The competing sovereign: pregnancy, resistance and seeking asylum

I had been visiting her for many months now at the camp. It is a strange thing to write, that I ‘visit’ her. It’s an awkward kind of visiting – the kind that’s intruded by large men donned in shirts with blaring logos that, after some time, come to look like hieroglyphs of the corporations, and governments and ideologies they represent. The kind of unforgiving visiting where you feel, you know, that every word, every glance is being audited…dismembered. In this highly securitised space, she reassures me that she is doing okay, and tries to steer the conversation to the outside world that she is so keen to know about – the outside world that is safely protected from her. It’s the kind of visiting that permeates with despair as I struggle to be present with her, because images and voices from the latest news headlines play over and over in my head…asylum seekers…returned to Nauru…hell…sexual assault…rape. My eyes lay heavy on her body, directed to the space above the hips and below the breasts where I guessed a womb would be – that sacred space that caused her so much pain, yet so much love and determination.

How might we understand the construction and policing of the pregnant body through the presence and the practice of these detention camps – neither entirely within nor entirely outside the rule of law?

For those of us concerned with the relationship between biological life and political subjectivity, Giorgio Agamben’s work has helped think through topics such as the production of citizenship, the process of legal abandonment, and how the state maintains its sovereignty over the conditions of life. Evoking at once the concentration camp, the refugee camp and the detention camp, Agamben theorises the space of the camp as ‘the materialization of the state of exception and…subsequent creation of a space in which bare life and juridical rule enter into a threshold of indistinction’ [pdf, p.98]. In arguing that it is possible to be physically alive but politically abandoned, that is, to be rendered ‘bare life’, Agamben poses the question of whose life is politically relevant and whose life ceases to be relevant.

Late last year I attended a seminar on the ethics of caring for asylum seeker children. The facilitator was a medical practitioner who had travelled to Nauru for some weeks to provide paediatric care to asylum seeker children at the camp there. His descriptions of the island were bleak – most of it uninhabitable due to phosphate mining, and the portion allocated for the detention camp, a flurry of tents in disconcerting proximity to each other. He joked, ‘Whenever I saw a woman who was pregnant there, I’d say to her ‘Congratulations, how’d you manage that?’’ Of course, he was alluding to the conditions under which they are forced to live, in tents that utterly preclude privacy.

The placement of the tents in such a way is but one tool deployed in the project of sovereignty that draws in to plain sight the tension between individualised reproductive rights and collective limitations on those rights.

Although she may have the right to conceive a baby, her mere presence (as an asylum seeker) impinges on the sovereignty of the state, and so, in the greater interests of the state, the spatial arrangements of the tents are used to regulate, control and ‘deter’ her reproduction. As she is figured as that which exposes another life, she is herself gripped, exposed, and reduced to barer life.

Now consider that an ‘average’ day for a pregnant woman in detention usually involves the following: juggling constant hunger pangs with a loss of appetite due to being faced with the exact same meal day in and day out (consider that the average time spent in detention is 415 [pdf] days), only being allowed one piece of the same fruit each day, having her room searched at any time and getting into trouble if food or fruit is found, constantly being told that she should not be pregnant because she has no future in this country and will have to go back, wishing she could have a proper-fitting bra and some looser pants that would sit better on her changing body (instead of having to borrow her husband’s pants), opting for nocturnal enuresis (bed-wetting at night) over a night-time toilet visit, and drinking less water to avoid the former.

What is significant about her experience of pregnancy here, is that it is so intimately linked to her experience of detention. Where she is originally subject to bare life through her status as an asylum seeker, she is then resubjected to another form of bare life through her reproductive body.

A ‘topological’ view considers how the asylum seeker’s body is layered and overlapped with the pregnant woman’s body. It demonstrates how pregnancy is tied to biopolitical systems that regulate who does and does not get counted as worthy of state protection. Indeed, as we see here with the case of the asylum seeker woman, her pregnant body is appropriated as a key biopolitical target in debates about how future generations should be brought into the world, about which lives are valued and why, and about whose decisions should be regulated, protected, and granted individual rights.

As an asylum seeker, she is abandoned by the state through laws like the Migration Act and the Border Force Act (here, the law is not only a process but imagination and local knowledge – it is a cultural artefact productive of meaning). As a pregnant woman, she is further marginalised through her vulnerability to other forms of sovereignty (whose business is apprehending, controlling and administering life) focused on her pregnant body– symptoms of the biopolitical paradox she finds herself in as a pregnant asylum seeker.

At its most basic, this biopolitical topology that polices her body manifests power relations that are unevenly distributed or applied. However, perhaps it contains within it, too, ridges and spaces for new forms of sociality, action, or importantly, resistance. Important because, through becoming pregnant, she figures a refusal to the coercive discourses of state-mandated destitution, hopelessness, and a meagre future. She dispossesses the social of the ground on which she stands. In exercising the subversive potential of her reproductive body, the pregnant asylum seeker woman clears the way for a long-overdue renewal of categories in the service of a politics in which bare life is no longer separated and excepted, either in the state or in the figure of human rights.

But she cannot do it alone. Our role as activists in bringing visibility to those who have been rendered invisible starts with recognising that we live in more intimate spatial terms with those who have been abandoned, than we are lead to believe. If we are to make sense of our other politics, we need to demonstrate how politics – as a function of biopower – is the canvass upon which her story is painted.

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