Gender, as expressed on namely the bodies of Muslim women, is positioned at the centre of the radical right’s linkage between migration and religion. This link is visible in the persistent debates on the ban of Muslim body-covering, which in Austria has been promoted by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) since the turn of the century.
FPÖ’s debates on the ban of Muslim body-covering – of the headscarf in kindergartens and schools or of full body-covering in public spaces – which re-emerged since 2015, illustrate that the radical right instrumentalizes the intersection of gender, body and religion in its search for new forms of governing.
As I explore in my recently published Identities article, ‘Radical right populist debates on female Muslim body-coverings in Austria. Between biopolitics and necropolitics’, the radical right’s debates over female Muslim body-covering are embedded in the neoliberal reorganisation of societies and a crisis of governability, which radical right-wing actors use to implement their own biopolitical and necropolitical projects.
This search for new forms of governing became also visible during the Covid-19 pandemic when the radical right tried to gain hegemony and create a compromise against anti-Covid state measures and the state as such by joining the anti-vax-protests – again using the everyday experiences of the body to create common sense and reach people’s feelings.
The radical right political project uses the racialization of religion and the gendering of race as important building blocks. The FPÖ’s governing strategy of Muslim body-covering has developed through a paradoxical bio- and necropolitical entanglement. A frame analysis of FPÖ documents and parliamentary debates on laws banning Muslim body-covering shows that Islam has not only been ‘hijacked’ by the FPÖ to establish a nativist political notion of the people, but also that the party aims at establishing new forms of governing Muslims and migrants at the same time strengthens a biopolitical approach towards Austrian women and the Austrian population.
In its biopolitical strategy (Michel Foucault), the FPÖ uses debates about Muslim body-covering to blame Austrian women of not giving birth to enough children and thus putting Austrian society at risk of dying out. Radical right-wing biopolitics therefore encourages Austrian women to give birth to more children and take over their alleged natural roles as mothers.
The FPÖ, moreover, justifies a necropolitical project (Achille Mbembe) that goes beyond nativist notions of the people; it is namely a project of extinction of Muslim migrants – through social death, expulsion and deportation. The debates on Muslim body covering serve the radical right – often by bringing gender equality arguments into the field – to question not only the right of residence of Muslim migrants in Austria, but their right to live.
In the radical right-wing discourse on Muslim women’s bodies, Muslims are framed as a danger to the autochthone population, de-humanized and presented as erasable lives. Overall, covered women embody non-belonging, racist exclusion and de-humanization in these debates, while their bodies simultaneously construct the boundary against those who belong to the national community, namely Austrian women, but who are also disciplined by Muslim body covering discourses.
The FPÖ uses Muslim women’s bodies to represent the frontline of Austrian immigration and integration conflicts, through intertwining gender, body and religion with a biopolitical and necropolitical project. Radical right-wing governance, hence, is based on inequality, hierarchy, racism and exclusion.
Blog post by Birgit Sauer, University of Vienna, Austria
Read the Identities article:
Radical right populist debates on female Muslim body-coverings in Austria. Between biopolitics and necropolitics. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2022.2071515 OPEN ACCESS
Read other relevant Identities articles:
The veil as an object of right-wing populist politics: a comparative perspective of Turkey, Sweden, and France OPEN ACCESS
Imbrications of gender and religion in Nordic radical right populism OPEN ACCESS
Disentangling radical right populism, gender, and religion: an introduction