Femonationalism, migration and colonial legacies

Migrants’ Rights Network x the Decolonial Centre for International Women’s Day 2024.

International Women’s Day is about recognising the steps made in the fight for gender “equality”, and the barriers that still exist in dismantling systemic sexism. However, equality should not be the final “destination” in this struggle: we must work towards complete liberation. Furthermore, addressing these barriers is complex, particularly in a world where women’s rights are appropriated by states, politicians and sometimes even “feminists” in order to exclude other women and marginalised groups. These include migrants, Muslims and/or trans+ people. This is called femonationalism. 

What is femonationalism?

Femonationalism weaponises and exploits the struggle for women’s liberation in the name of anti-Islam and anti-migrant rhetoric. It is an ideology that seeks to exclude racialised and/or Muslim men under the guise of gender equality and ultimately advance the spread of racist politics. 

Femonationalism goes hand in hand with systemic Islamophobia, racism and orientalism. It frames the Muslim man and woman as the “oppressor” and the “victim”, respectively. This has its roots directly in colonialism. Colonial powers understood patriarchal violence to be an indication that colonised populations’ cultures were inherently “backwards” and “savage”. This was instrumental in strengthening the technologies of domination over colonial subjects. The way that colonial subjects were perceived by colonisers extends to how the West views gender dynamics in the Global South today: that racialised women are “in need of saving” from the racialised male “sexual threat”, and that White, Western “saviours” will be the ones to do it. Femonationalism demonises Muslim, migrant and racialised men while claiming to want to “rescue” Muslim women from their fathers and husbands, in order to distract from capitalism and its responsibility for patriarchal systems worldwide. 

In the West this can translate into exclusionary migration and surveillance policies which urge migrant and migratised communities to “integrate” based on the racist idea that they don’t adhere to the “British values” of upholding women’s rights. This draws on racist orientalist stereotypes that countries in the Global South, specifically Muslim countries, are inherently misogynistic. Femonationalism is used in domestic settings to construct racialised men as a threat to White, Western women. Headlines like “Migrant Muslims on the Prowl: These Men Act in Groups and Start Hunting, Treating the Women Like Prey” reinforce the idea of the racialised Muslim man as a threat to White womanhood. Furthermore, the language of “act in groups” and “start hunting” is used deliberately to create the “hunter-prey” dynamic in our collective imaginations. 

This is problematic on two fronts: it dehumanises racialised men as simply “pack animals” whose fundamental goal or instinct is to seek out women. In turn, women are dehumanised by being framed as inherently vulnerable “prey”. In the UK context, this harmful and racist idea has been parroted by cross-party politicians in relation to “Pakistani grooming gangs”– something that has been continuously debunked and challenged, and yet continues to prevail in contemporary narratives. This is a direct result of ingrained racist and Orientalist stereotypes that paint them as a threat to women who must be protected, and ultimately is used to justify increasingly hostile immigration policies. 

Ultimately, femonationalism demonstrates the ways in which repressive countries like France and the U.S use liberal feminist arguments of “saving” Brown women from “patriarchal” Brown men, in order to engage in racism at home, and imperialism abroad. Femonationalism also has connections with other concepts. For instance, homonationalism is an ideology which weaponises LGBTQ+ rights in order to justify imperialism. Another example is pinkwashing, where Israel uses a facade of gay-friendliness in order to both distract from and justify its genocide of Palestinians. 

Capitalism and femonationalism

Femonationalism assists the capitalist system that exploits migrants and racialised people. Femonationalist arguments brand themselves as a kind of feminism under an economic nationalist programme which subordinates all migrant workers.

Capitalism both needs workers to create value, but at the same time, it tries to lower labour costs as much as possible to maximise profit. It therefore benefits from cheap labour, and from putting people into situations where they are forced into, or have no choice but to engage in, low-paid or exploitative labour. These tendencies within capitalism create an “underclass” who have no choice but to work for less: this underclass is usually made up of migrant populations, who were also rendered “surplus” in their origin countries, and had to find work elsewhere. 

These low-paid or exploited workers, often migrant men workers, are then demonised as those “taking the jobs”. Capitalism keeps workers divided, and encourages higher paid and unionised workers to resent and demonise other workers. This has been the case for a very long time. In 19th century England for example, Irish men were often demonised as “outcasts” and the “residuum” who threatened the “respectable working classes”.

Capitalism often reserves certain reproductive tasks for women — whether that be in the private sphere or in the economy. For example, women who are housewives are unpaid: they feed and clothe their husbands who go to work to get paid, and raise children who are future employees. Housewives also often take care of the elderly — this too is unpaid work, as the elderly often can’t take care of themselves. At the same time, care work has become commercialised, and even when care work is paid, care homes, nurseries, and other “unproductive” tasks are still overwhelmingly done by women. This is called “social reproduction”. In other words, capitalism uses the production, raising and nurturing of life, done mainly by women, as an endless source for the production, raising and nurturing of a workforce.

So, whilst “surplus” male migrants are demonised as “job stealers”, and often even as “savage” criminals who threaten the social fabric, a crisis of care also leads to a huge demand in reproductive workers. This is because in today’s world of late stage capitalism, most people are overworked and underpaid.

The crisis of social reproduction

Femonationalism means that work that used to be done by women at home can now be done by racialised migrant women. For richer families, this means maids can be brought in from countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka under special visas. But it also means, care homes for the elderly, and even cleaning jobs in the ‘productive sphere’, in the offices that western men and women work. This work is often reserved solely for migrant women. During a crisis of care in the economy, this is unavoidable.

Remember that capitalism means more profit with less wages. But nevertheless under conditions where work and labourers are always necessary. Capitalists have many ways of ensuring they can maintain this formula. They can get robots to do the job, or they can outsource the job. When it comes to reproduction though that’s not an option, which is why they always need migrant women.

The desire to “save” Brown women from Brown men is not coming out of some benign saviour complex. Rather the saviour complex itself, which imprints itself onto the psyche of those engaging in femonationalism, comes from a material capitalist need for western societies to resolve a crisis of care. With little public services, and a world where employed people in London are getting into relationships to pay rent, nobody is left to do the care work. This is true regardless of whatever economic anxieties about Muslim and Brown men exist in society. Femonationalism happens because these countries need migration, whether they like it or not. In other words, femonationalism is a distraction and a justification: it demonises racialised and migrant men, so that capitalism can continue to exploit the bodies and labour of racialised and migrant women, unnoticed.

Feminist justice cannot be achieved by oppressing others. Feminism is not about slut shaming other women or attacking modesty. Feminism is not about demonising sex workers and halting sex-worker led movements for workers’ rights. Feminism is not about attacking trans+ people or Muslim women. Feminism has to stand for the most marginalised among us all, otherwise it will simply allow oppressive norms to persist. 

by MRN and The Decolonial Centre.

Check out our Who is Welcome: Gender, Queerness and Migration campaign.

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