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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Luisa Ferreira da Silva

Sociologist, ASI, Universidade Portucalense, Porto

Migration takes many different forms, especially as far as the people who migrate and the conditions under which they do so are concerned. There is a category of migrants that come from the most privileged classes, people with healthy finances and good qualifications, often with social contacts in the society to which they move, often with a home and a job already arranged for them before departure. However, most people who migrate do so for reasons of imperative necessity rather than choice. In their home countries, these people undergo great economic hardship or are affected by war and decide to try to better their lives in other societies. Sometimes they leave home with some local contact that can welcome them on arrival and guide them as they search for a home and a job. In other cases, they leave without any contact at the destination, simply to ‘try their luck’. They leave behind them everything they own, which is always little in the case of economic migrants and may also be very little in the case of those forced to migrate due to war or other political reasons.

It is this latter type of migration–migration as a result of economic hardship–that social science has most often addressed. In fact, such people face greater difficulties to integrate in the new society and thus pose a greater challenge for the host country, firstly, because they come in large numbers, and secondly, because they join the most disadvantaged classes, which in turn implies social problems related to their living conditions, with limited resources and many other handicaps, such as higher illness and accident rates, higher dropout and academic failure rates among young people that often lead to higher levels of delinquency, for example. Often, they do not know the language of the country they arrive in. For all these reasons, they are the target of government social policies. Social policies (mainly housing, health, education, and social assistance) are both an instrument with which to support populations in distress and at the same time a means of monitoring and controlling (what we call ‘regulation’) them, in the sense that they enquire about living conditions, set terms for the allocation of subsidies (for example, in order to receive child benefits, they have to send the child to school), guide them towards social integration and skills-building schemes, and generally contribute to fitting these people into society’s institutions.

In fact, whenever migration is discussed, emphasis always lies on the question of their hardships. Such difficulties include leaving the country they started out from, which is known as the ‘country of origin’, with their memories, loved ones and social relationships, lifestyle, etc.; the difficulties of embarking on the journey, both in terms of cost and sometimes the need to assume a status of illegality as they are forced to pay someone to organise and help them cross borders; difficulties on arrival, staying with relatives or friends, they do not know the language of the country they arrive in, called the ‘host country’; the difficulties of finding a job and learning to move around a big city; the lack of trust or hostility in the eyes of the locals who see how people come with a different physical appearance, different way of dressing, and different customs in the way they conduct themselves in public and in relation to others.

Such was the situation suffered by Portuguese women who emigrated to France in the 1960s, i.e., who have been immigrants in France since then, in many cases they still live in French society, although many others have returned to Portugal. This paper is about those women.

The aim of this article is to address the issue of migration from the positive view of the benefits it provided those women in the specific case of Portuguese female immigrants in France in the 1980s.

The 1960s was a time which saw significant Portuguese immigration to France – the French were experiencing a period of considerable industrialisation and development, whereas Portugal remained mainly rural, with a great deal of poverty and even misery, governed by a strongly authoritarian regime that kept society in a state of minimal social change, with very little schooling. To further exacerbate the situation, Portugal had been at fighting a war since the beginning of the 1960s in various African colonies, a war that conscripted young men for four years, impoverished the country and caused thousands of deaths, especially among the young.

The Portuguese, usually young men, emigrated illegally, as emigration was banned except in relatively small numbers and only after a lengthy process to obtain a permit. After the ordeals of the journey and an installation period supported by family or neighbours that had emigrated earlier, the man, if married, often brought his family over to France too. In many cases, single women emigrated on their own in search of work. Thus, women from small villages or towns, farm workers with little or no education, often came to France to work in industry or domestic service, especially in the Paris region. It was the latter kind of woman that I was most familiar with back in the 1980s.

At the time, I was studying domestic violence, a problem that, in those days, was completely ignored by social science and silenced by the authorities as well as by the people who knew of it or lived through it.

The Portuguese family has traditionally been marked by differentiation in marital roles and status, meaning that men and women had different obligations and different recognition in society. The man was the socially recognised authority over women and children, free to make decisions, to make demands and even to hand out physical punishment. The woman rarely worked outside the home with any autonomy or the right to a proper salary. The work she did in the house and in the fields was not recognised as such, considered to be merely part of her family obligations. She owed obedience to her husband and should not complain if he mistreated her. Separation or divorce, especially at the initiative of the woman, was unthinkable. In such cases, it was not uncommon for the husband to kill the wife and for the law subsequently to hand out a light sentence… because the fault had lain in her conduct!

Physical violence by the husband against the wife was often considered normal (as often was physical violence by parents against children). It was not a case of people considering it the ‘done thing’ but rather it was silently tolerated–a blind eye was turned with the complacent recognition of ‘that’s the way it’s always been and always will be’. The police and the courts, hospital emergency departments and psychiatric services held no records of such situations. There were a number of complaints that were not considered worthy of police or judicial investigation or medical concern. Women received from men as children received from parents. The records were about a minority of women and no one considered that anything needed to be done to change the situation (SILVA, 1995).

In this context, discovering French society was an almost overpowering shock for those women. They discovered a much more modern, more educated and more industrialised society in which domestic life was made easier by the availability of pre-cooked food in the shops and the proliferation of electrical appliances, thus encouraging women to seek paid employment and, consequently, equal social status to men. Their lives were still hard but now they had a salary and with that they sought (and demanded) respect at home as well. They also gained a broader social life, with colleagues to talk to and with whom they discovered new ways of living, commented on their lives, and swapped advice and tips. They learned new customs, new ways of life, new ways of thinking about the present and the future. They adopted new habits, new ways of dressing, talking, spending money, or raising children, for example. The Portuguese world was changed by the influence of such new customs brought home by migrants in France.

It was the immigrants in the Paris region that were most quickly influenced by new customs. The French bourgeoisie found that Portuguese women were very good domestic caregivers and cherished them as ‘gardiennes’ (doorkeepers) of residential buildings. This position usually included a family dwelling in the same building and additional work as a maid in the homes of the French families that lived upstairs. Thus, Portuguese women became the main family breadwinners. The family home was assigned to her, to the ‘doorkeeper’, and that was another important factor that increased her value in comparison with men. In addition to these attributes, working in Madame’s home enabled them to learn French quickly (unlike their husbands working on building sites, almost always in the company of other Portuguese and foreign immigrants) and to live and work in the style of life of wealthy French households (from the middle and upper classes).

The experience of many of these women had been to suffer physical violence from the husband while living in Portugal, but after some time in France, that situation had come to an end. As they themselves explained, times had changed and the habit of men beating women had to change as well. They thus forced it to come to an end. I remember hearing them on two or three occasions refusing to return to Portugal when the husband wanted to or saying they would never return, because ‘back there, I know I would be a slave again. Here, he comes with me to do the shopping and when we go back there on holiday, he never lifts a finger’.

In short, apart from the fact that migration implies moving from one country to another, it is essentially characterised by the encounter of cultures. This merger is difficult and sometimes even has negative aspects, particularly when social groups reject each other because of their differences, which is more often instigated by the group installed in the country against newcomers. Yet it also has positive aspects. This text has highlighted the dynamics of change in the sense of adopting manners that are more respectful of human dignity.

This was seen to occur in a group of people who migrated from a poor society with rigid traditional customs based on gender inequality to a richer society where gender equality had been encouraged for some time1 . What caused the change of behaviour in this case was the confrontation of women’s mental acceptance of their role as socially subjugated entities within traditional Portuguese society with a situation in which the position and social status of women was profoundly, almost abruptly, altered, thus spotlighting the implicit contradiction of the situation.

1 – Today, we talk about gender equality rather than equality between sexes, in order to highlight the idea that it is not the biological differences between the sexes that dictates social inequality but rather the organisation, standards and rules that society establishes and perpetuates over the centuries.