This summer, Britain First, a splinter group of the British National Party (BNP) and the fastest-growing far right group in the UK staged a series of ‘mosque invasions’ in Bradford, Glasgow, Luton and London, among other places. The aggressive and confrontational nature of the actions succeeded in grabbing the mainstream media’s attention. It was their Mosque invasion in Crayford, South London though which drew my attention for a different reason: the way Britain First have hijacked the language of women's liberation to foster Islamophobia.
The stated motive for the Crayford ‘invasion’ was gender equality. The ‘activists’ demanded the removal of ‘sexist’ signs which denote separate entrances to the mosque for men and women. The Crayford video reveals Britain First’s attempt to align women's rights and the agenda of the far right.
With nearly 400,000 likes on Facebook, Britain First is in the process of overtaking the BNP in terms of its popular support and the scope of its activities. At first little more than a social media platform circulating racist memes, the movement quickly turned to a programme of grassroots direct action. Its founders are Jim Dowson (who stepped down in June of this year because he felt the movement had become too extremist) and Paul Goulding. Dowson, a former Calvinist Minister who helped run the BNP from 2007 to 2010, is also a key organiser of the UK Life League, a controversial pro-life group who have harassed schools and clinics in the name of ‘Christian’ values. His co-founder Goulding is also BNP renegade, a former councillor for Swanley, Sevenoaks.
The emphatic militarisation of the group’s image and supporters marks out Britain First from the highpoints of popularity previously reached by the EDL or the BNP. Members have been consciously styled as ‘activists’ organised in regional brigades and battalions to form a national ‘street defence organization’. While members have not armed themselves, it has been reported that they have acquired a ‘fleet’ of British Army armoured Land Rovers, which have been deployed in their ‘Christian Patrols’ in East London.
Theirs is a movement with a very conscious and distinctive public image: and images of women, both white and Muslim, are an integral part of their brand, and in very different ways. Traditionally, membership of far right groups in the UK has been overwhelmingly male, with women’s issues sidelined or ignored. However, as Islam is increasingly the principal target for groups such as Britain First, the political terrain has shifted, and the far right is now co-opting the language of gender equality.
‘The problem is, as women, we fought long and hard in this country for equality, and you are taking us back hundreds of years with your segregation.’ says a female Britain First member in the Crayford video. ‘When you respect women we’ll respect your mosques, and you’ve got signs out there segregating men and women’ a male colleague adds.
It’s not often you see far-right extremists objecting to gender binaries, and, obviously that not what a viewer of the Crayford video is really witnessing. But Britain First, whose videos are always careful to show female activists, have understood the PR value of espousing gender equality. The group have produced literature on the subject; their report ‘Women In Islam’ is available to download as a PDF from their website. Its sensational documentation of the far-right bogeyman, the Muslim grooming gang, is combined with coverage of Female Genital Mutilation, an issue on which feminist groups are vocal and active.
Is there any underlying concern for women’s rights here? Perhaps among some members, but if so it is highly misguided. What is clear is that among the group’s leadership there is a conscious and cynical effort to reproduce the discourse of gender inequality for their own divisive and stigmatising agenda.
Britain First aim to create a false dichotomy between the West and Islam in terms of the treatment of women. Their brochure cites some passages for the Qu’ran, claiming that, ‘Mohammed treated women with total contempt and considered them no more than slaves and property’. Given that the group are a self-proclaimed Christian party, it’s worth considering some of the misogynistic attitudes that run through certain Biblical passages. Consider Exodus 20:17, which runs as follows: ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ The reputedly more liberal New Testament has a similar outlook on women: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.’ (Ephesians 5:22) This like-for-like comparison may be a little reductive, but it is important to note that all Abrahamic religion reinforce misogynistic values in their scripture.
In another official Britain First video, Paul Goulding claims that ‘in this country, since the suffragettes, women have had equality.’ For Britain First, ‘radical Islam’ has reignited sexism which civilized societies like our own outlawed in the early 20th century. Their mission statement sets out a vision of their ideal society in which there is no ‘radical Islam… leading to the suppression of women’.
This is of course a laughably simplistic view of women’s history. And yet this false dichotomy is a common silencing tactic. As a feminist concerned about rape culture, the gender pay gap and sex workers’ safety in the UK, I have often encountered people telling me to be grateful I’m not in Saudi Arabia, a sentiment which projects sexist and misogynistic practises, onto a far-off, Orientalist dystopia.
The reason for the far-right’s sudden interest in women’s liberation is the pressing need to rebrand. The perceived machismo and violent tendencies of far right parties have traditionally limited their appeal to working-class white men. By involving a greater number of women under this pretext of gender politics, Britain First are able to broaden their appeal ahead of the general election, in which it appears they will field candidates.
This tokenism was also visible in the heyday of the EDL, an organization with a specific women’s division: the EDL angels. An important precursor to Britain First in terms of re-framing the discourse of the far-right, the EDL had prominent Jewish and LGBTQ divisions, and similarly adopted the language of liberalism for an explicitly anti-liberal agenda
For Britain First, women are not only an ideological, but a physical battleground. In a Guardian article on the role of women in the BNP, Martin Durham, author of Women and Fascism, asserted that in spite of superficial modernisation and increased women’s participation ‘The most important thing for the far Right is still to ensure that white women have more children’. Like the National Front, Britain First ‘is concerned to reverse those trends which make for a decline in our population qualitatively as well as quantitatively.’ However, in a strategic move, this concern has been disguised with tokenist concern for gender equality.
It may be disguised, but it is not invisible. The emphasis on the need for more white children, which encroaches upon women’s reproductive freedom, emerges from the group’s party political broadcast, filmed ahead of next year’s general election. In-between glowing images of ‘our brave boys’ and Enoch Powell memes, a series of scare-mongering statistics attempts to invoke a reproductive battleground. In the same way that Muslim women are segregated from ‘free’ Western women in Britain First’s campaigns, here the implicit narrative is of a race to repopulate Britain. The video stresses the reproductive threat of Muslim women: ‘If population trends continue, by 2050 Britain will be a majority Muslim nation.’ Not, however, if enough white women have children: in a not-so-subtle call, Britain First claims that ‘for a society to remain the same size the average woman has to have 2.1 children’. Without any sense of irony, Britain First call out an unnamed ‘hate fanatic’, quoted as saying ‘Have more babies and Muslims can take over the UK!’, for employing their very own tactic of espousing repopulation.
The rhetoric of women’s liberation, then, is entirely superficial and is being used to push an extreme, far-right agenda. We must acknowledge, however, that Britain First are not merely co-opting the language of liberalism and the left, they are a product of a broader political culture in which Islamophobia has been normalised. It is this same culture which recently allowed then Education Secretary Michael Gove to declare that schools must root out ‘radical Islam’ and promote ‘British values’. The recent Rotherham child abuse scandal is another example. The increasingly accepted theory that the police officers involved were afraid of pursuing Pakistani or Muslim perpetrators for fear of seeming racist has led to multiple echoes of Britain First’s alarmist literature on ‘Muslim Grooming Gangs’; whilst the Home Secretary Theresa May recently declared in Parliament that ‘institutionalised political correctness’ was to blame for Rotherham’s failures. In Britain First then, we see not just a cynical cooption of the language of liberation, but a grim reflection of the worst of mainstream political culture.
Niamh McIntyre is an English student at Oxford, and a journalist interested in feminism and social justice.