Slavoj Zizek, "Women give the New Right a human face"
Reactionary women are everywhere: in the British monarchy, in the New Right, in #MeToo. Let's look at Iran and learn there what real emancipation means.
Recently, there have been four events that particularly affect women: the funeral of Elizabeth II, the election victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, the new film "The Woman King" and the widespread protests following the murder of Mahsa Amini in Iran.
In order to understand what is going on today, and not only in relation to the situation of women, it is necessary to analyze these four events together. The rise of the New Right in Europe – Britain, Sweden, Italy – is no surprise. This has long been foreseeable, also as a result of the many mistakes made by the left, which failed to provide an adequate response to the crisis of liberal democracy.
Many women participate in the New Right
But we should highlight another feature of this resurgence of the right – the important role women play in it: from Marine Pen in France to Giorgia Meloni in Italy. Thatcher, Palin and Priti Patel are no longer eccentrics. Not only the liberal establishment, but also the new populist right has found a way to integrate women who are even more prominent than the well-known male technocratic experts. They combine right hardness with qualities that are usually associated with femininity (gentle care, for example). In short, they give the new radical right a human face.
The new type of right-wing leader fits perfectly into our time, trying to combine authoritarianism with human sensitivity. After the failure of socialism with a human face, we now get fascism with a human face. We should not consider this female figure to be incompatible with true femininity or dismiss it as a product of patriarchal manipulation. Not only is there no underlying "true" femininity – it's easy to imagine that for many actual women, this new figure feels like a liberation from rigid, politically correct feminism. In addition, in the new right-wing domain, women and men of non-white skin color also occupy top positions: from Rishi Sunak (Indian origin) to the new British Finance Minister Kwasi Kwarteng (black), who has just launched the largest tax cut package in half a century.
The kingdom as a fantasy
Of course, there are many elements that make the contradictions of this new figure of femininity visible: Meloni's movement is called "Fratelli d'Italia", brothers of Italy, not sisters – like the latest Hollywood blockbuster "The Woman King", which is about a woman as a king and not as a queen. The chance coincidence of the death of Elizabeth II with the rise of Liz (Elisabeth) Truss to power symbolizes this change from queen to queen king.
The television spectacle we witnessed on September 9, 2022 – the ceremony of Queen Elizabeth's funeral – reminds us of the paradox embodied by the British monarchy: the more not only the British monarch, but also the United Kingdom as a state lost its superpower status and became a local power, the more the status of the British royal family became the stuff of ideological fantasies around the world – according to official It is estimated that the ceremony was followed by four billion people around the world.
The British royal family and the reproduction of power relations
We should not dismiss this as an ideology that obscures the actual balance of power: the imagination of the British royal family is one of the key components that enable the reproduction of the actual balance of power. This fantasy does not only concern the current royal family in England.
Let us recall how in 2012 an archaeological excavation was carried out on behalf of the "Richard III Society" on the site of the former Grey Friars Priory. The University of Leicester identified the skeleton found during the excavation as that of Richard III. On 26 March 2015, he was buried in Leicester Cathedral, and here too tens of thousands of people witnessed the funeral ceremony, to which only about a hundred people were expected.
The role of Prince "Harry" as a spokesman for the elite
Events like these cannot be dismissed as births of reactionary fantasies: the correct insight they convey is the distinction between the symbolic head of power and actual executive power. Kings and queens rule, they do not rule; their reign is ceremonial and as such decisive. Let us remember the qualities expected of a monarch: he should stay out of political conflicts and radiate compassion and kindness, combined with a fundamental patriotism – he should stay out of ideologies in the narrower sense, which means that he gives shape to ideology in its purest form.
His or her personal qualities are closely linked to the royal function, his or her role is to give this function a human touch. When Prince Harry said two years ago, "I want you to hear the truth from me as much as I can share – not as a prince or duke, but as Harry," the absurdity of this claim immediately caught the eye. Even the name "Harry" is only used because he is a prince, otherwise he would be called "Mr. Windsor" or whatever. And Harry is only noticed by the public because he is a prince – who else would be interested in hearing "the truth" from him?
The Slave Trade in Africa and "The Woman King"
At the other end of this logic of monarchy, we find a situation described in "The Woman King" (2022, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood), a historical epic about the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to the 19th century. The film is set in the 1820s and shows Viola Davis in the role of the (fictional) general Nanisca, who trains the elite warriors to fight against the enemies of Dahomey.
She is subordinate only to King Ghezo, a real person who ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1858 and was involved in the Atlantic slave trade until the end of her rule. Opponents of Agojie include slave traders led by Santo Ferreira, who is fictional and portrayed as an enemy of Ghezo; his character is loosely inspired by Francisco Félix de Sousa, a Brazilian slave trader who in reality helped Ghezo to power.
Historically, Dahomey was a kingdom that conquered other African states and enslaved their citizens in order to sell them in the Atlantic slave trade; most of the kingdom's wealth came from slavery. The Agojie were involved in slave raids in the past, and slavery in Dahomey continued even when the British Empire prevented Dahomey from continuing to participate in the Atlantic slave trade.
The real reason for racism is often obscured
So the warriors depicted in "The Woman King" actually served and protected a king who traded in slaves (and also used them for his palm oil plantations). This part of the actual story is of course obscured in the film, covered by fabricated scenes in which Nanisca protests to the king against the slave trade and even makes him promise to abolish it.
In this, the "feminism" of "The Woman King" corresponds exactly to the prevailing feminism of the liberal upper class in the West: the Amazon warriors from Dahomey are like today's MeToo feminists, who very strongly condemn all forms of binary logic and patriarchy or even traces of racism in our everyday language, but are very careful not to really disturb the forms of the "slave trade" in today's global capitalism, but which are the real reason for the ongoing racism.
The Slave Trade and Islam
Two things should be added to the usual debate about slavery. The first is the fact that white slave traders barely set foot on African soil: slaves were brought to them by privileged groups such as the kingdom of Dahomey, which went on raids and delivered them to white traders. Even a short visit to the colonial museums in Accra, the capital of Ghana, makes this abundantly clear.
Second, the slave trade was widespread not only in West Africa, but also in its eastern part, where the Arabs also enslaved millions, and where it lasted longer than in the West – consider that Saudi Arabia did not ban slavery until 1962 and that the idea of slavery is now experiencing a modest revival. Muhammad Qutb, brother and promoter of the far better known Sayyid Qutb, vigorously defended Islamic slavery against Western criticism, explaining to his audience that "Islam gave spiritual freedoms to slaves" and that "in the early days of Islam, the slave was elevated to such a noble state of humanity as it has ever been in any other part of the world."
Slavery in Modern Islam
He contrasted adultery, prostitution and "the most heinous form of animalism," the casual sex found in Europe, with "the pure and spiritual bond that binds a maid [i.e., slave] to her master in Islam." In recent years, the issue of slavery has been revived by some conservative Salafist scholars after slavery was banned in Muslim countries in the early 20th century.
In 2003, Shaykh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, the Supreme Council of Clerics, issued a fatwa declaring, "Slavery is a part of Islam." In 2016, when asked about the abduction of Yazidi women as sex slaves, he reiterated that "the enslavement of women in war is not prohibited in Islam," adding that those who prohibit enslavement are either "ignorant or infidel."
The Women's Protest in Iran and the Revolutionary Potential
This, of course, in no way stands in the way of the emancipatory potential of Muslim nations. What is happening now (in September 2022) in Iran – the so-called Mahsa Amini protests – is of world-historical significance. The protests, which spread to dozens of cities, began in Tehran on September 16 in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish descent who died in police custody because she was beaten to death by Iran's Islamic "moral police," the Guidance Patrol; she had been arrested after being accused of wearing an "inappropriate" hijab.
These protests combine various struggles (against the oppression of women, against religious oppression, for political freedom, against state terror) into an organic unity. Since Iran does not belong to the developed West, "Zan, Zendegi, Azadi" ("Woman, Life, Freedom", the slogan of the protests) is very different from #MeToo in Western countries: it mobilizes millions of ordinary women, and the protest is directly linked to the struggle of all, including men. There is no anti-masculine tendency, as is often the case in Western feminism.
Solidarity with the Kurds is the only way to freedom in Iran
Women and men are there together; the enemy is religious fundamentalism, which is supported by state terror. Men who participate in "Zan, Zendegi, Azadi" know very well that the fight for women's rights is also the fight for their own freedom: the oppression of women is not a special case, it is only the moment when the oppression that permeates the whole of society becomes most visible.
The demonstrators, who are not Kurds, also clearly see that the oppression of the Kurds restricts their own freedom: solidarity with the Kurds is the only way to freedom in Iran. And the protesters clearly see that religious fundamentalism can only remain in power if it is supported by the brute state power of the so-called moral police in Iran – they see that a regime that needs a brutal morality police to sustain itself betrays the authentic religious experience with which it legitimizes itself.
We no longer need queens of women
The Iranian protests are thus realizing what the Western left can only dream of. They avoid the traps of Western bourgeois feminism: they directly link the struggle for women's freedom with the struggle of women and men against ethnic oppression, against religious fundamentalism and against state terror. What is happening now in Iran is something that awaits us in the developed Western world, where political violence, religious fundamentalism and oppression of women are increasing daily.
We in the West have no right to treat Iran as a country that simply needs to catch up with the West. We in the West need to learn from Iran, we need a similar movement in the US, in Poland, in Russia and in many other countries. Whatever the immediate result of the protests, it is crucial to keep the movement alive, to organize social networks that, even if state oppression temporarily prevails, continue their work underground and lay the foundation for new eruptions.
It is not enough to express sympathy or solidarity with the Iranian demonstrators: they are not out there, far away from us, part of another, exotic culture. All the talk about cultural peculiarities (often used by reactionary forces to justify religious and ethnic oppression) is now meaningless: we realize that the Iranian struggle is the struggle of all of us. Today we do not need women's kings like Truss or Nanisca, we need women who mobilize us all for "woman, life, freedom".