Today
Wed 22 September 2021

Women’s rights are under attack around the world because of a belief in a fascistic natural order that naturalises male supremacy, reports Sian Norris

The day Fawzia Koofi was born, her parents left her to die – abandoning her on a rock in the hot Afghan sun. 

But Koofi was a survivor. She made it through that first day, and the next, and the next. Growing up, she witnessed her father beating her mother before he was killed by the Mujahadeen. Koofi was the first daughter in her family to go to school, before the Taliban took over her country in the 1990s. 

She survived the years of violence and oppression, although her husband and two of her brothers did not. In 2005, Koofi became one of the first women members of Parliament in the new Afghan regime. She was the first woman to be elected deputy speaker and the first Afghan woman to represent the country at the United Nations. She hoped to be the first woman president of her country. 

Since the US announced that it would withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban has retaken city after city, from Lashkar Gah to Herat and Kandahar. Finally, on the morning of 15 August, its fighters entered the capital, Kabul, from all sides. As the Taliban marched in, American helicopters took diplomats out. The echoes of ‘Saigon, 1975’ were unmistakable. 

Within hours of the Taliban arriving in Kabul, men took out buckets of white-wash and started to paint over photos of women that had decorated beauty parlours. It was a simple act which held a terrifying message: women are to be erased from the country. 

“They can’t tolerate a few images of women on the billboards,” UN youth representative Shkula Zadran told Byline TV. “So just imagine, will they tolerate me? As an outspoken woman? As a political opponent? No, they will not. And that’s why I’m afraid for my life. That’s why I’m sure I am not going to survive here in Afghanistan.”

She’s not alone. The nation’s first female mayor, Zarifa Gharafi, told the world’s media that she is “waiting for the Taliban to kill me”. When asked by journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy what she would do if there was a knock on the door, Kandahar-based women’s rights activist Pashtana Durrani said simply: “Pray.”

“This is the worst moment of my life,” Zadran said, before breaking down in tears. “I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to lose my roots. I don’t want to lose Afghanistan.”

These fears are not unfounded. The rights and lives of women such as Koofi, Gharafi and Zadran are in immediate danger. There have been reports of executions and of women and girls across the nation being forced into marriage to Taliban fighters – a euphemism for rape and enslavement. 

Speaking to the BBC, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that “women can have access to school and to work and they will observe the hijab” – but women are in danger when their safety and rights are dependent on men’s permission. A promise that “women will be safe if” is not a promise of safety at all.

Twenty years ago, the invasion of Afghanistan was justified with a promise to liberate the nation’s women. Now, it is the epicentre of a global war on women that stretches from Kandahar to Plymouth, from Mississippi to Mumbai. 

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The Incels and the Taliban

“Women shouldn’t have rights anyway,” wrote a member of the ‘incel’ community – an extremist misogynistic group of mostly white men who believe that they have been sexually rejected by women in favour of jock-type men who they call “chads”. Incel is shorthand for “involuntary celibates”. 

“Women have to suffer and if they don’t wanna suffer we make them suffer,” wrote another. 

It is possible to draw a line between the armed Taliban militias overthrowing the Afghan Government and the ideology expressed by incels, and men who sympathise with them – including Jake Davison, who killed his mother and four others, including a three-year-old girl and himself, in Plymouth last week.

Both share a fascist ideology that women are innately inferior to men and therefore do not deserve rights; that men should have patriarchal authority over women; and that men should have sexual access to women in order to exploit women’s potential reproductive labour. 

While incels fantasise about living “in a world [where] every man is guaranteed a wife”, the Taliban rounds up women and girls aged 15 to 40 to force them into ‘marriage’ with fighters. Both groups believe that women having rights – from education to democratic participation – is causing a decline in society that can only be reversed by removing women from the public sphere and forcing them back into the domestic realm. 

For the Taliban, that decline is the belief that women having access to public space is sinful and anti-Islam. This is behind everything from the painting-over of the beauty parlours to the denial of education and enforced male guardianship. With incels and far-right misogynists, it is a conviction that women’s rights are causing Western society to ‘degenerate’ and that women’s presence in public space is corrupting male power. 

These beliefs link back to two tenets of the far-right’s ideology about women: the fascist mythic past, and the fascistic notion of a ‘natural order’. Both aspects of the ideology apply to the white male supremacy of incels and men’s rights activists; as well as the extremist, militant Islamism expressed by the Taliban which is, in itself, fascist

The mythic past is an idealised historical moment that fascists want to recreate in the modern era because it represents a return to the type of society they value – one where women and ethnic minority people are inferior, in which there are no human rights, and where the nation is ‘great again’. Invariably, it is a return to the pre-Enlightenment age – replacing revolution, history and class with nature, nation and war. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Joseph Goebbels declared that “1789 is hereby eradicated from history” – referring to the French Revolution and its commitment to equality, liberty and fraternity. 

Whatever historic moment is evoked, writer Jason Stanley explains in his book, How Fascism Works, the fascist mythic past “invariably involves traditional, patriarchal gender roles”. 

For extremist misogynistic movements from incels to the Taliban, the desired regression is to an age when women were male property – resources to exploit for sex and reproduction.

“In an earlier timeline,” wrote one incel, “we would likely have wives and children… women used to know their place in the world. They carried out their gender-specific duties.”

The mythic past seeks to restore the so-called ‘natural order’ – the second key aspect of fascist ideology. This order naturalises male supremacy and women’s inferiority, and pins women’s role to reproduction. Fascists, incels and the Taliban – as well as your garden-variety misogynists – all share a belief that women are naturally inferior to men and that men are innately superior to women. They believe that this is the natural order and, crucially, because it is natural, it cannot be changed – not by feminism, not by affirmative action, and not by society. 

Fascists believe that unequal, supremacist hierarchies are fixed in nature. Enforcing the fascistic natural order, then, ends any chance of women’s liberation and a more equal society. 


The War in Mississippi 

The belief that women are naturally inferior and that society must return to the fascistic natural order underpins another aspect of the current war on women: the removal of abortion rights. 

In September, the US Supreme Court will hear a case from Mississippi that threatens the legal status of abortion across the country. It could lead to the overturning of the Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion nationwide and instead allow states to decide their own individual abortion laws. It is estimated that, if this happens, half of US states will ban abortion. 

Abortion bans are rooted in the same male supremacist entitlement to women’s bodies that is expressed by the incels and the Taliban, as well as domestic abusers and rapists everywhere in the world. It is a belief that women should not have ownership over their own bodies, and that women’s bodies should be subject to the external control of a patriarchal authority figure. 

Male supremacy, female inferiority, and the pinning of women to reproductive labour, according to fascist ideology, is the natural order. But abortion rights and feminism disrupts all of this. First, because abortion uncouples women from reproductive labour and gives women ownership over their bodies – destroying the fascistic natural order. Second, because feminism claims that women are not innately inferior to men. It smashes to pieces the belief that gendered hierarchies are natural. Instead, feminism recognises that, far from being natural, these hierarchies are man-made structures and the stereotypes designed to normalise male supremacy can therefore be changed if we want them to.

Feminism therefore poses an existential threat to the fascist natural order – and to fascist movements and communities such as the Taliban and incels, as well as to male supremacy more widely. To protect the natural order, women’s rights must therefore be abolished, women removed from public space, and women’s bodies taken back into male ownership where they can be pinned to reproductive and sexual servitude. 

It is hard to comprehend the dangers facing women and girls in Afghanistan right now. But, while the violent oppression of women enacted by the Taliban is extreme, it is part of a continuum of male violence, sexual and reproductive exploitation against women around the world.

Whether it is the incel loudly typing that women shouldn’t have rights, the rapist who believes that he is entitled to women’s bodies, the theocratic state enslaving women in forced marriages, or the Republicans demanding that women be reproductive vessels, male supremacists who want to roll-back women’s rights all share the same beliefs. 

They all believe in the fascistic natural order that naturalises male supremacy and female inferiority as innate and immutable. They all want to return to a mythic past that involves traditional, patriarchal roles. And they all want to end feminism and reverse feminism’s gains, which they see as an existential threat to male supremacy. 

From Kabul to Plymouth, Mississippi to Mumbai, this is the reality of the global war on women. 

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