Migration has been intertwined with human life from its very beginnings. The nomadic spirit of our ancestors led them from Africa to Asia between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago, and today, human beings populate all corners of the globe. Yet the impulse to leave behind one’s homeland can also be triggered by devastation, a familiar picture in recent decades. In June 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that a shocking 68.5 million had been ‘forcibly displaced’ from their homes since the Second World War. Global refugee numbers have reached nearly 25.4 million as a result of conflict in Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia and Iraq, to name but a few. But while women make up almost half of these refugee numbers, only 4% of the UN’s inter-agency appeals have been targeted at women and girls. Their perspectives have remained notoriously neglected. OBP’s forthcoming Open Access title, Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History, tries to rectify just that.
A collection of experiences both hopeful and harrowing, Women and Migration weaves together an artistic and film studies approach with social history and personal testimonials in its broad account of movement and displacement. This edited eight-part volume features authors spanning many different nations, covering the interdisciplinary themes of war, politics, love and indigeneity. The book leaves no stone unturned, daring to address the most uncomfortable realities of female migration. Jennifer L. Morgan, for example, draws attention to the horrors of pregnancy and birth-giving on board the slave ships of the seventeenth century. Meanwhile, Kellie Jones forces us to face human trafficking incidents both spatially and temporally closer to home in her treatment of the 1940s Bronx Slave Market. Hard-hitting as they may be, these accounts must be acknowledged and remembered.
Awareness of the most unsavoury aspects of migration is crucial, as is the focus on its traditionally forgotten female narratives. The beauty of the book, however, lies in its juxtaposition of pain and struggle with the strength, persistence and victories of migrating women. It is above all a celebration and showcasing of tenacity in the face of adversity, offering valuable lessons for every reader. Moreover, it breaks away from Western-centric examples to encompass regions perhaps less familiar, fostering empathy among women the world over.
Let me discuss two such chapters in more detail, both of which make extensive use of visual art. Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu illuminates the violent legacies of colonialism and environmental destruction through her video piece, ‘The End of Carrying it All’. Walking through an African savannah, a woman balances a basket on her head that increasingly fills up and causes her to bend under its weight. Having fled abroad herself, Mutu’s video powerfully depicts the burdens placed on African women in times of unrest and distress. The piece is therefore a compelling accompaniment to Mutu’s entry in Women and Migration, which recounts her family’s personal tale.
Turning to the northernmost tip of the continent, Sama Alshaibi’s chapter is dedicated to the migratory challenges facing women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Alshabi’s photographic series, ‘Silsila,’ addresses the much-overlooked perspectives of Islamic women, and is inspired by the 75,000-mile journey of Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta. Alshaibi demonstrates the perseverance of Muslim travellers, and shows another side to a region depicted as desolate, brutal, and oppressive in mass media.
Certainly, the stories told by the book’s contributors have made me reflect on my own experience, having moved thousands of kilometres between Hungary, France and the UK by age 10. But the positivity and relative ease of my movements, opening countless linguistic and educational doors, contrasts with the infinitely more painful paths of many. Evicted from their home by Russian troops, my Hungarian relatives either suffered under socialism or desperately fled to North America. The difficult decision – or indeed, compulsion – to migrate is shared by asylum seekers today, forced to leave behind war-torn homelands. In 2017, over 700,000 individuals applied for asylum in any one of the EU Member States. Women make up around one in five refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are highly vulnerable to gender-based violence, exploitation, and general risks in transit and family separation. Borders, to be sure, cannot simply be left open, and migration is likely to remain a delicate issue. Nonetheless, we must find better solutions to support those most affected by disasters.
Nobody is untouched by migration, whether desired or forced. This book, with its much-needed documentation of women’s positions, is bound to resonate with readers from all backgrounds.
Photos by Zsofia Hesket