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The Rise of the Extreme Right in Europe: The Gender and Sexuality Dimensions of Anti-Immigrant Discourse

1 Comment 🕔17.Sep 2014

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

Nigel Farage. Photo credit: Euro Realist Newsletter (Flickr)

Nigel Farage. Photo credit: Euro Realist Newsletter (Flickr)

by Kathryn Lum and Géraldine Renaudière

The recent European elections have been termed ‘an earthquake’ and indeed the wave of far right, populist, and Eurosceptic parties that were elected sends a disturbing message, not only about European unity, but also about equality and human rights. The far right made spectacular gains in the United Kingdom (UK) (where they won 27.5 percent of the vote, putting them ahead of both the Tories and Labour), in Denmark (26.7 percent of the vote, topping the polls), and France (25 percent of the vote, also emerging as the most-voted party). Most of the political commentary on their success has focused on voter disaffection with the European Union (EU) and their common anti-immigrant platforms. However, while these parties do indeed make common cause in blaming immigrants for Europe’s socioeconomic problems, they also use immigrants, and in particular Muslims, as a convenient repository for the gender inequality and homophobia that supposedly no longer exists or has been overcome in European society. That is, they stigmatize Muslims for being violent and for not integrating, but also, for not practicing gender equality and tolerating homosexuality. In far-right discourse, gender equality is assumed to already have been conquered in `civilized´ Europe. Widespread gender injustice and deeply rooted heterosexism in Europe is therefore ignored and projected onto the Muslim Other.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the statements of a variety of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) members. Lord Pearson, who was the leader of UKIP from 2009 to 2010, stated in an interview on the UK’s Channel 4 News, in the context of a broader discussion on sharia law and the purported threat posed by Muslims to the British way of life, that “Islam is guilty of gender apartheid. Its treatment of women is unacceptable in our society.”[1] Gerald Batten, UKIP Member of the European Parliament, a founding member of the party and part of its executive council, proposed that all Muslims sign a “Charter of Muslim Understanding” in which Muslims renounce violence – implying that all Muslims are potentially violent and do not respect people of other faiths.[2] In Article 2 of this Charter, there is a reference to “declaring the equality of all men and women.”[3] A UKIP candidate in the 2014 elections (Heino Vockrodt) suggested that Muslim men were sexual predators when he accused them of “grooming children to be sex slaves under the eyes of the authorities…”[4] The theme of sexual violence is also capitalized upon by the Danish People’s Party, which, in one of its election posters, associated Muslim immigration with “mass rapes,” “crude violence,” the “suppression of women,” and “forced marriages.” In many respects, the Danish People’s Party is even more explicit than UKIP, since its online election manifesto directly links both gender inequality and homophobia in Denmark to Islamic immigration.[5] The Danish People’s Party speaks of a “proletariat” of foreign women who do not participate in the workforce due to their “traditional culture,” and blames “intolerant Islamic groups” for a rise in homophobia. Its section on violence against women is almost entirely devoted to immigrant women and the problems of forced marriages/honor killings, as if native-born Danish women do not also face violence from their partners.

"Yes, we exist!" (London Pride 2007). Credit: lewishamdreamer via Flickr

“Yes, we exist!” (London Pride 2007). Credit: Jason (Flickr)

Yet, when it comes to actually actively promoting gender and gay equality, far-right parties often issue contradictory messages. The concern of UKIP representatives for gender equality when it comes to the Muslim community is not reflected in legislative action. In 2006, a resolution on counteracting violence against women in the European Parliament (which, among other measures, called for stronger action against female genital mutilation) received only 14 negative votes, against an overwhelming majority in favor. Of these 14 votes, 8 were from UKIP MEPs. Again in 2013, eight UKIP MEPs were either absent, abstained or voted against a resolution on equal pay for women and men. In concert with multiple deeply sexist and homophobic statements made by UKIP members, the dismal legislative track record of UKIP at the European level makes a mockery of UKIP pointing the finger at Muslims for gender inequality. UKIP appears to justify maintaining the unequal gender status quo in the workplace, at home, and especially in the corporate world (where, according to party leader Nigel Farage, women who have children “are worth less” to city firms).[6] Similarly, the Danish People´s Party skillfully connects Islam with intolerance of homosexuality, while they themselves continue to insist on the “right of all children to both a father and a mother” and argue against giving legal benefits to “alternative family patterns.”[7] Across Europe, the far-right crusade against Islam rests on the twin pillars of violence and gender oppression within the Muslim community in order to drum home its message of ‘Islam equals threat to national identity and values’.

The far-right denial of gender inequality ‘among us’ and its exportation onto Muslims unfortunately does not correspond with reality on the ground, nor does it reflect all European Muslim realities. While a number of surveys[8] have been published that show that Muslims consistently demonstrate lower levels of acceptance of homosexuality, concluding from these findings that the Muslim community universally condemns homosexuality appears over-hasty. A more nuanced approach could distinguish among the very diverse Muslim population in Europe according to first/second generation, or compare them with non-migrants. In Germany, 47 percent of second-generation Turkish Muslims consider homosexuality to be morally acceptable, more than double the rate in Turkey (22 percent).[9] Furthermore, in 2010, the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD) advocated strengthening the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens by adding sexual orientation to the existing list of grounds for discrimination in the German constitution,[10] and the Islamic Liberal Association (Liberal-Islamische Bund) was formed in 2010 to expressly support equal marriage as well as non-married couples.[11]

The far-right attempt to avoid our own responsibilities by blaming the Other, and ignoring the remaining gaps in gender protection in our own societies, reveals the weaknesses of mainstream political parties and institutions in Europe in addressing persistent social inequality.

"Allah <3 us all". Credit:  lewishamdreamer (Flickr)

“Allah <3 us all.” Credit: lewishamdreamer (Flickr)

Although considerable progress has been made over the years at the European level to better protect LGBT citizens,[12] the European Court of Human Rights still refuses to officially take a stand on equal marriage, granting Member States a wide margin of autonomy. This lack of moral leadership subtly perpetuates the notion that same-sex partnerships are fundamentally different from (and implicitly inferior to), opposite-sex relationships.[13] Even more problematic is the widespread discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in Europe, illustrated by an increase in homophobic hate crimes,[14] the non- recognition of same-sex partnerships in Italy and Poland,[15] or constitutionally banning same-sex marriages in Croatia and Slovakia.[16]

Finally, let us recall that from a legal point of view, decriminalization of same-sex consensual acts between adults occurred as late as 1998 in Cyprus, 1996 in Romania, and 1993 in Ireland.[17]Nine of the Member States of the Council of Europe still don’t have either sectorial or comprehensive non-discrimination legislation covering sexual orientation.

Therefore, one might pose the question of why a number of nationalist and populist parties focus on scaremongering regarding immigrants’ treatment of LGBT people and women while it urgently needs to acknowledge its own shortcomings by strengthening non-discrimination measures. Indeed, it has become clear over the past few years that the dream of European unity cannot be achieved with economic integration alone; Europe also needs to be united in fully extending democracy and citizenship rights to women and LGBT people, notably by reaffirming the fundamental values of the EU, including gender equality and non-discrimination.


Kathryn Lum is a Research Fellow based at the Migration Policy Centre at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, where she is the Scientific Coordinator of an EU-funded research project on Indian migration to the EU.  Her research interests include migration policy in Europe, diaspora policy in Asia, the South Asian diaspora, gender studies, and Dalit movements. She completed undergraduate studies in Canada and the UK at McGill University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and postgraduate studies in Sweden and Italy, at Lund University and the European University Institute in Florence. She was also Visiting Scholar at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. She teaches migration studies and cultural anthropology in Florence.

Geraldine Renaudière graduated from the Law Faculty (University of Brussels) and holds an Advanced Masters in European Law (European Studies Institute, 2013). After having worked as a legal assistant in law firms and within the Protection Unit of the UNHCR Regional Representation for Western Europe, she was hired as a research assistant by the Migration Policy Center (RSCAS, EUI, Florence) contributing to the project CONTENTION (judicial control of detention of irregular third-country nationals in the context of the EU Return directive). Currently she is a legal intern at the Court of Justice of the European Union, in the cabinet of the Vice President, Koen Lenaerts.


This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

[1] <>.

[2] <>.

[3] <>.

[4] <>.

[5] <> (available only in Danish).

[6] <>.

[7] <> (available only in Danish).

[8] See for instance The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations (with an in-depth analysis of Muslim integration in France, Germany, and the UK), p. 31, available at: <>.

[9] D. Saunders, “The Debate: Muslim Immigration is No Threat to the West,” The Globe and Mail, March 4, 2014, available at: <>.

[10] Dos manzanas, El Consejo Central de Musulmanes de Alemania solicita incluir la protección de las minorías LGBT en la Constitución, May 11, 2010, available at: <>.

[11] Dos manzanas, Fundado en Alemania colectivo musulmán a favor del matrimonio homosexual, June 2010, available at: <>.

[12] Regarding transsexuals and the modification of their civil status, see for instance: Rees v. The United Kingdom, Appl. 9532/81, 17 October 1986; Cossey v. United Kingdom, Appl. 10843/84, September 27, 1990; Sheffield and Horsham v. the United Kingdom, Appl. 22885/93 and 23390/64, 30 July 1998; Goodwin v. The United Kingdom, Appl. 28957/95, July 11, 2002. The Court also explicitly condemned discrimination based on sexual orientation leading for Member States to exclude adoption for same-sex partners while allowing that possibility for unmarried different-sex couple (Fretté v. France, Appl. 36515/97, February 26, 2002; E.B. v. France, Appl. Appl. 43546/02, January 22, 2008, X. v. Austria, Appl. 19010/07, February 19, 2013). Finally, when it comes to employment and social security, see Perkins & R. v. United Kingdom, Appl. 43208/98 and 44875/98, October 22, 2002; P.B and J.S. v. Austria, Appl. 18984/02, July 22, 2010.

[13] M. Scherpe, The Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Couples in Europe and the Role of the European Court of Human Rights, The Equal Rights Review, Vol. 10, 2013, p. 85. See also E. Bribosia, I. Rorive, and L. Van Den Eynde, “Same-Sex Marriage – Building an Argument before the ECtHR in Light of the US Experience,” 2013, forthcoming in the Berkeley Journal of International Law.

[14] The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Homophobia, Transphobia and Discrimination on Grounds of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the EU Member States (summary of findings, trends, challenges and promising practices), June 2011, available at: <>, highlights an important lack of legal and practical protection against insult, assault or incitement to violence toward LGBT people within EU member states. See for instance The Guardian, “Gay Man Reveals Bloodstained ‘Face of French Homophobia’ on Facebook, April 9, 2013.

[15] Reuters, “Polish Parliament Rejects Efforts to Legalize Gay Unions,” 25 January 2013, available at: <>.

[16] Metro Weekly, “Slovakia Changes Constitution to Ban Same-Sex Marriage,” June 5, 2014, available at: <>.

[17] Council of Europe, Discrimination on Grounds of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Europe, second edition, September 2011, p. 24. For the entire United States, see the Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).


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