Belonging is often a complicated idea, especially for people who hold multiple identities related to nationality, race, gender or religion. A conference on global citizenship and gender at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study asked the key question—who belongs?—and explored different facets of citizenship in today’s world.

“The issue of citizenship is a contested one,” said former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, speaking to open a panel discussion titled “Borders, Boundaries and Belonging.” Power, the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a Radcliffe Fellow, spoke about “vehement and virulent” attitudes of political partisanship in the United States and elsewhere. She argued that such attitudes make it difficult to find common ground, as in the recent heated public debates over the fate of so-called “Dreamers."

“We have to get the balance right in terms of open borders,” Power said, citing President Donald Trump’s stated plans to build a wall on the U.S-Mexico border, the harsh restrictions on immigrants from various countries proposed by the White House, and several bipartisan proposals to amend or extend protections for young people under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Power’s fellow panelists were Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, and Nilüfer Göle, professor of sociology at the L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Whitson spoke about her organization’s work in the Middle East, citing the recent passage of laws in Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, and several other nations to protect women, helping them to “redefine their status as citizens, not subjects.” Whitson also mentioned Human Rights Watch’s work to protect migrant domestic workers in these countries, who are primarily female and have often been subject to abuse and exploitation. “It’s a long hard slog of women’s work that produces change,” Whitson said, to applause from the audience.

Göle spoke about her research on the often fraught position of Muslims living in Europe, especially Muslim women who may choose to cover their heads for religious reasons. “Do we have to share the same norms to belong?” she asked, echoing the name of the conference. She discussed the complicated differences between Muslim immigrants to Western Europe and the native populations of those countries. “It’s not a linear process of integration,” she said, speaking about the ways in which the headscarf has become a symbol of religious and cultural difference in France.

“Citizenship is having the courage to show your difference publicly,” Göle said, explaining that many young Muslims in France see themselves as French and also Muslim. “The hyphens in these identities are not binary, but complicated,” she said.

“When you live in fear—when you are not made welcome—your instinct is to lie low,” Power said. She urged her audience, especially those who hold American citizenship, to “put your heads up and mobilize” on behalf of those who struggle to speak for themselves, for any reason.

Photo by Tony Rinaldo

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