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13 May 2016

The New Chauvinists try to defend women – but who will defend us from them?

Groups such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have taken up the old banner of chaperoning white womanhood. But nothing about them makes me feel safe.

By Laurie Penny

It’s a miracle. All over the world, conservatives and curtain-twitching bigots have taken up the cause of fighting violence against women. From Donald Trump, vowing to protect white Americans from “rapist” Mexican migrants, to European far-right groups that are mustering against the supposed Muslim threat to “their” wives and daughters, conservatives are rebranding themselves as the defenders of women and girls. But who will defend us from them?

The idea that Western men must shelter “their” women from a terrifying mass of foreign masculinity has been around for a very long time. It was used to justify the murder of black men in the US from the slave era onwards, even as black women were abused in their millions by white landowners. It is used to excuse state surveillance and militarised policing around the world, and by the new right to rationalise its bigotry. Following the mass sexual assault of women at the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, groups such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – a neo-fascist group currently polling at around 15 per cent in Germany – have taken up the old banner of chaperoning white womanhood.

The phrase that I have been using to describe this line of argument is “the New Chauvinism”. Chauvinism is commonly understood in the context of male chauvinism, which most people think is all about holding open doors and getting shouted at by feminists. But it is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “exaggerated or aggressive patriotism”, with the secondary definition of “excessive or prejudiced support for one’s own cause, group, or sex”.

The New Chauvinism is about both of those things. It uses crude, nationalist sentiment to cast white men in the roles of heroes, protecting “their” women from hordes of, variously, migrants, Muslims and transsexual people.

On behalf of white women everywhere, allow me to say how much safer I don’t feel. It would be easier to believe in the AfD as a defender of women, for example, if it were not also campaigning to ban abortion and gay marriage, undermine the right to div­orce, close kindergartens and strip single mothers of state funding – all in the name of protecting the “traditional family”.

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Fundamentalist throwbacks of every sort have remarkably similar ideas about how to protect women, so it is no surprise that the AfD echoes the philosophy of many hard-line Islamist groups on the role of women in society. If anyone wants to turn western Europe into a patriarchal religious police state, it is the far right and not migrants fleeing violence – but irony, to these people, is probably a small town in the Middle East that should be flattened with cluster bombs to protect Christian women everywhere.

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You might think that it is nice of them to care. However, I don’t see these self-appointed defenders of women volunteering at domestic violence shelters or donating to rape crisis hotlines. Instead, they hold racist demonstrations in multicultural communities and harass women on the internet, which is a curious way to demonstrate your commitment to public safety.

Across the Atlantic, the American Family Association – a Christian fundamentalist organisation recognised as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre – has admitted to sending men into women’s bathrooms in branches of the retail chain Target to “test” its policy of allowing transsexuals to use the lavatory of their chosen gender. Unable to prove that this policy will allow “men in dresses” to abuse “their” daughters, the association became the creeping queer threat to American womanhood that it wished to see in the world.

These New Chauvinists, who are mostly men, want to protect women from violence – as long as they are the right sort of women. Trans women, queer women, immigrant women and women of colour are nowhere in the sticky mass of stereotypes and dog-whistle racism that passes for their analysis. The Christian groups who claim to want to protect “their daughters” from trans women in the ladies’ loos seem unbothered by how some of their daughters may well be trans – and trans women face violence in huge numbers.

This sort of chauvinism has always been racist and classist, because it is all about men deciding who gets to be treated like a lady – protected, treasured and infantilised – and who gets treated like chattel. As for ungrateful social justice warriors like me, we deserve to be oiled up and thrown to the Taliban: I’m told as much every day by white men who claim to abhor Islamic-coded violence against women but seem to have an erotic fascination with its details.

The New Chauvinism functions on two levels: it stokes up the fear of outsiders by casting foreign, black or queer masculinity as the real threat and it undermines feminist activism by claiming that women just don’t know what’s good for us. Here we are, iron-knickered harpies, making a fuss about equal pay and domestic violence and rape culture, when if we would only shut up and listen to men like we’re supposed to, we would know that the real threat comes from outside.

The New Chauvinists must not be allowed to co-opt feminist rhetoric. These people are not defenders of women. They are the ones who seek to put women in their place, substituting genuine respect for female autonomy with patronising “protection”, which is conditional on our good behaviour and only available if we are white.

Misogyny is not the preserve of any one group. It is a structural, cultural problem that exists in every nation on earth. The vast majority of Western feminists are not fooled by those who seek to undercut our cause to rationalise their racism: but who cares what we think? We’re only women, after all. 

This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump