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Worker-Mothers on the Margins of Europe: Gender and Migration between Moldova and Istanbul

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Following Moldovan women who "commute" for six to twelve months at a time to work as domestics in Istanbul, Worker-Mothers on the Margins of Europe explores the world of undocumented migrants from a postsocialist state. Leyla J. Keough examines the gendered moral economies that shape the perspectives of the migrants, their employers in Turkey, their communities in Moldova, and the International Organization for Migration. She finds that their socialist past continues to color how the women view their labor and their roles within their families, even as they are affected by the same shifts in the global economy that drive migration elsewhere. Keough puts scholarship on gender and migration into dialogue with postsocialist studies and offers a critical assessment of international anti-trafficking efforts.

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6 Chapters

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1. The Returns on Mobile Mothers’ Work

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I look around my house and I see my first trip to Turkey: the washing machine; the second: the gas line; the third: the kids’ new furnishings and the new entryway. The following trip was my first daughter’s university education. The next one will be for the kitchen.

—Tatya, October 2004

In many ways, the situation of women in Gagauz Yeri is structured by the same economic conditions that have affected poor women worldwide. According to the sociologist Saskia Sassen, women work abroad because they are poor and desperate, and as mothers under conditions of neoliberalism they will go to any length for their family’s survival (1998, 2000). Gagauz women’s explanations for their migrant labor generally uphold this “survivalist” theory. Without exception, all the women with whom I spoke said they worked abroad because they could not find work in the economic circumstances of post-Soviet Moldova, and they felt obligated as mothers to take care of their families, particularly their children. In the women’s narratives that make up the main substance of this chapter, joblessness, the lack of an income, and the relatively new need for cash for their children’s benefit caused migration to Turkey. These gendered explanations are clearly genuine and may even help women and children cope with separation (Parrenas 2005).

 

2. Uplift in Gagauz Yeri

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If it is difficult for women from Gagauz Yeri to legitimate their work abroad to their communities at home because they are mothers, then making matters worse is that they work in Turkey. Women in Gagauz Yeri conceive of their travels as journeys in the margins of Europe, from a fallen but nonetheless modern and civilized post-Soviet space to an uncivilized but nonetheless capitalist Turkey. For other migrant women on the move from the global east, south, and periphery, uplift and progress, both money and modernity, can legitimately be found in their destinations: the global west, north, and center. Mary Beth Mills (1999) and Aihwa Ong (1987) describe the lives of young, rural, uneducated, and single girls encouraged by their families to seek modernity in urban life. Denise Brennan examines the case of young, uneducated sex workers who seek a ticket to civilization—and out of the Dominican Republic—on the arm of a European husband (2004). For the educated Filipinas who work as migrant domestics, as Rachael Salazar Parrenas details, true uplift is legitimate only when they themselves return to their families and households. Yet Filipina migrants’ destinations—Italy and the United States (Parrenas 2001, 2005) and Taiwan (Lan 2006a)—are deemed not only wealthy but also civilized places. This helps Filipinas legitimate their migrant work and absence from their homes. For migrants from Gagauz Yeri, however, Turkey is a place to gain money but not modernity. For them, Russia is still the ultimate locus of civilization. This is one of the peculiarities of the Gagauz women’s migrations compared to those of other migrant domestics. It is also a peculiarity of the Gagauz post-Soviet experience as compared to other post-Soviet and postsocialist states. These sentiments harbored toward Russia and Turkey, explored in the first part of this chapter, also help determine the returns on migrant women’s labors, or how women’s work and wages are seen to improve—or corrupt—the status of their families and communities at home.

 

3. Desiring a New Domestic

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Just as shifting gendered moral economies in Gagauz Yeri inform women’s reasons to seek domestic work in Turkey and their returns on that work, so too do changes in gendered moral economies in Turkey construct the demand for domestics from Moldova.

The desire for “Moldovans,” as Gagauz women generally are called in Turkey (as most in Turkey do not distinguish Gagauz from other ethnic and language groups in Moldova), is structured by transformations in what constitutes the “modern” Turkish household. For middle- and upper-class families, hiring Gagauz women characterizes what is deemed a contemporary lifestyle in a way that hiring local domestics or women from the other formerly socialist states and Eastern Europe does not. As I came to know, employers explain this preference not as a matter of economics—that migrant labor is cheaper—but as an expression of cultural ideas based on their views of modernity: the professionalization of domestic work, and notions of gender intersecting with ideas about citizenship, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion or religiosity. Migrants from Moldova are taken to be white, European, cultured, educated, attractive, hardworking, and trustworthy, but also desperate, oversexed, and ambitious. This image works with the broader economic and ideological conditions of migrant domestic work in Turkey to construct the desire—the gendered moral economy of demand—for women from formerly socialist states as domestics. Such notions also help employers negotiate the vulnerabilities and inconsistencies that arise in hiring a live-in domestic worker who, whether local or foreign, undertakes this work illegally (see also Nare 2011). Indeed, this migration is not sanctioned and regulated from the top down, by the Turkish state, but rather is driven by specific gendered moral economies as they play out between individuals. Examining these ideas thus is vital to understanding the discursive practices in the transnational social field of labor as it takes shape in Turkey.

 

4. Working in Istanbul

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The shifting gendered moral economies in Turkey create the demand for migrant domestics from Moldova, and construct the contours for Gagauz women’s lives in Istanbul. Migrant worker-mothers bring their own perspectives and skills to this experience, navigating the ins and outs of this migration and labor with considerable deft. Natalia’s story, given here, illustrates the contradictory effects of their agency. Ultimately, her narrative tells us about the benefits that women gain from this migrant labor, the exploitations they face, and the limits imposed on their upward mobility.

I was tooling around the market in downtown Comrat in late October when I met Natalia. She was working with her sister at a stall selling clothing brought from Turkey. The breezy fall had turned into a cold winter in Moldova, and she was selling turtleneck sweaters. She spoke to me in Russian and I replied in Turkish, as I often did in Gagauz Yeri, since most people at the market could understand it. After quick introductions, Natalia said, “I’m going to Turkey in ten days,” and launched into her story. She and her sister, whom she nodded to in the next stall over, had both been to Turkey. Her sister had a child, and they needed money, so they alternated their stints abroad, often for the same employer. “How was it?” I asked. “How was it?” she scoffed. “How is working twenty-four hours a day? Serving someone at midnight—‘Natalia, bring tea!’” she mimicked. “And then you have to get up early, at 7 a.m.” “Hard,” I replied. “Yeah, it’s hard,” she said.

 

5. Managing Migration

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Migrant labor from Gagauz Yeri has prompted panic over the potential for dissolving families and orphaned children, and the blame has fallen especially on the shoulders of migrant worker-mothers. This anxious tenor also resonates in intergovernmental organization (IGO), nongovernmental organization (NGO), and governmental policy responses to migration from Moldova. This is true particularly of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an IGO funded primarily by the United States and the European Union (EU) that is the foremost institution dealing with migration in Moldova and in Europe more broadly. The IOM was the final site I investigated in the social field of transnational labor circulating from Moldova to Turkey and back. As at the other sites, here too we find gendered moral economies expressed and constituted that do not necessarily work in the best interests of women migrants. In both its Moldovan and Turkish offices, the IOM gathers a wealth of data on this migration pattern. In addition to trying to assist migrants, IOM staff disseminate knowledge about migration in media campaigns to raise public consciousness about the plight of migrants. These efforts have focused almost exclusively on countering trafficking in women from Moldova to Turkey. Profiling a typical victimized migrant woman and her criminal traffickers, they make a particular argument for the appropriate policy response to this migration: imprison traffickers and repatriate and rehabilitate victims. For the latter, they have created a trafficking hotline and women’s shelters. Yet little effort has been expended on identifying and addressing the root economic causes of trafficking and on creating jobs for women at home, let alone on addressing other migrant labor exploitations such as those described by the migrant women themselves.

 

6. Conclusion: “Driven” Women

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This book has looked at the gendered moral economies at multiple sites where mobile women workers from Gagauz Yeri have been constrained or uplifted by gendered ideas and practices in Moldova and Turkey and state and nongovernmental organization policies. From this exploration, what can be concluded, not only about the effects on women and families of migrating for work in an era of global neoliberalism, but also about gendered mobilities and agency more generally?

The women from Gagauz Yeri who commute to Turkey to work are actually continuing to express and act on values derived from an earlier socialist worker-mother model and ideals (the alternative would be to remain at home and lose the worker role). Yet even when those women try to function according to those worker-mother ideals, their migrant domestic work and their experiences abroad eventually prompt new desires for consumer goods, a revision of the gendered obligations to their families, new labor relationships that differ from those of the socialist state, and new expectations of their home country. This development is in keeping with one of Pierre Bourdieu’s classic tenets: namely, that individual actions may be motivated by traditional or conventional attitudes (the individuals may be trying to act as previous generations did), but because of the march of time (and in this case the women’s movements over space) the actions do not—and cannot—mean the same thing that they did for previous generations. Bourdieu refers to this dynamic as the “Don Quixote” effect (1984). In fact, individuals who desire to “stay the same” as previous generations often must make deliberate changes to their current practices. Thus, these migrant women workers may have the intention of fulfilling their roles as socialist worker-mothers, but their practices and the conditions of their work align them as well with the global neoliberal capitalist structures and values of the contemporary era, not with the socialist past.

 

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