World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th – 24th 2010


Gender and Ethnicity in African Migration towards the Middle East (151) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: TUE 20, 5.00-7.00pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: International Institute of Social History (The Nederlands)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Marina de Regt

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: This panel focuses on the gendered and ethnic aspects of migration from Africa towards the Middle East. Historically, there have always been close ties between Africa and the Middle East. Ethiopians occupied parts of the Arabian Peninsula in the period prior to Islam, while Arabs migrated to Africa to spread their new religion after the death of Mohamed. African slaves were imported from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia in various periods of the great Islamic empires in the Middle East, some of whom played important roles in political life. The majority of the African population became part of the social fabric of Arab societies, yet their status and position almost always remained marginal. While in the past contacts were mainly the result of the slave trade and wars between competing empires, contemporary migration patterns are mostly driven by political and economic instabilities in the region. However, the historical roots of Arab-African affect the ways in which contemporary migrants and refugees are received, perceived and approached in the countries of migration. The close ties have had their impacts on individuals, families, communities and societies in both the Middle East and Africa. In this panel we would like to take a closer look at the historic and present-day connections and migration patterns between Africa and the Middle East, with special attention for women's migration and the effects on family and household relations.

Chair: Marina de Regt (International Institute of Social History, Nederland)

Paper presenter: Mirjam Twigt (independent scholar), “Beyond Babies and Borders: Sexual and Reproductive Lives of Sudanese Women in Egypt”
The third paper looks at the life stories of Sudanese refugee women in Egypt, with special attention for their access to reproductive health care. The change of a rural life in Sudan to the urban environment of Cairo has clearly changed their behaviour and ideas on these issues. Their increased economic power, the lesser role of family and tribal structures and the circumstances in Cairo do seem to give more space and reason to consider family planning. Also, with less protection from kin, female friendships are of greater importance and provide aid, care and information. Other ideas have remained the same: family and fertility are still two very important concepts in the lives of the Sudanese women, for many infertility is their biggest fear and knowledge on reproduction and sexuality remains little.

Paper presenter: Marina de Regt (International Institute of Social History), “Ethiopian Women's Migration to Yemen: Past and Present”
The fourth paper focuses on two forms of Ethiopian women's migration to Yemen. In the first half of the twentieth century many Yemenis migrated to the Horn of Africa, set up businesses and married local women. After the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1970 many of these migrants returned to Yemen with their African wives and offspring. The stories of these women, who were often stigmatized and discriminated, have been hitherto invisible in Yemen’s modern history. The paper will compare the experiences of these women with those of Ethiopian women who migrated as domestics to Yemen in the beginning of the 21st century.

Paper presenter: Rima Sabban (Zayed University), "The Hidden Africa in the History of ''Domestic Work'' in the Gulf"
This paper is a historical account of African women (and men) that came to the Gulf region and particularly the UAE as domestic slaves. The scope of their existence is still debatable among scholars of the region. They were to be found only in limited rich merchants’ households and some of the tribal elites families. The data collected for the paper relies particularly on the British Archival Records of the Emirates. It attempts to construct the story looking at the reality of domestic slaves and compare it with the reality of domestic workers today. In my previous informal discussions and encounters of the issue in the UAE, where I researched the topic of domestic work for many years; I gathered anecdotal stories on slavery. The most interesting argument put forward by local intellectuals and mostly feminist women, was that slaves were better treated then in comparison to domestic workers today. This paper thus engages such discussion on three levels: one is the context and framework of comparison between the past and present, the second is the actual reality drawn on direct issues of domestic work such as treatment, and thirdly the possible links and relationships between the past trajectory and the present one. In the first part the paper looks at the framework of comparison and its relevance. It asks questions such as: how closely similar or/ different domestic slavery is from domestic work? How such difference and or/ similarity linked to the reality of the UAE? Can we draw images of continuation and/or disruption on the basis of such comparison? The second part addresses issues of treatment at work, inclusion of ‘domestics’ in the private family circle, as well as the public social and political circles among other issues of spatial inclusion and exclusion. Along the line drawn between the past and present other issues such as the impact of the past reality on the present practices are also put into questioning in order to draw lines and nuances of the constants and the changing aspects of domestic work in the intimacy of the UAE family.