Stories from Berlin

There are 7 billion of us on this planet. Over 500 million of us live the EU. Every year, about 5 million babies are born here. These are figures that I am thinking about getting stamped on a t-shirt, because they are the figures that help us put into context the debate about migrants and refugees, a debate that I can’t believe we are (still) having.

In 2015, 1 million strangers arrived on our doorstep, many of them risking their lives and the lives of their children to get here, because it seemed like a less certain death than staying at home.

Because of the incredible selfishness of most EU member states, the majority of those 1 million refugees ended up in Germany. Sweden also took in a high number in proportion to its population. And thousands upon thousands ended up in a bottleneck in Greece.

Arriving home after spending the last year in Berlin, I was leafing through my Dad’s copy of the latest National Geographic when I recognised someone I knew. The woman who is pictured at the Tempelhof refugee camp about half way through this article (page 104 in the print version) is not a stranger to me. I first met Zainab about six months ago, in the company of her granddaughter. We had been running our weekly women’s group for quite a while, but up until then we had been working in a different part of the massive camp. Continue reading

Mobilising Affect: Peacebuilding as an Affective Practice

The term affect (emphasis on the first syllable) affects me (emphasis on the second syllable) rather negatively. I have been dancing around affect theory for some time now, and it’s more like being in a boxing ring than a ball room. I think of affect as a slippery young cousin of semiotics, lighter on its feet and even harder to get a hook into. It’s been around since Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher and lens grinder of Portuguese Jewish origins, whose understanding of affect included “affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.” But it’s only really found its way into the limelight of the social sciences in relatively recent years, and it arrived on my radar at a point when I was reluctant to engage with yet another fashionable turn in cultural and social research.

Like semiotics, a lot of affect theory seems to pride itself on taking the obvious and restating it in a way nobody can understand. At least semiotics had the decency to refer to itself by a relatively obscure word, and not hijack one that already has a place in our common sense understanding of how the world works. As we grow, we learn that certain Continue reading

Art, expression and dialogue: towards social transformation

In recent months, I’ve neglected the written word dreadfully. Hence the decision to adopt a more personal tone in this post, which is address to those of you who were so supportive of my writing throughout the PhD and who may have been wondering where in the world I’ve gotten to…The answer is, I’m still in Berlin (currently sitting on my balcony listening to the rattle and hum of S-Bahn trains pulling in and out of the nearby station), still engaging with refugee and migration issues at the local level, and still…still…still toying with different ideas about post-doctoral research. Which I promise to write more about in the future. For now, it being September 1st, I thought I’d treat you an old-fashioned essay on What I Did On My Summer Holidays. (It’s a sign of how much time I’ve spent in full-time education that I use the term ‘summer holidays’ interchangeably with ‘July and August’ – to be clear, what follows is about work, not an extended vacation)

For those in need of a reminder/introduction: not long after I arrived in Berlin last October, I became involved in an organisation that serves as an intercultural community and volunteering hub for old and new Berliners. I began working in a voluntary project Continue reading

Peace, violence and security (ii): reflections on a refugee shelter

Let’s take another example of the links between peace, violence and security which I began discussing in my previous post. Recently I’ve been spending some time with women and girls in a refugee camp in Berlin (this is not an academic project, but perhaps it might inspire one). I am part of a group of female volunteers who visit this shelter on a weekly basis bringing materials for art and needlecraft. We organise a weekly ‘creative circle’ where women from inside and outside the shelter come together on an equal footing to engage in hobbies and try to overcome language barriers. We help teach the younger girls how to do things like sew and knit, and some of our volunteers look after small children so that their mothers can be absorbed in their own tasks. The core idea? To create peace in an otherwise stressful environment; to help sustain individual efforts to preserve mental peace and stability; to provide a space where worries can be shared and solidarity sought. To take the empty concept of ‘shelter’ and give it a practical meaning.

The project is in its early stages, and now is not the time to write a full review of it. But one thing that has struck me from this and other initiatives is that security offers a useful lens for seeing how the refugee ‘crisis’ has played out in Berlin. Around 70,000 refugees Continue reading

Peace, violence and security (i): reflections on a conflict zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about security lately, inspired by a couple of great feminist books – ones I won’t name because I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read them earlier. Their main arguments were already known to me: feminist scholars have challenged the idea of state-defined (or national) security, and introduced a concept of security that is related to women’s sense of control over their own lives. To do so, they examine patterns of peace and violence in women’s everyday lives, regardless of the proximity to conflict zones. Thinking about peace, violence and security all together has been reshaping my understanding of two situations which have been on my mind a lot. The first is the conflict Continue reading

The final stretch (six steps for finishing your PhD)

I’ve refrained from commenting on the final stages of my PhD up to now, so as not to feel I was jinxing the outcome. Happily, my viva came around at the end of February, and my thesis passed without corrections. I’ll try to devote a post in the near future to some of the questions that came up, but first, for what it’s worth, here’s some general advice on getting across the finish line.

  1. (Re)read the manual

This is especially true if your thesis diverges from the scientific method (introduction – method – results – discussion) by presenting and analysing findings together (e.g. a series of thematic chapters). I rarely plug books this whole-heartedly, but if you haven’t read Authoring A PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, ignore the rest of what I have to say and just go and get a copy. As well as invaluable advice/reassurance on structure, it’s very helpful on style Continue reading

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: What’s Education Got To Do With It?

Today, Human Rights Day, is also the last day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign running from November 25 to December 10. Last year, I wrote a blog post about the origins of this campaign and the gap between UN discourse and grassroots feminism. This year, I’ve written a longer post discussing the new campaign theme: Make Education Safe for All!

A new take on an old theme

Since 2011, the theme for the 16 Days Campaign has been From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women! Lasting four years, this was the longest-running theme in almost quarter of a century. Arguably, it helped sustain interest in the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the crucial period between the 10th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 and the High Level Review this October. Following on the heels of the High Level Review (which brought forth another Resolution – UNSCR 2242), this year’s theme was announced as From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!  To me, this marks a step back from the focus on women as peacemakers in recent years. It also corresponds with civil society efforts to broaden the WPS agenda so that it is not just about getting women into peace processes (primarily as peace advocates) or seeking justice for women affected by conflict: it is also about realigning base values and engaging men and boys in building a gender-just peace from the bottom up.

Although women are absent from the slogan, the new campaign theme is in keeping with the broader aims and principles of feminist peacebuilding. While some feminists do support wars, feminist peacebuilders tend to agree that much of the money spent on war should be invested into areas such as health and education, on “books, not bullets,” as Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says. There is near-universal agreement that education is one of the most crucial sites for tackling both gender-based violence and radicalisation among young people. These issues are often priorities for women’s organisations in conflict zones, and on the day-to-day level may eclipse the struggle for women’s political participation and their role in peace processes.


A mural in Italy depicting Malala Yousafzai. Photo credit: Nicholas Gemini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This last point is especially true in areas where (1) radicalisation of young men and women poses an imminent threat to social stability, (2) the state offers little or no purchase for women’s political participation or the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and (3) there is limited or no opportunity for women’s organisations to circumvent the state by appealing to international actors – I am thinking in particular of women I have met from the North Caucasus, though many women’s organisations in the South Caucasus value informal education and youth work as much as lobbying/advocacy, if not higher.

Some campaign statistics

Drawing on data from UNESCO, the official 16 Days Campaign press release highlights the negative consequences of war and militarism on education, especially for young women and girls:

“Recent data shows that approximately 38 million people are internally displaced worldwide, while 16.7 million are refugees. Girls and young women in particular are most adversely impacted by insecurity and crisis, with the most recent estimates showing that 31 million girls at primary level and 34 million at lower secondary level are not enrolled in school, and 15 million girls and 10 million boys will never see the inside of a classroom. As many as 58 million children of primary school age do not have access to education, with approximately half of these (28.5 million) living in conflict affected areas.”

It highlights reasons why young women and girls in these precarious situations can be denied a full education: the rising instances of early or forced marriages, the danger of sexual violence or forced abduction, institutional and structural barriers such as lack of adequate sanitary facilities.

The statement continues:

“In 2014, global military spending stood at $1.8 trillion, while experts cite a $26 billion financing gap to achieve basic education for all by end of 2015.”

In other words, what we spent on arms last year would have been enough to end lack of access to basic education, worldwide, almost 70 times over.

The challenge of this year’s campaign is not only to promote safe access to education for all, but to draw the link between militarism, conflict and unequal access to education for young women and girls. In the rest of this post, I focus on how this message might resonate with western feminists, and how it pushes us to reconsider the relationship between the universal and the particular.

Continue reading