ON April 27, a webinar on Women and The Far Right was organised by the Centre for Women Rights [CFWR], Jindal Global Law School [JGLS] as the fourth in their ‘Ear to the Ground’ webinar series. The panel consisted of transnational scholars, namely, Eviane Leidig, Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague; Dr Leonie Jackson, Senior Lecturer on International Relations at the Northumbria University; Rita Manchanda, author, Consulting Research Director at the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, and Trustee, Women’s Regional Network; and Dr Tarini Bedi, Associate Professor, Socio-cultural Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Chicago. The discussion was moderated by Sagnik Dutta, Associate Professor at JGLS and Fellow at CFWR.
The moderator began the discussion with opening remarks on how the participation of women in right wing movements has intrigued feminist and other scholars around the globe.
Role of female social media influencers in far-right politics
The panel’s discussion began with Leidig, who spoke on her on-going research on far-right female influencers. She began her presentation by saying, “Social media and alternative media have opened avenues for propaganda, recruitment and radicalisation, but perhaps, the most important and often invariable [avenue] is that of community building within these facets. When it comes to the role of far right women, they often play an insidious role that is often seen as non-political.”
These influencers positioning themselves as the daughters, wives and mothers of the nation invokes a sense of reproductive urgency. Hence, through these wide stream platforms, these women legitimise and normalise the far right movements by presenting it through non-political content.
She added: “Yet they have several key roles within the far right movement; most probably, that is recruitment, propaganda, organisers and fundraisers, just to name a few. Now, my work particularly focuses on how far right female influencers are taking to social media sites to recruit followers and to build audiences for the movement. Unlike those infringing forums or the dark web, where we see mostly anonymous imposters, these women prefer to spread their message on mainstream platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Twitter… These women are influencers because they are seen as leading personalities commenting on issues and ideas within the far right community at large.”
She continued: “These women help to shape the narratives and discourses within these movements. They cultivate what the media scholars describe as a ‘micro-celebrity persona’. They are basically celebrities within a niche audience, but they are quite well-known and recognisable amongst their audience.”
She explained that these micro-celebrities merge their personal and political lives in such a way that it is easily consolidated for their fans. They achieve this by what the media scholars refer to as ‘networked intimacy techniques’ which are relatable, authentic and accessible to their fans.
Leidig then stated that these influencers achieve their first step of radicalisation through “red-pill vlogs” and remarked, “In conducting my research, I found out that these influencers’ first videos on YouTube channels were their red pill journeys. They share similar backgrounds – all of them grew up in middle class families and middle class neighbourhood, they attended universities and they began taking corporate or professional jobs and living in urban areas, and they talk about socialising with friends and colleagues. At some point, these influencers describe feeling deeply unhappy and depressed with their life situation, and they attribute their unhappiness to feminism.” Thus, traditionalism, she said, become their antidote to feminism, and they subsequently become tied to the ideologies of the far right.
‘Red pill’ is a euphemism which refers to a choice between willingness to learn a life-changing truth by taking the metaphorical red pill, or continuing to live a life of ignorance by taking the metaphorical blue pill. So after taking the red pill, as Leidig explained, these influencers make a follow-up video of how they lost social support after taking their first step towards radicalisation or what they describe as “finding their most authentic self”.
Lastly, there is a shift seen from maternalism to militancy within these movements because of the ideological convictions which suggest the need for self-defence against hypersexualised Muslim male figures. That is why the researcher stated that Islam and sexuality plays a central role in these discourses. ‘Femonationalism’, she explained, is the association between far right and feminist ideas concerning anti-Islam and anti-Muslim tropes.
It centres on the discourse of women’s rights and gender equality, which is in contrast to the Muslim women’s supposed oppression by Muslim men. This concept, as Leidig explained, could impact jurisdictions like India through the triple talaq debate and the ‘love jihad’ conspiracy. Then there are attempts of constructing victimhood, where far right influencers share images and videos depicting Muslim men as hypersexualised, predatory and violent figures seeking to target vulnerable “native” women.
These influencers positioning themselves as the daughters, wives and mothers of the nation invokes a sense of reproductive urgency. Hence, through these wide stream platforms, these women legitimise and normalise the far right movements by presenting it through non-political content. But this should be taken seriously because women play a crucial role in radicalisation, recruitment and propaganda in the far right movement, which is often ignored because of the stereotypical understanding of this gender.
There are significant roles performed by female bloggers through the approach of personalised story telling of their migration (hijrah) to the IS territories, attaining sisterhood and achieving empowerment through IS-established natural roles of women, which are much more effective and appealing because it is spiritual and relatable, unlike western materialism.
Why the Islamic State attracted women from across the world
The next speaker, Dr Jackson spoke on ‘Women and Gender in Islamic State’ [IS] and began her talk by stating, “When I thought through what do we mean by far right, it became clear to me that IS is a far right group. It’s not just a jihadist group. It favours an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. It favours strict segregation of the sexes. It favours clear gender divided roles for men and women within the movement. The brutal repression of homosexuality. The incitement of non- Muslim women and children. That is very far right in my opinion.”
Dr Jackson said that between 2011 and 2019, 52,808 people from the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe travelled to IS territories in Syria and Iraq from 80 countries; out of these, a huge number were foreign women (6,902) and children (6,577). It became a matter of interest to scholars as to why these women were travelling to these territories, where there was a strict application of shariah law, leaving behind their western freedoms. She pointed out that the initial presumption was explained through the usual stereotypes of women and political violence that these women are passive, and they have been brainwashed. However, she remarked, “It turned out that these women were ideologically committed and acted on their own initiative.”
From her research on British women who left to join IS, Dr Jackson also pointed out that her research suggested that these women felt deeply about their decision to migrate to the IS territories, and it was more in terms of their spiritual journeys.
Further, she said, “There is an approach of selling the IS version of women’s world in which the gender roles are painted as natural, where women are wives and mothers, and men are payjobs and warriors. Neither men nor women were presented as greater. Then, there is an idea of complementarity roles where women are understood as ontologically equal to men but men have the authority and women have to defer to this authority. Western feminism is understood as creating impossible roles for women, which leave them feeling inadequate in the western societ,y and that is why IS calls for the return of natural order…most importantly, their roles as mothers are considered as their jihadist duties, and this complements the violent jihad that men are undertaking. Both of these aspects of life within IS territories are considered as securing the future of the Caliphate…then there is that in the IS territories, you are empowered by being visibly Muslim, which is contrary to the West, where you are prevented from wearing hijab and burka.”
Dr Jackson focused her presentation on female bloggers and their significant role in recruitments of foreign female fighters to migrate to IS territories. She explained that there are significant roles performed by female bloggers through the approach of personalised story telling of their migration (hijrah) to the IS territories, attaining sisterhood and achieving empowerment through IS-established natural roles of women, which are much more effective and appealing because it is spiritual and relatable, unlike western materialism.
How gender plays a crucial role in radicalisation, which combines with visual imaginary and oral narratives to give a strong impression of radicalism.
She remarked, “There is also a constant comparison of the materialism offered by the West, and the beauty and natural landscape, spirituality, reward and peace offered by the IS-occupied territories of Syria. Women are seen embracing their roles as mothers, raising cubs of the Caliphate to become Lions. This duty is considered as important as the violent jihad because it is crucial to the survival of this community. This is the propaganda offered by the IS to these women and what these bloggers really illustrate is one of the ways in which women perform agency.”
Manchanda focused her presentation on South Asia, especially the rise of the right wing in India and its entrenchment in politics. Her talk corroborated the discourse on how gender plays a crucial role in radicalisation, which combines with visual imaginary and oral narratives to give a strong impression of radicalism.
She said that “there is a shift of neoliberalism to gender, which takes the central place in the rise of the right wing.” The gender, she argued, is central because of the pushback against the western idea of feminism.
Manchanda, in the Indian context, referred to certain ethnographic studies which explained women’s roles as mobilisers. She also pointed out that the reach of women is quite extensive and natural in bring new people into the right wing fold.
She took the example of the Babri Masjid demolition, and stated that she took interviews of certain men and women in the aftermath of the demolition and asked a few men why they thought the mosque should have been demolished. They (men) answered by giving a historical and political rationale. Whereas, women, she said, were more categorical in stating that the mosque should have be destroyed and there is no question about it the other way round. Their propensity to violence, she remarked, is much more evident than in men.
Structuring of masculinity through women in populist politics
The final speaker, Dr Bedi focused her presentation on ‘Shiv Sena women’. She pointed out that right wing politics rely on certain kinds of words and speech acts, and there is a connection between militant speech acts and body. Thus, she remarked, the body is very central to these kinds of politics.
She shared an interesting story thus: “Two taxi drivers were in a fight causing a traffic jam. A [Indian National] Congress worker saw and tried to talk to them, but they did not budge. Then came a Rashtrawadi worker; he also tried to talk to them but failed. Then there came a Shiv Sena lady. All she did was to hit both the drivers on their ears and they immediately moved out of the way, and the traffic jam was solved”.
So, in Shiv Sena, there is no talking, just doing. This is referred to as ‘dashing’.
The use of particular kinds of words to describe the action participated in by the militant women, and the use of the present body to amplify its power is referred to as the politics of presence. The politics of presence, she pointed out, has become crucial in ring wing politics, especially in electoral politics.
She also talked about ‘body politics’ which basically means that the body is reduced to its real presence and then magnified into symbolic display. This plays an important role for women in populist politics because the female political body is actually very proximate to constituents and along with public anger, which is an important form of antagonistic energy, creates a political ethos.
To understand the role of women in right wing politics, it is time to move from privileged questions of individual rights, autonomy, agency and self-determination, which the liberal political imagination has limited itself to, and has as a result proceeded to suppress the relation of politics.
The populist politics has always rested on masculinity, but now women have emerged and the same is structured through them as they are being called as the political subjects. These Shiv Sena women are basically co-adopting language, and their embodiment of militancy helps them to become political subjects and then leaders.
Lastly, she said, to understand the role of women in right wing politics, it is time to move from privileged questions of individual rights, autonomy, agency and self-determination, which the liberal political imagination has limited itself to, and has as a result proceeded to suppress the relation of politics.