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Sexual violence and child sexual abuse is a growing focus in racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric across Europe. Following the arrest of ex-English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson after he broadcast live outside a child grooming trial in Leeds, in June 2018 another “Free Tommy” march took place, supported by a far-right campaign group called 120 decibels (#120dB). The group are named after the volume of a rape alarm, use sexual violence against women as a political tool to assert their nationalist, racist agenda across Europe and the UK.
Heavily promoted by the now-crumbling Generation Identity, an alt-right group whose “core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack”, #120dB claim that sexual violence is “imported violence” perpetrated by “criminal migrants”. This racialisation of sexual violence is dangerous. Instead of tackling all gender-based violence, regardless of the perpetrator’s nationality, immigration status or race, narratives such as those reproduced by #120dB co-opt violence against women for a racist agenda. The impact of this is that already marginalised communities are criminalised, victims and survivors are unsupported, and abuse goes unchallenged, as it is obfuscated by racism.
“Racist rhetoric obscures the prevalence of sexual violence across society, which occurs as a cause and consequence of gender inequality”
In their YouTube videos, #120dB labels migrants as “criminal migrants…from archaic societies” who are responsible for “migrant sex crimes”. This racialisation feeds into racist tropes – that migrant men are from “backward” cultures and are inherently “sexually dangerous”. This language obscures the prevalence of sexual violence across society, which occurs as a cause and consequence of gender inequality. The blanket stereotyping of all non-white men is dangerous and has contributed to racist attacks perpetrated in order to “avenge” white women.
For example, in February 2018, the murder of 18-year-old Italian Pamela Mastropietro by a Nigerian man became a focal point for anti-immigration hatred, and was used to promote #120dB’s messages. A few days after Mastropietro’s death, a gunman went on a shooting rampage in Marcerata, Italy, injuring six African migrants – five men and one woman. Far-right extremist Luca Traini was arrested in connection with the attack. The timing of these incidents show how anti-immigration rhetoric gives the green light to racist violence. Speaking at the time of the shooting, Macerata’s mayor said that the shooting rampage “could be ascribable to the campaign of racial hatred that began after Mastropietro’s death.
The Italian far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) party also used Mastropietro’s killing to push their anti-immigration agenda. The continued ramifications of their anti-migrant rhetoric were evident in the killing of Soumaila Sacko in June 2018. Sacko, a 29-year-old Malian man and Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) trade union activist was shot dead in Calabria, Italy by a white man. The USB trade union attributed Sacko’s death to interior minister Matteo Salvini’s vow to “send home” thousands of migrants. As Hsiao-Hung Pai wrote for OpenDemocracy: “No one could ignore the fact that Sacko was murdered just hours after Salvini was sworn in as the country’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, the man who had built a political career on inciting racial hatred”.
This narrative of victimisation is not new. At a Generation Identity rally in Telford, UK, where it was revealed in March 2018 that up to 1,000 children may have suffered abuse and exploitation, a male speaker called the Midlands town “the epicentre for one of the worst crimes committed against the English nation”. He told the crowd:
“We fight for the dignity, self-respect and honour of the women of the West.
We are talking about our sisters, our mothers, our girlfriends and our wives.”
“#120dB’s campaign centres on competing masculinities, whereby the bodies of women become a battleground of “honour””
Here, women have no agency and are depicted only in their relation to men, as sisters, mothers and wives. This type of rhetoric reinforced by #120dB in their video, where they state: “we are the daughters of Europa…mothers, women, sisters”. Their campaign is not about the experience of victims but instead centres on competing masculinities, whereby the bodies of women become a battleground of “honour”. By arguing that violence against women is caused by immigration, and that therefore “closing our borders is the first solution”, women are used to serve this nationalistic ideology, whereby the body, and in turn the nation, is under siege.
It is notable that the women presented as in need of protection are uniformly white. Calling itself “the true #MeToo Movement”, 120 db co-opts a campaign that strives to include all women’s experiences into one that focuses on white women alone.
Despite the fact that a third of victims in the Telford child abuse cases were of black, Asian and minority ethnic background, Generation Identity framed the exploitation as an attack on “the English working classes”, where “the vast majority of [victims] were of English descent.” Using false statistics erases women and girls of colour and leaves them unsupported, suggesting that only violence against white women should be challenged. This is particularly dangerous considering that Europe has seen a sharp increase in Islamophobic attacks: last month a 19-year-old Muslim woman was brutally assaulted by two men in Belgium, who took off her headscarf, tore apart her shirt and used a sharp object to cut a cross into her body.
“We urgently need an anti-racist, anti-fascist feminism that strikes back at both sexual abuse and racism
This skewing of statistics to suit racist agendas is not new: the same tactic was used after the exposure of the Rotherham child exploitation scandal. The fact that Asian girls were among those who had been abused was lost in reporting, the pinnacle of which was an article written by Sarah Champion in The Sun headlined: “British Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls…and it’s time we faced up to it.” As Just Yorkshire, a project promoting racial justice and human rights documented in their impact report of Champion’s comments: “The issue was no longer one of vulnerable young girls, white and Asian, being horrendously exploited by men who set out to groom and abuse them, but one of the entire nation being under threat by an alien force.” In these cases, sexual violence is portrayed as a civilisational threat of the violent immigrant man, rather than as gender-based violence which is caused by patriarchy and male dominance worldwide.
We urgently need an anti-racist, anti-fascist feminism that strikes back at both sexual abuse and racism, in order to resist this toxic nationalistic “feminism”.
As #MeToo gains prominence, we must be aware of the potential dangers of hashtag activism, which is easily co-opted by the far-right to normalise hatred. By building a feminist movement that is proactively anti-racist, and which centres the voices of women and girls of colour, we can build a feminist movement that is for all.