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.