The idea that “our women” need protecting from physical threat—and sexual contamination—is an age-old rationale for racist violence and exclusion. From Donald Trump’s claim that Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” to Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s tirade against men named “D-Money, Smoothie, [and] Shifty” who “come from Connecticut and New York” and “impregnate” Maine’s women, the trope has been on full display in American politics this campaign season. Last year, white supremacist Dylann Roof showed the extent of its hateful potential when he killed nine black worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, saying, “You are raping our women and taking over the country.”
As asylum-seekers arrive in European cities, bands of vigilantes are using the same sick logic as an excuse to prowl the streets. The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau chief, Anthony Faiola, wrote on Sunday about a “far-right citizens group sprouting chapters across Finland” called the “Soldiers of Odin.” Odin is the Nordic god of war, and the group “includes known neo-Nazis and followers with criminal records, as well as more typical men”; the avowed purpose of the patrols is to “keep ‘our women’ safe.” It seems these Finnish thugs are emulating American white supremacists: The patrol Faiola shadowed drove “a beat-up van sporting the stars and bars of the American Confederacy,” though when he commented on it, they told him that they “just liked the look of it.”
The proliferation of far-right groups in Europe and the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee sentiment they reflect is deeply troubling. But the Post story contains a note of hope. A group of mostly female protesters in the Finnish city of Tampere, where Faiola was reporting, refused to be co-opted as a justification for the vigilantes’ xenophobia. Faiola describes the scene:
[T]he Soldiers’ first foray in Tampere recently proved less successful than they’d hoped. Moments after they hit the streets, a troop of protesters dressed as clowns and calling themselves the Loldiers of Odin (a play on the Internet shorthand for “laughing out loud”) ambushed the black-clad vigilantes.
At one point, the clowns—most of them women—surrounded the men and taunted them by singing a local version of “Ring Around the Rosie.”
“They are clowns, too, doing what they’re doing,” said one young protester, who, like the others, declined to give her name. “We are here to show tolerance, because these clowns,” she said, gesturing toward the men, “are the ones who are winning in Finland.”
At this point, farce may be the most appropriate response to the debate over the migrant crisis in both Europe and the U.S. Faiola reports that “sales of pepper spray have gone through the roof across Finland and Germany. New self-defense classes are popping up. In some German communities, sales of fake weapons are soaring.” Fears ballooned after hundreds of women reported being sexually harassed or assaulted by a throng of men in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve; Dec. 31 brought several complaints tied to male asylum-seekers in the Finnish capital of Helsinki as well.
Supporters of welcoming policies toward migrants and refugees blame the reports of sexual violence on a few bad apples, while Europe’s far right paints the Muslim arrivals as enemies of Western values. It’s true that some migrants coming from conservative societies may be confused or scandalized by the sight of women in Western clothes, said Abbas al-Arja, a 25-year-old Iraqi immigrant who moved to Finland in 2010 and is interviewed in the Post story. “Some of them coming now have a lot to learn,” he said. “They do not understand a woman dressed like that.” But he emphasized the way that fear has taken on a life of its own, making matters worse for everyone. “Now Muslim women are afraid to go in the streets because of the Soldiers of Odin. What have we achieved? We are afraid of them, and they are afraid of us.”
The Loldiers of Odin can’t untangle that noxious dynamic. But by staging a sendup of their supposed protectors, they did highlight the way that misogyny and racism can weave together and augment each other. They also made it clear that they don’t want to serve as an excuse for anyone’s bigoted agenda. After the murders in Charleston, the writer Chloe Angyal, in a piece for the New Republic, urged white women “to decry the violence that is done in our name.” With their comic protest, these Finnish clowns found a way to tackle that dead-serious imperative.