According to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which sets out the international legal framework codifying the rights and duties of states and individuals with respect to asylum, the term “refugee” applies to any person who, « owing to well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it » . Refugees are thus, by definition, migrants – that is, people living temporarily or permanently in a country in which they were not born – who benefit from special international protection because of the risk of persecution in their country of origin. France has 4.3 million immigrants of foreign nationality, of whom 359,001 are protected under refugee or stateless status. While the very notion of refuge implies the crossing of a border, the Geneva Convention lays the foundations of a legal framework based on the idea of derogatory asylum. The right to asylum consists of an exceptional right to move from one country to another, for reasons deemed legitimate, in an international order marked by the triumph of the nation-state model and the closing of borders to migratory flows.
Since the 2000s, this closure has taken the form of an increasing securitization of borders, understood here as the spaces marking the separation between two different political and legal entities, between two states. Border areas are thus characterized by an increasing number of barriers, surveillance technologies and controls. The exceptional character of this securitization phenomenon lies in the “thickness” of the border created, in the sense of the historian Sabine Dullin : the border manifests itself on the line of separation itself, as well as in the interior cities, airports, but also the periphery of the host country. The implementation of this process is the result of and leads to a political agenda of human flows under the prism of a security issue. Migration is not treated as a socio-economic issue, but as a national security issue.
The process described is accompanied by a certain system of representations of the figure of the refugee. According to Piero Galloro , the treatment of these people in the public space is based on “mechanisms of monstration” through which they are shown to the public and become screens for the projection of the collective imagination. Two “projections” seem to characterize the current figure of the “refugee”: the refugee as a threat to the nation-state, and the refugee as a universal victim. On the one hand, the use of the rhetoric of crisis and overflow in host countries poses the “refugee” as the embodiment of a criminal threat to the nation. This type of discourse relies on the eminently psychological and subjective dimension of the concept of security – security can be defined as the situation of someone who feels safe from danger – and thus makes refugee immigration a source of insecurity in the eyes of public opinion. However, Barbara Lüthi , in a critical historical approach to the discourse of the “refugee crisis”, shows that, within the framework of Europe, the image relayed of an overflow emanates above all from a desire for absolute control of irregular flows by the States, flows that are themselves the inevitable effects of a restrictive regime constraining human mobility from vast geographical areas. Thus, political discourse and the media abundantly convey the idea of a flood of illegal flows penetrating Europe and France, associating refugees, migrants, and insecurity. On the other hand, refugees are the projection screens of a humanitarianism – that is, of an activism for the defense of human rights – reducing them to the figure of the perfect and universal victim. The mechanism of monstration, in Galloro’s sense, consists in the presentation of inhuman living conditions and striking scenes of violence. In her article “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism and Dehistoricization”, Lise H. Malkki explores how humanitarian interventions focus on refugees as objects of knowledge, assistance and logistics. In particular, she shows that agents of international organizations extract the figure of the refugee from any historical, political and cultural context, and make it an ahistorical humanitarian subject. The vision of the refugee is thus also that of a passive and universal victim, on whom Western humanitarianism projects its compassion.
The figure of the refugee woman, at the intersection of gender and migration issues, constitutes an absolute victim in such a system of representations. Indeed, the impotence attributed to refugee women is twofold: it is not only due to the forced nature of migration, but also to the passivity systematically associated with femininity. In these terms, refugee women have long been seen as the powerless objects of their own trajectory. Similarly, since historical research on the subject is mainly focused on the history of the modern state and public policies for managing flows, it often seems to ignore refugees and consider them as perpetual victims . Thus, while refugees, and especially women, are rendered invisible and presumed passive by media discourse, political rhetoric and scientific productions, the focus should be on the individuals concerned and their particular subjectivities. At a time when migration flows to France are in the process of feminization – the proportion of women has risen from 35% to 45% of refugees between 1963 and 2018 – and when jurisprudence on the right to asylum is moving in the direction of a better consideration of sexist and sexual violence , making refugee women the subject of their own histories seems more necessary than ever to the understanding of the historical process in place.
In this perspective, the reflection will start from the oral testimonies (2020) of three refugee women: Khadidiatou, Fatouma, and Bushra. These three women come from the African continent, the most represented geographical area among refugees in France – with 136,540 protected persons in 2020, 41.5% of whom are women. The three countries considered will be Senegal (Khadidiatou) – 1752 protected persons in 2020, of which 54.6% are women – ; Mauritania (Fatouma) – 7168 protected persons in 2020, of which 27% are women ; and Somalia (Bushra) – 3105 protected persons in 2020, of which 41.2% are women. Similarly, in order to give a prominent place to the situated narratives of these women, we will attempt to study migration not according to the emigration-immigration duality – which implies a stato-centric vision of the flow as a movement between two fixed points, i.e. two countries – but according to the experience of the individuals considered. This exercise will lead us to think about migration both within the framework of the nation-state, and beyond it, considering the multidimensional and omnipresent character of the border once the line of demarcation of territories is crossed.
Thinking of refugee women as subjects of their migrations will lead us to reason about their capacity to act and to make choices. However, the situations under consideration are situations of necessary exile, the forced nature of which constitutes the very condition for access to the legal status of refugee. The departure is thus judged, a posteriori, as a vital necessity, and these migrations are thus, by definition, characterized by an absence of choice. Moreover, the dynamics of securitization and closure of borders in Europe lead to the advent of a strict framework that strongly conditions the opportunities of asylum seekers and refugees. In these terms, what are the spaces of control that women construct for themselves in the course of their forced migration trajectory, in hostile European and French contexts? What are the choices that allow women to assert themselves in the face of the determination of the structures in place? How do women demonstrate their ability to act on “forced” migration? In what ways do they assert themselves as subjects of a history that seems to be imposed on them?
First, we will look at the period encompassing the initial situations, the causes of departure and the departure of Khadidiatou, Bushra and Fatouma, asking ourselves to what extent the origin of their forced migration is to be found in individual and structuring choices. In a second step, we will study the “being elsewhere” of these refugee women as both a permanent confrontation with the border and a redeployment of ambitions.
1. Leaving here: choosing a forced migration?
- Agency before leaving
“I am Fatouma, I am Mauritanian. I was part of a project that fought against violence against women in my neighborhood in Dar Naim (a suburb of the capital Nouakchott), because we saw that there was too much inequality and violence. We decided to do a project for women, which fought against gender inequalities. We had activities such as sensitizing the population on violence because it really existed. We did trainings for women, we opened a reception center for women victims of sexual violence, we did an activity of intergenerational dialogue because we saw that there was a problem of dialogue between the children and the parents. We invited them to dialogue because these subjects are taboo in Africa, especially in Mauritania, where a woman who has been raped, or things like that, cannot express herself, she cannot tell her parents. Also, I directed, assisted, in a project to fight against violence in Mauritania where women were trained in self-defense. I only spent 5 or 6 months with the project, but still we trained women how to defend themselves in case of violence.
In Mauritania, it is a country that is very attached to traditions and religion. For them, the woman must be behind the man. She should not decide. There should not be a woman president of an association. Many things. It is always the man who decides. Some people even say that women should not go to school, and when you reach a certain age you have to get married and start a home. That’s all the stuff we wanted to say no to, actually. Because there are only men who decide. For example, the association where I was, it’s an association that fights against inequalities, and what is strange is that the project is carried by a man, the president was a man, the coordinator was a man. It takes two-three men to have a woman. The woman should not be above the man. This is the kind of inequality that exists in Mauritania. Afterwards, through projects and everything, we manage to raise women’s awareness so that they have confidence in themselves. I have done a lot of training on self-confidence and everything.
In Mauritania, when you are of age, and you are raped, you don’t have the right to complain, instead of being a victim, you are guilty, you are judged for adultery, for sexual relations out of wedlock, they apply the sharia. So a lot of women don’t dare to complain. They will say that it is you who went to find the man. So you are already raped, and then you are condemned and humiliated. You risk being a victim and guilty of your own rape.
At the beginning I was part of the association as a member of the association. We, the women, were only members, we did not play a role in the association. It wasn’t easy at all because we were just behind and then everything the men said we said yes, we weren’t allowed to say “no”. During the meetings, we girls were not allowed to say no. And at a certain point, I realized that, what the men could do, I could do the same thing, or better. At the beginning it was not easy because, during the meetings, when I managed to contradict the president or the coordinator, it was not easy to say no. Anyway, we know that you are a woman and that the ideas you put forward do not come from you. But I said that no, everything I say comes from me, it’s not because I’m a woman that I can’t express myself and say my opinion. And what also helped me was the training we did, self-confidence, personal development and so on.
After that, what I just said, it took a long time for people to know! Because at the beginning we said that it was normal that it was men who were running a project for women, and it was normal that we were accompanied by men in fact. It was towards the end of the project that we said that we ourselves can carry our voices, and the project can only be realized when it is us, the women, who put ourselves forward and say our opinions. Because we are the ones who suffer the rapes, the inequalities, we are the ones who suffer them. It’s a daily fight, it’s not easy. With the fight and the time, I would not say that it changed everything but it improved a little bit. I am Muslim. When we talk about sharia, in the Koran, it is written that the man has more strength than the woman. Concerning rape, within a couple, the woman does not have the right to refuse sex to her husband. The problem in Mauritania is that when you fight against that, you are told that you are against Islam, and that becomes blasphemy and you are condemned. So there are a lot of subjects that you can’t debate, that you can’t touch. Rape within the marriage, people don’t talk about it in Mauritania, it doesn’t exist. Talking about it is blasphemy, it is forbidden.
For my family, when I went to do activities in associations, it was a job in fact. We were not paid, but we had a little salary for transportation. I lived with my mother, and for her, I only went to work. It’s logical that in the morning I go to work, and in the evening I come home. But she didn’t know that this job was a daily fight that I was leading. Afterwards, when in the project we had to make videos, testimonies and everything, when she saw all that, she was not for it. We made a video where we talked about mixed marriages, because in Mauritania, we have this problem where the castes do not mix. So I made a video where I said that, no, we are free to marry whoever we want. And she saw that video and she didn’t agree. She said “I let you go because I thought it was the job, and that at the end of the month you had a salary”. But she didn’t know that I was fighting a battle and that she was against the ideas I was putting forward. Afterwards, it was a war because she didn’t want me to continue doing that. At the same time, even the intergenerational dialogues that we were doing to get parents and children to talk, she didn’t want to participate. It didn’t make sense to her. I say that all this is due to education. From a very young age, she had to obey her mother, her parents, that’s what she grew up with. And at some point, I became aware of all that. It is especially the Touche pas à ma sœur project that helped me, through the training that I did.
I was originally trained in accounting, I was in charge of the financial management of the project. At the same time, we were always involved in the activities. And the project was only about women, so there had to be women who put themselves forward, to speak out, to show an example to other girls.”
“My name is Bushra, I am Somali, I have three children, two boys and one girl.
In 1990, when I was born, the civil war started. And still today, every day there are new groups, new wars. In 2006, the Al Shabaab group arrived in the neighborhood. And it is very dangerous in all of Somalia.
In the neighborhood where I was, we were a problem with my husband. I married my husband when I was 19 and a half years old, in 2010, but there they didn’t accept children who were married alone. * Her husband calls*
We had problems with the Al Shabaab group that controlled the neighborhood. We were a problem for them because they did not accept children married without the consent of the parents. For Al Shabbaab, the Muslim religion did not accept this, it was outside the tradition.
Some parents did not understand. Today and before it is not the same. In all countries. It’s not the same before and now. Before, when my mother married my father, or my grandmother, girls didn’t usually choose who they married. It was the parents who chose. It’s very different from me. In 2010, we choose who we marry. *Mariama – Bushra’s daughter – cries, Bushra stops*
In Somalia * Mussin – Bushra’s son – comes to ask something*, this terrorist group is still there.”
“My name is Khadidiatou. I was born and raised in Senegal.
I was born in a double family: my two parents belong to two different ethnic groups and each ethnic group has its own traditions. When you put the two traditions together, it’s too much for the children. My mother is Mandé, my father is Diakhanké. So they speak the same language, with a few different words, but above all the tradition is severe on my mother’s side as on my father’s side. The traditions are so complicated that I could not manage them. I am a child who was born in Dakar, but I did not grow up there, I grew up in the North of Senegal. I was raised by my grandmother.
In 1994, at the age of six, I underwent an excision, which traumatized me, and completely changed my life and my destiny. I can say that I have a rather severe and complicated destiny, which I can’t manage. Nevertheless, I have tried to make efforts to forget some things, even though I know that it will be difficult to forget. I got married at a young age, to a man I didn’t choose, and I saw him for the first time on my wedding day. It’s also something I didn’t accept, but I had no choice. It’s tradition, so I have to obey.
I left my grandmother’s house to live with my husband. I had children, and I had a daughter who had to undergo excision like me. I underwent the excision and, from the age of 6 until my age, I was not able to manage it, because there are many things and traumas behind this excision. Nightmares that follow me. It was too much for me. And I told myself that if I, as a mother, couldn’t forget, how was my daughter going to live with it? That was the battle I had always planned for since I was young”.
- Agency at departure
“I can go straight to the point of coming to France. In Mauritania, as soon as a girl reaches a certain age, you are obliged to get married, because otherwise you become the burden, the shame of the family. So I have little sisters who were not married, because they were waiting for me, since I was the oldest, I had to get married first. And I didn’t want to get married because the person I wanted to marry, my parents didn’t want to marry me because we were not of the same ethnicity. In Mauritania we are several castes: the Moors, the Peules, the Haratins, etc. And I come from an ethnic group called the Peules, who think they are superior to others. The guy I wanted to marry was a Haratin, a caste inferior to the Peoples. My parents did not agree. But I said to myself that they were not the ones who were going to get married, it was me, and I must have the free choice. It was complicated, because they said no, and they wanted to impose a forced marriage on me, which I did not accept at all. And since I didn’t get married, my little sisters got married, and that was the last straw, and it was forced. In Mauritania, in fact, the law could defend me against this. I could go and file a complaint against my parents. But even when you go to the police station with this problem and everything, instead of being a victim, you’re going to be guilty, because they’ll tell you “you have to obey your parents anyway, they know what’s best for you.
And it was everybody talking about it, not just the family, it was the neighbors, it’s where you go, you get remarks “you’re grown up and you’re still not married, and your little sisters are married”. At some point you can’t actually. Even if you want to stay strong and say you don’t care, people can talk, but at some point it’s stronger than you. It talks everywhere. You’re always going to be in the middle of the discussion. All the time, people call my parents and say “your daughter didn’t get married”. It became a pressure every day. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had no choice. So I decided to run away.
The person that they wanted me to marry was a person that I didn’t know, one. Two, he was married, he was old. Just because my sisters were married and there I was considered a burden, and at any cost I had to get married.
So I decided to leave Mauritania because of that. Through the association Touche pas à ma sœur, we raised awareness about forced marriage. I did not see myself, as an activist, doing awareness on forced marriage, and being a victim of forced marriage at the same time. I would rather leave Mauritania than agree to marry someone I didn’t know and didn’t like.”
“I came from Somalia, having flown from Ethiopia to Sweden. I went from Somalia to Ethiopia by car, then I flew to Sweden, and I traveled to Norway. I didn’t really know where I was going, I was 19, and I left because of the civil war and Al Qu’aida. When we got married, we didn’t tell our parents, at less than 20 years old it’s hard to explain. For Al Shabbaab, the Muslim religion did not accept this, it was outside the tradition. For that, for having violated the religion, we had to die. They made a court for us, and every person who decided said that we should be killed *death penalty*. But this is not specific to the Muslim religion, it was Al Shabaab that worked like that. And for that, I left my country.
I left the local prison; I was there for 10 days after being arrested by the group at home. Every night there was war between this group and the one that controlled the neighborhood before it. That night all the people who were imprisoned with me left the prison one night. Me and my husband don’t get together because women and men are separated in the prison. At 4 o’clock in the morning, I was at our house, and my mother told me that I had to leave Somalia because it was too dangerous for me. That’s why I left. My husband left the same day, but we didn’t meet again until 2013 in Norway. He went through Egypt.
He was a man I had never seen before, who had passports: my uncle, gave him some money, and then he traveled with me to Ethiopia and Sweden. I never spoke with him, he didn’t speak Somali, I think he was Arab or Ethiopian. He pretended to be my father on the plane, he had the passports and the money. It was my family that chose to have him accompany me. I was not happy that he was there but it was very dangerous, the trip alone was not positive for me. My mother told me that the whole family couldn’t travel because we didn’t have enough money but it was too dangerous to go alone. My family contacted some people they knew in Europe and in Sweden.”
“I was not supported by my family. In the country, when you are married, as a mother, you don’t have much responsibility over your children. Your husband has more responsibility for them than you do, you obey. We grew up with that, we had no choice, we are prepared to just say “yes”. They say that this is the duty of a married woman or a girl. And my battle was always to say “no”, because I was too calm, and things were starting to overtake me, I had to start saying “no” to the things they wanted to do. I didn’t want them to touch my child’s body. So I left there.
Leaving there was a very complicated thing, because my in-laws didn’t know. My mother knew about it, and she supported me, but in spite of herself, because my sister lost her daughter because of the excision without anesthesia. And I had the support of my husband too, but it was still complicated, because he couldn’t show it to everyone, he pretended not to support me. But I prepared my trip with him.
When I left, my daughter was 6 years old and I was pregnant. I came alone with her by plane. We got our visa thanks to my husband’s company that imports cars from France. I left my in-laws saying I was sick because of the pregnancy, I was hospitalized in Dakar for 2 months, then I got my visa and left without them knowing.”
From the period before the departure to the realization of the latter, these accounts are borrowed from the fatal and necessary character of the migrations in question. Indeed, while Fatouma is systematically harassed for being single and is forced into a non-consensual marriage, Bushra faces the death penalty for marrying young and without her parents’ consent, and Khadidiatou’s daughter – herself a circumciser – is threatened with a potentially fatal circumcision. Leaving the country is thus a matter of safeguarding their physical integrity, even their lives, for two of them, and of the sovereignty of the latter over her intimacy and private life. However, their departures seem to be the result of a series of individual and collective choices. The implementation of the considered migrations, although obviously constrained, requires indeed the transgression of an established order. The story of these refugee women thus begins with an affirmation of the individual in the face of the system and its perpetuation.
This affirmation of the subject occurs even before the idea of departure and manifests itself through indignation and refusal in the face of the application of the order in place. The fact of “saying no” to an injunction pushing these women to have to say “yes” perpetually constitutes the central theme of the three pre-migration narratives. Fatouma’s involvement in associations during the period preceding her departure is a perfect example of the subject’s confrontation with the different systems imposed on her at several levels: sexism and sexual violence through the awareness campaigns and training conducted with “Touche pas à ma sœur”, her male peers and colleagues, against whom she asserts herself within the association in order to change the distribution of power, and her family, which is reluctant to allow her to take part in this type of activity, which goes against tradition. In the same way, Fatouma’s and Bushra’s demand to choose a spouse is part of this dynamic of rejection of the imposed framework and the desire to control the private sphere and intimacy. Bushra’s comments about the need for evolution between her parents’ generation and her own also makes explicit the idea of the subject’s affirmation of the history of her society and its traditions over time. This refusal of the traditional baggage inherited from generation to generation is deployed in the same way in Khadidiatou’s narrative. She thus decides not to impose on her daughter the mutilation that was imposed on her, in a context where this practice is above all organized and perpetuated by the women themselves, mothers and grandmothers . The transgressions thus operated by the three women in their life choices translate the critical look that they have on their own social environment and produce the fertile ground of the decision to leave it.
Although departure seems inevitable in all three situations, these accounts lead one to believe that the act of leaving the country is first and foremost a choice, and then a difficult one. Indeed, the paths described are marked by a certain degree of singularity. The differences in the trajectories between Khadidiatou and her sister clearly demonstrate this idea: in the same context and having undergone the same mutilations, one can perpetuate the tradition and the other break it. The fact of leaving the country is therefore not a necessity inherent to the context but seems to stem from an individual opposition to the existing order. Thus, whereas in the past, refugee flows have long been organized as migrations of groups and nationalities , the trajectories considered here are part of a dynamic of individualization of fears and migratory experiences and place these women as actors and initiators of their own migration. Moreover, the way in which the stories are formulated shows that beyond this objective observation, Khadidiatou, Fatouma and Bushra perceive themselves as decision-makers in their departure. During the interview, Fatouma herself quickly asks to tell the story of her arrival in France, argues a critical view of Mauritanian social codes and affirms, with the use of the verb “to decide” in the first-person singular on two occasions, her personal choice to leave her country. In Khadidiatou’s case, the regular use of the word “I”, as well as the recurrent reference to the theme of solitude, also seem to reflect the individual character of the subject’s vision of himself and his experience. Finally, insofar as Bushra was pushed to leave by her mother and traveled accompanied by a smuggler, it may seem that her trajectory is the result of a strategy that is more familial than individual. For all that, she expresses “And for that, I left my country” in the first person, and recalls deciding to escape from prison in the midst of a battle, after ten days of incarceration.
The level of difficulty of the decision to leave only confirms the strength of the subjects’ assertion against the system. Indeed, as described by Khadidiatou, Bushra, and Fatouma, their three contexts were characterized by the power of tradition, the reproduction of norms, and social control. While Bushra faces institutionalized religious control by a terrorist group, Khadidiatou faces family control over tradition, and Fatouma faces community control by her caste members, neighbors, and family. In all three cases, the severity of the controls and sanctions pushes the protagonists to establish strategies involving network dynamics. Through the mobilization of certain family members from here and elsewhere in the departure, it is thus, more than the individuals themselves, fractions of families that enter into resistance against the system. Illuminated by Claudia Leeb’s analysis of female agentivity, these observations take the form of “moments of limit” of power – in this case of tradition, reproduction, and control – where the subjects exploit the few interstices of freedom they have and bring out a transformative capacity for action.
The specificity of feminine agentivity in the cases considered should be specified. Femininity as a gender intervenes, first of all a priori, as an additional brake on the transgression of the norm: the three contexts evoked are described by the narrators as belonging to a patriarchal order, that is to say a social organization based on the holding of authority by men, to the exclusion of women. As they describe it, the social role of women is one of submission, with women only being able to “say yes. For a woman to transgress such an order is to act in absolute opposition to the education she has received, the values advocated, and the role assigned.
Then, from the first observation of a departure chosen by the subjects comes that of a break in history and in the imaginary: these women hold a pioneer role in the migratory chain. According to INSEE, family immigration to France developed after the economic shock and the legal recognition of the right to family reunification in 1974, leading to an increase in the proportion of women in the flows. However, this family dynamic is not enough to explain the quantitative feminization of migration flows. Cris Beauchemin, Catherine Borrel and Corinne Régnard show the spectacular convergence of migratory profiles between women and men, particularly in terms of couple-celibate status. Women thus migrate by and for themselves, without family motives, confirming the idea of a feminization of flows on a qualitative level. While this analysis is particularly true among the most qualified women migrating for economic reasons, the migration trajectories of Fatouma, Bushra and Khadidiatou extend the dynamic in the context of forced migration.
Finally, the specificity of this agency of refugee women lies, a posteriori, in the transversality of their experiences. Coming from countries with different histories and different migration structures, the stories seem to respond to each other and have many common points. According to OFRA data, with regard to Somalia, only “a few applications were submitted by women threatened by Islamist militiamen who considered their behavior deviant” the year Bushra left (2010) and “Somali applicants are still mainly young men” the year she arrived in France (2017). Similarly, “applications for international protection from Mauritania are mainly from single men from the south of the country who belong to the ethnic groups of the Senegal River Valley” in 2020, and “sexual orientation remains the most widely cited ground for Senegalese asylum seekers” in 2017. Within national flows, asylum claims by women fleeing gender-related persecution are far from the majority, and are, except in the case of Senegal, exceptions. Thus, only 24% of the Mauritanians protected in France are women, 31% of Somalis, and 63% of Senegalese. In view of these data, it can be said that, while gender-related persecution may constitute a small part of refugee migration from a national perspective, significant recurrences exist on a transnational scale. This observation must go hand in hand with a process of categorization to be carried out, both at the legal level and at the level of historical analysis. This would involve considering women as a “social group” as mentioned in the legal definition of the refugee, transcending the grid of analysis by nationality. Despite the evolution of the international protection system towards an individualization of fears, the increasing consideration of “societal” persecutions, linked to gender and sexual orientation in particular, would seem to testify to the beginning of a categorization, and a potential return of a group dynamic in the understanding of persecutions. These reflections lead to the following question: in the long run, could the simple fact of being female coming from a certain country be enough to be granted refugee status?
2. Being elsewhere: between perpetual confrontation with the border and redeployment of ambitions.
The choice of Where
“I asked for asylum there. I don’t know why I chose to go to Norway. When I came to Europe, I really wanted to go to Norway. My family contacted some people they knew in Europe and in Sweden.
When we arrived in Sweden, I joined these people. I stayed in Sweden one day with a person, who offered to accompany me to Sweden, but I said no, I do not want to go to Sweden, I want to go to Norway. With his car he took me to Norway. And when I arrived in Norway it was only me who went to do the fingerprints and explain my problem. I found a lot of Somalis who spoke my language when I applied for asylum, and from then on it was fine. I went there every day, I went in front of judges, and I didn’t receive the paper, they didn’t accept my request. But I studied in school, until high school, I lived in a roommate. In 2013, my husband joined me after looking for me from Egypt, and Massoud was born in 2014, Mussin in 2016. It was not easy, because I was studying, and my husband was working. We had the right to study and work until the court rejected our asylum application for the 3rd time. So in 2017, we moved to France.
Why choose France?
Because it was the second country I liked and was interested in. My husband told me “Bushra it’s very difficult here, we have to change”. We left by car, from Norway to Sweden, then from Sweden to Paris. It took more than 24 hours of driving, with the two babies. Mussin was very small, he was one year and two months old. I was very stressed.”
“Why France? Because here I have two older brothers and I have a cousin who had more or less the same story as me. It was France that I saw first. And I thought that France is a country of rights.
I had already come to France in 2016. With a project funded by Secours Catholique Français, we went to Saint-Malo for ten days. There were several workshops, different themes, and lots of young people who came from all over the world: Africa, Europe, America, everywhere. We exchanged, each one told what he was doing in his country, the activities of the association and everything. I presented our association which was “Touche pas à ma sœur” (Don’t Touch my Sister).”
Housing: borders, strategies, and negotiations
“When I arrived, I was at the airport, I had some pocket money, and a lady my husband knew picked us up at the airport. She took me to her father’s house to stay for a week. I didn’t know anyone, it was complicated. Every time I got up, I calculated the days and wondered how I would manage with my child and my pregnancy. I had a little money, I had to go to a hotel. But I knew that if I took a room in a hotel, I would have no more money and I would have a problem to eat with my daughter. So I had no solution.
After that, we didn’t have housing, because they said that my daughter was too young to get the money and the housing subsidies.
I couldn’t believe that it was final and that I was going to stay out there with my daughter for an indefinite time. For me it was okay, I can defend myself. But I couldn’t defend myself and my daughter. But I can say that where I grew up, I had a lot of education in spite of everything, and that education allowed me to live in this country and sleep outside without going crazy.
It was difficult. At one point Mariama was going to school without having eaten. Because when I came here, even before the asylum application, the first thing I did was to enroll my child in school. I called 115, every day I waited until 8pm for their answer, and if you don’t get anything, you know you won’t get housing. And the next day you call again. It was complicated for me. I met an Arab lady who was sleeping under a bridge with her husband and two children, I asked her for advice. She told me that she couldn’t get housing with the 115, but that she felt a bit safe under the bridge, where people regularly passed by. She told me that I could sleep next to them and that we could protect each other. To wash, we went back to the man who had taken us in for a week, after Mariama’s school. Sometimes his wife would give us food. These are hard things that my daughter and I went through. Sleeping like that without eating. But I had no solution.
That’s how I lived until the 115 took me in. The 115 doesn’t automatically put you up for a long stay, sometimes it’s 3 days, 2 days, because they say they don’t have any space. When they put you up, you go to a hotel, you can eat and everything, and in the morning you get up, you leave and you come back at night.
Before all this I had a bad experience at my daughter’s school, because that day I had done a lot of work with associations, I had walked a lot, I was tired: I had not eaten or drunk, and I was 8 months pregnant. I had to pick up my daughter at 6pm, there were problems on the subway and I didn’t have credit to call the school. I was late, the school called me but I didn’t have a signal in the subway. I arrived at 6:40 pm, I was very worried. I was scared, hungry, thirsty, tired from the pregnancy. I did nothing but walk and run to my daughter’s school. I had no strength left when I got there, and I collapsed. So they called the ambulance, I woke up in the hospital. They told me that they had to induce labor because my child was in danger. The first thing I thought of was Mariama, I didn’t know where she was. At my daughter’s school, there was a lady who took my daughter in, and I gave permission for her to keep my child. As soon as I gave birth, the hospital looked for a social worker to help me. She called me and we made an appointment. I didn’t get out of the hospital for a while because I didn’t know where to go, and there was no more room at 115. So I stayed for a month and a half like that. Then after the delivery I had a bad back and my legs were swollen. So I stayed, and the social worker gave me 150€ per month. Afterwards, 115 put me up in a former Go Sport. It was better than outside, because outside you are always in danger, you don’t know what to expect with a child and a baby, but Go Sport was not a good place like we wanted. It was a place where 200 people were piled up inside, with no privacy and no heating. I was there for 8 months. Now they’ve put me up in a hotel.”
“Apart from my family, all the French people I have met have been at work: my employment counselor, the social worker. They are people who listen and help you with your problems.
Before coming, I contacted a cousin who had agreed to take me in. I was confident, I came, I lived with her for 7 months. But it was not easy, she showed me another face, and she told me that I should leave. It was such a hard moment for me, because I didn’t know where to go, I was in a country where I didn’t know anyone. I tried to call associations that told me to go through the 115, I contacted friends. It was too hard. Then my cousin agreed to take me in. Even after being granted asylum, it’s still difficult to find housing.
Getting papers: a priority without being an end in itself
“I went to the prefecture, I had to apply for asylum for both of us, but as I didn’t know how it worked, they asked me why I was there, and I only said I was coming to protect my child. So they only made a request for asylum for my daughter. Afterwards, we didn’t have any housing, because they said that my daughter was too young to receive money and housing subsidies. And I couldn’t apply for asylum because two different files couldn’t be based on the same story, and I had already told the story for Mariama’s application. Those were the first surprises. That day it felt like the world was going to end.
The most complicated thing here is that without papers, you can’t work. And if you have children it’s complicated. Because you can’t always go with your children to people’s houses like that, to people you don’t even know. So already we don’t have priority for small jobs because we don’t have papers, but on top of that, even if we work illegally, we can’t because we have children.”
“We arrived, and we made a first request for asylum to OFPRA (Office Français pour les Réfugiés et les Apatrides), but we were refused. I was still very stressed. We appealed, and we waited a year to go before the National Court of Asylum at the same time, with a good, very wise and intelligent lawyer. There our application was accepted, in May 2020 after the confinement. Then we received the receipt and we waited 10 months: we received our first papers on April 22, last month, and now we are waiting for the residence card.”
“I wrote my story and presented it to OFPRA. It didn’t work because it lacked arguments, they found inconsistencies. When I went to the CNDA, I defended my story, and they listened to me. There were judges and everything, at first it was scary, I was afraid, I wanted to go home. At OFPRA there was only one person, but there were more than five: the three judges, the rapporteur, and a trainee. Each one has 4 or 5 questions to ask you. There was one guy who put too much pressure on me, when I answered he made remarks, he shouted at me. Then they know that there are laws that protect women in Mauritania, a judge told me that. But they are not useful, they are just used to get financed by the Americans or the Europeans. But when we come as victims, these laws are not there to defend us, they are in the closet. They are in last place behind religion and tradition. And they granted me the right to asylum because for them it was a form of violence and threat. Because if I went back to Mauritania, I could not escape my fate.
When I arrived in October 2018, there were many things I didn’t know. Like, when you don’t have a residence permit, you don’t have the right to work, you can’t find real housing, you don’t even have the right to stay in France in fact! Since I have the right to asylum, I have been looking for training and a job. It took a long time, maybe because of Covid.
I have a cousin who applied in November, and she doesn’t have a very good level of French. I knew she had the ability to defend herself, but she was afraid, and when I saw the story, I know she really went through it, and so I helped her, and every day I told her to believe in her story, to tell what she had been through. I coached her every day, I made a little testimonial that I had witnessed what she had gone through, and that really helped her I think! She went out there and she really stood up for herself! And she got her application. You just have to have confidence and most importantly, if the story was made up, you can’t defend it.”
Studying and working: crystallizing agency
“I can say that I had a lot of offers from men to get money. But I told myself that if I wanted to do something, it had to be something I liked. I didn’t want to do something just to get money and eat. Because I’m with my daughter, I don’t want to set a bad example for her. I’m not going to sell my body to get the money, I’m not going to, sorry for the words, sleep with a man to feed my daughter. My dignity is stronger than money. I can have the money, but the money can’t have me. It would have been a shame for me. I would rather starve than sell my body for money. But it was complicated.
I don’t want to dive. I have seen many women who, in order to be able to move on here, I am sorry to say, I have shared a hotel with women in the same situation as me, they said to me “you know we can’t stay with an empty stomach”. You can’t stay without washing, without doing the laundry, you need money. So you can go to bed with a man to earn some money. I couldn’t do that.
My daughter goes to school, she leaves and she goes to eat. Back home, I had learned to braid, so the lady who brought me to her father’s house found me clients to braid for them. They pay me, and it is this money that I keep so that the day I am no longer hosted, I can eat with my daughter.”
“For us it’s a bit difficult, I hope it will be okay. Even if we have found a place to live, we have to go on looking for a job, a training, so I would like to study again.
In Somalia I studied but it was expensive, and my father was a teacher for the high school and so he was the one who gave lessons at home to my two brothers, my sister and me. By the way, my brother arrived in France in 2019 after having been in Germany, and we met again after 10 years. He stays with us while waiting for his papers. My sister, my other brother, and my mother are still in Somalia. So until I was 19 years old I learned with my father, and in Norway I went to high school for two years, and then three years in high school. I was interested in the business world, I learned how to become an entrepreneur. But now I want to change, I want to become a social worker, I don’t know in which sector yet. So I would like to do a training, it is very important for me to have a diploma, and I am accompanied by a person at Pôle Emploi. He told me that I should improve my French, to have a certain level of language. I don’t know why, but it’s very difficult, every day I speak a lot, but with the three children sometimes it’s difficult, and I forget the words. I don’t want the children to speak French at home, I want them to learn Somali, it’s very important. My husband works in the industry. In Norway he worked in the fishing industry for 3 years. It is very important to work now.
I am Somali, I am a mother, it is important for me to work, so I would like to study again, it is very important for me.”
“In Mauritania, I was working in the field of accounting, so I wanted to continue with that. But I think that what would interest me more would be the medical field. A nurse’s aide. So I’m mixed, I don’t know if I should strengthen my experience in accounting or if I should follow the medical field for which I am passionate. Right now I need to make an appointment with my counselor to see what training would be best for me.”
Giving back its space to intimacy
“As soon as I got married, the first thing that was shown to me was that we had undergone excision so that we would not have any desire towards men, and this was really the case. That’s why I say I’m a half-woman. Since I’m married, it’s going to be weird to hear, but I don’t even know what pleasure means. I hear people say “pleasure, pleasure”, but I don’t know what pleasure is, I don’t know it. And since I was born I have only known one man. So when I hear people talking about their experiences, it becomes strange for me, I wonder how they do it. I would like to find out many things. But I want to take my time and know how to do it.
I’m looking to have surgery. I wanted to give myself a little moment of happiness, of pleasure, for me. A little time for myself. To discover some of the things I’ve never experienced. Because it’s wonderful to feel. When you give something, you expect to gain something. During my marriage until now I never had a happiness. So, I wanted to have an operation to try to see, to at least have the feeling. Not even the pleasure, just the feeling. Now I’m starting to make my appointments at the hospital, they prescribed me prescriptions for ultrasound scans etc. But when I was excised, they didn’t give me any information. But when I was excised, they touched me in a place they shouldn’t have touched. And so we don’t know what the operation will do, if I will be able to have sensations. The doctor is not really sure that after the operation I will have sensation. And it’s something that really hurts me. When I think about all this, I say to myself “but what’s the point sometimes, what’s the point of living”. Because with all this, I should have at least a little bit of happiness in fact. But why is it too much for me? *Cries for three minutes*
Gender consciousness, agency at heart of sexist structures
“In France, I do not know the problems of women. What I see is that there is a little freedom, and that it is a country that has evolved a lot compared to Mauritania. Maybe there is still violence, and migrant women have problems. In Mauritania, for us, France, it is an exemplary country, where women have all the rights. It’s the country of women, you are protected, you have no worries.
When you arrive in France, or in another country, you must keep your principles, but also try to integrate. Tell the stories as they happened to you in your country. The advice I can give to girls is to believe in yourself. Don’t let what you don’t want to do be imposed on you, whether in France, Mauritania, Africa or America. If you know that in a country you can be free, believe in yourself.”
“Since I underwent my excision, I can say that I am half woman. And I am not ashamed to say that, because it is my life, it is part of me. I can’t see myself as a complete woman at all. Because I really am, I’m not a complete woman. So I’m not going to watch my daughter go through the same thing. That’s why I left my country.
This is the last hope I have. And if that hope doesn’t work, ***pleases***. I can’t imagine that there are girls and women who are going through the same thing as me.
I’m not a complete woman, and that really hurts me. In my country, it’s not really complicated to live with that because we didn’t talk a lot about feelings and so on, we didn’t share our moments of happiness a lot. I left this country to come to another country, and here, like it or not, you hear it, you see it. So I have a lot more questions and I wonder when I’m going to get that too. And it’s really complicated. When someone touches me, it’s as if they don’t touch me. It plays a lot on me. I see a man as a woman. It’s too complicated. I don’t know if there are people who are going through the same thing as me, but I have too many unanswered questions.
In fact I was not born to have children only, I was born to have moments of sensations, happiness and pleasure. Now I don’t have much hope, I’m really tired. I have too many things, too many questions, in my head. I wanted to discover many things.”
“I don’t know how to explain to you, but for us immigrant women, I can’t say us women and men… there are a lot of obstacles in coming here. It’s not easy at all. But to go through all this journey and these trials, you have to have the dignity and the head on your shoulders to be able to move forward. If you don’t have that, you can completely miss out, and that will be a disaster for you but also for your children. If you have kids, it’s a big responsibility actually, when they grow up, they’re going to want to hear nice things about their mom. You can do things for your kids, you can work to feed your kids and everything, I’m capable of anything, but for me, the only thing I won’t be able to do is sell my body, or steal. It’s not part of my vocabulary or my schedule.
We women are weaker in this situation. Men can sleep outside, defend themselves. I think it’s easier for men than for me, because they don’t have the children to take care of, they don’t have a pregnancy… And even without children it would have been harder for me, because being a woman and sleeping outside is meeting too many things that I myself can’t manage. I often wanted to let go of everything, and it’s when I look at my children that I tell myself that I can only move forward, no matter what the situation is and what’s ahead. I have to be strong for my kids. I have always fought. Things don’t always work out well, and sometimes I think it’s thanks to God that I’m not in a depression, because I’ve been through too much. Whether it was before I came here, or here. My life has been and is too complicated and I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy. From the time I was born until now, I don’t have any memory of a moment of true happiness, except for some moments with my children. And I have been fighting with my destiny because they say that you live with it and it is part of you, but I am fighting with my destiny. I didn’t want my fate to follow my child.”
The process of migration, constituted as a transition between the place of origin and the unknown elsewhere, is both a permanent confrontation with the border and a redeployment of ambitions.
This redeployment takes place even before the physical displacement, in the choice of destination. In the three stories, the destination spaces are relatively chosen, according to desires or strategies. The case of Bushra is particularly revealing of the capacity to take control of the migratory trajectory. Having continued her journey to Norway despite the offers of accommodation and assistance she had received in Sweden, for the sole reason that this country was the one that interested her most in Europe, Bushra placed the choice of destination at the heart of her agency. Similarly, this idea unfolds in her ability to reorient her path after being denied refugee status three times and to retain the criterion of desire and interest. Her recent decision, not mentioned during the interview, to move from Paris to Dijon is just one more proof of her lucidity about the socio-economic situations she faces and her determination to go where she wants to go. The cases of Khadidiatou and Fatouma are less luminous, but still show the implementation of strategies that defy official structures. While the institutional way would have it that housing is found via the SAMU social 115 number, the two women demonstrate a great lucidity with regard to the practicality and reliability of this housing system, which they know to be isolating, unsafe, unhealthy and not sustainable. The circumvention strategies they put in place to build informal social security outside of this framework, whether through family networks or other encounters, are alternative forms of individual affirmation in the face of the structures in place, even though the possibilities for action are much less and the external forces oppressive.
The perception of obtaining papers and refugee status is a second key element of women’s agency elsewhere. The administrative procedures seem to be carried out with the utmost pragmatism: refugee status is seen as a means to a better life, not an end in itself. In the field, obtaining status is not the end of the migratory trajectory, but rather a step among others towards the acquisition of rights. Such an understanding of legal status is not self-evident. Historically, the various migratory groups have often appropriated the category to make it a group of belonging and a claim. Thus, the Armenians after the Second World War, or the Cambodians in the 1980s, made refugee status a real distinctive feature of their identity . We note here an evolution of the form of appropriation of status towards a more individualized approach and a more material relationship. This dynamic, correlated with the structural evolution of the flows of asylum seekers, is also due to the different symbolic image associated with the refugee in the public space. Where Armenians and Cambodians benefited from a sympathetic public opinion favorable to integration, refugees from the African continent are today the object of exclusion mechanisms tending to pose them as “others” fundamentally outside French society and culture. Paper identity is not claimed by these women, who seem to have anything but a need for a new element of distinction.
Third, empowerment through further education or the choice of work is a central axis of the redeployment of ambitions elsewhere. Learning French, going back to school, wanting to train in a field of interest, and choosing to do or not to do a particular job are choices for financial autonomy and personal fulfillment. Bushra’s desire to study out of pure passion for her studies and Khadidiatou’s refusal to engage in the forms of prostitution commonly practiced by the women around her are two variants of resistance to structures and reinvestment of gains and values that predate migration.
Finally, the creation of spaces of control is reflected in the place given to intimacy and gender awareness. Khadidiatou proposes a powerful testimony of reappropriation of the sphere of the intimate. In the form of her deepest convictions, and in the form of her relationship with her body, Khadidiatou demonstrates her capacity for action in her desire to repair the traumatized body and mind. Her story stands on its own in describing the difficulty of the process and the persistent will to take control over the traumas. These data are of paramount importance in the analysis of specifically female processes of emancipation and resistance and are integral to the deployment of female agency.
In parallel to these mechanisms of redeployment of ambitions and the creation of spaces of control in an unknown environment, being elsewhere is also and above all a permanent confrontation with a multidimensional border. In its geographical, cultural, linguistic, social and intimate forms, the border is the dominant element of the experience of the elsewhere. More than on the idea of a linear stato-national border, the women insist on the barriers of the everyday life, inside the country, the cities, the districts and the social groups. It is in the access to housing, in the access to employment, and in front of the incarnations of the State at the local scale, that the rupture in the proximity is the most violent and the most real. The immense difficulty that it induces should not be underestimated and confirms that the structuring choices made by women in spite of the violence they have suffered are strong demonstrations of capacity for action and taking control. Indeed, the social future of these women once they have obtained status is far from obvious. Boundaries and structures are perpetuated; agency and circumvention strategies are therefore everyday practices.
The stories of Khadidiatou, Fatouma and Bushra invite us to rethink our approach to and perception of refugee women as historical subjects, as well as our way of thinking about ourselves as a state, as a nation and as a modern country. The work to be undertaken is first of all that of revising the presupposed passivity of refugee women. This would mean moving away from a representation focused on the needs and sufferings of individuals posed as objects receiving Western aid, to consider them as historical subjects in their own right, capable of choice, strategy and control. It is also a question of breaking the invisibility of refugee women, both in the academic sphere and in the public debate. Doing so would be a first step towards considering the potential for action and the ambitions that public policies ignore, fail to value, and discourage. The feminization of migratory flows must give rise to a feminization of modes of representation and analysis. Such a process includes the deployment of factual discourses untainted by neo-colonial and sexist prejudices, which would describe in a fair and productive way the historical reality that is present today. The construction of these discourses also depends on our ability to rethink our boundaries and definitions. It seems time to face the fact that the refugee crisis is less a crisis of the refugees themselves than a crisis of our institutions, to rethink the terms of our modernity, and to become aware of the shortcomings of our collective imaginations.
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