Refugees, Gender relations and the Challenge of Identity


Migration profoundly affects gender relations and identity construction, particularly the role of women in households and communities. The impacts are complex. In many respects, migration enriches the independence and power of women. When women from traditional societies such as Muslim societies migrate to advanced industrial societies, they meet with new standards regarding women’s rights and opportunities, often as a result of the education and learning the host country language given to illiterate migrant and refugee women. Education helps migrant and refugee women take outside employment; they may have access to financial resources that had never before resulted from their labour. Even if their pay is joint with other family members, this new earning capability often gives women greater ability to direct household priorities.

Women who are left at home as their husbands migrate also experience changes and challenges in their role. The spouses who stay at home may now have greater domestic and economic responsibilities. Although they may be financially dependent on remittances from their relatives, the women may have considerable independence over decisions about how the funds will be used. Should their husbands not return home, or stop sending remittances, the women may have to undertake even greater responsibility for themselves and their children. This is the exact situation of many Iraqi women during the sanctions years. When my husband forced to migrate to Jordan, and sent remittances I felt that I had to manage my life financially, take responsibility and make decisions about my living conditions, even though I was living with my parental family.

In other respects, migration can serve to strengthen traditional gender roles. This is particularly the case when women are expected to preserve cultural and religious norms that appear to be under attack. In my research with Iraqi refugee women who were ESL students in language centers in Melbourne, Australia, I found that these women played a key role in preserving their cultural identity as Arabs through asking their children to speak Arabic at home, rather than speaking English. This was as well as sending them to Arabic and Qur’an school. They considered speaking English fluently might be a real attack on their cultural identity. This process could also be seen in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, where the segregation of men and women was practiced more firmly than in Afghanistan itself. Upon return to Afghanistan, the Taliban leaders carried the increased practice back, magnifying it on the whole country.

For women who migrate from developing to developed countries, modification to the new culture can be a difficult process. Barriers to successful adjustment include those within the host society as well as individual or personal ones. Among the former are racial intolerance and sexual and cultural discrimination aimed against foreign women. Many migrants and refugees are of a different race from the majority of the population of their new country. As women, they may face the dual problem of racism and sexism in seeking employment, training or otherwise participating in the activities of the new country. A further societal factor in adjustment is legal status. The migrant’s legal status is an important factor influencing the ease with which she will be able to adjust. Immigrants and refugees who have been acknowledged legally generally enjoy all the rights of other residents. People seeking asylum are generally in a more insecure position while they await their hearings. They may be ineligible to seek employment or receive services. The procedure may be protracted, leaving them in limbo for long periods of time. Not knowing if they will be able to remain permanently, people seeking asylum may not actively seek out adjustment or modification services. Those who enter with no permission and who are ineligible for any legal status are in the most risky state, unable to work legally or to access services.

Personal barriers to adjustment include family conflicts, traumas suffered during flight, illiteracy, lack of language skills, and religious and cultural constraints. Changes in family roles often accompany migration. Some families have experienced long periods of separation. Male roles may change drastically in the new society. If their skills are not readily convertible to developed countries, the men may find themselves unable to support their families.

The adjustment may be particularly difficult in forced migration situations. Women in refugee camps generally continue to be productive members of their families, responsible for such domestic activities as food, water and firewood collection, preparation of meals and other household chores. By contrast, men often find that they cannot fulfil their traditional roles. Adolescent boys may believe they have no economic substitutes other than joining military forces or gangs. The obstructions experienced by men can result in increased family pressures, domestic violence, and despair. International migration can lead to generational tensions as well, particularly when children adapt more quickly than their parents to a new language and social system. Seeing their children adopt unfamiliar practices may prompt some immigrant and refugee women to recommit themselves and their families to more traditional, often male-controlled morals. In many cases, the women migrate but must leave their children behind, creating other strains and problems. Sometimes, the children are left behind because the working conditions for the women preclude them from having attending family members or they have no access to child care services. At other times, the children are left with grandparents or other relatives because the parents wish a more traditional environment for the children.

In conclusion, this discussion has looked at some main issues affecting the gender roles of migrant and refugee people. Specifically it looked at how for example women’s roles through migration in all its kinds and reason can be a challenging mission, not just for women but for other family members. The influence on these challenges to gender roles could be positive like enforcing independence and finding better opportunities, and could be negative such as causing health issues, tensions inside family relations and a loss of cultural norms.

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