Female populist followers, members and leaders are becoming an unexpectedly increasing reality, especially in Europe. While social and economic insecurities create uncertainty, mo re and more female voters tend to rely on populist parties’ promises, especially when it is a female leader expressing them. By appealing to the women’s call for equality, security and liberty, the far-right feminist agenda turns to be an adequate reply.
By Sena Eksi
Populism ancestry lies on the intention of the white supremacist milieu, or the common white people, to stand against the corrupt elite. Even if, the vanguard was pictured to be composed of unsatisfied white male, with time, women also entered the political frame. A new generation of women who didn’t consider their political, social, and economic needs to be satisfied by the patriarchal system, believed that being active in populist parties and movements would be the adequate alternative (Miller-Idris, 2020).
According to recent studies in Poland, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Sweden and France, more and more females considered the far-right parties to be the right solution when it comes to rebalancing socio-economic and politic dissatisfaction (Taube, 2018). While there is an exponential increase of female right-wing supporters, who tend to vote for parties like Generation Identity or Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), “evidence suggests that the gender gap in far-right support is decreasing” (Iyer & Jain, 2021). Further, ever more women are engaging not only as followers, but also as members and leaders, even if the far-right concerns Western European countries when it comes to national security (Fangen & Skjelsbækb, 2021).
Consequently, reasons for this phenomenon become widely interest of studies, while this article will examine the most common ones, relying on contemporary examples in the European context. Besides this, the female population does not only rely on populist parties to see their political ambitions to be fulfilled, but they also tend to become leaders in the political sphere themselves. In this context, I will descriptively analyse how female leaders attempt to attract not only the attention of male, but also female citizens across Europe. Their methods and power of framing reality by appealing to feminist propaganda regarding anti-immigration policies will be of particular interest during this study. Main question is, hence, does a new era of far-right feminism arise in the Orient and develop in Europe?
Far-right Female Extremism and Leadership
Shifting in first moment the attention to the Oriental world, the growing Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar, known as Burma, is one of the most known ones, when it comes to recent examples of female extremist groups. The female supporters argue that they “find empowerment and opportunities within the movement that they don’t [find] elsewhere” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). Another reason for their participation is their feminist conviction, while many scholars argue that the classic right-wing female supporters deny being definite as feminists. Anthropologist Melyn McKay adds that the female members ‘have received a powerful platform to elevate the concerns of women and bring visibility to the struggles they face in daily life.” Summarised, the members of the Burma movement argue that their activity within the populist group help them to overcome their daily struggles, that they must face as women in a patriarchal environment.
Unlike in the European context, right-wing female supporters in the Oriental world differentiate themselves from traditional values and their “oppressive gender norms,” appealing to feminist convictions. Therefore, the right-wing movements offer female members “opportunities to experience some form of empowerment through political action, participation and even leadership” (Provost & Whyte, 2018).
A new far-right feminist genesis blossoms in the Orient, while they perform as a symbol of emancipation and independence for women. The belief that they could perform as actors of the change they want to see in society becomes, hence, main stimulation to become members of far-right parties. However, could they be defined as real feminists, just because they oppose themselves against traditional issues and a society dominated by machismo? Maybe they are just fed by xenophobic agenda of feminism or believe that by being pictured as feminist activists, they could create a counter-reform to patriarchal politics. Focusing on the reasons why female voters join the far-right sphere will help us to understand to what extent both oriental and occidental women share feminist convictions by supporting extremist parties.
Why Female Voters Join the Far Right
On a global level, commonly it has been argued that the female followers are concerned about ‘domestic issues’ (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). A 2016 study confirmed that “women aged between 18-40 years of age are most concerned about equal pay, equal opportunities in professional life and good quality childcare facilities” (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). In addition, also social exclusion and financial strain have been determined as important factors favouring right-wing tendencies. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that right-wing populist -as well as right-wing extremist parties- promise respecting family and gender policy within their programmes, according to “The Triumph of the women?” study. By drilling into these arguments’ feminist convictions are identifiable, among others, being economically independent -and not reliant on the male- and access to equal opportunities on the labour market.
In this regard especially in the last few decades far right parties opted for a welfare-driven policy agenda, focusing on social issues to gain female support (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). It is well known that nativism, etno-centric and xenophobic regulations are the core elements of far-right parties’ agenda. Accordingly, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) attempts to increase the birth-rate of the native population by assuring German mothers a child allowance of €25.000 in Germany. Germany is followed by Poland, where the right-wing conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) guarantees native families with two children a monthly payment of €120 per child until they are of legal age (Shruti & Prithvi, 2021). It is to be expected that these pro-nationalistic initiatives will produce a widespread echo around the EU, while other measurements to push the native birth-rate are assumed.
Contrary to these promises, UN special rapporteur Karima Bennoune warns in her report (2017) of growing populist ultranationalism that disregard key principles of equality and the universality of human rights. Furthermore, the rise of far-right politics poses serious risks to gender equality, as well as to women’s rights, according to Bennoune. However, the number of far-right female leaders in politics is unexpectedly increasing, while an insight into their political discourses and their parties’ agenda will be part of examination in the following part. Referring to their power and methods of framing reality will be hence the final aspect to be considered.
French National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, is maybe one of the most known ones when it comes to female far-right populist faces. Daughter of the right-extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who considered the Nazi gas chambers as “a point of detail of the history of World War II,” Marine grew up in an ultra-nationalistic environment. Even if she expelled her father from the party to soften the party’s far right image, she is considered on the vanguard in terms of her nativist statements. Additionally, in common with other far-right politicians she used women’s rights demands as a tool to achieve support for her Islamophobic campaigns. A series of New Year’s Eve sexual attacks in Cologne and Hamburg, Germany (2015) attributed to immigrants –without substantial evidence– were hence a particular occasion to receive the citizens’ approval on a referendum on immigration. Expressing: “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights” (Provost & Whyte, 2018), she successfully convinced the population when limiting the number of immigrant-arrivals.
Labelling immigration as a national problem is part of the political discourse of most populist parties. In this regard, particularly female citizens feel themselves effected by the number of immigrants, while it is not surprising, that they tend to count on populist parties when regulating refugee numbers. Goethe Institute researcher Gutsche argues that “women sense they are the lower rungs of society and find themselves having to compete against refugees and migrants (Taube, 2018). Therefore, it exists a continuous struggle of losing out job opportunities to immigrants, which leads the female population to support the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties. The latter in return achieve a wider range of national voters.
Furthermore, besides women’s fear of immigrants taking their jobs, refugees are often blamed of being sole perpetrators of sexual violence. Right-wing groups argue that the women’s’ safety will be at risk as long as immigrants –especially from Muslim countries– enter into the country (Chrisafis, Connolly & Giuffrida, 2019). Even if data shows that most cases of sexual violence are committed mostly by native men (Chrisafis, Connolly & Giuffrida, 2019), the power of far-right politicians framing reality, lead listeners to accuse migrants groundlessly. Therefore, the comments of research assistants Shruti and Prithvi (2021) result significant: “Nonetheless, it is not data but persuasiveness of narrative that shapes public opinion; and right-wing groups leveraging fears of immigrants being sexual predators while also pegging themselves as the defenders of women rights has been a powerful narrative driving more recruitment of young white women.”
Accordingly, by portraying themselves as the defenders of “women’s rights”, far-right populist groups illusionary achieve international-wide sympathy and electoral success. “These women are there to give these parties a more open, modern guise and to appeal to female voters,” explained Gutsche. “These are not progressive parties; there is no real gender equality.”
Feminist far-right leaders act, therefore, as wolves in sheep’s clothing, betraying the female population when promising social, political, and economic equality and autonomy, as well as freedom to control over their lives. They just act as marionettes of the dominant masculine far-right party members.
Contemporary Germany is home of most female right-wing populist leaders, leading as front runners when it comes to homophobic currents. Ex-leader of the AfD party, Frauke Petry, is known for her anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies, whereas she ensured her party to enter the German parliament in 2017 (Provost & Whyte, 2018). The party’s ad campaign launched at 2017 further comprises a step on the discrimination scale, including posters saying: “Burkas? We prefer bikinis,” displaying two women in skimpy bathing suits. Other ads had an image of a pregnant woman’s body, with the words: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). Another anti-immigrant grievance, accompanied by nativist proclamations of the party appear surreal to a rational person, whilst it becomes apparently a European-wide reality.
In Poland, Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo of PiS is another example in the anti-immigration political frame. Criticized for using an appearance at former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp to highlight her anti-migrant policies, is just another nuance of her convictions. Moving to the north-east Europe Pia Kjaersgaard, co-founder of the far-right Danish People’s Party, is known for her strong anti-multiculturalism and immigration views, while her views also have been defined as racist by anti-EU activist Karen Sunds.
Summarised conservative agendas, as well as anti-immigration and Islamophobic policies are common characteristics of groups “ranging from the English Defence League in the UK to Stop Islamization of Norway/Stop Islamization of Europe in Scandinavia, to the Golden Dawn in Greece draw on a rhetoric of progressive gender values” (Provost & Whyte, 2018). To counter the Islamic threat, linked to Immigration, these parties offer gender equality and women’s emancipation. In addition, due to the immigration from Muslim countries these far-right currents claim that their true national values (democracy, safety, liberty, equality) tend to be threatened. Consequently, extreme-right parties picture a dangerous and economic threatening external world, that menace traditions and values, while promising a conservative, introvert, and protected society, if elected.
In conclusion, female populist followers, members and leaders are becoming an unexpectedly increasing reality, especially in Europe. While social and economic insecurities create uncertainty, more and more female voters tend to rely on populist parties’ promises, especially when it is a female leader expressing them. It results that far-right males utilize female party members as pioneers to gain support also among the female voters. By appealing to the women’s call for equality, security and liberty, the far-right feminist agenda turns to be an adequate reply.
Due to the female leaders’ power of framing and shaping reality, they obtain consensus when uniting the citizens on a common national identity. Therefore, foreign beliefs, lifestyles, and customs need to be excluded. Consequently, a new nativist population arises, whereas to the local culture and traditions are given priority.
Labelling immigrants as sexual predators and a threat to local security are one of the few accusations used by female populists to differentiate between “insiders” and “outsiders.” By utilizing the anti-migration rhetoric to garner political support, women’s right is being instrumentalised to generate “equality.” The question is when the targeted group of female citizens realizes that the camouflaged ethnocentrism strategy relies on falsified commitments, instrumentalised by the patriarchal far-right policy.
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