Migrants’ Rights Network: Not Talking is Not Safe

by , under Sarah Crowther

Sarah Crowther*

Community leaders need to address all topics, including those considered taboo among migrant and refugee communities, because the sooner we start the sooner we will all be able to engage properly in the arguments that make up integrated society.

1.0 Certain subjects are taboo (?really?)

Certain subjects are taboo.
You can’t possibly talk to refugees or migrants about them.
They are too sensitive, too cultural.
To raise such subjects will horrify refugees and migrants, offend them, upset them.

For example:  Condoms;
Female circumcision or genital mutilation;
(men especially, you can’t talk to men about FGM)
…..Gay sex

If you mention ‘lesbians’ migrants will be shocked, instantly hostile, they’ll feel insulted.
You’ll be condemned, rejected, seen as a bad influence.
They’ll refuse to have anything further to do with you.
Or worse….

They will say things that you just can’t tolerate,
and you’ll be in the situation where you either start an argument or you ignore what they have said and walk away – your morals compromised, feeling somehow that you’ve confirmed their opinions and made it worse.

Besides….  we would be pushing our opinions on them,

  • it’s disrespectful to their culture,
  • it’s ethnocentric,
  • it’s nothing short of cultural colonialism
  • it’s arrogant, patronising
  • and racist.

2.0 Us and them

“We would be pushing Our opinions on Them”
“Us” and “Them”
“Ours” and “theirs”
“Them” and “Us”
Thing is:  we all live in Britain.

Firstly :  there is The Law:

Equality Law is The Law in this country and people must comply with it…
…whether they like it or not.
Secondly : this has to be a society, and that means social, which means interaction, engagement.

There have to be connections, relationships, communication.
There have to be arguments, challenges, to and fro.
All of this is essential

  • to strengthen people’s sense of belonging:
    • of caring enough to argue,
      • of feeling and taking responsibility for what happens in this society

3.0 And the other thing about taboo subjects is….

And the other thing about taboo subjects is, well, perhaps a short story…

On Wednesday last week I sat in a small room full of Afghan women. They were mostly from Pashtu-speaking areas in the South of Afghanisthan – areas generally considered to be socially conservative.  Many were recently arrived, and spoke virtually no English (we were communicating via an interpreter).

And what were they talking about?
Lesbians.    And gay men.

When the subject first came up the group leader (who was also interpreting), asked if everyone had heard about women who are attracted to women and men who are attracted to men. They all said yes, some even laughed at her for thinking they might not know about them.

A couple of members of the group looked a bit stunned.  One woman was obviously uncomfortable: she got up, she sat down, she got up and sat down until they started to tease her and she blushed, laughed and after that stayed sitting down though she couldn’t stop fidgetting.

Several of the women expressed views that in another time and place I would have argued about, even shouted down;  but they had no problem talking about lesbians and gay men – noone was angry that the subject was raised.

They were quipping and questionning one another other:  it wasn’t raucous banter, this was not pub talk:  but it was most definitely an active discussion.

4.0 Starting to talk

The way we approached this was quite important – we didn’t set it up as a discussion about right and wrongs of sexuality, nor did we approach it as a educational session about equality for LGBT people – as much as anything because the group leader and host organisations would very probably have refused even to let us try.

We approached instead it as a parenting dilemma:

How do you relate to your children and support them when they are growing up in a society:

?         that is completely different to the one you grew up in;
?         a society where men can marry men, and women can marry women (nearly);
?         where it is illegal to discriminate against women, against disabled people, against men who love men or women who love women.
?         A society where expressing views that were acceptable
as / when / where you grew up,
can Now, Here, get your children into Serious trouble.

Can you prevent your children making assumptions, offending or mistreating other people because of their perceptions of other people’s ethnicity, beliefs, age, gender, sexuality, disability or health?  Because if they do insult or mistreat other children in school there will be consequences, and as they grow into adults, they will be facing the forces of the law.

And as they grow into adulthood will your children still come and talk to you when something worries them?   Will you know what to say if your daughter, or son, tells you about a friend who is attracted to people who are the same sex?  Or if they tell you their friend has tried to kiss them?   Even, as one woman said in a barely audible voice, if your child feels something for a person the same sex?

5.0 And they said yes, but….

And they said “They can talk to me, yes…  But not to my husband.”

Which on initial reflection sort of fits with what you’d expect; except…

For the past 2 years, Poornima and I and the Afghan Group leaders have been discussing whether and how it might be possible to raise the topic of LGBT equality within the group.  And for the whole of those 2 years, right up to September 2012 (when we said, “ok we’ll put £150 into group funds if you do it”) they had said, consistently, “I can talk with you about this, but I cannot discuss it with the group”:

“they will be shocked”,
“it is too sensitive”,
“it is not part of our culture to talk about these things”,
“they will stop coming to the group”.

And going further back in 2007/8, when REAP held our first discussion workshop about LGBT Refugees and equality, people said “We can discuss these things here together, it is very important, but you can’t discuss equality and sexual orientation with migrant and refugee communities”

“they will be shocked, they don’t like it, they don’t want to discuss it”
“they’ll get angry and hostile – they won’t work with us any more”.

6.0 We’ve learned a couple of things during this project

(Thanks to Esmee Fairbairn Foundation)

We’re not saying you can say anything you like to anyone about anything at any time and place.

But I am saying

You can talk to anyone, about anything – if you take the time to work out how to start.

  • And once you start, once you break ‘a taboo’, it’s never ‘taboo’ again.
  • And the longer you keep talking, and the more often you talk, the more willing people are to talk back, argue, engage.

You will have to accept that people will hold views you don’t like.

  • I’m certainly not saying that if you start talking with people, you will find that when you scratch the surface we are all liberal underneath – far from it. (You only need to be a female vicar to know that.)

Forming, building, protecting ongoing relationships of mutual respect and trust are crucial.

  • You can’t walk up to a stranger and start a conversation by shouting in their face.
  • Relationships take years to grow.
  • Modern project funding?  Short term staff contracts?  Overuse of inexperienced students and unpaid interns?  Not helpful.

You must pluck up your courage and start talking now.
because the sooner you start,
the sooner that process gets going,
and the sooner we will all be able to engage properly in the arguments and meshes of communication that make up an integrated society

7.0 And not to talk…

And not to talk is to:
to tolerate separation,
to consolidate isolation,
to institutionalise racism.

Not to talk is to allow discrimination, and from discrimination grows injustice, abuse, persecution – and that is why people end up having to leave everything, flee their homes and seek refuge in a new society in the first place.

This text is an edited version of a talk that Sarah Crowther, director at Refugees in Effective and Active Partnership, did last December in London at the launch event of ‘Our Day’: the campaign to celebrate International Migrants Day in the UK. The piece is part of a project to support refugee community organisations to support LGBTI refugees. With thanks to Poornima Karunacadacharan.

Sarah is the Director of Refugees in Effective & Active Partnership (REAP). REAP is an independent, refugee-led organisation in West London that aims to empower refugees and asylum seekers to live as valuable and valued members of British society. They work towards this aim through practical and policy-oriented activities in partnership with others.


Read original story here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.