 

However, my research thus far also displays worrying trends. For instance, the other side of this beacon of equality argument, is that the KRI still features cases of women desperately self-immolating and far too many honor killings or presumed honor killings which can often be reported as suspected suicides. The methods of violence deployed against women, either from their husbands, scorned men wishing to marry them, or their fathers or brothers to protect the family’s name before the community, often are brutal methods of shooting, suffocation, or stabbing. You also have cases of suspicious burning, which are reported as suicides, but often could be murders set up to appear as such. 

What my research so far also displays to me, is that this gender-based violence, and these honor killings are based on a range of personal beliefs from the men committing the violence. For instance, I am interested in the views of men who hear of honor killings and whether they agree that it can ever be justified. Because a man might say he theoretically does not agree with a stranger being honor killed but would support such a reality if their sister carried out certain sexual acts, which they deem to be an attack on their entire family’s dignity. 

Also, the views of women on the periphery are crucial, so I look at the views of women on honor killings, and whether they become accomplices, as you can sometimes see in the case of mothers or aunts, who fail to push back against the issue, or lack the freedom and protections to ally with the victims of it. 

In the same way that historically a colonized people would always have members of the population who would collaborate with their oppressors, in the case of gender this is also a possibility. That is of course not to blame women, because those who lack structural power, will often do what they deem necessary for short term survival. 

This trifecta is also upheld by a combination of variables, including beliefs that are justified as “tradition” or “our culture”, as if denying women their full rights is in itself an act of cultural preservation. This dishonest claim can be particularly potent, because Kurds historically have had their language and cultural rights banned by repressive states, so by packaging patriarchal control as inherent to “Kurdishness,” it makes freeing these women a betrayal against an identity that many men are proud of and trying to preserve. 

Of course, there are other variables as well. Such as social class and economics. It seems that since poverty does not allow for many material comforts, people will seek out to at least own and hold on to their family “reputation” and “good name.” Again, like with the argument that it is cultural, since even men in the KRI who own relatively very little, take solace in the fact that they supposedly possess some invisible “honor.” As a result, it can be difficult to ask a rural impoverished family of men who own nothing, to give up the only thing of value that they believe they possess.

There are also philosophical questions at the heart of these issues. Such as the idea of “freedom” and importance of “love.” Both concepts can be complicated and overlapping. For instance, many men in the KRI will agree with that idea that Kurds should be free from occupation by the Iraqi State, and even get angry with the idea of the Baghdad government mistreating women. But some of those same men will then defend Kurdish wives being occupied inside of their own home, or Kurdish sisters having their dating life being policed by their brothers. This is why the idea and Kurdish slogan of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) in neighboring Iran and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) I believe has been so potent of a concept, is it addresses this paradox. 

And to the idea of love, my research is also interested in whether women who enter arranged or forced marriages loved their husbands at the time of marriage or love them now. Although this may seem like a basic idea, I feel it is fundamental. Because if you remove the idea of love from these marriages, then they often become either desperate economic arrangements to survive, or agreements between fathers and perhaps even mothers, to essentially barter off their daughters. In some ways, the perception or idea of freedom is also tied to the issue of FGM as well. As some of the reasoning behind FGM can be the belief of men that a woman without FGM would be overly lustful and that she cannot handle the responsibility of such freedom. 

As you can see, there are many variables to consider with such a large topic. But it is my hope that by the completion of my fellowship research, that I will have a fuller picture of how all these issues tie together in the KRI. With the hope being that there may also be some universal issues that would be applicable to the outside world as well. Because women cannot have life and freedom – jiyan and azadi – if they are preventing from controlling their own bodies or romantic lives.


(*) Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow and a consultant on gender related issues and society. Previously, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Washington Kurdish Institute and a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Alongside her research in Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies, she is an interdisciplinary academic and works on a variety of topics such as cultural production, gender-related issues and society, gender empowerment. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.

Turkish women took action on May 8, 2020 in Istanbul not to repeal the Istanbul Convention, which provides protection against domestic and male violence. Photo: Emre Orman.

Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats

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Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2023). “Gender Populism: Civilizational Populist Construction of Gender Identities as Existential Cultural Threats.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 24, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0023

 

Abstract

In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates. Gender populism is a relatively new concept that refers to the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures, and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. It involves the manipulation of gender roles, stereotypes, and traditional values to appeal to the masses and create divisions between “the people” and “the others.” This paper looks at the case study of gender populism in Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. The AKP has used gender populism to redefine Turkish identity, promote conservative Islamism, and marginalize women and the LGBTQ+ community. The paper also discusses how gender populism has been used by the AKP to marginalize political opponents.

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Introduction

In minimal terms, populism is conceived as a unique set of ideas, one that understands politics as a Manichean struggle between a reified will and sovereignty of the morally pure people and a conspiring elite (Hawkins et al., 2018: 15). In addition to this vertical dimension, populism’s horizontal dimension posits the Manichean binary opposition betweeninsiders and outsiders,  whereby the outsiders, who may even be citizens, are regarded as foreigners,  if not internal enemies, based on their identities. In some cases, these demonized individuals and groups are seen as internal extensions, agents, puppets and pawns of foreign conspiring forces and institutions such as the European Union (EU), “the Jewish lobby,” and extremist Islam. All these are seen as threatening the people’s security, identity, and way of life. In these manifestations of populism, the binary is based on not just national differences but an imagined civilizational enmity (Brubaker, 2017). This type of populism has been dubbed as ‘civilizational populism’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; 2022b).

Populism is involved in interpretative processes that lead to intense emotions  (Salmela & von Scheve, 2017; 2018). It paints the events, in-groups, and out-groups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate sharp emotions in the audience (Brady et al., 2017; Graham et al., 2011). Emanating from structural (national and international) as well as affective foundations, populism has been effective in speaking to the deep emotions of the masses. It mobilizes people against other groups and/or the state by generating feelings of belonging, love, passion, fear, anger and hate (Morieson, 2017; DeHanas & Shterin, 2018; Yilmaz, 2018; 2021).

In the Islamist version of civilizational populism, the emotional backlash against the rise of secularism, multiculturalism, progressive ideas, and ‘wokeness,’ has been skillfully employed. While for the populists, populist far right and civilizational populists in the West, usually the Muslims are the civilizational other, we argue in this article, in the Islamist civilizational populism, the list of civilizational enemies of the Muslim way of life also includes feminists and LGBTQ+ rights advocates.

What Is Gender Populism?

Much like the highly contested definitional parameters of populism, there is no singular definition of the term ‘gender populism.’ It is a rather new combination that has peaked the interests of academics since the mid-2010s. Gender populism is essentially the use of gender symbolism, language, policy measures and contestation of gender issues by populist actors. For instance, both left- and right-wing populist groups in many Western communities have expressed a need to “protect” their countries, specifically women, from the “illiberal” or “conservative” influences of migrant groups. They profile migrant men as a security threat or as “groomers” and some countries have taken issue with women’s choice to wear a headscarf (Hadj-Abdou, 2018). 

At the same time, it is not uncommon to see a huge wave of resistance from right-wing groups reading gender roles. These groups aim to “restore” traditional gender roles which leads them to marginalize feminist directives and disapprove of the LGBTQI+ movements (Agius et al., 2020; Roose, 2020; Gokariksel et al., 2019). 

This first stream of literature shows how gender populism helps in the creation of an ideal people or “the people” as opposed to “the others” based on what they consider deviance from their relative gender norms. This also intertwines with the idea of civilizational populism because it gives an image of a utopian dream society or urges people to revert to “the golden era” e.g., the promotion of traditional roles for women (Sledzinska-Simon, 2020). 

Gender populism also helps in creating the image of populist leaders in many cases (Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). The leader is not only pure from the corruption of conventional “elite” politicians, but he is also a strongman. The populist demagogue is constructed as a ‘strongman’ who can keep threats a bay and take ‘tough decisions’ (Roose, 2022; 2018). Zia (2022) notes that in Pakistan and India, Imran Khan and Narendra Modi present their ‘strongman’ images and vitality as part of their gender populism. Similarly, Eksi and Wood (2019) discuss how both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan through symbolic (language and body language) present themselves as a mixture of strongmen but at the same time fatherly figures to guide “the people.” 

Studies of female populist leaders show that gender plays a critical role in shaping the image of the leader in the eyes of “the people.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s gender populism constructs her as a mother saving the country from the cultural threats posed by ‘the others’ and her comparison to Jonah of Arc makes her the ‘brave hero’ who needs to act against threats such as migration (Geva, 2019; Sayan-Cengiz & Tekin, 2019).

Effeminization of the Elites and Dangerous Others by Populists 

The literature on gender populism also points out that gender populism is used to marginalize “the others” or “the elite.” One of the most common manifestations is the effeminization of ‘the elites’ and ‘the others’ by populist leaders (Agius et al., 2020; Ashwin & Utrata, 2020; Löffler et al., 2020; Eksi & Wood, 2019; Roose, 2018). 

By contrasting “feminine” political opposition, populist leaders contrast them with their “strong” image to gain credibility in the eyes of voters. For example, in the Philippines, the former President Rodrigo Duterte, is known for this ‘tough man’ acts and imagery while he uses terms such as “bitches,” “son of a bitch,” “chicken-hearted,” “sissy” and “idiots” to address all those who oppose him (UCA News, 2019; Bonnet, 2018; McKirdy, 2016). 

In short, gender populism manifests in various forms and is highly determined by contextual factors. It helps in the creation of “the people,” the populist leader/party, and “the others.” Simultaneously, it adds layers to the idea of an “ideal” society and is frequently used to marginalize both civilian and political opposition to populist forces. In a nutshell, it adds a layer to the divisiveness of populism using gender as the focus. 

Turkey’s AKP: A Case Study of Gender Populism         

Turkish women rallied in Istanbul to protest proposed anti-abortion laws by then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 18, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Sadık Güleç.

In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for over two decades. These two decades have been marked by political as well as major social transitions. This has been a phase of reengineering Turkish citizens from a Kemalist identity to an Erdoganist one: an Islamist, militarist, civilizational populist, neo-Ottomanist citizen and a staunch follower of Erdogan’s personality cult (Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). 

At the heart of this recreation of Turkish identity, people and homeland gender has taken center stage. This makes the case of Turkey quite important to understand gender populism.  Given the heated debates around the 2023 general elections, various hues of gender populism have emerged which this article will discuss along with the party’s past recorded use of the phenomenon.  

The first signs of AKP’s populism were via the means of gender populism in 2007 when the party was contesting to secure its second term. To maintain its support, AKP positioned itself directly in a clash with the Kemalist principles of modernization which had previously barred women from wearing headscarves in public offices and educational institutions (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). At that time, AKP predominantly represented Muslims and the future (possible) first lady wore a headscarf which was unprecedented in the republic’s history. AKP presented itself as a defender of women’s rights as it sought to reverse the headscarf ban. This led to a mass protest by the Kemalist elite especially on social media which was dubbed “a digital coup” and in-person rallies “Republican Rallies.”  

To counter this Kemalist resistance, AKP did not simply make this a matter of right of choice for women, but it constructed the issue as a Manichean binary between Islam and the West, Western ideals being imposed by the Kemalists (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). This overtly ‘human rights issue’ was, at its core, the beginning of the populist Islamist ideology of AKP. Erdogan in 2013 led the country to abolish this ban as he announced in the parliament, “We have now abolished an archaic provision which was against the spirit of the republic. It’s a step toward normalization.” 

But this “normalization” is towards Islamist ideas of gender roles. For instance, during the 2010s on several occasions, the then Prime Minster and now President Erdogan expressed gender conservatism. In 2014 during an international summit,he said, “You cannot make men and women equal,” […] That is against creation. Their natures are different. Their dispositions are different.” He also accused feminists of not understanding the idea of “motherhood.” He also openly said Muslim families should not use birth control, “I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants.” He added, “People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that. As God and as the great Prophet said, we will go this way. Over the years he has glorified the role of mothers and demonized the idea of a non-traditional women, for example, he said, “A woman above all else is a mother.” He has also called women “half workers” and labelled childfree women “deficient.” His exact quote for this instance reads, “A woman who rejects motherhood, who refrains from being around the house, however successful her working life is deficient, is incomplete.” 

In 2021, during a meeting with various officials from the EU, Erdogan ignored the head of the Union, Ursula von der Leyen, and left her standing while all the other men were seated on chairs. In a later comment, von der Leyen noted, “I am the first woman to be President of the European Commission. I am the President of the European Commission, and this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago, like a commission president, but I was not […] Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie? In the pictures of previous meetings, I did not see any shortage of chairs, but then again, I did not see any women in these pictures either.” 

These are not just simple comments by an elected official, they have real-life consequences for women in the country. Since AKP’s ascend to power, the rights of women have greatly suffered in the country compared to its European counterparts e.g., an increase in violence against women. Due to the growing discontent in 2015, following the murder of a woman, a social media and in-person campaign featured men wearing skirts to show solidarity with women who were being brutally attacked for wearing “Western attire” or were increasingly being subjected to violence without any state efforts to curb them. 

A direct policy consequence of this growing disregard for women’s safety is the historical pull out of the country from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. The Convention was designed to ensure pathways of seeking safety in case of domestic abuse by providing not only legal support but ensured victims safe places to reside when feeling from violent partners. AKP and its ultra-conservative alliance argued that this convention was hurting family values or was a hurdle in traditional ways of family law even though the murder rate of Turkish women rose from 66 women being killed in 2002 to 953 in 2009 which is an increase of 1400 percent. Erdogan and his party scraped this crucial form of protection by simply saying, “We will not leave room for a handful of deviants who try to turn the debate into a tool of hostility to our values.”

In addition to Erdogan, over the years various AKP officials and allies have issued highly contested remarks about women and their rights. For instance, in 2014 former Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly on national television advised women not to “laugh in public.” Arınç has also told Nursel Aydoğan, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to be quiet because she is a woman. He said, “Madam be quiet. You, as a woman, be quiet.” On a state-sponsored television program, Omer Tugrul Inancer an Islamist religious leader, said that it is a shame for pregnant women to be out in public. Turkey’s Finance and Treasury Minister, Nureddin Nebati, while discussing economic factors clearly stated that women should not or are not “suited” for “heavy work.” He defended his stance by saying, “Women are the crown of our heads, the medicine for our hearts. We do not care about some extremist and ideological discourses. Our values, this civilization and beliefs already order us to be sensitive about women. We just need to understand it. The enrolment rate in school for girls increased to 97 percent. The number of female MPs increased from 4.4 percent to 17.5 percent [under the AKP government]. The participation rate of women in the workforce has increased.” 

After over a decade of gender populism, women from within the party and from other opposition parties are open to sexist attacks within the parliament and also by citizens on online social media platforms. Arrest patterns since the 2016 mysterious coup attempt show that women along with dependent children and babies in thousands have been arbitrarily arrested because of their alleged involvement with what the government terms “terrorist” organizations. Women face a greater brunt of state-sponsored violence because they are harassed during “strip searches,” separated from their dependent children and infants, and at times are arrested because of the alleged crime of their husbands. 

Religious Turks was marching in an anti-LGBT demonstration in Şanlıurfa, Turkey in October 2022. Hundreds of people attended the protest with signs that read “Protect your family and your generation.” Photo: Hakan Yalçın.

Another gender dimension of AKP’s populism has been directed at the LGBTQI+ community. As early as 2013 the group has been repeatedly targeted by the party. In the country, there are no laws that criminalize or legalize the community but in recent years with the growth of Islamist views, state-led persecution and hate crime towards the community has escalated.

One of the most prominent waves of opposition to AKP took place in 2013 in the form of the Gezi Park protests. The protests began as a peaceful denunciation of AKP’s gentrification of public spaces in Istanbul and soon turned into a violent spectacle due to police brutality. After the death and injury of several peaceful protests and mass rioting, the Gezi Park protest fiasco was framed by the AKP as a ‘foreign’ attempt to curtail Turkey’s progress (Yilmaz, 2021).  

It was after the mass protests and their violent aftermath that AKP directly targeted the LGBTQI+ community by barring the Pride Parade under the guise of security. Since 2015, the state has actively tried to stop the parade but rather than security concerns the parade is framed as a ‘threat’ to Turkish culture and society as well as a foreign agenda to ‘mislead the youth.’ Nearly a decade after Erdogan has blamed ‘deviant’ youth for causing unrest and rioting over the years. In 2021 during a mass protest at a higher educational institute, the President Erdogan again blamed the group and said, “You are not the LGBT youth [to his followers], not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts.” In 2022 he hinted at introducing legislation to criminalize LGBTQI+ communities in Turkey and he justified these actions by saying, “Can a strong family have anything to do with LGBT? No, it cannot. … We need a strong family. … Let’s protect our nation together against the onslaughts of deviant and perverted currents.” 

Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu called the LGBTQI+ community a “propaganda of a terrorist organization” in 2022. He also added, “There is cultural terrorism. The propaganda of a terrorist organization tries to make people forget their values, their religion, unity, parental love, and family loyalty. It is exactly Europe’s policy, exactly America’s policy of divide and rule.” He added, “What will happen? They will bring LGBT to Turkey. Forgive me, men will marry men, women will marry women. It just suits (the main opposition CHP leader Kemal) Kilicdaroglu. What a shame. It lacks all values. They are trying to create a policy based on an understanding that will alter almost all our values so that they can win the hearts of the Europeans and the West.”

The 2023 elections have sadly become a showcase of homophobia by AKP. Various AKP electoral candidates along with Erdogan have weaponized gender populism. They have attacked and accused the opposition coalition as supporters of ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘Western agendas’ because they supported the LGBTQI+ community and at times AKP has attacked the opposition by labelling them as ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’ to construct them as weak, alien and loyal to the West. 

In 2023, during a re-election campaign Erdogan said, “In this nation, the foundations of the family are stable. LGBT will not emerge in this country.” He went on to say, “Stand up straight, like a man: that is how our families are.” He contrasted this by publicly accusing Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the alliance opposition leader, of being gay, as Erdogan at a rally said, “We know that Mr Kemal is an LGBT person.” 

During the period the LGBTQI+ community has been demonized as a threat to “family” and a ploy of the West, which according to AKP, represents “deviant structures” and stands as a symbol of a “virus of heresy.” At the same time, political opposition is not only targeted for its support for the community, but they are emasculated by being labelled as part of the community. 

Conclusion

While the 2023 presidential and general elections hold political significance for all those in Turkey, for women and the LGBTQI+ community these elections directly impact their future existence. This wave of Islamist reengineering of society, under the AKP regime, has changed the country’s social fabric. Women are increasingly left without state support when at their most vulnerable while top ministers and officials are openly issuing sexist comments and remarks. The Turkish idea of womanhood has undergone extensive change. Motherhood, virtue, and modesty are new parameters where those who oppose these traditional confines are constantly demonized, marginalized, or demonized. Similarly, the LGBTQI+ community, which enjoyed a relatively obscure existence, has become the front of a cultural battle. Their existence is seen as a direct existential threat positioned by the West to the Turkish ‘traditional’ values. 

These are not merely instances of the state being simply sexist or sexism being displayed by elected parliamentarians. It is rather a marriage between populism and gender conservatism which has fed AKP’s civilizational populism. It is a layer of populism that helps in the creation of “the others” and “the people” while remaining a useful tool to discredit the political opposition also called “the elite.” It also gives a threatening face to the ‘crises’ under the guise of being a threat to family and the way of life, making it quite simple and relatable for many. In essence, gender populism also feeds off the sentiments of the masses, it is not purely created by populists. 

The election results do matter, but what is worrying is the toll gender populism has taken on the Turkish social fabric. Its attempts to redefine gender roles have been met with opposition but at the same time have found a home in various quarters of society. This means a possible clash of narratives and further polarization in society which emanates gender-based hatred towards women and LBGTQI+ individuals might continue. 


 

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

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Brady, W. et al. (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in  social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS.114(28), 7313-7318.

Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40(8), 1191-1226

DeHanas, D.N & Shterin, M. (2018). “Religion and the rise of populism.” Religion, State and Society. 46(3), 177-185.

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Geva, D. (2019). “Non-au gender: Moral epistemic and French conservative strategies of distinction.” European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology. 6(4), pp. 393–420. https://doi.org/10.1080/23254823.2019.1660196  

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Hawkins, K. A. & Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. (2018) The ideational approach to populism. Routledge.

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African american gamer girl surprised after winning online competition on gaming pc. Photo: Shutterstock.

ECPS COMTOG Project – Interview with Moyra Turkington on gaming and women fighting on the front lines of history

Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women and these women play games as well as men do.

By Anita Tusor*

In line with this year’s Women’s History Month theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” our first The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) interview not only focused on youth radicalisation and its platforms, contemporary antisemitism, online hate and gaming, and historical memory of the Holocaust; but closely examined educational, roleplaying games with stories about women in WWII designed by an international team of women and non-binary writers led by Moyra Turkington.** 

The 21st century has seen an impressive and considerable evolution in the capability and popularity of gaming. With the expansion of its market, quality, and audience, COMTOG aims to uncover analog- and video games’ potential to raise historical consciousness. Nonetheless, the depiction of historical events in certain games has recognizable flaws. A common thread of criticism lies in the representation of war – most notoriously, World War Two – and how most games glorify conflict while neglecting the victims’ perspective, especially first-person shooter games (Glouftsis, 2022). Alternatively, some games avoid the mention or existence of tragedies from historical conflict. In this way, these games appear to contribute to misshaping and misconstruing the collective memory of the period.

However, it must be noted that a growing number of games published in the last decade have broached the topic of war and conflict in a far more nuanced and considerate fashion. These projects tend to stem from smaller game-publishing houses, where the artistic and creative choices undertaken by the game developers are often well-researched, portraying the historical past and conflict in such a way that does not obscure the horrible realities of war while remaining instructive but considerate to the victims’ experience. Turkington and her team’s project, War Birds, provides an anthology of games about women in World War II and a fine example of how to approach Holocaust game designing issues. 

Turkington’s latest publication (2021) addresses game-designing techniques to bypass serious issues in Holocaust-related historical role-playing games, such as the potential trivialisation of the Holocaust or players learning to blame the victims. Game design challenges are exemplified through the description of Rosenstrasse, a role-playing game in which players adopt the roles of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans in mixed marriages in Berlin between 1933 and 1943. In our conversation, Turkington mentioned Rosenstrasse as an explicitly transformational game specifically designed to be a deep emotional experience. Testplays and qualitative research study with eighteen subjects proved it to be a highly effective experience (AJS Perspectives, 2019).

Historical Game Studies and Women

Historical game studies is a young, slowly expanding interdisciplinary field which must address the challenges of designing games about the Holocaust and conflict, as well as being a woman in the gaming industry. Only 30 percent of game designers are female (Guardian, 2020), which results in on-screen female characters which are underrepresented, have fewer lines, have stereotypical gender roles and are over-sexualised, while nearly half of the people who are playing video games are women (Yee, 2017) and these women play games as well as men do (Shen et al., 2016). 

Furthermore, there is an existing and serious concern about the toxicity of not only how and by whom games are developed but the player cultures as well, not to mention the marginalisation of whole groups of people (namely women, LGBTQA+, people of colour) (Wright, 2022: 177; Heron et al., 2014). Women often feel uncomfortable, maybe harassed or excluded from communal gaming spaces (Fishman, 2022). Gaming girls and women are more likely to hide their gender using voice-changing headsets than their male counterparts (Hetfeld, 2021). Abusive players face few consequences; female players are more prone to withdraw from playing certain games (Fox & Tang, 2016).

The gaming industry’s refusal and slow progress in addressing misogyny and extremism (Compton, 2019) have resulted in a dire report by the leading anti-hate organisation; ADL (2022). The latest survey shows gender was the most frequently cited reason for identity-based abuse. “In broader national movements, it is typically antisemitism that lies at the root of white supremacy movements; in games, it is misogyny” (ADL, 2022: 9). The concept of “geek masculinity and networked misogyny” (EGRN, 2021) shows similarities with populism as it is “being entrenched in heteronormative and patriarchal ideas of gender and sexuality, and is threatened by the presence of those deemed to be ‘others’” (Peckford, 2020: 67). Pöhlmann (2021) coins the term ‘ludic populism’ while investigating video games that undermine their own populist aesthetic and argues that video games can both reinforce and challenge the idea of a unified group of “the people” by using populist imagination, often through implicit or explicit essentialist means.

Live-action role-playing games (LARPs) may also utilise populist imagination, as well as perpetuate and foster misogyny and antifeminist hate speech narratives. Karner (2019) and others (Moriarity, 2019, PuzzleNation, 2018) stress that inclusiveness and acceptance of female players are gradually moving in the right direction. However, it is only possible if change begins at the game development level. Games made by women include creative, political minds who “can help break the tide of prejudicial game design and writing” as well as may enable “roleplaying to become the next stage of feminist storytelling” (Cross, 2012: 84).


 

(*) Anita Tusor is a recent graduate of the Double Master’s Program of King’s College London and Renmin University of China in Asian and European Affairs. She also holds a M.A. in Applied Linguistics and a B.A. in Hungarian and Chinese Studies. Previously, she has worked with different think tanks and is currently working as a Research Assistant at the ECPS and the International Institute of Prague. Anita’s research interests include the processes of democratisation and de-democratisation, populist constitutionalism, political parties and their systems, and foreign malign influence operations.

(*) Moyra Turkington is an award-winning Canadian larpwright, game designer and theorist with a background in Cultural Studies and Theatre. She is also the founder of the indie studio Unruly Designs and the leader of the War Birds Collective — an international community designing political games about women fighting on the front lines of history. Turkington is interested in immersive, transformative and political games, particularly in creating a multiplicity of media, design, representation and play.


 

ECPS’ Never Again initiative and COMTOG project

Our collective history offers stories of war, resistance, intolerance, and perseverance. ECPS’ Never Again initiative prompts us to look back at these memories of conflict and democratic backsliding so that we, citizens, can be better informed of their causes and realities. A wealth of research has highlighted how mainstream media, i.e., TV, film, radio & news, have shaped the collective memory of these conflict narratives. However, as media technology evolves rapidly, the research studying collective memory must evolve with it.

The Collective Memory Through Online Games (COMTOG) project has emerged under this Never Again initiative to showcase the educational and social potential of serious, transformative gaming (video games, LARPs, tabletop roleplaying games) relaying the realities of conflict through a nuanced, well-researched, and empathetic lens. COMTOG is set to publish a series of interviews exploring the research process, artistic direction, and dissemination of these conflict-centred games. The game creator’s insights are included in interviews alongside the experience of diverse experts in the field (i.e. historians, policymakers, activists), thus creating a resource improving historical serious games’ ability to aid active remembering.

Moreover, serious gaming can provide the population with an immersive experience that can be used for educational purposes such as raising awareness, boosting ethical values, and preserving collective memory. Existing research has found their integration into educational programmes promising and positively impactful. We aim to understand how serious games discussing and portraying the victims of the conflict were researched and developed to stimulate interest in creating similar kinds of games.

Iranian woman standing in middle of Iranian protests for equal rights for women. Burning headscarves in protest against the government. Illustration: Digital Asset Art.

Mahsa Amini: Women’s bodily autonomy in the context of Islamism and far-right populism

Both Islamism and far-right populism claim power and control over women’s bodies by imposing rules around the hijab. In Iran, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear a hijab despite personal preferences. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.

By Hafza Girdap

Debates around women’s bodies, particularly those of Muslim women, have grown globally in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death under the custody of Iran’s morality police after being detained for ‘improper’ hijab-wearing. For a better understanding of control over women’s bodily autonomy, the concepts of political Islam and far-right populism need to be examined.

The term political Islam, otherwise known as Islamism, ontologically implies resistance against secular and Western systems of governing. Criticizing secular ideologies, political Islam aims to establish a political system based on Islamic doctrines in addition to creating a unified religious identity for the whole of society. In the Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, Shahram Akbarzadeh argues that “much like other -isms, Islamism imposes a normative framework on society in a blatant attempt to make society fit into its mould” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 1). Being a reactionary movement, which aims to shape society and the state through the agency of religion, political Islam manifests itself as challenging both previous governments and the West. Akbarzadeh cites Mohammad Ayyoob to explain the incentives behind this challenge: “Political Islam gained increasing support as ‘governing elites failed to deliver on their promises of economic progress, political participation, and personal dignity to expectant populations emerging from colonial bondage,” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 2).

Besides denouncing their regime, Islamists also stand up to the West through the medium of “anti-Americanism”. They claim that all their political opponents are failures because they “deviate” from the divine path. The concerning facet in this approach is the blurry definition of this so-called divine path. In other words, Islamism or political Islam acts as an empty signifier that can be filled with subjective interpretations of Islam. To be more precise, an Islamist leader who claims to be representing divine “sovereignty” can legitimize his practices through a religious discourse that cannot be denied by society since it may appear as resisting divinity.

Akbarzadeh touches on this hypocritical aspect of political Islam; On one hand, actors who hold an Islamist position reject others’ interpretation of religious doctrine on the basis that it is not divine, but on the other hand, these same actors interpret Islam according to their personal interests, like gaining more power. In this case, political Islam deliberately serves to oppress discourse on economy, morality, and authority. According to Akbarzadeh (2012), “the combination of the exclusive claim on divine truth and the capture of political power” gives the authorities a legitimate right which can be hazardous for the society since this power “can easily manifest as acts of violence.”

While Akbarzadeh’s definition of Islamism identifies it with resistance, Esposito adopts the concept of “resurgence” while discussing political Islam. In this lens, it is the combination of “resentment over political and social injustices” and “issues of identity” which merges faith and politics in order to establish an “Islamic revival” (Esposito, 1997). This resistance approach, which strengthens itself with exasperation and revolt against both domestic and Western ideologies, helps governments pave the way for “enhancing their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support for programs and policies” (Esposito, 1997).

However, the state is not the sole actor to reap benefits from Islamism. Social movements and companies that affiliate themselves with Islamic identities also generate opportunities to establish new businesses, such as hospitals, banks, and schools, and work to accommodate their associates in these organizations. The most pertinent point Esposito raises in his article questions “whose Islam” is this and “what Islam” is. The answer concerns the idea of power, which we can find in the hazardous mixture proposed by Akbarzadeh. As such, the compulsory hijab in Iran implemented by the country’s Islamist regime and its enforcement through the support of society can be understood by the aforementioned definitions and discussions of political Islam.

On the other hand, the hijab ban, or alternatively the adverseness against wearing hijab in public places in some European countries such as France, can be seen as representing another disregard of women’s bodily autonomy. In this context, far-right populism and Islamophobia have had a significant role in shaping public discourses against the hijab. As a result, it is necessary to shed light on the seemingly discordant approach in the far-right discourse on the subject. By “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11), the far-right, for this issue, appears to abandon its traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude and move towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy focuses on presenting a liberal attitude and liberal optics by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality” (Girdap, 2022). The framing of the discussion surrounding the hijab in France and similar environments needs to be understood in the context outlined above. In addition to this, we must take into consideration the issues of racism and radicalization in Europe in terms of Islamophobia and gendered racism.

Crystal Fleming, in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, describes France “not only as a racialized social system but also as a racist society for at least three reasons. First, racial bias is embedded within the nation’s institutions… Second, racial categories and stereotypes are prevalent in everyday life…. Finally, present-day inequalities are related to historical racial categories and openly racist practices rooted in colonialism and slavery” (2017: 8-9). Far-right populist discourses frame Muslims as inferior and second-class citizens through a colonialist ideology entrenched in the country’s system and society. This structural frame impacts Muslim women to a greater extent as their religious identities are more visible and claims over gender equality are more easily conducted through the hijab debate.

In conclusion, reflected in Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and discourse around women’s bodily autonomy, political Islam (Islamism) on the one hand, far-right populism on the other both claim power and control over women’s bodies using hijab as a proxy. In Iran, through compulsory hijab, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear hijab despite personal preferences, no matter what. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces.  This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose. 


References

Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Esposito, John L. (1997). “Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition.” Harvard International Review, vol. 19, no. 2.

Fleming, Crystal M. (2017). Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

Hirschkind, Charles. (1997). “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, no. 205.

English Defence League (EDF) stages a rally to protest the "Islamisation" of the UK in Birmingham on April 8, 2017. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

 

Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book “Liberal roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century” by focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings. According to his book, through “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” far-right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. 

Reviewed by Hafza Girdap

Focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings, Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book Liberal roots of Far Right Activism: The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.

The book sheds a light on the shift from a positive approach to an adversary attitude towards Islam and Muslims following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Highlighting the transnational impact of these incidents, Berntzen delves into anti-Islamic activism conducted by pioneering movements and political parties in Europe, such as Stop Islamization, Defense League, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), Dutch Pin Fortuyn List (LPF) and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV). The author also draws attention to the hypocrisy of far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. As a very convenient issue, women’s and gender-based rights are claimed by Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (FN), for instance, to “denigrate Muslim men” (Berntzen, 2020: 2). 

Laying out the background of the book, Berntzen states his research questions in the first chapter. The initial purpose is to explore the background of leaders, their official ideology, organizational networks, and the mobilization of sympathizers. In order to conduct such a research, he also presents four steps. First, he focuses on “tracing evolution of anti-Islamic expansion between 2001 and 2017” specifically in Britain, the US, Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Subsequently, a frame analysis of eleven anti-Islamic initiatives from Norway, Britain and Germany is raised covering the time period of 2010-2016. His third step in this research is a network analysis of those anti-Islamic initiatives. And finally, the book investigates mobilization of anti-Islamic groups “that were active during the summer of 2016.” 

Berntzen’s overall finding which he shares in the first chapter is that a significant change is observed within the approach of far right towards Islam and Muslims. He explains such a change as a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, far right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage. However, the author addresses this situation as an ideological duality considering the view of Islam as a threat to Western civilization along with the profiles of anti-Islamic activists and politicians. Hege Storhaug, a Norwegian feminist activist, is given an example of aforesaid hypocrisy since she aligns with Hungarian politician Viktor Orban’s and the Polish Law and Justice Party’s policies which do certainly not prioritize gender equality and gender-based rights. 

As a scholar focusing on identity representations of Muslim immigrant women in Europe and North America, Berntzen’s work stood out to me in terms of drawing on the most influential concepts on identity formation in resettlements of Muslim immigrants: Islamophobia, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. The way he differentiates these concepts through the social movement theory is also striking since framing and mobilization play an important role in identity politics. As far as I am concerned, Islamophobia represents an irrational, emotional fear; whereas, the author argues, anti-Islam refers to the “shift the theoretical focus from reaction to action, in line with the agency-oriented perspective dominant in social movement analysis” (Berntzen, 2020: 38). At this point, inclusion of liberal positions which portrays Islam as an existential threat to Western civilization and as an ideology not compatible with democratic and progressive issues; anti-Islam justifies and legitimizes transnational mobilization of far-right organizations. Among the most influential discourses of this liberal far-right are women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and their perception in Islamic tradition. Berntzen maps the ideology of anti-Islamic far-right combining with not only the expansion of collective action and networks but also with party politics. While doing so, he draws on both international critical incidents such as 9/11 terror attacks and Prophet Muhammed cartoon crisis and local incidents to demonstrate the anti-Islamic expansion of the far-right in different contexts and circumstances. 

To sum up; Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century scrutinizes anti-Islamic ideology and movements of far-right by diving into distinctive conceptualization of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. Claiming it to be an ideological duality, the author of the book highlights that anti-Islamic far right posits a semi-liberal worldview and action towards Islam presenting it to be incompatible with modernity, human rights and liberal issues. In other words, by “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11) far right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy, seemingly, focuses on more the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). As he puts in several parts of the book while explaining why he favors “anti-Islam” concept rather than “anti-Muslim” and “Islamophobia”; this distinction represents the new transnational anti-Islamic movement to be transforming from ethnic based nationalism, oppressive authoritarianism which focuses on Muslims towards a liberal position which promotes equality, justice and democratic values putting an ideological standpoint forward.

 


 Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century, By Lars Erik Berntzen, Routledge, 2020. 228 pp., £27.99 (paperback), ISBN: 9780367224660

 

Women protest the decision taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw the country from the Istanbul Convention in Kadıkoy/Istanbul, Turkey on March 20, 2021. Photo: Gokce Atik.

Right-wing populism, political Islam, and the Istanbul Convention

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

By Hafza Girdap

An “obsession with gender and sexuality” has been a common feature of contemporary right-wing populism. This manifests in various discourses that “conjure up the heteronormative nuclear family as the model of social organization, attack reproductive rights, question sex education, criticize a so-called ‘gender ideology,’ reject same-sex marriage and seek to re-install biologically understood binary gender differences” (Dietze & Roth, 2020: 7). The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, has been a recent target of right-wing populists, ironically enough in Turkey, where the convention was opened for signature and thus gets its name. 

Women in Turkey have always found it challenging to protect themselves from violence and discrimination at the hands of the social, institutional, and structural actors due to the poor implementation of the existing national laws. Particularly within the last two decades, Turkey has seen a drastic increase in cases of domestic violence and femicide, according to the civic platform “Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz” (“We Will Stop Femicide”), which has been documenting and publishing the monthly and annual number of femicide cases since 2013. In 2020, when pro-government voices in Turkey carried out a vigorous campaign against the Istanbul Convention, the Kadin platform reported 300 cases of femicide, a higher number than usual due to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders (130 femicide cases have been detected so far in 2021). 

As is common in European right-wing populist discourses, the campaign against the Istanbul Convention in Turkey was built on religious (Islamist) themes and protecting the traditional family unit.  Although it was the same Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that hastily ratified the Convention in 2011, the authoritarian turn of the government after 2013 has significantly eroded the hype for European Union membership in Turkey. Hence, when the Convention finally became law in 2014, it lacked the government support to be properly implemented. Still, the human rights organizations saw the Convention as progress and pushed for its proper implementation to combat gender-based violence and domestic violence. 

As Eren Keskin, the Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chair, mentions, “until 2005, violence against women was not even a ‘chapter title’ in the Turkish Penal Code.” The title of the section regulating violence against women in the law was ‘general morality and crimes against family.’ So, a woman was just an ‘element’ of ‘morality and family’.” Keskin also highlights that the law was amended in 2005 only because of the struggle of women and the “winds” favoring the European Union at the time. Consequently, violence against women were brought into the penal code as “sexual assault crimes.” However, even if the written law has changed, it cannot be said that there has been a significant change in practice and understanding. In other words, language, discourse, and mentality matter greatly in the proper understanding and implementation of laws. 

On July 1, 2021, the day when Turkey officially exited the Istanbul Convention, people came together to protest this decision in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Okan Ozdemir.

Understandably, women’s rights groups that have been fighting for the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention were shocked and frustrated when Erdogan declared Turkey would withdraw from the Convention in a late-night presidential decree on March 20, 2021. Protests erupted in many cities of the country, demanding the government retract the decision. Journalists, legal professionals, academics, politicians, human rights defenders have declared their deep concerns in various ways, including articles, social media campaigns, TV shows, and artworks. On the other hand, there has been considerable support for the withdrawal decision among right-wing voters, who nonetheless appear to have little or no knowledge about the actual content of the Convention. So, what exactly makes this international treaty a target of right-wing populist anti-gender propaganda?

The Istanbul Convention is described as “a landmark treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” by the Council of Europe (CoE). It is “the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set out binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women,” which has been ratified by 34 member states of the COE and signed by a further 12 (pending ratification). However, simply by its feature of being an international treaty, it has come under the nativist and nationalist radar of the AKP government, which has increasingly returned to its anti-Western and anti-secular Islamist roots since 2011. Indeed, one of the first steps of the AKP government regarding women’s issues was renaming the “Ministry of Women and Family” into the “Ministry of Family and Social Policy.” By doing so, women’s policy became restricted to families matters and the traditional role of women as mothers and wives. 

Along with this official change, the discourse of the party and Erdogan himself supported the restriction of women’s roles. President Erdogan explicitly declared that “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. Our religion regards motherhood very highly. Feminists do not understand that; they reject motherhood.” In its attempt to expand its Islamist political base by tapping on the valued social symbols of family, children, and religion, the Turkish government manipulated some specific articles in the Istanbul Convention, which went in line with the party discourse and religious elites’ confirmation. The Turkish society, which is mostly conservative, has been tightly tied to religious and traditional discourse with a pro-family approach. In other words, as Eslen-Ziya purports, the “AKP government adopted populist discourses involving Islamist elements of nationalism and conservatism” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4).

So, is the Istanbul Convention actually a threat against the family concept as claimed by the Erdogan regime? All articles related to family issues in the Convention are entirely aimed at combating domestic violence. The first article explains the purpose of the Convention to “protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.” This is followed by the second article that emphasizes legal implementation: “Parties are encouraged to apply this Convention to all victims of domestic violence. Parties shall pay particular attention to women victims of gender-based violence in implementing the provisions of this Convention.” 

In this vein, Article 52 advises the parties to take “necessary legislative or other measures” to restrain the perpetrators of violence from the victims, which was put into practice in the Turkish Penal Code with Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women. As repeated throughout the text, the Istanbul Convention focuses on protecting all family members from domestic violence without dictating any particular notion of the family. However, this ambiguity and inclusiveness in its language make the Convention a target of the populist claims of undermining the “God-sanctioned” heteronormative family by giving room for the normalization of other “deviant” forms of family. As Kuhar and Pajnik note, “In the zero-sum logic typical of populist discourse, the more homosexuality (and, by virtue, ‘gender ideology’ as an empty signifier for anything, from gender studies to sexual education, to reproductive rights) is presented as normal, the more children, traditional families and the nation are threatened and under attack” (Kuhar & Pajnik, 2020: 178).

The terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the specific articles of the Convention have been claimed to promote and encourage homosexuality and LGBTQ+ identities. In Article 3, gender is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Following that is Article 4 that guarantees to protect the rights of victims “without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.” 

Another point of concern raised by the opponents of the Convention is the education and teaching materials requirement in Article 14, which calls the governments to educate their people on “equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity…in formal curricula and at all levels of education.” A common obsession with the term gender and its academic studies can already be observed in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention with the same arguments and removed the accreditation from gender studies MA programs in Hungarian universities in 2018. 

Despite the frequent expressions of concern and criticism from the international community, the populist authoritarian leaders have insisted on their anti-women and anti-gender campaigns. Turkey did not target gender studies and academic programs directly, unlike Hungary. However, it consolidated its dominance in the university administrations and the civil society with an attempt to counteract the liberal Western gender studies discourse and replace it with a conservative or Islamist one. This is clearly seen in the mixed messages on the withdrawal decision sent by KADEM (the Women and Democracy Association), co-founded by Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan. While initially expressing support for the Convention during the ongoing campaign against it, the organization did not join the major women’s rights groups to protest the decision once it was made official in March 2021. Instead, they blamed the Convention for creating societal tension and commended the decision to withdraw. As an unofficial mouthpiece of the government on the issues of women and gender, KADEM “serves to institutionalize pro-government, right-wing populist gender ideology” and plays a role as an agency to supporting “policies through protecting family as an institution and embracing gendered roles (women as mothers and wives and men as bread winners and head of the households) where patriarchal order is protected” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4–5).

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

References

Dietze, Gabriele & Roth, Julia. (2020). “Introduction.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Eslen-Ziya, Hande. (2020). “Right-wing populism in New Turkey: Leading to all new grounds for troll science in gender theory.” HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies. 76(3):1-9. DOI:10.4102/hts.v76i3.6005 

Kuhar, Roman & Pajnik, Mojca. (2020). “Populist Mobilizations in Re-traditionalized Society: Anti-Gender Campaigning in Slovenia.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.