Today, like many days before it, the women of Yarl’s Wood detention centre are on hunger strike. Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, I did the same in solidarity.
The injustices of Yarl’s Wood, and of the abusive immigration detention system, have been well-documented. Britain is the only country in Europe which indefinitely detains people for immigration purposes, and this brutal system further makes vulnerable women who approach the authorities looking for help and end up incarcerated, with no end to imprisonment in sight.
Yarl’s Wood has been the subject of protests and campaigns since it opened in 2001. Despite constant agitation from organisers inside and outside of the centre, Yarl’s Wood remains a key part of the UK’s violent immigration system, and the political mainstream has remained notably silent.
“We exist in a climate where rhetoric which perpetuates xenophobic attitudes lands well with vast sections of the electorate”
The inconvenient truth is that the existence of centres like Yarl’s Wood are an essential part of the racist narrative that allows for, and even encourages, the othering of “immigrants” in general, and women of colour in particular. Neither the Labour nor Conservative parties are willing to acknowledge their collusion in this narrative: we exist in a climate where policies and rhetoric which is based on, and perpetuates xenophobic attitudes (now more than ever), land well with vast sections of the electorate.
After months of requests, Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti were finally allowed to pay a visit to Yarl’s Wood. It comes as no surprise that it was two women of colour who committed to repeatedly pushing for access: it seems that it is largely women of colour who continue to lead the struggle for pushing for the rights of migrant women. We can only infer that in this “post-gender, post-race” age, women of colour are still responsible for our own liberation. When even powerful politicians of colour are treated with contempt, and are subject to misogynoir when they attempt to engage the political mainstream with conversations about issues that disproportionately affect us, we know that we still have so far to go.
“We must keep pushing politicians and policy-makers to end indefinite detention and abolish detention centres”
Now that Abbott has visited Yarl’s Wood, more than merely expressing that the British government owes women in Yarl’s Wood a “duty of care”, we must keep pushing politicians and policy-makers to end indefinite detention and abolish detention centres. We must not backslide from the end goal of abolition.
Our sisters in Yarl’s Wood are on hunger strike because their detention has exposed to them a truth that the rest of us can choose to ignore. Our sisters have discovered the truth of their power; a power that is at its core both spiritual and self-destructive. This power is the ability to reject a human need for nourishment, as the immigration system in this country has rejected their humanity.
My day of solidarity may seem like a gimmick, but it helped me to give these women a voice. In this situation, where the the balance of power is so unequal, and the results so unjust, we must stand in solidarity and support the hunger-strikers by forcing people to have the conversations on this issue that will lead to change.
Not only is this practical, it is also spiritual. When I was growing up, for a month every year my family observed Ramadan. We ate early, and felt the seconds, minutes and hours go by between sunrise and sunset, when could again eat and drink. I remember people asking hundreds of questions about it as they sought to understand why we would do this, when we had nothing to gain. For my parents it was about pleasing God, but for me it was always more about reflection. Thinking about the world we live in and our place in it; about the people who live around the world with hunger and thirst as a reality.
This International Women’s Day I chose to join the #Hungerforfreedom movement to lend my voice to the women of Yarl’s Wood and to remind myself that, no matter how far we have come, we still have a long way to go.