Elissa Helms: Men at the borders: Gender, victimhood, and war in Europe’s refugee crisis

This post is part of a series on migration and the refugee crisis moderated and edited by Prem Kumar Rajaram (Central European University).

Even for the kind of conservative politics that argues for keeping asylum seekers out of the European Union or the United States, a variety of social roles and behavior are deemed acceptable for men and women. Why then, when issues revolve around war and bare survival, do debates fall back on such rigid assumptions about men as soldiers and political actors and women as victims or objects of protection? Why is it taken as a given that men traveling alone cannot be legitimate refugees? That empathy and victimhood should be naturally and only associated with women and children?

As other contributors to this series have pointed out, responses to the recent increase in migration and the so-called crisis of EU migration policies have generally taken for granted that we should and even can distinguish between “worthy” refugees fleeing war and “illegitimate” migrants fleeing the ravages of global economic inequalities. A refugee with a smartphone and money is somehow compromised: that shows initiative, means, education, the ability to act—“middle-class-ness.” There’s a troubling correlation between worthiness and passive victimhood on one hand and the way conscious decisions, the ability to makes choices, and the desire to live lives beyond mere survival diminish the possibility of worthiness. Assumptions about gender are key to how these distinctions are being made.

More precisely, it’s about how the roles and obligations of men and women are understood in relation to war, nations, and broader collective identities like Europe, Christianity, or the West. The notion of the refugee as deserving victim is invariably feminized, portrayed as indistinguishable masses of suffering, brown-skinned, largely female, “Third World” victims at the mercy of warring factions, passively waiting for Western help, as anthropologist Liisa Malkki argued twenty years ago. Political scientist Cynthia Enloe pointed to a similar category in international politics, particularly in times of war: there are actors of consequence, assumed to be men, and then there are “women and children”—the vulnerable, helpless part of the population. As I argued in my work about women’s activism and postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina’s politics of ethnonational representations, women and children are thus more easily read as innocent—unimplicated in war or political processes, unable to influence their fate, at the mercy of others.

Women as refugees
If a person can be deemed a refugee only in cases of absolute helplessness, then every deviation from the passive and vulnerable threatens to call that victimhood into question. For refugee-migrants, this means it’s unseemly for a woman to ask for a hairbrush, as some of them camped out at Budapest’s Nyugati station this past August did. The Hungarian woman volunteer I asked about that day’s needs was apologetic about mentioning this, while she said nothing about the razors and shaving supplies for men that regularly appeared on lists of donation requests. In the early 1990s, the Croatian feminist writer Slavenka Drakulić captured a similar sense of incongruity when she described her own discomfort with a friend who had fled Sarajevo going out in Zagreb wearing makeup and high heels. Such things were out of place for a “refugee.” How could a refugee also be seen as a sexual being? Someone with plans and a sense of self beyond the bare maintenance of life?

In general, though, women as women have barely featured in the coverage of the current migration. When they are pictured, it is with children and in family groups, as images meant to elicit empathy (a message well understood also by opponents of the migrants, as when Hungarian state television was advised not to show pictures of migrant women and children). Men have been much more prominent, as fathers by those advocating for humane treatment of the migrants, and as a host of threatening and dangerous figures by those arguing for keeping them out of the EU. But even when it’s the men holding up children in hopes of being let through a border or convincing police not to use violence, they are accused of using women or their children as human shields. This was the line of the Hungarian government after the violent clash at the Röszke border crossing on 16 September following a new, harsh set of Hungarian laws and the sealing of the border with a razor-wire fence. The male migrants, who share the same gendered sets of assumptions, know they are much better off being seen as fathers and husbands rather than simply “men.” Indeed, even some of the volunteers who mobilized in support of the refugees operated with this bias, as when some of those who came from Austria in early September to take refugees out of Hungary by car refused to take single men, preferring to return empty because there were no more families to transport.

Muslim men again: Terrorists or victims?
As feminist scholarship has established, men are usually assumed to be the actors of consequence. It is men’s responsibility to defend the nation and their families—as well as to marry and to father children. So those who oppose the entrance of people from Syria, Iraq, and other war zones accuse the migrating men of being cowards, shirking their duty toward family and country by not fighting (especially in contrast to Kurdish women who have taken up arms), or else of being too active, having been a member of one undesirable military formation or another. Images circulate on social media of “terrorists” caught among the migrants with photos of the men in military uniform being the sole proof necessary. Other images show men with visibly muscular physiques overlain with sarcastic captions meant to expose them as frauds (“These are the helpless refugees?!”). Damning, too, are images and footage of male migrants protesting, confronting border guards, or escaping camps—showing initiative and thus posing potential physical and political threats.

Yet in the everyday dynamics of war, especially civil conflicts like those gripping Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, men are no less vulnerable than women, just in different, gendered, ways. Consider the reasons one young Syrian man gave for leaving for Europe:

I studied to be a teacher, but I’m young, so I knew I’d be forced to fight. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like blood. But I was the only one working so I couldn’t leave or my family would go hungry. But my mother begged me to leave. She kissed my feet. She said she wouldn’t mind starving if she knew that I was safe.

It is precisely (younger) men who are expected by default to fight. They are subject to conscription whether or not they feel the call of duty or proclivity to fight. When they avoid conscription, they are vulnerable to detention, torture, even being killed. Or they’re suspected of belonging to rival armed groups. It is nearly impossible to stay clear of these suspicions, to opt out of the fighting, or to protect yourself or your family for long. Checkpoints put up by various armed factions dot the landscape and people are forced through them if they want to escape areas under siege where there is no food or adequate shelter.

Stepped-up conscription drives in Syria and periodic easing of restrictions for leaving the country for men of fighting age (the regime’s strategy of getting rid of potential opposition fighters) have been among the factors triggering this latest migration. Refugees typically face restrictions or bans on legal work or schooling in neighboring countries that shelter the vast majority of them. Their lives are stalled. As anthropologist Elizabeth Dunn put it, they’re in a “permanent temporary state.” The most rational and responsible thing for a husband, father, or son to do is to try to get to a more economically dynamic and stable country, to be granted asylum status there and send back earnings or bring his family along later. These men are taking the most dangerous routes now in the hopes of easing the journey later for their families. Spreading families out also increases the chances that some will survive. They are trying to secure a livable future for their families, not abandoning them. And lest this observation get plugged into Orientalist assumptions about patriarchal Muslims, let us be clear that this is the same call of duty and initiative expected of men in the (neo)liberal “West” that is being read here as the wrong sort of agency for anyone seeking asylum.

European masculinity to the rescue
Meanwhile, masculine posturing in defense of the nation and Europe itself is starting to echo the conservative nationalist gender politics that bolstered the dissolution of Yugoslavia and wars in the 1990s. It has also fed into representations, familiar from those times, of Eastern Europe as more backward, marked by exaggerated masculinity in contrast to the tolerant and measured West. Viktor Orbán has made a stubborn showing of aggressively guarding the Hungarian and EU border with harsh laws, a lack of humane facilities, and the razor-wire border fence, countering the lax, “soft touch” (read: feminine) policies of Angela Merkel’s Germany. It’s hard to see how Orbán’s orchestrating of a desperate situation at the border with Serbia after the completion of the fence was not explicitly intended to incite violence from frustrated migrants, to generate images of violent foreign men attacking the bulwarks of Europe that would justify the harsh response by Hungarian police.

Just in time for the completion of the fence, the right-wing mayor of one small town on the Hungarian–Serbian border put out a low-budget video full of tough-guy swagger and action-adventure aesthetics to convince migrants that coming through Hungary would be “a bad choice.” The macho posturing was only somewhat undermined by the “helpful” suggestion at the end of the video, illustrated with a Google Maps route, that going through Croatia and Slovenia would get people to Germany more quickly. The mayor was clearly not thinking as grandly as Orbán, who declares himself the defender of Christian and white Europe under threat from Muslim invaders—he promised to restore “calm by Christmas.” But commentators from Croatia on a Facebook page dedicated to showing migrants new routes through Croatia were very much attuned to this role, declaring in racist and homophobic terms that migrants should stay clear of Croatia, too: Croatians are fierce patriots with a history of driving out Muslim invaders, they affirmed. Both such nationalists and later also Orbán himself warned that the “invaders” would turn Europe into a Muslim continent and brutally rape European women.

The fear of a dehumanized male enemy who would rape “our women” is a tried and true formula that reinforces notions of male actors—noble protectors on “our” side, violent perpetrators among the “other”—and passive female victims. Not only is this a patriarchal scare tactic that serves to bolster masculine protector images, but sexual violence has been a real threat to women (and also men) living in zones of conflict and instability—one of the dangers migrants are fleeing. Yet when the Western media pays attention to such abuses, it all too often falls into wider Orientalist narratives of more violent and backward and therefore more patriarchal places, as was also implied about sexualized violence during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Non-European, nonwhite societies thereby become reinscribed as made up of violent men and passive, victimized women.

These thoughts have concentrated on the discourse about migrants’ origins. Those who arrive in the EU, the US, or other countries that base their wealth on old and new forms of domination over the places people migrant from, face similar gendered judgments when applying for asylum. Along this journey, assumptions about gender contribute to the many other problems with current migration policies. Any process of improvement must acknowledge that both men and women can simultaneously be individuals and family members, vulnerable victims as well as actors with initiative and legitimate dreams of a livable life.

Elissa Helms is Associate Professor and Head of the Gender Studies Department at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She is the author of Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and has worked with Bosnian refugees in Croatian camps and in the United States.

Cite as: Helms, Elissa. 2015. “Men at the borders: Gender, victimhood, and war in Europe’s refugee crisis.” FocaalBlog, 22 December. www.focaalblog.com/2015/12/22/elissa-helms-men-at-the-borders-gender-victimhood-and-war-in-europes-refugee-crisis.