In the 1960s, Egypt supplied the labor markets of the Middle East with professionals and administrators seconded by the government. Carefully regulated and controlled, the export of labor was consistent both with Egypt’s policies in the area and with its own manpower needs. In the 1970s, government-seconded labor was overtaken in volume by a huge and largely unregulated flow of labor at all skill levels. By 1975, Egypt had overtaken Yemen as the major exporter of labor in the area, and its share of the total Arab migrant labor market had reached one third. By 1980, Egypt had at least doubled its migrant stock, an estimated 10 percent of which are women.
Underlying this trend are numerous shifts in the structure of the migrant labor market which indicate the fluidity of the whole migration process and the precariousness of the partial and unplanned regional integration resulting from migration. In the years immediately following the Camp David agreement, government-seconded migration declined sharply as other Arab states moved to isolate Egypt politically. The closure of the Egyptian-Libyan border in 1978 brought “illegal” migration to Libya to a halt. This mainly affected unskilled workers and peasants. Over the years there has been an increasing shift within the oil-rich states towards high technology, capital intensive industrial projects, and the large turnkey projects in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have favored skilled over unskilled and Asian over Arab labor. Although the overall volume of Arab labor migration continues to increase, the share of the labor market going to unskilled Arab (including Egyptian) labor has declined in most importing states. More recently, the decline in oil prices and large investment projects has further reduced the rate of flow of labor into these states, and disproportionately at the unskilled level.
In spite of these trends, Egypt has continued to increase not only the volume of labor exported but also its share of the regional migrant labor market. This is primarily due to the recent dramatic expansion and restructuring of the Iraqi and Jordanian labor markets. The flow of Egyptian labor into Jordan accelerated in response to the Jordanian flow of migrants to the oil rich states and to the Jordanian construction boom fueled by migrant remittances. Egyptian and Pakistani labor has primarily filled the gaps in the Jordanian market. Egypt’s 56,000 migrant workers account for about seven percent of the market. In Iraq, the Gulf war has dislocated the labor market and dramatically expanded labor demand. Egypt supplies over 95 percent of the migrant labor force in Iraq. Estimates of the number of Egyptians now working in Iraq range from one quarter of a million to one million. Even the more conservative estimate would mean that almost one third of all Egypt’s migrant workers are in Iraq, which has now overtaken Libya as the largest importer of Egyptian labor.
The impact of labor migration on the Egyptian labor market is complex. Firstly, unemployment at the unskilled level has not declined. Even with the expansion in the Jordanian and Iraqi markets, the volume of unskilled migration has not increased at the anticipated rate. The gaps left in Egypt by the departure of skilled workers have not been neatly filled by an upward shift of the workers at lower levels. Secondly, Egypt is being increasingly drained of its skilled and professional labor. Pockets of severe labor shortages at these levels exist alongside unemployment and underemployment of the unskilled. Thirdly, since the mid-1970s the migration of agricultural labor is blamed for a critical shortage of agricultural labor. The Ministry of Agriculture has called this one of the major crises facing Egyptian agriculture today.
Of all sectors of migrating labor, agricultural labor is one of the most difficult to assess in terms of volume and rate of flow. Most agricultural migrants are incorporated informally and often illegally into those sectors of the international market that are highly fluid and casual in nature, and beyond the reach of official statistics. The impact has been very uneven. In some villages more than 5 percent of the households have one or more members working abroad. Other villages, even neighboring ones, have scarcely been touched by migration. A variety of factors account for this, including variations in the structure of landholding, accessibility to domestic markets and cropping patterns. The rate and the direction of the flow varies, with different villages more closely associated with particular receiving countries. These variations in turn affect the volume of remittances flowing back into villages. Migration has thus not had a uniform impact, and has rather intensified the heterogeneity of rural Egypt.
Migration patterns out of the governorate of Giza illustrate some of these features. Giza lies immediately south of Cairo and incorporates the valley both to the east and to the west of the Nile. Migration out of Giza villages to Cairo and to towns further afield in Egypt is no new phenomenon. Migration abroad began as a trickle at the end of the 1960s, initially to Libya. Migration to Libya from Giza seems to have been confined to villages near the western desert fringe. These had traditional relationships with the neighboring bedouin who still maintained their kinship and trade links with Libyan bedouin and were ideally placed to convey labor across the Libyan-Egyptian border. (Over time, the role of the bedouin became more complex to include that of moneylender and moneychanger and conveyor of remittances and news back to the families in the villages.) This migration was for the most part informal and “illegal”; migrants entered Libya clandestinely, without travel documents or contracts. Cheap and unencumbered by bureaucratic procedures, it was therefore accessible even to the poor.
Migration from Giza villages to the east of the Nile did not begin until 1973, and the direction then was to Saudi Arabia, primarily into the construction sector. Migrants entered Saudi Arabia as pilgrims, but two important factors distinguish this from the “illegal” migration to Libya. First, the cost of an air ticket excluded the poorest strata from migration. Second, the volume of remittances from Saudi Arabia was higher. The impact on village structure and agriculture of these two migration streams has been significantly different.
Both migration streams had gained momentum by the mid-1970s. By this time, reports of tightening agricultural labor markets were heard throughout Giza and Egypt as a whole. After a time, the neat division of migration out of Giza villages became blurred. Libya still imports labor from villages to the west of the Nile, but the flow slowed with the deterioration in relations between Cairo and Tripoli. Migrants from these villages began to enter the Saudi market for the first time. Egyptian migration to Libya is now tightly controlled by both governments, and entry into Libya is conditional on the prior acquisition of a work contract. Travel is solely by air. More accessible now are the markets of Jordan and Iraq, neither of which require work contracts or entry visas. Giza labor began to be incorporated into these two markets in 1980.
Over the course of the last 15 years, these four main Arab labor markets — Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq — have drawn workers from many Giza villages at different historic moments and to various degrees. But labor migration out of the governorate has not simply been dictated by the “outside world” — the oil boom, the Gulf war or the vicissitudes of Egypt’s relations with other area states. Egypt’s “open door” policy and the structure and dynamics of its rural sector have also encouraged or constrained the flow. These internal structures largely explain variations in the migration rate between different villages and the manner whereby different sectors of village economy have been caught up in the flow.
Zawiyat Dahshour (pop. c. 11,000) and Dahshour (c. 9,000) are neighboring villages 45 kilometers south of Cairo in the valley west of the Nile. The surrounding lands of Zawiyat Dahshour are bordered to the west by the Sahara and to the east by the lands of Dahshour. Zawiyat Dahshour lands, reclaimed from the desert by the extension of the canal network in the 1930s, tend to be sandier and less productive than those of Dahshour, which are replenished by the silt of the annual Nile flood. Since 1968, the governorate of Giza has been released from growing cotton, which is government-controlled. Both villages now produce a variety of high value vegetable crops, primarily for the Cairo market, and subsistence crops for their own and their animals’ consumption. The lands of the wealthier landlords in Zawiyat Dahshour produce both for the domestic market and for export.
The agricultural land in both villages, like that throughout rural Egypt, is highly fragmented, and is worked in small plots primarily by peasant household labor. By national standards, land in Dahshour is fairly evenly distributed. Over 90 percent of Dahshour’s landholders work one quarter to three acres of land. Only nine percent of Dahshour’s farmers work their land as capitalist enterprises (on plots ranging between 2.5 and 6 feddans) solely by means of wage labor. Their lands account for only about 12 percent of the total 1,150 feddans village agricultural land. By contrast, the land distribution pattern in Zawiyat Dahshour is highly skewed. Two large landlords each owning 60 feddans of reclaimed land, and a number of smaller landlords each owning around 20 feddans in addition to vegetables grow citrus fruit and mangoes, which require a high initial capital outlay and five years before they are fully productive. These large landlords draw on wage labor from both villages and, since labor migration gained momentum, from surrounding villages. They also dominate the marketing of fruit and vegetables, both for export and for Cairo.
In the 1960s, Dahshour was clearly the more prosperous village on many counts. In addition to agriculture, Dahshour possessed a thriving cottage textile industry which supplied bed covers, rugs and other materials to surrounding villages and villages in the eastern Nile valley and the Cairo market as well. Numerous artisanal activities provided additional employment. The Helwan industrial complex, situated within daily commuting distance across the river in the eastern Nile valley, absorbed additional village labor.
Prior to 1968, when labor migration to Libya first began out of Zawiyat Dahshour, agricultural wage labor within the village provided the main employment for the landless. For the very poor, seasonal work as contract labor outside the village or migration to Cairo provided the major alternatives to unemployment or gross underemployment within the village. Very few villagers in Zawiyat Dahshour worked in Helwan. The village was set three or so kilometers back from the main track which skirted the lands of Dahshour and along which company buses would convey workers to Helwan. In addition, all Helwan factories except one enforce a literacy requirement, even for their unskilled workers.
Today over half of Zawiyat Dahshour’s households have or have had migrants working abroad. In Dahshour, migration has only touched 11 percent of households. The first to migrate from both villages were the landless, impoverished, casually employed agricultural wage laborers. With an agricultural labor surplus, at least seasonally, and without the benefits of unionized labor in other sectors, agricultural wages were at a bare subsistence level and employment available irregularly. A few young landless laborers first moved out of Zawiyat Dahshour in 1968; with the help of neighboring bedouin, they entered Libya and found work as sharecroppers. This was accomplished without the need of a passport, with the transport arranged by the bedouin “guide” whose fee could be covered by the sale of a small piece of a mother’s or wife’s gold jewelry. In 1969, a number of agricultural laborers from Dahshour joined the trickle of migration to Libya. This accelerated over the years, and by 1975, capitalist farmers in both villages experienced an acute agricultural labor shortage.
There have been few structural impediments to the penetration of the international labor market into the capitalist sector of village agriculture. Daily wages for unskilled construction workers in the village are 5 Egyptian pounds, and about 3.50 pounds for male agricultural labor. This is already squeezing profits for small-scale capitalist farmers. Today landless agricultural labor has virtually disappeared from both villages, either migrated abroad or diverted to the village construction sector which has boomed as a result of the migrants’ investments.
The effect on the peasant landholding sector has been much less sweeping, although peasants from both villages have been caught up in the migration stream, their numbers are proportionally fewer. Less impoverished than the landless laborers, they are also less “free” to respond to high wages abroad, constrained by the production and reproduction needs of their households. The departure of one family member may be delayed until another returns. Sons who are nearing the age of marriage are most likely to migrate from a peasant household. Thus migration out of the peasant sector is significantly regulated and controlled by the labor requirements of the household. This does not mean that the requirements of peasant reproduction are all powerful. Conflicts between the household head and would-be migrant sons are numerous. However, they are one set of constraints impeding the wholesale incorporation of peasant labor into the international labor market. This is particularly obvious in Dahshour, where more fertile soil and the structure of land distribution and marketing makes for a more viable peasant agriculture.
The non-agricultural sectors of Dahshour’s economy, which account for about 25 percent of the village male labor force, have also been differentially incorporated into the labor market. The migration of those working in textiles, for example, is proportionally greater than those working in other industry or as government employees. The textile sector had, by the mid-1970s, suffered greatly from the competition of foreign synthetics that flowed through Egypt’s “open door.” Since 1975, weavers, dyers and merchants of yarn and cloth have left in disproportionately large numbers for Libya and Saudi Arabia, where many of them work as textile shop assistants, storekeepers and petty traders.
Industrial workers in the 1960s formed an envied middle class in the village. Their wages were relatively high and the social security benefits and job security placed them, along with other state employees, in a highly valued position. Few industrial workers migrated out of Dahshour before 1975. In following years, wages fell behind inflation and expectations and as successful migrants returned, industrial workers’ relative position in the village dramatically declined. Since the mid-1970s, an increasing number of industrial workers have migrated, though their relative numbers were still less than agricultural laborers and textile workers.
Over the course of the last decade, both villages have undergone dramatic changes. The tightly knit cluster of mud brick housing that characterized both villages in the early 1970s has now been extended by a spider-like extension of red brick housing lining every track that reaches out from the village centers. The main road linking Zawiyat Dahshour and Dahshour and running through both villages used to have two or three grocery stores selling a rather limited variety of locally produced food, two barber shops, the store and work shop of the coppersmith and tinner of household utensils, a drapery store selling locally produced cottons at government-subsidized prices, and a store for subsidized flour to supplement that produced in the village. The only motor vehicle that used this road was an occasional taxi conveying a wealthy village family on some expedition, or the Vespa of the village nurse on his round of home visits. To the west of Dahshour, the road passed through about half a kilometer of agricultural land before entering Zawiyat Dahshour.
Today both sides of this street are solidly lined with houses and shops as both villages have expanded along the main road so that no patch of agricultural land separates the two villages now. The shop selling flour has closed down since 1978; the flour subsidy quota assigned to the village diminished to the point where it was no longer worth the owner’s effort to collect it from the nearby town. The place is now occupied by a watch merchant and repairman. Further down the street, the village social worker five years ago opened a shop selling cassette radio recorders, transistor radios and electric fans on credit. The grocery stores now sport an even more limited variety of locally produced foods and a range of imported cigarettes, sweets, foodstuffs, powdered milk and locally bottled Coca-Cola. In recent months a dazzling array of scantily dressed, blond-haired and pink-skinned plastic dolls have graced the shelves. The copper tinner has now been replaced by a shop selling local factory-made aluminum and plastic household wares. The street, asphalted in 1978, has since reverted to a dust track due to the volume of traffic: lorries collecting gravel from the desert bordering Zawiyat Dahshour for construction across the Nile in Helwan and numerous service taxis owned by villagers. In short, the commercialization and rapid incorporation of these villages into the consumer market is vividly apparent.
Less immediately apparent is the decline of basic services introduced into the village in the 1960s, such as health, education and the agricultural cooperative. Increasingly, villagers have to turn to the private sector for these. In 1970, there were two primary schools in Dahshour, where qualified teachers taught classes of 30 children or less. By the mid-1970s, the shortage of qualified teachers (partially the result of migration) and the cut-back in real terms of the village education budget led to critical overcrowding and understaffing in the schools. In 1977, one school was closed and the other now operates on three shifts a day (three hours each) with classes of 60 or more children. Unqualified teaching assistants, recent graduates from secondary school, compensate for the shortage of qualified teachers. Private lessons in smaller classes after school have now become an integral part of schooling. Parents’ commitment to their children’s education now involves, for many, a heavy financial burden.
The village clinic is now serviced irregularly by a doctor who despairs about the diminishing range of free drugs now available in the clinic’s dispensary and about generally inadequate facilities to keep apace with the pressures of increased population. More villagers are turning to private health care in a nearby town, where they must pay for transport, consultancy fees and drugs. The cooperative now deals with a decreasing range of subsidized agricultural inputs. Its cooperative bank was transferred to a commercial bank in the late 1970s. It now provides credit not only for agricultural inputs, but also for a variety of consumer goods such as televisions, cassette recorders, electric fans and washing machines. Seeds are in inadequate supply and farmers have to turn to the private sector for their supplies.
The migration of labor has certainly played a part in the transformation of these villages, but migration is only one aspect of the general liberalization of Egypt’s economy that has produced far-reaching though uneven changes throughout the Egyptian countryside. The impact on agriculture has not been uniform. Peasant production in Dahshour appears to be among the most viable in Egypt. The share of village land in the hands of peasant farmers, following national trends, has steadily increased. Over 90 percent of Dahshour’s peasants now work about 88 percent of village land. The relative value of remittances and farming revenues means that remittances supplement and extend rather than displace peasant production.
Peasant Sector Expands
Most productive investment by Dahshour peasant migrants is in agricultural inputs, such as irrigation pumps, and in livestock. This has not led to differentiation along capitalist lines — neither in the sense of consolidation of land in the hands of wealthy migrants, nor in a transfer out of household production into wage labor farming. Accumulation of land is hindered by soaring land prices, induced by the construction boom. Land prices now stand well above the value of agricultural land. In addition, as a result of state intervention during the Nasser years, tenants have security of tenure and pay low, fixed annual rents. These legal rights are generally effective in Dahshour; eviction of tenants for land sale is seriously impeded, as are high rents.
Migration has itself further constrained the expansion of the capitalist sector of Dahshour’s agriculture. Cheap agricultural wage labor has now either migrated or been absorbed into the construction sector of the village. The resulting shortage has not been compensated for by cheap female labor, as a rigid division of labor continues to be maintained. Real wages of male agricultural labor have soared in the village since 1976. This has both seriously inhibited the transfer of wealthy peasants into capitalist farmers relying on wage labor and seriously threatened the viability of existing capitalist farmers. As a result of the profit squeeze imposed by “high” wages, Dahshour’s capitalist farmers are increasingly renting out their land to peasant sharecroppers to farm by means of household labor. In this way, the amount of village land worked by peasants has increased.
The dominant trend over the last decade in Dahshour has not been towards a marginalization of peasant production, neither as a shift to more important non-farm activities nor as a transformation within agriculture to capitalist farming. Accumulation, in the form of livestock, poultry and increased agricultural inputs and yields, has so far taken place within the context of peasant production. On the level of the individual peasant migrant household, migration has not on the whole led to proletarianization. The vast majority of peasant migrants (including the unsuccessful) are reabsorbed onto their land on their return to the village. It is within this context that the impact of migration on the wives of peasant migrants should be placed.
Migration for Dahshur’s peasants typically implies only a temporary withdrawal from the household. Although the household may itself become dependent on migration as a means of supplementing its income, the migrant role is normally assumed in stages by different male members of the household. Within extended peasant households, the migrant role is normally assumed by a son, rarely by the household head. Within independent nuclear households of parents with young children, the migration of the household head will invariably be replaced by that of a son when he reaches maturity. The period of migration of any one family member varies. Rarely is it for more than six years, while a period of less than ten months indicates an unsuccessful attempt. Migration may be irregular and discontinuous: a year or two abroad, a few months or even years at home, followed by further migration. Even in the case of longer periods of continuous migration, month-long visits home are made periodically. Rarely does a peasant migrant remain abroad for more than 18 months at a stretch. Migration does not therefore imply the migrant’s complete withdrawal from household affairs during the period of his absence. Periodic visits home ensure at least a minimum of control.
The impact of migration on the position of the migrant’s wife depends crucially on the type of family structure in which she is left to operate and the stage in her reproductive cycle that migration occurs. For the peasant household typically moves through a cycle of development: on the death of the household head, land is divided and the extended family segments into independent nuclear households which, over time, develop into extended families of their own. The household depends both on the production of crops and livestock and the reproduction of male children. The small-scale family farms that comprise peasant agriculture in Dahshour rely heavily on female labor, not only for domestic chores, but also in agriculture and animal care.
The allocation of domestic and agricultural tasks assigned to women shift over time and parallel stages in their reproductive cycles as does the allocation of resources to them. The heaviest and most menial domestic tasks, such as drawing water and cleaning out the animals’ room, are given to unmarried daughters and to daughters-in-law before they bear sons. In addition, they contribute heavy labor on the land. They receive smaller quantities of food and the least choice. After the birth of sons, the workload of the daughter-in-law lightens and her status improves. Her reproductive role more or less ceases when her own sons marry, giving her in turn daughters-in-law to aid her in household and agricultural chores. At this point, at the height of her status and authority in the household, her labor is lightest and she allocates tasks and food to other females in the household.
The head of a peasant household controls the land and revenues from land. On his death, the land is divided equally among his sons, who may then continue to work the land jointly and live as one household or separate into independent nuclear households. (Although women have legal rights to smaller shares in the land, in Dahshour they exercise these only minimally. Typically their male relatives work the land for them and give them a nominal rent in kind.) This move into independent households may occur at any point in the reproductive cycle of the woman.
Within the nuclear family, the wife, along with her daughters, will now have to perform the whole range of female tasks. She no longer has other women to help her in child care. However, the peasant wife invariably regards the move to an independent household as an improvement in her situation. She is removed from the domination of her mother-in-law, whom she experiences within the extended family as her immediate oppressor and often as the major cause of conflict between her and her husband. Divorced women frequently assert that their mothers-in-law and not their husbands were the major source of misery. The wife gains a far greater degree of control over her own time and that of her children, and is more able to allocate her tasks according to her own priorities. Still within a patriarchal structure, and operating within the same rigid division of labor within the home, she assumes a responsibility for domestic arrangements previously reserved to her mother-in-law. However, she still has no control over the revenues of the land or over the income that is earned directly from her own labor. Raising of poultry or rabbits is entirely in her hands, as is the care of water buffalo and cows. Even if she is responsible for marketing eggs and milk, her husband will appropriate the revenue. Her husband is her immediate oppressor, and it is not uncommon to hear peasant wives refer to him as such.
The type of household structure and the stage in the reproductive cycle set the parameters within which shifts in the role of migrants’ wives can occur. If migration takes place not long after marriage into an extended family and before the birth of sons, then at least initially her position is in many ways weakened. Remittances are invariably sent to the household head. The bargaining position of the migrant’s wife is less in the absence of her husband. Wives in this position frequently complain that although their husbands are earning the remittances they are the last ones to receive any benefits. Migration may increase tension in the family in other ways. In the past the migrant may have assumed a mediating role between his wife and mother; in his absence the wife frequently complains that she must work harder and under closer control.
The visits of a newlywed wife back to her own family are tightly regulated by her mother-in-law. After marriage, the wife must adjust herself to appropriation by her new family. Too frequent visiting of her own would imply that something is wrong, that she is escaping her husband’s family, that her loyalties are divided. Normally she will only visit her family on feast days or such family occasions as a marriage, birth or death. Months often elapse without any direct contact with her female relatives (her brothers may well visit the household), and homesickness in the early years of marriage is a frequent burden. When she does visit her family, her husband normally accompanies her. In his absence, she may find it difficult to persuade other male relatives to act in his stead.
Within the household, the labor of the migrant’s wife may well increase. Not only is she more completely under the domination of her mother-in-law; the withdrawal of the migrant’s labor from the land adds to the burden of all household members. As is common in times of labor crises, women of the household often take on agricultural tasks traditionally regarded as “male.” This does not improve the woman’s status, but rather represents an extension of patriarchal command over her labor and its product.
Young migrant wives left behind in an extended household commonly have mixed feelings about their husbands’ migration. Although the revenues and status of the household improve, their position within it may well be harder to bear. This, however, is often a temporary phase. Once the wife has produced children, especially sons, her position improves. Remittances will still be sent to the household head, but the migrant may specify a certain allocation for his children’s education or clothes. The tensions built into the household in such a situation are clear: The migrant’s wife (and indeed the migrant himself) attempts to assert a larger claim on resources than other household members. This type of conflict is greatest within the context of a family comprising married brothers after the death of their father, and the eventual establishment of an independent household by the migrant is a common outcome. Although instrumental in pressing for this move, the wife will often have little to say in design of the house. This is usually decided by the migrant during a visit home, in consultation with a fellow villager chosen for his “good taste” — his acquaintance with urban styles. (The headmaster is frequently consulted in Dahshour. This gives rise not only to a certain uniformity of architectural style but, as wives frequently complain, to the absence of any space for a bread oven.) Construction normally takes a few years to complete. So anxious are many wives to establish independence from the larger household that they often move in before it is fully completed.
The implications of migration for the wife of an independent household are quite different. The crucial factors here seem to be the stage in the reproductive cycle of the woman and the length of time the independent household has been established. Wives whose children are only toddlers or babies or those who have only recently moved into their own homes are most commonly put under the protection of a male relative. He will receive the remittances and allocate them according to her husband’s instructions. If a crisis occurs, such as the sickness of a child, the wife will turn to him for money for medical care and to accompany her to the doctor. It will be in his power to give or withhold financial support, or to suggest some alternative strategy. Although the wife is likely to work additionally hard on the land, its overall management will be in his hands. He will take charge of the marketing of the produce and of the revenues. Migration for a wife in this situation is free of the tensions imposed within an extended family, but it implies little shift in her basic position.
The major shift in women’s roles occurs when they are in direct control of the remittances sent by their husbands and of the revenues of the land. These are women who are established in independent households, such as those described by Fatma Khafagy in the village of Qabbabat. In Dahshour, they tend to be more mature than wives placed under the protection of a male relative, and their sons (or at least one son) has passed the period of infancy. At this stage in her reproductive cycle, having already been established in an independent household, the migrant’s wife may take on many roles of the household head.
Operating independently without the “protection” of a male, such a wife assumes responsibility not only for running the household but also for overall land management. This involves decisions concerning which crops to cultivate, and arrangements for necessary labor. She may also, although less commonly, deal directly with the village cooperative to acquire seeds and other agricultural inputs. Marketing arrangements, particularly involving markets outside the village, are invariably undertaken by a male relative on her behalf, but the revenues are in her hands. These, as well as her husband’s remittances and income from poultry and livestock, make up her resources for expenditures on the household and the land. This involves careful management. The unpredictability of the market for crops and the irregularity of remittances make her vulnerable to the fluctuations of both. It is common to hear a wife proclaim that in her husband’s absence she has never been forced into debt — an indication of the strain such financial responsibility entails.
The very rigid division of labor that operates within peasant families gives women domestic managerial responsibilities and authority. Wives of migrant household heads are not therefore suddenly thrust into managerial roles within the domestic sphere for which they have been ill prepared. What is new is her control over resources. She can now allocate them according to her own priorities, and assume a significantly greater degree of control over her life and the lives of her children. Her priorities for expenditures, in addition to agricultural inputs, are generally house improvements, including those that ease her own labor, and the care of her children. She is frequently involved in overseeing the construction of a new house. She can now seek medical attention for a sick child without having first to persuade her husband of the need (he, fearing the cost, might well have delayed the decision). This is a relief expressed by more than one wife. Private lessons after school for the children also seem to take high priority, despite the frequent lack of the husband’s approval.
Although they are mostly illiterate themselves, the wives’ commitment to education usually includes that of their daughters. “Education is a woman’s security,” one migrant wife explained. “It is her own — nobody can take it away from her. She can depend on it.” Another peasant migrant wife, who was married at the age of 11, voiced her strong feelings:
My brother did not understand the value of education. When my father died he took me out of school and married me to a friend of his whose wife was childless. I became the servant of my mother-in-law. I had my first child at 13. It was real oppression. If I had finished my education, no one could have pushed me around.
This commitment to the education of their daughters is not necessarily accompanied by the power to enforce it. Few daughters of peasant migrants are in school; many mothers maintain that their husbands refuse to permit it. Migrant wives are still constrained to a significant extent by their husbands’ priorities. The 15-year-old daughter of the woman whose own education had been disrupted by marriage was recently removed from school by her migrant father on a visit home to the village. She is now engaged to be married to a wealthy migrant friend of her father, in spite of her own and her mother’s objections.
Migrants by necessity have to transfer the allocation of resources for the household to male relatives or to their wives. Within the areas that they can control, however, the migrants generally continue to exercise a predominant role. Marriage, for instance, involves a contract between two peasant households and cannot be concluded in the absence of the male head. Such agreements are deferred until the return of the migrant. Although he sends remittances to his wife for daily expenses and ongoing projects, he generally retains additional savings until he returns home. Then major items are purchased. Although many migrant wives have expressed the desire for a washing machine, very few households in fact possess one.
Neither Total nor Permanent
For many peasant wives in independent households, migration has meant a significant increase in their control over their own lives. Their commitment to migration is not merely a function of increased revenue, but an appreciation of the added power that the absence of their husbands affords. This assumption, however, is neither total nor permanent. Matters still within the husband’s powers and interest generally remain firmly in his hands. On his return, he resumes the patriarchal role that he never fully relinquished. The months following his return are frequently ones of intense conflict between him and his wife, as he reappropriates what is socially his. The wife’s resistance may well be tempered by the fear that his additional resources may be invested in a new wife! In fact this rarely happens, but it is a commonly expressed fear. While the migrant’s respect for his wife and her achievements may well have increased, this does not allow her in his eyes to impinge on his control of the household and its resources once he has returned.
The temporary migration of Dahshour’s peasants has not effected any permanent shift in the patriarchal family structure. Neither has it led to any permanent change in the life styles of migrant’s wives, nor in their role in production. For migration has not led to the marginalization of peasant production in Dahshour. The constraints of the land market and of the agricultural wage labor market have greatly inhibited the consolidation of land and the transformation into capitalist farming based on wage labor. Revenues are invested in intensifying peasant production. This type of production still relies heavily on female household labor on the land and in animal care. The wives of peasant migrants in Dahshour have not withdrawn from productive activity on the land into the secluded leisure of their homes.