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Gender Relations in Europe at the turn of the Millennium: women as subjects in migration and marriage

GRINE aims at ...

To make theoretical contributions to understanding the operation of gender in social practice in Europe.
To draw conclusions about new contemporary forms of women’s subjectivity from the study of women as agents of change in their own lives (in the domains of marriage and migration).
To consider the process of the construction of Europe and its gendered dimensions in contemporary and historical perspective.
To explore processes of migration from the perspective of women. This includes making connections between ideas and images of the West and the experience of mobility.
To investigate images and representations of migrant women in the receiving countries. Here, as above, ideas of Europe, and the comparative dimensions between the two sending and the two receiving countries are developed.
To analyse the constitution of cross-national relationships through legal regulation.

Methodology

This research is based on oral history interviews with migrant women, specifically migrant women moving from the European East to the West, to gain an understanding of how they make sense and act in their own lives, and to identify new forms of subjectivity that are part of the contemporary history of Europe. In addition, through interviews with native women (in Italy and the Netherlands) the project documented and analysed the points of connection of friendship and empathy between native and migrant women, and the mechanisms of exclusion and xenophobia they voice. The project set out to explore how mobility (including migration) produces subjectivity, in both migrants themselves and in native women. The project also aimed to reconsider how migrants and migration itself are represented and perceived by others.

The project is primarily based on the collection of life stories and interviews. On the one hand, oral history interviews were conducted with women from sending countries (i.e. Bulgaria and Hungary). In contrast, the interviews conducted with native women in the receiving countries of this study - Italy and the Netherlands - followed a more structured set of questions around the thematic priorities of the research. Questions addressed their relationship to migrant women from eastern Europe; knowledge and images of countries of central and eastern Europe, including travel experiences; and ideas about social and cultural practices. Overall, the project collected 110 interviews with pre- and post-1989 migrant and native women.

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Research findings

The construction and existence of geographical areas, borders and cultures within Europe changes with time and in space. This makes people aware of their artificial nature. After 1989, human mobility played an important role redefining the relations between Eastern and Western Europe. Mobility and migration still continues to shape this relationship. Moreover, gender relations have been at the core of these processes: first, the transition from state socialism to capitalism has had a huge impact on the lives and the position of women in Eastern European societies; second, the way gender relations were rearranged in Eastern Europe shows how the political and social sphere in these countries changed, together with a new understanding of the private and the public sphere.

Migrant women often have stronger claims to being European than the native women interviewed. This may indicate that their sense of Europe is more inclusive and more in the making than those who did not go through profound social and economic changes in such a short period.

The legal dimension of the project was explored both in the interviews and through an analysis of the Danish case. In Denmark, as in other EU member states, immigrant marriages have become a migration-generating institution. The Danish state, partly building on the media’s rhetoric that these marriages are largely arranged or forced ones, produced legislation limiting the entrance of foreigners to the country. Thus it privileges marriages where people have the same (or EU) citizenship and it achieves this effect by “using” immigration law. In short, the ‘Danish legal story’ combines the modern understanding of marriage (as love relationship) with a strong state interest in limiting access to the country, especially through family reunification. From this legal perspective, cross-border relationships imply a conflict between the state’s interest in controlling who crosses its border (immigration law) and the individuals’ emotional desire to form relationships (family law). In effect, matrimonial law has been reduced to an appendix of immigration law.

In contrast to the images often appearing in the media and everyday communication, the “migrant” is not a one-dimensional concept. Being a migrant does not erase class position, education, political orientation, family history, sexual orientation and other dimensions of the self. The project investigated how the women interviewed constructed and narrated their identity through the themes of communication, love and work. The interviews revealed that for most women interviewed belonging is not singular, i.e. not limited to one place and the movement implied by migration is not linear. The meaning of home, for example, is often multiple or plural, referring simultaneously to the old and the new home. Migrants’ sense of belonging is flexible, they do not identify with one single nationality, and this is aptly signified by the several identification documents that many of them simultaneously possess. This image seriously challenges the notion of “the migrant” that we are used to.

 

Key messages

The enlargement of the European Union also revealed some contradictions existing within its structure. On the one hand, it employs the rhetoric of freedom and openness, but on the other it categorises and stratifies people on the basis of who can enjoy these privileges. New members, at least after the enlargement, had limited mobility (e.g. for work). Policy makers should challenge these obstacles.

Another contradiction within the European Union is that easy internal mobility coexists with stronger external borders. External borders should also be made easier to penetrate.

While both migrant and native women are open and accepting of cultures within the European Union, they – to a varying degree – reject Muslim people who represent negative images of the “other”. Cultural policy therefore should discuss and confront the spread of Islam-phobia to address racism and intercultural encounters in Europe more effectively.

The Danish case study illustrates a shift of values in European states: the values of equality and freedom are being subordinated to values of security and difference. With this background, the right to family reunification must be legally accepted on the European level. Cross-border relations have an increasing importance in today’s Europe and when considering family and immigration issues securing human rights must also be taken into consideration.

Many migrant women have problems obtaining a residence and work permit (as often obtaining one is a condition for receiving the other). They often find themselves dependent on their partner with the consequence that if there is a problem in the relationship, they are left with no rights. GRINE suggested a more flexible procedure rooted in real life. For instance, appeals and complaints should be processed quickly and migrant women seeking advice should have access to legal guidance and consultation, including from other experienced migrants.

Parents and children should be able to obtain dual citizenship and the dependent residence permit – where the “foreign” partner’s residence permit is dependent on her or his marriage with the (native) partner – should be changed into an individual residence permit in order to ensure that women and men alike can remain independent and autonomous.

Migration policy has not dealt with family unification effectively: family members are confronted with numerous obstacles. Instead, the right for the protection of family life should be acknowledged as a basic human right and family unification should be considered as a successful integration of people from a third country, in line with the EU directive for the unification of families.

Countries need to put equal emphasis on their immigration and emigration policies. In the last years, an increasing number of women decided to leave their country voluntarily and alone to work in another country. But this emigration also has an impact on the sending country – it speeds up the ageing of its population while the receiving country's population becomes younger.

Trafficking does not cause illegality. In fact, it is the other way round: the construction of illegal citizens enables trafficking. People without papers should not face expulsion or punishment.

Education needs to tackle issues around migration and gender. They need to be discussed with students and teachers within primary, secondary and higher education. GRINE recommended the creation of texts and materials targeting the young.