Involuntary Migration: Testimonies of Women Refugees

June 16, 2015

This resource includes memoirs of two women who were forced to flee civil conflicts in their countries. The goal is to further the understanding of how men and women experience political and religious exile differently.


While civil wars often lead to forced displacement for both women and men, gender-specific differences emerge in countries experiencing armed conflicts. Men, more often than women, participate voluntarily or involuntary in national armies or guerrilla movements. However, women and children sometimes serve as soldiers, too.

As social structures break down in countries with civil unrest, unstable economies create job insecurity. Men who succeed in evading military conscription and reach safe locations are usually unable to work or help support their families, in part because they are suspected of being enemies by all sides. As a result, women-wives, mothers, sisters and daughters often become solely responsible for their families' economic and emotional needs. Women in countries experiencing civil war are also targeted for violence and rape by the "enemy" as a war strategy to make their partners or relatives succumb. Women's visibility and susceptibility to persecution sometimes forces them to migrate across national borders as refugees or political exiles, which disrupts families and communities. The first-hand accounts women's experiences shed light on both their susceptibility and agency in countries undergoing internal and violent conflicts.


  1. An excerpt from the testimonial of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous Quiche peasant.
    As a social activist, Menchú helped organize against the military oppression of indigenous people through the Committee of the Peasant Union, and later she became involved in the women's right movement. After the Guatemalan army arrested, tortured, and killed her family, Manchú fled to Mexico where she continued to fight for the rights of peasants. The publication of her biography drew wide attention to the conflict and vulnerability of peasants, though there are debates on the accuracy of her testimonials.
    PDF iconI, Rigoberta Menchú.pdf
    Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: an Indian Woman in Guatemala. Introduced by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. London: Version, 1984.
  2. An excerpt from the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a controversial Muslim Somali feminist and politician.
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled Somalia in the midst of Siad Barré's dictatorship (1969-1991) during the Somali civil war in 1988. She currently lives in political asylum in the Netherlands where she is a critic of Islamic fundamentalists. In her campaign to reform Islam, she continues to be criticized by many and targeted by violence from extremists; she has also received numerous awards such as Norway's Human Rights Service's Bellwether of the Year Award.
    PDF iconInfídel: Chapter 8.pdf
    Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. Infidel. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify specific reasons why Menchú and Hirsi fled Guatemala and Somali to neighboring countries? What are the similarities and differences in their experiences of involuntary migration? (Consider their age, class position, resources and skills, and political conditions in Guatemala and Somalia.)
  2. How do Menchú and Hirsi depict themselves in their memoirs?
  3. Both women's memoirs sparked debates over whether personal narratives or testimonials reflect reality. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of using testimonials as source material?

Suggested Readings

Gluck, Shena Beger and Daphne Patai. "Introduction." In Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History., edited by Gluck and Patai, 1-6. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

Heimer, Carol. "Cases and Biographies: An Essay on Routinization and the Nature of Comparison." Annual Review of Sociology. 27(2001):47-76.

Stoll, David. I, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.