by Marchu Girma, Grassroots Director
Yesterday, thousands of people processed in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to mark 100 years since some women won the vote. We joined the London procession with our hand-stitched banner calling for safety, dignity and liberty for all women.
Photo: Sarah Graham
There has been much change for women over the past century, but still not every woman has a voice; refugee and migrant women are the most marginalised and disenfranchised women in our society.
Over the past few months I have been delivering workshops and speaking to refugee women about the suffragette movement in the UK. These workshops are filled with ‘ah ha’ moments when refugee women realise they are the modern-day suffragettes, struggling and fighting very similar issues as British women did a hundred years ago.
The hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood earlier this year is reminiscent of the suffragettes who took up hunger strike to protest their innocence, when they were locked up for campaigning for their rights. One suffragette is pictured with a banner that reads, “To ask freedom for women is not a crime, suffrage prisoners should not be treated as criminals.”
Photo: Harris & Ewing, 1917
This criminalisation of women is a sentiment strongly felt by refugee women. If you change the above quote to reflect the experiences of refugee women it will read, “To ask asylum is not a crime, asylum-seeking women should not be treated as criminals”. Today, asylum-seeking women who have come to the UK seeking safety and sanctuary have committed no crime but are detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre – indefinitely. They are locked up for administrative purposes.
85% of women we spoke to for our latest research said they were survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence. Refugee women are fleeing persecution by non-state actors, such as rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. One of the refugee women who is an ex-detainee said to me, “We may not have come fleeing a war-torn country, but we have come escaping a war on us.” And the struggle continues for many refugee and migrant women in the UK.
Refugee women come to the UK in the hope of rebuilding their lives and having a new start. They want to belong here and contribute meaningfully. This is made extremely difficult by punitive Home Office policies. Emmeline Pankhurst’s words chime with the refugee women I work alongside: “We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.” Refugee women are here in the UK not to break laws, but they want to become law-abiding citizens. In their effort to achieve this, refugee women are challenging the government to look at how we are treating the most vulnerable in our society.
One woman who is currently seeking asylum told me that learning about the suffragettes has helped her to see her struggle in the long line of women’s struggles. She does not feel isolated anymore, as she has realised she is part of a continuum of women in this country fighting for their rights.
Refugee and migrant women are the modern day suffragettes, who are struggling forth and continuing the fight. However, their fights are on many fronts, an intersection of gender, race, sexuality and class. Our reports have shown the rife racism experienced by African women in detention, and the discrimination and disbelieve experienced by lesbian asylum seekers because of their sexuality during the interview process. These modern day suffragettes are not just demanding for gender rights, but the right to be treated humanely on all fronts.
Millicent Fawcett felt the way to achieve the vote for women, a century ago, was by working with MPs, “The [women’s movement] is like a glacier, slow moving but unstoppable. Marches, petitions to parliament, working with MPs, that is how we will achieve the vote.”
On Millicent Fawcett’s birthday, a hundred years from when some women got the vote, we are determined to stand for refugee and migrant women, because all women count. If we stand together and make our voices heard our movement will be unstoppable.