Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “Reproduction and Emigration,” Zerowork 3 (1984).
Jean Guyot, Ruth Padrun, et al, Des Femmes Immigres Parlent (Paris: L’Harmattan-CETIM, 1977).
Michel Oriol, “Sur la dynamique des relations communautaires chez les immigres d’origine Nord-Africaine,” Peuples Mediterraneens 18 (January-March 1982).
North African female immigrants in Europe, when they are discussed at all in the migration literature, are usually cast in the role of “defenders of tradition,” or portrayed as the true victims of the process: never exposed to “modernizing” influences, subordinated to their menfolk and female elders. Only those able to find wage work achieve some degree of liberation.
None of these approaches captures the crucial role immigrant women play in the migration process. These articles reveal how immigrant women — North African women in particular — have overcome tremendous obstacles and joined in the struggles of women everywhere to gain greater control over their lives.
Dalla Costa’s work investigates the impact of European and immigrant women’s autonomous struggles on the history of post-war Europe. She posits that European capital imported workers from outside their territories after World War II because European women refused to supply the desired number of workers. Their refusal to procreate — after their forced removal from production during the post-war period — was followed by growing demands for an independent income and a break with the impositions of marriage and the family. Flight from the communities that opposed these demands, such as the extended family, farm and village, led to a massive influx of women into the cities. The ensuing drop in fertility sent European capital scurrying to the greater Mediterranean basin in search of new sources of labor.
Dalla Costa next examines how the struggles of European women spread to the immigrant women, and through them to their children. The second generation of young immigrant workers, Dalla Costa argues, now enters the factory ready to fight to improve their standard of living, to have less children and to think less of marriage because they have grown up in households where their mothers fought for the same rights.
Though Dalla Costa portrays North African women immigrants as less successful in this regard than their northern Mediterranean counterparts, more recent studies (hers originally appeared in Italian in 1974) suggest that immigrant women from the Maghreb now control their lives in ways previously unforeseen. Des Femmes Immigrees Parlent, compiled by a group of European feminists, presents the thoughts of immigrant women in a question-and-answer format which highlights the problems they face and their responses to them. The Maghrebi women discussed their lack of contacts outside the home, the difficulty of obtaining contraceptives, and the burden of housework on top of wage work when they do find jobs. They also discuss their fears for their children and chronic problems caused by husbands prone to drink, seldom around to help with the chores and, when they are home, ready to lord it over both the women and children.
The North African women are fighting back. Shopping and visiting during the husbands’ absence have been carried over from North Africa as the major means of exchanging information and aid. Now the topics of conversation include issues such as birth control or how to maneuver through the European bureaucratic maze. The women mobilize their networks to collectively demand lower rents, to protest racist attacks, to demand better schools and to put pressure on abusive husbands. They have also managed to assume much greater control over the household purse — particularly when mothers-in-law aren’t present — and often loan money to each other in times of need. Equality with their husbands in management of the household increases further, they report, whenever they obtain their own income, though the added burden of having to cook and clean leads those with young children to refuse outside work. Furthermore, all of the North African mothers interviewed said that they would not have any more children. The younger unmarried women also claimed that they will choose their own husbands, and then only ones who will allow them to share equally in household decisions.
Dalla Costa is probably correct in contending that Maghrebi women enjoy less freedom in their communities than Italian, Spanish or Portuguese immigrants. Yet Oriol’s discussion of the dynamics of these communities suggests this cuts both ways. Despite certain class, sex, institutional and cultural obstacles, the communities also provide important inter-household support systems and act as a bulwark against racism. Oriol points out that the Moroccan immigrant community of Tourettes-Levens in southeastern France has been transformed by women’s greater participation to the point where traditional patrilineal relations have given way to matrilineal ones: women successfully battle husbands and in-laws to channel remittances, visits and gifts to their own families. Oriol asserts that those women who are adept at managing North African ritual matters as well as French institutions actually dominate the community.