After spending two years with the white supremacist organisation the Heritage Front, teenage Elisa Hategan performed a remarkable act of courage. Aged only 18, Elisa testified in court against the leader and founder of the group, a man she once thought of as a surrogate father. This act, which she describes as incredibly painful and scary, helped to put him and other leaders in prison. It was in 1994, and less than five years after its creation the Heritage Front was the most prominent far-right group in Canada.
“I realised that I was being manipulated and forced to do things I didn’t want to participate in – such as the terror campaign,” Elisa told NADJA via email. “It was a very dangerous time, in the sense that people were being stalked, immigrants beaten and killed after hate rock concerts [concerts promoting white nationalism]. The Native Canadian Centre, Jewish places of worship, and people’s homes were being spray-painted or firebombed. I knew too much, and running away would have been a cowardly act. I wanted to shut down the group.”
And since then, Elisa has been fighting against far-right extremist groups relentlessly. Author of the 2014 memoir Race Traitor, which details her journey in and out the Heritage Front, she has written various articles on extremist political movements and their recruitment tactics.
She is also Regional Coordinator for Central Canada and the US at Against Violent Extremism (AVE), a global network of former extremists and survivors of violence who educate against radicalisation and empower people to leave hate groups.
“Many vulnerable, angry or lonely people are drawn to extremist movements because they promise friendship, comradeship, a unified cause and a glorious vision of the future. They don’t realise that the people who recruit you into the far-right don’t really care about you – they have an agenda and you are expendable.”
Elisa was drawn to the Heritage Front for the same reasons. She emigrated to Canada from Romania with her family when she was 11 and had a hard time adjusting to a different culture. When her father died shortly after they moved, she ran away from her abusive mother and lived in children’s group homes.
It was in one of these homes that Elisa started being bullied by kids. The reason, she believed, was because she was the only white girl.
After returning home to live with her mother Elisa dropped out of school. She was feeling alienated, and had no friends or purpose in life. When she saw on TV a clean-cut man wearing a suit and talking about being proud of having a European heritage, Elisa wrote down the address of his group and eventually contacted the Heritage Front.
“When I joined the far-right at 16, I went from being a friendless, powerless teenager to being powerful. Almost overnight I was speaking at rallies, representing Canada’s far-right on American television and in the Canadian press.“
“For the first time in my life, people were interested to hear what I was saying. It gave me a false sense of self-respect and importance. The more I dehumanised others, the less inferior I felt about myself.”
Feminisation of the far-right
And as a teenage girl Elisa did hold a lot of power. Her youth and innocent air – a stark contrast to the hardcore neo-Nazis and skinheads of the group – were very quickly exploited by the leaders of the Heritage Front.
Within a month of joining the party, Elisa was cast as their poster girl, attending media interviews and speaking at every rally. While the group’s other women were in the shadows, Elisa was mentored to be a future leader of the organisation.
Promoting the soft and feminine side of their female leaders and members is a strategy that has increasingly been used by far-right political parties and movements to clean up their image and attract sympathisers.
When elected leader of the French far-right party Front National (FN) in 2011, Marine Le Pen started the process of “dédiabolisation,” or de-demonisation, an effort to clean up the party’s image and normalise its portrayal in the press. She purged the party from its anti-Semitic and neo-fascist roots, banning skinheads from the its public rallies. She even had her father expelled from the party in 2015 for his extreme and controversial views.
Le Pen worked hard to change the party’s toxic image to a softer and more friendly one, standing as a woman and mother. For the presidential campaign she also swapped the party’s trademark flame motif for a more feminine thornless blue rose.
And her efforts have paid off. She might not have won the French presidency in 2017, but she still took just under 34 per cent of the vote, double what her father Jean-Marie Le Pen managed in the 2002 election.
More feminine, less feminist
Their rhetoric might be more feminine but the core message of far-right groups is still the same. They reject notions of equality and universality of human rights, which include holding a strong anti-feminism sentiment.
“Far-right extremists have a complicated image of womanhood” explains Elisa. “Paradoxically, while they are subjugating women and girls, they see themselves as champions of women’s honour and warriors in the battle to preserve traditional values. They place women on a great pedestal (“they are the mothers of our children, and our race cannot survive without defending our women”) but at the same time, they expect them to live a subservient existence where education is not encouraged and where a woman’s place is only in the kitchen and the bedroom.”
“You won’t find purpose or meaning in hatred because hate is corrosive and destroys from the inside”
At a time when women around the world are fighting for gender equality and reproductive freedom, it makes us wonder why millennial women would join a movement that denigrates their rights.
“I think a lot of young women joining the far-right don’t realise just how rampant the sexism and bigotry is. They’re swept up in an ideological battle, thinking they are championing free speech, when in reality it’s largely about gaining attention. Many popular far-right women have many thousands of followers on social media platforms, earning attention and donations from devoted supporters, so it’s also an ego boost.”
The ugly reality, says Elisa, is that most women in the far-right will encounter sexism, abuse and often violence.
According to an article published on Salon last December, some prominent alt-right women have started to denounce the incessant misogynistic trolling they get online by their white nationalists peers.
Twenty-two year old Lauren Southern, a far-right political activist and social media personality, is among them. After spreading her anti-feminist views online, Southern felt the need to explain to her YouTube audience “Why I’m Not Married.” The video came as a response to the backlash she received for pushing “traditional family values” while remaining unmarried and childless. Her explanation? Women should be able to choose their own life path and not be attacked for it (which actually sounds pretty feminist).
Social media and propaganda
Even if they are bullied, women have become an essential social media marketing tool for the far-right. They bring in lonely guys who fantasise about finding girlfriends in the far-right and boost financial donations, while championing an image of the “traditional woman” of earlier generations, Elisa explains. Women, and especially friendly and attractive girls, are being used to expand the far-right’s social media reach to unparalleled proportions.
In Europe, alt-right and far-right political parties often outdo the mainstream political parties on social media. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland has more Facebook followers than Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party of Germany combined.
The UK’s Britain First’s Facebook page has more than 2m likes. It was banned from the social media platform a couple of months ago for repeatedly posting content designed to incite hatred against minority groups.
Some social media companies – such as Facebook – argue that counter-speech on their platform can be a more effective tool in addressing extremist groups by allowing people to challenge hateful posts. But for Elisa, it’s imperative to dismantle their social media platforms, shut down their donation and fundraising platforms, and create tough cyber-hate laws that are actually enforceable.
“The internet has enabled extremists to recruit people thousands of miles away. Whereas 20 years ago, you often met a recruiter face-to-face and they struck up a friendship or conversation, today a youth or vulnerable person can be groomed from across the country via chat rooms.”
Social media corporations, she says, have a duty to refuse service to extremist organisations who use their platform to incite hatred, bullying and intolerance.
“Such groups are full of people who hate themselves so much that they blame everybody else for their problems and lash out at the world in violent, destructive ways.”
Fighting back against the Heritage Front was an act of redemption for Elisa.
“It enabled me to forgive myself in the years to come, to be able to sleep at night knowing I made a real difference”.
Featured photo: cover of Race Traitor, written by Elisa Hategan