The Social Science of the World in 100 objects – The Passport

The passport: is it the only way to say who we truly are?

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

A passport is a document issued by a national government which not only certifies the identity of its holder, but allows them to travel across the world and to re-enter their home country. However, for many people who have had to flee their country as refugees, their sense of identity is more uncertain and the link with their home country is broken. How the experience of being a refugee is shaped by gender and religion – and, more specifically, how Muslim refugee women forge their identities in a new country – is a topic that often leads people to label these women as ‘victims’. Stereotypes of ‘oppressed Muslim women’ and ‘barbaric men’ circulate too frequently.

As well as the challenges these women face, they are also presented with opportunities: new employment, different educational possibilities for their children, new relationships and a chance to interact with new communities. We should not be too idealistic and celebratory, but we can appreciate the broader web of social relations women are situated in and that there are not so many ‘victims’ as many public debates and popular representations would have us believe.

Migrant women are often underestimated; they are perceived as inactive, docile members of a segregated community who cannot possibly initiate change. But even though many women face challenges such as sexism, racism and restrictive immigration policies, this does not mean that they cannot take leaderships roles and incite change. An example of migrant women as agents of change can be seen in the way Somali women in Canada mobilized to get social housing for all asylum seekers. They were able to claim public space where no roles were scripted for them, and defied many people who believed these women could not possibly have a voice and role in political activism. These migrant women challenged preconceptions and have been publicly recognised as actors for social change.

Many migrant women sometimes feel exasperation when people from the so-called ‘Western world’ attempt to help them. For example, one woman professed, ‘I wish white liberal women would stop saving us’, while another spoke of the fascination people have with Female Genital Mutilation. She felt she was only listened to if she were to criticise her culture or her religion and felt that those who wanted to help should concentrate on more pressing issues such as the lack of medicine, malnourishment and poverty within Somaliland, and the challenges of integration in Europe and North America – not least the obstacles created by immigration laws that make it even harder to get a passport and become a citizen. Perhaps people’s lurid fascination with issues such as Female Genital Mutilation is a way of ‘othering’ and creating a bigger barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is important not to see Somali refugee women as ‘Muslim’ or ‘black’ or ‘Somali’, but as part of a diverse community who can and do contribute ‘here’ and ‘there’. At the same time, the onus should not just be on migrant women to mobilise and contribute, but on local and national communities to change their attitudes and the way they interact with women and their communities.

Migrant women may not always have a passport from the country they now reside in, but that does not mean they cannot forge their own identity and act as citizens who contribute to public life – in so doing, ensuring their voices are being heard.


By Dr Leah Bassel, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester.


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