International Women’s Day is reliably surreal – by virtue of the simple fact that the world keeps turning. Whilst the top dogs of main stage misogyny trundle out their unlikely best wishes to women everywhere – the world keeps turning, and the architecture of structural sexism remains in tact.
Theresa May and Philip Hammond traded jokes about international women’s day whilst announcing further budget cuts that threaten, as ever, to hit women the hardest. This, accompanied by the paltry promise of £12 million to women’s charities funded via a “tampon’ tax” – a sticking plaster that cannot hope to soothe the sting of deep governmental cuts. Yet perhaps the starkest and most galling incongruity was the fact that – under the cover of media furore about changes to tax – a charter flight to Jamaica quietly ghosted away dozens of migrants.
With border enforcement agents keen to avoid the twin headaches of public scrutiny and due legal process, such operations are conducted in clandestine fashion; inmates are removed in the depths of the night with no little or time to appeal their judgements. The Home Office repeatedly refused to confirm or deny the existence of such flights in response to press enquiries; their existence is cobbled together from a drip feed of inmate testimony and the investigations of those working to support UK migrants.
Among those threatened with deportation was Sophia. She arrived in the UK 25 years ago – and the promise of deportation was the threat of being torn apart from her three children. From her cell in an immigration detention centre, she told workers at the Unity Centre: “As a mother, no words can describe how I feel being stuck in this prison as my kids need me more than ever.”
The notorious Yarl’s Wood facility where she was being held is perennially dogged by accusations of abuse and sexual violence. Inmates are subjected to racist vitriol by guards, deprived of adequate food and healthcare and tuberculosis runs rife in the crowded, unsanitary conditions. Clearly, she was not among the women whose lives and welfare were being celebrated yesterday.
Thanks to a last minute fundraiser to scrape together the £1000 of legal fees, Sophia managed to slip the net. Her case has gone to a judicial review, and she was not on yesterday’s charter flight. Other women were not so lucky. They have been torn from their families, their support networks, their jobs. Some passengers were removed whilst their asylum claims were still being processed – and they land in fear for their lives.
This violent cognitive dissonance, is of course, partly the point: the public pageantry of feminist discourse is at best intended not simply to celebrate women. It is, rather, an experiment in utopia against which we can measure the failings of the present; exposing the yawning gulf between our world and one in which women are genuinely valued. As such, we must pose the question: who gets to set the terms of utopia? Who decides which women’s lives are at all valuable? If the charter flights are anything to go by, we can see that when the UK state is charged with these questions, the answers will never include migrant women.
There’s an easy enough knee-jerk response to this; that the state has repeatedly expressed a commitment to the protection of all women and girls. Why else would a commitment to equality, tolerance and women’s rights be written into the charter of British Values, which public institutions (notably schools) are obliged to uphold? Of course, it’s not quite so simple.
Whilst hand-wringing about “British Values” sometimes takes the form of dog-whistle concerns about how racialised migrants treat “their” women; it is clearly only white British femininity that is seen to be in need of protecting. Racialised migrant women are on the receiving end of violent border policing legitimated by such discourse. Talk of “British Values” is part of the lexicon of a policy strategy explicitly targeted at racialised communities and migrant communities, eroding the legal boundaries between the categories of migrant, Muslim, and person of colour.
Apparent rejection of British Values is taken as a sign of “extremism” – and a mandate for surveillance. It’s part and parcel of an expansive and intrusive border policing regime by which public institutions monitor populations, gathering data on people’s migration status in order to build cases for deportation.
Prevent Strategy, Operation Nexus – these can all be viewed as parts of the same overarching impulse to exclude othered populations from social life – or from the UK altogether. In other words, this apparent commitment to women’s rights is mobilised as part of a broader border policing strategy that allows the state to marginalise and deport migrant women with ever-greater ease.
Clearly, the state does not extend to migrant women the same patrician benevolence that it purports to extend to white British women. Rather than having problems themselves, migrant women are treated merely as a symptoms of a wider “immigrant problem”; the societal havoc wreaked double-figure of the migrant and the figure of the Muslim. In public discourse, this figure has collapse into a single bogeyman against whose machinations white femininity must, at all costs, be protected. Marginalised women, as ever, on the sharp end of policies apparently destined to manage the symptoms of this scourge. In the pursuit of women’s rights, what happens to actual migrant women is of least concern.
The struggle for women’s liberation has always been a struggle over borders. Women have been forced to negotiate the borders that exclude them, as women from economic security, from the mechanisms of justice, from public power, from public spaces entirely, even from humanity (properly considered as the white European male).
The borders of the state – the legal architecture of the borders of whiteness – don’t exclude migrant women from public life as women. They exclude migrant woman from womanhood altogether. In the conversation about whose prosperity is valued, whose liberation is at stake, who gets to share in the gains made by contemporary feminists – migrant women aren’t at the table. They’re on the menu.
In this sense, there’s not such an obvious cognitive dissonance at play when Theresa May dons a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt whilst imprisoning and deporting some of the most vulnerable women in the country. Why should proponents of her brand nationalist “feminism” loose a wink of sleep over the fates of migrant women – if they are not really women at all?
The contradictions thrown up by International Women’s Day are often held up as a sign that liberal feminism is an incomplete project, and in many ways this is true, tested against the aims of your average liberal feminist: equal pay, stamping out sexual assault, more female representation in traditional institutions of power – the UK is found woefully wanting. But without an explicit commitment to the welfare of migrant women, such aims can with ease be appropriated by nationalists and far-right demagogues of every stripe.
Couched comfortably in the language of national self-interest, they can be weaponised against migrant women. Such a nationalist liberal feminist project is not simply incomplete, its goals are insufficient to defend the interests of women. If feminists do not take a stance against borders and in solidarity with migrant women, then feminism risks being flayed alive and worn as a second skin by the far right, in a grotesque parody that uses the language of liberation to justify imprisoning more women.
This is no feminism at all – but simply a simulacra; a re-articulation of the terms of racism in which a mandate to defend the bodies of white women is used to justify violence against men of colour, undergirding structural racism which threatens the lives of women of colour just the same. This doesn’t just throw women of colour under the bus; it poses a threat to all women.
This articulation of nationalistic “feminism” allows state operators to pose patriarchy as somebody else’s problem, a disease endemic to othered migrant populations. It glosses over home-grown misogyny by allowing those in power to shift focus onto the dangers of a phantom immigrant other, and away from their own responsibility for, say, impoverishing women by dismantling the welfare state. If we are to hold them accountable, such a move must be made inconceivable. Such a move must be countered with the increasingly controversial contention that migrant women are women too.
Headline inspired by the words of Flavia Dzodan who famously remarked “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”