Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Of Women and Nationalism

This week: Why women are joining the alt-right, a young woman’s thoughts on joining the RSS and the gendered expectations of nationalism.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

The women of the alt-right

Angry white men may have become the poster boys of the alt-right movement but they’re not the only ones pushing for white nationalism. Plenty of white women are also part of the movement, but what draws them to a movement led by men who see women as incapable of political participation and subordinates?

In ‘Rise of the Valkyries’, Seyward Darby tries to understand the women of the alt-right by speaking to several members about their reasons for joining and how they understand their role in the alt-right’s conception of nationalism.

She starts with Lana Lotkeff, arguably the leader of the pack when it comes to alt-right women. She speaks at conferences, cajoles others into joining, promotes voices like hers through her production company Red Ice and through her own radio show.

The author likens women in the alt-right to the Valkyries from Norse mythology. Credit: The Dises, by Dorothy Hardy/Wikimedia Commons

To understand what drives these women, Darby recounts an episode of Lotkeff’s radio show in which the host and guests discuss their aversion to feminism. Lotkeff and her guests assert that feminism seems to have made women unhappier. Many of the women Darby spoke to for this story seemed to have turned towards the alt-right partly as a way to reject the instability (emotional and socio-political) that often erupts when women butt heads with patriarchal norms. They were sick of being told to be independent, judged for wanting to be mothers or having husbands. For them, the alt-right is “a refuge, where white women can embrace their femininity and their racial heritage without shame.”

Darby tries to make sense of their claim that feminism has made women unhappier, but says their implied causation is incorrect. She writes, “In 2009, the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published a seminal study which found that as women’s rights expanded, their happiness declined. They posited that “greater equality may have led more women to compare their outcomes to those of the men around them,” resulting in disappointment when they found their relative positions lacking. But Lokteff and her klatch of commentators took a reductive view: If women are miserable, feminism must be to blame.”

Lotkeff and the guests who appear on her show agree with the alt-right’s idea of gender roles, which in turn align with the ideas of “white power and fascist movements in the 20 century” according to Darby. For men and women on the alt-right, “the sexes are not equal, physically or otherwise, but they are complementary and equally important. Men are strong and rational, women yielding and emotional; men are good at navigating politics, women at nurturing family units; men make decisions, women provide counsel. The survival of the white race depends on both sexes embracing their roles.”

Some male members of the alt-right are already offended by the idea of women taking up prominent positions in the movement and lash out at Lotkeff and her guests in the comment sections of sites and on social media platforms. Darby is also skeptical of how far women like Lotkeff will soar before the alt-right’s foundational beliefs clip her wings. She cites examples from the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany to drive her point home.

Elizabeth Tyler headed the KKK’s national propagation department and was responsible for the group’s massive expansion but eventually pushed out of the group by jealous male associates. Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

Lotkeff thinks that the very ideas that seem extreme and reprehensible now will be perfectly palatable and mainstream in the next ten years. She doesn’t have any direct answers for dealing with the contradictions her gender’s involvement is starting to throw up. Darby thinks these intellectual contradictions will inevitably cause irreparable fissures in an already diffuse movement. In Darby’s words:

“For months, America has tried to understand what the movement wants. Perhaps the better question is, who gets to decide? In grappling with how to set priorities, the alt-right is bumping up against ideological contradictions, divergent opinions, and other schisms in its ardent, loosely formed ranks. Assertive women are exposing some of these fissures, which seem likely to grow as the movement vies for a modicum of political acceptance.”

One of the women who appeared on Lotkeff’s show told Darby that she was left despondent by “the collapse in national identity, the destruction of the nuclear family . . . and the very real threat of white genocide” which made her reject feminism, liberal values and diversity in favour of the alt-right.

The idea that women are the ones who maintain cultural purity is intrinsic to the idea of nationalism. While these women fear losing their ‘culture’ to an onslaught of immigrants, women who join the RSS in India feel similarly, the only difference is that they see Western culture as the transgressor.

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Women’s role in nation-building

Earlier this year, Radhika Iyengar profiled Seema Yonzon, a 26-year-old Delhi resident who was brought up in a Christian family of Congress-supporters and chose to join the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (the RSS’s women’s wing that runs parallel to its better-known male counterpart).

After attending an RSS camp for women – where they are taught self-defence, expected ideas of womanhood and nationalism (which is intrinsically linked to Hinduism for the organisation) – Yonzon finds herself looking at the world differently. Iyengar writes:

“In Seema’s mind, the opportunity to attend the Sevika Samiti camp appeared as a source of the stability, where she could perhaps achieve a larger sense of belonging. “What I see in Hindus is that they function as a unit,” she said animatedly bringing her fingers together to form a fist. “Whenever an individual needs something, whenever a Sevika needs help, these people are there. They are one unit. It is this unity that I like. I feel this is more established in Hindutva. I like their sanskriti and everything. It’s very inspiring.”

Like the alt-right or any other organisation that focuses on nationalism, the RSS teaches its women that a woman’s primary social role is to serve the nation by raising great men and keeping their family units intact. They are the cultural glue that binds together the political workings of the nation.

Since the RSS is a social organisation and not a political one, it doesn’t have to deal with the messy business of women having voting rights or exercising political power in any way. But Darby knows that the progression of such ideas gets gnarly eventually. For instance, Richard Spencer, a prominent alt-right figure thinks women are too vindictive to participate in international relations. Lokteff doesn’t think women shouldn’t vote or cannot vote, but does think that politics is more suited to men not women. She also thinks that in the future voting may change to represent a household’s interests rather than an individuals – in such a scenario, women would be expected to defer to their husbands’ political wills. If this feels like a blast from the past, it might help to know that Lotkeff’s company’s motto is “The past is the future”.

The way we understand women’s role in the work of nation-building obviously impacts the policies we come up with and even the way we portray social issues in pop culture. When it comes to issues related to water usage, open defecation and sanitation, it is really possible to effect change without involving women – who carry the majority of the load of household chores in India?

At the recently-held Jal Awards, Paani, an NGO founded by Aamir Khan, awarded prizes to villages who competed to see which village could conserve the most water in the drought-ridden state of Maharashtra. About 1,321 villages managed to conserve a total of 82 crore liters of water. Several members from the state government, including chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, attended the ceremony and lauded the organisation, participants and the volunteers who helped set up the conservations systems and train villagers. Would it be possible to mobilise entire communities without treating all community members as equal stakeholders? And is it possible to emphasise that women are politically and socially active members in their own right, not just as the bearers and rearers of future male leaders?

Bollywood’s latest successful outing, Toilet Ek Prem Katha, which tells the story of a man who goes against tradition to build a toilet in his home to please his new wife raises a similar question for me. The story is based on a real scheme Haryana did actually launch a campaign encouraging women to marry men who have toilets in their home. Open defecation and water sanitation issues are especially harmful to women and children’s health. And ridiculous as it is to effect social change through slogans like, “No loo, no I do” the scheme did prove successful – private sanitation coverage increased by 21% in households with men looking to get married. The movie though has also drawn flak for being propaganda, critics have cited several ill-fitting scenes that pay lip service to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Swachch Bharat scheme.

In another case, the Supreme Court is facing flak for annulling the marriage of a young couple on the grounds of ‘love jihad’ or forced conversion – the young bride converted from Hinduism to Islam to marry her Muslim lover. The fact that the woman in question did so voluntarily seems to be a negligible detail.

These are all good reminders that nationalism foists a variety of expectations on women with no easy answers on how these ideas are meant to go into practice or even adapt as the socio-economic structure of the world changes. If women are the holders of cultural integrity, then their very selves become subjected to the nation’s anxieties about multiculturalism, religious and ethnic divisions, identities of all kinds.

In the midst of all this, what counts as feminism and what doesn’t, how it interacts with nationalism and questions of whether the two are inherently incompatible are important ones to consider. But before all that, there’s a Saturday Night Live song that exemplifies the issues we face when putting ideology into practice.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
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