I won’t forget when a woman I didn’t know personally raised her hand in a plenum in Oranienplatz and said: „we are taking a floor in the occupied school and creating a space only for refugee women.“ A man in the plenum then raised his hand and said: „we have to discuss it because we are not sure we need that“. To which the same woman replied: „We are not asking for the space, we are announcing that the women will occupy this floor. This is an announcement“. I smiled as if I had been waiting for a long time for this moment to arrive. A sense of surprise took over me and I decided to take part in this newly formed group. A women’s plenum was scheduled for the next Saturday and there we assembled, a bunch of around 30 or more women who sat together in an empty room on the second floor of the former Gerhardt-Hauptmann-Schule. Women from all over the world, with different backgrounds, colors, ages, passports and experiences. Such a big, diverse group seemed to me a very promising start. Until then I have never worked politically in such a mixed group. My previous experiences were with the women in the favelas of South America. As a journalist, I had spent more than a year filming women musicians in a very stigmatized and segregated space in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. I was then making a documentary film called “I’m Ugly but Trendy”. The title was part of the internal jokes in the favelas, satirically exposing and denouncing the distorted perceptions of the middle and upper classes in Brasil. The “Ugly” alluded to the fact that they were considered unattractive, uneducated and incapable of producing “high” culture or art of any kind.
The “Trendy” because they also knew that even with all the prejudice and racism, there was a trend forming in the upper classes to listen and secretly enjoy the songs sung by these women. After finishing this film I travelled around Brasil, exhibiting it. Soon after I received invitations to come to Europe for screenings. And that’s how I arrived in Germany for the first time, to show my documentary about the women; Brasil would prefer to hide in the favela complexes. When I decided to stay in Germany, my first idea was to make a film about feminism in Berlin. I wanted to know about the history of the women’s movement here, but my knowledge of the German language was insufficient for the interviews I would need to make. So I thought about working with the migrant women and again I faced another challenge. Some of the most stigmatized groups were also connected to the western prejudice against Islam, from which I knew very little about. I was then told by a friend that if I looked closer at the situation of the refugees in Germany, I would find similarities, especially regarding how black people were forced to live in the favelas of Brasil. The same friend also introduced me to something called Residenzpflicht. When I understood what it was and to whom it applied, I also understood what he meant by similarities with the favelas. In both cases, people of specific race or culture should be set apart from the civil society in order to be controlled. In Brasil, they would live in favelas or survive in jails. Here, in Lagers or deportation centers. In short, forced to live like potential criminals to be. In 2007 I started my research with people of refugee status. Like the previous film I didn’t want to portray any victim’s view of society. My idea of victimization is that the ones who segregate are also victims, mainly of their own ignorance, prejudice and racism. And the people who suffer from it, are actually the ones capable to explain what it is all about and how can we move together to a more progressive stage of humanity. I was lucky to find two groups who had been fighting for more than a decade for the rights of refugees in Germany: The Voice Refugee and The Caravan. I accompanied their work for two years and spent another editing the material they had generously given me through long talks and interviews. The result was my film called “Residenzpflicht”. However I was still missing working only with women; and that’s why my engagement in the women space came almost completely naturally to me. I was searching for it.
In December the International Women Space will celebrate it’s first anniversary. One year, whereby we’ve been through a variety of challenges. Like any other group, we begun with the practical questions: What shall we call ourselves? How will we function? What is our main purpose? How will we finance the group, what kind of activities will we develop? Which kind of actions are we going create or take part in? Will the men living in the school respect our space? This question in particular, is crucially linked to whether the issue of sexism will absorb all our energy?
We knew we were occupying a small part of a big building, where men formed the majority of it’s inhabitants. We thought about locks, signs to hang on our main door and all sorts of ways to inform the men that in the women’s space they wouldn’t be allowed to enter. We locked the door, but it didn’t work. Women complained. How many keys would we distribute and to whom. Women needed to feel free to come and go whenever they wished. Keys and locks didn’t seem to be the solution. The entry door was left closed but not locked and, to our surprise, the men slowly begun to understand and respect it.
Parallel to that there was the question of how to keep our solidarity strong once we knew that our different backgrounds would lead to different understandings of major issues, such as feminism, privilege, racism, sexism, oppression, class struggle, capitalism, colonial injustice, imperialism. We have different schools of life and we’ve taken distinctive roads until we met. So, one of our first challenges was about how to balance the participation of the women in the group. Who could speak appropriately about what and when. For example, I have observed the theories of privilege in some European political groups and discussions and eventually found these ideas manifesting in our group as well. I feel particularly uncomfortable when someone says, even if with the best of intentions, “I feel privileged… because I have a western passport and can travel, because I am heard here and there, because I am white…” Something simply doesn’t sound right to my ears. I prefer using the word privilege to describe the feeling I have, working together with refugee women, who had bravely left mostly everything behind to fight for their rights, not privileges; to move freely, become empowered and to decide where to live and how. That contrasts with the privilege theory, which is talking about something given to an elite few by birth. In this case both privilege and oppression are supposed to be an inherent part of someone’s existence, which I prefer to contest and give credence to the power of learning by struggling together in order to eradicate injustices. These are some of the tasks we are giving to ourselves in pursuance of an increased solidarity, capable to break the whole system’s strategy of divide and rule. In the midst of our many tasks, one stays grounded: understanding each other amongst our group and as a group amongst the inhabitants of the house. Like our space, the school has no locks and we work and struggle together so people can benefit from a basic human right, the freedom of movement.
Denise Garcia Bergt Berlin, 12.12.2013