Refugee ‘or’ a woman?

By: Vanshika, Nirvik and Nishtha

This essay looks at the life of Jessie, a Palestinian refugee, photographed by Robin Hammond as a part of the Where Love is Illegal project. We connect Jessie’s life experiences as she comes to terms with her sexual and gender identity in a stigmatized refugee camp and discriminatory society in her host country with insights from Sara Ahmed’s paper “Affective Economy”

Refugee. Transgender. Sex worker.  

The portrait above pictures 24-year-old Jessy, perched on the bed, with her hands placed in front  of herself, almost as if in submission. With her piercing eyes, Jessy is boldly staring at the  camera posing to represent how she felt – ‘a sexy young woman’ 1.  

Struggling to be accepted for her reality, Jessy has had a life full of trauma, dissonance, and  discrimination. Jessy was born a boy to Palestinian parents residing in a refugee camp in  Lebanon. At the age of 6, she started showing interest in things such as makeup and dolls, both  of which are conventionally associated with women. This elicited rejection and hatred from her  immediate family. Her father hated her, her brother beat her till her face was bruised and they  jointly attempted to kill her six times. Jessy said, “ Several times he beat me with a thick piece of  wood. Once my father tried to strangle me but I managed to escape and run away” 2. She fell  victim to sexual abuse from a very young age. She was raped by her uncle multiple times when  she was 11 years old and had nobody to turn to for assistance. School was not a safe space either,  as she was harassed by teachers and fellow students. An 18-year-old boy at school also raped her  and she was yet again silenced by her own fear of being shunned further. She faced obstacles in  her professional life as well. Thinking that she would be accepted in a profession like nursing,  she enrolled herself in a nursing school where she wasn’t allowed to intern because of the way  she looked. She struggled to find a job and approached different hospitals for an internship.  However, she was turned down by all of them, merely because of her gender and sexual identity.  “ You’re coming to apply here? We can’t receive people like you here! We don’t even know your  gender !” 3. Finally, Jessy resorted to sex work to make a living.  

Our essay seeks to situate Jessy’s experiences as a matter of international relations  through Sara Ahmed’s seminal work, “Affective Economies”. Ahmed introduces two crucial  ideas – the notion of passing and the concept of hate – which this paper aims to analyze in Jessy’s  context.  

“Together we hate and this hate is what makes us together” 4. Ahmed argues that an  emotion such as hate does not reside in a given subject or object, rather it is transmissible and it  circulates. This feature of hate has a binding effect that manifests into the collective reality 5. The  aspect of collectiveness stems from the divide that hate creates, the divide between “us” and  “them”. Ahmed further explains that what makes them “them” is that they are not us; it is based  on their unlikeness from us 6. It is interesting to note that unity capitalizes on the differences that  exist in society. As a consequence, there can be no “us” without “them”. This is also pivotal to  bolstering the identity of “us”. The proximity of other (them) is what threatens the “purity” of  “us”. The insecurity of being violated instills fear and threatens the collective identity of “us”.  This is a substantiation of what Ahmed calls a “perpetual restaging of this fantasy of violation” 7.  It is only defined by the threat of impurity, and this threat of impurity is posed by the other  justifying ‘our feeling of hate’ against the other.  

In conjunction with the portrayal and differentiation of “us” and “them”, Ahmed’s idea of  “passing” elucidates who fulfills the criteria of being a “genuine” refugee and what the  implications of this might be. Ahmed explains this by comparing the figures of the bogus asylum  seeker to the genuine asylum seeker. A nation, a community, or an individual will always seek to  differentiate between a genuine asylum seeker, who is in need of their help and a bogus one, who  is hateful 8 . But how exactly would this distinction be made, and what if it can’t be made?  There’s always a possibility that a bogus asylum seeker may pass into our community, and  invade our “pure”ness. “They” may pass off as “us”. Passing then forms a crucial juncture – it  “…relates physical movement with the identity formation” 9. But passing entails mobility as a  particular kind of subject – someone, whose difference doesn’t become evident, someone whose  distinctiveness is unnoticeable 10.  

Relating Ahmed’s arguments to Jessy’s narrative, throughout her life Jessy was perceived  as the ‘other’, based on her identity of being a transgender. This signals a clear delineation  between the cisgender and transgender identities, that the other refugees used to legitimize their  collective identity. Being refugees in Lebanon, all the residents of the Palestinian refugee camp were characterized as the “other” due to the difference in their nationalities. However, to ‘pass’  off as genuine and be accepted by “us” they had to make a distinction between the genuine and  the bogus. Rephrasing this, the “other” had to create a different “other” to pass off as “us”.  Jessy’s sexual identity was perceived as a blotch on the purity of the refugee’s identity and  culture. Her existence and proximity as an “other” were seen as a crime against the purity of the  place and the people. She was seen as jeopardizing the history and the future of the refugee  camp. The perpetual fear of their unity as refugees being violated by Jessy’s sexuality made them  hate her. However, from Jessy’s perspective, she herself has a choice to make. Being born in a  Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Jessy’s narrative of being a refugee hails the notion of  freedom. But is she really free? Jessy’s identity as a refugee and her identity as a transgender  lock horns constraining her from representing who she really is. The question is, whether she  should follow the norms that come with being a refugee, and preserve the sanctity of her  community, or should she break out and preserve her sexual identity?  

Jessy seemed to have made the choice. Jessy has been taking hormones for a couple of  years and has opted to be a sex worker, where she could be comfortable in the way she wanted.  While she may not pass as a ‘genuine’ refugee, and may still encounter discrimination and hate,  she is content with the choice she has made, and yearns to be recognized as just a ‘beautiful  woman’. 


Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 117-139. Accessed  November 9, 2020. .  

Dukehart, Coburn. “Intimate portraits of survivors in places where love is illegal.” National  Geographic. National Geographic Partners LLC, 27th July 2015.  rvivors-discrimination-lgbt/ (acessed November 9, 2020).  

Hammond, Robin, photographer. “Where Love Is Illegal, [Lebanon]” Photograph. United  Kingdom. Panos Pictures, .  (accessed November 9, 2020)

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