With the Syrian refugee crisis dominating the news at the moment, Jo Manby has been looking back at her archive for reviews of books, available in our library, that look at the refugee experience. Read the others here and here.
This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.
Book review: Educated for Change? Muslim Refugee Women in the West by Patricia Buck and Rachel Silver (Information Age Publishing, Inc.: Charlotte, North Carolina, 2012)
An unexpected outcome of war and migration has been an increase in Somali girls’ and women’s educational opportunities, when historically their literacy levels have been ‘among the lowest in the world’ (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 1998) (p.xv). Authored by Patricia Buck and Rachel Silver, co-founders of Matawi, a nonprofit NGO that works to increase educational opportunities for girls and women from the predominantly Somali Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, this anthropological work examines the impact of ‘new-found access to schooling ….. in the everyday lives of Somali refugee girls and women’ (p.xvi).
The research was undertaken in two locations, Milltown, a small city in New England that has acted as a Somali resettlement site since 2001 and the three Dadaab camps in Kenya. Buck and Silver, as advocates for Somali girls and women, ‘strategically use the research process to gather the voices and perspectives of [their] participants and to actively involve them in the process of constructing knowledge about themselves and their communities’ (p.xix).
There are 13 chapters in the book. These begin with a detailed overview of the subject matter; the controversial situation of working with Somali refugees, given contemporary Islamic East–West relations, ‘often framed with regard to whether the Islamic belief structure is compatible with secular, democratic ways of life and governance’ and with ‘deep concern about terrorist proclivities among followers of radicalized Islam’ (p.10); and the ‘Enlightenment agenda of the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees]’, the influences of ‘enlightenment, traditionalism, liberalism, and nativism’ (p.20) that are brought to bear on the lives of Somali women.
The concept of traditionalism in Somalia is explored in a political and educational history of the country in Chapter 2; ‘beginning in the colonial era and carrying through the collapse of Somalia’s independent government and into the Cold War, foreign interests have attempted to manipulate clan, geography, and gender – often in the name of tradition – in efforts to control Somali citizens’ (p.36). Chapter 3 portrays ‘Enlightenment and Girls’ and Women’s Empowerment in the Dadaab Refugee Camps’, from descriptions of camp life (climate, diet, sanitation) to abuses of power over the refugees and the ‘enlightenment ideology’ (p.85) that has resulted in a ‘carefully inscribed power differential between the aid regime and refugees’ (p.89).
Chapter 4 tracks refugees’ perspectives on the polarisation occupied by Somali traditionalism and Western enlightenment and the way in which the traditionalism of Dadaab is far more allied to Islamic fundamentalism than was the case in the homeland of Somalia, due to ‘stringent interpretations of customary law, or xeer, and Islam to counter the desires and agenda of the UNHCR’ (p.93). Chapter 5 examines Somali girls and women in school. The women involved in Buck and Silver’s research ‘plainly advocated for girls’ and women’s education and made personal choices to reflect such a commitment ….. with a clear understanding that traditionalists strongly disapprove of their decisions’ (p.112). The chapter looks at domestic and family responsibility among other obstacles to learning.
Chapter 6 uncovers ethnic and gendered discrimination in Dadaab, relations with Kenyan teachers, and the reception of international visitors to Dadaab from governmental and nongovernmental organisations; some women react positively to Western visitors and others are ‘rightfully skeptical’ (p.171). ‘Dialogues of Change’ includes an account of how the authors helped a young Somali woman to avoid female circumcision, and supported her in the ensuing harassment from some family and community members. Chapter 8, ‘Bridge: From Dadaab to Milltown’, acts as a centrepoint between the chapters dealing with the Dadaab camps and those that concern Milltown, and as ‘a portrait of cultural orientation sessions’ (p.201). The journey of Somali refugees to resettlement in the United States is described, including information on how they are ‘instructed to reform their ways of being’ (p.215).
Chapters 9-12 focus on aspects of the Somali refugees’ lives in Milltown, from ‘The United States and Milltown: Traditionalism, Liberalism, and Nativism’; ‘Somali Women in U.S. Schools’; and ‘Crafting Identity Through Community Building’, to ‘“You Better Say Your Prayers Before Prayers Are Said For You”: Negotiating and Regulating Gender Change’. The book ends with ‘Educated For Change? Some Concluding Thoughts’ in Chapter 13 and ‘Final Reflections on Our Project’ in the Afterword. The authors include a plea: ‘There are many ways for readers to get involved and we would be honored by any form of your support’ (p.327).