Migrant Knowledge

Girls’ Self-Empowerment through Narrative in Film

The expression “knowledge is power” has been popularized around the idea of self-liberation and thus the rejection of stagnancy and resignation. Knowledge, however, is also subject to the effects of power. Michel Foucault taught us how the prominence of certain knkwledges and the silencing of others reflects how the exercise of power entails much more than physical repression. He called for “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges,” that is, for the rediscovery of knowledges historically silenced or disqualified.1 By uncovering these subjugated knowledges, suppressed conflicts can be studied and hitherto suppressed knowledges set free. In applied pedagogy and psychology, empowerment is an indispensable element in the unleashing of these subjugated knowledges. Especially for young migrants who have yet to discover their own biographies or rewrite their traumas of migration, knowledge is not only power but a means of empowerment.

The 2016 refugee crisis reinvigorated debates around top-down processes of integration and gave rise to a countermovement that included numerous self-organized collectives and empowerment projects. One such collective is M-Power (pronounced “empower”), established in 2016. Based in Berlin, M-Power uses film as a medium to reclaim these subjugated knowledges by connecting them to migrant struggles. The name M-Power signifies the strength, the power, that can be accessed by telling stories of migration. “M” is also the first letter in Mädchen, the German word for girls. This self-organized collective has approximately twenty members between the ages of sixteen and thirty, and most of them are people of color. Together, they have found a way to produce their own films as a way to archive their stories. Their activities (film screenings, workshops, visits to refugee shelters and projects there) attract over 100 young migrants every year.

By learning the techniques of film production, by writing their own scripts, and ultimately by producing their own movies, M-Power has created a space for knowledge production and knowledge transfer, a space that combines the learning of technical skills (sound, camera work, film editing), socio-political analysis (racism, precariousness, identity), and confronting the self (imagined and lived realities). M-Power’s approach is to narrate biographical experiences and mobilize them as knowledge repertoires, a process deeply interconnected with the pedagogical practice of empowerment. Film offers a way for young migrants to tell their stories. In the terminology of Norbert Herringer, a sociologist of social work, young migrants in the collective leave behind their perceived powerlessness, their “point zero,” and move foreward as active narrators of their life stories.2 Yet empowerment and the unleashing of subjugated knowledges are asynchronous and uneven processes. They are in constant movement, emerge in patches over a long time, and even seem to disappear at times. Any attempt to rediscover migrant knowledges needs to take this into consideration.

Five Girls

The stories of five girls invite us to explore the connectedness and unevenness of migration, empowerment, and knowledge. We conducted interviews with these girls in June and July 2019, asking: What is life like for a teenage refugee in Germany? What does their process of empowerment look like? What is their understanding of empowerment? By raising these questions, we engaged with migration stories in an effort to uncover hitherto silenced struggles.

The girls are Leyla, Mira, Zara, Samira, and Marwa—at the time between fifteen and twenty years old. Like most girls in the M-Power collective, they grew up in comparatively large family structure and have maintained close relations with their family members. Older sisters take care of their younger siblings and bring them along whenever possible, a phenomenon we interpret as a form of self-organization within their family. The girls belong to that part of the collective that plans and organizes the group’s annual activities. They grew up in Somalia and became refugees when they were between ten and fifteen years old. Their journey took almost a year and led them across Turkey’s and Serbia’s borders. Living in Berlin since 2015, they go to school like ordinary teenagers, but they also produce short films through which they share stories from different stages of their lives.

What does the collective mean to the then sixteen-year-old Mira?

M-Power teaches me courage, it empowers me. M-Power became part of my world, but is separate from my school and home, which are also two different worlds. I distinguish between these worlds and I know that I am different in these different worlds. But with M-Power I can be myself. I can feel just great.

M-Power seeks to foster multiple identities and to encourage work on these separately without losing sight of the bigger picture. Mira’s description underlines important preconditions for imagining herself in the future: learning how to handle the simultaneity and multiplicity of lifeworlds; understanding which social positions she occupies as a migrant in a given society; and knowing how to cope with the clashes of these worlds.

Encounters with Past and Future Versions of the Self

Leyla, seventeen, recounted her story for us this way:

The journey from Turkey to Germany was extremely difficult. I was so young, but I felt so old. I was without my mum, only with Zara and Mira. I was scared, but I tried not to show it, because Mira is even younger than me. Now that I talk about it, I can't believe it was true. The boat in which we sat leaked . . . And then in Germany, everything felt so meaningless and I was still terrified. But with time I told myself that I have to use that chance. After all the difficulties, why should I be afraid any longer? All the bad things that happened also had their positive side, because they strengthened me, I think.

In looking back at her life story, Leyla finds a way to voice her feeling of powerlessness and transform it into something powerful. She added:

M-Power gave me something that was more than hope. It retrieved something in me. In earlier days, I went home after school not knowing what to do next. With M-Power I learned about the beautiful things that life has to offer, that there are many steps to go to achieve something.

The stories need telling from the girls’ own perspectives, not from that of a historian or sociologist. Only then can they reveal to us how migration, knowledge, and empowerment are not only connected but also interact in powerful ways.

In order for the girls to untangle their subjugated knowledges, they must encounter future versions of themselves. Education is an essential part of this effort. Being ambitious about school, however, means that the girls have to deal with the extremes of social inequality that young migrants commonly encounter. Zara, nineteen, told us that she had always thought she wasn’t good enough, until she realized that her schoolteacher perceived her differently. “Although you cannot express yourself [in German] very well, you know, you are good at what you do. You are clever.” The way she finds her words to express her own thoughts is what makes her intelligence apparent to the outside world. Aida had never thought of herself that way. It “broke me, but in a positive sense,” she noted. Zara had always thought of herself as “stupid,” although her grades were among the best in her class. Her teacher’s statement was nothing that the M-Power group and her friends hadn’t already told Aida. Yet, not until three years after she had spoken to her teacher was Zara able to change her self-perception. She reminds herself that she can be good at whatever she wants to be good at.

Keeping many of their Somalian traditions while at the same time breaking with them is another conflict crucial to the five girls’ stories. As young Muslim girls, they grew up with the idea that the hijab signified the “good girl.” In Germany, Mira, sixteen at the time of our interview, has experienced how the hijab is a subject of discussion not only among Muslims but among non-Muslims too. Mira takes off her hijab in sports classes and during school trips. She has noticed how some of her teachers and classmates have difficulty making sense of her when she is not wearing her hijab. Mira, however, considers herself self-determined with or without the hijab. “Actually, I decided that I’m going to take off my hijab for good.” She can’t remember when she made that decision, but it was after a long process of self-reflection that included numerous conversations with her mother and brother. She feels ready now, but she is nervous and doesn’t know how her mother will react: “I have the feeling that she will not support my decision, but I will still do it. Probably she will not even notice anymore in a few weeks time.” Believing that her mother might adapt to her decision reflects her conviction that her mother will approve of her decision too. Both examples illustrate the unevenness and long-term processes of unlearning (Zara’s self-inferiorization), learning (Mira’s self-determination), and empowerment (of the self as part of the collective).

The Nonsimultaneity of Learning and Empowerment

Aida has produced a number of short movies throughout the years. As a member of M-Power, movies became an important instrument to reflect upon her individual experiences in particular, and the shared story of migrants in general. Learning how to direct a movie, how to deal professionally with emotions on the set and how to find one’s own techniques, none of it easy, is what gives her confidence. With her perspective as a critical filmmaker, she started to watch and evaluate movies in terms of their message. She said, “I think I hate traditions,” and although she has a positive connection to traditional clothing, arts, and dance, she criticizes that women have been depicted as shy or reserved in most movies. She demands that movies have an impact, that they should encourage discussions, leave room for interpretation and critical analysis. Aida remembered a different experience: “In Somalia, where I grew up, we learn differently. Usually one person speaks, we learn by listening and taking notes. There is not much dialogue and discussion (in the classroom).”

One of Aida’s short movies is called Ernte (Harvest). In it, she reflects upon the incompleteness of the history of her country that was passed on to her generation. Until recently, Aida had never heard of Somalia’s colonial history before. She certainly knew that poverty, war, and economic crisis are human made. But unaware of the enduring legacies of colonialism, she took it simply as Somalia’s normality. She started connecting it to a bigger picture. In a state of confusion, she notes, “The story of the country that I thought I knew has never been the complete story. In fact, I only knew the bedtime stories of my grandparents. Was the life I lived until this moment an illusion?” Empowerment is both a biographical and a collective process. For Aida, engaging with Somalia’s history, particularly the country’s history of collective empowerment against colonialism,3 means being in dialogue with her own biography.

In a similar vein, the movie Gita, to which Jehan (director), Jameela (camera), and Noura (sound) contributed, tells the story of two Afghan sisters who migrated to Germany. One decides to leave the family as part of her emancipation from its traditional strictures. Focusing on internal and cultural family conflicts, the film draws attention to migrant stories that go beyond racism, state discrimination, and inequality to address a highly sensitive and political topic. For the young filmmakers, it was a way to situate their own fears, desires, and inner conflicts in a movie’s message while building a safe space in which to identify with their hidden selves and possibly with their viewers.

For the M-Power collective, film is a medium not only for the production of migrant knowledges but also for empowerment. The two, however, are not simultaneous processes. In fact, M-Power’s filmmakers and social workers remember both Harvest and Gita as two of many film productions in which the processes of self-empowerment and knowledge formation developed unevenly. Although the self-confident Aida has made Harvest, she has yet to discover a past version of herself that is bound up with the shared colonial history of Somalians and other migrants. Similarly, the script development of Gita indicated that the movie makers have inner conflicts about the restrictiveness of their own family relations. How they might detach from negative emotional connections remains to be seen.4

Another example can be observed with Most Beautiful Mother, in which the filmmakers speak about their relationships with their mothers. After the movie had alrady been screened dozens of times, the filmmakers began to criticize their own public presentation of women with hijab as inappropriate. The reason was that the mother, who appears in a brief sequence reading a book with her daughter, was afraid of being judged by her community because women wearing hijab were not supposed to be displayed in public this way. As a consequence, the previously proud filmmakers were left feeling insecure about their movie, and the educators in the project discovered the nonlinearity of empowerment. Processes of empowerment might become less active or visible in certain moments, but there is a firm belief in the M-Power team that they will not disappear for good.

As the M-Power collective focuses on learning technical and creative skills linked to the enjoyment of teamwork, it is sometimes only months or years later that emancipatory knowledge is unleashed or critically engaged with. Although both processes develop in dialogue, their emancipatory power—as manifest in the movies themselves—is released unevenly in time and space. In this way, the filmmakers’ continual dialog with the self and the collective becomes a tool to transform lived realities into emancipatory knowledges, which in turn can be archived and shared across generations and cultures. The nonsimultaneity and unevenness of unleashing subjugated knowledges and self-empowerment needs to be studied in greater detail.

Mervete Bobaj is the founder of M-Power, a culture and media educator, and a licensed therapist. Her parents left Kosovo in the 1970s and were employed as contract workers in Berlin, where Mervete was born and grew up.
Anh-Susann Pham Thi
Anh-Susann Pham Thi is a board member at M-Power and a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Manchester. She grew up in Brandenburg, a region known for its affiliation with right-wing politics. Her parents are former Vietnamese contract workers.

Featured image courtesy of the M-Power collective.

  1. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, (New York: Vintage Books, 1980) 81. ↩︎
  2. Norbert Herringer, Empowerment in der Sozialen Arbeit: Eine Einführung, 5th ed. (2014). ↩︎
  3. Empowerment is not only a concern at the individual level. By collective empowerment we refer to the communal level of empowerment processes. ↩︎
  4. Psychologist Jeremy Holmes understands detachment as the basis of autonomy. See his “Attachment, Autonomy, Intimacy: Some Clinical Implications of Attachment Theory,” British Journal of Medical Psychology 70, no. 3 (September 1997): 231–48. Here we consider detachment a process or decision to avoid negative emotional connections in order to enable healthier relationships, especially among family members. See Patrice Alexander, “The Importance of Detachment,” MARR Addiction Treatment Centers. ↩︎

Updated on October 5, 2020.

Suggested citation: Mervete Bobaj and Anh-Susann Pham Thi, "Girls’ Self-Empowerment through Narrative in Film," Migrant Knowledge, September 23, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/09/23/girls-self-empowerment/.