By: Pardis Mahdavi and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)
When looking at migration in the Middle East, it is important to address questions of how to define “migration” and “labor” and what distinguishes “forced” from “voluntary” migration and labor. Drawing on key ethnographic insights, these authors also challenge the artificial divide between “forced” and “voluntary” labor/migration that has dominated international trafficking policies and debates about gendered migration and coercive labor in Asia.
“I never thought I would end up in the Khaleej (Gulf) of all places. I mean growing up, proud Syrians are proud Syrians. Most of us never thought we would have to leave our countries, let alone end up working in conditions like this,” says Rania, a twenty four year old woman from Syria who now lives and works in Sharjah. When violence broke out in her home country, Rania, like many other Syrians, knew it was time to leave. Some of Rania’s family members became refugees in Jordan, Lebannon, and Europe. But Rania and her sisters took up an offer from a local labor recruiter in Damascus to migrate to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as domestic workers.
“I trained as a teacher,” Rania says, “but I knew that my life path was going to be disrupted as my country was.” Rania and her two sisters decided to migrate to the lesser known Emirate of Sharjah because the recruiter told them that he could find them all jobs together. This was the first of many lies they would hear. When they arrived in the Dubai airport, Rania and her sisters were separated. Rania later learned that her elder sister ended up in Iraq, while her younger sister was initially moved to Abu Dhabi, and then later, to Saudi Arabia.
Rania did end up in Sharjah, living and working in the home of an Emirati family who claimed that they had paid a high price to “get an Arab worker instead of a South Asian” as Rania described. Because the family had paid such a high price to her employer, however, they decided to stop paying Rania any wages. She was made to work long days with only four hours of sleep, and suffered emotional abuse from her employers. After eighteen months of working in these conditions without pay, Rania absconded from her employers and decided to work in the sex industry.
Rania’s story exemplifies many of the challenges and realities of migration in the Middle East today. Over the past quarter of a century, women and men have migrated with greater frequency within the Middle East as the region increasingly plays host to both sending and receiving countries. Countries across the region are grappling with powerful political and economic changes that have produced booming economies in some areas and severe violence, political unrest, and economic pressures in others. These disparities are coupled with increasingly divergent population trends as the Middle East includes countries with varying birthrates, hetero and homogeneous populations. In countries such as the UAE, for example, migrants make up the majority of the population, reaching up to 90% in places like Dubai, with continuous demand for and influx of migrants. By contrast, countries like Syria and Iran, both relatively homogeneous, are experiencing major flight and out migration. Over the past decade Iran has experienced a major brain drain, while Syrians like Rania are fleeing unrest in droves. The convergence of these disparate trends has generated richly varied forms of migration and immigration, the preponderance of which involve different types of labor.
Of particular note is the increasing feminization of migration as women make up an increasing percentage of migrants throughout the Middle East. Many women are migrating – or in some cases trafficked – into forms of intimate labor such as sex work, domestic work, care, and service work. These intimate labor migrations require new efforts to understand cross-border movement, intimate life, and gendered labor in an increasingly mobile context.
The readings mentioned below build on recent calls to treat migration as inherently gendered, sexualized, and racialized. Gender, race, religion, and sexuality shape the subjective identities and experiences of both male and female migrants, and they influence national migration, population policies and societal responses to migration in sending and receiving countries. Through specific attention to different forms of migration and labor, these authors develop an approach that examines how diverse types of migration and migration experiences have re-configured gender, sexuality, and race in these contexts, and how those configurations have changed across Middle Eastern migratory circuits.
When looking at migration in the Middle East, it is also important to address questions of how to define “migration” and “labor” and what distinguishes “forced” from “voluntary” migration and labor. Drawing on key ethnographic insights, these authors also challenge the artificial divide between “forced” and “voluntary” labor/migration that has dominated international trafficking policies and debates about gendered migration and coercive labor in Asia.
By questioning these prevailing dichotomies, new ethnographic work on migration in the Middle East interrogates dominant formulations of cross-border mobility and its impact on citizenship norms and national identities. State efforts to “manage” populations extend to the development of border controls and im/migration regulations in sending and receiving countries. Through attention to how population concerns have shaped im/migration policies and popular discourses about national identity, the conference of new ethnographic engagements provides important comparative insights into emerging tensions between cross-border mobility and restrictive nationality and citizenship policies. The ethnographies and edited volumes presented below help us to get a fuller picture of the context of migration in the Middle East today.
Perhaps one of the earliest books to address the feminization of migration in the Middle East was Michele Ruth Gamburd’s The Kitchen Spoon’s Handle (Cornell University Press, 2000). Gamburd was one of the first ethnographers to speak with female domestic workers from South Asia living and working in the Gulf. Her work showed the incredible variability in women’s experiences of migration and how closely their experiences were tethered to their employers cum sponsors or kefils. Migration in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is structured by a sponsorship system called the kefala system. This system structures migrant labor in favor of the employer as the migrant is dependent upon their kefil for a visa. In the case of domestic workers, as Gamburd points out, migrant women live in the home of their employers and are this rendered particularly vulnerable. Still, as Gamburd notes, the experience of migration, and the financial stability that it brings many Sri Lankan women, is notable for many of these migrants as well as their families.
Writing seventeen years later about South Asian domestic workers in the Gulf, Attiya Ahmad’s book Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrants in Kuwait (Duke University Press, 2017) in many ways picks up where Gamburd’s book left off. What is notable about Ahmad’s work is that she explores issues around the feminization of migration to the Middle East while centralizing migrant women’s agency. Rather than focus on South Asian female domestic workers as oppressed and forced into conversions, Ahmad explores the nuances of the choices these women make. Many of Ahmad’s interlocutors choose to convert to Islam either for spiritual reasons or for tactical reasons including privileges in the homes of their employers as well as higher wages. Like Gamburd’s book Ahmad’s rich ethnography gives the readers insights into the racial tensions and dynamics, as well as both the positive and negative impacts – with the lines blurred – of female migration to the Middle East.
Two of my books, Gridlock: Labor, Migration and Human Trafficking in Dubai (Stanford University Press 2011) and Crossing the Gulf: Love and Family in Migrants’ Lives (Stanford University Press 2016) also look at issues around gendered migration, family, and subjectivity in the context of the Gulf. Gridlock focuses more on problematizing the gendered discourse of human trafficking, using ethnographic research with female and male migrants in the Gulf to ask how perceptions of “force” and “choice” are understood, and why it is that many female migrants are presumed to have been “trafficked” – read: without agency – while male migrants are painted as deserving of fates that befall them. Specifically, Gridlock examines the ways policies crafted in the U.S. and Europe adversely impact the lives of migrants in the Gulf by making them more rather than less susceptible to abuse. In Crossing the Gulf I focus on the intergenerational impacts of migration to the Gulf, interviewing migrants and their families both in home and host countries. In particular, I look at the fates of children born to migrant women abroad, many of whom become stateless as their mothers violate sponsorship rules punishing women who engage in sexual activities.
Andrew Gardner’s City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain (Cornell University Press, 2010) provides the most comprehensive overview of the sponsorship system prevalent in the Gulf. Indeed Gardner’s work, not just in this book, but in his later writings on Qatar as well, is seminal in understanding the overall dynamics of migration in the Middle East. Gardner looks at how the experiences of Indian male workers are shaped by both kefala as well as their kefils and he explores how the sponsorship system creates a form of structural violence. In this and his later work, Gardner effectively documents the raced and classed experiences of South Asian migrants in the Gulf, as well as how these experiences affect their lives when they return home, creating narratives of success about their migratory experiences. Neha Vora’s Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2013) also picks up on some of the themes raised by Gardner’s work. Vora takes it further to explore the hierarchies created by different waves and backgrounds of Indian migrants as they become intergenerational fixtures in the laborscape of Dubai.
Finally, a number of edited volumes also address key issues unfolding with regards to migrant labor in the Middle East. Mehran Kamrava and Zahra Babar’s Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf (Columbia Press, 2012) features some of the authors above, but adds perspectives from political scientists, sociologists and economists in assessing the impact of migrant labor on the emergence and success of Gulf Countries. Bina Fernandez and Marina deRegt’s Migrant Domestic Workers in the Middle East (Palgrave Press 2014) explores specific challenges faced by female domestic workers throughout the region including in Yemen, Oman, the Gulf, and Lebanon. Fernandez and deRegt offer powerful insights into the role of neoliberalism in producing inequalities that are highlighted in and through migration. The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement edited by Nicholas DeGenova and Natalie Peutz (Duke University Press, 2010), Migrations and Mobilities: Citizenship, Borders, and Gender (NYU Press 2009) edited by Jacqueline Bhaba and Shayla Benhabib, and Global Women: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (Holt Paperbacks, 2004) edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild while not focused in their entireties on the Middle East all provide rich theoretical and empirical framing to challenges of feminized migration, forced migration, and the new economic world order. Each of these volumes also offer chapters on the Middle East and provide interesting comparative perspectives.
To be sure, much of the literature on migration in the Middle East is focused on the GCC countries for now, but this is due in large part to the emergence of these countries as major migratory destination sites. Forthcoming literature will look at migration to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan as a different type of migration, and hopefully more scholars will look at the impact of migration on countries of out-migration. Currently, some of the most interesting work on this topic comes from ethnographers who are looking at the Middle East as both a sending and receiving region for migrants, a region hiring migrants into both skilled and unskilled professions in large numbers, as well as a region hit particularly hard by neoliberal economic policies (and their impact on migrant lives) as well as by conflict, violence, and war. It will be interesting to see how scholars build on this work to address the challenges that the new wave of migrants who move in search of peace, food security, and economic prosperity will impact our understanding of migration to the Middle East writ large.