‘Silence is like our mother tongue’
: An ethnography of distress and care amongst Eritrean diasporic women in the UK

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


By the end of 2020, more than six million asylum-seekers were residing in Europe, with many exposed to various traumatic events along the migration route. The biomedicalization of migrant mental health routinely categorises the experiences of refugees and asylum-seekers as PTSD, depression and anxiety, often overshadowing the nuances, subjectivities and complexities of distress. This research challenges the dominant disciplinary traditions in migrant mental health research and considers the subjectivities of wellbeing that are unique to women. This thesis investigates the emergence of silence in the articulation of distress and the provision of care amongst Eritrean diasporic women in the UK. In this thesis, I consider how women’s expressions of distress and care are informed by competing cultural norms, intersecting identities and various negative emotional states that arise in everyday social interactions. Ethnographic research with participatory components were central to capturing women’s lived experiences between October 2018 and September 2019. Empirical data comprised 20 in-depth interviews with Eritrean women and men and 11 months of participant observation at private and public social gatherings.

Chapter 3, the first empirical chapter, explores how silence emerges through the memorialisation of collective trauma. I argue that women’s inability to detangle subjective experiences from the collective’s and the inarticulacy of psychological symptoms render women silent when reflecting on personal accounts of forced displacement. Permanently settling in the UK allows women to reconstruct a life that disengages from a traumatic past and recreate a traditional home that reflects the imagination of the homeland. In Chapter 4, I suggest that traditional caring practices are recreated through the embodiment of traditional gender ideology, where care is enforced by male dominance and liberally practised in women-only encounters. Women’s pursuit of gender parity also characterises the domestic space as a site of ideological tension between the traditional and contemporary imaginaries of the home, evoking narratives of resistance that eventually enter the public domain. Chapter 5 illustrates how public expressions of resistance through transnational political engagement subject women to continual, unsystematic surveillance by the Eritrean state. I suggest that political engagement and suffering are a cyclical relationship, where outspoken women campaign against Eritrea’s human rights abuses but were in constant fear of reprisal and exile. Chapter 6 describes how vociferous religious groups and individuals influence the construction of transnational religious identities and create symbolic boundaries to actively, and often violently, exclude outsiders. I suggest that influential religious individuals are gatekeepers of institutions and congregations and create a religious ‘other’ to minimise the reproduction of violence and diasporic discord.

The centrality of silence, its emergence and persistence across the social and political domains, challenges hegemonic psychiatric discourse on migrant mental health in high-income countries. This ethnography illustrates a departure from a rigid biomedical framework and the imperialism of global mental health research to reveal the nuances of emotional expression and its implications for mental health policy and practice. The embodiment of distress expressed through the mundane recitations of everyday life reveals the emergence of violence in diasporic dynamics and the need for mental health practitioners and policymakers to consider the sociocultural and political context of women’s migration experiences. This interdisciplinary ethnography coalesces critical debates across the social sciences to present a case study of the ways in which silence, distress and care have become reimagined and reproduced in the transnational space.
Date of Award1 May 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAnn Kelly (Supervisor) & Leonie Ansems De Vries (Supervisor)

Cite this