Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Intersectional Women in the Borderlands



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Marinella Marmo and Dr Alison Gerard. Marinella is Associate Professor in criminology and law at Flinders University. She  has published extensively in the area of transnational crime, including Narrating Injustice Survival (with Professor de Lint), Transnational Crime and Criminal Justice (with Dr Chazal), Race, Gender and the Body (with Dr Smith), Crime, Justice and Human Rights (with A/Prof Weber and Dr Fishwick). Alison is Professor in Law and Criminology at the University of Canberra and Head of the Canberra Law School. She is the author of The Securitisation of Migration and Refugee Women and co-editor of Entrapping Asylum Seekers (with Dr Vecchio). Her more recent work analyses the intersection of humanitarianism and securitisation and the criminalisation of young people, particularly unaccompanied minors, who reside in state care. This is the fourth installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on 'Crimmigration and Australian Border Control'.  

Crimmigration, the merger of criminal law and migration law, affects disproportionately intersectional women at the border. From Australian offshore detention practices to the US, Canada and the UK borders, intersectional women are considered out of place, and are scrutinised, abused and violated. Immigration officers’ powers are growing in the field of criminal law without significant training in relevant areas and without being subjected to the rule of law, owing to the justification of the border as an exceptional space where legal protections ordinarily owed to individuals are suspended due to security imperatives. 


In December 2019, UN Women published an updated version of Border Management and Gender  (first issued 10 years before) together with the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. This publication is one of nine ‘tools’ and policy briefs known as the ‘DCAF, OSCE/ODIHR, UN Women Gender and Security Toolkit’, that aim to promote gender equality and integrate a gender perspective in the security and justice sector. Border Management and Gender aims to integrate a deeper and more contemporary gender perspective into the everyday, routine work carried out by state border management agencies. It recognises that much has changed and consequently stereotypes and assumptions sometimes held by state agencies may need redress. This publication also recognises that women face unparalleled struggles as they cross borders whether in cases of voluntary or forced migration. The updated version includes an institutional self-assessment checklist on the integration of gender perspectives in a ‘border service’.

The gendered and racialised border violence experienced by women is widely acknowledged and discussed in feminist scholarship in border studies, such as that by Alison Gerard. More recent literature considers the agency, resistance and capabilities of these women under difficult circumstances, including minimal trust in authorities (see for example Francesca Esposito and Jose Ornelas).

The UN toolkit is a welcome addition as a training guide as it acknowledges gender/sexual diversity, intersectionality and as it challenges socio-cultural expectations. Nevertheless, the UN Toolkit falls short as it fails to acknowledge the reasons why some women may not trust authorities in the first place. Moreover, it does not take a clear stand on the violence and abuse imposed by state agencies, or its proxies, on women at the border.

Take for example, the several episodes of rape, sexual misconduct and blackmail on women and young girls, among others, which occurred at Australian offshore detention facilities (see the 2015 Moss Review and subsequent Australian Senate Inquiry in 2017). The Moss Review investigated allegations of sexual and physical assault on asylum seekers at the Australian offshore detention centre in the remote Pacific island nation of Nauru, which included harrowing reports of women forced to expose themselves during showers and forced to provide sexual favours in exchange for goods and services. On Nauru, there have been brutal recounts of forced strip-searching of women and girl asylum seekers in front of male security guards, behaviour which is clearly against established rules. In these cases, we see the Australian government adopting a level of distancing, to neutralise or deny legal or moral responsibility as much as possible,  while maintaining a veneer of security and law enforcement throughout.

These accounts of gendered violence on women are not confined to Australia. Adopting a topographical lens of border accountability, as per the recent work of Nikolas Feith Tan and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, we see evidence of systemic gendered violence perpetrated by states of the Global North towards intersectional women. These accounts are sometimes peripheral to wider third parties’ violence on female travellers or other prevailing narratives of security and sovereignty. Yet, such accounts, historical and contemporary (see Marmo) exist and, when brought together, narrate a vivid story of border gendered violence perpetrated by the Global North.

In the US, Canada and UK borders, intersectional women are strip-searched and cavity probed improperly (by a man or in front of men, for example), without consent and with no reasonable ground (examples here, here and here). This occurs also when women hold valid travel documents and even citizenship to these countries. There have also been episodes where women subjected to these violent practices have been belittled, verbally abused and derided. Intrusive questioning techniques, and unnecessarily invasive physical tests do not occur randomly, they are not tangential or an isolated act of a wayward immigration officer.

They are part of an upper apparatus of masculine and hegemonic power unleashed on women: at the border, the state acts in its most unfiltered manner and these acts of violence serve the purpose of inscribing the border on the body (Mountz and Hyndman 2006) to remind the intersectional woman that they are ‘out of place’. Browne’s (2015) detailed discussion, which starts from an analysis of the 2012 Solange Knowles twitter post “what did TSA find in Solange’s fro?” and goes deep into the issue, is an interesting point of reference in this regard. These women are criminalised and punished on the spot by deploying, and abusing, a combination of criminal justice and administrative powers.

As criminal law and immigration law merge, the powers of immigration officers grow and the nature and type of punishment changes too, while eroding human rights and civil protections (see Lucia Zedner). The UN Border Management and Gender guide is a good step, but more systematic and robust measures and oversight are what is required in the security and justice sectors to foster state accountability and transparency.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Marmo, M. and Gerard, A. (2020). Intersectional Women in the Borderlands. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/intersectional [date]

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