Last month, the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company STIB and Plan International launched a campaign to raise public awareness about sexism and sexual harassment. It’s a very welcome initiative. Nearly 98% of women in our country have experienced sexual harassment in a public space.
But we live in a paradoxical age. On the one hand, many such initiatives to counter sexism and harassment have been taken in recent years. In a MeToo-era it has become increasingly evident that sexism is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, sexism has also been quite systematically normalized and trivialized politically by leading right-wing populists all over the globe. Sexism is an integral part of their successful political strategy.
Threat to society
Much has already been said and written about what Trump thinks of women, and the way he treats them. The comments of Jair Bolsonaro on women, rape or homosexuality are so appalling that it’s morally repulsive to even just cite them. In Italy, a local branch of Salvini’s extreme right-wing party Lega Nord celebrated Women’s Day by distributing a controversial flyer. It suggested the natural role of women is to serve and support men and the family, and that the self-determination of women is a possible threat to society.
In Holland, Thierry Baudet managed to become one of the country’s most popular politicians. In his surge to power, he repeatedly expressed the view that women are in many ways inferior to men. He also published a deeply misogynist novel, and while an author is not responsible for the shortcomings and moral flaws of his characters, in interviews Baudet did little to sharpen the line between what he thinks personally and what his characters or the narrator in his novel think.
And then there was the huge scandal involving the former Vice-Chancellor of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache. Many commentators saw the scandal, and rightly so, as once again proof of how Russia is able to determine the course of European politics and how it is contributing to the disintegration of the EU by supporting extreme right-wing politicians. Yet the scandal is also proof of another key aspect of right-wing populism and extremism: its sexist disposition.
The fact that it would only take a flirting Russian woman to influence Strache’s political decisions and policies is one reason to be worried. But that Strache later explained his acts were “typical alcohol-fuelled macho behaviour” with which he “wanted to impress the attractive female host” is yet another reason to be concerned. It takes a very peculiar mindset and view of men and women if you think such an explanation in one way or another should soften the sharp edges of one’s mistakes, let alone justify them.
Grabbing a woman for fun
The pattern is quite clear: where right-wing populists gain momentum, sexism also gains momentum. Many people reacted surprised when, according to a recent largescale survey, Denmark emerged as the least feminist country in Europe. Denmark turned out to be a country quite permissive when it comes to sexism. In an interview with The Guardian, a Professor of Communication at Roskilde University stated: “You can grab a woman, but so long as you did it because it was ‘fun’, then culturally we tend to think it’s not that bad.”
There is something rotten…
Right-wing nationalism in Denmark is surging, in particular owing to the Danish People’s Party, the second largest party of the country. According to some, Denmark is quickly becoming the ‘creepiest country of Europe’. The right-wing government installed so-called ghetto laws, and in so doing, the principle that everybody is equal under the law, and that there should not be any discrimination based on origin, skin colour or economic status has been thrown in the dustbin of history as a naive ideal of the past. The government has identified about 20 areas in the country as “ghettos”. Criminal offences are more severely punished if you live in such a ghetto.
Children from ghettos are obliged to spend several hours a week away from their parents, in special childcare centres, where they are taught how to become proper Danes. And if it is up to the Danish People’s Party, evening curfews and enforcing children from the ghettos to wear ankle bracelets too might be a proper measure. It is quite uncertain if the marginalization and stigmatization of these people is conducive to their integration and development. Enforcement is rarely a proper technique for enlightenment.
Elephant in the room
Hence, if you know a right-wing populist spectre is haunting Denmark, and that this often entails a trivialization of sexism, it hardly comes as a surprise that Denmark is bottom of the class when it comes to promoting feminism and disapproving of sexism. Over the past years, the EU has perhaps too narrowly focused on how right-wing authoritarianism undermines democracy in Poland and Hungary. As a consequence, Denmark has become the elephant in the room. It is quite conceivable that had Poland or Hungary proclaimed “ghetto laws”, they would have caused a much greater controversy.
It is a delusion to think history follows one straight line of progress. All rights and freedoms are fought for, they are never just given, and they are never a given. What has been won, can always be lost again. We should be more adamant in the protection of liberal democracy and the moral values upon which it relies: freedom, equality, toleration and solidarity. Sexism erodes all of these four fundamental values and principles. As long as leading politicians get away with trivializing and normalizing sexism, initiatives such as those of STIB and Plan International risk being mere drops of water on a hot pan.