Fascists kill. But for those damaged survivors who flee persecution, and face a new authoritarianism, sustaining themselves can be a monumental personal undertaking.
Before I discuss four stages of redistributive justice, I’ll record examples of threat and intimidation which make the struggle for justice so necessary.
“Kill me, I can’t cope anymore. Only death can rescue me” is one of the most common phrases that I heard from women and children on death row in Iran and women and children facing indefinite detention by Australia on the island of Nauru. There’s common ground between the fundamentalist Iranian government and the Australian immigration policy on Nauru. Each is authoritarian.
There is a strong case for comparing cruelties in Iran’s penal code with the Australian government’s policy of imprisoning women and children on Nauru who have committed no offence. They have also been robbed of their dignity and right to life.
Hundreds of Iranian women were raised under extreme Islamism. They experienced the sting of psychological and physical repression from theocratic rules. They were banned from leaving home or country without their husband’s permission. Women who tried to escape this by fleeing to Australia finished up facing similar repression, but this time on Nauru.
For years, I thought that in a democratic country like Australia, detainee women would be able to speak their own narrative. Over the past years, I have focused my work on exposing the situation of women and children facing indefinite detention in Australia and offshore but I often witnessed internalised structures of racism, as shown by attitudes of superiority even among the refugee advocates.
I have been warned by refugee advocates that a minister can cancel my visa and deport me
After the prison death of 35-year-old labourer and blogger, Sattar Beheshti, his mother Gohar Eshghi insisted on justice for the innocent blood of her murdered son who had been killed under torture during interrogations in Evin prison.
The Iranian security forces threatened to send her to jail if she told her story. She resisted. Gohar’s voice of protest was promoted through social media. She inspired other mourning mothers to put on their black clothes and find the courage to confront suppression and censorship.
Ironically, in Australia, I witnessed displaced women receiving similar intimidation, not from security agents, but from the organisations that pretend to advocate refugee rights. I found this to be a common characteristic in the manner in which white advocates think, talk and act on behalf of displaced women.
A desire to utilise supposed superior knowledge had the effect of intimidating imprisoned women by discouraging them to speak up. This practice serves establishment interests by producing a system which silences potentially dissident voices. I see this practice as a form of terror.
When I was intimidated in Iran it was by the authorities. In Australia, the intimidation came from those who claimed to be trying to help. This year, one of the imprisoned women told me she had been threatened by a refugee advocate organisation if she told her story in the media.
I have also received an email from an organisation urging me to postpone another story because they wanted to interview the woman first. In another case, also about a refugee on Nauru, I have received a false claim from a refugee advocacy organisation that the Nauru family wanted the removal of a published story.
In another incident, in front of a traumatised family, a caseworker shouted that this person was their client, therefore the story belonged to them and the family should not talk to a journalist.
I have been warned by refugee advocates that a minister can cancel my visa and deport me for scandalising the Australian Border Force. So it is safer for white citizens to speak up. This feels like a threat. It shows how a narrative can and has been colonised.
In the experiences just described, displaced women must assert identity and overcome powerful hierarchies, Eurocentric norms and other forms of cultural bias. There are few opportunities for them to assert their identity, to be taken seriously let alone experience a sense of justice.
The injustices which they experience have deep roots and even practitioners in distributive justice will find it difficult to create the freedoms which these women deserve and seek. They survive in a competitive and often cruel world in which they could remain invisible and their powerlessness unnoticed.
In four stages, I’ll be showing how their struggle can generate a sense of optimism. In these stages, we witness movement from powerlessness to a sense of power, from being victims to experiencing a sense of victory, however small.
Stereotype pictures of asylum seeker women on Nauru suggest they are all the same: terrified, poor, displaced and in need to be rescued. But communicating with them about their futures shows how changes occur in some women’s self-image and how the stereotypes are confounded.
The changes in the self-awareness of women is complemented by the greater public awareness in Australia of these women’s containment and punishment. The women’s search for freedom has been rewarded by a powerful country imprisoning them on a remote island. The context of their lives has been enlarged but in an entirely negative way.
By communicating with interested journalists these women are becoming politically astute. They are moving from a sense of powerlessness to a greater self-confidence about political roles they might play.
Using the language of rights and justice is a crucial feature of the slow transformation in these women’s lives. They are being taken seriously, their sense of identity transformed by encouraging experiences. In this respect, we witness not a final outcome but rather a work in progress.
It’s a small victory but it leaves many more struggles for justice to be conducted.