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Excerpt from Engendering Transnational Voices: Studies in Family, Work, and Identity edited by Guida Man and Rina Cohen

From Introduction: Engendering Transnational Voices by Rina Cohen and Guida Man

Gender and Transnational Migration
In this collection, the transnational voices of women, youth, and children are examined, often through a feminist lens. Historically, gender has been underplayed in transnational literature. More recently, migration and social transformation studies are paying special attention to the ways in which gender plays a role in transnational lives. Since the early 1990s, the number of women who migrate on their own has consistently been increasing (Pessar and Mahler 2003). Some sociologists, such as Donato et al. (2006), labelled this proliferation of female migration a “feminization of migration” process, highlighting the need to further examine the gendered nature of migration.

The substantial increase in the feminization of transnational migration should be understood in the context of the continuing escalation in the globalization and neoliberalization of the world’s market economy, the failure of state migration policies in the West, and the commoditization of citizenship. Capital accumulation under neoliberalism in a globalized world has exacerbated and escalated the disparity between the global north and south. Consequently, while some nation-states are not able to provide basic needs for their citizens, others are lacking labour power to maintain a rapid economic growth. This has led to a growth in both economic migration and speculative migration, of which a growing number are female migrants.

Feminist scholars have long noted that women and men experience migration differently (Man 1995; Morokvasic 1984; Oishi 2005; Pessar 1999; Pessar and Mahler 2003), and these differences affect their settlement and their transnational experiences. Just as gender does, so do class and race and their relations affect and are affected by transnational migration. In general, working-class immigrant women (mostly racialized) occupy precarious positions, have limited access to essential knowledge and resources, and have little social capital in comparison to middle-class professional migrants (Raj 2003). This translates into differential opportunities and abilities to mobilize transnational strategies and hence different experiences for these women. At the same time, many racialized skilled immigrant women and men also experience downward mobility and are channelled into precarious work, particularly in the early period of their arrival to the new country (Man 2004a, 2004b; see also Das Gupta, Hari, and Man in this volume). Transmigrant women’s experiences are embedded in the social, economic, political, and cultural processes in the host societies as well as the societies they are originally from. These processes are usually quite different, and transmigrant women are constantly navigating between these two societies, utilizing both local and transnational resources and networks they could galvanize to accomplish their work of production and reproduction in the new country. Furthermore, these women have had to deal with a distinct racial hierarchy, something they have never experienced in their home countries. Many suffer a decline in their status, seriously disrupting their life trajectories.

A gendered perspective demands a scholarly interrogation and reengagement with institutions and ideologies within immigrant communities, as well as those they are embedded in in the new country, in order to determine how patriarchy, class and racism organize family life, work, identities and social policies. Such a perspective encourages an examination of how engendered transmigrants can both reinforce and challenge race and class hierarchies. While second-wave feminist analysis related mainly to gender hierarchies as shaping migration, feminist scholars of colour, as well as anti-racist and neo/post-colonial feminists, take a more comprehensive approach. Rather than treating them as separate categories, they conceptualize the relations and the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, legal status, and citizenship (Arat-Koc 2006; Brand 1984; Cohen 2001; Dua and Robertson 1999; Jhappan 1996; Man 2007; Ng 1993; Stasiulis 1990; Stevenson 1999; see also Brigham; Cohen; Das Gupta; Elabor-Idemudia in this volume). Recent studies on refugees, trafficked sex workers, and asylum seekers by transnational feminist scholars have also explored spaces and bodies in these cross-border activities (see e.g., Razack 2000; Spivak 1996; also Elabor-Idemudia, Park, and Rubio in this volume).

While migration can be empowering for women, some feminist scholars (e.g., Alumkal 1999; Dannecker, 2005; Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2004; Freitas and Godin, 2010; Glick Schiller and Fouron, 2001; Landolt 2001; Piper, 2006) have demonstrated how transnational migration processes can compromise women’s position through the reinforcement of gendered and cultural norms and rigid patriarchal practices from their country of origin, in the name of “protecting” women from a “promiscuous” or “immoral” host country. At the same time, these women are constrained in their country of settlement through gendered and racialized institutional processes such as immigration policies and employment practices. Furthermore, other studies have documented a tendency of women whose marriages or family relations are problematic to begin with, to find an overseas job. This may become an “honourable” escape from a bad or abusive marriage.

A number of studies have also illuminated that transnational migration that transforms women into breadwinners actually empowers them (see e.g., Gaye and Jha 2011; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001). Furthermore, women are more likely to send larger remittances to their families at home than do men (Abrego 2009). Therefore, families in which the mother migrated have a better chance of benefiting economically in comparison to families in which the father migrated. In some cultures, transnational mothers are vilified for migrating, whereas other cultures will praise them as sanctifiers and heroes. In general, women bear the brunt of the load in maintaining and reproducing de-territorialized family life (Waters 2002). At the same time, mothers’ absenteeism may be socially disciplined in comparison to fathers’ absence (Pribilsky 2004).

As globalization intensifies, so does gendered transnational migration. It increases not only in frequency but also in intensity. Consequently, social structures such as gender, family, or age are restructured and reconstituted; social identities are constructed and reconstructed; and social spaces are being contested and reconfigured. While scholarly interest in the processes of transmigration and globalization is increasing, there is not enough attention paid to the specific voices of women, youth, children, and the elderly in these processes. This book collection, written by a group of scholars with a strong social justice and feminist stance, fills a lacuna in this body of knowledge by providing an alternative lens, that is, by placing transnational women, youth, children, and the elderly at the centre of the inquiry, and by exploring their experiences from their own standpoints. It is important to note here that gender, class, and race have a different meaning when they are constructed transnationally and that migrant experiences (which we tend to categorize by ethnicity or nationality) vary significantly on the basis of class, race, and gender relations. Following the tradition of transnational migration scholars, this collection of papers focuses on human agency, while recognizing the structural power relations inherent in it.