Women are now the heads of between 25 and 35 percent of all households in developing countries. [1] In the Middle East and North Africa, women head about 16 percent of all households. [2] One main reason for the increasing number of households headed by women is male migration to seek work outside their own countries, unaccompanied by their wives and children. When male villagers from Egypt emigrate, they do so without their families. [3] For one thing, a large number emigrate illegally, with neither official work contracts nor legal residence in countries of employment. It is much easier for them to move alone and leave their families behind. A second reason is that even many “legal” migrants are not provided with housing, and employers do not cover travel costs. Thirdly, living expenses tend to be higher in the countries of employment than at home. Migrant villagers try to minimize their expenses in the countries of employment to accumulate as much savings as they can. Finally, migrant villagers who own land or livestock prefer to leave their families behind to take care of their property.

Emigration from al-Qabbabat

Al-Qabbabat is a large Egyptian village of some 15,000 people, 80 kilometers south of Cairo on the east side of the Nile, in Giza province. [4] The main crops of the village are vegetables, wheat, maize and barsim (animal fodder). Landholding is fragmented: 55 percent of the landholders own or rent less than one feddan. A large number of male villagers work in Sornaga Public-Sector Factory for Ceramics, five kilometers north of the village. [5] Many villagers work in the brickmaking factories that surround the village. The daily wage of skilled brick makers is higher than the wage of hired agricultural workers or workers in the Sornaga factory.

Since 1973, an increasing number of male villagers from al-Qabbabat have emigrated to Saudi Arabia. A Syrian building contractor who used to work in Saudi Arabia had heard the village is known for its skilled construction workers. He came in 1974 to recruit 17 villagers to work in Saudi Arabian construction. Those who first emigrated were provided with work contracts which stipulated wages much higher than those earned in the village. While they were abroad, the workers from al-Qabbabat were asked by other contractors to urge their fellow villagers to come to Saudi Arabia as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled construction workers.

The emigrants contacted their relatives and friends when they came back to visit al-Qabbabat. It was easy to persuade still other villagers to emigrate. The savings the first migrants accumulated and the consumer goods they brought back encouraged others to emigrate even without work contracts. By 1977, an estimated 300 villagers from al-Qabbabat were working abroad — about 23 percent of the total population of the village and 48 percent of the total male population. In a sample of 100 men from al-Qabbabat who migrated to Saudi Arabia, half were illiterate. It was usually the better off who could afford to emigrate, the costs of which include a passport, entry visa, air or boat ticket, and often hiring someone to fill out forms for visas, permits and passport. This was more than a hired agricultural worker could afford. Most of our sample had monthly incomes between 30 and 70 Egyptian pounds.

Emigrants from al-Qabbabat found that they could often make more money without work contracts than with them. They were able to take a second and sometimes a third job in Saudi Arabia. The employers also had an incentive to ignore the requirement for contracts so that they could dismiss the workers whenever it was in their interest. For these reasons, the majority of emigrants from al-Qabbabat were “illegal”: They had obtained an entry visa to Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage and then looked for work there. Fellow villagers from al-Qabbabat usually helped them find jobs and accommodations. Among those who did not have either work contracts or residence permits for Saudi Arabia, many were deported. The same villagers who were deported were able to enter the kingdom again and seek work for a second or a third time. Some stayed a few weeks, while others would spend up to four years there.

The impact of emigration was unmistakable in the village. Many villagers spent part of their savings building new houses or renovating old ones, and emigrants’ savings sustained a construction boom in the village. Returning emigrants also brought back consumer durables such as TVs, radio/cassettes and electric fans. Even non-migrants found it prestigious to own a TV set and other appliances. Many returning migrants bought refrigerators and washing machines to help their wives meet the increased work load inside and outside the household. Those who spent longer periods abroad spent their greater savings on shares in the brickmaking factories surrounding the village, in planting fruit trees (which need initial high capital) and in buying tractors and trucks.

A Revised Division of Labor

The absence of male heads of household has changed, to a certain extent, the traditional role played by their wives in al-Qabbabat village. The majority of women in al-Qabbabat have traditionally worked in well-defined unpaid household tasks: cooking, house cleaning, child care, poultry raising, fetching fuel and water, milking, baking bread and shopping. Some women also played a role in agricultural tasks; they prepared seeds, selected and stored them after the harvest and cleaned them again before the next planting; they also stored the crop and allocated the harvest for consumption, animal feed and seed for the next cultivation.

Despite the fact that village women performed all these tasks, their participation in decision-making outside the home was minimal. The extent of their influence in the home varied with age (elder women exercised greater influence than younger wives), reproductive role (a wife who did not produce children, preferably boys and as soon as possible, was likely to be divorced or to share her husband with another wife) and family structure (the wife in a nuclear family was able to exercise more power than one in an extended family). A final determinant was ownership of assets: the wife who had some property — land, house or livestock — had a more egalitarian relationship with her husband regarding financial and social matters. This power, derived from property ownership, was a major determinant of her relative equality. Merely generating income from selling cheese and butter or from making dresses, for instance, did not enhance a woman’s power or provide her with relative equality in the village. A woman’s position was affected by control over means of production, such as land, rather than by her labor contribution.

Not surprisingly, male villagers traditionally took the major decisions affecting the family rather than women. They decided about children’s work, their education, acquiring assets and organizing the agricultural work. In many cases, however, women carried a heavier work load than did men. Men had a better balance between work and satisfying their personal needs, and they enjoyed more leisure time.

Children of both sexes made important labor contributions to the household through housework and caring for their siblings. In many cases they undertook income generating activities. Sex-based differentiations in the division of labor started from childhood. Girls spent more time in household work and activities that generate income outside the home. The many work requirements for boys and girls had serious consequences for their enrollment and attendance at school.

As a result of male migration, the role played by the wives of emigrants changed considerably. Inside the household, they now had to perform three main tasks in addition to the heavy load for which they were already responsible. First, they had to manage financial resources, including remittances sent by their husbands. They played an effective independent role in spending and allocating resources for food, clothing, medical care and agricultural inputs. They did not keep records of their expenditure, but they were able to manage within the limits of the cash they had. In most cases, they did not have to borrow money during the absence of their husbands. Second, the traditional role of the rural mother characterized by affection and protection was modified by their husbands’ emigration. Wives now had to discipline their children, a task previously assumed by men. The women tended to become more authoritarian, and many found this change in their traditional image to be a very difficult experience at first. Finally, the women had to take over responsibility for caring for the livestock. The majority of women interviewed complained about this job, especially when one of the cattle took ill. ‘Aliya’s husband, Sa‘id, had emigrated to Saudi Arabia eight months earlier. In her words, “Dealing with children and livestock were the most difficult tasks I had to perform. The children used to give me a hard time at the beginning. Now they are much better. The animals, when they got sick, were a real hassle. I don’t know how to deal with them.”

Outside the household the women had to deal with a number of individuals and institutions in the absence of their husbands, such as the village agricultural cooperative or the private merchants, in order to buy chemicals and fertilizers. In some cases, they had to hire agricultural workers. Finding such workers was not an easy task, given the shortage in agricultural labor in the village. The wives had to negotiate the workers’ daily wages and supervise the work. (The daily wage of a hired farmworker in al-Qabbabat increased from 20 piasters in 1971 to 150 in 1979 and 300 piasters in 1982.) Three wives of emigrants had to work on the land themselves. The plots of land they owned or rented were small, and they could manage with the help of their elder sons.

Wives of emigrants also learned to deal with establishments both inside and outside the village. Fatma’s husband, Farouq al-Shinnawi, was returning from Saudi Arabia for a visit. She insisted that they both should take their elder daughter to the doctor in the markaz, asserting that the daughter did not get adequate treatment at the health center in the village. The husband objected at first, but upon his wife’s insistence he had to comply, and they both accompanied their daughter to the doctor at the markaz. The women also had to establish contacts with their husbands’ friends and relatives who carried remittances sent from Saudi Arabia.

Acquiring New Power

The increased workload and responsibilities of the wives of the migrants earned them increased influence inside the family, measured by the new decisions they had to make, changes in relationships within the family, increased interaction with the community and a new self-image. Before her husband emigrated, she never had cash to manage her household. She had to ask for money each time she wanted to purchase something for the household. Even the money she earned selling eggs, cheese or chickens she had to hand over to her husband. Now these women have become solely responsible for cash expenditures. This new experience helped them gain confidence in themselves. This control of earned incomes was one key which helped to break down male dominance and to equalize power between husband and wife. Similarly, these women had to take new decisions concerning cultivation and production, such as how many laborers to hire, for what wages, for how many days. The emigration of men has thus changed the traditional division of labor inside the peasant family, and women’s work in agriculture has become more visible. The decision to migrate was itself often a joint one. In many cases, the wife encouraged her husband to take the risk and travel without work contract, after the successful experiences of other emigrants made them regard emigration positively. The wives were also able to influence their husbands’ choice of purchases and investments.

The migrants’ dependence on their wives for handling all matters inside and outside the household had strengthened the husband-wife relationship. These women have become the first persons consulted by their husbands. All migrant husbands in our sample delegated household responsibilities to their wives and not to other male relatives. When we asked if they thought that their wives had managed household affairs well during their absence, they all answered affirmatively and some praised their wives. The women themselves mentioned that their husbands never questioned them as to how they spent the remittances, and afterwards frequently consulted them in matters such as wages for agricultural workers and prices of different items.

Changes also occurred in parent-child relationships. The migrants’ wives said it took two to three months after their husbands’ departure to establish a good relationship with their children. The elder son usually helped the mother in cultivating the land. A change of attitude toward female children also became apparent, and the preference for male children less evident. Wives stressed the loyalty and help they got from their daughters.

One drawback of the father’s emigration concerned the children’s education. Four children between 6 and 12 years old were not attending school. Others were enrolled but rarely attended school. This was true even in some cases where the wife herself had been to elementary school. This was due to the additional tasks that the children had to perform in their father’s absence. Also, parents did not see education as a means of securing a high income, while working abroad regardless of one’s educational background provided such income. Because of emigration, many jobs became available for children in construction inside the village and in the nearby brickmaking factories. Parents preferred their children to work rather than attend school, since the going wage for children’s labor was relatively high.

The migration of the husband also strengthened the wife’s relationship with her in-laws. Ten of the wives 20 mentioned that their brothers-in-law helped them in matters outside the household. In some cases, the husband had suggested they seek their brothers’ help; in other cases, it was the wife’s decision. This did not result in greater influence of the brother-in-law, due to the fact that he was not in control of the remittances being sent home, or of the income the wife had earned. His role was more of advising than one of authority.

All the migrants’ wives except one mentioned that their mothers-in-law were envious of the fact that the wives received the remittances. Once they knew their sons were soon coming back to the village, however, they treated their daughters-in-law better in order to make sure they would get some of the gifts their sons brought back. Those wives living with their in-laws before their husbands left insisted on moving to new houses of their own once their husbands had accumulated enough savings to do so. The reason was to escape the dominance of the mother-in-law. Sayyida, the wife of Ahmad who had been working in Saudi Arabia for three years, persuaded him to build a house of their own so that she and their children could move away from his family. After two years, when he accumulated enough savings, Sayyida moved with her five children to their new house and Ahmad went back to Saudi Arabia. Sayyida hated the time when she was living with her mother-in-law:

My mother-in-law was in control of everything, my own soul and my children, as well as everybody around. I had to do everything the way it pleased her and still she was not pleased with me. As soon as Ahmad saved some money, I told him the first thing to buy is a new house. I wanted to move with my children away from my mother-in-law. He said wait until I come back for good. But I said no, I can be alone with my children in a house of our own until you come back.

In the Public Sphere

Some wives had to deal for the first time with institutions such as the agricultural and consumer cooperatives and the clinic. Such dealings had been the men’s prerogative. The wives’ exposure to these institutions has made them critical of some institutions, especially the agricultural cooperative. Some wives thought that the cooperative director discriminated against women. The more relationships they had with different institutions and other people in the village, the more confidence the migrants’ wives gained in themselves and the more they identified themselves with the community.

This participation was more evident within the informal structures than within the formal ones. Their involvement within structures such as the village popular council, the political parties, committees and community associations was still minimal. This was not due to their passivity as much as to the lack of willingness on the part of administrators, government officials and male village leaders to devise means and ways to encourage women’s involvement with such structures. There was, in fact, an inequality between men and women in access to institutions such as the agricultural cooperative, the village bank and the village executive and popular councils.

All the migrants’ wives in the sample thought they were capable of handling all the responsibilities and tasks previously done by their husbands. They also said they were able to make major decisions affecting their own lives, their children’s and household affairs. They admitted that the work load had increased, yet eight of the twelve women mentioned that they did not mind this extra work. The three wives whose husbands were back in the village at the time of this study were continuously urging them to re-emigrate, assuring them that they could take care of everything during their absence.

Only three of the wives said that they would like their husbands to return to share the increased responsibilities inside and outside the household. One of these three was the one who had not received any remittances from her husband since he had emigrated, and who had to generate income herself for her family. Although some migrants’ wives were totally dependent on their husbands’ remittances, they still saw themselves playing a major role in managing their households and taking decisions previously made by their husbands. All the women mentioned that they were well regarded by others and had not experienced any problems with their neighbors. Eleven of them regarded emigration positively because it allowed them to purchase appliances, build their own houses and accumulate some cash. Only the one wife who did not receive remittances viewed emigration as “evil.”

The effects of male labor migration on al-Qabbabat have been complicated and varied. Not everything has changed concerning the ability of emigrants’ wives to influence and control their own lives and their families, but certain important indicators of change are evident.

  • Emigration has resulted in an increasing number of nuclear families, where the wife has relatively more influence than in an extended family setting.
  • Age still plays a role in determining a wife’s influence vis-a-vis her husband. Young single migrants who accumulated savings were able to marry at an early age and could also afford to build their own houses. Their wives could head their own households at a rather early age.
  • Emigration did not change the role of reproduction in determining a wife’s influence. Those with no children were still forced to live with their kin or in-laws during the absence of their husbands, where they had minimal responsibilities and did not receive any remittances.
  • Emigration has not directly affected the material base of gender roles. Migrants who bought property with their savings, such as agricultural land or houses, registered such property in their own names. Nonetheless, decisions concerning these purchases were taken jointly by both the husband and the wife. The wives also exhibit a greater awareness regarding inheritance. They would like to see their daughters as well as their sons inherit property. They criticized the way some village women were pressured to give up their inherited property to male relatives, especially their brothers. They stressed that their daughters should be regarded as security for old age as well as inheritors of property.

To what extent these changes in the ability of women to influence and control their family lives and to interact with the wider community lead to wider social changes is impossible to predict. Clearly, women are not only “filling the gap” until their husbands come back from work abroad. Both husband and wife have experienced the advantage of acting together and taking joint decisions. Husbands made use of their wives’ experience and knowledge, especially of the many changes while they were working abroad in matters like crop mix, the availability and wages of hired labor, prices of different items and bureaucratic procedures required to finalize things. Wives have gained confidence in themselves, and it is hard to believe they will go back to their traditional role when emigration declines.



[1] Constantina Safilios-Rothschild, The Role of the Family: A Neglected Aspect of Poverty, World Bank Working Paper 403 (Washington, DC, July 1980).
[2] North-South: A Program for Survival (London, 1980), p. 59.
[3] Several studies such as H. Khattab on the impact of male migration from Kafr Wafa and Elizabeth Taylor on the impact of migration from Dahshour village, as well as this study, make this clear.
[4] In the latest census of 1976, al-Qabbabat’s population was 14,427. The villagers of al-Qabbabat consider themselves “upper Egyptians” (Sa‘idis).
[5] Sornaga is an Italian factory nationalized in the early 1960s which employs 4,000 workers.

How to cite this article:

Fatma Khafagy "Women and Labor Migration," Middle East Report 124 (June 1984).

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