Symposium Investigates Complex Role of Borders

By Phyllis Jeffrey - Do borders simply keep outsiders out? Or do they reflect the tensions and insecurities that characterize citizenship and the nation-state system in the 21st century? On April 15, 2016 the Mellon Initiative in Comparative Border Studies tackled such questions at its Spring Symposium, entitled “Borders: What’s Up With That? Displacements, Belongings, Rights.”

In his morning keynote talk, “Theorizing the ‘Crisis’ of Borders and Migration,” Dr. Nicholas De Genova of the Spatial Politics Research Domain at King’s College, London, addressed the notion of borders through the lens of the current migration impasse in Europe. De Genova began his talk by posing the question: for whom, exactly, is the “refugee crisis” a crisis?

De Genova’s provocative answer—that the situation is less a crisis of migrants than one of European sovereignty—was grounded in an argument that the way we usually understand what borders do reflects an inversion of cause and effect. Rather than being fixed lines that unproblematically include and exclude, borders are expressions of unresolved socio-political relations between states, migrants, and the interests of capital. In this dialectical vision of borders, it is not so much that migrants in Europe have encountered border controls as it is that an influx of people arriving from elsewhere has reactivated European national borders, as individual states anxiously but inconsistently seek to control migrant flows.

Fetishizing borders

If we see borders as fixed boundaries whose violation automatically invokes policing, it is in part because dramatic television footage of migrants clashing with police (such as occurred recently at the Greek-Macedonian border) feeds this illusion. In fact, European states’ treatment of migrants has “convulsed” between violently exclusionary rhetoric and actions, and de facto toleration. This schizophrenic response is exemplified by the case of Hungary, which—not long after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s remarks last September that refugees posed a threat to “Christian Europe”—not only tolerated but provided police escort to a migrant “march of hope” toward the Austrian border.

Continuing the Marxian analogy, De Genova proposed that the “fetishizing” of border-as-thing is reinforced through such violent spectacles that distract from borders’ main work: differentiation of people in relation to space. As an example, De Genova offered the process of deportation—an apparently clear instance of borders’ exclusionary function. But while many individuals have been deported forcibly from EU countries, De Genova noted, standard deportation procedures—which involve a voluntary departure period, often at the deportee’s own expense—mean that many remain.

This leads to the de facto “subordinate inclusion” of individuals without legal rights or legal existence but possessed of exploitable labor-power. Similarly, De Genova observed that borders sort the type of individuals able to gain access to a country. At the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, militarization has changed the demographic of migrants to be disproportionately young, able-bodied, and male.

For De Genova, mobility is a fundamental form of human freedom. If migration has laid bare a European crisis of border control, it is migrants who, by committing the “radical act” of prioritizing their own goals over the interests of states, prefigure a more just vision of future geo-spatial organization. In closing, De Genova posed a provocative question: will we be complicit in border policing by accepting as natural the designations that borders render? Or will we recognize freedom of movement as fundamental, and struggle for a fairer global system of mobility?

Excluding and evicting

Later in the day, Dr. Sherene Razack (Critical Race, Gender, and Citizenship Studies in Education at the University of Toronto) delivered a concluding keynote that shifted the focus from borders “out there” to the inscription of national boundaries upon bodies—specifically, those of Muslim women living in Western countries. 

In her talk, entitled “A Site/Sight We Cannot Bear: The Eviction from Public Space of Women Wearing the Niqab,” Razack investigated the recent emergence of bans targeting Muslim women in a number of Western countries as a growing site for exclusion or even “eviction” from citizenship (such as the recent threat by UK Prime Minister David Cameron that Muslim women failing to learn English risk deportation). Focusing specifically on bans or attempted bans of the face-covering niqab, Razack interrogated the Western subjectivity that views such bans as necessary. Looking at laws and court decisions that characterize the niqab-wearer as public threat, Razack asked: why is the “sight” of the niqab-wearer so intolerable at the “site” of Western citizenship?

Razack traced the solution of the puzzle to scholarship on other forms of exclusion from public view: laws restricting homeless individuals (Samira Kawash) and the once-prevalent “ugly laws” which sought to prevent public “flaunting” of deformity or disability (Susan Schweik). In both cases, fear of display of unsightly bodies is linked to anxiety over observers’ own access to the space of the citizen. Hence, the quality of aggressor (e.g. disability as “flaunted”) is imputed to the possessor of the unsightly body.

Threatening unsightliness

The result in the case of niqab bans is that Muslim women are increasingly being re-cast from an earlier “imperiled” archetype (discussed in Razack’s book, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, published in 2008 by University of Toronto Press), to a new status as threat—observed, for example, in media coverage of the San Bernadino killings that portrayed the wife, Tashfeen Malik, as the “radicalizer” of her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook).

The niqab-wearer, in Razack’s argument, is assigned the status of threatening unsightliness because of her perceived affront to Western citizenship. In the contemporary West—a society that denies both group-based privilege and the existence of systematic bias, in which the ideal citizen is construed as free of particularistic ties—the Muslim woman wearing the niqab refuses submission to this definition. The niqab-wearer thwarts the desire of the Western beholder to uncover her and thus be able to assume a position of superiority. 

Emphasizing the role of this “fantasy” in the rationale of bans and court decisions, Razack described how Canada’s Supreme Court, in its 2012 decision in the case of N.S. (a woman who sought to give legal testimony while wearing her customary niqab), cited the right of the accused to see the accuser’s face, and thus ignored a body of critical research that problematizes demeanor evidence. Further affirming the primacy of anxieties over national self-definition in inspiring niqab bans, Razack noted that bans have been vociferously championed in locations (such as a town in Quebec) home to few or no niqab-wearing individuals.

Thinking beyond 

The symposium served to interrogate the functions that borders serve. In the talk by De Genova, borders were revealed as filtering agents for highly stratified inclusion of various kinds of people. In Razack’s discussion, niqab bans and withdrawals of the rights of Muslims are traced to anxieties within the dominant definition of citizenship. Such investigations cause us to wonder: if borders do so much that is outside of their stated function, are they fit for purpose? Can we imagine a different—perhaps, better—world without them?

The symposium also featured talks on a range of topics related to borders, citizenship, belonging, and exclusion by Shahzad Bashir (Religious Studies, Stanford), Kim Rygiel (Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University), Magid Shihade (International Studies, Birzeit University), and Randall Williams (International Transport Workers’ Federation, London).

Learn more at the Comparative Border Studies website.