In essence, feminism is a revolutionary framework that always lends itself to those on the margins, pushing for revolutionary policies aimed at justice, solidarity and emancipation. Thus, issues related to migration, asylum and borders are important themes that can be addressed by feminist theory, deconstructing the concepts of nation, race, class, sexuality, colonialism and wars.
Feminist writings on borders and migration appear in the works of many theorists, especially post-colonial, black, Chicana, and Third World feminists, all of whom have dealt extensively with issues of borders and migration.
In Borderlands (La Frontera), Gloria Anzaldúa demonstrates how borders are enforced over land, individuals, and communities. She discusses the psychological and emotional consequences of living in frontier regions, humanizing narratives about migration and borders by moving them from dry right-wing discourse towards a feminist discourse that questions capitalist, patriarchal, and colonial structures that set borders around land and bodies and prevent them from crossing spaces unrestricted.
In her book Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia offers important theorizing about borders and migration, and addresses the role of colonial settlement and capitalism in dividing peoples according to violent hierarchies, and giving legitimacy according to these hierarchies, thus imprisoning bodies in a space mined by exploitation and oppression, and in return pillaging land and resources.
As a product of colonialism and the modern state, borders were founded primarily upon the values and ideologies of oppressive systems such as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. As such, borders are based on the principle of stratifying people between those who are “legal” and others who are “illegal”, creating hierarchies that seek more control under the pretext of nationalism and patriotism. We must dismantle the values that have led to colonial and capitalist pillage that transformed the world into hegemonic protected areas encircled by barbed wire, and areas laden with the mines of wars, looting, displacement and environmental destruction.
Since the earliest human histories, peoples have been in continuous movement, pushed to migrate and change their places of residence and domicile either for political, economic, or environmental conditions or otherwise due to more social and intimate factors. Prior to the advent of modern borders, such movement was not yet restricted by the violent structures that police bodies, chasing them or placing them in cages, or forcing them to return to the fates from which they fled. This is a reminder of the intersection of violent systems and their fabrication of physical and symbolic borders to expand power and spread disciplinary terror. Barbed wire, border walls and passage documents that scrutinize our legitimacy are similar to the boundaries set by the patriarchal system and its thorny rules which it imposes upon bodies to surround and control them. This puts feminist movements in a critical position not only in opposition to laws that restrict movement and criminalize migrants and refugees, but also to borders per se and the systems that produce and reproduce them.
Many feminist theorists have studied borders and migration in the context of global capitalism, environmental displacement, and colonialism. In particular, they have examined how capitalism creates increasingly precarious living conditions, low wages and dangerous labor in the global south as corporations shift production from north to south, and how women are especially impacted by these transformations. This phenomenon has received considerable attention because women working in such industries have struggled against their situation and attempted to create organizations to advocate for their causes. There has also been continuous theorizing about the feminization of migration, embodied in women who migrate in order to perform domestic labor in other places, and to care for the children of other women of the middle classes and the bourgeoisie who hire them to perform care tasks on their behalf.
The context in countries of our region is known for systematic violence against foreign workers (many of whom are women), especially within countries of the Middle East such as Lebanon and Gulf countries that impose a system of enslavement towards those who come from other parts of the world seeking employment (i.e., the sponsorship or kafala system). This system causes a direct state of enslavement, as workers are stripped of their identity papers, have their movements restricted, and are subjected to sexual, physical, psychological and economic violence. The kafala system is deeply rooted in capitalism and patriarchy, and thrives on nation-state values which build hierarchies that expose those outside to harm and persecution.
What refugees endure in the camps of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, is but one example in which Syrian, Palestinian and Yemeni people live in conditions of violence mostly as the result of right-wing policies that are hostile to refugees, and the authoritarian regimes that blame refugees for economic crises to divert attention from their looting and their repressive policies.
The situation of refugee and migrant women in other countries is not better. The shores of Libya are full of detention centers for migrants wishing to cross the Mediterranean towards Europe. The European Union provides funding to these centers, and relies upon them to contain and punish the movement of migrant bodies. Ultimately, these detention centers have turned into slave markets in which women, children and youths especially from African countries are sold and subjected to sexual, physical and psychological violence, in addition to a total restriction of their movement and the prohibition of their practice of religious rites.
In Morocco, migrants from African countries were killed and arrested in what is known as the Melilla massacre, a crime in which the border policies funded and sponsored by the European Union intersected with a bilateral agreement between Morocco and Spain that traded the fates of peoples as symbolic goods. The latter agreement legitimized the colonization of Western Sahara by the Spanish government in exchange for protecting the borders of Spain, serving as the most hideous example of where the world is heading as a result of colonial and capitalist control over the fates of individuals and populations.
The situation of migration and asylum is a reflection of existing systems that govern the world, systems which impose forced displacement and capitalist exploitation of indigenous lands and resources, and racist policies based on nationalism and xenophobia. All of this has placed societies and peoples in mutual competition, while the dominant classes enjoy stability from their exploitation of anti-immigrant ideology.
These crimes are not only a concern for movements explicitly founded to stand against border violence and racist immigration policies, but also feminist movements. The revolutionary nature of those movements is based on principles and practices that aim at ending the systems that produce borders, right-wing policies, and capitalist pillaging that not only diminish the resources of peoples and deprive them of what is rightfully theirs, but also wreaks environmental havoc that compels many people to migrate in search for safety or alternative resources.
As feminists, we must be engaged in a discourse and practice that combats borders and racist immigration policies. Our revolutionary practice cannot claim to speak in the name of migrant women nor use their causes, faces or voices to embellish the discursive landscape or give a false image of intersectionality. Rather, we must push for policies and discourses that deconstruct the issue of asylum and migration by shedding light on the pillaging of resources, colonialism, settlement, forced displacement, and destruction of the environment, habitats and ways of life of indigenous peoples. We are part of a collective struggle that engages those living with refugee or migration status in formulating these policies and setting agendas and visions that reflect their contexts and aspirations as creators of revolutionary change.
Feminist movements in the Arabic-speaking region face great challenges that call into question their discourse, foundations, and agendas, and the extent to which they are inclusive of issues of marginalized groups such as refugees, residents, domestic workers and foreign laborers. This prompts us to reaffirm a continuous commitment to revolutionary feminist principles that aim for radical change that aims to replace the structures that establish and entrench hierarchies and violence in order to create alternative societies and systems in which everyone can live freely and have the same opportunities to move, live, and settle.
Souad Swailem is a feminist interested in archiving alternative histories and in documenting and analyzing feminist and queer issues at the intersections of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.