The most recent news developments in Germany – including the kidnapping and murder of a refugee child, the spray-painting of slurs on a Holocaust memorial to the Rroma victims, and a rather creepy demonstration of the AfD in Erfurt – make it clear that violence will accompany refugee politics into the winter. If there’s anything that feminist and anti-racist research has consistently engaged with, it’s issues of violence. For this reason, in the context of the European migration crisis, I have been pondering (admittedly in a vacuum) what would constitute a feminist, anti-racist response to those seeking asylum in Germany and those protesting with racist paroles. As of yet, I am not connected with activists on the ground who have more experience and information than I do and welcome suggestions for improvement or links or twitter handles.
In a dossier compiled to highlight anti-racist approaches to right-wing demonstrations in Saxony, the Heinrich Böll Foundation offered a checklist for those who might be trying to develop anti-racist events in their location. Their suggestions are recognizable to anyone engaged in ethical activist struggle: do not assume that you know what is best for those for whom you are attempting to advocate; sometimes the police are the best source of support, sometimes not; make sure to have an action plan for all possible outcomes; and be willing to deny neo-nazis access access to a protected space. What I mean by “recognizable” is that the HBF’s suggestions are widely accepted as best practices for organizing (at the very least, these suggestions are commonly articulated in the US).
One of the primary methods for the conferral of refugee status in Germany relies on the notion of “secure countries of origin.” In the talks between Merkel and Erdoğan, for instance, Turkey – in return for agreeing to secure its borders and keep more refugees from fleeing Turkish camps experiencing deteriorating conditions – was supposed to be declared a “secure country of origin.” The Balkan states currently are seen as secure countries of origin. Die Zeit had an article a while back about the complications of declaring certain locations “safe”: due to the prevalence of common law known as kanun, Albania might no longer considered a safe country of origin for women. Similar concerns have been voiced for Rroma from Balkan states. Deutschlandfunk’s Europa Heute program recently aired a segment on the way that the Kurdish party in Turkey is the only electoral party positioning itself against homophobia. This alliance between two oppressed groups – given Erdoğan’s tactics to persecute Kurds and LGBTs in Turkey – is important: not all identity groups experience insecurity in the same way. What is safe for majority cisgender men does not translate to safety for all people; those experiencing insecurity may sometimes be able to share strategies for survival through alliances. The moniker “secure country of origin” is thus reductive and can be disastrous for “women and other minorities,” including handicapped refugees. Feminist refugee politics would make use of a nuanced understanding of hierarchies of power based on an understanding of place.
As I mentioned here, a great deal of refugees daring to cross the Mediterranean or undertake the journey across the dangerous Balkan land route are male. It is unclear from the statistics I’ve seen how many men between the age of 14-34 are fleeing with partners or children. What has been garnering a lot of press attention – to the delight of the right-wingers, including “colonial” feminists – are reports of male violence within homes for asylum seekers, whether this consists of rape, knife fights or assault. There is a large body of sociological research about gendered differences and group dynamics. Given the contrast between a predominance of young, male refugees and mostly female volunteers attempting to support them, combined with cultural differences in problem-solving, gender roles and conflict resolution, a feminist refugee politics would require an informed approach to masculinity. This could include, but does not require, more male volunteers. More important than the gender of volunteers is an understanding of gender dynamics amongst volunteers. What conditions feed violence, especially gendered violence, within housing and registration centers? What kind of code-switching, cultural and linguistic, is required for German women to engage most effectively with men seeking refuge, and vice-versa? It is encouraging that we already have large amounts of research which engages with these questions. The challenge is to facilitate the application of this theoretical work to those providing services.
Trauma-informed model of care
Building on this understanding of gendered dynamics is an understanding of trauma, an area to which feminist critics have made important contributions (see Caruth, Scarry and Hartman, among others). What seems important is to move away from the racist association of (Muslim) male refugees as perpetrators (and a danger to white German women, as PinkStinks has articulated) and to include other kinds of trauma beyond sexualized violence. It has become widely accepted that trauma encompasses more varied experiences than was previously understood: how each person experiences an event – and this research on subjectivity has been a cornerstone of feminist research – starkly influences whether a specific experience will be felt as trauma. War, chaos, culture shock and prolonged periods of instability can all be experienced as trauma. Madeline Hron’s book, Translating Pain, explores how these migratory traumas are communicated in French and Czech literature; Gloria Anzaldua’s seminal work Borderlands offers vivid analysis of subjectivity for Chican@s in the US who are American citizens but consistently perceived as foreign or misplaced. The prevalence of long-term mental health concerns caused by the rupture of migration will require a nation-wide impetus to develop trauma-informed models of care appropriate to the cultural needs of Muslim men and women. (See a moving articulation of one kind of pain in the documentary film Neukölln Unlimited.)
A Return to Multiculturalism
Finally, feminism must return to engaging theories of multiculturalism, no matter what politicians declare has happened to Multikulti. Theoretical engagement with multiculturalism is quite different from its superficial engagement in politics. As a system of population management, multiculturalism requires an articulation of group versus individual rights, as well as an understanding of gender as it travels between cultural spaces and legal expectations for cultural assimilation (see Susan Moller Okin). Journalistic scandals that only a few years ago had seemed somewhat dated, such as concerns about polygamy and child brides, are resurfacing. By taking young girls into custody and separating them from kinship structures, the state may be perceived as causing further trauma or as delivering women and girls exploitation, as well as many other reactions in between. Our attention must be directed to the cases for which there are no obvious solutions, and we should be prepared to negotiate pragmatically for solutions which attempt to minimize trauma without sacrificing attention to justice. This work is tricky, because policy is rarely flexible and often requires on quantifying benefits for the most people. Making these kinds of decisions thus threatens to disrupt coalitions and alliances among groups with shared interests. It will cause conflict. At the same time, we must distinguish between journalistic scandals and public health concerns. The latter often feeds misplaced attention to populations stigmatized by the polemic attention of the former.