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Moroccan women migrants in Europe: a transformative experience

Moha Ennaji


Moroccan women migrants fight with all their energy in Morocco and in Europe and manage to introduce considerable changes in traditional society; they blow up the harem metaphor and what the negative aspects it entails such as resignation, servility, and fatality. The story of Moroccan women and migration is an interesting one. Today, for many Moroccan women in Europe, migration is a transformative experience. Once they have discovered a new degree of freedom, they refuse to return to the restrictive social environment of their native land.1 In Europe, their participation in economic development is remarkable and has an impact on family relations and gender roles. It contributes to their emancipation, empowerment, and to the rupture of traditional gender relations in the family structure. When Moroccan Muslim women migrants participate in public life and in economic and social development, they transgress and subvert gender roles.

In the 1960s, Moroccan women rarely participated in migration; today, they constitute a large component of Moroccans living in Europe, North America, and the Arab Gulf (illegal migration notwithstanding, which is also becoming increasingly feminine). In statistical terms, of the more than three million Moroccan migrants in Europe, 900,000 (37%) are women.2

Migration is currently affected by the complexities of globalization, global ideologies, international feminism, education, employment, and women’s rights. The traditional pattern of migration from Morocco to Europe, which was once male dominated, short term, and short distance, is increasingly becoming feminized, younger, long term and long distance. Migration is not only feminized but young. Seventy percent of the Moroccan community abroad is less than forty-five years old.3

In addition to the fact that women actively participate in migration as a family survival strategy, more and more professional women migrate independently in search of paid work to fulfill their own economic needs and not to simply join a husband or other family members. Many women are taking advantage of better pay packages in Europe and North America to accumulate enough savings to survive harsh economic conditions at home.

Morocco is indeed experiencing a substantial gendered “brain drain,” which was previously underestimated in official migration statistics. Yet, there is uncertainty regarding why some women leave while others stay, whether people who leave do so permanently, and whether the brain drain will accelerate in the future.4

This chapter examines the transformative impact of Moroccan women’s migration to Europe. It is based on the fieldwork I undertook between September 2008 and December 2013 to elicit the attitudes and achievements of Moroccan migrants in Europe.5 The analysis of my study aims to fill the gap in literature regarding numerous questions relating to Moroccan women’s status, contributions, and challenges, all of which deserve more research and more attention from migration policymakers and civil society.

During my study, I conducted interviews with forty-seven female participants who were students, salaried or independent workers, entrepreneurs, members of associations, unemployed, homemakers, and mothers of first- and second-generation immigrants; their ages varied between seventeen and seventy-six. Although many of these interviews were face-to-face, some were conducted over the telephone. I also used both casual and arranged conversations to elicit respondents’ attitudes and ideas about migration. Several first-, second-, and third-generation individuals were interviewed both in their host countries and in Morocco during the summer holidays. My goal was to have a group of respondents who were representative of Moroccan migrants abroad. Other data were collected through readings of the literature on migration, documentary research, official statistics, mass media products, diaries, letters, and government reports, in addition to historical and contemporary records.

This chapter proceeds in three sections. Section “Understanding and analyzing root causes of Moroccan women’s migration to Europe” describes the history and demographics of Moroccan women’s migration to Europe. Section “Migration as a transformative experience for women” analyzes the results of the interviews, which determined that because Moroccan women migrants are considered less threatening than individuals from other Muslim countries, they are regarded as responsible, peaceful, and hardworking. This has changed the overall image of the Muslim woman, and of the Moroccan woman in particular, who was previously considered passive and submissive.6 Entrepreneurship has allowed Moroccan women to “get rid of the old mentality of the Harem and has opened all doors for women to be creative, innovative, and productive.”7 Section “Gender, intersectionality, and migration” relies on the theoretical framework of intersectionality theory, which underscores the interconnection of fields of domination, such as social class, political power, gender, religion, language, ethnicity, education, and media, in order to understand the results of the fieldwork.8 Following the work of sociologists Drs. Collins, Crenshaw, and Belleau, who demonstrate the intersectionality of ethnicity and gender, I argue that Moroccan women in Europe defy multifaceted discrimination as North Africans, as Muslims, as migrants, and as women. In this section, I compare the case of Moroccan migrant women to African and African-American women in the United States, who suffer from similar forms of oppression and are caught between their identity as women belonging to a minority group. The chapter concludes that women’s emancipation through migration has undermined existing patriarchal authority that has subjugated women and confined them to domestic work. Migration for women represents a new type of feminism, which contributes to the subversion of old gender roles, gender equity, the culture of sharing and dialogue, and social development.

Understanding and analyzing root causes of Moroccan women’s migration to Europe

History of Moroccan women’s migration to Europe

There are three distinguishable phases in the history of Moroccan women’s migration to Europe. The first occurred in the 1970s, within the context of family reunification; the second phase (the 1980s-1990s) occurred within the framework of family formation; and the third phase (the 2000s) is characterized by the feminization of migration.9

In the 1970s, more than 300,000 Moroccan workers left for European countries, particularly France, followed by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. France created “1’Office National d’immigration Français,” (National Office of French Immigration) which operated in Casablanca until 1974. Belgium had representatives of “la Fédération des Charbonnages Belges” (The Federation of Belgium Carbon), and the Netherlands had offices of recruitment of immigrants until 1973. In 1973, the Moroccan migrant population in Europe totaled half a million people.10

It was assumed by the host countries’ decision makers that the immigrant workers would return to their home country once they were no longer needed. However, most of them ended up settling in Europe and subsequently brought their families. According to sociologist Dr. El Manar Laalami, by the year 1999, about 1.2 million Moroccans had legal residence in one of the fifteen countries of the European Union (EU).11

From 1980 to 1990, successive droughts in Morocco led to crises in the agriculture and trade sectors, which created more unemployment among women— educated and noneducated alike. During the drought, wheat and barley production was at its lowest level in a decade. Dry weather across the country became yet another financial headache for Morocco, just as it sought to spur more economic growth and cut public spending. Soon after, rising food import costs came at a delicate time, as Morocco faced protests over austerity measures.12

Drought has a huge impact across the region because it weakens the trade balance and staunches efforts to overhaul the agriculture sector. Drought has become a structural problem that requires a long-term policy to ensure stable growth regardless of the state of the harvest, which has a negative impact on women’s farming activities, income, and health. Female and male labor migration often increases during drought seasons, which can lead to permanent migration.13 During droughts, however, women arc more vulnerable than men.

For example, during droughts, there are documented increases in prostitution in urban areas, forced marriages, and increases in women’s general workload.14 Droughts have a significant impact on securing household water, food, and fuel—activities that are usually the responsibility of women and girls. In times of drought and erratic rainfall, women and girls must walk farther and spend more of their time collecting water and fuel. Girls must often drop out of school to help their mothers. Even the act of securing food for the family can turn deadly. For example, due to fear of a looming drought, on November 19, 2017, fifteen women were killed and at least forty more were injured in a stampede during a charity food distribution in Sidi Boulaalam, a village southwest of Casablanca.15 Likewise, the liberalization of the economy and privatization pushed many women to seek work in the agriculture, textile, and trade sectors.

During the early 2000s, however, the Gulf War negatively affected the Moroccan economy with the rise of oil prices and the global financial crisis. For example, according to the Moroccan High Commission for Statistics, 33.2% of women between ages fifteen and twenty-four were unemployed in 2009. Today, women suffer more than men from unemployment in Morocco—regardless of their degrees—because of gender discrimination.16 This shift has pushed women to migrate in order to alleviate financial hardships. As a result, the number of Moroccan women in Europe has been increasing for the past two decades. Female migration from Morocco to Europe is both economically motivated (25%) and related to family reunification or family formation (75%).17 All of these factors: drought, the Gulf War, and women’s increased vulnerability during crisis contribute to why women migrate.

Since the 2000s, more and more women have migrated as economically autonomous individuals—that is, independent from male migrants. This new generation of female migrants are young and work in various economic fields. They are a part of the third phase of migration, which is characterized by the feminization of migration. Family reunification is considered the main reason for their mobility, but what has come to be termed “the feminization” of the labor market has also accelerated the rate of female migrants for economic reasons. For a long time, female migration has been considered a mere consequence of male migration, mainly because of family reunification, which began in the seventies and caused subsequent family formation outside Morocco. However, today, it constitutes an independent phenomenon with its own specificities and issues.18

The demographics of Moroccan migrant women

Moroccan migrant women are not a homogeneous group. There is wide variation among their circumstances and living conditions across many different European countries. Migrant Moroccan women have their own economic, political, cultural, and legal specificities. They may be single, married, divorced, or widows. They may be housewives, mothers, students, workers, career women, unemployed, or businesswomen. They may also be highly educated; semi-educated; illiterate; from working-, middle-, or upper-class families; and monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual. They may have rural or urban roots. They are Arab, Berber, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and secular. They may have dual citizenship, permanent residence, or visas.19

There are also two additional categories of women migrants. First, there are women of rural origin who have continued their traditional lifestyles—that is, they continue to work as housewives taking care of their households and children, while their husbands serve as the providers. The second category is that of women who work outside the home, cither out of necessity or under the influence of the lifestyle in their host country.

Even so, a great number of these women are illiterate, or without any employment, especially women who migrated for family reunification. Educated women are usually younger second-generation migrants, individuals who have recently migrated, or those who have finished their studies abroad and have opted to stay in their host countries. They often come from modest social backgrounds.

Indeed, the integration of Moroccan migrant women in the job market depends on their status and qualifications. Migrant women with citizenship in their host countries fair better than those who are in irregular situations, and those with the highest degrees are in a much better position than those with poor credentials or no qualifications. Most female economic migrants are merely in search of stable jobs and decent lives. More than a third of them are university graduates who simply could not find jobs in Morocco.20

All these factors have contributed to the birth of a culture of migration which has become deeply rooted, even among school children. According to a survey of school children led by the Moroccan Association for Studies and Research on Migration (AMERM) in 1995,21 young children were often favorable to migration, and 13% of young girls stated that they would migrate in the future if necessary.22 Thus, it seems that there is a psychological tendency of young people to migrate outside Morocco, either legally or illegally.2'' Although less than 10% of women claimed that they had migrated to pursue their training and education, for the clear majority, migration was the only solution to flee poverty and to financially support an extended family left behind in Morocco.24 In Morocco, women are usually vulnerable, as they suffer from a high rate of illiteracy—reaching 67.1% in rural areas according to the 2015 United Nations Children survey25—and arc often unemployed at a 22.4% rate,26 occupy low-skilled level jobs, and/or work numerous hours for little pay.27 Their work is typically arduous, and they perform labor-intensive tasks. These jobs often provide few legal protections, which makes these women defenseless against unemployment and poverty.28

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