Workshop One Materials

Asylum, Translation, Voice and Testimony (Université Paris 8), 6-7 September, 2018

Introduction: Feminist Representations: Sexual Violence Against Women, Asylum, and Testimony (Dr Georgina Colby)

Good morning, I would like to extend a very warm welcome to you all to the workshop today on sexual violence against women, asylum, voice and testimony here at Université Paris 8.  The workshop is the first of the three workshops attached to the project Feminist Representations: Sexual Violence Against Women, Asylum and Testimony.  Funded by a  British Academy/ Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant, the project aims to explore the contributions the arts and humanities may make to address institutional failures in the area of sexual violence against women and girls, with a specific focus on asylum, translation, voice and testimony. Three interdisciplinary workshops will bring together academics, practitioners, politicians, campaigners and writers. The objective is to open up avenues of expression for women when relaying their testimonies and the impact of sexual violence, and to provide feminist representation that moves beyond the parameters of legal expression. Adopting an interdisciplinary methodology, participants will examine case studies of asylum seekers’ testimonies as a means to reveal the issues of translation women meet when voicing their narratives. The project will shed light on specific issues women seeking asylum who have experienced sexual violence encounter when telling their stories. These findings will inform academics, policy makers, and writers who will address these issues in scholarly and creative works.

Within the context of asylum claims, the question of interpretation and oral testimony is a critical issue. Debora Singer, MBE, Policy Manager and Research Manager of Asylum Aid, in her recent work on the Protection Gap, points to issues of translation that affect women’s testimonies, such as words changing meaning within different cultural contexts, the way in women’s voices are muted through translation, and the lack of provisions available in terms of understanding the narratives of women seeking asylum. Debora Singer and Rehab Jameel will be talking about the Protection Gap Campaign in their key presentation later this morning.

In the field of the legal humanities, feminist scholars have taken up the question of voicing women’s narratives of sexual violence. Research on story-telling, performance, and narrative, for instance, Kathryn Abrams’ 2007 study ‘The Paths of Stories’, and Elizabeth Schneider’s and Stephanie Wildman’s 2010 collection Women and the Law Stories (Foundation Press/Thomson Reuters, 2011) have in Abrams’ words recognised ‘the richness of narrative and its contributions to legal analysis’[1]. Rosemary Hunter, Clare McGlynn and Erika Rackley’s work published in 2010, Feminist Judgments from Theory to Practice (Hart Publishing, 2010) addresses the use of alternate expression in legal contexts. Mairead Enright and Julie McCandless in their recent collection Northern / Irish Feminist Judgments published in 2017 incorporate the fields of art and literature in their feminist judging methodology, alongside engaging with legal and non-legal expertise and experience. From James Boyd White’s 1973 study The Legal Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 1985), to recent studies such as Peter Brooks’s ‘Narrative Transactions – Does the Law Need a Narratology?’[2] (2005), scholars and practitioners have sought to produce a theoretical body of work on law as narrative, literature and rhetoric that examines the language of the law and the limits of legal language.

The proposed project extends these concerns to the under-examined area of sexual violence and testimony in asylum claims. The objective of the project is to uncover the problems women experience when relaying their testimony and the impact of sexual violence. The project provides a forum for experts in a variety of fields proximate to asylum to arrive at solutions or aids to solving the problems inherent in gathering testimony from traumatised migrants and refugees. Writing is able to express and represent narrative fracture, mistranslation, silence, repetition, and hybrid languages. The representative power of writing and performance is evident in the recent work of Caroline Bergvall, whose multi-media experimental work Drift (Nightboat Books, 2015) mixes languages, human rights reports of contemporary sea migrants’ disasters with Anglo-Saxon and ancient Nordic seafaring literature and uses performance and multi-media installations to produce texts that are moveable and abstract, a ‘shifting, sounding language mass’ (Bergvall). Bergvall’s recent work Raga Dawn, a site-specific work performed at dawn in the UK and the EU, addresses the linguistic territories of the UK and the EU, endangered languages and languages emerging from recent settlement. Another important contemporary project, the Refugee Tales, led by David Herd, brings writers together with refugees to narrate their migrant experiences. The multiple forms of the works reveal the importance of various forms of writing and language to the expression of human experience and the formation of new modes of literary activisms. We will be hearing more about this work this afternoon from Dr Lucy Williams who worked on the Refugee Tales project. In 2017 a collection of refugee narratives titled Voices from the Jungle: Stories from the Refugee Camp was published. The important collection voiced narratives and creative writing by Africa, Ali Haghooi, Ali Badjar, Babak Inaloo, Eritrea, Habibi, Haris Haider, Majod, Mani, Miksea, Mohammed Ahmed, Muhammed, Omer aka Dream, Riaz Ahmed, Safia, Shaheen Ahmed Wali, Shikeb, Teddy, Teza, Zeeshan Imayat and Zeeshan Javid. Such projects and collections reveal a growing body of works that seek to empower and amplify the voices of those who have experienced and are experiencing forced migration.

Feminist Representations builds on such works by bringing together lawyers, practitioners, policy makers, scholars, writers, artists and leading figures from public-facing bodies in Europe to exchange knowledge and bring to light the key issues surrounding sexual violence, voice, translation and testimony. The findings will then be used to situate the issues in a legal humanities context and explore the way in which the arts and humanities might empower voice and enact change in the area of asylum and sexual violence against women and girls. The focus of the project is not to theorise or abstract the issues at hand but to work towards positive change.

In this way the project is very much a platform for feminist activisms and for thinking through and creating forms of feminist solidarity. In its conception, the feminist commitment of the project is very much in line with the work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty in her recent work of transnational feminism titled Feminism Across Borders: Decolonizng Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Duke University Press, 2003) Mohanty states: ‘Borders suggest both containment and safety, and women often pay a price for daring to claim the integrity, security, and safety of our bodies and our living spaces.’[3] Mohanty explains that she chooses the term ‘feminism without borders’ ‘to stress that our most expansive and inclusive versions of feminism need to be attentive to borders while learning to transcend them.’[4]  It is important, Mohanty stresses, to acknowledge that ‘feminism without borders is not the same as “border-less” feminism.’ By contrast to a “border-less” feminism, feminism without borders ‘acknowledges the fault lines, conflicts, differences, fears, and containment that borders represent. It acknowledges that there is no one sense of a border, that the lines between and through nations, races, classes, sexualities, religions and disabilities, are real – and that a feminism without borders must envision change and social justice work across these lines of demarcation and division.’[5] Mohanty’s transnational feminism then is a feminism ‘without silences and exclusions’, one that in her words ‘draws attention to the tension between the simultaneous plurality and narrowness of borders and the emancipatory potential of crossing through, with, and over these borders in our everyday lives.’[6]

Feminist Representations takes Mohanty’s idea of feminism without borders, of pluralism and feminist solidarity as a starting point and a foundation for the feminist thought that might emerge from the project.

The objective of the first international workshop today is to examine the restrictions imposed upon women’s voices in the context of reporting sexual violence as part of their migration experience in Europe. Professor Rashida Manjoo (former UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women) will address the gender injustice dimensions of the asylum process in a keynote paper. Our speakers include Debora Singer, MBE, (Senior Policy Adviser, Asylum Aid); Rehab Jameel (Protection Gap Advocate and member of Asylum Aid’s Women’s Advisory Committee); and Professor Jane Freedman (Université Paris 8). The workshop will bring together academics from Europe and representatives from public facing bodies, NGOs and women refugees and asylum seekers. It will facilitate a cross sector and interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge and experience in relation to taking testimonies and translation. Women’s testimonies will be considered with regard to language, translation and testimony. These issues will be examined alongside the current procedure of seeking asylum, in particular the interview process.

Professor Rashida Manjoo will open the workshop with a keynote paper titled ‘Gender Injustice Dimensions of the Asylum Process’. Rashida will take questions and then we will have a short break before our second keynote presentation by Debora Singer and Rehab Jameel. Deborah and Rehab will be presenting on their recent work for Asylum Aid, in particular The Protection Gap Campaign. We will then break for lunch and reconvene after lunch for the roundtable on Asylum, Voice and Testimony, chaired by Professor Jane Freedman and myself. Our afternoon panellists are Violaine Husson from La Cimade, Aniko Bakonyi from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Dr Lucy Williams from the University of Kent, Anne-Cécile Caseau and Sebastiano Cesaro from the gender sexuality and migration group here at Université Paris 8.

The proceedings today are fully translated and interpreted by a brilliant team led by Philippe Bignet, so a very big thank you to Philippe for making this possible. I would like to thank Professor Jane Freedman and Université Paris 8 for collaborating with me and supporting this international workshop.


[1] Kathryn Abrams, ‘The Paths of Stories’, UMKC LAW REVIEW, Vol. 76.3, p. 789.

[2] Peter Brooks, ‘Narrative Transactions – Does the Law Need a Narratology?’, Yale Journal of the Law and Humanities, Vol. 18, Issue 1 (2006).

[3] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Duke University Press, 2003), p. 243.

[4] Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders, p.2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Talks and Presentations

Keynote Lecture: Professor Rashida Manjoo, Gender Injustice Dimensions of the Asylum Process

Rehab Jameel (MPhil) and Debora Singer (MBE), Asylum Aid, The Protection Gap Campaign

(Slides: Debora Singer and Rehab Jameel The Protection Gap Campaign)

• Presentation of the roundtable on Asylum, Voice and Testimony: Professor Jane Freedman (Université Paris 8) and Roundtable on Asylum, Voice and Testimony

Participants’ Papers:

Professor Jane Freedman, ‘Narratives of Mobility and Insecurity: Listening to the Voices of Women Refugees’ (slides: Jane Freedman Narratives of mobility and insecurity presentation feminist representations)

Violaine Husson  (La Cimade)

Anne-Cécile Caseauand and Sebastiano Cesaro (Université  Paris 8)

Anikó Bakonyi (Hungarian Helsinki Committee), ‘No Place for Special Needs – Testimonies By The Fence’ (Slides: Anikó Bakonyi Testimonies by the fence)

Dr Lucy Williams (University of Kent), ‘Refugee Stories and Ethnographic Research’



Workshop Gallery

Georgina Colby

Dr Georgina Colby

Professor Rashida Manjoo

Professor Rashida Manjoo

Debora Singer and Rehab Jameel

Debora Singer and Rehab Jameel



Professor Jane Freedman

Professor Jane Freedman

Violaine Husson

Violaine Husson

Anne-Cécile Caseauand and Sebastiano Cesaro

Anne-Cécile Caseauand and Sebastiano Cesaro

Aniko Bakonyi

Anikó Bakonyi

Lucy Williams

Dr Lucy Williams