At the border, on the margins

African migrant women are exposed to intersectional systems of violence but are not simply victims.

Spain-Morocco border at Ceuta. Image credit Dave on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Moroccan-Spanish border of northern Morocco encapsulates all that is wrong with border control and securitization of immigration: the brutal EU border policies on southern migration, state and local restrictive policies, police brutality, social stigma, and the violence that takes place between migrants from different ethnic backgrounds. It is also a microcosm of the gendered patterns of migration, amplified in the struggle to access sexual and reproductive health services, the increased risk of trafficking, the dynamics of male domination within migrant encampments, the patriarchal policies of legal institutions, as well as the cultural, ethnic, and racial hierarchies that reinforce the spatial marginalization of black migrant women in Morocco.

I am from Morocco and grew up along the northern border—a violent site of crossing both via land and water. In subsequent years, spent transnationally and between the African continent, Europe, and North America, and through my own scholarly work, I became increasingly aware of the problematic rhetoric in the Global North on migration—framed as a human right. This was ironically undermined by the repressive border restrictions I continued to witness at the Moroccan-Spanish borders. These constituted an unforgivable breach of human rights made starkly visible through the hundreds of bodies clamoring these borders. Their aborted attempts at crossing the fourteen miles of Mediterranean water separating them from Spain, or climbing fences to get to the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla (the only land borders between Africa and Europe) left an indelible mark in my consciousness.

The north of Morocco constitutes the main African gateway to Europe for a large number of migrants from all parts of the continent and elsewhere. It is a liminal space, a door to Africa to those overlooking from Europe and a door to Europe to those looking over from Africa. Perhaps no other border in the African continent symbolizes the spatial hierarchy of the Global North and Global South more than the Moroccan-Spanish border of northern Morocco. Nor captures the Global North’s glaring repressive policies towards southern migration more than the hundreds of displaced migrants caught between the two continents: the men, women and children, Moroccans, Senegalese, Tunisians, Ivoirians, Syrians, Bangladeshis, Malians, Cameroonians, Guineans, Nigerians, Congolese, and others, waiting to make it by land or by sea.

The intersections of border enforcement policies, restrictive immigration and refugee laws, the patriarchal nature of national and international legislation, the lack of access to safe housing, reproductive health and to job security have increased gender vulnerability, exposing African migrant women to a higher risk of sexual violence, social and racial marginalization, trafficking and disappearance. There is an urgent need to increase legislation that can grant women (documented or not) access to employment and protect them against exploitation as cheap labor so that they can become autonomous members of society. It is also imperative to raise awareness about the services available to migrant and refugee women through human rights organizations.

As the editor of this series, my intention is to explore the gendered dynamics of African migration and bring into focus African migrant women subjectivities by encouraging conversations between scholars, researchers, activists, artists and policy makers. The articles selected for this series are the product of a conference on African Women, Gender and Migration that I organized in Tangier in June 2022. The impulse behind these conversations arose from the recognition that as the population of African migrants is increasingly feminized, new policies are needed to protect African women migrants and refugees. The meeting site was also intentional since  Tangier, located on the Northern border, is one of the main gateways to Europe.

Intersectional perspectives that draw out the different forms of discrimination that migrant women face are necessary to express the plurality of their experiences. Narratives about migrants and refugees, that are located in the Global South and that are focused on asserting the subjectivity of African women migrants and refugees, are necessary to change current discourses on migration. This series, brings together writers who are located in the Global South and write about the global South, disrupting both the traditional geographies of knowledge production about migrants and refugees, while also bearing witness to their experiences located in the interplay between their active quest for autonomy while also negotiating borders and border crossing that can often threaten their autonomy.

My work around this project also makes the case for a feminist critique of global capitalism through the lens of race and gender and an analysis of the Global North’s political discourse on African migrants and refugees as a problem, while also scrutinizing the logic of global capitalism and its exploitation of the bodies of migrant and refugee women. I wanted the series to be unflinching in the way it articulates the racialization of black women bodies in North Africa and the Gulf, reminiscent of the history of slavery (still a taboo subject), with the hope that this also stimulates conversations about racism, color hierarchies, African identities, and belonging. As African migration within the continent continues to grow, it is vital  to confront the legacy of slavery and also to push for transnational conversations and raise awareness about the continent and its populations beyond the perceived compartmentalization of North, West, East and South.

The posts in this series explore the experiences of African migrant women and their relationship to institutional, historical, and social systems of power. They contend that the language used to construct migrant and refugee women is deeply problematic because it serves to disguise how migrant women’s bodies are systemically exploited and rendered disposable in the global capitalist market. They refute and correct the imagined perception of the number and scale of refugee women “flooding” the Global North, since the majority of refugee women populations (about 80%) are located in countries in the Global South. The articles underline the complex interplay of the restrictions inherent in border policies that curtail movement and mobility on the one hand, while also underscoring migrant women’s human right to mobility through border crossing. Many of the articles in this series address women’s relationship to immigration laws within their countries of origin, the restrictive policies of border control as well as the repressive legislative and administrative policies in the host countries. Most importantly, these articles re-examine traditional narratives about women migrants as victims, and instead present their experiences as complex and dialectical: women’s migratory journeys reinforce gender inequalities while simultaneously disrupting them.

The series opens with Suad Musa’s article, which expounds on how the gendered dynamics of immigration policies within countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt (where women take refuge in neighboring countries or immigrate abroad to the Gulf countries, Europe, US, UK, or Canada) are specifically designed to limit women’s freedom of movement. Musa argues that immigration among women (authorized and unauthorized) is fundamentally driven by gender discrimination and gender-based violence, made more visible during time of war and armed conflict, when systemic rape, kidnapping and forced marriages become normalized. Similarly, Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso touches on the gendered dynamics of refugee law and posits that within the history of refugee law the protection of African women has always been an afterthought, both at the level of policy, and in practice, and remains consistently shaped by patriarchal and discriminatory practices nationally and internationally. She calls for the decolonization of African studies on migration that remain situated within the Global North and controlled by its rhetoric.

Women’s relationship to the law is also discussed by Nadia Fellah and Chems Eddoha Boraki who point to the legal challenges faced by migrant women from Central and West Africa in Morocco. Both authors maintain that restrictive EU border policies have turned Morocco from a transit country into a host country to thousands of migrant women who have not succeeded in crossing over to Europe. This has led to the creation of an immigration and asylum policy in Morocco and the regularization of 50,000 non-documented migrants over two phases, the first in 2014, followed by a second in 2017. Yet, both argue that the situation of migrant women in Morocco regardless of their legal status is far from ideal. Migrant women’s lack of knowledge of the law combined with the slow pace of the regularization process, their fear of the police and the many forms of discrimination they experience at the hands of their employers remain a formidable obstacle to their regularization and integration into Moroccan society.

Fellah, who brings into focus the perspective of the “Regional Human Rights Commission of Northern Morocco”(RHRCNM), explains how the main requests for assistance from migrant women relates to access to sexual and reproductive health, psychological support, requests for regularization, registration of their children, and requests for protection relating to human trafficking allegations. She emphasizes how the number of women requesting the services of RHRCNM remains significantly lower to that of migrant men, reasoning that these women often remain unaware of their rights, fearing repercussions from their aggressors, as well as risking arrest by the police despite the guarantees provided to them by the commission.

In her article, Boraki draws out the obstacles faced by migrant women as they pursue employment (and in some cases their own enterprises), and the strain that occurs between them and Moroccan women, who are often disparaging in their attitudes, but at the same time do not hesitate to exploit migrant women for their own ends—as tenants, as aestheticians in their salons or as maids and nannies to their children. Both Fellah and Boraki show how these women remain ultimately trapped in a web of social and racial prejudices that introduce a host of obstacles in their pursuit of gainful employment and in the building of an autonomous existence.

Imane El Fakkaoui investigates these dynamics further by focusing on non-documented migrant women, who reside in encampments in the forests near the Moroccan-Spanish borders and live off the practice of begging. For these women (with no other source of income available to them) begging constitutes work, a ritual performance to make a living and build savings to cross over to Europe. They are an invisible population that remain vulnerable to public humiliation from the locals and to sexual violence and exploitation from the men from their ethnic groups who negotiate (or force) sexual favors from them in exchange for protection from local men and men from other migrant ethnic groups. She argues that the migratory journey for some of these women has contradictory effects, that in the quest for autonomy, these women are often reduced to a lifestyle that is worse than what they left behind in their countries of origin.

Musa builds on this point by highlighting how sea crossing exposes East and North African women to death and disappearance and makes them victims to human and organ gang trafficking, but argues that nonetheless, crossing borders remains an indicator of agency, an articulation of an embodied consciousness and the belief in one’s human right to choose where and how to live. Yacob-Haliso takes us a step further by asking us to meditate on the existing discourse on African refugee and migrant women; to challenge the invisibility of these women, Yacob-Haliso insists on asserting their subjectivity within a refugee discourse  where African women’s accounts remain missing, or only present in as far as they perpetuate hegemonic notions of southern migration and border crossing.

Both Hanan Al-Alawi and Boraki touch on the racialization of black women’s bodies in North Africa and the Arab Gulf, a result of both the legacy of slavery and discriminatory migration policies. Boraki contends that the stigmatization of migrant women from west and central Africa who work as maids and nannies in Moroccan households is painfully reminiscent of the memory of slavery and the historical images of enslaved black women as housemaids and nannies. Al-Alawi makes a similar point, connecting the history of slavery in the Arab Gulf to the current repressive policies of African migration in the region through her analysis of the novel Maymuna (2002) by Mahmud Traouri. She explores the systemic violence and dehumanization of black women’s bodies, tracing their movement from East Africa, Zanzibar and Tanzania to the Arab Gulf from the 17th century to the present. She argues that Maymuna in Traouri’s speculative fiction, moves across land and water, articulating her own epistemology of belonging against the logic of geo-political borders. Both Alalawi and Yacob-Haliso insist on centering migrant women’s narrative against their systemic marginalization.

As gender-based violence and violence against women are on the rise in African countries, new policies are needed to protect women migrants. I am hopeful that the conversations in this series can bring us a step closer towards forming coalitions and building new policies to improve their lives.

Further Reading

A Black woman in Bali

During the COVID-19 pandemic many people who work online were able to set up shop in lands far away from their pre-pandemic homes. But, for whom is the digital nomad lifestyle?