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Femonationalism is a concept, coined by Sara Farris, which refers to how the far right 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. Femonationalism is related to the crisis of care in late capitalist societies. It relates to the need for these societies to benefit from the labour of migrant women as care workers.

Taking inspiration from Jasbir Puar’s concept of ‘homonationalism’, which looks at how Israel claims to support LGBT rights in order to justify its occupation,  In Sara Farris words, femonationalism relies on a double standard where:

“Non-Western men (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) are oppressors of women, but also job stealers, whereas non-Western women are usually depicted as victims of their misogynist and backward cultures, to be saved and emancipated. But they are hardly depicted as those taking jobs from ‘native’ workers.”

 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.

Capitalism and femonationalism

For Sara Farris, the rise of femonationalism relates to a deeper problem at the heart of capitalism. Capitalism needs workers to create value, but at the same time, it tries to lower labour costs as much as possible by investing in productivity gains and mechanisation. Capitalism relies on labour, but because it tries to lower costs, it counterintuitively tries to use as little labour as it can. What this means in practice is that under capitalism, not everyone who needs a job can find one because the system inherently throws out workers from their workplaces onto the streets when it gets the chance. These surplus of unemployed or underemployed people, lead a life of widespread suffering and hardship, even death. For that reason, they are feared, because they could band together and threaten the system. At the same time, capitalist democratic governments have to respond to a populace of workers always terrified of becoming surplus themselves. The problem with capitalism is that on the one hand, it creates workers who are “collective producers with a common interest” in forming unions and demanding control over production. But on the other hand, as Brenner and Brenner argue, it is also made up of “individual sellers of labour power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.”

Seen on a global scale, surplus populations often become migrant populations who are often willing to work for less in richer countries. And the competitive pressures on workers are often directed not at the bosses who create these pressures, but on migrant populations. These are (often) the men demonised as those taking the ‘jobs.’ On the other hand, 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 is called social reproduction.

The reason why femonationalism props up is that at the same time in which male migrants are demonised as job stealers, and often even as ‘inhuman’ criminals who threaten the social fabric, a crisis of care also leads to a huge demand in reproductive workers. This is especially aggravated under systems of austerity, where public services have become privatised. As Sara Farris puts it:

“The increasing participation of ‘native’ women in the ‘productive’ economy since the 1980s, the decline of the birth rate and the increasing number of elderly people, coupled with the erosion, insufficiency or simply non-existence of public or affordable care services, has resulted in the marketizaiton of so-called ‘reproductive’ labour, which is now done mainly by migrant and racialised women.”

The Crisis of Social Reproduction

In practical terms, whereas housewives still exist, and the burden of social reproduction often falls on women. 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 from abroad. 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 in. In all cases, this is work of a ‘feminine’ character and it is necessary. It relates to the ‘affective’ needs of capitalism that can’t be replaced so easily.

With jobs in a factory for example, one way that capitalists can reduce labour costs is to move their factories to a cheaper country. But with these kinds of ‘socially reproductive’ tasks where the ‘need for proximity between the produce and consumer’ is necessary (for example a care worker with an elderly person), and where it must be done by living labour, relocation or mechanization is not an option. Mechanisation, as in the case of for example the vaccum cleaner and washing machine, may reduce the load of reproductive work, but it doesn’t get rid of it completely. Added to this, that many families who benefit from what is left of the welfare state get cash assistance, it only means that there is more ‘commodification of care’.  And so this is why, Farris argues, femonationalism explodes.

As an example she gives a decision made by the right-wing government in 2009, which provided an amnesty only for ‘undocumented’ migrants that were carers and domestic workers (badanti). Roberto Maroni of the far-right Northern League (then minister of the interior) argued: “There cannot be a regularisation for those who entered illegally, for those who rape a woman or rob a villa, but certaintly we will take into account all those situations that have a strong social impact, as in the case of migrant care-givers.”

This is all to say, that saving brown women from brown men, is not coming out of some benign saviour complex. Rather the saviour complex itself, which imprints itself onto the pyche of those engaging in femonationalism, comes from a material need for western societies to resolve a crisis of care in the age of austerity. And this crisis of care comes from the simple fact that reagardless of economic anxieties about Muslim and brown men. These countries need migration.


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decolonial centre | Pluto Educational Trust | 2024