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Reviewed by:
  • Women migrants: From the Senegal River basin to the shores of the Seine by N. Feldman
  • Claire Levy-Vroelant
Feldman N., 2018, Migrantes: du bassin du fleuve Sénégal aux rives de la Seine [Women migrants: From the Senegal River basin to the shores of the Seine], Paris, La Dispute, 224 pages.

Nehara Feldman began this field study of female migration between the Malian village of Galoba and neighbourhoods in the immediate outskirts of Paris in 2003; the book thus offers a welcome long-term perspective on the phenomenon. The author presents the difficulties she had as a researcher making a place for herself in the field and, later, setting up interviews in an African context where people are loath to speak of their migration plans, successes, or failures. The book opens with a remarkable description of a wedding celebration that takes us immediately to the heart of the matter. Among the many guests who are already dancing is Sala, a visiting migrant from France, dressed in a richly embroidered bubu and covered with jewels. We see Sala draw a thick wad of €20 bills from her purse and begin distributing them to the people clustered around her.

The author's sole purpose here is to explore the dual world in which these women migrants live, shedding light as she does so on the now classic question of how migration affects gender relations. The survey covers three sites—the village, the Mali capital Bamako, and the greater Paris region, following women migrants of the Dagnako lineage, named after the founder of Galoba. How do these circulating women, some of whom migrate quite far away (Spain, Canada), (re)negotiate their social position and rank in their two worlds? The author's ethnographic description of their daily lives brings to light the many features that either change or never change, the practices that reproduce traditions and others that move away from them, the ways of coping, and the paths of resistance that comprise those lives. Some passages are particularly enlightening, such as those on the exploitation of younger women by older ones (in addition to their exploitation by the men they are dependent on). Women may migrate within Mali at a very young age, being sent to a sister's, sister-in-law's, or aunt's house to work as servants. Here the author is critical of standard analyses referring to a gendered division of spaces and roles. In reality, she explains, men can feel at home everywhere, even the kitchen, while women cannot really feel at home anywhere. Young women always have a suitcase ready should they be sent into service in a new lu-o, or domestic unit. Such is the life of women in rural Senegal, where the author lived several months from 2003 to 2010, gradually managing to negotiate acceptance of herself and her identity 'apart' as a Western woman and intellectual.

Does this mean that women in the village are assigned their place once and for all? Migration is always a possible means of widening one's horizon—this is where the reader would have appreciated more information on migration policies—and migrating changes many things for them, in both France and the home country. Suddenly, migration lifts the heavy daily social control to which women in the village are subjected. It is as if the norms and criteria of judgment used to evaluate them had changed entirely, making them resemble men in that [End Page 569] they now provide not only for themselves but also, as is expected, for their extended family. While their stays away vary in length (migration, 'business' travel), they seem to exonerate them from the usual obligation to account for themselves, though this place 'apart' does not call masculine domination or the established hierarchy among women into question. The author describes this as accepted, delimited transgression—a compelling idea.

When these women migrants reach the shores of the Seine, they are confronted with other issues; and here the author encountered different difficulties in the field, particularly the fact that several of her respondents were undocumented. While living in the receiving country does constitute emancipation, the women's...


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pp. 569-570
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