Can migrating women escape patriarchy?

Yilmaz & Ledwith

by Gaye Yilmaz and Sue Ledwith

Migrating women may escape conflict, war, poverty, family pressures and responsibilities, and fear of sexual oppression. But they also find themselves caught between the twin ideologies of patriarchy and religion.

This was the case for the 120 women migrants we interviewed for our book, Migration and Domestic Work. All are now domestic workers in London, Berlin or Istanbul. Most were either Muslim or Christian with a handful who were Buddhist, Hindu or Pagan. Twenty atheists had come to disbelief from the two main religions.

These women’s migration decisions, their domestic and working lives, the possibilities for collective solidarity and for joining trade unions, were all influenced by patriarchical gender ideology. When combined with their religion, these pressures were difficult to resist. They were also policed across continents by family: ‘My parents very often phone and check whether I am going to church or fulfill my religious obligations.’

Few of the women in our study positively sought to be a migrant. Yesterday’s refugee is today’s migrant. Regardless of their dreams of a better life, they all finished up far from home, as domestic workers.

In their new countries too, traditional gender roles in the home and at work were still played out. As a Muslim women told us, “In Islam all houseworks are the tasks of women.’ Similarly, a Catholic woman relayed, ‘The task of women at home is to obey husbands, to do all housework inside the home.’

Men were breadwinners, and the women prioritized male promotion and job prospects over their own.

These codes spilled over to the unmarried women and the atheists, illustrating the weight of traditional gender roles both within and outside marriage. Throughout the interviews there was no mention of gendered reciprocity. The women were preoccupied with the happiness of their men. We heard little mention of their own pleasures.

Although patriarchy affected all women, the intensity of religious belief was key. The women claiming high religiosity were more likely to stick to patriarchal traditions, whatever their country of migration. Those with low or no religiosity were much more willing to challenge and subvert these masculinized norms.

Kurdish women were the main challengers. They had been empowered through political struggle to work for gender equality, and held strong feminist views.

Otherwise, the women followed their gendered roles, although for some it was a way of keeping the peace and avoiding domestic abuse.

Domestic work is not only seen as women’s work; it is low paid, has long hours and is dangerous. These women are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and difficult to organize into labor unions.

Shockingly, some of the women had to leave their professional, university qualified work in their home country because either they could not make a living or were compelled to take on family responsibilities. Shocking too was the custom of women sending home remittances, which were then used by male family members to buy a home or car. There was nothing for the woman who had supplied the money.

Migration regimes and identity

Being a migrant forged the women’s sense of identity, interrelating with other identifiers such as race and color. In the public realm, visible difference – being women of color or wearing ethnic clothing such as a hijab – were reasons for being viewed as  ‘other’.

Language was also hugely significant for the women. The level of the women’s fluency in the host language shaped their lives and their children’s. Improvements in language skills led to increased self-esteem and self-image, helping them to move towards integration and belonging.

By teasing out these key aspects of identity – being a migrant worker and being a domestic worker, and seeing how they intersect with other aspects of their lived experiences – we can better understand how the social construction of identity involves all of these categories.

Paid domestic work and collective solidarity

The women’s work situations were harsh, and they were pressured and pulled in different directions by agencies, employers and clients.

The work itself was mostly experienced as unrewarding, and in some cases, hateful. In Berlin almost all the women worked in elder care. In London and Istanbul it was more mixed.  Women were mainly cleaners but also did elder care and child care. They enjoyed child care, loved the children, but often hated other work: ‘This makes me stressed and exhausted’, and ‘I hate cleaning.’

The work took its toll on the women, especially the over 40s, several of whom had serious health problems. These included a cracked pelvis, a herniated disk, and back surgery. For those with poor host country language skills, getting medical care was difficult.

Unlike women who work in factories or offices, domestic workers must do this job alone or in non-collectivized workplaces without socializing with their workmates. In Berlin the women did meet to discuss and compare their pay and their work. But elsewhere, especially in London, they tended to stick with their own ethnic communities. These were often based on diaspora, identity, race and ethnicity, politics and religion.

While important for belonging and identity, they can become excluding, shutting out gender or class-based organizing. Also, where employers are part of the same ethnic enclave this can lead to ‘exploitative solidarity’ as we saw among Armenian women in Istanbul.

Among the women in our study, informal collective organizing was mainly at the early stages. They did not know much about the trade unions they could join, and the unions found them ‘difficult to organize’. In Berlin they needed an address and a bank account to join a union; not something that migrants have, especially in the early days.

Traditional unions are not unaware of the problems, but as the Turkish president of one union pointed out, individualized domestic work with a high level of labor turnover, would have any highly structured labor movement struggling.

And in some communities patriarchal and religious norms required consent from male kin to join unions. Nevertheless, there were women who, once introduced to the idea, showed keenness to join and become active.

Gaye Yilmaz, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul and Sue Ledwith, Ruskin College, Oxford. Their new book, Migration and Domestic Work: The Collective Organisation of Women and their Voices from the City (Palgrave Macmillan) is out now.


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