Locating Sexuality Through the Eyes of Afghan and Burmese Refugee Women in Delhi

Abstract: Premised on the rationale that men and women while sharing similar circumstances of persecution may have differing perceptions of displacement, this is a depiction of feminine spaces through the eyes of Burmese refugee women in Delhi. Refugee situations may present new challenges for a woman to negotiate with while probably fulfilling various roles of a mother, a daughter and a wife to name some. It is an attempt to identify understandings of violence, pain, pleasure, humiliation, and empowerment through daily existence in conditions of displacement, migration and hostile environments.

A lawyer with aspirations of engaging in discourses relating to gender and displacement. I’m a graduate from ILS Law College, University of Pune, and currently working with Women’s Rights Initiative at the Lawyers Collective.
Email: ayeshasc @ gmail.com



Greetings to all!

I’m Ayesha and this is my introductory post. Before I introduce myself and my research topic, I’d like apologise for this huge delay in posting caused due to certain unavoidable circumstances arising out of my work schedules. Hope I’m forgiven by the coordinators at Sarai this once! I’ll try to keep to the allotted dates henceforth.

I’ll start with a slight clarification… While I was born and brought up in Kolkata, I’m currently a resident of Delhi and will thus conduct the research in this very city (for those who might wonder why I chose to conduct my research in Delhi, while being based in Kolkata). I am a lawyer by profession, with a BSL.LLB degree from ILS Law College, Pune under the Pune University. My special interests lie in human rights and humanitarian law and am at present working with a paralegal NGO where my profile requires me to provide legal assistance to women and conduct researches relating to legal reforms addressing gender related issues.

The topic I will be working on is titled “Locating Sexuality through the Eyes of Afghan and Burmese Refugee Women in Delhi “. The main objective of this study is to collect narratives of Afghan and Burmese refugee women trying to negotiate feminine spaces in conditions of displacement and migration and hostile environments. This study will be exploratory in nature and will seek to draw understandings of renegotiated spaces from these women, e.g. how they define violence, pain, pleasure, humiliation, and empowerment. I intend to use photography as a complementary method of depicting their lives and livelihood.

Since my research topic is based on certain observations and presumptions arising out of present legal scenario in India, I’ll try and map out a brief background of legal mechanisms afforded to refugees here.

India seems to be one of those countries where lack of specific refugee or asylum oriented legal mechanism escalates human rights abuse of refugees and asylum seekers. One would need to look beyond India’s successful façade of “refugee friendly’ country to the real life problems of asylum seekers here in order to understand the high level of political and bureaucratic maneuvering by the government. By not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention, India has successfully warded off all international interference into it’s handling of asylum seekers. On the other hand it dooms the asylum seekers within its borders to flagrant violation of their basic human rights with impunity. The Foreigners Act of 1946 is the only legislation that deals with all non-citizens within the Indian borders, making no differentiation between tourists, economic migrants, and asylum seekers or refugees. This legislation is the core of all refugee related problems in India. Being archaic in nature it bestows unlimited powers on the government to identify, arrest and prosecute any foreigner they “suspect” to have violated any laws within the territory, making them vulnerable to attacks of political discretion.

The UNHCR popularly believed to be an effective forum for refugee redressal is also often rendered toothless due to political maneuverings and sanctions on its existence in India by the government. I believe that the only way the situation can be bettered is to campaign for a separate asylum law that will recognize the conditions under which a refugee is forced to seek refuge in India effectively differentiating them from tourists or other forms of migrants. This research is a small step in pursuance of this goal.

Delhi hosts a large community of both these groups of nationals for certain political reasons. In the past these have been two of the few recognized groups of people who were allowed entry into India due to the erstwhile government’s political agendas and interests. These two groups of nationals had migrated to Delhi from the border areas in the hope of seeking refugee status with the UNHCR, since it is the only international body within Indian borders that has the powers to grant them identification cards and rehabilitation aid as refugees. In current times with the fall of Taliban and a change in India’s stand with the Burmese junta, this population has been indirectly pressurized to leave the country and return to their countries of origin. In exact terms it would mean a withdrawal of protection from the Indian state forces. Thus the Burmese and Afghan Refugees thus live daily lives, fearing arrest, deportation and torture by state parties as well as abuse of their basic rights by non-state actors, with no forum to address their grievances to.

My present engagement with gender specific issues of violence and abuse has inspired me to focus more specifically on the problems of women as refugees… the rationale behind it being that while men and women may share similar circumstances of persecution forcing them into flee borders and seek refuge, women probably face a larger risk of persecution solely on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation. Infact a woman may still be at risk of gender based violence and persecution even in a state of aylum e.g. a woman who flees a country for fear of honour killing, may still be at a risk of being sexually abused in the country of refuge by state or non state actors. Refugee situations may throw a whole array of challenges for a woman to negotiate with… a whole new set of events to grapple with, while probably fulfilling various roles of a mother, a daughter and a wife to name some. In such situations some refugee women have found themselves in a more empowered role e.g. the Sri Lankan refugee women while others find themselves disempowered and victimized. Women refugees form almost 80% of the total refugee population in the world and yet there has been no conclusive or effective solution to the variety of problems faced by them. I feel that no legislation for asylum seekers could be effective without first addressing the needs and problems of refugee women or considering their efforts of creating and negotiating “safe’ spaces in situations of exodus and change.

Refugee women in India face an enhanced risk of violence solely due to the fact that the government does not recognize “refugees” formally. Thus they are denied any redressal system to approach in cases of gender related violence. There also remains the fear of being deported if identified by the authorities to be an unwanted group of asylum seekers. In my opinion this leaves them with restricted spaces of freedom both sexually and politically. It will thus be my endeavour to identify the needs and requirements of these women through the study. I would also attempt to look into the issue of how the politics of aid provided to them has also contributed largely to the kinds of feminine spaces they have been forcefully restricted to, e.g. UNHCR in it’s policy of providing vocational training to refugees, restricts the choice of training for these women to only that of a beautician. Or how the withdrawal of state protection to them has restricted their physical movement, freedom of expressing their sexuality, and freedom of speech.

This study is intended to produce an analysis of needs and requirements specific to women refugees in order to provide for a sensitive method of redressal in future times. I’m looking forward to suggestions and comments from this hugely versatile group of researchers I on the list. Here’s wishing everyone fruitful and exciting months to come.