Mobility and migration have a specific significance for women, historically associated with sedentarity, immobility and passivity. For a long time they were either invisible or regarded as dependents, their migration tied to that of men, rather than as migrants in their own right. In many societies, obstacles to and restrictions to women’s mobility persist and they often face moral stigmatization even in the situations where they massively participate in migration and are main family providers.
The increasingly feminized international migration reflects the continuous and growing presence of women in precarious, low paid service jobs as domestic work, nursing, care for the elderly, entertainment and prostitution.
Migrant women are well aware of the institutional, political, cultural-social and economic contexts which shape their employment opportunities across borders. They know that job openings for them exist because the employment of migrant women (and sometimes that of migrant men) allows for the continuity of the traditional gender order with its class-gender hierarchies, informal employment structures and family ideals (see below).
When migrant women’s only chance to leave their home country is to join "alternative circuits" of smugglers or to feature as mail order brides via agencies or internet, when their only employment opportunity is in domestic service or in commercial sex, it is very likely that they will go along rather than try to challenge the very order that opens the borders for them and procures them work. Some will go even further and excel in demonstrating how irreplaceable they are in their traditional nurturing role.
Beyond the usual question whether gender relations are reconfigured in the context of migration, in this text I ask how the outcomes are negotiated and what space is left for agency and empowerment. My argument is that migrant women tend to use the traditional gender order and rely on it for their own purposes, if they do not openly challenge or question it. The empirical evidence suggests that processes of the reproduction of gender order are manifest in a variety of situations. Yet, at the same time, they contain elements of change and subversion from within. Deeply rooted gender identities are not openly challenged, but rather redefined within the pressures and requirements of intersecting power hierarchies (class, race,gender among others) in the context of migration.
Gains for Women?
The conventional wisdom has been that the change in gender relations is closely related to the participation of women in the labor force. Earning their own money increases migrant women’s bargaining power compared to their countries of origin.
Some migrant women originate from countries where their access to paid employment is seen as a transgression of their traditional roles as for instance Morocco. Yet working in Spain provides Moroccan women with greater control over resources and more autonomy in managing their lives "in spite of the inferiority of their position in Spain both as foreigners and women".
Maintenance of the Gender Order?
Many (research) accounts primarily focus on the social costs of women's migration: the reproduction of gender inequalities, intensified traditional roles, dependency, loss of support and an increase in work load for women on the move. This happens when paid work is in one way or another related to women’s family role and is either perceived as a family obligation for women or not considered as ‘real work’.
When female employment is needed to maintain the standards of respectability for the family as, for example, in the Cuban community in the US in the 1970s, the traditional view stretches to include employment as a regular part of the female role.
Women are often employed in occupations related to domestic duties. The spatial connection between woman’s work and home implicitly defines her work as "work at home", not as "real work". The fundamental gender division of labor resting on the expectation that "women are responsible for home and men for paid work" is not challenged but reinforced.
In most EU countries and in Turkey, increasing employment rates of local women and an aging population have created a demand in the "domestic niche".
The presence of migrant women in personal services enables gender hierarchies to be preserved in their employers’ households. The increase in the equality of opportunities between German men and women in the labor market is paralleled by increasing inequalities among women.
Whereas for their employers they contribute to the maintanance of the caring arrangements functioning on a daily basis as a norm, for their own families they improvise the "living-apart-together arrangements", managing separations across time and space which tend to last longer than initially predicted. Although this can be empowering for them, as their economic and bargaining power within their households may have improved for many of these women, it nevertheless reinforces their traditional identities as mothers and carers, as one women stated in an interview: "When I go home to Poland, I do not rest; there is so much to do. Imagine a man alone with two kids. If I go to stay one month for instance, the first two weeks I do nothing but housework."
The empirical examples in this section demonstrate that the gender order (in the country of origin and destination of migrant women) is not only resistant to change, but, intersecting with class, migrancy and legality, may be intensified. While the traditional division of labor and male privilege remain unchallenged, paid work increases women’s overall workload. Instead of expecting their husband’s help with housework, the majority of women choose to pass parts of the reproductive work on to less privileged women, thus relying on what Arlie Hochschild (2000) called, the global care chain.
Are there, nevertheless, potentials for agency behind the unchallenged, preserved gender order?
Reliance on Gender Order: Turning It to One’s Own Advantage
This contradictory empirical evidence suggests that processes of reproduction of gender order are manifest in and parallel to the situations of apparent reversal. At the same time and in line with the observation that the deeply rooted gender identities are not openly challenged but rather redefined within the pressures and requirements of the intersecting power hierarchies in the context of migration
Migration provides exit and opportunities for struggle and resistance for those who do not fit into the hegemonic femininities and masculinities of their milieu of origin. As such migration can be a form of breaking out of existing constraints, but becomes also a resource, a possibility for women to support their family remained behind and in return, regain respect and recognition.
Male immigrants working in what they view as “naturally” women’s work in the domestic service sector and care jobs or in hotels and hospitals renegotiate their masculinities in order to qualify for the highly gendered requirements for the job. Thus, being capable of “working like a woman”, is a strong argument in negotiating employment. With time in the job they reinvest their present role of a male domestic worker with “naturally male” attributes, putting them forward as their competitive advantage: for instance, physical strength – indeed a necessary quality for the job but rarely taken into account when the performers of caring and domestic tasks are women.
Feminist researchers stressed long ago that gender processes cannot be understood independent from class, race, immigrant status and other social relations with which they intersect.
This text looked at the ways the contradictory outcomes of migration are negotiated. Processes of reproduction of gender order are manifest in a variety of situations but contain, at the same time, elements of change and subversion from within. The evidence suggests that migrant women learn to take advantage of the attributions that initially handicap them and most look for compromise rather than confronting or rejecting the traditional gender division of labor and values.
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