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Can Migrating Women Escape Patriarchy?

Migrating women can escape conflict, war, poverty, family pressures and responsibilities, and fear of sexual oppression, but they often find themselves caught between the twin controlling ideologies of patriarchy and religion.

This was the case for many of the female migrants interviewed for our book Migration and Domestic Work. All 120 women became domestic workers in London, Berlin or Istanbul. Most were either Muslim (52) or Christian (44), with a handful being Buddhist, Hindu or Pagan. Twenty of those interviewed had turned to atheism from the two main religions.

Patriarchal gender ideology drove many of their migration decisions, their domestic and working lives, as well as the possibility of collective solidarity and joining trade unions. When combined with their religious beliefs these pressures were difficult to resist.

Despite moving to new countries, these women played out traditional gender roles in similar ways to the lives that they had left behind. Men remained as breadwinners with their promotion and job prospects being prioritised over those of women. However, those women who were less religious were much more willing to challenge and subvert masculinised norms.

Eighty-five per cent of interviewees carried out housework in the family home, the same type of work which they carried into their paid roles as domestic cleaners and carers. Over 80% of all domestic and care workers are women. Being poorly paid and working long hours in sometimes dangerous environments, these women were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Shockingly, some women who had been educated to university level had to leave their professional jobs in their home country because they were unable to make a living, or they were compelled to take on family responsibilities. Shocking too, was the custom that remittances sent home by migrant women were then used by male family members to buy a home, or perhaps a car. Women did not receive any of the payment for themselves.

Identity and migration

Being a migrant had forged their sense of identity together with other factors such as race and colour. Language was hugely significant. The level of women’s fluency in their host language shaped their existence as migrants. Improvements in language skills led to increased self-esteem and self-identity and helped them to move towards integration and belonging.

Paid domestic work, and collective solidarity

The women interviewed often found their work situations harsh and they were pressured and pulled in different directions by agencies, employers and clients. The work itself was unrewarding and in some cases, hateful. Almost all of the women living in Berlin worked in elderly care. In London and Istanbul women were predominantly cleaners, but some also cared for the elderly, as well as children.

This kind of work took its toll on our interviewees, especially those over 40 who suffered from serious health problems, includng one woman with a painful cracked pelvis, another with a herniated disk and one woman who had to have back surgery. For those with poor language skills, it was difficult to get the medical care they needed. On top of this, domestic work made it difficult to socialise with colleagues working elsewhere.

In Berlin, some of the women we spoke to met each other and discussed their work and pay. This wasn’t the case elsewhere. In London especially, women tended to keep to their own communities. For most of the women who took part in our study,  informal collective organising was only in its early stages. Most women knew very little about  trade unions, and on the other hand, the unions found them ‘difficult to organise’. In Berlin, one of the requirements for joining a union was  an address and a bank account, neither of which migrants often have.

Traditional unions were not unaware of these problems, but as the Turkish president of DISK - a Turkish trade union confederation - pointed out, individualised domestic work with a high level of labour turnover would have any  highly structured labour movement struggling.

Perhaps most importantly, patriarchal and religious norms within communities often meant that male consent was required in order for women to join unions. However, despite all of these pressures, some women we interviewed showed keenness to become active and learn more about joining trade unions.


Gaye Yilmaz and Sue Ledwith are authors of Migration and Domestic Work: The Collective Organisation of Women and their Voices from the City.

Migration and Domestic Work