Women migrants: a challenging story

Women migrants: a challenging story

Lucinda Platt, Christine Garrington and Ayse Guveli

Migrant women are often portrayed in a negative light. They are shown to be less engaged with life in their new host country, to be doing less well economically and socially, having more children and being more traditional in their attitudes and behaviours. In the media they have often been demonised, seen as ‘needing integrating’, blamed for creating dysfunctional families and bringing up children with little or no cultural values – a threat to society and cultural cohesion even.

When it comes to research evidence, this has also tended to highlight low participation rates and poor economic outcomes, more traditional views and higher fertility. In short, migrant women not only seem not to do very well out of migration, but are portrayed somehow as kicking against it with negative impacts for the receiving country.

The majority of research on migrant women compares them with their counterparts in their host country. But if we compare them with women like themselves who chose not to migrate, do we see a rather different story and do we get a more nuanced and accurate picture of how migration affects women’s lives? More recent thinking suggests that migration in fact frees women of patriarchal societal structures and relations but there is little evidence exploring this critical question.

50,000 individuals
The 2000 Families Study has followed three generations of Turkish migrants to Western Europe and compared them with those who stayed behind. Starting with 1600 pioneer migrant men from the 1960s and 70s, the research has gone on to collect data on their children and grandchildren. It has also collected data on more than 400 men who chose not to migrate and their families. In total, the study has information on the lives of some 50,000 individuals, providing rich important new data for researchers and policy makers interested in better understanding migration processes.

The recently-published data from the study has already been used to look at a range of outcomes for migrants compared with their non migrant peers. Meanwhile, early findings, based on detailed interviews with more than 2200 women participants, are challenging the view of them as bearers of traditional culture, with conservative practices and attitudes and having narrower networks.

As Turks constitute the largest migrant population in Europe, (around 5 million) they are an important and influential group. It is also particularly interesting to take a closer look at the women migrants in the study, especially given the fact that they (unlike the pioneer labour migrants) are less likely to be positively selected compared to their non migrant counterparts. That is, because they are not making the pioneering decision to migrate, but, instead, are moving with family or to join husbands or family, they can’t be expected to have characteristics that would specifically help them to adjust to the new country they are moving to. This makes the comparison between the women who migrated and those who did not a more equal one.

Among other things, 2000 Families contains information about its participants’ work and finances, family and friendship networks, fertility, religious and cultural practices and beliefs and life satisfaction.

Why women migrate
The study shows that women who migrate are more likely to do so as part of a family chain or to join a partner. 35 per cent of the migrant women migrated for marriage, while 48 per cent moved to join family members, and a further 14 per cent moved with family or spouse. Only 1 per cent of these women moved expressly for work, though we know that motivations can be multiple.

This might suggest that economic success might not be a major motivation for these women; yet we find that the migrant women are much more likely than non-migrants to be economically active (in work or actively looking for work). 53 per cent of the migrant women are economically active compared to only 22 per cent of their non-migrant peers of the same age, and from the same regions and comparable backgrounds.

We also see that migrant women perceive that they have a much more equal say over family finances. Among those living in couples and comparing women of the same age and from the same regional background, women migrants are more likely (59 per cent) than non-migrants (43 per cent) to say that they have equal financial control. They are less likely (27 per cent compared with 43 per cent) to say their partner mostly has control and about equally likely to say they mostly have control (around 12%). The small remainder have some other arrangement.

Migrant women also have more diverse friendship networks than non-migrant women – and also than migrant men. They seem able to leverage greater ‘social capital’ than their counterparts, in that, whether or not in work they are more likely to have employed friends, more highly educated friends and more mixed friends in terms of sex. Their contact with friendship networks in Turkey is lower than their male counterparts, but they seem to compensate for that by the greater diversity – even if not size – of their destination country networks.

Changing social structures
We should bear in mind that social structures and norms have been changing rapidly in Turkey over the period that these women have been growing up. For example, arranged marriages are declining in Turkey as well as in Europe. Over time, Turkey has also seen a dramatic increase in more egalitarian attitudes towards the role of men and women. Nevertheless, traditional attitudes are still less common among migrants than non-migrants. For example, only 4 per cent of migrant women compared to 11 per cent of their migrant peers think that a university education is more important for a boy.

Much is made of the wearing of headscarves among Turkish women, though there is a lot of debate around the significance of this religious expression and the extent to which it is connected to more traditional attitudes or expectations. The 2000 Families data shows fewer migrant women wearing headscarves (45 per cent compared to 64 per cent) yet this is not a reflection of lower religious commitment: when asked to describe how religious they consider themselves to be, migrants and non-migrants are the same.

Finally, it is worth considering how they feel about their own lives. Interestingly despite the challenges of migration, the disruption to their lives and networks, and the sometimes hostile and commonly discriminatory environment that migrants face, migrant women have somewhat higher rates of life satisfaction than their non-migrant peers, 4.1 on a scale of 1-5 compared with 3.9.

So we see a rather different and more positive story about women migrants begins to emerge when we look at things in this way. Migrant Turkish women it seems do appear to gain greater financial independence and seem to be moving away from more traditional lives and patterns as a result of migration. At the same time, migrant or not, their lives are changing as a consequence of more general changes around the world.

Challenging the narrative
Findings from the 2000 families study certainly fly in the face of the stereotypical images of migrant women that appear frequently in some of our newspapers.  We see instead that many of these women are actively participating in society by going out to work, developing wide social networks, and having a real say in important things like family finance. At the same time, they appear to be able to maintain close links with their native country, and their religion. And, importantly, migration does not seem to come at a cost to their general well being.

As we and other researchers have more chance to dig deeper into these rich data, we expect they will shed greater light on the true impacts of migration for migrants themselves and challenge more of the conventional narratives.


Lucinda Platt is Professor of Social Policy at LSE. Christine Garrington is a freelance writer and consultant on the 2000 Families research project. Ayse Guveli is Reader in Sociology at the University of Essex. The 2000 Families project is funded by NORFACE. Details of all published research using the study’s data can be found on the project website. Early findings from the study have been published in a book published by Palgrave Macmillan, Intergenerational consequences of migration: Socio-economic, Family and Cultural Patterns of Stability and Change in Turkey and Europe. The data is available for to researchers from the GEISIS data archive. The project has its own podcast of interviews with the research team, available to download from iTunes.

Image: Guillermo Fdez ‘Topkapi Palace’ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)