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  • Migration and Increased Participation in Public Life:The Case of Pakistani Women in London
  • Anne-Line Rodriguez (bio)


This article addresses the issue of migration as a factor of change in the gendered division between private and public spaces; more precisely, the opportunity for migrant women—coming from countries where the gendered division is in comparison stricter—to renegotiate their participation in the public arena. To this end, I will present results from a sociological study of the case of Pakistani women in London, which analyzed women's productive and social practices before and after twenty years spent in the country of migration.1 It will be shown that the shifts between private and public activities must be related to the unequal positions of the women before migration in the socioeconomic structure, to their prior expectations of the future reserved for them, and to their subsequent positions in the country of immigration. As will be seen, the predominance of constraints related to mental and social structures in shaping women's participation in public life challenges the idea that migration to Western liberal democracies like the United Kingdom (UK) is emancipatory simply because of contact with modern cultural values.

Throughout centuries and throughout societies, women have been primarily associated with the private, domestic domain, whereas men have occupied and continue to dominate the public world. A different value is attached to private and public spaces, since social existence is sanctioned by participation in the public domain. In many countries feminist movements have, these last decades, led to profound transformations in the condition of women. Even if today the private-public division still structures societies,2 one can nevertheless observe different states of this feature through time and space. In the UK, the immigration country of the population of this study, access to higher education and to paid work have resulted in women stepping back both from domestic tasks and from reproductive functions. This has made it possible to witness women increasing their participation in the public space and distancing [End Page 94] themselves from the traditional feminine model. Consequently, even if in the UK the division of space between private and public activities still structures women's and men's lives, it is relatively less strict today than before. However, such a historical transformation of the private-public border did not occur in every country at the same time or in the same manner. In Pakistan, the country of origin of this study's population, the separation of physical spaces and activities between the private and the public sphere has seen different developments. Two to three decades ago, this division was very strict, making it difficult for many women to circulate freely and work in the public space.

Given the different states of the private-public division between Pakistan and the UK, one can ask if migration to the UK provides an opportunity for Pakistani women to redefine their productive and social activities toward an increased participation in the public world; this was the purpose of the study presented in this article. The data upon which the article is based comes from fieldwork conducted with migrant Pakistani women in London between 2003 and 2004. Results from the analysis of this data are reported here. I will use these data to examine the strength of the hierarchical division between the private and the public spaces, the possibilities for its change or, on the contrary, for its reproduction.

The first section specifies the approach and method with which the study has been implemented and also demonstrates why productive and social activities constitute a critical dimension of the private and public division. The next three sections explore how the productive and social practices of the women evolved from before emigration to about twenty years after immigration, and identify the causes behind the changes and continuities. The article concludes with a discussion of the type of constraints preventing change in the gender division.

Approach, Concepts, and Method

The Contexts of Practices

There are several reasons to question migration as a factor for change, in couples' practices, in favor of women's integration into the public space. A priori, it is tempting to imagine that...


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pp. 94-112
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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