Moving from victim-blaming and racialisation to a diversified transnational response to gendered violence in Austria
In Austria, the discourse around male violence against women, particularly sexualised violence or femicide, is frequently appropriated by the (far-) right to promote a xenophobic agenda. The rhetoric of those on the (far-) right of the political spectrum either romanticises femicide and engages in victim-blaming or racialises and instrumentalises gendered violence to support xenophobic agendas and policy proposals. Rather than engage in either of those options, I propose to diversify the discussion on femicide and gendered violence in Austria by highlighting the racialisation of this discourse and by connecting it to a wider, transnational feminist struggle for bodily integrity and non-violence on the one hand, and anti-racist, decolonial activism on the other.
Over the course of this essay, I turn my attention and analysis to how the racialisation of sexualised violence and femicide benefit the agenda of the (far-) right political spectrum and, ultimately, the state agenda in Austria, paying specific attention to the period 2017-2019, during the coalition government of the centre-right Christian-conservative Austrian Volks-party ÖVP and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party FPÖ. As an Austrian who studied and became involved in feminist and decolonial movements abroad, I encounter Austrian politics with a deep personal involvement, into which I intend to incorporate the broader perspective that was shaped by my experience with migrant-led, anti-racist feminist movements in Western Europe, and with leftist activists in various Arab countries.
Although in recent years, the campaigning efforts of feminist organisations succeeded to raise awareness for the systemic nature of gendered violence by introducing the term femicide to the Austrian public (Schober 2021), the reception of femicides in Austria by the mainstream media, when the perpetrator is a white Austrian, is traditionally focused on victim-blaming and the romanticisation of intimate-partner violence. In Austrian news-reporting, the intimate-partner murder of a woman is still framed as a woman’s issue: for example, in a 2019 femicide case, a woman who rejected the advances of her perpetrator on a night out was later killed by him. The official state-news website ORF reported that “The declination of the offer [by the murder victim] must have resulted in her death” (KeinGeldfuerHetze, 2019). This is indicative of the victim-blaming that permeates reports of gendered violence in Austria. The female victim is implicitly blamed for the crime, for not complying with the perpetrator’s wishes or for refusing him. In the case of a “foreign” (ausländisch) perpetrator, however, responsibility for the crime lies fully within the perpetrator’s culture. Such a framework is very telling about the purported virtues (Werte) that the Austrian right-wing (mainstream) discourse holds so dear: the public discourse is less concerned with women’s safety (let alone their self-determination) than it is with neo-fascist notions of ethnic purity and xenophobia. For example, Austrian minister Karoline Edtstadler claimed in 2019 that patriarchy does not exist in Austria, that femicides were a novelty to it, and that the country’s four cases of femicide that occurred over the space of one week in January 2019 were a result of immigrant patriarchy. She implied that the supposedly inherently violent patriarchal ideal of foreign men was corrupting white Austrian men and it was this influence of racialised foreign (thereby automatically violent) men that caused white Austrians to murder their (former) partners, as the perpetrators presumably would not have had the idea to commit such a crime without the ‘example’ of violent immigrant men (Stajić, 2019). With this statement and implied logic, not only was racialised non-Austrian masculinity constructed as inherently violent, white Austrian masculinity, in tandem, was presented as the exact opposite, as innately non-violent. With this, minister Edtstadler cemented the xenophobic illusion that gendered violence only takes place in Austria due to immigration.
Such rhetoric vilified and racialised foreigners and was, tellingly, what the ÖVP politician chose to prioritise during her appearance on the Im Zentrum TV show, while she dissipated questions about state responsibility for gendered violence.
Although the Austrian state, on the one hand, never tires to stress the importance of women’s rights when demanding the integration of migrants and refugees, it does not shy away from enacting violence towards migrants of all genders when defending harsh immigration schemes. The 2021 deportation of a thirteen-year-old Viennese-born girl to Georgia, which in 2022 a court ruled was unlawful (Šećerović and Willim, 2022), caused a wave of solidarity and called into question current immigration laws. Photographs of the deportation showed instances of state violence towards migrants, even minors, with uniformed men forcing children into vans in the middle of the night, dragging and pushing aside protesters (ORF, 2021).
Femonationalism, a term coined by Sara Farris (2017, p.19), is an essential concept when thinking about the instrumentalisation of the discourse of sexual violence and femicide by the (far-) right. Femonationalism denotes, in Farris’ words, “the attempts of western European parties and neoliberals to advance xenophobic and racist politics through the touting of gender equality” (ibid.). The femonationalist rhetoric of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party FPÖ has the public believe that they are wary of immigrants, particularly if they are male, black or brown, and/or read as Muslims, as these immigrants pose a threat to “our” (Western, white) women because gendered violence is portrayed as a key feature of Islam (ibid., p.27). Only when examining the FPÖ’s party posters, especially social media advertisements, does it become clear, however, that it is more the heterosexual man’s pleasure that is really at stake and less women’s personal freedom and possibility to choose. Slogans such as “Too beautiful for a veil – Stop Europe’s Islamisation” (Misik, 2014) are accompanied by a young blond woman in a traditional Austrian dress, the dirndl. What is presented as threatened in these posters, therefore, is not female autonomy, but rather the heterosexual man’s gaze.
As Júlia Garraio (2021, p.139) put it: “The long history of instrumentalizing sexual crimes for anti-immigration agendas, and its embeddedness in the history of colonial rule, inevitably complicates debates about the sociocultural entanglements of sexual violence.” This problematique is further exacerbated by my own positionality: being a white, western-socialised feminist, I risk becoming complicit in this racialisation of violence for neo-fascist purposes when condemning such crimes. Or else, I contribute to the Eurocentric tendency to, once again, put Western women’s struggles at centre stage, by only pointing to the concerns of women from the Global South when those concerns affect lives in the West, too. Reading and learning from so many feminist thinkers of the Global South, I am wary of subconsciously contributing to a white, imperialist feminism and it is of utmost importance to me to situate the struggles of my own social sphere in the wider context of geo-political and cultural power dynamics, like the global shift to the libertarian right and its appropriation of mainstream feminism. Garraio’s extensive review of the responses to the 2016 Cologne assaults from across the feminist spectrum as well as Elwakil’s search for an “Anti-Racist, Pro-Migrant Feminist Response to Sexual Assault Committed by Migrants” (Elwakil, 2017) were indispensable for me in developing my own ‘political horizon’ in how to frame the “problematic centrality of women’s rights in debates about immigration” (Garraio, 2021, p.131).
The racially charged debates on immigration and naturalisation policies were touched upon during another femicide in 2019, which involved white Austrians without a history of migration: a young woman’s former partner shot her, her new partner, her parents, and brother, and subsequently handed himself in to the police. This event was capitalized on by the larger public in order to reassert the virtue of the Austrian man. A particularly pernicious post on Facebook went viral, wherein one user stated: “It’s a pity he [the perpetrator] wasn’t Afghan” (Rauscher, 2019), demonstrating the rampant racism and the creation and simultaneous vilification of the Other in the country. The “pity” stated here is a reminder of the unfathomability of associating femicide with a male Austrian body, thus cementing the idea of femicide as imported and alien to Austria.
Claiming gendered violence as alien to Austria and instead as culture-specific undermines the notion that femicide is a matter of concern to society as a whole, that it could possibly happen anywhere, and that the perpetrator is one of “us.” Admitting the problem hegemonic masculinity has with violent domination, without exceptionalizing Muslim or Middle-Eastern-socialised masculinity, does not automatically call for harsh immigration measures or racial profiling. Rather, it would force the governing, predominantly male elite of the country, to examine their own white supremacist notions of male ownership over women’s bodies, and how these cause harm to those physically and socio-economically inferior, women and marginalised communities.
In C. P. Cavafy’s poem Waiting for the Barbarians (1975), the Barbarians’ existence is the one thing giving legitimacy to the existence of the empire. By the same token, the existence of a violent male Other justifies authoritative rule and extensive security measures, the expansion of the police apparatus, and surveillance measures. As a case in point, former FPÖ- minister of the interior Kickl increased police spending on weaponry (longer and more damaging weapons) and protection, to prepare and brace the police for the “increased propensity in violence” (my translation) towards - not by – the police, and the threat of terror attacks (Greber and Seeh, 2019). Horses for the establishment of a mounted police unit were bought, too – a short-lived project financed with 2,3 million euros of taxpayers’ money (ORF, 2019). The subordination and patronisation of women “for their own good” is justified as well – such as the advice by Cologne’s mayor for women to keep “an arm’s length distance” from men, following the mass-sexual harassment and assault during New Year's Eve in Cologne in 2016 (Eddy, 2016). The “invocation of a latent threat” (Scheibelhofer, 2017, p.104) legitimises austere, inhumane immigration policies, threatened withdrawal from international conventions, as was the case with the then-governing FPÖ in Austria (Mischke, 2019), and general militarisation. Earlier in 2019, before the centre-to-far-right-coalition government of ÖVP-FPÖ imploded due to a leaked corruption scandal, Kickl proposed a new policy measure: the so-called security detainment (Sicherungshaft). Deemed incompatible with human rights in the case of Austrian citizens, such security detainment entails that solid suspicion (my emphasis) of a foreigner’s potential criminality would be sufficient to detain the person, with a judge’s approval. The policy proposal followed the stabbing of an Austrian government employee by a Turkish citizen with a criminal record (Hager, 2019). Detention without a crime having ever occurred was seen as a legitimate measure, as this figure of the racialised migrant was constructed to be innately violently criminal already, with no possibility for a man embodying this projection to be anything but. The mere presence of a racialised migrant on Austrian soil was enough to potentially warrant arrest and detention. In a climate of such hostility, the migrant is constructed as permanently at fault and under suspicion.
It is evident that the racialised focus of the (far-) right on violence when committed by a ‘migratised’ person (Tudor, 2018, p.1058),1 especially in cases of sexual assault and/or femicide, aids the introduction of racially charged immigration schemes, incompatible with international human rights conventions, as well as increased military and police spending and financial harassment of migratised communities in Austria.2 Racially charged policies proposed, and measures taken by the FPÖ during their short-lived stint in the government, ostensibly aimed at improving the lives of (white) Austrian women in their protection from (black and brown) foreign men’s violence, but instead curbed the rights and restricted the social mobility of migrants and Austrian citizens with a history of migration. A case in point is the 2018 ‘concentration,’ a term Kickl used in all seriousness (BBC, 2018), to describe accommodations for asylum seekers separated from the rest of the population. Another is the practice of keeping unaccompanied minors “who had created problems before” (Das Gupta, 2018, translation mine) in an accommodation located kilometres away from the nearest town and fenced with barbed wire. Effectively a detention centre styled as children’s accommodation, this mistreatment was presented as a protective measure for the Austrian population, but so plainly curbed children’s rights that it was stopped soon thereafter.
Moreover, prior to the five-fold murder not involving an Afghan, and the reactions that followed, a memo by Kickl was leaked. In the memo, Kickl instructed media coverage to highlight the ethnic background of someone committing a criminal offence, with the implicit motivation to create/deepen the impression for the public that foreigners pose a “threat to the nation” (Pratt Ewing, 2008, p.10).
While the policies proposed and the steps taken by the centre- to far-right coalition government in Austria during 2017-2019 exhibited a white supremacist ideology, they were also aimed at the expansion of state control in general, by way of establishing an intimidating, militarised police apparatus, and paving the way for increased state surveillance, propaganda, and detainment, to exclude migratised communities and curb the activities of civil society and political actors engaging in social and state critique in general. Similar trends are happening in other countries, such as Egypt, where the government repeatedly stifles the long-standing social movements against gendered violence and the repression of the working class, using “the figure of sexual harassment […] (and deflecting) issues of labor mobility, police brutality, class conflict, youth alienation and social disintegration in an increasingly polarized polity.” (Amar, 2011, p. 303).
The solution to the dilemma of formulating a nuanced anti-racist, feminist discussion around sexual violence and femicide committed by migrants, I believe, has to have a threefold approach. Inspired by Elwakil’s thinking (Elwakil, 2017), I believe it is crucial that Western and Global South feminists forge transnational alliances, to create a nuanced discussion around issues of patriarchal domination that women in many countries around the world face, not exclusively in the West or in non-Western countries. The livelihoods and actions of migrants and Other-ed parts of the population need to be formative of the public discourse, not merely reduced to racialised subjects or solely treated as the “authentic voice” (ibid., p.12). Other-ing discourses can be disrupted through the diversification of all discussions, as a counter measure to identity politics. Transnational alliances should focus on how to support each other’s feminist, anti-racist activism within the respective local communities, highlighting the interconnectedness of global systems of patriarchal colonial oppression, instead of essentialising its symptoms as culture-specific traits. Particularly white feminists of the Global North, like myself, can learn how to diversify their activism from feminist associations in North Africa and the Middle East (in the countries which are most strongly accused of misogyny and religious fundamentalism), who have long been campaigning against sexual violence in their home countries (Nazra, 2016). While the danger of their instrumentalization by far-right anti-immigration discourses cannot be overlooked, it must not cause white feminists to silence the critique of gendered violence, irrespective of the perpetrator, but rather to diversify the feminist struggle against neo-fascist patriarchy, allowing for a broader discussion of anti-rape and anti-femicide initiatives in coalition with allies from all parts of the world. Despite the dangers of co-optation, I hope that a layered conversation around transnational feminism in the context of violence when committed by (Muslim-read) migrants and people with a migration background is possible, when we as white feminist activists engage in continuous acknowledgment of our own privilege and, at times, complicity, and join our efforts for gender and racial equality with those communities affected by the racially charged rhetoric of the right.
And last, it is necessary to broaden the discussion and move beyond the apparent dichotomy of migrants’ rights versus women’s rights, shifting the focus instead on the far-right and state agenda. A more radical look at the treatment of acts of violence when committed by a migratised person would consider who the (state) media’s racialisation of gendered violence damages, but especially, whose purposes it serves. Such femonationalist discourse which legitimises inhumane immigration schemes needs to be dismantled, for it is also complicit in patriarchal domination and the securitization of the state, whereby “everyday social, economic and cultural governance [is transferred] into the realm of emergency police enforcements and military occupations” (Amar, 2011, p. 306). It is no coincidence that the budget for police and military spending keeps increasing in the name of security, often at the expense of freedom, non-violence and self-determination, especially in the context of gendered and sexualised violence or racist discrimination. While this might increase the wealth and influence of arms manufacturers, for example, it will not lead to lasting peaceful co-habitation of increasingly diverse populations.
- 1. Alyoxsa Tudor defines migratism as “the power relation that ascribes migration to certain bodies and establishes non-migration as the norm […]” and links it with postcolonial theorising (Tudor, 2018, p.1058).
- 2. See here for further information on suspected racial profiling of the Ministry of Finance (in German): https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000120351575/bluemel-gegen-wiener-kebab-verkaeufer-das-ist-brutalitaet?ref=loginwall_articleredirect
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