Various faces in a crowd

Immigration: gender matters.

Immigration Series: Part V

For this final installment, I want to look at gender and how it interplays with immigration.

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the baseline definition of gender. The following is adapted from the Apple dictionary entry:


“either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female:”

Although the words gender and sex are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different connotations; sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender more often refers to cultural and social differences and sometimes encompasses a broader range of identities than the binary of male and female.

“What does gender have to do with someone moving from one country or culture to another,” you ask? Let’s take a look, shall we?

The first thing that comes to mind is that in many cultures that are heterosexual and patriarchal, there are clearly-defined roles for men and women. Around the world, the poorer and more strongly patriarchal the society is, the (disproportionately) worse women fare in terms of health. Often, women are expected to take care of the rest of the family by cooking, cleaning, and meeting household needs like gathering wood or fuel for cooking and cleaning in addition to then leaving for a long day of working outside the family for money. Those women then return after long days only to have to prepare meals and wash clothing for the family members to prepare for the next day. It’s not hard to imagine why a woman would want to emigrate– to leave a situation like this for better opportunities, and many do.

On the immigration side, gender roles influence the way that people are perceived in the host society. If the receiving society is heavily patriarchal, then immigration of women may be viewed with less suspicion or resistance. Women often move into roles like domestic service, sex or entertainment work, and in general, may move more freely within the culture. This may lend the immigrant population a less permanent nature as the women retain ties to their home culture by remittances (sending part of their earnings back home) and continued travel / migration back and forth.

When populations of men migrate, the character of the immigration is different. Men may be less likely to migrate alone and then to bring their families with them. This creates a more rooted immigrant community within the receiving culture, which may be perceived as more disruptive. In the case of family migration, women often serve as connectors within the new community which acts as a kind of glue. Bringing the family unit along from one culture to another allows for continued social and cultural events, religious observance, and a continued sense of identity, which is often fostered by women.

Lastly, gender plays an interesting role when migration happens between cultures with different notions of gender. When the receiving society is less patriarchal, people who were forced to adhere to a strict binary of male/female in the old culture may feel free to “come out” in the new one. People who are non-binary, gender-fluid, or trans-gender may find themselves able for the first time to claim an identity that previously had to be suppressed or hidden. Conversely, migrating from a more liberal society to a more conservative one may force people to hide parts of their identities to conform to more rigid expectations around gender.

While this might seem like a curiosity on the surface, it can be a life-threatening reality for many when examined more deeply.

Again, stories can be apparent and operate as obvious public narratives. For many of us, stopping at this level of understanding is all we feel necessary. When something doesn’t make sense, however, it is often by looking beneath the surface for the hidden narrative that we can find answers (or at least more helpful questions).

How do you experience immigrants? Are they immigrants or are they people who migrate? How does the story of your life intersect with the story of theirs? What would it take to make you leave your country, culture and relationships behind to move to a new country? Would you have the courage to do it? Would you take your religion or your food or your music with you or would you try to assimilate to the new place?

We haven’t covered politics or the arbitrary idea of nation-states as ways to divide the world, but those ideas are just as complicated, with surface stories and hidden stories of their own. Any way you examine the issue, it appears that human beings have certain needs that must be met. It is in the ways we meet those needs that we differentiate ourselves.

I have found this look at immigration helpful, and I hope you have too. May we both be reminded that humans have far more in common than the things that make us different. May we be curious and ask the question “Why?”more often instead of simply accepting the narrative that our own cultures provide us. May we ask ourselves,“What would I do?” when we are puzzled or frustrated with someone different than we are.

I leave you with a quote from the Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan: “I wandered in the pursuit of my own self; I was the traveler, and I am the destination.”

Whether traveler, expatriate, immigrant, or emigrant, may we each remember that we are all searching for something.

Be curious.

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