The Populist Right in Western Europe - Part 1: Women’s Bodies and National Belonging

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This series will explore the use and manipulation of gender equality by right-wing populist parties in Western Europe for the purpose of furthering restrictive immigration policies and controlling national identities. The series will illustrate the inherent contradictions between a party’s declared commitment to gender equality and the policies that often reduce women’s autonomy and reinforce gender roles through three issue areas: (1) regulation of Muslim women’s dress; (2) reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights; and (3) the discourse of protecting women. This online series is an adaption of Liza Kane-Hartnett’s Master’s thesis, completed at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs in May 2017. 

Right-wing populist parties in Western Europe are using gender equality as a marker of a group’s modernity and a tool in their fight to preserve a Judeo-Christian European identity. In campaigns driven by anti-immigrant, anti-European Union (EU), and anti-elitist sentiment, the bodies of women have become a key battleground of national identity.

As right-wing parties stoke fears of immigration and Islamization, they have identified Muslim women’s dress as a boundary of belonging. This obsession with Muslim women’s appearance is perhaps the most popular and powerful example of the practical manifestation of the gender equality paradox, wherein gender equality rhetoric is used to justify policies that reduce women’s agency and autonomy. The Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ), Front National (FN) in France, Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD), and Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) in the Netherlands differ substantially in their platforms and rhetoric, but they hold similar stances on Muslim women’s dress. Each of their countries has enacted some level of restrictions on what women can wear (BBC, 2017). The political and public obsession with Muslim women’s dress began with the affaire des foulards, headscarves affair, in France in 1989 when three Muslim schoolgirls of North African origin were suspended from their public school for wearing the hijab under the argument that it contradicted the French principle of laïcité, secularism. Since then, particularly after the securitization of immigration discourse,  and, more recently, the migrant crisis, Muslim women’s dress – perceived as a symbol of extremism – has attracted political discussion not only in France but throughout Western Europe. Arguments to publicly ban clothing items such as the hijab, niqab, and burqa are based on overlapping – and equally contradictory – claims of victimization, religious neutrality and state secularism, and, ultimately, cultural visibility.

‘Victimization of the Veil’ – Justifying Restrictions through Gender Equality

A central argument for the prohibition of Muslim women’s dress by right-wing populist parties – and mainstream parties that have appropriated their rhetoric – is that “Islamic garbs” are a visible symbol of victimization and oppression, and thus undermine the Europe-wide public value of gender equality. Many parties use this framing to promote restrictive policies, in which they argue that "de-veiling" Muslim women is akin to liberation and serves to protect Europe from falling victim to Islamic fundamentalism. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National and 2017 presidential runner-up, has affirmed that the acceptance of an ‘Islamist uniform’ for women would mean unequal rights. For her, the battle over dress is simply a battle against Islamic fundamentalism (Foreign Affairs, 2016: 8). The FPÖ believes the so-called burqa-bans do not go far enough, arguing that the burqa, niqab, chador, and even hijab are representations of women’s oppression (The Local, 2014). Similarly, the AfD views the headscarf as a “political-religious symbol of Muslim women’s submission to men” that curtails “equal rights for women and girls” (AfD, 2017: 49).  

Yet, the notion of victimhood restricts women's agency as well as denies the agency of Muslim women to negotiate their identities and dress how they please. When construed as a symbol of oppression, Muslim women's dress represents Islam’s backward, repressive culture, and in turn is in need of regulation. This rhetoric reinforces a white savior complex of the populist right, in which to “de-veil” Muslim women in the name of gender equality reverberates the narrative of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak 1998:92) as well as the ‘protection’ against the invasion of Islam. Therefore, the populist right casts aside modern notions of multiculturalism, tolerance, and, in particular, personal freedom in defense of “their” modern culture, thus weakening the legitimacy of European liberalism. Because Europe is often viewed as a bastion of modernity, leader in gender equality, and home of tolerance, "the irony of the anti-veil claims" is inescapable (Jailani, 2016).

... Le Pen’s statement encompasses the gender equality paradox, as it is her illiberal policies that roll back women’s rights by dictating a French ‘secular’ uniform that removes any markers of a religious or cultural identity.

In March 2017, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that employers have the right to ban “visible religious symbols” (read: Islamic dress) in the workplace. This was the first time the court ruled on the debate surrounding Muslim women’s dress (el-Aabady, 2017). In the aftermath of the ECJ’s ruling, Nadia Khedachi, a volunteer for the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organization in France, stated, “this ruling means that – in the country that is known for its love of freedom and feminism – there is still work to do on building an inclusive feminism that protects all women,” (el-Aabady, 2017).  These comments demonstrate the paradox that although right-wing populist parties promote restrictions on Muslim women’s dress as a method of “liberating” Muslim women from the victimization of their religion, culture, and men, it is actually the European governments – sanctioned by the EU – that victimize women by limiting their physical autonomy.

Religious Neutrality & State Secularism

Right-wing populist parties also allege that wearing “religious symbols” undermines a nation’s secular values. In reality, they exercise concern regarding the maintenance and strength of the dominant religious culture. This argument is central to the French case in particular as its anti-veil legislation heralded concepts of secularism and an absence of “conspicuous religious symbols” (The Economist, 2017). In this sense, the idea of French secularism has evolved to mean that the public sphere should be ‘neutral’, without individual displays of religious association – particularly of minority religions. In this context, the hijab, niqab, and burqa are seen both as violating French national values and undermining a key principle of the Republic.

Marine Le Pen argues that Islamic fundamentalists are attempting to overturn French secular tradition and that because French politicians have accommodated religious and cultural differences, “huge regressions in women’s rights [are] taking place today on French soil. In certain areas, women can no longer dress as they wish” (Foreign Affairs, 2016: 6-7). While appealing to fear of social transformation, Le Pen’s statement encompasses the gender equality paradox, as it is her illiberal policies that roll back women’s rights by dictating a French ‘secular’ uniform that removes any markers of a religious or cultural identity. In this sense, the perceived oppression of Islam is replaced with a narrow definition of secularism, both of which reduce individual autonomy. Assimilation of religious symbols conveys that there are “normal” and accepted symbols while others are “conspicuous” and too visible for public consumption. By using state secularism as a source of exclusion and a method of delineating the boundaries of the nation – identifying who does and does not belong – the FN undermines the intent of secularism as a national value that promotes acceptance and tolerance. Further, by appropriating Republican language, the FN, and other mainstream parties who support strict policies of assimilation, normalize these xenophobic policies.

Similarly to the French perspective of Muslim women’s dress as a threat to the principle of secularism, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the FPÖ argue that it weakens German and Austrian identities (FPÖ, 2011: 5; AfD, 2017: 46), since the presence of Islamic practices and traditions, they argue, are against  “the religious traditions of Christianity” (AfD, 2017: 46). Like many other right-wing populist parties, the AfD views multiculturalism as a direct threat to its “dominant national culture” (Leitkultur) and seeks to regulate the practice of minority religions (AfD, 2017: 49). By declaring that political Islam has no place in the country, the AfD promotes an assimilationist policy in which displays of a Muslim identity such as a woman’s decision to cover herself is a threat to the “survival of the nation-state as a cultural unit,” (AfD, 2017: 46). Similarly, the FPÖ, while never mentioning Islam by name in its party program, objects to all forms of “fanaticism and extremism”(FPÖ, 2011: 5) that threaten the dominant Christian culture, an overture directed at the perceived growing visibility of Islam in Austria (FPÖ, 2011: 5).

Reducing the Visibility of Muslim Women

While most parties attempt to limit the visibility of Islam through policies that restrict women’s dress and other religious symbols, Geert Wilders and the PVV attempted to impose a tax on the headscarf as a means of punishment for “polluting Dutch culture” (Korteweg, 2013: 760). The 2009 proposal, which could not garner enough support to pass and would, most likely, be unable to stand-up in court,  sought to embarrass those who chose to wear the hijab or other garment by erecting a strict boundary of exclusion that demonstrated not only that Muslim women’s dress was contrary to Dutch culture, but also that the presence actually pollutes public space. During the parliamentary debate,  Wilders stated, “Let’s ensure that the Netherlands will look like the Netherlands again. Those headscarves are really a sign of oppression of the woman, a sign of submission, a sign of conquest” (Korteweg, 2013: 764). This notion of the hijab and other garments ‘polluting’ Dutch culture reinforces the concept of Islam as a direct threat to the Dutch, and broader European, modern society. Addressing this perceived existential threat requires a re-nationalization of culture and politics, with women’s appearance as a symbolic step towards ‘taking their country back’.

The FPÖ, FN, AfD, and PVV (...) seek to regulate women’s dress as a method to remove the visibility of the “Other.”

Though gender equality and pursuit of secularism are used to justify policies that restrict women’s freedom of appearance – as seen in the rhetoric of Geert Wilders – the policies ultimately come down to the supremacy of national identity and the visibility of Islam. The FPÖ, FN, AfD, and PVV all view Islam as a threat to their culture and national identity, and, thus, seek to regulate women’s dress as a method to remove the visibility of the “Other.” These parties understand the wearing of the hijab, niqab, burqa, and other garments as a denial of their national cultures and a sign of the inherent difference of Muslims. Parties such as the AfD delineate between acceptable Muslims that are “well-integrated citizens among us” (AfD, 2017: 48), and those who choose to live outside of German culture in parallel societies, with “Islamic dress” serving both as an impediment to “cultural integration and social coexistence,” as well as an acknowledgement of their outsider status (AfD, 2017: 48). The contradiction in promoting the concept of gender equality and individual freedom while prohibiting women to control their bodies is obvious, yet the value-driven rhetoric is generally well received by the public and provides cover for overtly nativist policies.

Liza Kane-Hartnett is the Director of Communications for the O.L. Pathy Family Foundation and the Editor-in-Chief for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy New York. She holds a M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University and background in international politics, governance, and women’s rights.


Alternative für Deutschland. (2017). Manifesto for Germany: the Political Programme if the Alternative for Germany. Alternative für Deutschland.

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Daly, Eoin. (2013). Political Liberalism and French National Identity in the Wake of the Face-Veiling Law. International Journal of Law in Context (9.3), 366-385.

el-Aabedy, Nihad. (2017). Employers allowed to ban the hijab: EU court.  Al Jazeera.

el-Aabedy, Nihad. (2017). How does the EU hijab ruling affect Muslim women? Al Jazeera.

Foreign Affairs. (2016). France’s Next Revolution? Foreign Affairs (95.6), 2-8.

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Jailani, Y. The Struggle of the Veiled Woman: 'White Savior Complex' and Rising Islamophobia Create a Two-Fold Plight. Harvard International Review (37.2), 1-11.

Korteweg, A. (2013). The ‘headrag tax’: impossible laws and their symbolic and material consequences. Social Identities (19, 6), 759-774.

The Economist. (2014). Why the French are so strict about Islamic head coverings.

The Local. (2014). Burqa ban isn't enough says Strache.

Marissa Conway