‘Making the Best of a Bad Situation': Israel’s Migrant Women Speak Up

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May 29 2010

Finally, some thoughtful and intelligent reporting on migrant women in the Middle East. JPost's Mya Guarnieri listens to the stories of migrant women in Israel and discovers that migrant life can be both exploitative and liberating.

Migrant women are subject to abuse and overwork by their employers:

Like many of Israel’s migrant laborers, Usha, 26, lives with exploitation. Hired as a caretaker, she is used as a full-time servant instead. “I take care of seven people and a baby,” she says. “I clean the house. I take the kids to school.” Her employer’s demands are unreasonable, impossible. Once he forced her to clean the same bathroom three times in one day. “Three times,” Usha repeats with a sigh. Occasionally, he takes her to his business in Ramat Gan and has her work there, too.

Usha, from India, worries that she’ll lose her visa or end up with an employer who doesn’t pay at all. So she stays. She has complained to her employer about her workload and has asked him to up her salary. He has refused.

On the other hand, for many women, migration to Israel provides them with opportunities that they would never have had in their own countries. Usha, who came to Israel with her sister, Gita, says that she came to Israel to earn enough money to be financially independent, buy her own house and avoid an arranged marriage.

For Sofia from Nepal, married at 16 to a man twice her age, coming to Israel brought her freedom that she could never have imagined back home:

“I was like a child,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what love is, I didn’t learn about sex.” Her husband “wanted too much sex,” she says. When she wasn’t willing, he raped her.

Sofia also describes a life of servitude. She took care of their child, did all of the housework, and cooked and cleaned for her in-laws. Her married life was “torture,” she says.

After five years, and with the support of her family, Sofia left her husband. She decided to work overseas to secure a better future for herself and her eight-year-old son, who now lives with her parents.

However, this 'freedom' comes at a price:

“I feel free because I feel I am independent here,” says Sofia, who lives in an apartment in Tel Aviv with six other Nepali women. “But work feels like a prison.”

Contact with Western ideas of human rights and women's liberation through NGOs in Israel gives migrant women a sense of freedom and purpose, but it can also make it difficult for them to readjust into their own communities when they return, Guarnieri discovers in this article. The author also discovers that we should not make generalizations about women from conservative cultures becoming 'liberated' by coming into contact with Western ideals and practices, because this posits women from patriarchal, 'Eastern' countries simply as victims. As Dr Malini Johar Schueller, author of Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship, tells the writer:

“It’s a dangerous trope to have.” And to illustrate her point, she offers Iraq and Afghanistan as an extreme example.“The feminist rhetoric of liberating women was used as a justification for [the United States’] war and continued occupation [of Iraq and Afghanistan].” This line of reasoning, she says, is similar to the British colonial idea of “the white man saving brown women from brown men.”

This is a thoughtful article that looks at the many different faces of female migration to Israel. It is great to see journalism from the field that tries to examine the full complexity of female migrant workers experiences and identities. We hope to see more articles like this from the region in future as they are a really important counterweight to some of the prejudiced, dismissive and occasionally downright racist portrayals of female workers in the Middle Eastern Media - see here and here for two shocking examples.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East