“We Are Here Because You Destroyed Our Lands.”
The origins and practices of the International Women* Space in Berlin
Denise Garcia Bergt is a Brazilian movie director, author of texts, activist, and initiator of the self-organized group International Women* Space. She lives and works in Berlin.
Zofia Nierodzińska: Could you please tell readers how you started the movement, which has already existed for seven years?
Denise Garcia Bergt: The beginning of the International Women* Space (IWS) was influenced by several events that took place in 2012. I had started the year by releasing my documentary Residenzpflicht about the resistance of self-organized groups of refugees against the Residenzpflicht (German for “mandatory residence”), a legal requirement affecting asylum seekers living in Germany, who are constrained to live within certain boundaries defined by the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Office). The film also investigates colonialism and its legacy of oppression, still visible in the current fear-based power-and-control asylum system in Germany.
In August 2012, the same group portrayed in the film organized a summer camp “Break Isolation – Refugee Summer Camp,” in the eastern town of Erfurt, in the state of Thüringen, and I was invited to give a workshop about video filming and editing. The result was a ten-minute video called Der Embryo der Freiheit, made collectively with newly arrived asylum seekers. In retrospect, I still recall this as the most political camp I’ve ever been to. There were daily meetings, workshops, and discussions ranging from topics such as the origins and perpetuation of colonial injustice; ways to strengthen the migrant and refugee communities through self-organization; against Residenzpflicht and Frontex; and the political engagement of anti-racist campaigners and their support of the daily struggles of refugee and migrants against societal and institutional racism.
It was also at this camp that I got to know the story of a 29-year-old Iranian refugee, Muhammed Rahsapar, who had committed suicide in January at a refugee center in Würzburg, a town in central Germany, in protest of the conditions in which refugees were housed. After his death, a group of refugees went to set up a camp in a public space in Würzburg and began a hunger strike. Some also sewed up their mouths in protest.
This group had come to the Break Isolation Camp to share their plan to make a six-hundred-kilometer march from Würzburg to Berlin. A four-part video [I–II–III–IV] shows them in the camp and later in the march.
On 8 September 2012 they started their march, and other refugees living in camps located on the route joined the protest that demanded the abolition of the “Lager” [camp] system, the abolition of Residenzpflicht, the abolition of the food rations and vouchers, the full stop of deportations, and a worthy life for asylum seekers in Germany.
The march reached Berlin on 6 October 2012, where a camp in Oranienplatz (a square in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg) had been built with all the facilities needed for the protest to continue to grow. People had organized everything from electricity to toilets, tents for living, cooking, eating, and for the storage of clothes and other donations such as mattresses, bedsheets, etcetera. A big circus tent was erected to host political meetings.
I will cut this story short and go directly to the beginning of the IWS. I suggest anyone interested in a more detailed description of the Oplatz protest visit the webpage of Movements: Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies.
As the winter in 2012 struck Berlin and the tents in Oranienplatz began to crumble due to the heavy snowfall, the solution was to find an empty house and squat it. So, at the beginning of December an abandoned building—the former Gerhart-Hauptmann School (GHS)—was squatted, and many of us, the women involved in the protests, announced that we were occupying the space to create a women-only floor. After a couple of meetings, someone suggested calling our floor The Women* Space and later to call the group the International Women* Space.
The reason why we did it was related to the fact that the refugee protest had been male-dominated until then, and refugee women were not joining. We knew of so many women seeking asylum who were surviving and fighting against the same injustices the men were fighting against, and we couldn’t understand why they were not coming. For my film, I had interviewed powerful women from a group called Women in Exile and knew how active they had been for more than a decade in Germany.
For me and for many in the group, the act of squatting meant a lot. I had squatted in London, in 1989, and had felt a taste of freedom in doing it because, in my opinion, squatting always provides an opportunity for self-determination—enabling physical and spatial infrastructure for feminist activism—and Berlin had this history of women squatting houses. The eighties had been especially remarkable with regards to women forming groups and organizing women’s spaces. Therefore, to combine the fight for the rights of refugees and migrants with squatting couldn’t be more perfect. Moreover, we put lots of effort into transforming the rooms and facilities of this floor, as well as introducing many activities during our seventeen-month stay at the GHS. We held free German language classes twice a week for women living in the house and for women coming from the camps. There was pro-bono legal advice from lawyers who visited us twice a month, assisting women in navigating the bureaucratic processes of their asylum cases, learning when and how to appeal for a decision. We conducted a variety of workshops and group readings of books written by women, as well as beginning to organize our feminist library. There were also regular weekly plenaries to discuss internal organizational matters and future campaigns, and to write speeches for upcoming demonstrations.
Until the eviction, we considered ourselves part of the movement that had begun in Oranienplatz and worked a lot with everyone involved in the movement.
Well, this is how it started, more or less.
ZN: What are the fields of involvement of IWS? Could you tell us about the work you do (publishing books, demos, care work, conferences…)?
DB: With the eviction of the school in the summer of 2014, we had to stop many of the activities mentioned before and concentrate on the making of our first book project, In Our Own Words (self-published, 2015). We already had the idea of the book and even the funding for it but because of the tensions regarding the eviction we couldn’t find the time or even the proper atmosphere to start this project. The last few months at the school got us involved in a variety of weekly meetings with the district, with the neighborhood initiatives, and with other political groups and activists, and for a while all we did was to try and keep the school and our space. However, when it was clear to us that our occupation had come to an end, we decided to go on the road, so to speak, and began to visit refugee camps in Berlin, on the outskirts of Berlin, and in other German towns to interview women.
In Our Own Words was released in 2015 and documents the life stories of courageous women who have fought against difficult realities, women who fled all sorts of adversities, women who had struggled within Oranienplatz, at the school.
After the release of this book, we found ourselves two different rooms in Berlin where we could start meeting weekly again and slowly resume our former activities. Then we also decided that we should continue documenting, but not before gathering the perspectives of different migrant women who had organized themselves previously in Germany. That’s when we had the idea of holding a conference, “When I came to Germany,” which took place in 2017. The program had twenty-two women from multiple generations speaking on six different panels about their experiences, such as coming to West Germany as guest workers, to East Germany as contract workers, as migrants and refugees to the reunified Germany, and of German women who are affected by racism. All talks were translated simultaneously into German, English, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, and Vietnamese. The conference had 250 women attend each day—reaching maximum capacity. You can find the content of all the panels online and in all the translated languages. In March 2019, the content of the conference was released in the format of a book called Als ich nach Deutschland kam published by the Unrast Verlag—this time unfortunately only in German, but as usual we have plans to get funding to translate it into more languages, as we have done with all of our work.
In 2018, we released We Exist, We Are Here, also self-published. This second book contains eight stories—at times enraging and dispiriting, in other moments empowering and uplifting. The stories recount a range of women’s experiences: being trafficked through Libya and forced into prostitution; fleeing state repression and societal oppression in Egypt, Syria, and Iran; being persecuted for academic activism in Turkey, or for drug addiction in Russia; women robbed of their right to self-determination; women who have resisted deportation and who fight racism and racist structures in Germany every day.
At the end of 2018 we finally rented an office for ourselves and since then we’ve been offering all the activities we used to do at the school: workshops, monthly legal advice (with the same group of lawyers we worked with before), German classes (also with the same teacher from long ago), regular consultations on different issues regarding migration and asylum, as well as preparing the two demonstrations we have organized every year since 2015, on the 8th of March and the 25th of November, respectively: on international women’s day and on the day to combat violence against women. All that plus the day-to-day administration of our organization. In 2017, we registered the group and became an official association, which is very demanding, especially considering that the bureaucracy it involves is all in German and most of us are migrants and are still learning the German language.
ZN: As a movie director and author of the film Residenzpflicht, you confront the viewer with the reality of refugees’ lives in Germany. In the twenty-first century, the difference between people who can move without restrictions and those who are deprived of this right is still very present, and in most cases goes along with the division between colonial countries (Europe) and the colonized ones (Africa). What are the conclusions coming from the film? What were your motivations to make the film? How could the situation of people coming to stay in Europe be improved?
DB: I come from Brazil, and like all the countries in Latin America, we have a colonial past. Although Spain and Portugal left the area much earlier than it happened in African countries, that never meant Latin American countries had achieved sovereignty. It is just that the ruler changed from an official colonizing European country to the direct influence of the United States of America, which has always interfered in the politics of Latin America, making hell of the lives of its populations. The history of Brazil is a succession of coup d’etats, corruption, and authoritarian governments (as we are experiencing right now since the impeachment of the legitimately elected president Dilma Rousseff, the imprisonment of former president Lula, and the election of Jair Bolsonaro, “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world”). Last but not least, it’s important to mention that Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in the Western world, and it is racist to its core even though the country’s majority population is black or of black descent.
I guess my motivations to work with other migrants has a lot to do with these shared experiences and memories.
At the time I made the film Residenzpflicht and after its release, I must confess I was very optimistic. As I said, I had met with self-organized groups of migrants and refugees such as The Voice and The Caravan and I was lucky to be part of the refugee movement in Berlin.
However, then came the backlash. In 2015, refugees, mainly from Syria, got stuck at the outer borders of the European Union. At one point, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided she wouldn’t close the borders of Germany. This decision, though, was misunderstood as if Merkel had opened the borders of the country and allowed refugees in without having any control of it, and this led to a prompt polarization in the society. While some welcomed the Syrian refugees, others joined demonstrations calling for the resignation of Merkel. Then the theretofore inexpressive rightwing political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) also began to grow, and in 2016 won around a hundred seats in the federal parliament. Nothing similar to this had happened since the end of the Second World War. So, this was the atmosphere we began to see unfolding before our eyes.
Speaking of improvement of the lives of asylum seekers searching for protection in Europe, I would say that it is also essential to discuss why people are being forced to come. The Caravan group used to work with a slogan that I find very powerful: “We are here because you destroyed our lands.” So, it starts there, and for those of us working with migrant women, it is also imperative to bear in mind that the fact that fewer women than men claim asylum in Europe should not lead to the conclusion that women are less persecuted than men. Women face additional forms of persecution such as rape, treatment as spoils of war, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, trafficking of women, forced abortion, honor killing, punishment for adultery, punishment for not accepting the gender assigned at birth, punishment for violating dress code, forced marriage…and we haven’t even started to analyze how much globalization and the modernization of agriculture—reorganized on a commercial and export-oriented basis—affect women who work in domestic agriculture in countries in Latin America or Africa for example.
To go deeper into the subject, I suggest Silvia Federici’s essay “Women, Globalization and the International Women’s Movement” [2001, printed in Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle from PM Press].
Once people have already been forced to move to Europe, the minimum required for a common struggle and improvement of lives, in general, is to deeply understand what migration is all about and to take a side, a clear position. People can either decide that the freedom of movement of people is a human right or accept laws and regulations that deny this fundamental human right to a specific group. The consequence of accepting that minorities are treated differently than the mainstream society is always dangerous, and the tendency is that in the end society as a whole loses rights achieved in more progressive times.
ZN: Poland is the only country in the EU that hasn’t accepted any Syrian refugees escaping the war. The rightwing government explains that Poland already granted asylum to Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians and Chechens and that war refugees from the Arab countries are too culturally and religiously distant and should be harbored in their region of origin. The irony is that after the Second World War almost 120,000 Polish refugees escaped from Siberia to Tehran, fleeing the Russian totalitarian regime, and found shelter in Iran, living there happily until the present day.
In a kind of nationalistic, anti-refugee argumentation, Christianity is often equated with European identity and is mentioned as being under threat. This latter fear exists and is used as a political force in every Western country, from Poland to Germany to the United States. Do you have some experiences in how to dismantle those white, Christian and very often male-gendered fears?
DB: Yes. As to the irony you mentioned—the fact that thousands of Polish refugees fled to Iran and found shelter there versus their refusal to accept refugees in Poland—I also ask myself where empathy has gone. Partly it has to do with ignorance. People are told that there is a wave of migration to Europe, that Europe cannot be responsible for accommodating all refugees. Well, it does not! The reality is that for the fourth consecutive year, Turkey hosted the most significant number of refugees worldwide, with 3.5 million people. After Turkey come Pakistan, Lebanon, and Uganda, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Then comes racism. As long as people believe that white people are more human than people of color and therefore have more rights, we are not getting anywhere. The same way with religion: as long as any religion denies the right of existence to other forms of religion, we are stuck. And of course as long as patriarchy perpetuates the violent idea that men have more rights than women, no one will live in freedom.
To dismantle ideas of superiority from one group against the other is a daily individual and collective struggle. The question is: are the dominant groups willing to get rid of their privileges to create equality in societies? We can only answer that by acting upon it, by refusing any discrimination.
ZN: In Poland since the Black Protests in 2016—the grassroots demonstrations of women fighting against the tightening of one of the strictest abortion laws in the world—feminism has become a mainstream topic. The reproductive rights of women in Poland haven’t improved since then, but at least the protesters prevented them from getting worse. Do you think that refugee women’s struggles and, for example, Polish ones could be combined? Could we support each other? Is it possible to build up an international, intersectional, and multicultural feminist movement? If yes, then how?
DB: Yes, I think the struggles must be combined beginning with the recognition that patriarchy is a global problem that affects each one of us wherever we are. It manifests differently depending on the region of the world you are in, but it is there, and it continues to be a real obstacle for women’s emancipation.
We followed your strikes in Poland and the mass protests of women in Argentina against the abortion ban there; Brazilian women took to the streets all over the country to shout “Ele Não” (Not him!) against the fascist now elected president Jair Bolsonaro. We are aware and connected with the women organizing marches in Latin America against macho violence. We work with Kurdish women in Germany who are very active in support of the struggle in Rojava and other Kurdish areas. In our group, there are women from South Korea and Ireland who report about the mobilizations in their respective countries also in defense of women’s reproductive rights. We followed the Women’s March against Trump, which is especially relevant due to the importance of the USA in global geopolitics.
So, it is possible to combine our struggles against sexist violence, and our opposition to precarious work and wage inequality, while also opposing homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobic migration policies. I have the feeling that a new international feminist movement with a broad, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal, anti-patriarchy agenda is forming. Though I think we have to be stronger when addressing the problems of women migrating to Europe—who in most cases are carrying out domestic work, taking care of children and the elderly, and becoming part of a phenomenon called “global maternity” and “global care,” to quote Silvia Federici.
The moment for internationalist feminism is here, and we have to start putting into practice what we’ve been understanding and discussing under the banner of intersectional feminism.
In Berlin in 2015, we formed an Alliance of Internationalist Feminists, and we invite you to visit and subscribe to our Facebook page, where you can find out more about how we have been organizing on an international level.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the interviewee.
Featured image source: International Women* Space