Blog post by Natasha Yacoub, Chair of Feminist Theory and Displacement Working Group, RLI, University of London, Janna Wessels, Assistant Professor, Amsterdam Centre for Migration & Refugee Law (ACMRL), VU University Amsterdam, and Rosa da Costa, independent expert in refugee law..

Feminist theory in refugee law rose to prominence in the 1990s. However, Dauvergne recently noted that “the past three decades of feminist work in refugee law advocacy stand as a cautionary tale” because “what began with a huge burst of energy and creativity in the final decade of the twentieth century has stalled spectacularly”. It is time for change.

This is the reason that, in 2020, the Refugee Law Initiative Working Group on Feminist Theory and Displacement was formed (the Working Group). It seeks to rekindle feminist engagement not only with refugee law narrowly understood, but also with legal displacement research more broadly. Based on the conviction that they have great reformatory potential, this group engages in regular discussions about the relevance of feminist approaches to legal displacement research, extending beyond refugee law to consider the legal protection of other forcibly displaced persons. A blog series, which will be released throughout 2023, will highlight some of these discussions.  The present blog post serves to explain the work of the Working Group and introduce the monthly blog series on feminist approaches to legal displacement research.

The power of feminist approaches to legal research: the RLI Working Group on Feminist Theory and Displacement as a platform for change

While we share the sense that feminist engagement with refugee law has lost its initial steam, we observe a recent move towards a rediscovery of feminist approaches in legal displacement research. Feminist approaches challenge the content, as well as the parameters, of knowledge in this field. Some recent scholarship engaging feminist theories has emerged, principally building on previous work focussing on ‘exclusionary inclusion’ and the refugee definition as well as refugee status determination. There is budding scholarship on other aspects of legal displacement research such as ‘protection at sea’ and non-refoulement, durable solutions and the boundaries of refugee law.

To advance this scholarship, the Working Group connects academics working in this field, ranging from early career scholars to senior academics. The platform aims to deepen connections between members, facilitate academic exchange and promote action to re-invigorate feminist theory in legal displacement research.  There are currently 23 members from diverse regions, including the Middle East and Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Americas and Europe, all of whom are also RLI Research Affiliates and Senior Research Associates. The Working Group conducts regular meetings principally by remote means so as to allow for the widest possible participation by network members from across the world.

Since its inception, the Working Group has analysed different feminist approaches, highlighting both their contributions to displacement research and areas for future exploration. This work informed a thematic panel on feminist theory for the RLI Annual Conference 2022, which challenged the boundaries of international refugee law and international human rights institutions and explored practical ways to improve refugee protection. A feminist reliance on strategic essentialism served as a tool for Catherine Briddick’s analysis of the CEDAW Committee’s approach to discrimination experienced by women in the context of migration control. A queer theory lens was used by Janna Wessels to unravel the relationship between human rights and the refugee definition.  An intersectionality approach helped Nour Daoud  deconstruct how Syrian women’s representation across gender, class, and refugee identity dimensions shapes experiences of intimate partner violence experiences in Jordan. Feminist New Materialist theory was drawn upon by Claudia Blandon to show how women in Colombia are transforming legal and human rights knowledge to empower individuals and communities. This panel showcased the disruptive and transformational power of feminist legal research to chart ways for change in legal displacement research. To build on this, the Working Group is presenting the 2023 blog series.

Introducing the Blog Series: Feminist Theory as method in legal displacement research

While recognizing the substantial progress made to date, the blog series views feminism in displacement research as “unfinished business”. We seek to re-ignite feminist theory in legal displacement studies by showcasing different feminist theories and reflecting on their potential not only for exposing flaws, but also for re-interpreting law and policy towards greater equality and justice.

Specifically, the blog series seeks to highlight scholarship also beyond the refugee definition and refugee status determination to other areas of displacement studies. Feminist approaches challenge and re-define borders, categories, binaries, power dynamics and offer multiple, diverse ways of seeing. This is useful beyond the theoretical realm. It has the potential to improve protection for all displaced persons, not just for women and girls.

By publishing one post per month throughout 2023, the series draws from the rich body of theories and angles that feminism provides. It will shed light on approaches such as intersectionality; decolonising theory; sexuality theory; feminist poststructuralism; and many others and illustrate their applicability to various facets of legal displacement research. Beyond theory, it explores feminism as method. Feminist approaches may have “stalled spectacularly” but the blog series aims to light a new fire.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.