Study Day 2016

Understanding migration: hospitality, home and belonging

By Ina Keuper

Study Day 2016

On May 20th, 2016 the Annual Day of Anthropology 2016, organized this time together by ABv, Association of Anthropologists in the Netherlands and LOVA, Netherlands Association for Gender Studies and Feminist Anthropology, was attended by around 100 people at the University for Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. The Day’s programme of Understanding migration: hospitality, home and belonging comprised a keynote lecture, two rounds of parallel panel sessions and a plenary closing panel. Next to that both organizing associations had their own annual members’ meeting. Below I will present some impressions of the sessions I attended because I enjoyed being part of this very interesting conference.

Anthropology Day 03

After the opening of the Day by Anouk de Koning, and Marina de Regt, as presidents of the ABv and LOVA respectively, Nadje Al-Ali presented the keynote lecture Gendering migration: home and belonging in a transnational context. Al-Ali is professor at the Centre for Gender Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and was invited because of her extensive studies and publications regarding gender, women and women’s movements in the Middle East , transnational migration, and diaspora mobilization. She started her lecture with a personal story. Her Iraqi father was a student in Hamburg when he met her German mother during his summer holiday in 1960. They settled in her mother’s home town of Krefeld, not far from the border with the Netherlands and it was there that Nadje Al-Ali grew up. In her youth she was a very German girl, only later she became interested in the Iraqi side of her family. In the course of time more and more relatives of her father had migrated to Krefeld because of difficult circumstances in Iraq such as the military coup in 1968 starting the Ba’ath regime, the war with Iran in the 1980s, the Gulf War of the early 1990s and the American invasion in 2003. Both her parents were actively supporting these migrating family members. She herself went abroad for her Bachelor’s studies at the University of Arizona in the USA and a Master’s at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She finished her studies with a PhD at SOAS in London, in 1998. Since then she stayed at SOAS, where she is now working as full professor.

Al-Ali focused her talk on various topics. She started with pointing to the various generations of migrants from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries as well as Bosnia to Western European countries in the last few decades and the large variety of reasons for this migration. Not all of these migrants were refugees because of war and other conflicts. The concept of diaspora is now used more and more by these migrants to acknowledge their continuing attachment with their country of origin, its culture and their connectedness with relatives and friends out there and elsewhere. Also in migration studies there is a growing attention for these transnational relations and a moving away from concepts such as integration and acculturation. In the receiving countries of Europe these migrants are nowadays labelled as Muslims first and foremost and they have to deal with growing islamophobia. Migrants are more and more considered as ‘the other within’, as a threat in European countries. Al-Ali referred to the concept of superdiversity brought up by Steven Vertovec to ask attention for the large diversity among migrants in Europe. Many variables influence this diversity: legal status, material condition, migration motives, response of local residents and of the local bureaucracy among others. Al-Ali stated that changes in the context should also be taken into account, like the growth of ISIS. Although most Muslims in Europe and elsewhere do not sympathise with radical Islam the growth of islamophobia is an important factor. Also for the identifying of migrants in Europe.

The second main topic in Al-Ali’s lecture was the gender issue. She spoke about the feminisation of migration by showing that the numbers of male and female migrants to Europe varied in the course of time and more importantly that a gender lens is needed to acknowledge the different positionalities of men and women among migrants. Because of specific gender constructions in countries of origin and of settlement men and women do have different roles in the household and the family, in the work place and in all other institutions of societies. These gender constructions are most often implying unequal power relations between the sexes everywhere, not only among Muslims. In situations of war and violence women and men are differently involved; there are gender based patterns of violence and domestic violence against women is one of many forms. From her own research among migrants from Bosnia in Amsterdam and migrants from Iraq in London Al-Ali learned that often women are more willing than men to cross borders in the place of settlement, women are more eager to contact women from other backgrounds. With this Al-Ali did not want to suggest that women would be more peaceful. It is not by nature but because of the circumstances that women are more open to change than men.
At the end of her lecture Al-Ali brought up the sexual harassment affair during New Years Eve 2015 in the streets of Cologne, Germany. It is widely said that during the festivities young German women were sexually attacked by men of North African and Middle Eastern origin. How to deal with this? From her work with Iraqi women in London and in Iraq Al-Ali learned that talking about the widespread sexual violence against women in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries is very difficult. They acknowledge it is there, but most Iraqi women don’t want to discuss it because they fear that it will be politically misused by Europeans to demonize migrants as well as Islam. Al-Ali herself wants it to be discussed, however. Although she agrees with the negative answer by Lila Abu-Lughod to the question ‘Do Muslim women really need saving?’ (a book title), she wants to combine her own academic work with activism to end gender violence against women and enhance women’s freedom; not only in Iraq and the whole of the Middle East, but also in the West. After all, women are not only beaten in the Iraq, but in Europe as well. Most fathers do not kill their daughters in the Middle East, like they don’t in the West. Al-Ali stated that she does not want to join those who focus on neo-colonialism of the West and ignore the local violence in the Middle East. She wants to avoid a straight jacket of positionality and always take account of complexities, intersectionality and situatedness. Referring to a recent blog by an Egyptian feminist woman now living in Berlin complaining about growing racism and blaming of all Middle Eastern men, her friends, because of the harassment affair in Cologne, Al-Ali closed her lecture with stating that she does have to speak up about this sexual violence because she is a feminist.

In the questions and answers after the lecture Al-Ali explained in today’s Iraq there is growing space for debate about gender violence, as a local cultural phenomenon as well as because of imperialism. As a feminist anthropologist she wants to analyse all various levels and kinds of power inequality, micro and macro, inside and outside and how it is intertwined and interacting. On the question whether migrant scholars do have more legitimacy to do research on migration than others Al-Ali stated that she does not see herself as a migrant academic. Everybody can do this kind of research, also non-migrants. She started her research on Middle Eastern women because she saw the suffering of her relatives in Bagdad in the 1990s and wanted to use her scholarly position to write about that. A third question about the recent naming of islamophobia as racism by anthropologist Martijn de Koning in an opinion article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant of 7-5-2016 [ ; see also ] stimulated Al-Ali to inform her public about the long discussion in the UK about this naming. Blacks from the Caribbean claim the racism issue for their own group and don’t want to see it linked with Muslims, and many Muslim scholars also reject the interchange of these terms. This was a very informative ending of the keynote session by Al-Ali.

Of the two parallel panel sessions in the morning hours I attended the panel session organized by LOVA titled Gender, migration and connectivity, convened and chaired by Marina de Regt (VU University Amsterdam). Catrien Notermans (Radboud University) opened the session with a very interesting lecture about ‘Pilgrimage souvenirs as religious remittances: women’s powerful connections between Europe and Africa’. Notermans spoke about some findings from her research among African women living in Paris who were remitting religious souvenirs to their home country, mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo, or had a shop with religious souvenirs in Paris. They bought these souvenirs (objects lake Holy Mary pictures and medals) at Christian pilgrimage places like Lourdes in France in order to sell or forward them to other believers. The religious power of the souvenirs was sometimes strengthened with various rituals. Notermans connected this phenomenon with belief in magical power of specific objects which is familiar in countries like Congo. The second presentation by Donya Alinejad (Utrecht University) about ‘Politics of home: mediating affective migrant connections’ was filled with a theoretical elaboration on various perspectives regarding the concept of affect as Alinejad planned to use this in her new research project for analysing transnational relations between relatives among migrants from Romania and Turkey in Istanbul. Koen Leurs (Utrecht University) talked about ‘Young connected migrants and feminist data analysis’. As a scholar in the field of media studies he had interviewed 84 young migrants living in three different neighbourhoods in London about their digital practices regarding their local and transnational contacts on Facebook. He found that certain patterns in their Facebook contacts, as producers and consumers on Facebook fora, could have very different meanings because of differences in context. In all three presentations and in the subsequent questions and answers gender was now and then explicitly mentioned as an important aspect in the research, but it was not the main topic. New for me was that it was stated that in the Facebook community the categorization in male and female participants was recently changed into 18 various categories of sex, something I was not aware of.

The other parallel panel session Migration, research and activism convened and chaired by Peter Versteeg (VU University Amsterdam) also contained three presentations and a discussion. Sinan Çankaya (VU University Amsterdam) talked about ‘The governance of radicalization: the right wing security threat’; Saskia Jenelle Maarsen (VU University Amsterdam) titled her presentation ‘Navigating anthropology and activism’; while Kolar Aparna (Radboud University Nijmegen) spoke about ‘Universities as sites for academic-migrant knowledge-activism’.
In the second round of two parallel sessions in the first half of the afternoon I did not participate in the panel session titled Hospitality, organized by Kathrine van den Bogert (Utrecht University) and Roxane Beumer (Focus), because I had to choose. That’s why I cannot write about the talks (according to the programme) of Ilse van Liempt (Utrecht University) about ‘Welcoming cities? Balancing rights and responsibilities towards asylum seekers at local level’; Susanne Kipp and Toon Vos (Utrecht University) about ‘Worried citizens’ perspectives on the “refugee crisis” in the Netherlands’ ; and Lucrezia Giordano (VU University Amsterdam) about ‘Life at the border: local experiences of the EU migration crisis in Lampedusa, Italy’. However, I can describe the other session which I attended. I will shortly do so below.

In the Roundtable/Critical conversations Ethical concerns in research on migration, border crossings and trafficking five researchers presented ethical dilemmas and ambivalences they met in their field research. The session was convened and chaired by Anouk de Koning (Radboud University Nijmegen) and Yvon van der Pijl (Utrecht University). Roos de Wildt (Utrecht University) became engaged with a sixteen year old girl from Albania who wanted to step out of the prostitution business in Kosovo. She did try to help the girl but as not only her guardian at the brothel but also the girl’s father objected because of the loss of income for the family, the girl had to continue her sex work while her position worsened. Luc Voncken (Nidos) had a lot of problems with writing his Master’s thesis and a report for Nidos, an organization supporting under age asylum seekers in the Netherlands, after having done his participatory research by living among a group of these youngsters in a specific shelter house. How could he use the information for his own career and not really help the young males directly? Nidos did not want the Master’s thesis to be made public. Christa von Reth (Utrecht University) did research among migrants who did not get an allowance to stay in the Netherlands as well as among employees and staff of the Dutch return and deportation organization; how can an anthropologist who is critical about the system of deportation contribute to improving the practice of it? Karina van der Meijden (The Dutch Council for Refugees) decided not to show her informants in Malta, local people and workers for a NGO, her shock and disgust regarding their negative opinions about migrant refugees over there. Also she did not share her critique on the NGO with the migrants she spoke with. Brenda Oude Breuil (Utrecht University) asked herself and the public how to deal with opposing views regarding sex workers and human trafficking. Politicians and administrators of the municipality of the Dutch town of Utrecht decided in 2013 to close a series of boats with foreign sex workers because of severe exploitation of these women. From recent interviews with many of these women, the exploiter of the boats, and some pimps she learned that the women are now much worse off because they had to continue their sex work in situations with much less protection and safety. In the questions and answers after the presentations no solutions could be given for these dilemmas; continuous inner dialogues and reflections are needed by all. Ethical ambivalences are not only a problem of anthropologists, all academics have to make choices and to position themselves. Scholars have to contribute to knowledge, not to solve problems directly. ‘Helping’ people in circumstances the researcher rejects very strongly is most often not possible, on the other hand speaking up might also lead to information which otherwise would not have been found. Anthropologists also want to get knowledge and understanding of people whose values and norms they disapprove personally. So, at the end the Roundtable was closed with as many questions and dilemmas as it had started.

The closing session was filled with a plenary panel titled Visual anthropology and migration, convened by Eddy Appels (Beeld voor Beeld) and chaired by Mark Westmoreland (Leiden University). Four anthropologists talked about their use of documentaries in their work. In the presentation ‘Home and belonging’ Christina Grasseni (Utrecht University) explained her research with some cuts from her documentaries about dairy producers in Alpine northern Italy and religious processions by Italian-Americans in Boston. Referring to a recent publication of hers in the online journal of Anthrovision she mentioned various dilemmas in making documentaries by an anthropologist. Sanderien Verstappen (University of Amsterdam) showed in the session called ‘Studying migration through visual methods’ a part of the movie she made together with Mario Rutten about the migration of young adults from India to London. These migrants leave their relatively rich families in India to live in relatively poor conditions in London, they are experiencing a downward mobility. However, when they go back to India they bring presents and receive high prestige, leading to upward mobility. This combination of various forms of mobility is experienced elsewhere too, e.g. by students in the Netherlands who live in a small room during their studies and later on improve their situation a lot. The next presenter, Metje Postma (University of Leiden) stated in ‘What’s in an image: nomads, rebels, refugees or smugglers’ that advocacy as such is conflicting with anthropology as academic discipline. She illustrated this statement by showing parts of a documentary which was made by Sudanese refugees living in a camp in Eritrea by using Postma’s camera, and parts of a second documentary she made herself about one family in the camp. In the first movie the refugees discuss and show their problems in order to get more help from humanitarian NGOs and this implied that the makers did not show all their opinions. In the second movie many other aspects of living in a refugee camp are shown and discussed, this film is not useful for humanitarian agencies because of the ambivalent portrayal of camp life. The fourth contribution ‘Expanding the state of exception: a visual ethnographic approach of migration and social devaluation in Athens of crisis’ was done by Dimitri Dalakoglu (VU University Amsterdam). He showed a part of a documentary made by him and a professional film maker in which migrants in Athens talk about the negative attitude of the native inhabitants towards them. After the presentations the chair mentioned in his talk various topics like the temporality of the images in the documentaries, how the makers decide what to show to which public, whose stories, what stories. Each of the presenters gave a short reaction, and then time was up. Of these reactions I learned that all these visual anthropologists think a lot about how to show what cannot be filmed in a documentary, how a larger public could be reached, how imaging by documentaries might help the people filmed and at least should not harm them. Many more issues could have been discussed as well. However, the session was closed because the members’ meeting of the ABv had to start in the time scheduled.

In addition to all the interesting sessions I attended the members’ meetings of LOVA and ABv, being a member of both associations. At these meetings issues regarding the goals and mission of each organization were discussed; interesting stuff for those who interested in it, like myself. The Annual Day of Anthropology 2016 was very stimulating to think about a lot of topics I am interested in as an anthropologist. From the keynote lecture of Nadje Al-Ali I will remember the importance of gender issues in migration studies, which is still so often neglected by many researchers. From the various panels I learned about the large variety of issues anthropologists in the Netherlands are working on. I really hope that the many students present are also energized by attending this meeting and will keep in contact with LOVA and ABv. Membership of one or both of these associations will bring them even more, because of the contacts and information they can then gain from them.

Ina Keuper
Retired staff member of the Social and Cultural Anthropology department at VU University Amsterdam