Carceral Feminism, Femonationalism and Quarantine

By Caren Holmes

Artwork by Micah Bazant (@micahbazant on Instagram)

For decades, state structures have been heavily invested in two harmful, contemporary modes of so-called “feminist” state intervention: carceral feminism and femonationalism. Both “feminisms” advance and legitimize policing, incarceration and immigration controls in the name of women’s liberation. They have produced political alliances between the prison and military industrial complex, with far-right political actors and women collectively organizing under the banner of “feminism.” Fundamentally, both ideologies reflect the colonial logics which have produced their contemporary function.

The pandemic has exposed the abandonment of survivors of violence, who have been left behind and excluded by carceral feminist and femonationalist projects. The prolonged investment in these strategies has exacerbated conditions of gender violence during the global pandemic, making it even more deadly for Black, brown and disabled communities. Rather than responding to the pandemic with public health guidance, non-abolitionist feminisms have contributed to militarized and neoliberal responses to COVID-19 and state co-optation of the pandemic justify the expansion of its powers. The professionalization and criminalization of gender violence services has further stifled the development of creative, community-based strategies to address gender violence. As London based abolitionist organizer Kelsey Mohamed explains, “continued investment in the prison industrial complex and lack of investment in housing and non-carceral responses to violence has left many survivors trapped with people who are abusive towards them with few options that don’t involve the police and the state.”

Abolitionist feminism presents a practical, just alternative to existing systems of carceral logic. It is rooted in the belief that gender is not experienced in a vacuum but in conjunction with expressions of state violence, economic, social and political precarity. Abolitionist feminism asks that we radically reorient our world, divesting from systems of state violence and investing in non-carceral resources that strengthen our communities. As recently explained by Beth Richie, member of the radical feminist women of color collective INCITE!, abolitionist feminism and the work of INCITE! is focused on “moving unapologetically to take power back from the mainstream anti-violence movement.” In this critical moment, we must follow the lead of radical feminists to combat the destructive legacies of non-abolitionist feminisms and to develop creative and liberatory modes of addressing gender violence in our communities.

Carceral Feminism: A trap for survivors of violence

Carceral feminism is an ideology which upholds the criminal punishment system as the sole or primary arbitrator of gender violence justice and leverages the credibility of feminist movements  to widen the scope of state powers. This is done by increasing prison and police funding, expanding definitions of criminalized behavior, and advocating for longer prison sentences. However this analysis ignores the central role of the state itself in producing rather than addressing gender and sexual violence; 40% of US police officers are themselves domestic abusers and prison staff perpetrate half of all rapes in U.S prisons and jails. INCITE! organizers further explain that, “police not only often fail to protect women of color and trans folks of color from interpersonal and community violence, they often perpetrate further violence against us, including when responding to calls for help” and that, “immigrant women who have called the police to intervene in domestic violence have been arrested and deported.”

Carceral feminism has abandoned survivors around the world who are now trapped permanently by stay-at-home orders living under abusive conditions of domestic violence. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of shelter-in-place orders around the world, reports of domestic and gender violence have surged including in France where calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 30%. The true numbers are likely much higher, given that available figures reflect only reported cases and many people are currently trapped in abusive homes and cannot report or seek refuge from the violence they experience. A New York Times article on gender violence during pandemic notes, “those who may have felt safe once their partner left for work or their children were at school now live without any window of relief as businesses and schools shutter.” Moreover the already limited resources and refuges that exist have been quickly overwhelmed, further compounding the crisis.

Carceral feminist advocacy has also pushed for the drastic expansion of prison infrastructure, which has facilitated and justified mass incarceration.  Prisons around the globe are overpopulated beyond their capacity and prisoners have long suffered due to extremely poor conditions and violently neglectful standards of health care. In the United States, the deadly impact of these pre-existing conditions have come to light during this pandemic, with prisons becoming hotbeds for the virus. Lack of access to personal hygiene products, inadequate sanitizing equipment and the inability of prisoners to physically distance has led to disproportionately high rates of infection and death within carceral facilities as compared to the general population. Mohamed emphasizes that survivors seeking justice and intervention into domestic violence  during the public health crisis, must now consider whether reporting their abuser to authorities will result in their abuser’s incarceration and potential death sentence. Calling the cops has become an even more lethal option.

Feminist author, Lola Olufemi, notes that non-abolitionist feminisms have

“[done] much to sanitize the image of policing… reducing people’s ability to question why the state has chosen this law and order’ approach [to the pandemic] instead of ensuring that survivors and whole communities are provided with the necessary resources, safety nets and financial support that might keep them safe and make social distancing a possibility.” 

She further explains that carceral feminism

asks us to trust the government and its approach, which implicitly means trusting carcerality. In refusing to provide an answer beyond the police, carceral feminism traps survivors who cannot and will not engage with the criminal justice system into situations they cannot escape.”

Femonationalism: Entrenching racist structures

Femonationalism refers to the “[advancement] of xenophobic and racist politics through the touting of gender equality,”[1] and advocates for neoliberal worker programs, stricter borders and more “efficient” deportation regimes under the guise of “women’s rights.” Femonationalist politics have established the preconditions of quarantine under which vulnerable women are simultaneously “essential” and abandoned. Feminized and migrant labor has been deemed “essential” but despite a high risk of virus exposure, workers remain poorly compensated, are denied paid leave and are systemically disenfranchised from health care access.

Amidst this global health crisis, countries have fortified their immigration regimes leaving families trapped at border crossings or in immigration detention as the virus ravages dense and overcrowded migrant camps and detention centers. Border closings and global travel restrictions have further limited the opportunities of hundreds of thousands if not millions of migrants, who are stranded around the world. In this context and without “proper” documentation, many migrants are systematically abandoned by existing health care structures. As these places become sites of death, we must remember the xenophobic and femonationalist political agendas which built them. It is not only the virus that will devastate vulnerable communities during the pandemic but also the racist borders, employment schemes and policing practices which have entrenched the pre-conditions for premature death.

Another example of femonationalism comes in the form of “civic integration” work programs piloted in several European nations (Italy, France and the Netherlands) which aim to “emancipate” migrant and Muslim women from the home by pushing them into particular sectors of employment. In reality, women participating in these programs are “systematically directed toward a handful of job types: hotel cleaning, housekeeping, child minding, and caregiving for the elderly and/or disabled.”[2] Western and white women, who have fought to emancipate themselves from low-paid, social reproductive labor rely on the continued economic precarity of Muslim and migrant women to perform feminized work.[3] Edward Said argues that colonialism aims to assimilate the Native (or in this case the migrant) only partially, so that their labor remains useful and so that they can never become full citizens or achieve fully recognized humanity.[4] Femonationalist politics calculatedly preserves this divide and systematically funnels marginalized women into forms of undesirable but now “essential” labor.

Often, the political claim of femonationalism is to offer “solutions” to gender violence and disenfranchisement experienced by marginalized women. Perversely, this has generated new employment opportunities for upper-class white women who have carved out a space for themselves in the ‘rescue industry,’ a term which refers to “the naming of a project to secure and control working-class women.”[5] Danish clothing brand “Carcel Clothing” for instance, operates production lines in women’s prisons across the Global South, a scheme they claim “empowers women.” While Western colonialism and imperialism has partnered to strengthen carceral institutions around the world, Western women offer “economic empowerment” opportunities to a uniquely captive and unfree labor market. The feminized “rescue industry” will undoubtably be repurposed during the current global health crisis in the predictable mode of disaster capitalism.

Upper-class and white women, emancipated from devalued, essential or imminently dispensable labor will inevitably build charities and grow opportunities for themselves within the savior industry, “helping” and “serving” populations of the very women their politics have systematically subjugated.

It is under these conditions that we now experience the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and government mandated lockdowns around the world. Women, funneled into social reproductive labor by work programs and racist economic structures, have been made dispensable under the precarious conditions of their work. In this sense, the feminized class divide has allowed some to stay home comfortably and others to fall into dire poverty or become ill from work induced exposure. It is the clearest evidence that the real agenda of femonationalist politics is social cleansing.

Breaking out of the cage of non-abolitionist feminism

This global health crisis has laid bare the harms and failures of carceral, state-based feminist logics and the extent to which survivors on the underside of race, gender and class privilege have been made the collateral damage of prolonged investment in feminist-state cooperation. This unique moment has created a distinct urgency in reclaiming the roots of emancipatory feminism and mobilizing in order to expose how systemic and institutionalized gender and state violence is itself a public health crisis.

As we face this critical juncture, we must invest in creative, abolitionist interventions into gender and state violence. Communities are already heading this call, responding to the crisis by developing mutual aid networks and mobilizing to reorient city budgeting priorities specifically demanding divestment from policing. We must look to the work of INCITE!, Creative Interventions, Critical Resistance and Sisters Uncut (to name a few) to develop new strategies for caring for each other amidst pandemic, economic collapse, and shelter-in-place.

As stated by Olufemi, abolitionist feminists seek to use alternative methods aimed at ending harm for good, and that No other approach takes seriously the idea that violence is not an inevitability.” When we limit our political imaginaries to the capacities of the state, we not only fail to address gender violence, but we reinvest in structures of state violence and white supremacy. As communities mobilize to divest from prisons and policing and invest in non-carceral responses to harm, Mimi Kim reminds us, “we can’t fuck up more than the cops.”

State structures such as prisons, police and borders are inherently violent, and by necessity will never become sites of feminist liberation. When viewed through this lens, it becomes clear that true emancipation requires the abolition of the existing regimes in favor of community-based alternatives which center the care and safety of all. 


[1] Farris, Sara R. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham London: Duke University Press, 2017: 4.

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Works Cited

Agustín, Laura María. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. 2. impr. London: Zed Books, 2008.

Bierria, Alisa, Onion Carrillo, Eboni Colbert, Xandra Ibarra, Theryn Kigvamasud’Vashti, and Shale Maulana. “Taking Risks: Implementing Grassroots Community Accountability Strategies.” The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Parter Avuse in Activist Communities. Communities Against Rape and Abuse, 2005.

Cesaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Farris, Sara R. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham London: Duke University Press, 2017.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

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