Sunday, 24 May 2009

A seventh woman?

Back to wonderful John Berger’s book ‘A seventh man’, its title stemming from a data that in 1973, in Germany and Britain every seventh manual worker was an immigrant. If any of you reading this can work out contemporary equivalent of women or men worker I’d be very grateful. I’ll try and gather the data too.

I've found this bit from Berger’s text inspiring:

“A friend came to see me in a dream. From far away. And I asked in the dream: ’Did you come by photograph or train’. All photographs are a form of transport and an expression of absence.”

With his words in mind I am looking at a photograph of one of the 'guest worker' women I interviewed and her friend, taken outside the dorm in Potsdamer Strasse, where they lived in the early 70’s (image above). Dorms were provided by their employers, a modest accommodation they shared with other women, sometimes up to seven women to a room (number seven again). They are leaning on the car, a beautiful Volkswagen Beatle, and I am trying to add colour in my mind to the black and white photograph. The Beatle looks white (or could it be yellow?) and new and shiny. Their dress could be green/blue/orange combination (on the left) and yellow (or white?) and dark blue on the right; the material was probably polyester or acrylic. I can imagine it making static electricity with each movement, so when they touched the car they got a small snap, a tiny bite to the top of their fingertips. I hear them laughing and then leaning on the car, hoping the owner won’t come too soon. I don’t imagine it to be their car. They would have arrived recently to West Berlin, and were saving all their money to send home. They probably felt a tinge of guilt for buying the beautiful dresses, maybe spending their second salary on it. The first one was sent home, with a message that they are fine, treated well, and that they are earning German marks now, their journey and separation from home justified.

Metaphorically, they arrived in this Beatle. Stories of wealth and new opportunities have certainly influenced and still have an impact on decisions to pack ones bag and set on a journey. They traveled in the back of the car, dreaming of a moment when they will be behind the steering wheel. And they arrived not only in 1970 but again in 2009, they came in the timeless Beatle into my own life, and into my own story of migration and travel. And now I see them looking at me, and images which are neither theirs nor mine are showing themselves to me. In this translation between their wor(l)ds and mine, a (hi)story is emerging and their absence from all these years is demanding presence. They are here, they have arrived.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A seventh man

A good friend of mine Aidan Jolly (check out his work at Virtual Migrants) told me recently about a book by John Berger called ‘A Seventh Man’ - a book of images and text about the experience of Migrant workers in Europe. It’s a great book, combining photographs with words, text being a combination of factual data, Berger’s Marxist take on it, and his poetic descriptions of the migrant worker coming from Turkey, Portugal, Yugoslavia... to the cities of Western Europe . I’m not finished with reading it, but am finding that it is opening me up in thinking of ways to talk/represent the complexity of the issue such as the ‘guest workers’ or to use a more contemporary label ‘labour migrants’. Berger says in his introduction that this book is limited to the experience of male migrant worker, and to write of the female migrant workers' experience would require a whole book in itself. In 1975 he hoped it will be done.

In 2000 in the world there were 175 million migrants, out of whom 85.1 million are women. In 2002 the overall number of women migrants in Europe was 51% , so a significant number of women are migrating, and participating in the labour market of the receiving countries (data based on selected United Nations data, statistics of the outflow and inflow states and EU statistics, from Slany, Kristina. 2008. ‘Female migration from Central-Eastern Europe: demographic and sociological aspects’ In: Migration and mobility in an enlarged Europe: a gender perspective). ‘In the migration literature, migrant women and their experiences often remain invisible and get subsumed under those of men’, write Erdem and Mattes (Erdem, Esra and Mattes, Monika. 2003. ‘Gendered Policies – Gendered Patterns: Female Labour Migration from Turkey to Germany from the 1960s to the 1990s’. In: European Encounters: Migrants, migration and European societies since 1945) and this is echoed by Morokvašić who says that ‘mobility and migration have a specific significance for women due to being historically associated with immobility and passivity, regarded as dependents rather than migrants in their own right, their migration often tied to migration of men’ (Morokvašić, Mirjana. 2007. ‘Migration, Gender, Empowerment’. In: Gender Orders Unbound. Globalisation, Restructuring and Reciprocity. Also see Morokvasic: 'Settled in mobility': engendering post-wall migration in Europe').

In 1973 in West Germany women made up 31.9 percent of the entire guest worker population with the Yugoslav women as the largest group amongst the female guest workers (Erdem and Mattes 2003; Dobrivojević, Ivana. 2007. ‘In Quest for Welfare: The Labour Migration of Yugoslav Citizens).

I will continue to expand on the relationship of gender to migration, as I am curious to unfold its complexity and to see what it means for the migrant women and men today. Even though my focus is on the migrant women, I am looking at gendered conceptions of both women and men, and also gendered policies of the receiving countries and their home countries, which often shape and affect their migrations and positions within societal and family structures. And even though I am researching the period of the late 60’s, its echoes are still present today and these echoes are growing louder with each headline speaking about the effects of globalised recession (it seems that finally word globalisation is loosing its aura of positivity) and the ‘collapse’ of capitalism.