Sian Norris is an investigative journalist, author, feminist activist, and the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She has reported on a wide array of topics, including reproductive rights and the rise of the religious right in Europe and the US, as well as women resisting patriarchy in Bangladesh through theatre and through the direct defiance of child marriage.
Her upcoming book, 'Bodies Under Siege: How the Far-Right Attack on Reproductive Rights Went Global,' due to be published in June 2023 by Verso Books, is an exposé of the attack on women's reproductive rights by the far right and the tactical significance of this attack in the resurgence of fascism in the Global North. We spoke to her over the phone about the topics encompassed in her upcoming book.
What is fascism?
The question itself raises a lot of problems since there are a lot of different ways that we can define fascism. Should we define fascism historically, with reference to Mussolini and Hitler? How does that help us understand fascism today? I think that to understand fascism across time we need a more general perspective. Fascism is the fear of freedom. Fascism is a reaction against the potential for change and therefore focuses on a desire to rollback history and progress.
Over the last 60 years we've seen a glimpse of freedom with all the various struggles for freedom by racial minorities, women, the LGBT+ community that have won these communities some of their civil rights. Fascism has been the reaction against this, the attempt to strip away these rights because it is fearful of what a more equal world can mean.
What accounts for the resurgence of fascism around the world?
I can give you a Global North perspective on the resurgence of fascism. That is, a perspective based in Europe and North America. The recent resurgence of fascism in the Global North has a lot to do with the legacy of the 2008 economic crash, that is, with the fallout of the crash and the collapse of the ideology of neoliberalism. As the journalist Paul Mason said, after the crash the financial system was put on life support, but you can't put an ideology on life support. There was a huge collapse of this narrative that the markets controlled everything and we are products of the market. The lack of a narrative with which to make sense of the world left a lot of people desperate for any narrative that could help them sort out what was going on.
This is when we saw the rise of "men's rights activism," which enticed a lot of men to blame all of their problems, including their economic problems, on women and women's struggle for equality. Misogyny is a gateway to fascism. We see this time and again, and a number of researchers have come to the same conclusion. Once you believe that women should be denied their rights, it becomes easier to believe that all these other minority groups, for instance, the LGBT+ community, as well as racial and ethnic groups, should be denied their rights too. When Trump won the 2016 presidential election in the US, all these so-called "men's rights activists'' as well as outright fascists interpreted it as a huge green light for their misogynistic and fascist views. Here you suddenly had the most powerful man in the entire world, the man sitting in the White House, saying the same misogynistic and fascist things that they were saying.
How is fascism related to the oppression of women?
Fascism and the oppression of women are deeply linked. Just take a look at women's position in fascist ideology. Fascist ideology wants to bring us back to a pre-human-rights era. For example, there's Putin in Russia, who's closely tied to the right-wing nationalism of Alexander Dugin. They want to smash modernity. In fascist ideology, women don't have human rights, they are just reproductive vessels. Fascism is committed to exploiting the reproductive labour of women, since this reproductive labour is essential to the type of extremely authoritarian nation building that it envisions. You can get an idea of what fascist nation building means in, for example, the white supremacist 'Great Replacement' conspiracy theory.
According the 'Great Replacement' conspiracy theory, there is an international conspiracy to commit genocide against the white race and replace the white population of the Global North via immigration from the Global South, and a big part of this conspiracy is that feminism is repressing the white birth rate via reproductive rights, leading to a so-called 'white genocide'. In fascist ideology, we women are nothing more than our bodies. This is not to diminish the importance of motherhood in any way and the great and important work that mothers do. Feminism is, after all, engaged in supporting maternal rights - in supporting women to have the children they want to have, and have control over their fertility. But what fascism does is say we women are nothing more than our bodies. There's so much more that we're capable of.
How to fight back against fascism?
I'm very hopeful. I think the first step is to acknowledge the resurgence of fascism. When I've tried to talk to people about this in the past, I've encountered a lot of denial. People have called me "hysterical." I tried to tell people that the right was trying to take away abortion rights, but everyone thought that it could never happen. But recently it happened in America. So we need to be serious. We need to acknowledge the resurgence of the right and be serious about fighting back. We need to champion human rights and democracy. We need to make women's liberation, LGBT+ liberation, and the fight for racial equality into a positive force. In the UK the situation is very strange because the fight for equality is seen as bad. For instance, if someone expresses reactionary views there's a tendency to "let things slide." But if we want to fight back against fascism we have to not "let things slide."
Why should women care about politics? What do you have to say to women who claim to be apolitical?
Not just women, but men too should care about politics. Neither men nor women should be apolitical. But we live in an uneven system, and women are underrepresented in the political system. For instance, in the UK, in the House of Commons, out of 650 MPs only 225 are women. So many of the decisions are still being made by men. There are decisions being made for women by men. Women should care about politics because politics directly affects them. Nearly 1 in 3 are victims of violence, and that includes sexual violence.
So there is a pandemic of violence against women. There's no way to do something about this except for becoming political. I think that women should be represented more in politics, even if their politics are different from mine, that is, whether they are on the right or on the left. Otherwise, men will continue to make all the decisions for us.