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By Maria Izabel Braga Weber, Débora Boa Morte, Carolina Branco

This article is part of the UNPOP series – Unpacking Populism, published on a monthly basis and edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes.

“I believe we are the only party in Germany who is really fighting for women’s rights …” (Alice Weidel,
“…in favor of the natural family and against the gay lobby” (Giorgia Meloni, Italy)
“Infections occur especially in the southern districts, …, due to the way of life that our immigration has
and the density of those districts.” (Isabel Diaz Ayuso, Spain)
Feminists and progressives have a habit of ignoring Islamism’s female victims, preferring to focus on
phantom reports of Islamophobia in the West” (Safai, Belgium)

Elaboration by the aturhos based on: Isabel Diaz Ayuso: (Un Madrid Libre y una España unida. ¡Gracias Fuenlabrada!); Alice Weidel: (Die 5 schlimmsten Asyl-Bestimmungen! – Alice Weidel – AfD); Marie Le Pen: (La lutte contre l’hydre islamiste, en Israël ou en France, est un enjeu majeur !); Giorgia Meloni: (Extraordinary speech by Giorgia Meloni on UN Global Compact in Italian parliament, English subtitles).

The year 2023 is significant for female political representation, as it is the first time in history that women parliamentarians have been elected in every country where elections were held. Undoubted progress since studies and research demonstrate that female representation in politics seems to strengthen democratic values and be more effective and beneficial to all. Strong evidence exists of the association between female political empowerment and improvement in general health conditions. Regardless of the numerical presence in parliamentother structural obstacles (social, political, and economic) still undermine women’s influence in decision-making positions, such as the feminization of poverty and unemployment, the ‘dual burden’, and masculinist stereotypes, among other structural and violent barriers accrued exactly from power asymmetries.

However, women’s political participation rhetoric overshadows the reduction of gender inequalities (labor, education, health, economic, and political). As stated in the Manifesto of the AfD, pro-women narratives are contradicted by ambiguous policies: “…we reject a gender equality policy with regard to equality of results”.

A decade back, Petö already raised this awareness by highlighting the underestimated attention to the rise of populist female leaders of far-right parties since a myriad of aspects stand tangled in it. At first, the colonial legacy of far-right-wing ideology is based on the exclusionary essence of the capitalist system that is always both raced and gendered. Secondly, the symbolic presence of female leaders drives a distorted populist far-right feminist discourse that evokes a production of subjectivities to justify segregation. Finally, the emotional roots of far-right ideology pervade its feminist appeal and affect identity and solidarity bonds.

The paradox of women voting against women’s interests contradicts previous studies. In general, especially in advanced democracies, women votepromote, and approve more progressive and inclusive policies. Young women tend to position themselves more to the left (associated with increased budgetary expenditures) than young men on social, environmental, and gender issues, contrary to the previous generation. Similarly, women tend to vote more to the left when they have daughters (sons lead to vote for the right) and are more likely to transfer this tendency to their offspring. Secondly, there is a gendergenerational, and racialized pattern of supporters for far-right parties (mainly associated with white men or low-educated people) and the role of partisan ideology in promoting more inclusive policies.

Although still more women than men are voting to the left, this frame is changing, and recent studies have elaborated on the successful far-right parties’ strategies to conquer women’s votes. The vote for the radical right populist parties (RRP) in Europe (i.e., in the last elections of SpainGermany, and Greece) reflects it.

But contrary to what Motov sustains, populism is not necessarily always gendered and dangerous. The problem is the RRP paradox of claiming to be a solution to an issue they worsen. Some RRP leaders perform narratives that pose a threat to democracy under an ultraconservative (sometimes associated with religious fundamentalism), authoritarian nationalism, and exclusionary neoliberalism.

Misuse of the term populism has negative consequences and considering populism as a weak ideology underestimates the effort necessary to its limitation. Reducing populism to a political strategy regardless of its ideological content leads to the disvalue of the (un)democratic potential of different parties. Regarding the exclusionary outcomes promoted, they may be distinguished by how they make people feel “what” and “where” are the political threats. In general, populist parties combine vertical (anti-elitism) and horizontal differentiation (us-them). On the one hand, RRP personalizes the horizontal threat with othering processes of migrants, LGBTQI+ people, or other minorities seen as not belonging (good citizens-marginals). On the other hand, for left populists, the threat is not personalized but generalized under a social and economic problem (globalists, transnational corporations, ultrawealthy that didn’t pay taxes, imperialism).

How can the emergence of women leaders worsening women’s condition be explained in this scenario? The triad identity-subjectivity-solidarity provides an answer. Previous UNPOP articles partially analyzed this triad. Montecchio and Griffini unpacked the femonationalism of Marie Le Pen, and Indelicato showed how femonationalism menaces gender-based solidarity.

Anti-feminist and anti-immigrant banners are typical examples of this femonationalism and the anti-feminist agenda. Based on chauvinistic myths as the core of the affective-discursive practice, femonationalist leaders synthesize distorted concepts of women’s freedom and rights under false equivalence joined with othering processes. The prohibition of headscarves for Muslim women is narrated against men’s oppression, concealing the Islamophobic reason. Muslim men are narrated as violent and a threat to women in general.

These examples show the relevance of identity and belonging to outline the extent to which a policy for women is feminist and emancipatory. Subjectivity is instrumental in the identity formation of oppressed people. Feelings, language, symbols, signs, and discourse are intermingled in this subject-formation process. Collective emotions of shame conduced once to the emergence of fascism and national socialism, and it has been considered the essence of this century.

Thus, interdisciplinary approaches to populism must consider the social theory of identity and emotions. This helps to explain how political identities are created and operate at an individual and social level, how psychological attachment to a political group is created and sustained, and how political identities are politicized by actors capable of developing an emotional political narrative. Through the symbolic synthesis of political myths that motivate positive or negative – but constantly mobilizing – emotions, these actors promote a sense of belonging. They shape the distinction between groups and the identification process of the individuals themselves and about the others. Performativity is also fundamental in the populist narrative as it mobilizes emotions. Protection is an example, as it mobilizes maternity, security, and women’s empowerment concerns.

Femonationalist arguments can be effective during unresolved and prolonged economic crises within Neoliberalism. A low unemployment rate, precarious work, and social insecurity may constitute a threat to vulnerable groups (women, migrants) more exposed to precarious work conditions, amplifying suffering (anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty). Historical marginalization coupled with a crisis can facilitate women’s disenchantment and discontent with traditional politics.

Populist narratives based on groups of emotions of fear and anger (such as frustration, shame, resentment, and guilt) influence the process between identity and political choices – frustration about not having a better job is added to the shame of not being able to sustain one own family. Defense mechanisms, such as denying or projecting, reflect on their political choice, generated by anger and resentment toward those deemed responsible (politicians, immigrants).

Female populist leaders representing successfully empowered women have become providential to the RRP previously described as Männerparteien. A female leader defending restriction of welfare (to migrants) and redistributive policies under an instrumental fight for women’s rights becomes appellative for marginalized and resented women, as shown by recent filmography. However, these policies propose ethnocentric, patriarchal, and exclusionary policies that are prejudicial for all, as observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caiani and Rosa analyzed the rhetoric of the foremost European female leaders. Nevertheless, electing women and their femonationalist discourse, disregarding their ideological affiliation, needs to be unpacked. We must go beyond the aim of reducing the gender gap in political representation. Alongside Le Pen (France), Weidel (Germany), and Meloni (Italy), all leaders under this rhetoric, such as Safai (Belgium) or Ayuso (Spain), have to be included. Manipulating shame can be a misogynous politics since silencing women under exclusionary politics and conservative values. This distorts the construction of identity and reinforces patriarchy and exclusion, limiting solidarity.

Source: Alice News