International Women Day 2023 – an interview by Arianna Giardina

Stories of Migrant Women

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2023, I’ve been interviewed by Arianna Giardina for Noteblock Magazine.

Noteblock magazine is a service space open to the experiences of social movements, and aims to be a tool for dialogue among the singularities of the multitude, without seeking, even remotely, the “necessity of synthesis”. They say of themselves “Dissoi logoi (dissonant discourses), positions, and practices of dissent. This is what we would like to build and circulate.” We have been talking not only about my photo documentary SOMW018, but also about my views and reflections on feminism, European migration policies, Italian internal politics, and the tragedy that happened in Calabria. I translated the interview and it is available for you below.

Stories of Migrant Women is a research photodocumentary created by Alice Castiglione for the University of Portsmouth that aims to explore places, faces, spaces, and traces of women who have arrived in Sicily by crossing the Mediterranean. Alice collects the stories of these women on tiptoe, photographs the places and traces of their lives in reception centers, and creates a book, which is currently in a re-editing process.

Alice, why does your documentary focus on women as the protagonists?
My work is a reaction. Stories of Migrant Women is a photodocumentary conducted for the University of Portsmouth, in collaboration with the Diaconal Center La Noce – Valdese Institute and with Mediterranean Hope – Casa Delle Culture in Scicli and the Cara di Mineo, which starts from the need to provide counter-information.
In 2018, I had already left Italy, but I decided that I had to do something to go against the climate of hate generated by mainstream communication about a phenomenon that does not do justice to the stories of human beings behind the numbers. I chose to tell the stories of women who cross the Mediterranean because, as a feminist, I felt the duty to be a mediator, a megaphone. I myself am an economic migrant, and I wondered about many questions such as ‘Why am I labeled as an expat, and they are labeled as migrants?’ or ‘Why are the women we see in images always crying?’ There is intrinsic racism in the narrative of migration.
There is a photographer, Cesar Dezfuli, who, in 2016, just two years before my project, was awarded for “Passengers,” a photodocumentary project composed of a series of portraits taken at the time of rescue to reflect on the physical condition of these people and to assign a face to those who are presented to us as numbers.
In this work, I found 2 problems: 1- They are all men and boys, and 2- We still know nothing about them.
The Madrid photographer assigns a series of data such as age, name, and origin. It seems more like a police profiling than a project aimed at humanization. Therefore, I decided that I would research those human stories that the public is denied in favor of a sensationalistic narrative but that allow for training in empathy. Also, and this is very important, I chose to document women because there are stories that a man can never tell from the same point of view. The point of view of a gender historically internationally oppressed to respond to the essential needs of the production and reproduction of the economic-social system present in every country and declined in various forms over time. It is important to tell and listen to women’s stories, but above all, one must realize the class privileges that make us (in this case, me) able to collect stories, pieces of reality that would otherwise fall into oblivion, and use them as a tool for awareness-raising. I lived with them, ate at their table, gained their trust, and explained to them what I was doing with great humility, from woman to woman. They accepted, welcomed me, saw the sincerity of my intentions, and opened up their hearts to me. Especially in Scicli, we cried together, slept under the same roof, and ate at the same table. It was an immense, enriching experience from all points of view.

Camilla Paglia writes: “Modern affluent society has protected middle-class women from unpleasant truths that only erupt during natural disasters or war. I was raised with the immigrant code of rural Italy, a code that said: life is dangerous.” What do you think?
I think we are in a historical moment where the need for movement clashes with the walls of socioeconomic models that condition our perception of the space we live in. I think that feminism told without including the class struggle is a dangerous lie for all women, biological and non-biological.
It hurts me to see people who are happy to see this or that brand using the image of a trans woman (for example) to advertise their product. Yes, it’s true, it gives exposure to an oppressed reality, but it’s a superficial analysis that doesn’t consider that the only winner is the system that creates these oppressions. The system we live in (capitalism) doesn’t look anyone in the eye. It’s not enough to put a trans woman on the cover or wear a Frida shirt to celebrate cultural change. We need a systematic and constant class struggle.
The models that inspire me are the Mapuche women in South America, the Kurdish guerrillas or the Adivasi women in India. I am not interested in bourgeois/individualistic/liberal feminism. My task as an artist is to counter the degradation of social relationships, of which women are the main victims, with my tools. My production is very political because I don’t believe that art should be something elitist, but a means that human beings have to elevate themselves physically and spiritually, as individuals and as a civilization.

What do you think of feminism today? And which precepts can be actively useful and supportive for these women and all women?
In my opinion, it is wrong to talk about feminism. There are various currents of feminism, and I find it much more correct to speak of feminisms. In our case, European feminism has been, in many ways (with due exceptions), emasculated by liberalism, which has given the new generation a vision that is no longer revolutionary and collective, aimed at eradicating the problem at its root, but that encourages individuals to fight to find their own place within that system, perhaps at the top of the pyramid, leveraging economic needs and personal fulfillment. I also observe how technological advancement can be used by feminism as a “weapon,” but it is instead set aside in favor of more “old school” practices and languages that do not attract new generations. In this way, many energies are dispersed. One proof of this gap is the almost total absence of documentation relating to feminist artistic expressions in Italy from the late 1970s onwards.
Furthermore, many feminist movements are made up of housewives, workers, students, etc. who do not have digital and visual literacy. We thus find ourselves with telematic assemblies organized by people who use new media only for social media and email, assemblies in which the average age is very high and too often does not speak a language understandable to new generations. This is a pity because much knowledge should be transmitted, and many people could connect even if remotely. It is right to focus on the numbers in the square, and on physical presence, but it is also right not to leave communication codes behind. They are what bring people together. Yesterday it was the flyer, today it is something else. There are entire subcultures that are left out of the movement because they are considered distant or simply not known. Internationally, we have many examples of feminist hackers, for example. In 2020, together with the femLENS NGO, I created a transnational online festival called Her Visual Story in which, among other things, we proposed writing workshops and various interventions aimed at improving the understanding of the digital space.

You wrote that for you, it is important to elaborate on feelings and create a space of awareness and empathy to break down all kinds of barriers that concern current policies. Do you find that there is really inclusion in communities? What have you seen, and what have you grasped?
No, there is no inclusion. There is acceptance, there are positive efforts, and there are groups, assemblies, and initiatives. But no, there is no inclusion. In Europe, inclusion is a word that is used too often by institutions to clean up their face, but those who arrive in Europe are confronted with a series of problems such as access to work, documents, social security, childcare, and so on. To give an example: in Italy, the 2023 flow decree passed by the Meloni government provides that before accepting the request for employment of a “potentially regular” foreign citizen, the employment center sends the same offer to the corresponding offices throughout Italy to verify that no Italian is available to fill the same position first. This is to say that the legal paths of access are tendentially impossible to achieve. Despite Article 10 of the Italian Constitution states that “Foreigners who are prevented in their own country from exercising the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Italian Constitution shall have the right of asylum in the territory of the Republic, according to the conditions established by law,” this same article was “scrapped” after our country’s accession to the Treaty of Lisbon. How can we talk about integration? On March 4th, I attended the Mamans Du Monde demonstration organized by the European Network of Migrant Women in Brussels. There, I presented my photo documentary on the sidelines of a day where these issues were discussed. I experienced a climate of enthusiasm, collaboration, and positive anger that spurs one to fight for rights and change with the cry “the place of migrant women is in the (European) parliament.” Portraying migrant women (mothers or not) as needy, undetermined, and subservient to events is limiting and does not reflect reality. These stereotypes must be broken. Migrant women, like all women in the world, organize themselves with strength, determination, and a spirit of creation to break down the classist and patriarchal system, against borders that create first-class and second-class citizens, and for the free movement of people. The participation of migrant women in political and social life is important for achieving inclusion, but it seems that institutions do not want to listen to these voices.

I discussed this topic here: and here:

You talk about diversity as a richness and I agree with you. Do you think the fear of the “different” is still alive and real? Have you found yourself enriched by this experience? The fear of the “different,” like all fears, comes from not knowing. You say that the issue of women is a question of civilization and that often women and women’s bodies are a battleground, which we experience today more than ever in Iran with the Revolution and in various other countries. But even in the West, women still suffer, as we see with the many femicides and violence. What do you think about this?
I think that in different ways, we are all in the same boat, which is why the internationalist feminist movement is born and grows. Social class or nationality are just variations of the theme of historical oppression. In the world, there is no country where women can feel exempt from male violence.

The departure, the journey, the desert, the camps in Libya, the sea, and then the arrival. I see that your images are really very evocative. What difficulties and obstacles do these women encounter? And what do they have to face upon arrival?
The obstacles are countless. Many are lured with deceit only to end up in the trap of trafficking. Those who do not fall into the trap of trafficking or manage to escape it arrive in Italy to face a series of barriers (linguistic, cultural, etc.). They arrive physically and psychologically exhausted, often with children in tow, many of whom were born from rapes that occurred during the journey. Many are very young. They arrive in reception facilities that take care of them but, once outside, they will hardly have the possibility to support themselves and often end up selling their bodies. Speaking with one of them about the topic of selling bodies, I remember translating an article for her, I don’t remember exactly which one, but it talked about sex work and the right of people to exercise this profession. I distinctly remember her expression: it was a mixture of perplexity and surprise, and for me, it was very difficult to explain that there are those who choose this path. Points of view regarding the “oldest profession in the world” can be very varied and strong.

You wrote “La bella vita è qua” (nice life is here) is a significant phrase that evokes joy and serenity but also makes one think. Is it really like this for these women? What do you mean?
I did not write that phrase on the wall. I just took a picture of it. It was on a wall in a room where girls housed in one of the facilities I collaborated with were staying. The girls were learning Italian, and I found that phrase to be really meaningful in that context. For them, coming to Europe is hope, it is aspiring to a “better” life. And they pay for it, many arrive through deceit. Here is an excerpt from V.’s story, 19 years old: “Okay, you haven’t paid any money… did you wonder that you have to pay?” “No, because no one asked me to pay.” “Okay, then I’ll tell you. You have to pay.” “How??? And how much is it? So, where can I work? I am happy, I will work, I will pay you and send money to my family.” “Are you happy to work?” “Yes, what kind of job do you want me to do? Like cleaning… I know how to clean, and wash clothes, I can do any domestic work, I can do it!” […] “Shut up! We don’t have these kinds of jobs in Libya! You will be a prostitute!” (part of V.’s story, 19 years old, Nigeria). When I read or hear people asking “why don’t they come with a regular trip,” I wonder if they realize how passports work, how borders are crossed. More information is needed on passport discrimination. Traveling can be impossible if you are not born on the right side of the world. In some countries, women even need to be accompanied by a man to cross the border.

Have you had the opportunity to enter their communities, what is their daily life like? Do you think our country is an inclusive country?
You cannot describe the daily life of these people in two words. They certainly seek tranquility. I have visited very different places, and the daily life at the Mineo CARA is certainly not the same as you can find at the Casa Delle Culture. It is definitely a daily life of self-recovery. Italy, like many countries, is a place where everything is done not to lose humanity, but one must distinguish between the people and the institutions.

What can we learn from them? Should we draw some lessons, for example that unity is strength, that we are all equal, that we should fight together for peace and every common good? Should we learn humility, patience, not to be greedy, bored or take things for granted because we have privileges from birth, to appreciate the little things?
No, we are not all equal. We are all different, and fighting together for a common good is a mere utopia. We should learn to self-determine ourselves as human beings, educate ourselves in empathy and make diversity a richness. We European women should learn from these women that what we have is not taken for granted and is not an acquired right. No one chooses where to be born, and we should become aware of this and put aside that feeling of superiority that too often undermines our perception of reality. There are people who are born in very difficult contexts, and we in Europe have only had the “luck” of being born in the rich part of the world. It could easily have gone differently.

Now let’s talk about politics: our Prime Minister is a woman, even though she has specified and wants to be called “the president” in the masculine form (MinistrO instead of MinistrA). Meloni’s insistence on being called President (in the masculine form) shows how right-wing and deeply backward her concept of women is in the human and social sense. Instead, it is fundamental to begin in Italy to distance ourselves from certain induced and imposed cultural stereotypes. We are 50 years behind countries that joke about the matter, outlining its fundamental importance. In November 2022, 80% of women killed in Europe were Italian. Now, while we are doing this interview, one woman is killed every three women in Italy. We have recently elected the leader of the Democratic Party, Elly Schlein, who seems to be more open to inclusion policies. What do you think of these two women as political representatives and presidents? What could politics do for migrant women?
We talked about politics from the beginning. I don’t believe in institutional politics; I don’t believe that the way politics is structured can do much. It is a system that lives on class discrimination. Institutional politics, in theory, represents portions of the population, but in practice, it is a Gattopardo that changes everything to change nothing. Those who believe that politics can be changed from within make me smile because they really believe it. I don’t see how being part of a sick system can solve things if you then have to abide by rules that keep that system you want to destroy alive.

I would like to ask you about the victims of yet another tragedy of a shipwreck off the coast of Calabria. Men, women, children, including a newborn. About 250 people were on that boat, with many missing. The sea continues to swallow the bodies of people who, in search of a better future, a different life, and a little bit of serenity, decide to get on a boat and face dangers and storms, just to reach the mainland. Mark Fisher wrote in “Capitalist Realism,” “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Where is the European Union? What happened to the dialogue with the countries of origin? We always talk about protecting human rights, illegal immigration, crime, politics, and laws. But what about humanity? What about rights? What about the voice of those who die in this way?
These lives can only be saved when there is no longer a need to flee from one country to another when there are no more barriers to crossing lands and seas, and when people are free from the oppression of a system of production and reproduction that forces them to adopt ways of living and conceiving reality without seeing possible alternatives.

With your photo documentary and interviews, you gave a voice to those who don’t have one (official reports show that migrant labor is more likely to lose or not obtain a job while illegal immigrants, because they can be blackmailed, are subject to the worst exploitation: a new form of slavery). Immigrant women are therefore doubly disadvantaged, 1 because they are women, 2 because they are foreigners. What would you like to say about this?
I would just like to say that the representation of reality is what forms ideas and opinions. The role of the mass media is significant, and we cannot leave the narration of these realities in the hands of “journalists” like those on national TV. Human beings have always used images to tell and tell themselves stories, using narrative styles and symbolism that can resonate with the masses. In the case of national TV, it is evident how narrations are used for political purposes and to manipulate public opinion. We think we are free, but we are not. The narration of migration, the work of people who arrive in Italy, exploitation, the opposition between Italians and foreigners, male violence against women, etc., is a narration that, in my opinion, is intellectually dishonest, and there are very few exceptions. The produced images are CONSUMPTION IMAGES; they are the product of a narration that forcibly enters the emotional sphere of the observer but, after being “consumed,” they have no real effect. They only serve as sensational images to feed the general public that, of course, does not have the tools to decode them and ends up passively suffering them. On the topic of consumption images, I wrote an article that I leave here for completeness: