“The migrant woman” from then to now - from my mother to me
Angela holds a Masters degree in Gender and Social Policy from the LSE and Bachelor Degree from Cornell University. Her research focuses on issues of gender, migration, identity and citizenship in the context of female migrant domestic workers. She has interned at Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) and volunteered with the Hackney Migrant Centre and has also previously been affiliated with Kav LaOved (Worker’s Hotline) in Tel Aviv.
It is 2011, I am 23 years old, and I follow in her footsteps. What has changed in nearly 40 years? Who is “the migrant woman” today? As gender roles and expectations have changed, I consider through my own family history what it means to be a migrating woman today.
As I type this, I’m sitting in our new studio flat in Tel Aviv, which is shy of one week old. The tiny table is a jewel I found lying decrepit on the street, the chair a cheap flea market buy from the weekend. Whereas my head is usually filled with ideas for blog topics, recently it has been cluttered with moving-in complications: does the bathroom fan work? Where can we do laundry, and when are we getting internet? There’s no salt in the kitchen (or anything else, for the matter), and where is the nearest post office?
Frankly, I initially expected to feel some sense of frustration at the situation. My partner goes to work every morning, while I spend the day making my way around the city, setting up “house,” tending to several various affairs. After my year studying gender at the LSE, I lightly joke to friends that I have become domestic as a feminist strategy. Still waiting for a visa to legally work, I spend my time volunteering, learning a new language, and adjusting to a new (endlessly complex) country.
And so I fit tnd myself to be quite busy…and often exhausted ahe end of the day. I prepared myself to feel some embarrassment when answering the question, “Ah, so what do you do these days?” No longer can I speak of London protests, attending lectures, and endlessly typing my dissertation. Instead, I plow through the multiple lists I have, the people to meet, the countless missions big and small to accomplish (i.e. big: 7 year visa process for permanent residency; small: buy salt). While my partner makes the economic contribution to our income, I also contribute through familiarizing myself with our new neighborhood, overseeing final renovations by the landlord, and giving myself time and space to transition to this new life.
A couple months ago, I vented to my mother all my concerns and anxieties about not being able to work. While I continue to volunteer at several migrant rights’ organizations, networking with professors, researchers, and activists, I was nervous my professional development would stall with my limited visa status and limited language proficiency. She sagely offered a single word: Patience. No doubt she speaks from experience.
Though she was an English teacher in Taiwan, she recalls being afraid to pick up the phone in Albany, New York 30 some years ago, self-conscious of her English. Patience (and three decades) has led her to where she is today, an invaluable member to society, even an interpreter for new immigrants who share a similar story to her own.
There have always been endless reasons why women have migrated, each story and individual unique in its own circumstances. But there was a time when the archetype of the migrant woman was the wife, the mother, the symbol of home and family life. More and more women have been given the deserved right and respect for migrating independently, individually, for work, education, their own goals and dreams.
But undoubtedly women and men change their lives to join a family member, to build a family. The story of my mother has become my story, which continues to be the story of many. It is impossible, and harmful, to stereotype women immigrating to join their partners as “passive wives.” But the profile of the new immigrant voyaging to join a partner abroad is not passé.
Fueled by my pride living in East London last year, I loved exploring the migrant history and context of Brick Lane. Reading Rachel Lichtenstein’s book On Brick Lane, and also visiting the beautiful historical space of the 19 Princelet Street Migration Museum, I learned about the English classes that were and are being provided for migrant women.
While men in working contexts are pushed into an environment of speaking and practicing the new language, migrant women unable or choosing not to work may be limited in their chances for learning. At the HEBA Women’s Project, the classes are not merely linguistic tutoring, but a community space and mentorship among new and veteran immigrants. The organization defines itself as a “training & enterprise project” providing women from diverse cultural backgrounds with a safe and welcoming place,” personally and professionally.
For some migrants who are not yet occupying the public space of employment, learning English is a necessary first step to feel comfortable in London and gain the skills to eventually seek job opportunities. This is in addition to the crucial work they do adjusting and transitioning themselves and their families to their new immigrant life, what has traditionally been called “domestic work” or “household chores.” After experiencing it myself, I have a hard time seeing this as merely and simplistically domestic. I have the utmost respect for the individuals, including my mother, who found themselves navigating a new country with limited language abilities, tending to the basic human needs of food, shelter, and comfort.
While the immigrant woman’s story is very much alive, so is the immigrant man’s. In 2000, over 10,000 Pakistani nationals obtained entry clearance to join spouses in the UK. That is merely the numbers of one nationality, within one year. Within this community, since 1997 the number of male spouses joining their partners abroad has steadily risen; in fact, by 2000, nearly equal numbers of men and women were granted UK clearance.
While women face unique circumstances due to the gendered expectations or assumptions put on them, so do men. Study has been limited, though growing, on migrant men joining their partners abroad, especially conflicting if not frustrating experiences with cultural norms of masculinity. The archetype is outdated, but not just because of progress in “women’s rights.” Gender roles for men and women both contribute to today’s new “immigrant partner.”
Not only do we, the immigrant partners of the past and the present, need to be patient as we transition to new societies, but we deserve recognition for the unpaid work that is done. Not only recognition, but as a society we must support the resources and organizations that ease this transition, for men and women, such as those affiliated with MRN or the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum.
Through encouraging employment and education, beyond certain traditional gender norms, HEBA does much more than provide a place for their participants to adjust—it is in fact preparing the foundations for these individuals to contribute to the society at large. It is an investment in migrant women and men, in their families, and in the type of society that functions most efficiently and effectively with its ever-changing population.