Show Hide image

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.

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”.

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.

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. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump

Show Hide image

A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war