Described as a ‘searing examination of human mobility at the margins’ a new book co-written by authors from Bridport and London is a deeply thoughtful exploration of women’s free and unfree movement. Alex Blanchard and Alex Howlett spoke to Fergus Byrne.
Although the title may be a play on the comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, a character whose strengths include empathy, compassion, and a strong conscience, a new book, Wander Women, lets readers hear the voices of many of those who, in the face of often hidden adversity, share those same strengths. Described as an exploration of women’s free and unfree movement, Wander Women examines and highlights the borders that restrict women’s movement through the world, whether due to gender, disability, race, faith, or migration.
Co-authored by Alex Blanchard and Alex Howlett, the book is ‘very much in the business of questioning and discarding labels’ by sharing the voices of those labelled. It also calls out the dehumanising descriptions used in the media such as ‘swarm’, ‘hoard’, migrant crisis’, and ‘flood of migrants’. By putting voices to the stories of those caught up in gender, disability, or migrant traps Wander Women shines a light into places that few of us would otherwise see.
The story began when Bridport’s Alex Blanchard and London-based journalist Alex Howlett found they were both researching the lives of women in displaced situations. A suggestion to write a book about the Saharawi, an ethnic group native to the Western Sahara, many of whom live in Algerian refugee camps after their land was ceded to Morocco from Spain, was quickly expanded to include stories of displacement and boundaries in many situations, even those restricted by gender. ‘It felt very limiting if we were talking about women to not talk about trans women or non-binary people’ said Alex Blanchard. They also agreed that when talking about movement it felt integral to be talking about mobility and structures other than physical borders. ‘Because we are not just talking about physical borders’ continued Alex. ‘We’re talking about borders of race, borders of wealth. There’s so many various layers of discrimination that come into whether or not people are allowed to move.’
Those interviewed range in age from 24 to 96. There are heartbreaking stories such as that of Ari who was born to Armenian parents in the Georgian capital Tblisi. Her childhood was lived through the Georgian civil war. The family escaped to Russia where Ari married and then moved to the UK to live in Bournemouth. But her sense of not belonging followed her everywhere. ‘I don’t speak Armenian’ she says ‘I don’t speak Georgian. I speak Russian and I live in the UK. If somebody asks me where I’m from I answer “Everywhere”’. Despite the safety of living in England, she suffered from an abusive, controlling husband and her marriage broke down. She fled to a refuge in London where her appeal for refugee status began. When, after many years of fear and mental torture she was granted refugee status she joyfully told her children ‘We are free’. Ironically she found that her children hadn’t seen the same boundaries and felt free the whole time.
There is also the story of Eva, the daughter of Anka and Bernd who were both in Auschwitz. Eva was conceived in Terezín Concentration Camp. Bernd was German first and Jewish second. ‘They suffered at the hands of the Nazis because of their ethnicity rather than their faith’ says Eva. When Anka was found to be pregnant she had to sign a document agreeing that when her baby was born it would be handed over to be euthanized. The baby, named Jiri, was spared the death sentence but died of pneumonia after two months. Eva points out that Jiri’s death meant that she lived because if Anka had arrived at Auschwitz with a baby they would have both gone straight to the gas chambers.
Returning to Prague after the war Anka tried to reclaim her citizenship but as she had married a German she was considered German because in many countries the wife takes on the nationality of their husband. The authors cite a case study that shows gender discrimination in nationality law, though forbidden in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women in 1981, abounds in at least twenty-six countries.
Dr Jessi Parrott who uses the pronouns they/them is an actor and writer with cerebral palsy. Jessi’s story highlights how the UK welfare state hasn’t always treated disabled and neurodivergent people well. In particular, Jessi talks about means-tested benefits which are withdrawn if someone marries. The recipient is left reliant on their partner for financial support. ‘We’re not pets to be kept’ says Jessi. The system is further exposed with figures showing that in 2019 in England and Wales, disabled women were more than twice as likely to have experienced domestic abuse than non-disabled women. This abuse may include withholding medication, food or personal care, or access to aids that provide independence.
Piretta, escaping forced Female Genital Mutilation in The Gambia shares the fear that asylum seekers have of being sent to a detention centre while seeking asylum. She points out that ‘detention centres are essentially prisons.’ Alphare, originally from Uganda fled to Kenya because she is transgender but ended up in a refugee camp where the stigmatism is just as bad. She locks herself away, living in constant fear. Dorothy Bohm, a photographer who fled the Nazis as a young girl and didn’t see her family again for twenty years says she can’t take ‘ugly’ or ‘nasty’ photographs as she says ‘there’s no need’. Ugliness has been an uninvited companion to so many of those who have been displaced.
’It seems like a wide array of interviewees but they are all linked’ explained Alex Blanchard. They are linked by the question of how does someone’s identity affect how they move around the world? ‘And that’s their gender identity, their racial identity, etc.’ It is also about the question of how a woman might move around a city at night or how a disabled woman might get on an airplane or how a trans person might deal with security at an airport.
Through the diversity of stories, the book also reminds us of the difficulties for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants today. People are trapped in detention centres and refugee camps for months, years, and in some cases decades. Their only crime is that of movement. Most are seeking a better life or escaping horrific abuse. Alex Howlett says one aim of the book is ‘to counter the xenophobic, hateful narratives that have encouraged so many pretty awful policies, specifically in the UK.’ She hopes the result might make readers with different politics think again about the alienating ideas they might have around migration ‘…maybe make people think a little differently.’
One of the many telling comments in the book comes in the story of Patrice, a Windrush wife from St Lucia. The book highlights author Leah Cowan’s description of the paradox of Windrush where advertisements crowed about what a great place England was to come to. Cowan says: ‘Britain’s only consistent export is its own inflated sense of its own greatness, and yet outrage is meted out to anyone who wishes to cross its borders and venture in.’ This is an observation that might be made about many western nations.
Wander Women makes the point that current systems push undocumented people into riskier parts of the economy and that until the government develops policies that help migrants to be safely and respectfully settled, illicit and dangerous channel crossings will continue, and more lives will be lost.