Women are always teaching us new things, as long as we take the opportunity to listen. And as bell hooks has reminded us, we need to listen closely to the concrete reality of the marginalised in order to imagine a future that is truly visionary.
One thing we have learned over the last few months from listening closely to immigrant and refugee women is that we need to change our thinking on violence. We have learned that what we think we know about violence against immigrant and refugee women is neither broad, nor specific, enough. Women have told us very clearly that we need to broaden our definition of violence, and at the same time, we need to be more specific about the various forms of violence that impact on particular groups of women.
As Toni Morrison showed us in her beautiful novel, Beloved, violence has varied forms, and physical violence is only one of them. The psychological impacts of slavery include the impact of the racial categorisation of African American people, state-based violence in the form of unaddressed and sanctioned racial discrimination, and legislation or policy that institutionalises inequality. When we think about violence against immigrant and refugee women, we need to also think about how our state structures might contribute to their experiences.
Take women on temporary visas for example. Women who are in Australia temporarily on student, working or bridging visas have a specific experience of violence that is created and exacerbated by their temporary and precarious visa status. For temporary migrant women, not only the family home, but also housing and employment, are key settings where gendered violence finds fertile ground.
Women have told us that landlords and housemates, employers and workmates, spouses and family members, have found opportunities to exploit the system and take advantage of women’s limited options when faced with violence. In these cases, the violence has taken the forms of threats of deportation, eviction or employment termination, combined with an offer to remove the threat in exchange for sex or unpaid work. In other cases, spouses, supported by family and community members, have hidden passports or other documents from women, threatened to harm children or family members overseas, or they have limited women’s opportunities to work, to participate in the community or learn crucial skills such as English language.
If we aim to fully understand violence against women, and incorporate that understanding into a truly visionary future, these specific forms of violence, and a broader definition of violence, need to become incorporated into what we think violence means to women.