Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Migration with a Feminine Face: Breaking the Cultural Mold

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Migration with a Feminine Face: Breaking the Cultural Mold

Article excerpt

Women are the homeland, and now they are here. Janice Boddy, Managing Tradition 1995:21

Travel, migration and movement invariably bring us up against the limits of our inheritance. We may choose to withdraw from this impact and only select a confirmation of our initial views. In this case whatever lies on the other side remains in the shadows, in obscurity. We could, however, opt to slacken control, to let ourselves go, and respond to the challenge of a world that is more extensive than the one we have been accustomed to inhabiting.

Iain Chambers, "Migrancy," Culture, Identity 1994:115

THE MIGRATION OF SUDANESE WOMEN has received scant attention in most studies of population movements. Even when they receive such attention, women are generally relegated to a subsidiary position as dependent variables, who only move as part of family units. Appalling, as this neglect may seem, it is to be expected. As a result of a prevalent ideology in Sudanese society, the notion of women traveling by themselves is not only close to unimaginable, it is seen as an alarming threat to the well being of the family and community. In her book Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States, Evelyn Shakir states "in a society where male protection and patronage were essential guarantors of a woman's respectability, to go alone among strangers--especially for young, unmarried women--was a daring if not a brazen act" (1997:27).

Sudanese attitudes toward the migration of single women should be understood in this light. An elderly woman whom I met in Khartoum expressed nostalgia for the good old days, when women were not allowed such mobility. She remarked: "Sudanese women are becoming increasingly free, they crossed these distances to go to distant countries all by themselves, I swear to Allah all of them are mataliq." The term mataliq, meaning free or unrestrained, has pejorative connotations as Sudanese people employ it to refer to uncontrolled or reckless behavior. The predicament of Sudanese women today is certainly influenced by "burdens and riddles" that have defined the position of women across the African continent. Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo describes the major factors constraining the advancement of African women today as societal patterns, western penetration and the "apparent lack of vision or courage, in the leadership of the postcolonial period"(1998:42). This factor explains much of the hapless condition in which S udanese women find themselves.

Fifty-six years ago when the Sudanese merchant marines arrived as single men and founded a seed community in North America, no one could have envisioned a stream of women migrating to far away lands without the company of their men-folk. Until recently the migration of Sudanese women by themselves was rare. The only exception was the migration of female schoolteachers to the Gulf countries, especially to the U.A.E., Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman. These "women of exceptional merit" secured contracts ranging from 3-5 years, arranged by the Sudanese Ministry of Education.

However, one of the most recent trends I encountered in the course of researching the Sudanese in the North America is the migration of women by themselves. Over the last eight years, circumstances at home and abroad have intersected to transform widely held traditions, resulting in the feminization of international migration. A clarification should be made at the outset. In this ethnography, there is no assumption of the existence of an undifferentiated, monolithic or homogenous category "Women" irrespective of their personal histories and individual experiences. The reasons that prompted Sudanese to come to the North America are many, and in order to comprehend the experiences of these women, both their pre-migratory experiences and their own personal biographies should be explored.

Just exactly, who are these women whose migration is the most talked about back home and here, in their new societies? …

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