Gender Paradoxes: Shifting Ethnic Identities and Opportunity Structures in Germany
There are three types of migration. The first type is difficult migration. The second type is very difficult migration. The third type consists of extremely difficult migration ….I can only hope that my migration will be the first kind.
– Gregory Salomonov, Riga (interviewed by Doomernik, 1997).
Representing a complex constellation of social relations, gender often determines “who stays, who moves, where, why, how often”—and what they do once they get there. The intersection of gender, ethnicity and legal status nonetheless produces very different socio-economic opportunity structures for migrant women in any country. This essay summarizes a larger study analyzing the experiences of five ethnic minorities in Germany: female Italian guest workers, post-Soviet Aussiedlerinnen [repatriates], women of Turkish descent, Bosnian refugees, and temporary Polish laborers. Comparing patterns of employment, the study argues that discriminatory legal classifications, not “cultural differences,” constitute the main barrier to women’s integration; legal status also reconfigures gender identities in contradictory ways.
Germany encompasses over seven million “foreigners,” 1.7 million of whom were born and educated there. Ethnic family structures have changed dramatically since the 1950s due to rising educational levels and female employment, but inter-group variation remains significant, based on divergent residency and welfare rights, gender-role expectations and divisions of household labor. Women still face disproportionate dequalification, given Germany’s refusal to recognize their professional credentials and experience. Forced into “traditional” care-taking roles as a result, the former encounter multiple forms of socio-cultural marginalization.
The first two ethnicities experienced difficult migration as part of early guest worker recruitment. After 1955, the wives of Italian laborers were deliberately recruited for domestic work and textile production; while they lost familiar village support networks, they also shed many patriarchal constraints on their personal liberty. Couples planning to start businesses back home drew on “temporary” wifely earnings to expedite the process, ironically shifting the balance of household power by impelling husbands to share domestic responsibilities. As European Economic Community members enjoying freedom of movement, Italians transported goods across borders, and “pendled” back and forth, given the insecure jobs ascribed to unskilled laborers. Many lost their Italian identities but developed no emotional ties to Germany.
The “yoyo” nature of Italian migration posed special problems for the second generation, however. Young children were cared for by grandparents and then brought to Germany, where they either stayed or returned to Italy when they reached school-age; half left school without certification. Better educated females of the third generation remain concentrated in low-mobility service sectors but no longer see their employment as transitional—many also pursue mixed marriages. Thus for Italian women, migration brought educational opportunity, economic autonomy, household modernization, and a degree of reconstructed masculinity.
The socialist response to the women’s question in the Soviet bloc neither ended the unequal division of household labor nor shared decision-making power, but it did supply support structures enabling most women to combine family and career. Central-East European women had joined the workforce, as of the 1960s, as an alternative to foreign recruitment; food processing, health, child-care, banking, insurance, and even chemistry, machine-tooling, printing and public transit sectors employed women. The Iron Curtain’s collapse in 1989 allowed millions of “co-ethnic Germans” to flee unstable regions. Post-1990 female “repatriates” enjoy re-activated citizenship and benefits, in exchange for high unemployment, low wages, negative stereotyping and sexual harassment. Accustomed to paid labor, post-Soviet women were shocked by Germany’s lack of nurseries and all-day schools. Forced to compete with millions of unemployed East Germans, only 30% continued in their previous occupations.
Their frustration, born of occupational dequalification, contrasts sharply with the “happily anticipated” economic dependence of younger imported Russian brides, who viewed marriage-migration as an antidote to instability in the homeland. German-Russian marriages more than doubled, but few women anticipated their legal insecurity after arrival. If married for less than three years, abused females could be deported before divorces were final; some were forced into prostitution. The reconfiguration of gender roles among Russian repatriates is paradoxical: professional women were subject to unemployment and relegation to domestic roles they had avoided in the homeland; younger women marrying Germans attained higher living standards at the cost of dependence and de-emancipation, thus precipitating a generational break.
Denied integration benefits accorded co-ethnics, and often the target of xenophobia, women of Turkish origin experienced very difficult migration. Male guest workers comprised a majority of new arrivals during the first wave, until family unification policies triggered a major shift in group-composition after 1973. Kurdish persecution and a 1980 coup brought a subsequent wave of refugees. Comprising 28% of the non-German population, over half of the two million residents of Turkish descent have lived in Germany for 15 or more years; only 470,000 naturalized, due to exclusionary citizenship requirements prior to 2000.
Gender and generational change have affected this minority in paradoxical ways as well: purportedly trapped by “traditional culture,” women of Turkish descent prove more socially mobile than commonly assumed. Raised in Germany in ethnically concentrated neighborhoods, youth still face major educational and occupational disadvantages, yet they do diverge significantly from earlier cohorts. Although the 1980s saw some reconfiguration of gender roles, better educated women are still expected to ensure family well-being, rooted in ethno-cultural norms and gendered divisions of labor Turkish women evinced the lowest paid-labor rates in the 1990s but also higher rates of self-employment (13%): The number of female-owned ethnic enterprises rose from 2,400 (1991) to 5,900 (1997). Few reflect on whether economic independence born of self-employment is the start or finish of an emancipatory process: most just “want to be their own bosses.”
Female businesses center on the food, travel, cosmetics, hair-care, alterations, and cleaning sectors; many supply “uninsured” jobs, recruiting more women via personal networks. Benefiting from informalization and niche-services, they follow market rules: competition and quality. Possessing language skills and intercultural competence, these women blur the boundaries, turning gender mainstreaming into ethnic mainstreaming. Some face new social mobility hurdles, however, owing to a post-9/11 conflation of ethnic and religious discrimination inherent in headscarf bans—a non-topic through the 1980s. Excluding headscarf-wearers from secure, well-paid civil service domains guarantees their continuing relegation to low-paid, insecure service-sector jobs, though most view hejab as a sign of personal religious identity and bi-cultural competence. They seek visibility and recognition by the dominant culture through positions as teachers, pharmacists and computer experts.
Also subject to very difficult migration, undocumented Polish housekeepers, nannies and “handy-men” have turned their invisibility into a positive marketing strategy. Three waves have infiltrated the dominant culture, without affecting a positive shift in the ethnic gender paradigm. The first arrivals in the 1980s were mostly young, single women with some German language skills, who came to finance educations or to accumulate capital for businesses back home. Earning up to forty times their normal salaries, they found reasonable accommodations and regular jobs; some of these first arrivals even married and moved up ladder, while others returned to Poland within a few years.
A second, post-wall wave brought a new underclass of poorly educated women, often with jobless husbands. Subject neither to minimum wage or maximum-hours rules, Au-pairs faced 12-hour shifts and “light” housework, as “in-plant trainees”. Others paid exorbitant rents for sleeping spaces sublet by “co-ethnics” (Polish Aussiedler) enjoying “reactivated” citizenship. Women’s mobility often came at the price of youth delinquency or divorce back home, despite their contributions to Poland”s consumption-hungry economy.
A 1991 treaty permitting visa-free “tourist travel” brought a third wave. Women with small children relied on a rotation or job-sharing system, which allowed for visits back home; only a third from this third wave enjoyed unlimited permits. Pursuing networking and entrepreneurship, German-speakers found new customers and managed their own brigades (who supplied favors for the boss’s family back home). Day-traders established spontaneous “import-export” networks, bringing in Russian caviar, champagne, furs, vodka, jewelry, and produce; they took home small appliances, cameras, computers, and car parts. Remaining out of sight and out of mind, they have constructed a parallel society: Polish “culture” takes place above ground, while gainful employment takes place underground at the occupational margins. Finding only low-paid service work, devoid of benefits, made it easier to leave. Polish laborers are to the post-wall era what Italians were to the postwar period: people forced by economic necessity to pursue Germany’s dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs at wages few citizens would accept. Polish cleaning ladies have displaced private Turkish domestics (but not legal janitorial staffs). Often primary breadwinners, educated Polish women take on unskilled domestic jobs they would refuse at home in order to earn quick cash. In contrast to Russians, they suffer few identity problems over dequalification, viewing their work-sojourns as a temporary way to uphold gender roles and status in the homeland.
Women who face extremely difficult migration include refugees who fled to Germany due to war in the Balkans after 1991; their fates differ profoundly from Croatian guest workers through the 1970s. Already traumatized, these women were victimized a second time, based on male-normed asylum laws: until 2000, Germany failed to recognize gender-specific forms of persecution. Even the lucky ones who avoided rape were denied a meaningful existence to deter others from coming. Herded together in crude, overcrowded hostels without counseling, language training or jobs, they embody a tremendous waste of human capital. Their uncertain, “tolerated” legal status has been psychologically debilitating, as well as antithetical to official exhortations that foreigners “integrate themselves.”
Prior to 2004, highly motivated male and female refugees were denied access to legal jobs. In addition to expanding the underground economy, such policies reinforce anti-foreigner sentiment regarding “welfare” dependence. Compulsory unemployment in the name of “temporary protection” defies economic logic in debt-ridden, demographically challenged Germany. Exclusion, moreover, subjects women involuntarily returned to conflict zones to double jeopardy: nearly half a million have fallen prey to West European human trafficking. Women may be confined to illegal sweatshops during the day, and forced into prostitution at night.
Intersectionality = More than the Sum of the Parts
Gendered migration patterns reshape processes of inter-generational learning, altering the balance between individual identity and family identification. Despite conflictual intra-group differences (Kurds vs. Turks; urban, anti-clerical Northerners vs. rural Catholic Southerners), Turkish and Italian women were long viewed as a single industrial reserve army. Both gradually shed restrictive gender roles rooted in ethno-religious norms. While Italians qua EU-nationals enjoy more rights, German-born Turkish women actively engage in do-it-yourself integration. Ethnically homogeneous Polish women encountered diverse legal statuses, resulting in diverging opportunity structures. Co-ethnic “repatriates” received automatic citizenship; individuals fleeing “communism” enjoyed undisputed asylum rights; temporary-laborers, however, are denied residency rights, work permits and social benefits. Like Russian migrants, legal Poles often pave the way for undocumented family members moving back and forth across borders, irrespective of legal barriers to their entry. For Poland, Russia and Bosnia, migration results in a debilitating brain drain. While the United States welcomes foreign mathematicians, scientists and engineers as brain gain, the German approach has resulted in decades of brain waste.
Countless professional women are compelled to assume gender roles they eschewed in the homeland, but unlike post-Soviet “co-ethnics,” educated Bosnian women cannot rely on male breadwinners. Rendered legal “nobodies” by temporary protection policies, many Bosnian women resort to unskilled labor, e.g., physicians becoming hospital orderlies. Thoroughly “integratable” and outperforming other minorities in school, their children only recently became eligible for permanent residency. Ethnic females are neither exclusively traditional, nor blind to educational opportunity, nor resistant to social change. Following different paths to independence, female and male migrants share a belief that their economic contributions should entitle them to equal political rights. Young women with migration background nonetheless lack “new-economy” apprenticeships and active career counseling.
As crucial integration agents, all women need access to language and job training, regardless of marital status: though not a sufficient condition for mediating socio-cultural conflicts and securing active integration, equal opportunity for minority women irrespective of formal legal classifications is an absolutely necessary one. Building on the logic of an oft-cited African gender-proverb, one can easily conclude: Integrate a woman and you will have integrated the village.
This essay is referenced primarily from Ms. Mushaben’s book “The Changing Faces of Ctitizenship: Integration and Mobilization among Ethnic Minorities in Germany” (NY/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008).