This is the eleventh installment of the themed series on Border Criminologies network members. The series aims to present our members’ ongoing research, recent publications, new course modules they might be developing, grants and awards, partnerships and collaborations, and questions they have been considering or struggling with.

Post by Francesca Esposito, Doctoral Candidate in Community Psychology, ISPA-University Institute, Lisbon.

As part of my research project about life inside migration-related detention (MR-D) centers in Italy and in Portugal and the experiences of people within these institutions, I’ve recently turned my attention to women. As a feminist whose work has been informed by feminist scholarship, I’ve always been very sensitive to and interested in understanding how gender shapes people’s experiences in diverse contexts (see my previous post here).

My time inside MR-D centers opened my eyes to the gendered nature of the detention regime. As a woman who’s considered to be ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk,’ I was restricted access to male areas when not accompanied by male security officers.

Photo: Francesca Esposito
As Bosworth and Kellezi have noted, detained women are a ‘silenced custodial population.’ While speaking to and conducting interviews with women detained in Italy, I’ve realized the gendered nature of their lived experiences and, in particular, the gendered and racialized violence to which they’re exposed. In Massari’s words, violence is a ‘rule of action’ with which these women are obliged to cope with at different levels. However, they are not passive victims of this violence but rather resist it in various ways.

Many of these women narrated experiences of violence and human rights violations suffered in their countries of origin and during their migration journeys as well as in destination countries. In their countries of origin, women often experienced abuses and constrictions related to gendered norms and expectations. For instance, family conflicts caused by the subversion of traditional gender norms by the women, gender-based violence, and situations of poverty where the burden of family financial support is mainly put on women, are common motives that underlie their decisions to emigrate. Their journeys are also marked by abuses and violations, especially in the case of those women coming from Sub-Saharan Africa through Niger and Libya. Many women who undertake this route report suffering or witnessing rape and violence by armed groups and criminal gangs. In the Sahara desert, many people lose their lives, extending the list of those that Lynn Stephen calls los nuevos desaparecidos, asesinados y muertos.

Once in Italy, migrant women are treated as ‘illegal migrants,’ deprived of their fundamental rights, and excluded from legal and social citizenship, processes which render them invisible and denied bodies - bodies that are also subjected to state violence, acted out through immigration enforcement procedures such as raids, arrests, detention, and deportation.

The case of sixty-six Nigerian women detained last summer inside Rome’s detention center just after landing on the Sicilian coast illustrates the above (for more on the story, see this article). Despite being victims of human rights violations and human trafficking, many were deported back to Nigeria. It’s worth noting that NGOs, human rights associations, and activist groups have long alerted us to the fact that women survivors of trafficking constitute a large portion (around 70-80%) of the female population of Rome’s detention center see, for instance, LasciateCIEntrare, MEDU, and BeFree).

Nevertheless, the stories of the women I met also spoke about agency and resistance. The decision to migrate in itself was often an act of resistance and emancipation. As highlighted by Turan and colleagues:

Migration can be a ‘choice,’ an expression of agency. But even when forced, migration is often the result of an act of resistance on the part of the woman, and that should be examined within a broader structural context. In these instances, women’s migrations were undertaken as agentic strategy to preserve their health, and also achieve aspirations for autonomy and a better standard of living.

Although, as Alberti argues, ‘the regime of “gendered detention management”’ tries to undermine their political agency, working to reproduce their vulnerability and to silence their voices, women keep on striving and resisting inside detention centers.

Photo: Francesca Esposito
An example of this resistance is the protest that broke out on 25August 2011 in the women’s living unit of Bologna’s detention center against the Law No. 129/2011 (which extended the maximum term of detention from six to 18 months). The protest began with a hunger strike at lunchtime, when Nigerian women refused food and claimed freedom, followed by setting mattresses on fire. To crush this protest, about fifteen police officers burst into the living unit. In the clashes that followed, three detainees were hurt (see the blog post by Del Grande).

Contrasting the tendency to dichotomize women into either victimhood or agency, what these stories reveal is that oppression and resistance are dimensions that are deeply intertwined in migrant women’s lived experiences - dimensions that are played out differently depending on socio-political and historical circumstances.

Ultimately, the understanding of these particular experiences can contribute to challenge what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called the single story,’ a story rooted in homogenizing constructs (e.g., ‘illegal aliens’) often used to confine migrants and justify unfair policies implemented against them.

To learn more about this topic, please see my forthcoming papers: ‘Voices of Nigerian women survivors of trafficking held in Italian Centres for Identification and Expulsion’ in the journal International Migration (co-authored by Carla Quinto, Francesca De Masi, Oria Gargano, and Pedro Costa) and ‘Everyday life in a migration-related detention center: women’s experiences of oppression and resistance’ (co-authored by José Ornelas, Caterina Arcidiacono, and Silvia Scirocchi). The second paper was presented at the workshop ‘Critical Prison Studies, Carceral Ethnography, and Human Rights: From Lived Experience to Global Action’ held at the Oñati International Institute for the Sociology of Law (IISL) (23-24 June 2016).

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Esposito, F. (2016) Understanding Migrant Women’s Experiences as a Way to Challenge the ‘Single Story’. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/07/understanding (Accessed [date]).