In the Name of Women's Rights

The Rise of Femonationalism

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Sara R. Farris
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism by Sara R. Farris is a complex and insightful analysis of the improbable alliance of right-wing nationalists, feminists, and neoliberals around demands for women’s rights. It seems a contradiction that the nonliberatory voices of Islamophobia and racism are coupled with emancipatory movements against sexism and patriarchy; yet, it is happening in many countries today. Farris’s analysis of “the deployment of gender equality within xenophobic campaigns” in the Netherlands, France, and Italy can be generalized to other countries with similar movements.

This book explores what Farris terms “femonationalism,” a combination of “feminist and femocratic nationalism,” drawing on postcolonial feminism, critical race studies, and, less often, queer theory—all situated within political and economic contexts. She develops the concept and implications of femonationalism and argues against the prevalent idea that the “exploitation of the issue of women’s rights” by right-wing parties is a form of populism (37). Femonationalism is at the intersection of nationalism, feminism, and neoliberalism, and “refers both to the exploitation of feminist themes by nationalists and neoliberals in anti-Islam [and] anti-immigration campaigns and to the participation of certain feminists and femocrats in the stigmatization of Muslim men under the banner of gender equality” (4).

Femonationalism emerges out of, and further fosters, three dimensions: the convergence of nationalist, neoliberal, and feminist or LGBT politics; ideological formation; and a neoliberal political economy. One of the primary ways, according to Farris, that femonationalists advance right-wing anti-Islam and anti-immigrant agendas in the name of women’s rights is to point to the treatment of (the victim) Muslim women by (the oppressor) Muslim males to instill fear in Western European societies, and blame the problematic male Other. In addition, “female Others are portrayed as sexual victims and the property of western ‘saviors’” (11). Farris does not discuss whether or not such women actually are subject to oppression within their society as her focus is on the portrayal of Muslim women as the quintessential victims of non-Western patriarchy, and “the ways in which such representations and conceptualizations are informed by (and in turn inform) deeply rooted racist stereotypes as well as economic interests and practices, which affect other non-western (migrant) women as well” (5).

Farris connects this trend of nationalist groups that advance anti-Islam agendas in the name of women’s rights to political and economic policies, and she explains why Muslim women are presented with offers of rescue from their patriarchal cultures. Rising Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiments would seem to preclude these offers to help some Muslims—but instead, right-wing nationalist parties repeat rescue narratives and “propose concrete rescuing policies” via neoliberal programs for immigrants and would-be citizens (78).

Citizenship programs in the Netherlands, France, Italy, and some other countries require adherence to certain values, including women’s rights, which serves to effectively exclude males from non-Western immigrant groups while using the females to support the existing society with cheap domestic and caregiving work. In fact, Farris asserts, “civic integration policies are arguably the most concrete and insidious form of the institutionalization of femonationalism” (82). They foster the “emancipation” of female Muslim and non-Western migrant women through employment and volunteerism. Paradoxically, feminists are collaborators in channeling Other women into this low pay and low-status caregiving and domestic work despite the fact that the feminist movement historically fought for liberation from such “non-productive” work.

Farris points out that hiding these structural inequalities behind cultural conflicts is quite costly. Not only does the co-opting of themes around women’s rights generate and reinforce racist sentiments, it also diverts attention and energy from the inequality and other gender injustices—beyond oppression of Muslim women by Muslim men—that are still present in Western European societies.

This book, although excellent, could be improved with a section providing support for the premises that underlie Farris’s arguments. For example, is it true that there is a sudden endorsement of emancipatory themes by conservative groups that had previously denied these? Also, is it always the case that nationalism and conservative politics are xenophobic and usually tend toward masochism—with the exception of the appropriation of women’s rights, as she discusses? Her use of the term and portrayal of “right-wing nationalists” is problematic in that she does not acknowledge degrees of conservatism within these political groups. In addition, it is curious that Farris introduces LGBT rights parenthetically, or as an aside in many cases. Fleshing out or removing the occasional addition of LGBT rights would strengthen the book as a whole. Although she draws slightly on queer theory in developing femonationalism, she does not connect LGBT rights to her other arguments or similarly sketch the implications of co-opting LGBTQ themes. This topic, of course, could fill many books, but why she chose to include this theme occasionally when she could not adequately treat it is unclear.

In The Name of Women’s Rights is enlightening but dense—the sheer amount and complexity of Farris’s points are challenging but well worth the effort given the depth of the insights conveyed. Her extensive knowledge and integration of multiple lenses illuminate new perspectives on old themes, including the racialization of sexism and sexualization of racism. Readability is similar to that of a well-written dissertation, with extensive sourcing—almost one-fifth of this work’s content are endnotes—and repetitions of the same ideas with multiple qualifications. This book can be useful to scholars of religion, sociology, political science, and other academics interested in the intersections of racism, sexism, nationalism, and the participation of government and cultures in self-interested exclusion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Beth Yount is associate professor of theology at Neumann University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sara R. Farris is senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality: Individuation, Politics, and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion.


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