Invisible Victimisation: The Gendered Politics of the Refugee Crisis

Foreword: This is an essay I wrote as part of my undergraduate degree. Note that the text has been edited and the references removed to better fit this platform (to ask for a source, please contact me here). I realise that the tone and length may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but nevertheless, I feel that it is important to share this. I fear that with so many dreadful events reported everyday in the media, we will become – if we haven’t already – desensitised to the injustices of our governments.

The global refugee crisis is believed to be the worst humanitarian disaster since the second world war. Fleeing from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, we might presume that the only factor influencing the refugee experience prior to these individuals’ resettlement is the degree of suffering they endured. However, many do not reach the point of resettlement because a large obstacle faced when seeking asylum is being legally recognised as a refugee. There are many reasons why immigration officials might reject refugee claims, but these reasons often work to veil underlying motives.

Gender is one of these leading underlying motives for rejection of refugee status. Respective gender narratives for both women and men inform immigration officials’ decisions in dissimilar yet equally devastating ways. Through research and case studies, I argue that if the gender identities of asylum-seekers are inconsistent with Melanie Griffiths’ social construct of the ‘ideal refugee’ (as will be described below), they risk being denied protection by the receiving state despite meeting the conditions listed in the Refugee Convention.

As stated in Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who “… owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it”.

To be considered a refugee, applicants must fit into this definition. In many cases, this is straightforward; however, under certain circumstances, gender can be used as a vehicle by which the experiences of some refugees may be discounted.

By regarding the state as a hegemonically-masculine institution, asylum-seeking might be understood as partial to men. That means that men might be more likely to be recognised as refugees than women, and thus receive access to more protection than their female counterparts. Yet, in such an environment, the patriarchal paradigm that rewards men in other institutions can bestow an adverse effect.

The experiences of refugee men navigating the asylum system are characterised by powerful gender narratives. Some even argue that the state’s failed understanding of men as three-dimensional people is more problematic than the disadvantages posed by womanhood. Men tend to be painted as active agents unfailingly responsible for their circumstances; in the words of Ruth Judge, they are “… easily subsumed into the ugly caricature of (the) threatening young male asylum seeker”. Migrant men are often homogenised by the law as immigration criminals, thus rendering their vulnerabilities invisible. By constructing ideas of radicalised and morally deviant men, the state can justify denying refugee status on the grounds that such individuals would not serve national interests. This might be framed as setting men up as ‘better off’ to cope with the situation in their home country, and therefore less deserving of refugee status.

That is not to say that women are immune to typecasting. Not unlike in most arenas of life, they are depicted as naturally passive and vulnerable. According to these constructions, the female body is repeatedly victimised — an image Rutvica Andrijasevic likens to that of a puppet on strings. This metaphor of the ‘human marionette’ conveys how the female body is lifeless, helpless, and able to be manipulated and exploited by the strings on which it is borne. This identity contrasts with the narrative that men pose a safety threat, and perhaps feeds into what many academics call a ‘feminisation’ of the refugee experience.

Photographed by Roger Arnold for the United Nations

Those who have studied sociology and criminology might be familiar with Nils Christie’s concept of the ‘ideal victim’. The ideal victim is defined as an individual who is weak, virtuous, innocent, and attacked by a stranger who is big, bad and powerful. They are also recognised as someone who cannot threaten the interests of those trying to help them. Not unlike Christie’s ideal victim, Melanie Griffiths argues that there also exists an ‘ideal refugee’, with the characteristics of this individual reflecting that of the ideal victim. According to Griffiths, the ideal refugee is “… moralised, feminised, and pacified”, and stands in paradoxical contrast to what men are criticised for, yet are still expected to be. In light of this, the argument that men are more disadvantaged than women when seeking asylum appears reasonable. Gender synonymy — the idea that only women are affected by the gender regime of asylum-seeking — thus lacks conviction.

However, despite constructions around femininity aligning with those of the ideal refugee, female asylum-seekers are affected in other ways. In the Refugee Convention, we observe that the definition of a refugee is problematic because it operates under the assumption that all refugees share the same experiences and treatment regardless of their gendered identities. Issues pertaining to this arise when we consider how individuals more likely to be recognised as refugees are those who visibly participate in political activism. These individuals tend to be men, as women are more likely to engage in supportive roles that might not meet widespread understandings of political activism, and hence fly under the radar of immigration officials. The actions of these women are consequently rendered apolitical and invisible, and this invisibility greatly reduces their chance of being recognised as political refugees.

The invisibility of the political victimisation of women has contributed to the argument that gender should be included as a category in the Refugee Convention. James C. Hathaway insists that gender clearly meets the criteria of a “… social subset defined by an innate and immutable characteristic”, however feminist perspectives are unsympathetic to this. Although they agree that the rights of women are neglected during the asylum process, they also argue that including gender as a social group would only prove disadvantageous to women because of the assumption that women are persecuted purely because of their gender. Such an assumption is dangerous because, by holding their gender accountable, the law depoliticises women’s experiences as political agents. We know that political supporting roles are already rendered insignificant by the state; expanding that invisibility to gender would only regress the second-wave.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees responded to these dissensions by claiming that, “States… are free to adopt the interpretation of women asylum-seekers who face harsh or inhumane treatment due to their having transgressed social mores of the society in which they live… as a ‘particular social group’ within the meaning of… (the) Refugee Convention”. The key feature of this statement is that states can freely interpret what a particular social group entails. This means that they bear no legal responsibility to treat women as belonging to such a group.

Take the system adopted by the United Kingdom: each applicant is assessed as an individual rather than as a member of a social group. Susan Akram considers this to be a perilous gateway into cultural relativism (the idea that moral right and wrongness can be judged according to cultural norms).

Photographed by Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

To further illustrate the consequences of this free interpretation, Akram recounts the 1991 case of Nada, who applied for refugee status in Canada after being persecuted in Saudi Arabia for refusing to wear a veil and resisting sexist laws. She explained how she had been stoned, spat on, and hissed at when venturing outside without her veil, and listed repressive laws such as driving, study and travel prohibition that compromised her freedom as a human being. She also noted that, if arrested, the mutawwa’in — the religious police — would beat and jail her for breaching these laws.

Nada’s lawyer cited both her political activism and membership to the social group of women as the grounds for her persecution in Saudi Arabia. Her case was rejected by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board because her feminist demonstrations were not considered political, and – quoting from Akram – it was “… not credible that an Arab Muslim woman would disagree with the authorities of a Muslim state”. Here, we observe both the invisibility of female political activism and cultural relativism interacting to weaken Nada’s case and serve the interests of the state.

While female refugees must grapple with the likes of the above, male refugees must deal with obstacles of a different kind. In 2015, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would no longer accept single Syrian males as part of their refugee resettlement program. That decision impacts the future of refugees such as Adham, a 29-year-old man who left Syria for fear of being conscripted by the army. “There’s a lot of young men leaving Syria because they don’t want to be in the military,” he explained in the Al Jazeera article. “It’s better than being Syrian and killing one another.” Adham’s punishment for evading service is imprisonment and potentially death, and his solution was to apply for refugee status elsewhere. However, his ability to be recognised as such is complicated by the state’s conceptions of masculinity.

The argument many politicians offer as to why young, able-bodied men should not be granted asylum in this context is that they have a duty to stay back and fight for their country. Trudeau’s decision not to accept single Syrian males as refugees has been supported by the likes of Donald Trump, who drew upon the male-migrant-terrorist rhetoric when he quoted, “You look at migration (and) it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated”. Conscientious objectors such as Adham protest the assumption that young men have a responsibility to sacrifice themselves in a war that they do not support. His case highlights how the state can fail to understand violence directed at men — whether that be inflicted by the home or receiving state — as justification for protection. Both the case studies of Adham and Nada demonstrate how constructions of gender contribute to the difficulty in evidencing a prerogative for refugee status.

There exist many similarities between the experiences of female and male refugees. Their identities are both constructed by gendered narratives that essentialise their trauma, however it would be inappropriate to conflate the two. As explained by Melanie Griffiths, whilst it is far easier for women to fit the passivity and vulnerability of the ‘ideal refugee’, the depoliticisation of their actions and suffering undermines their claims to asylum. For many of these individuals, their womanhood reinforces “… the existing and paradigmatically masculine normative structures of international refugee law” (see Heaven Crawley). Meanwhile, male refugees are disadvantaged by constructs of masculinity that contradict the very meaning of the asylum-seeker. As the case of Adham demonstrates, it is somewhat ironic that states abuse their responsibility to protect male refugees, whilst simultaneously denying these refugee’s rights on the grounds that they have a responsibility to protect their own country.

By analysing the asylum-seeking process through a gendered lens, we can further understand how underlying assumptions preclude the experiences of both female and male refugees from state protection in the wake of this humanitarian crisis. Through such knowledge, we can address this gender discrimination and improve the future prospects of refugees on a global scale.

In the words of Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray, “… gender constructs policy as policy constructs gender.” The ramifications of this are clearly reflected in the asylum process, and illustrates the stronghold gender norms still have over society. Successfully challenging these norms is a process antithetical to all we have learnt, but the best place to start is through the exposure of such biases. If refugees can navigate the asylum-seeking system in the face of gender expectations and ideals, then the impact on their quality of life will be immeasurable.

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WTF Happened to Egypt’s Tourism Industry?!

For me, one of the greatest joys of traveling is the opportunity to expose yourself to diverse cultures and languages, to see how other people live, and to distance yourself from everything familiar and comfortable. It is for those very reasons that places such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America do not naturally draw me.

It is also for those very reasons that without a shred of doubt, I can say that the crown of my travels in 2017 – if not ever – goes to Egypt.

Many things amazed me during my three weeks spent in the capital of Cairo. There were the pyramids, the landscape, the way of life… but perhaps what amazed me most was that there was hardly a (western) tourist in sight.

Why was this? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Here is a country with such rich history that places like Paris pale in comparison. Here is a country where you can easily budget for NZD$15 a day. Why am I – a white, western tourist – such an anomaly?

Cue research. Statistics show that Egypt’s tourism plunged from 11 million in 2010, to 9.3 million in 2015, and then to 5.3 million in 2016. I’m not ignorant; I’m fully aware that Egypt hasn’t escaped disaster over the last few years. This is understandably enough to deter anyone from regarding it as a tourist hotspot. To cite personal experience, I myself have rejected flights with Malaysian Airlines after the events of 2014.

Despite being located in North Africa, Egypt is also a Middle Eastern state, and to hold that label comes with certain connotations for us western folk. I’m not saying that these associations are completely false, but neither am I saying that they should serve as well-grounded rationale to veto the Gift of the Nile. For a long time, Egyptian politics have been anything but stable. We can track how statistics nosedive following the 2011 revolution, whereby autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. This political uncertainty kept tourists at bay.

“The low number of inbound tourists has affected the economy, which looks to the sector as a crucial source of hard currency.”

Quartz

The 2011 Revolution; photograph courtesy of the Atlantic

Further events have dissuaded the hordes. In October 2015, a Russian passenger plane was brought down on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, resulting in 224 fatalities. In the wake of the tragedy, Russia – a major source of tourists – cancelled all air links with Egypt, and the United Kingdom suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh (the Egyptian resort from where the flight had departed). It is estimated that this decision occasioned a loss of 900,000 British travellers.

In January 2016, two German tourists were stabbed to death in Hurghada, and in December that same year, ISIS killed 27 worshippers at a Coptic church. Just two months ago, an attack on a Sufi mosque claimed over 300 lives… I’m probably not supporting my cause here, am I?

Let’s take a look at the UK government’s foreign travel advice for Egypt. Under terrorism, the government warns, “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt… you should avoid crowded places and gatherings… in North Sinai, there are frequent, almost daily reports of terrorist attacks… foreigners have been targeted.” It’s not exactly the most reassuring news for prospective travellers. There is also a lovely little segment on how the government will not pay a ransom to free British citizens in the instance of kidnapping, but for the sake of encouraging people to visit Egypt, I’m going to leave that bit out.

However, the article does continue with, “The authorities in Egypt maintain a significant security presence across the country, including armed security officers stationed at important sites, critical infrastructure, and road checkpoints… extra measures are in place at tourist sites… (and) the Egyptian government’s counter-terrorism campaign has resulted in significant reduction in the number of terrorist attacks on the Egyptian mainland since January 2015.” That’s a little better.

There is a light amongst all of the darkness; in the first half of 2017, Egypt’s tourism rose by 170% to reach 4.3 million. This has been attributed to how Egypt has upped the ante when it comes to security and other incentives for travel. That number doesn’t even come close to the peak of Egypt’s tourism heyday – and it’s not to say the industry isn’t still reeling – though it illustrates how the country is making a slow but steady comeback.

“… we must move away from a ‘green-light’ mentality on travel advisories, and government and travel companies must devise a methodology to inform consumers as to all risks, actual or potential.”

The Independent

My advice to you? Travel to Egypt. The threats certainly exist, but if you take the time to educate yourself on how to best navigate things, you will be greatly rewarded. With a non-existent tourist population, you will probably find you have the sights all to yourself. Al Jazeera described visiting the pyramids as “… like walking on the moon… deserted, forlorn and uninhabited”. Don’t believe them? Just take a look at my experience below…

If you consult terrorism statistics for London, you will observe that there have been five separate incidents in the last twelve months alone. With today’s political landscape, it’s unfeasible to be thinking of places as having safety guaranteed. Nothing is sure in this world.

Did I feel safe in Cairo? Yes. Aside from some minor harassment – which you can read about here – I did not for one moment feel that my protection was under threat. I am not encouraging that foreigners should take their safety for granted. In other words,  don’t be stupid. Use common sense and exercise caution. Dress appropriately for the culture and understand that you have a responsibility to both yourself and others to behave respectfully. But the fundamentals aside, embrace the incredible opportunity that is Egypt.

I’ll see you there.

Need some more convincing for why you should travel to Egypt? Check out the following blog posts…

And last but not least, find inspiration in Hamsa Mansour: The Egyptian Cyclist Showing How It’s Done

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Airline Inequality: A Social Microcosm of Class

When you think of situations in which class is highly visible, the chances are that the example of air travel will not immediately come to mind. Yet this is one of the most relevant environments where we can see the mechanisms of inequality come into play.

“… the modern airplane is a social microcosm of class-based society… the increasing incidence of ‘air rage’ can be understood through the lens of inequality.”
DeCelles and Norton (2016)

When you buy airplane tickets, you have the option to select from a range of different classes. Depending on your chosen airline, these can include economy, premium economy, business or first class. The higher the class, the more your travel experience will be improved. Advantages of upper classes include: more spacious seating areas, gourmet dining, a queue-skipping feature worthy enough to rival Disneyland and much more. The appeal of these factors is only magnified when you consider the cramped, claustrophobic and dingy environment economy passengers must endure for up to eighteen hours at a time.

However – as may seem ludicrously obvious – these upper classes come with a hefty price tag. Even to upgrade from economy to premium economy – a section still far removed from first class – can be at least double the price. I learnt this when I flew premium economy on Cathay Pacific from New Zealand to Spain. Considering the already sky-high (pun intended) prices of airplane tickets, this is no trivial fact.

Air rage is a common byproduct of this visibility of class. A study by DeCelles and Norton support how maddening it is to board a long-haul flight knowing your seat is located right at the back, and that you must sidle your way past the ‘prioritised’ classes to get there. I always find myself gazing longingly at the luxurious fold-out beds and passengers sipping on complementary cocktails, yearning for a spontaneous and unannounced upgrade. The researchers reported how – on a psychological scale – this air rage is the equivalent to a nine and a half hour flight delay. If that isn’t shocking enough, then you might be surprised to learn that this anger is in fact greater in first class passengers who are burdened with those from economy invading their exclusive, personal space (if you are curious regarding my opinion on that matter, you just have to pay attention to my tone).

“… it’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources”
Elizabeth Berman

The price tag is exactly what prevents a majority of people from the opportunity to upgrade from the discomfort of economy class. I expect most would argue that if you pay for something, then you are entitled to receive it; but the point is that it’s not a fair playing ground to begin with. The income gap is only increasing, and airline stratification systems reflect this. I am no economics expert (I smell maths), so you do not need to worry about me launching into a lecture on societal inequality. But this article framed it in a simple way when it said, “(this) ‘calculated misery’… involves degrading basic service to a level so low that non-masochistic passengers will pay up to avoid the pain. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to pay these ancillary fees. Those who can’t or won’t fork over more are made to suffer for it”.

Given the consequences of this classist visibility on airplanes, I believe that airlines should be taking measures to try and improve the system. Of course, this outcome would only come to fruition in an ideal world – and unfortunately, we live in the real world, where companies are driven by profit and not morals. Therefore, in light of the fact that I’m not about to change the world anytime soon, I hope this post has at the very least educated you on an issue that all travellers have encountered (whether they realise it or not).

The next time you take to the skies – whichever cabin you are seated in – take a moment or two to reflect on the stark difference of quality between economy and the upper classes. Take a moment or two to reflect on the justness of the situation, and – considering the psychological and physical repercussions – ask yourself whether you think it’s really worth it.

While you’re here, be sure to check out my experience flying premium economy with Cathay Pacific, and my guide to surviving long-haul flights… if you’re in economy class, you’re going to need it ✈

All photographs courtesy of Unsplash

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Open Season: Being a Ginger in Egypt

I arrived in Egypt with little expectations about how I would be treated as a white, unveiled and ‘exotic’ (I use that word liberally) female.

As a student of gender studies – and someone who has an active interest in global politics – I was well aware that the Middle East’s relationship with woman is far removed from what I am familiar with in the west. It was to be the first time in my life that I represented the minority, and that thought both excited and scared me.

The next two weeks would expose me to a side of humanity that very few things could have prepared me for. It disgusted me; not disgust in the sense that I grew reluctant to venture out of the house without completely covering myself – which, FYI, isn’t even enough to stop men who feel entitled to make women uncomfortable in the public sphere – but disgust in the sense that I couldn’t believe people think that this kind of behaviour is actually okay. The argument from relativity suddenly lost its shine that trip.

Over those two weeks, I was subjected to people stopping in the middle of the street and pointing at me, cars honking as I walked down the side of the road, and the making of rude and unnecessary comments in Arabic as I walked past. At one point, I was in the middle of a marketplace when a man riding a motorcycle zoomed past, shouldered me and nearly knocked me off my feet. When I visited the iconic Great Pyramids, I was surrounded by local tourists more interested in taking pictures with me than the actual wonders. It was flattering until they started grabbing me.

Making friends… us gingers gotta stick together.

All of this was just by existing in Cairo and minding my own business. Whilst I did not veil my head, I was dressed conservatively and respected the culture. None of the behaviour was provoked in any meaningful or justified way.

From my observation, about 85-90% of the women I saw in the streets were veiled. It is also worth mentioning that – compared to their male counterparts – very few women even venture into the public sphere. I counted the occasions I saw people who represented tourists, and the number might amaze you: seven. Just seven – over two whole weeks. Egypt’s tourist economy has plunged from 14.7 million to 5.4 million per year, and it is noticeable. Tourists have become something of a commodity, only fueling the attitude towards them.

The irony of the whole trip was that the occasion on which I felt most comfortable in public was when I visited a nightclub. I remember thinking that there is definitely something wrong with a culture where you receive more unwanted attention on the streets than in a freakin’ bar.

I’m not comfortable arguing that it is easier being an unveiled woman than a veiled woman in Egypt, as other travel bloggers have. There are cultural forces at work there that someone like me can’t even imagine, and it isn’t a competition of oppression. I’m also aware that my experience was far more benign than that suffered by other females. I’m just writing this blog post to share my personal experience so that if you are a woman with intentions of visiting this incredible country, at least you’re not walking in blind.

I never once felt unsafe or threatened whilst I was in Egypt. I think a large part of that is because I mentally prepared myself for the attention and was always in good company. But I can wholeheartedly understand why the experience would be enough to deter someone from the Middle East altogether. It’s a shame, because the two countries I have traveled to in this region so far – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – left me with rich knowledge and positive memories that surpassed my wildest expectations.

You don’t have to lose all sense of identity in Egypt to avoid harassment. Even if you were wearing a niqāb, the chances are, you would still receive some form of it. After all, studies reveal that 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to misogynist behaviour on the streets of Cairo (what is being called a ‘moral epidemic’).

But what you can do to prepare is educate yourself on the culture and understand that there is nothing you are doing to deserve this treatment. There is nothing morally justifiable about it. It it simply the result of a lack of education, public safety, poverty and dangerous cultural ideas. The only way it can be challenged is by standing up to it and raising awareness about the injustices served.

 All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel of Cairo.
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In Defence of Cultural Appropriation

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post called Cultural Appropriation (Or Why that Bindi is Racist). Without rewriting the original article, allow me to briefly summarise my key points.

Cultural appropriation is defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people.” I later stumbled upon a slightly more detailed definition that I think also fits the bill: “Cultural appropriation… is a form of oppression for members of an identifiably dominant social or ethnic group to make use of the history, personages and/or habits of another, for the purposes of literature, music, art, entertainment, fashion. In short, for culture.”

Since publishing my blog post, I have shared a number of thought-provoking conversations with friends that have challenged my perspective on the issue. Dissatisfied, I decided to update my opinion — a part two, if you will — and to argue against what I originally wrote.

To begin, I am going to explore the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. There is a tendency to conflate the two, a misunderstanding which is arguably as dangerous as cultural appropriation itself. Whilst cultural appropriation tends to concern the power dynamics between two unequal groups, cultural exchange refers more so to the sharing of practices between two different yet balanced groups. In many — I’d even go as far as to say most — cases, cultural exchange is criticised for being cultural appropriation. Whilst I myself am persuaded that cultural exchange is justified, cultural appropriation is still something of a delicate matter.

Should we amend cultural appropriation to cultural misappropriation? Maybe it is possible that this whole discourse hinges around semantic specificity. From henceforth, I shall use cultural appropriation as somewhat interchangeable with cultural exchange, and refer to the detrimental kind as cultural misappropriation.

One of the central arguments for cultural appropriation is that it offers an opportunity for people to be educated about the rich diversity of human culture. After all, isn’t a more connected and compassionate society an objective goal? The topic of cultural appropriation also opens the door to what it truly means to own something. In my previous article, I discussed how it’s dangerous because it is as though a dominant group has ‘stolen’ a practice that belongs to a marginalised group. But do practices really belong to someone? Cultural practices are meaningful because of the ideas attached to them — can someone really claim ownership over an idea?

“Cultures are not intrinsically valuable, nor should they be preserved by virtue of their uniqueness. Cultures emerge from different groups of people trying to best navigate the world.”

The author of the above quote also put into words my exact thoughts: “… cultural ‘pride’ is absurd… there’s nothing to be proud of. (Cultures) aren’t superior or inferior to any other. You have nothing to preserve.” This message ties into the flaws of group identity. If you consider major conflicts between different groups of people, you’ll observe that that main source of conflict is the (often symbolic) trespassing of identity politics. We cannot abolish this discord without challenging our relationship with cultural pride.

By maintaining the mentality that cultural appropriation is in and of itself a ‘bad thing’, we are only causing further destruction. Through reinforcing exclusivism, some would even go as far as to say that it is as racist as cultural appropriation itself claims to be. If we cannot explore other cultures through participation, how are we — as a collective civilisation — expected to evolve and develop?

Perhaps cultural appropriation is indeed a positive thing, and participation in diverse cultural practices ought to be encouraged throughout society. Perhaps it’s the most constructive path to a more global, shared culture. “It is not an evil but rather a public good when different cultures are assimilated into the mainstream”, writes J. Wilson.

I have expressed why I believe cultural exchange should be condoned, and (hopefully) no one needs reminding that this should always be done respectfully. We know that malicious intent – whether that be through racism or whatever have you – is never acceptable. We know that there’s nothing respectful about dressing up as a ‘slutty Indian’ for Halloween in a costume you bought from Walmart, and we know that there’s nothing respectful about mockery. The key therefore is to strike a balance whereby different cultures are accessible and celebrated whilst still bearing courtesy and consideration for their history.

To what end does maintaining divisions between people serve? Cultural misappropriation can be harmful and leave devastating effects on persecuted peoples by reducing them to an idea. But cultural appropriation might be the answer to societal segregation rooted in identity politics.

Photographs sourced from Unsplash.

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Cultural Appropriation (Or Why That Bindi is Racist)

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I do not want my travel blog to simply be about Insta-worthy pictures and food porn. My goal from the very beginning was to use this blog as a resource and vehicle by which to educate myself and others on issues entrenched in the tourism industry (and society in general). The issues I have discussed in the past – see feminism and why tourism is political – are prime examples of how travel and politics are not mutually exclusive. This latest article is one I have been wanting to write since the inception of this blog.

Culture not costume. Artwork courtesy of the Odyssey Online.

If you’re a follower of pop culture – or you use the internet – the chances are that the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ would have emerged once or twice in the context of someone such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry.

In short, cultural appropriation can be defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people”.

Cultural appropriation is largely misunderstood owing to a lack of critical discussion and the fact that you won’t actually find the term in a dictionary. (I also think it isn’t given the time of the day because lots of people deep down know they are guilty of it – and ignorance is bliss, amiright?).

Everyday Feminism summed it up quite nicely by saying that it is often taken to mean, “the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy”. Whilst there exists a rather objective definition (as written above), people can also take C.A. to extremes. Some people believe that everything is cultural appropriation, whilst some believe that nothing is at all. Whilst I certainly think that some critics of C.A. can get a bit carried away, I also believe that it is a complex idea that plays a different role in different scenarios. I believe that the issue becomes about learning and educating ourselves about it so that we can identify instances where it is not okay.

Model Gigi Hadid was criticised for wearing dreadlocks on the runway. Photograph courtesy of the Daily Beast.

Some Examples of Cultural Appropriation…

  • Bindis
  • Cornrows
  • Dreadlocks
  • Indian headdresses (I’m looking at you, Coachella)
  • Pretty much 99% of all cultural Halloween costumes
  • Basically Rachel Dolezal’s entire existence

Photograph courtesy of Marion Cameleon.

A common defence people employ when confronted about appropriating behaviours is that they’re simply celebrating another culture. After all, if they can’t participate in a tradition belonging to someone else, then how are we meant to share cultures? Isn’t that the very foundation of a more equal and humanitarian world? And then there are the people who get straight up offended.

The reality is that cultural appropriation plays a significant yet dismissed role in all of the inequalities people face today. To understand C.A. demands a comprehension of intersecting frameworks of oppression (shout out to intersectional feminism) and power dynamics. The key idea is that C.A. simply doesn’t go both ways; if it did, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But instead, the nature of a more privileged group of people borrowing cultural elements from a less privileged group is a one way street.

Amandla Sternberg delivers a crash course on cultural appropriation in ‘Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows’

This next part can sometimes be a little more complicated to get your head around. I know it was for me. Take the example of white girls braiding their hair into cornrows. That’s not inappropriate, you might respond. Black girls straighten their hair all the time! But what needs to be discussed here is that historical context is incredibly relevant. Consider the history of the United States; black people were discriminated against whilst white people reaped the rewards of a white supremacist society. As Everyday Feminism accounts, “when people of colour… conform to what the U.S. society considers ‘normal’, they’re often doing it for the sake of survival”.

“Assimilation doesn’t have the same impact as appropriation.”

Expressions of cultural appropriation. Photograph courtesy of Sikh Philosophy.

Cultural appropriation isn’t about memorising an infinite list of things that could offend people. There’s no value to that. Instead, it’s about “taking responsibility for your own actions that can cause other people harm“. I myself took responsibility after a phase where I insisted on wearing part of my hair braided into cornrows. At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was inadvertently participating in a culture that had historically – and even still today – been marginalised beneath mine (I’m talking about the participation part, not the historical part). But after taking a gender studies course at university and reading about these systems of social oppression, I realised that my behaviour had been less about how I looked and more so about taking what had never belonged to me in the first place.

The key message I’m trying to get across here, is that you don’t have to own something to appreciate it.

Even with well-meaning, good intentions, cultural appropriation is not something we should take lightly. We’re not just talking about fashion; we’re talking about the lived experiences of human beings. Identity is one of the most central facets of our lives, and for someone more privileged to take that away from us with little regard for who we are is plain discrimination.

“You only like me for my Sari.” Artwork courtesy of Zaiba Khan.

Traveling is a fantastic opportunity to expose yourself to the practices and traditions of different cultures whilst finding the fine balance between appreciating and appropriating. When you are engaging in ethnic activities or find yourself at the counter of a souvenir shop, ask yourself these three questions: does my privilege allow me to participate in this? Will buying this make anyone from this group feel uncomfortable? Am I committing harm to anyone by doing this?

I like to think that most of us are contributing towards a society where all people and cultures are valued and respected. We have made great progress in the last half century, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that we are still a long, long way away from achieving that ultimate goal. To punctuate with the words of the 35th president of the United States…

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Artist Katy Perry is slammed for dressing up as a Geisha in a performance. Photography courtesy of Reaxxion.

If you’re interested in learning more about social issues, then I highly recommend you check out the primary resource for this blog post: Everyday Feminism. Everyday Feminism is an amazing tool for educating yourself on topics such as gender and racial equality, and presents information in an understandable and thought-provoking manner. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Pride of Madrid: World Pride 2017

I booked my flight tickets to Madrid, Spain, on a whim. A seven-days-in-advance-whim, to be exact.

So you can imagine my delight when I turned up at Madrid-Barajas Airport to discover that I had landed just in time for World Pride 2017 🌈 (because if there was ever an appropriate time to use the rainbow emoji, it’s now).

I first found out about the celebrations fresh off the plane when I was navigating the metro on my way from the airport to my accommodation. I was huddled in the corner of the carriage, hugging my suitcase to my chest, when a friendly couple sat down next to me. I wasn’t eavesdropping (spoiler alert: I was totally eavesdropping), but I recognised that they were speaking English. Hungry for a conversation that didn’t require me to butcher the Spanish language, I introduced myself.

“Did you know it’s World Pride this week?” the woman asked in a lilting British accent. I responded with a look of excitement.

The city looked like a Skittles monster had just vomited all over it — and that’s no exaggeration. Everywhere you looked were rainbows. Rainbow flags swayed from buildings, rainbow pastries lined the bakery shelves and people danced around the streets wearing the entire colour spectrum. Everyone was participating in the celebrations, and the sense of camaraderie had me quite lost for words.

Madrid is a trailblazer when it comes to LGBTIQ equality and rights, what with having been the third country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2005. This festival was the 40th anniversary of the first LGBT demonstration in Barcelona, so was all the more momentous.

The theme for World Pride 2017 was Viva La Vida; live life.

“… celebrate that we feel alive, alive because we are different, because we are unique, free… happy.”

The crescendo of the week was unmistakably the Pride Parade. Over three million people were expected to have attended – three million! No big deal or anything. That’s just a little under the population of New Zealand.

Having the opportunity to walk in the parade was indescribable. Standing wedged between a troupe of Brazilian carnival dancers and a marching band, I felt simultaneously invisible yet significant all at once. As a gender studies student – and a human – seeing so many people from all walks of life come together to celebrate diversity and identity brought tears to my eyes.

“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality. The ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint or obligation.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Stay tuned for my Madrid Vlog – featuring more inspiring footage from World Pride 217 – which I shall upload to the Ginger Passports’ YouTube Channel in a couple of weeks time!

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Traveling with the F-Word (That’s Right…Feminism)

Let’s have a little talk, shall we?

As a gender studies student, I was determined that I would somehow incorporate a blog post discussing this wonderful thing called feminism. For those of you that are not acquainted with feminism – or perhaps need a little refreshing in the midst of the anti-feminist backlash – allow me to welcome you back into the classroom.

Feminism is essentially the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. And when I say ‘essentially’, what I mean is that I copied and pasted that right out of the dictionary. Plagiarism points for me.

Gender equality – or inequality, I should say – bleeds into every area of life. We hear about the gender ratio in parliament, the wage gap between female and male employees, and even the extent of legal independence women should have in some parts of the world. As important as these issues are, there is a further niche where gendered assumptions and expectations permeate, however implicitly: travel.

In the travel arena, I am a very privileged individual. Pretending otherwise will not do anyone any good. I’m privileged because I grew up in a safe country rich with opportunity (shout out to New Zealand), am from a financially stable background and have a supportive family who encourage anything and everything I set my mind to. The term ‘privilege’ receives a bad reputation because it includes connotations of individuals who have never had to work a day in their life, don’t understand what it means to be confronted with setbacks, and who are generally just ‘bad people’. I acknowledge that the avenues I have taken to make progress towards my goals may not have been characterised by the hardship many other people experience, but that doesn’t automatically make me unworthy of enjoying them. Accepting that I am in a position of privilege – as uncomfortable as that process may be – affords me the opportunity to overcome the prevailing obstacle in the way of holding myself partly accountable for the injustice in today’s society.

Travel can be a feminist pursuit through many means. Anything that furthers women’s ability to achieve things that society may not necessarily acknowledge or approve of for women is a feminist issue. This article will illustrate 3 tropes which you – as a female traveler – can identify to challenge the mentalities that prevent women from participating in an equal and rewarding experience of the world 💪

The “Settle Down” Trope

You know what I’m talking about – the idea that a woman has only succeeded at being a woman if she has managed to land a job, find a man, slap a ring on her finger and pop out two or three young ‘uns. That, ladies and gentleman, is the arithmetic of womanhood. Anything that strays from this paragon means she has failed.

One of the many problems with this trope is that it doesn’t accommodate goals such as travel. How is a woman supposed to maintain a 9-5 job when she’s never in one place long enough to make the interview? How is a woman supposed to settle down if she doesn’t have the suburban house with the white picket fence? An airport is no place to raise children.

The reality is that this paradigm does not fit every woman. Truth be told, I would be surprised if any woman – or man, for that matter – was perfectly content following this preconceived course. Success is subjective, and in the words of Swami Vivekananda: “The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.”

The “Vulnerable Woman” Trope

“But is it safe? You know… for a woman?” 

“Will you have a man with you?”

“No parent wants their daughter alone in a foreign country – you’re being selfish!”

If any of these sound familiar to you, then you will have been exposed to the Vulnerable Woman Trope. This is the one where – upon announcing your travel plans – people automatically latch onto the implications of your gender.

Now, I’m not stupid. I know that there are some places in the world that it would be simply irresponsible to venture alone. But there are also a lot of places that – while they certainly carry their risks – should not be off-limits for someone purely because they identify as a woman and not a man.

Statistics illustrate how men are actually twice as likely to experience violent assault committed by strangers than women. Yet, you rarely hear people warning their fellow male friends to avoid traveling alone. This fixation on the danger of solo female traveling only disseminates the cultural falsehood not only of women as vulnerable and helpless beings, but also of the conceptual impossibility of men as victims of crime. These ideas work to scare women out of expanding their comfort zone, and are all but an invitation for victim-blaming if a woman does happen to be assaulted whilst traveling on her own.

The take home message is that you should not let misogynistic stereotypes around female independence limit your opportunities. No one should travel somewhere without educating themselves on personal protection and welfare, and consulting the social and political landscape of any prospective country before booking those plane tickets should be a priority. Bear in mind that gendered advice around security can be delivered more for the purpose of reaffirming the Vulnerable Woman Trope rather than actually presenting a realistic view of safety. Traveling alone can be a rewarding and empowering experience – for both women and men – and we need to understand that threats to this independence are not all that meets then eye.

P.S. a fantastic resource for genuine advice on street harassment whilst traveling is this article by Everyday Feminism.

 

The “Woman = Things” Trope

When I was preparing to move overseas for the first time, I pulled a Marie Kondo and down-sized my possessions to the point where I could fit everything I owned into one suitcase. When I would share this with my friends, they would be astounded and ask how I could get rid of so much shit. And that’s what I want to emphasise – that it really was ‘shit’. It may have been shit I was admittedly attached to, but it was nevertheless shit. When it came down to it, I didn’t really need five pairs of Nikes. Nor did I really need three sets of reusable coffee flasks. Once I accepted that, a more minimalist lifestyle suddenly became a lot more appealing.

Society is obsessed with ‘things’ – and by ‘things’, I mean anything that you can buy/own. We tend to hierarchise people based on money; a habit propagated by commercialism and capitalism. We are taught that the more things we own, the more successful we are. We further observe this through the notion that shopping equals happiness.

Why is this a feminist issue, I hear you ask? Well, consider the relationship between females and shopping; the stereotype of women as ‘shopaholics‘ is well-established and reinforced by the philosophy that individuals that own a lot of stuff possess higher prestige and status. By going against the grain, females are gambling being judged as a lesser woman who has perhaps failed at cultural femininity.

Anyone who travels knows only too well that lugging bags upon bags of belongings wherever they go is a burden. Half the point of traveling is to detach yourself from material ownership and to feel at home – not within the four walls of a house – but by the quality of the people around you. A nomadic lifestyle is incompatible with the convention of women accumulating more and more stuff, which is all the more reason to challenge it.

Some final thoughts…

Travel provides many opportunities: the opportunity for new experiences, the opportunity to meet new people… and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to learn.

Growing up in New Zealand, misogyny manifests in micro-aggressions. In other words, sexism is an implicit and underlying mechanism that characterises the female existence in a seemingly insignificant way (emphasis on the ‘seemingly’). But when I am in foreign places, the gender inequality can sometimes be so palpable, it’s like a slap to the face.

The downside to being a Kiwi is that it’s easy to take a relatively egalitarian society for granted. But through living in one of the more privileged countries in the world, us females have a political voice that is heard and respected. Educating first ourselves and then others about the injustices occurring in other societies is an opportunity that should not be undermined but rather encouraged.

Through a feminist approach to traveling, women become more aware and vocal of the inequalities plaguing humanity. I am a firm believer that social change is a bottom-up process, and what better way to start than by challenging the mentalities that reinforce sexist travel tropes.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash

Hungry for more? Be sure to check out my blog post: The Bucket List: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel (Or Why Tourism is Political) 🌍

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The Bucket List: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel (Or Why Tourism is Political)

This is the second edition in the Bucket List series, with the first showcasing the Balinese architecture of Villa Ariana Grande. However, what makes this post so special is that what I am about to discuss is worth more than a pretty Instagram picture.

It is only recently that I have begun to take an active interest in politics, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only is it crucial that someone has a reasonable understanding of the political and cultural dynamics when traveling to a different country (in the interests of safety, if nothing else), but following current events and the like provides that extra dimension of appreciation for the context in which one experiences a new place.

The centrepiece of this post is Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that Banksy is a controversial and political graffiti artist who created the likes of Girl with the Red Balloon and Pulp Fiction. It was only in March 2017 – one month ago at the time of writing – that he opened the hotel.

The Walled Off Hotel is quite literally a work of art. In fact, it’s more of a demonstration than anything. The Walled Off hotel – hence it’s name – is located in Bethlehem opposite the Separation Wall (a wall constructed by Israel to segregate the country from Palestinian territory) and is self-promoted as having “the worst view in the world”.

The Walled Off Hotel has the unique potential to send a political message through it’s geography. According to the Conversation, “… placing an operating hotel on a site where guests can feel the oppression of the wall and experience the surveillance of an Israeli watchtower works to embed visitors in the occupation.” Guests will be subjected to physical confinement, checkpoints and security checks in the hopes of inciting feelings of injustice for those suffering from conflict such as that between Israel and Palestine. Banksy invites guests to subjugate themselves to the tensions of occupation, and his intentions for his latest masterpiece to construct a marriage between tourism and politics are sure to hit the mark.

Banksy’s latest instalment has attracted substantial media attention. Al Jazeera reported that critics accused him of “… making a profit off Palestinian suffering, normalising the occupation (and) beautifying the wall”. However, others applaud Banksy on his critique of the way Western tourists divorce travel from a country’s civil affairs and oppression. As for your opinion…? Well, you’ll just have to decide that for yourself.

If you are thinking about booking a reservation, you may want to act fast; it is likely that the hotel will only be funded for the remaining of 2017. Learn everything you need to know here.

The ‘Deats

Name: The Walled Off Hotel

Creator: Banksy

Location: 182 Caritas Street, Bethlehem, Palestine

Website: www.banksy.co.uk

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