I am every woman

As we mark 100 years of International Women’s Day, Natasha Walter argues that British feminism is sh

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a café in Camden Town, lost for words. I was with Saron, a woman who arrived in the UK seeking asylum some years ago. When she spoke of her youth in her home country, you could catch a spark of the woman she had once been - ambitious, talented and fearless. When she talked of her life now, it was as if a cloud had blocked out the sun.

Afraid, hopeless and with no sense of self-worth, Saron spoke dully about the feeling she had that she was living a life - at the age of 33 - that had come to an end. What silenced me was the way she summed up how she had reached the end of the road. "It wasn't what happened to me at home that broke my spirit. It was what happened to me here."

When she said this, it was shame that stopped my voice. Yes, many men who flee their countries are also treated badly. In the current political climate, we cannot offer a home to everyone who crosses our borders. But the manner in which women are treated when they journey to the west in search of safety shames us all. If you believe that women deserve a voice, you have to listen to their stories. If you believe that they should be entitled to human rights, you must act in response to these stories.

To understand what I mean, listen a little more to Saron's story. She lived a free life in Ethiopia until her early twenties, when, as a young journalist, she went out to report on a student demonstration. Police attacked the protesters, leaving many dead. "Horrible to see," she says succinctly. Because she reported the facts in a newspaper, she was sent to prison. She was naive. "I thought that problems of that kind wouldn't happen to me," she says, explaining why she spoke out.

She got through one episode of imprisonment but, the second time she was jailed, she was raped violently by a police officer. When she was released, her family decided that enough was enough and paid for an escort to get her out of the country. She didn't know where she was going. At first, there was a long journey on foot through the hot, forbidding desert to Sudan; then an aeroplane ride to a cold, forbidding airport in England. She claimed asylum on arrival but was refused.

Saron is articulate about her experiences, yet even now she finds it hard to speak about what happened next. She has, however, been working with a London-based project called Write to Life, run by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which has helped her to express herself again through writing.

Her accounts of her life as a refused asylum-seeker in the UK make for chilling reading. Without the right to work, earn money or claim benefits, she was forced for a long time to sleep rough on the streets around King's Cross train station, where, she says: "Men offer you a safe place and then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison."

When she came back into the asylum process for another attempt to secure leave to remain in the country, she was imprisoned, on three separate occasions, in Yarl's Wood, the huge detention centre in Bedfordshire where hundreds of women like Saron are locked up. "I felt nobody was safe in that place," she says. "I thought I'd rather die there than fight. I felt that they had all the power."

During one episode of detention, she stopped eating until she was taken to the hospital. During the third episode, she was placed on suicide watch for a few days before being bundled into a van and driven to the airport. She would be in an Ethiopian jail right now, she tells me, had her lawyer not managed to get her a last-minute reprieve as the van was waiting on the tarmac at Heathrow.

As I walked away from our meeting, what made my heart feel heaviest was not just the thought that this young woman had lived through so much injustice, both in this country and Ethiopia, but also my growing understanding that Saron was not alone. The sad truth is that there are many other Sarons enduring the kind of persecution she suffered as a woman in her own country and the ordeal she went through in the UK when she tried to find refuge here. There are hundreds, even thousands, of other Sarons.

Yet we rarely hear about them, let alone from them. It is as though we edit out the plight of refugee women whenever we talk about equality for women or our desire to help women resist violence. They become the unheard, the voiceless, living among us but invisible. I wonder about the women - perhaps I was one of them - who walked past Saron when she was sleeping rough at King's Cross.

Histories of violence

Many experts are now speaking out about what is happening to women refugees. One of the foremost organisations working for the rights of these women, Asylum Aid, published a telling report in January entitled Unsustainable: the Quality of Initial Decision-Making in Women's Asylum Claims.

The document is not an easy read, but some of the conclusions jump off the page. Many of the decisions that the Home Office makes every day on whether or not to grant women asylum in the UK are badly thought through: "The research found that women were too often refused asylum on grounds that were arbitrary [and] subjective, and demonstrated limited awareness of the UK's legal obligations under the Refugee Convention" - in other words, one could argue that they were illegal.

There is something quite calm and forensic about this sort of language. It's when you meet a woman such as Saron, however, that you
understand what these arbitrary, subjective decisions of dubious legality mean for the women seeking refuge.

“We all know that awful things happen in Africa," Saron says to me. "Nobody claims otherwise. But then you come to a country where there are supposed to be human rights and you find out that they do not apply to you. That is so hard. That's when you realise that you will never be safe. You feel so alone."

The two books I have written, The New Feminism and Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, have mapped women's experiences of a certain kind - the inequalities that western women come up against every day, from assumptions about our appearance to pressures on our working lives. These things matter; I wouldn't choose to write about them if I didn't care that I, and all women in the west, live in a world that still stifles meaningful equality. But my recent work has brought me up against issues that overshadow many of those experiences.

Five years ago, I co-founded the charity Women for Refugee Women, which works in partnership with other organisations to increase awareness of the experiences of women seeking asylum in the UK. We work with women who are seeking asylum for any reason, but we have discovered that sexual violence is the thread that runs through their stories.

They have been raped or threatened with rape to punish them for speaking out. They have been raped or threatened with rape for being born into the wrong ethnic group or for worshipping the wrong god. Many of them have fled from other experiences that are very specific to women, such as honour crimes, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Women around the world are suffering such abuses. Most of them have no option but to stay within their own communities. A very few manage to cross over to the west, hoping that the commitments that western Europe, the United States and Canada have made to human rights extend to them, too.

Another woman who talked to Women for Refugee Women recently is Alicia. She lived in a society in Cameroon where it was customary for a widow to be married off to the brother of her dead husband. Most women in that situation consent but Alicia refused to do so. She was raped and beaten by her brother-in-law every day while the community stood aside, until a friend took pity on her, took her out of the house and brought her on a plane to the UK.

Once here, she learned that her uncle, in an act of retribution, had killed one of the sons she left behind. "I know that this is the tradition of my country - that a woman must become the wife of her dead husband's brother. But this is
a bad tradition," she says.

Like Saron, Alicia was refused asylum. Like Saron, she was repeatedly imprisoned in Yarl's Wood, and even taken to the airport for attempted deportation.

Tipping points

Even though I have worked in this field for years, I am still shocked by how casually women are refused asylum here. In its report, Asylum Aid noted that Home Office decision-makers often doubted the credibility of applicants' accounts for no good reason.

Indeed, one of the reasons Saron was given for refusal was that, if she had already been imprisoned for so long and had been treated so badly in Ethiopia but had refused to give the police any information, she would no longer be of interest to the government even if she returned, as they would have given up on her. Alicia, meanwhile, was told that her asylum request had been refused because the Home Office believed that her young children would stop their uncle from attacking her.

By using such spurious grounds to refuse these women's applications, the Home Office is trivialising their experiences. It often compounds a women's trauma to have her asylum claim refused. As in Saron's case, refugee women can become destitute, leaving them open to further abuse and exploitation. Many are detained for long periods, as Saron and Alicia were, and this arbitrary loss of liberty can drive them to despair.

We can't call ourselves feminists or supporters of women's rights unless we listen to these women and learn from them. In many ways,
it does not feel like the right time to try to speak up for migrant women - the cuts and the recession have made it harder to shift people's attention away from the problems that we are all dealing with in protecting our jobs and public services.

And yet, in one important way, this is the right moment to bring the experiences of refu­gee women into the foreground. On 8 March, supporters of women's rights and equality between the sexes will be celebrating 100 years of International Women's Day. Film screenings, festivals, marches and parties will take place across the UK. In these celebrations, links will be made between the interests of women in the west and those of women all other parts of the world. Equals - the coalition celebrating Women's Day - includes both organisations that work in the UK, such as the Fawcett Society and UK Feminista, and those that work internationally, such as Women for Women and the White Ribbon Alliance.

In all its campaign messages, the Equals coalition is drawing connections between the experiences of women in the UK and those of women elsewhere. "Why do women feel forced into having sex?" asks its brochure, backing the question up with statistics drawn from life in the UK. But then it asks, "Is being a woman in a warzone more risky than being a soldier?" - referring to statistics from international surveys. One of the coalition's leaders, Annie Lennox, notes: "From India to Illinois, women face violence just for being female."

Only connect

As a feminist, I am excited to see these links being made so clearly. It is essential to raise our eyes from our own experiences from time to time to see what is happening among our neighbours. We cannot talk about the ways in which women who experience violence are disbelieved in our criminal justice system without also listening to the experiences of the women fleeing violence who are being disbelieved in our asylum system.

We cannot talk about how we want equality in our families unless we listen to those who have been forced to flee their own families. And we cannot talk about the need for economic equality without acknowledging the women who are sleeping on the streets of our capital cities, lacking the papers they need to work or claim benefits.

We cannot talk with a superior air about how women are being oppressed in other countries such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo unless we can understand that, even after women have fled from those places to seek refuge in our countries, they may be treated brutally.
If we want a feminism that rests on true solidarity between women of west and east, north and south, the voices of refugee women must play their part. These women are not just victims: many have an important role in increasing our understanding of what women are experiencing throughout the world.

Female refugees can teach us so much. I would not have any notion of how governments all over the planet use sexual violence against women as a tool of ethnic, religious and political persecution if I had not been working, over the past few years, alongside women from countries where this has become a common experience. I would not know about the ways in which women who resist the norms of femininity are punished so violently in some parts of the world if I had not worked with women who had dared to take this path. Nor would I understand how, despite suffering so much in political or domestic conflicts, women who survive these abuses can come to our shores with the desire to rebuild their lives, learn and contribute. Despite the shocking stories they tell, I count myself lucky to have met these survivors of the international wars waged against women, who are determined to move on from their experiences and walk tall.

If you are talking about rights this International Women's Day, you may be talking about what still needs to be done in the UK. Or you may be talking about what needs to be done in far-flung places across the globe. But please understand that these are not separate issues. We are connected.

Saron lives among us, as do thousands like her. No woman is an island. Only when we recognise this will we be able to build a movement that can ensure safety for women such as Saron and others like her.

Some of the interviews were carried out by Sheila Hayman and Melanie McFadyean. Names have been changed “Journeys", readings by women refused asylum in the UK, will be at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, during the Women of the World Festival on 13 March. For more details visit: refugeewomen.com.