The Blue Room: Trauma and Testimony Among Refugee Women - A Psycho - Social Exploration
Inger Agger London: Zed Books Limited, 1994; 138 pp.
Reviewed by Helence Moussa Refugee and Migration Service World Council of Churches Geneva, Switzerland
The Blue Room is about socially constructed boundaries (bodily, psychological, cultural, social and political) and the power of shame when women cross these frontiers. Inger Agger, a Danish feminist activist, and a psychologist and researcher, has worked for many years with victims of torture. In this book she investigates how 40 politically active women from the Middle East and Latin America were "punished" and controlled. These women are perceived by the state as "politically dangerous women." A prime motive in strategies to disgrace women is to divest them of their political power, particularly the power of their sexuality. Further - more, women are victimized by these strategies long before they experience organized state violence. Exile for women begins in childhood.
One of the main objectives of The Blue Room is to link violence against women in prison with sexual political power in society. The central theme of this book is the identity conflicts that "politically dangerous" women feel when they choose to move out of the private sphere and into political spaces that challenge male power. The book provides a unique understanding of the politics of violence against refugee women.
The Blue Room" is a metaphor for the series of rooms in a woman's "house" of exile. The rooms are spaces in which the painful aspects of life are shared and deprivatized. The blue room, Agger explains, is the "third culture" - a temporary space where Agger and each woman relate to each other on mutually agreed terms. Agger explains that a cardinal symptom of trauma is the split between thoughts and feelings. Metaphors are used throughout this book to illustrate how this schism may be healed. Metaphors also become the source elucidating intuitive knowledge.
Chapter 1, "In the Blue Room," elaborates how the methodology of this study is guided by Agger's assumptions as a feminist, researcher and therapist. The author does not compare responses of Middle East and Latin American women. Rather she draws on the common themes and uses narratives to supplement each others' responses. The selected narratives also illustrate that women within these regions have different responses to similar experiences.
Chapter 2, "The Daughter's Room," explores how the power of shame seeps into a young girl's body and soul with "the first blood" - albeit an unconscious internalization of structural violence. New boundaries are created. She has now entered the "state" of virginity. Unlike the other chapters, the narratives in Chapter 2 are exclusively those of women from the Middle East. The reason for this, Agger explains, is that these women "in an especially radical way voiced experiences also found in other androcentric societies" (p. 20). I wonder how much this decision was influenced by Agger's culturally - bound prejudices - to which she admits: "Most surprising for me is the women's openness with respect to sexual subjects. This provokes me to question some of my own prejudices about women from foreign cultures..."(p. 17). The bibliography has strikingly few publications by women from the Middle East and Latin America. Current literature by women from the South and women of colour are perhaps not as accessible in Denmark as they are in Canada.
Chapter 3, "The Father's Room," is about the sexual aggression of male family members and men in the public sphere. Women share with Agger how they painfully struggled - usually in silence - against letting the power of these men rule their lives. How this struggle against structural violence is transferred into rebellion against state organized violence is the central focus of both the book and Chapter 4, "The Cell. …