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7 December 2018updated 26 Jul 2021 3:23pm

The far-right talk about women and girls the same way they talk about land and territory

Tommy Robinson’s The Rape of Britain has a name that manages to collapse sexual violence and national decline into a single, toxic symbol. 

By Eleanor Penny

This Sunday, fraud and hate-huckster extraordinaire Tommy Robinson will head up a march of far-rightists, fascists and sympathisers assembling under the banner of “Brexit Betrayal”.

Ever keen to weasel his way into the political mainstream, Robinson has pounced on the opportunity to anoint himself the champion of the 52 per cent. Talk of “Treachery against the people’s will” feeds a foundational far-right myth that the people and the nation have been “sold out” and “betrayed” by the liberal elites in cahoots with migrants and rampaging reds tearing the country apart. It’s a transparent attempt to channel popular outrage about Theresa May’s sham-tastic non-deal and the xenophobia of the official Leave campaign into a far-right recruitment drive.

This should surprise no one. From sulking about free speech when he isn’t allowed on telly to a brief stint as the Quilliam Foundation’s poster boy for anti-extremism, Tommy Robinson has long been trying to launder his racism for mainstream audiences by couching it in liberal values. If you whitewash a swastika flag thoroughly enough, I guess it looks like a peace flag.

Right now, his favourite talking points include not only Brexit betrayal, but also the myth that Muslim men pose a unique threat to white women’s safety. After coming close to single-handedly botching the trial of abusers in Rotherham, he was recently appointed UKIP’s “grooming gangs advisor” by leader Gerard Batten.

The language of a fallen “betrayed” nation echoes the apocalyptic terms in which the far-right describes the mortal state of modern white womanhood. Both were once innocent and untainted. Now, they are in crisis, menaced by the double threat of “barbarian” migrants and Muslims, and the decadent state unable or unwilling to hold them in check. A process of liberalisation has meant the rightful stewards have lost control. As Dalia Gebrial pointed out, while tracing the lineage of the sexual politics of Brexit, “In 2006, Nick Griffin – then leader of the fascist BNP – made a speech claiming: ‘These 18, 19 and 25-year old Asian Muslims are seducing and raping white girls in this town right now. It’s part of their plan for conquering countries’.”

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Indeed, Robinson’s recently-announced “documentary” about supposedly endemic levels of sexual violence committed by Muslim men is titled The Rape of Britain – a name which collapses sexual violence and national decline into a single, toxic symbol. Of course, it’s well documented that sexual violence and child abuse happens at endemic levels in all ethnic and national groups, and that scaremongering does nothing to help vulnerable young people; the real problem, as ever, is patriarchy.

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But of course, Robinson is untroubled by a little thing like facts: his real goal is to shamelessly stoke fears of marauding troops of Muslim others out to destroy your country, and violate the winsome, defenceless femininity of your white women. It’s a message calculated to transform a brutal platform of mass entho-nationalist violence into a benevolent, even heroic act of caring. It allows anyone with far-right sympathies – from the rent-a-thugs of the EDL to the Rees-Mogg-alikes in Ede and Ravenscroft suits – to pose as champions of downtrodden rather than, well, downtreaders themselves.

Of course, Tommy Robinson is not really concerned with preventing sexual violence. He remained silent during Operation Yew Tree, and when the #MeToo movement swept the globe. He has conveniently forgotten that the former Liberal MP for Rochdale Cyril Smith was embroiled in a paedophile ring – a crime covered up by the authorities, amid fears about who else in positions of authority he might name and shame from the witness stand.

Robinson is also a former member of the BNP, whose official Nick Eriksen called “husband-rape” a myth, akin to being “force-fed chocolate cake”. That he has been appointed to root out “grooming gangs” is telling: it’s a racialised term specifically used to describe organised abuse perpetrated by in ethnic minorities. For white abusers, the newspapers tend to use the essentially synonymous term “paedophile ring”.

The focus on grooming gangs shows that Robinson is concerned only with the kind of abuse he can use to prop up his propaganda, to shore up the idea of a nation in decline, whose worst atrocities are etched on the bodies of women and girls. Those who claim the mantle of “defender of women” tend to talk about women and girls in the same way they talk about land and territory.

This is not new, and it’s not a coincidence. This faux-concern rooted in a toxic mix of misogyny and ethno-nationalism gives us a peek into the warped far-right world picture which considers women and girls to be exactly that: land, territory, property to be defended by force.

In other words, sexual violence against women and girls is not considered bad because it’s a horrifying violent act, a system of global domination. It’s bad only because it’s an infringement of white men’s property rights. This is why it’s not strictly speaking hypocritical when Donald Trump infamously decries “Mexican rapists” while being accused of rape himself. The problem is not that women are being assaulted. The problem is that women are being assaulted – and, hey, that’s our thing.

This is just the latest iteration of a long-standing fascist fascination with controlling women’s bodies. From Italy to Spain to Germany, dictatorships instituted wide-ringing social and physical exercise programmes intended to prime young girl’s bodies for motherhood, to produce the next round of foot soldiers, all while sterilising women they deemed “undesirable” and murdering many more. Fascism has a long history of forcibly bending white women into the shape of ethnically pure wife and mother, and discarding all the rest.

We would do well to remember that this, too, was sold as care – a way of venerating women for their role as wives and mothers. That Nazi propaganda was awash with images of the lascivious Jewish man with a particular taste for Aryan flesh. Birth of a Nation, a film credited with re-igniting the KKK, featured a white man in blackface who pursues a delicate white heroine until she throws herself off a cliff – choosing death over the prospect of being sullied by rape.

In today’s Britain, millionaire far rightists attempt to persuade people that their enemies arrive across the channel in boats, to distract from the truth that they arrive in a limousine; in persuading working-class white men that they have more in common with their bosses than their non-white neighbours. In this effort, a common enemy – the migrant, the Muslim, the gang member – is useful, but so is a common interest. By transforming women’s bodies into territory, they transform white men into a sham facsimile of an economic class; bound together by their mutual investment in the hot property of women’s bodies.

All of this should offer a clue as to the paucity of their investment in actual policies which might protect women. The far right certainly has its supporters and champions among white or more privileged women; it even delivers a few to prominent positions of leadership. But it has no solutions to the problems which actually trap women – all women – into cycles of violence and abuse: poverty, lack of legal representation, unjust policing, lack of support services, and of course rape culture. That would require its powerful champions to deliver things like expanded civil liberties, checks on state and police power, and economic justice – all of which are intolerable to the mega-rich bankrolling the operation.

Indeed, this fatal coalition of the racist and the rich should give us a clue as to how little they care about “taking back control” in any meaningful sense. Organised under the auspices of democracy, the target of the pro-Brexit march is not a call for deeper democracy – to transform the ancient, creaking institutions of the post-aristocracy, the flamboyantly anti-democratic impulses of the British state. Rather, it aims to ensure that a hard Brexit goes through – leaving space for a triumphant far right to flourish, and for unfettered disaster-capitalists to clean up in the post-Brexit chaos. The rights of the body and the body politic are just symbols, tools the far right uses to spread its rot further, to tighten its grip on the political mainstream.

Robinson and his marchers do not want to liberate the nation. They do not want to liberate the women in it. They simply want to deliver both back into the iron embrace of a select few autocrats – and leave us to our fate.