By Dorte Thorsen
How do we discover subtle changes in cultural norms that otherwise seem steadfast? Cultural norms that sketch the social positions of women and men in broad brush strokes and shape relationships between spouses and across generations. What elasticities creep into those norms allowing one person to stretch beyond socially imposed limitations while keeping another bound by power hierarchies and culturally stipulated ways of behaving?
Since the conference Gendered Dimensions of Migration in Singapore 30 June – 2 July 2015, the author of a new Migrating out of Poverty working paper and I have come back to these questions again and again. Our reflections have panned out in an analytical framework that centres on gender identification as a fluid process through exploring how people are ‘doing gender’, how gender norms are subverted and dwelled in, and how intra-household decision-making sustains simultaneous elements of cooperation and conflict. It makes for a noteworthy analysis of intra-household relations.
Unsettling the idea of migration as a gendered phenomenon
In Tangail district in central Bangladesh dominant gender norms consider men as the main breadwinners and women as the carers of all members of the household. Married and unmarried men alike are expected to work for their household. To be considered good and responsible they have to do everything possible to provide for their parents, wife and children. Women, on the other hand, gain social status from their reproductive competency and modest demeanour. They are seen to be needing their husband’s or male relatives’ protection to be safe and sound.
Because of these norms labour migration has come to be seen as a male phenomenon. Around 90 percent of the international migrants from Bangladesh are men.
However, in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia international migration is said to have become feminised. This is because of a shift in migrant flows to meet the demand for female workers in domestic service or labour-intensive industrial production lines.
The labelling of migration as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ phenomenon thus often depends on the gender of the migrant. However, the attention paid to the impact of migration on left-behind spouses, children and ageing parents suggests that the effects of migration are tightly knit into the social fabric of communities with high levels of migration. The gendered effects of migration expand way beyond consideration of the sex of the person who travels.
Women’s fluid subject positions
The extended case studies presented in the paper reveal that women’s subject positions change when their everyday life changes because of migration. As wives of migrants, they have to deal with institutions and people outside the household and make day-to-day and sometimes bigger decisions.
No matter the degree to which they observed purdah (the practice of women occupying secluded spaces away from the gaze of men who are not part of the family) before the husband’s migration, they come to perform their duty as a good wife by becoming de facto household heads dealing with banks, money lenders, businesses, schools etc.
As remittances managers, women interact in the public sphere and influence the pathways of their children while also upholding their care-giving responsibilities. Some of them become dominant matriarchs in the absence of their husband without this being considered a transgression of gender norms. The idea of men’s labour migration as necessary and beneficial for the household and for maintaining men’s social position, creates new subject positions for women which gain social legitimacy due to number of women acting as remittance managers.
Transgressing norms by bridging feminine and masculine behaviour
Rural women only become international labour migrants when in exceptional need. Often they have been widowed or abandoned by the husband or male members of the family are unable, or unwilling, to provide for them and their children.
As migrants, women transgress the dominant norms related to purdah, honour, and the need for protection by taking responsibility as providers for their families. As the wife of a husband who stays behind, their proactivity highlights the husband’s incapacity but also the trade-off they make between retaining their reputation as a good wife and a good mother. Their challenge of the husband’s social standing is further cemented if they choose sending remittances to members of their natal family or, once their children come of age, to their children.
Married female migrants perform flexible subjectivities but so do their husband if the marriage has not broken down. They use the norms sketching gendered responsibilities and privileges differently to increase their bargaining power to claim control over how remittances should be used.
Sometimes the result is open conflict, often bargaining is implicit and a give-and-take between adhering to some gender norms while subverting others.
Limitations on subject positions
It is clear that the migration of married men and women sparks transformations in their social positions and marital relations. The dynamics surrounding remittances from migrants who are not married, or whose marriage has ended, offer different insights.
Most women in Tangail district marry before they turn twenty, hence few female youths migrate abroad. Female migrants are usually women who have been widowed, abandoned by their husband, or divorced and have children in their charge. While they can expect support from their natal family, the economic standing of the family may foster the need for them to migrate. By letting their father or brother take control of the use of remittances, they reiterate a more traditional feminine subject position than married female migrants. They underscore the idea of women needing protection and by doing so they make claims on their family’s continued support to ensure their future.
Unmarried male migrants have not yet been married. Their responsibilities are usually towards their parents and they often fall into the trap of the social hierarchy in rural Bangladesh, where it is the patriarch’s prerogative to make decisions. Sons have little say in how remittances are used and investments tend to be made in family property and welfare. By reiterating a more traditional masculine subject position, male migrant youths may gain little in terms of ensuring their future materially.
Subject positions in flux
The working paper argues that as soon as male migrants return home, their wives’ roles as remittance managers come to an end as the husband is keen to consolidate his position and reputation in the community. Changes to an individual’s subject positions may thus seem somewhat rigid. This is not the author’s intention however.
The in-flux nature of subject positions is more discernible in the case of female migrants. Their limited numbers in combination with their exceptional need arising from the private sphere of households opens space for disapproving of their performance of wifehood. Female migrants do not have the same social legitimacy as the wives of migrants but must constantly navigate how they conduct themselves, the choices they make, and how they convert their remittances into other resources to stay within the bounds of womanhood in rural Bangladesh. This is a constant navigation of social relations and different forms of resources. Subject positions are thus fluid and intangible in themselves.
Due to the short-term nature of the fieldwork that underpins the paper, the analysis cannot capture the effect of the knowledge and experience that women accrue through managing remittances or migrating. However, the insights gained into marital and intergenerational relations help us appreciate that women are unlikely to shed this capability upon the husband’s or their own return.
Although they may take up more traditional and submissive social positions in public to adhere to the dominant norms, their understanding and experience of how the gender system works has changed. A theme that would be interesting to explore in future research then is how return migration impact on conjugal and intergenerational relationships. Of equal interest is the question of how return migration transforms the subject positions embodied by women and men.