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An interview with Sophia Siddiqui


“Black Kids Matter” sticker at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota. CC BY 2.0, Photo: Flickr/Lorie Shaull

Conservatives and right-wingers are united in the conviction that birth-rates must be raised. At the same time, certain groups are systematically denied sexual self-determination and the right to bear children. The interconnections between these realities were recently investigated by Sophia Siddiqui in the journal Race & Class, in which she describes the phenomenon of “reproductive racism”. She spoke with Conni Schwaerzer-Dutta for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation about racism, anti-feminism, and the movement for reproductive justice.

What made you write this article and coin this term “reproductive racism” now, and what is new about the current development?

I was looking closely at what was happening across Europe, and how antifeminist measures were central to the far right — through attacks on abortion rights, repeals of domestic violence legislation, or the closure of gender studies courses. My colleagues at the Institute of Race Relations have done extensive work showing how racism is the breeding ground for fascism, but I was beginning to see that anti-feminism is also an integral part of the far right.

Sophia Siddiqui writes on anti-racist feminism at the Institute of Race  Relations (IRR), London, an anti-racist charity that informs the  struggle for racial justice in the UK, Europe, and internationally. She  is the Deputy Editor of the IRR’s journal, Race & Class

Around the same time, we saw feminist strike movements explode across the world, as well as feminist anti-fascist movements in the UK. I wanted to make sense of that moment. And I realized very quickly that it wasn’t just an attack on women, but an attack on trans people, queer people, and an attack on migrants and asylum seekers. The term “reproductive racism” emerged out of that research as a way to think of all these things together and to look at how they interlink.

You name examples of financial incentives which reward families for having children from right-wing governments with an openly nationalist and pro-natalist agenda in Hungary (Fidesz), Poland (PiS) and Italy (Lega) — but in other places and times similar financial benefits just seem to be seen as “normal” part of the welfare state. Is what you call the “birth-rate agenda” a link between the far right and mainstream conservatives, and in what sense do their reproductive policy agendas differ?

The birth-rate agenda is a continuum that links the far-right and mainstream agendas. On the one side, you have coercive policies restricting the ability to have children, and on the other side financial rewards for certain women to give birth. You also have wider policies such as austerity, the imprisonment and detention of people, immigration regimes, which all restrict the ability to have and to care for children. That is embedded in the UK, in Germany, in France, and in many parts of the world.

But there are also far-right conspiracy theories such as the “Great Replacement” theory, which argues that the white populations are at a risk of being wiped out by migrants, which are also evoked by European politicians. We need to see these things as a continuum, because what links them is nativism across Europe, which is completely embedded in the mainstream. Here in the UK, we have a hostile environment that creates a culture of fear for pregnant women — fear of being deported, fear of being fined for hospital treatment, fear of being reported to the authorities — which all have deadly impacts.

Your article opens with a description of an anti-racist rally in the UK and an act of remembrance for three pregnant women who died because they did not seek healthcare for fear of deportation. Do you think the pandemic has fostered more understanding of the lack of access to and racism in healthcare as an important factor that contributes to reproductive and other injustices?

COVID has shone a light on these issues, and it has revealed systemic race and class inequalities that exist around the world. It has shown that these systemic inequalities place certain communities at a closer proximity to death than others.

The anti-racist rally I mention at the start of my article took place in context of COVID-19. It brought together domestic workers’ groups, migrant rights groups, LGBTQ groups, and health workers. It was a really powerful instance of solidarity. But I think we need to take this even further. That solidarity needs to become transnational, our resistance needs to be anti-imperialist and anti-colonial in order to understand the deep roots of global health inequalities.

You describe how the trope of the innocent child that needs to be protected is used symbolically by the right wing. On the other hand, children who are affected by racism, classism, or ableism are denied protection.

It’s really stark how the figure of the innocent child in danger can be mobilized for political ends, particularly in anti-LGBT rhetoric. Related to that is the questions of who deserves childhood, who is deemed worthy of protection and who is a threat?

We are currently hearing about deaths of many, including children, at the border between Poland and Belarus. This shows that some children are rendered “life unworthy of life”, and I feel this needs to be at the centre of our resistance. We need to fight for the rights of children and the rights of every life at all times.

The instrumentalization of children seems to echo the instrumentalization of women in racist and nationalist discourses.

Yes, it does echo the instrumentalization of women and their rights, which has been used as a tool by the far right to claim that sexual violence is exclusively perpetrated by Muslim men against white women.

In my initial research at the IRR, which then fed into my Race & Class article, I began looking at sexual violence in the northern UK town of Rotherham and how media discourses discussed so-called “Asian grooming gangs” in a horrific child exploitation case. This racialized moral panic erased the non-white victims of these sex crimes — those whose sexual exploitation did not fit neatly into the narrative of Asian gangs preying on vulnerable white girls.

We’ve seen this racialized narrative playing out across Europe again and again. I think this same logic is also inherent to the way that certain children are constructed as a threat, that they may grow up and become a threat, an unaccompanied refugee boy becomes a migrant man who is a threat to women and a threat to the nation. I think the two are very much interlinked — and that shows why we need an anti-racist feminist approach, which tackles racism and sexual violence at the same time.

Another key point of your article for me was the ironic connection that the ideal of the Western nuclear family is only upheld under neoliberal conditions by overexploited labour of migrant women, who are then denied their own right to reproduction and family life. Why is this problem still not really recognized, and what would be the political implications if it were?

For me it is such an obvious link that migrant women’s labour is being hyper-exploited at the expense of being able to look after their own families, particularly when they are working in the care sector. Migrant women are still seen as units of labour rather than human beings, so the fact that they have social needs, families, that they have lives is often ignored. It’s so dehumanizing.

We need to see issues connected to each other and we need to understand that migrant women need to have rights as workers but also as mothers and how these two roles are very much interconnected. I think if we start to look at the totality of their experiences together we can begin to challenge this idea that the public is very separate from the private, which has been so central to feminist activism for decades.

You emphasize that intersectionality theory is not enough to explain the causes of reproductive racism and its role in capitalist society. Which theory could explain it better?

Intersectionality theory is important particularly for showing how different oppressions intersect in an individual as well as in society, but we need to take it a step further because it doesn’t explain why these oppressions exist, particularly in the current neoliberal world order. I don’t necessarily think we need another theory, but rather it is a case of stretching the theories that we do have and thinking about their creative potential. Instead of thinking what does intersectionality means in an individual’s life, what would it mean if we think of an intersectionality of struggles instead?

We are seeing this kind of resistance coming to the fore, for instance early last month Polish mothers supported asylum seekers at the border between Belarus and Poland while women’s strikers protested against a parliamentary bill that would ban pride parades in Poland. People on the ground are seeing connections between all these different struggles.

I think what’s crucial is that we move from the local to the transnational and that we realize all of these issues are really interconnected. For instance, going back to the crisis in Poland and Belarus, last month British military troops were sent to the border, so it just shows that there is UK involvement with what’s going on in Poland, so our solidarity should also be doing the same.

You mentioned the feminist strike movement, which inspired you as “a movement that recognizes that race, economic, and gender justice are indivisible”. Could this be the basis for further coalition building, or do we need a reproductive justice movement in Europe similar to the one that was started by Black Feminists in the US?

The feminist strike movement and calls for a feminism for the 99% are really powerful articulations of what an international feminist movement could look like. I think the power of these movements is that they combine struggles against male violence with other forms of violence such as transphobia, homophobia, racism, and the violence of the labour market. But another movement that comes to mind is the abolitionist movement, which has really come to the foreground following Black Lives Matter protests last year, although of course the historical roots of abolition go back much further. I see a lot of power in this movement because abolitionists argue that violence isn’t inevitable, violence is something that we can get to the root causes of and undo before it happens.

What I have learnt from abolitionist feminists is that we need to see violence in all of its forms, interpersonal violence, state violence, the violence of the market and of capitalism, and that understanding is also key to reproductive justice activism in the US. Instead of creating new movements, I think we should have a fusion of all the different movements coming together.

What do we have to keep in mind if we translate concepts like Reproductive Justice or Abolitionism that come from US Black and Black Feminist movements to European contexts and movements?

It’s not as easy as just importing these concepts from the US. We need to do the work to ask ourselves what an abolitionist future would look like for us. There are many differences between how the state operates in the US and how it works across different European countries. There are specific carceral structures here in Europe that we need to understand regarding abolition, particular borders.

We can also ask what abolition can teach us in terms of mental health care, disability justice, and the way that schools are organized. Abolition isn’t just about dismantling, it’s about building alternatives that keep ourselves and each other safe. That involves creative work imagining what future we want.

Where do you see this happening?

I think a lot is happening at the grassroots level, so we don’t hear about it all the time. Particularly the anti-prison movements in the UK are strong. A lot of resistance is coming up in the UK now after the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer. Since then, abolitionist feminists in the UK have done important work to show the links between police violence and gender-based violence.

Last month, a direct action group called Sisters Uncut ran a series of police intervention trainings across the country, training people what to do when they see a police stop-and-search. We also have a very strong activist movement in the educational sector, campaigning against police officers in schools for instance, and seeing the links between the education a child receives and how their life is shaped later on. That’s where we are seeing tangible efforts being made.

You initially stated that you started your research on feminism and anti-feminism. Finally, you came up with the term “reproductive racism”, which you also call “a new racist avatar”. Where do you want to intervene with your term reproductive racism?

I want to speak to both feminists and anti-racists. A feminist movement that focuses purely on the right to abortion is quite narrow, and I wanted to expand that feminist lens and show how anti-racism should be an integral part of feminism. But at the same time, I wanted to speak to the anti-racists who may think that gender and feminism are secondary issues.

Anti-racism and feminism need to be hand in hand and any discussions around racism that don’t look at the role of gender are incomplete. At the same time, any discussions around feminism that don’t involve racism are also incomplete. I wanted to speak to both at the same time and to say that we need an anti-racist feminism if we want to understand this world we are living in and to resist all forms of oppression.