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Saving Brown Women from Brown Men? ‘Refugee Women’, Gender and the Politics of Protection

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 18:00 to 20:00

Annual International Development Lecture, Birkbeck
Professor Heaven Crawley FAcSS, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR), Coventry University

Over the past two decades there have been important policy, case law and advocacy developments in relation to gender and international refugee law. To date however these have largely failed to reconfigure the ways in which the experiences of refugee and asylum seeking women are understood and represented. This is because gender has been brought to bear in asylum claims in ways that typically emphasise women as ‘victims’ of male violence rather than as holders of rights for whom access is negated by patriarchal institutions and structures.

In this lecture Professor Heaven Crawley (author of Refugees and Gender: Law and Process and founding member of the Refugee Women’s Legal Group) argues that, since the late 1980s when gendered forms of harm first came to the attention of policy makers, ‘Refugee Women’ have largely been framed as a homogenous and undifferentiated category by decision makers and advocates alike. This has not only created a problematic hierarchy of oppressions but ignores the ways in which gendered norms and power relations are politically and legally maintained. Whilst this approach has secured protection for some (usually narrowly defined) groups of women subject to certain kinds of persecution and harm, it fails to fully engage with gendered power relations in both refugee-producing and refugee-receiving countries. Moreover it reinforces deeply racialized representations of Black and Muslim men as perpetrators of violence against women and in so doing perpetuates the idea that ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak 1989) by granting protection under international refugee law. This construction of women primarily as ‘victims’ of male violence and ‘backward cultures’ is reflected in political and media representations of Europe’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’. It will be argued that the dominant construction of gender roles and identities not only negates the deeply political and frequently contested construction of gender roles and relations in both countries of origin and arrival but is deeply problematic in a context in which the concept of asylum is increasingly under threat.


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