After Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris, the Refugee Crisis Urges a Feminist Critique

Nov 21, 2015Issue 2 Commentary, Refugees

By Colette Mazzucelli and Anna Visvizi

The French government’s resolve to strike back after tragic attacks by terrorists in Baghdad and Beirut, as well as Paris, changes the nature of the safety and security threats DAIISH generates. Likewise, the way observers perceive the nature of the conflict DAIISH seeks to inflict is modified. Several issues require immediate attention. One concern relates to the semantics of the narrative born in the wake of the Paris attacks. Another pertains to the implications of the French discourse for refugees, particularly those leaving Syria in droves. It is necessary to query, in this context, the way the DAIISH challenge is addressed by Western societies.

Specifically, the media’s inattention to Hollande’s choice of words regarding France’s response to the Paris attacks made some observers speak of a war against ISIS. Clearly, fighting DAIISH cannot be referenced in terms of war. Implicitly, the use of the word ‘war’ is limited to inter-state relations. Its application to the challenge ISIS presents would suggest that credit is given to villains that have formed a terrorist grouping and now raise claims to statehood. This particular claim, entrenched in the name ISIS uses, is a powerful resource of manipulation and hence provides leverage for deceiving and attracting followers. There is a need to employ this painfully objective perspective in order to uncover and comprehend the multi-level drama that the Syrian population and, as a consequence, refugees experience on a daily basis. This situation is unequivocally one of entrapment as refugees are caught in the crosshairs of Assad’s regime, ISIS, and discourses of fear and re-wakened prejudice, which spread across Europe. It is these fears that provoke the populist arguments calling for a de facto dismantling of the Schengen space.

In this critical moment, the West’s normative stance is called into question as the ideational basis defined by liberté, égalité, fraternité is challenged. As the debate regarding the European and transatlantic responses to DAIISH-related threats has – albeit in tragic way — made its way to the surface of heated political discussions, the question remains: Are we not missing something in the picture the media is drawing presently?

In actuality, a careful examination of the narrative that emerges among diverse outlets across the EU seems to reproduce some very specific biases and clichés. These prejudices may ultimately preclude the possibility of devising an efficient and sustainable way to address the DAIISH phenomenon. In this context, the focus must be on posing two inter-related questions. What is the stereotypical profile of a DAIISH fighter – in other words, what are we missing? What may be done to preclude the spread of DAIISH-related threats to civilian safety and security?

Photo credit Priyali Sur.

Photo credit Priyali Sur.

Regrettably, the picture that fills a traditional frame is male, young, and motivated to fight for a cause larger than any one man in the absence of a future the state fails to provide. This is the deceiving narrative of clichés – the story ISIS wants our media to reproduce; a narrative our societies embrace without critical reflection. At the same time, other pertinent issues are missing completely. This is a narrative that fails to profile members in our civil our societies who, despite the hardships of day-to-day survival, refuse to give in to the siren call of ISIS. More to the point, the increasingly inter-related narrative on refugees and ISIS excludes women.

This perspective, offering insights into a protracted refugee crisis in the throes of the ISIS challenge, tends to be neglected in the mainstream discourse. The experience is more starkly encountered in refugee camps. Here the question is how female refugees perceive, how they cope, given the pressures of bearing and raising children; in other words, how they shape environments not necessarily of their own making. There is yet another facet of this largely neglected perspective. That is, women — for reasons they define — also join terrorists.

These are not the disillusioned, vulnerable refugees coming in from the cold to find refuge in the aggressive online recruitment DAIISH undertakes. Nor are they primarily followers urged to travel to engage in jihad as the map of the region is demarcated by lines drawn in the blood of civilians. Frequently, women fight for a cause other than that of their male counterparts. They may be manipulated to join the most aggressive factions of DAIISH; yet, their aim is to escape gender-inflicted marginalization, social exclusion and familial subservience in predominantly conservative, patriarchic societies. The DAIISH structure offers them an illusion: at last, they are equally appreciated members of their society… until it is impossible to escape…

In this context, responses to the savage challenge of DAIISH need to be anchored in a two-pronged strategy, namely to maintain the relevance of the foundational values, norms, and principles that define the way developed societies function. It is necessary to empower the otherwise excluded, and/or marginalized, members of the society, including more predominantly, women. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are based on the assumption that their success depends not only on maternal health; access to resources and to the production process must also figure prominently. Why would fighting DAIISH take a different form?

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