Gender roles significantly impact life experiences. Expectations, status, responsibilities, protections, and resources are applied differently to men and women.Throughout this project, I paid special attention to the differences in gender roles and their development over the course of a refugee's journey—from their home country to transit to resettlement. The experiences of women vary widely, but I noticed a general pattern. In home countries, women are restricted by cultural practices where men dominate the public sphere and restrict women. During transit, women are vulnerable to abuse. Inside the countries of resettlement, women have access to new freedoms and resources but still recognize the limitations placed upon them.
One common principle is the value of marriage. It is generally held in high esteem everywhere, but in ultra-conservative areas, marriage is the most valuable contribution a woman can make. She should be completely obedient and subservient to her husband. In effect, women flee from countries where the institution of marriage treats them as second-class citizens.
Ali writes about the value of obedience to your husband within Somalia in her book Infidel.
A woman who is baarri is like a pious slave. She honors her husband’s family and feeds them without question or complaint. She never whines or makes demands of any kind. She is strong in service, but her head is bowed. If her husband is cruel, if he rapes her and then taunts her about it, if he decides to take another wife, or he beats her, she lowers her gaze and hides her tears. And she works hard, faultlessly. She is a devoted, welcoming, well-trained work animal. This is baarri.
If you are a Somali woman you must learn to tell yourself that God is just and all-knowing and will reward you in the Hereafter. Meanwhile, everyone who knows about your patience and endurance will applaud your father and mother on the excellence of your upbringing. Your brothers will be grateful to you for preserving their honor. They will boast to other families about your heroic submission. And perhaps, eventually, your husband’s family will appreciate your obedience, and your husband may one day treat you as a fellow human being.
If in the process of being baarri you feel grief, humiliation, fatigue, or a sense of everlasting exploitation, you hide it. If you long for love and comfort, you pray in silence to Allah to make your husband more bearable. Prayer is your strength. Nomadic mothers must try to give their daughters this skill and strength called baarri.
Ali, page 12
In The Girl Who Smiles Beads Wamariya discusses her struggle with the cultural expectations surrounding marriage in Rwanda.
Uwiringiyimana wrote about how her mother experienced the influence of cultural expectations on her marriage in How Dare the Sun Rise.
I struggle to this day. I don’t know if I want to have children. In Rwanda, if you’re female, you are born with great value—not because of who you are as an individual or your mind, but because of your body. Because of your body, when you marry, your family will get cows. Because of your body, when you marry, your family will get land. Even for a city girl in Kigali, this holds true. Yet at any moment the value of your body can be stolen.
You can be ruined—konona, that’s the Kinyarwanda word for rape. I knew the word konona by the time I was four years old. My mother didn’t say it, but I heard it around the neighborhood. A young girl would go out to play and her mother would yell after her: “Don’t be ruined. Don’t let your life be destroyed.”
The word itself does such violence. Because once you're ruined, that’s it, that’s what the word tells you. The damage is permanent. You have no value and you will never get it back. The evil that was done to your body is now intrinsic to your being. The clear water of your body is poisoned. You are hostage to that idea.
I work every day now to erase that language of ruin, to destroy it and replace it with language of my own. With konona, you’re told, there is no antidote, no cleansing agent. Your family won’t get the cows. Your family won’t get the land. You’re polluted, you’re worthless—that’s it.
My body is destroyed and my body is sacred. I will not live in that story of ruin and shame.
Wamariya, pages 112-113
In their 2018 report, "Experiences of female refugees & migrants in origin, transit, and destination countries", the Mixed Migration Centre shared the most common reasons women were leaving East and West Africa and Afghanistan. About 1/5 women migrated because they were fleeing forced or coerced marriage.
Then it was my mom’s job to get pregnant. That was a woman’s duty: to marry and bear children. But her young body wasn’t ready to carry a child. She had two miscarriages, and people began to whisper, saying that if she couldn’t have children, it must be due to witchcraft. Her in-laws shunned her for not performing her job. My mother had a very difficult time in those early years of marriage; she was a teenage girl, ostracized by the adults around her. But she was also very strong willed, determined to rise above the people who made her feel small.
Urwiringiyimana, page 15
There is push-back against many of these practices and expectations. Many of the fathers I read about wanted their daughters to get an education and succeed on their own. In Infidel, Ali writes about her father who decided to go against cultural norms by not letting his children be circumcised.
Omar writes about how her grandfather pushed against norms in This is What America Looks Like.
In Somalia, like many countries across Africa and the Middle East, little girls are made “pure” by having their genitals cut out. There is no other way to describe this procedure, which typically occurs around the age of five. After the child’s clitoris and labia are carved out, scrapped off, or, in the more compassionate areas, merely cut or pricked, the whole area is often sewn up, so that a thick band of tissue forms a chastity belt made of the girl’s own scarred flesh. A small hole is carefully situated to permit a thin flow of pee. Only great force can tear the scar tissue wider, for sex.
Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia, where virtually every girl is circumcised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam. Uncircumsized girls will be possessed by devils, fall into vice and perdition, and become whores. Imams never discourage the practice: it keeps girls pure.
Many girls die during or after their excision, from infection. Other complications cause enormous, more or less lifelong pain. My father was a modern man and considered the practice barbaric. He had always insisted that his daughters be left uncut. In this he was quite extraordinarily forward-thinking.
Ali, page 31
Everyone knew that if you ever needed Baba to sign on to something or calm him down about a dispute, you needed to talk to his daughter. She was my grandfather’s true confidante. I wasn’t surprised by the stories I heard time and again about how while she was alive, whatever Hooyo said, went. That’s because Baba continued to invest a lot of time and energy in the girls of the family (more than he did with the boys, according to my uncles). He was extremely close to us and did not adapt the traditional patriarchal role of the protector that Somali men usually fall into with the opposite sex. He treated us as equals.
Omar, page 11
As women fled their countries, they witnessed new ways women inhabited gender roles and traditions. Wamariya writes about this in The Girl Who Smiled Beads.
This journey is very dangerous, and women are automatically targets. Traveling without a man can go against cultural norms and increase their vulnerability. In the Mixed Migration Center 2018 Report, "Experiences of Female Refugees & Migrants in Origin, Transit, and Destination Countries", they examine this topic.
But Zaire wasn’t overwhelmingly Catholic—it was also Muslim and Protestant, Middle Eastern, African, Indian, and European, a vibrant mash-up. Clothes were costumes, a means of self-expression, buoyant claims to beauty. One day she wore a long, brightly patterned dress, the next a tailored blouse and skirt. The women dressed for one another, partly to prove that their husbands, fathers, and brothers were providing well for them. Claire started a business, selling purses. They were so beautiful.
Wamariya, pages 145-146
Dzaleka was the same miserable life for everybody, every day. The men played cards, the women cooked and tried to keep things clean.
Wamariya, page 202
A relatively high number of respondents in West Africa indicate that they started the journey without the aid of a smuggler or anyone else. This could be due to the ease of travel between ECOWAS countries, initially at least; and the ease of leaving countries such as Nigeria, where bus travel is common and women can travel alone. Women in East Africa, Libya and inside Afghanistan are least likely to indicate that they started the journey alone. As has been discussed for Afghan women, this is due to the nature of Afghan society, which makes it very difficult for women to do anything alone or without a male relative. For some countries in East Africa, in particular Somalia, the same is true.
Mixed Migration Center, page 36
Finances also place women in vulnerable positions during transit. Typically, it is against cultural norms for women to work in the country they are fleeing. As a result, their finances can be extremely limited, which puts them at risk for being forced into sex work. The Mixed Migration Center writes about this phenomenon in the same report as above.
Women (and men) are also more vulnerable when they travel with children. Caring for and protecting another person can prove costly during the journey. The Mixed Migration Center shares why this can be so dangerous.
Libya was the only region to have any level of women working through labor or services to pay for their migration journey. This is a worrying finding, because vulnerable women with few options to earn money legitimately are often forced in the sex industry. Additionally, further concerns about finance – and protection – relate to recent information about African refugees and migrants being sold as slave labor at markets in Libya. They are held in facilities and ‘rented’ out for labor and sexual exploitation, often held to ransom unless they have relatives able to pay for their way release and onward migration.
Mixed Migration Center, page 32
A woman's health can be greatly compromised when she is pregnant or gives birth while in transit or in a refugee camp. "Lebanon: The Refugees' Midwife | Al Jazeera World", explores how Syrian mothers survive in Lebanon with limited resources. Learn about one of these women, Zakiya, in the following clip:
Reasons for drowning or dying at sea include exhaustion, dehydration, bad or extreme weather, hunger and lack of swimming skills. For women in particular, risks also include: being placed below decks, with children, by male family members for protection, although this is a more dangerous place if a boat sinks; suffocation from toxic exhaust fumes; or drowning by incoming water. Women are more likely to have responsibility for children and more likely to drown while attempting to rescue children – the more children they have, the greater the risk of death. Women sometimes wear heavier clothing that pulls them underwater and some are pregnant.
Mixed Migration Center, page 43
When a child is lost, the uncontrollable grief can lead to negative consequences for the mother. This occurs in Shades of Gray to Ona after her baby has died.
Freedoms and Limitations
Mother translated to the commander. Ona stood up and stamped her right foot. The commander stepped up and pulled Ona from the truck. She lost all control, screaming, clawing at him. She was no match for his height or strength. He threw her to the ground. His eyes narrowed and his square jaw tightened. Mother scrambled to jump off the truck to Ona. It was too late. The commander pulled out a pistol and shot Ona in the head.
Sepetys, page 161
Many women expressed a greater sense of safety and ease after successfully relocating. Two women I interviewed—from Iraq and Cambodia—expressed this sentiment. Wamariya shares this feeling in The Girl Who Smiled with Beads.
Back in Kenilworth, at the Thomases’, I put on my shorts and running shoes and ran along Sheridan Road, relieved to be in a place where I felt safe and did not have to think constantly about my body.
Wamariya, page 348
Women generally had greater access to jobs in the countries of resettlement. However, they still had a harder time getting positions compared to their male counterparts. Indra writes about this in "Gender: A Key Dimension of the Refugee Experience".
Men likewise are likely to have significantly superior competitive class resources: education, literacy, occupational skills, public sphere interaction skill, etc. This differential, combined with the routine identification by selection officers of "heads of household" with men mean that women primarily move to resettlement in third countries as dependents of male kin and with inferior class resources.
Indra, page 4
Women also often go through the painful experience of being separated from their children. They are resettled while their children remain in their home country or transit country. Nazario writes about this in Enrique's Journey.
In Los Angeles, a University of Southern California showed, 82 percent of live-in nannies and one in four house cleaners are mothers who still have at least one child in their home country.
Nazario, page 30
Nazario also writes about the tasks women are expected to perform in the United States.
Lourdes works on a cleaning crew, then on a factory assembly line. It is hard living with so many people jammed into her apartment, especially because the men don’t help. When she arrives home, the kitchen trash is full, the floors are dirty, and she must cook and clean for everyone.
Although the men come home at different hours, Lourdes waits up to serve each of them dinner. On her day off, she takes the men’s laundry—six baskets—to the Laundromat.
Nazario, page 372
Not all women are expected to perform those tasks. For some, their gender roles changed dramatically during resettlement. Chambers writes about this in Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus.
Mamahawa was the primary breadwinner in her family once she arrived in the United States. For many Somalis, traditional gender roles shift when they migrate to the United States, as women take on jobs outside the house, something less accepted in Somalia. Mamahawa’s husband took responsibility for their young children while Mamahawa worked, frequently taking on overtime shifts on the weekend to support their large family. In 2006, Mamahawa’s husband passed away, and she was left to care for herself and her children alone.
Chambers, page 3
The Rwandan woman I talked to also spoke about a dramatic change in gender roles. In Rwanda, mothers and daughters were tasked with all the housework. In the US, the housework is split more equally—fathers and sons also contribute to upkeep.
Many women have chosen to raise awareness of the mistreatment experienced in their home countries. Watch the following clip to hear from one such woman.
New kinds of detrimental gender roles and standards enter refugees' lives when they resettle. In How Dare the Sun Rise, Uwiringiyimana writes about beauty standards and how her dad helped her overcome them.
The idea of beauty in America was new to me, and it was troublesome. The message I heard everywhere—from television, from people at school—was that I should exercise and eat healthy food so that I could stay skinny. Back home in Congo, we didn’t really think about body size. Most people I knew were at a healthy weight. And being skinny was not something a child aspired to be. I started to feel pressure to look like what America considered beautiful. My dad helped me navigate the turmoil.
“Beauty is in your head, not on your body,” Dad would say.
He never ceased to tell me about the importance of education. He said to stay focused on my schooling, not to get caught up in nonsense. If I skipped a meal, he lectured me, telling me I shouldn’t listen to outsiders and their skewed views on beauty. If I worried about my hair, he said, “You are beautiful with short hair, without any alterations to the way you were made.” My dad is probably the reason I am a feminist. His voice was a powerful one, though I couldn’t help but listen to the voices at school and on TV.
Uwiringiyimana, pages 141-142
In This is What America Looks Like, Omar describes the problems that arose when she overextended herself. This is a toxic habit of American women, thinking they can have it all—the career, family, and social life—without taking care of themselves or have others assist them with their goals. Omar writes:
The trauma to my body from the miscarriage was exacerbated by the ways my days were structured. Much like many other women, I was unable to put myself first. I was so preoccupied with making sure Isra was fed, my school-work was done, Baba had his meal, and I had checked in on this aunt or that sister that sometimes I didn’t eat for days. Overextended, I kept going by drinking coffee. I went without food and sleep until I crashed and was hospitalized for dehydration. I had to be forced to drink and eat. My thyroid was also hyperactive, so I was running on energy that I didn’t really have.
Omar, page 113