Current Projects

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Successful’ Women of the Transnational Field: Sierra Leonean Big Women in Europe

Anaïs Ménard

This project focuses on processes of social achievement and recognition among Sierra Leonean women living in Europe. The concept of ‘big men’ in the literature on West Africa constitutes the point of departure of this project: it defines a form of power based on patronage and wealth-in-people – that is, the ability to accumulate subordinates and build networks that sustain positions of power. Literature on ‘big men’ is highly gendered: it focuses mainly on older men who secure their position by controlling youth labour and other economic and social assets. It also relies on the analysis of neo-patrimonial politics in Africa and leaves little space to examinations of how women achieve power. This focus on big-man politics tends to reflect a view that women are less capable as political actors. Yet women can also be ‘big women’: the construction of female power depends on gendered factors, such as the type of marriage that a woman enters, the number of her children (and her success at educating them), her role in ritual practices, and factors related to family assets (inheritance and ownership). Women build their positions of power in ways very different to those of men. However, these cultural aspects are often overlooked in analyses of the social positions of women who migrate. In the processes of migrating, Sierra Leonean women retain their culturally specific understandings of social status and achievement. They transpose and transform the meaning of becoming and acting as big women in new contexts. The project explores the dimensions of power, status, and social recognition from a gendered and migratory perspective. Do women identify as big women, or wish to be identified as such, and by whom? Does the migratory context offer them opportunities to build and perform a social status as big women? What strategies do they pursue to achieve this status? For women, recognition of their enhanced social status may not only depend on their economic success, but also on normative assessments about their family achievements and their respectability and morality. The objectives are to understand the weight of gender norms in processes of recognition and to investigate how imaginaries of power are redeployed in migratory contexts.

Strategies of Social Mobility of Ghanaian Women in Germany and the Netherlands

Kezia Ayikai Aryeetey

This project seeks to narrow the knowledge gap on African women as economic migrants in Europe by focusing on how Ghanaian women in Germany and the Netherlands strategize their upward mobility. By looking at female-led or women-centred economic and social networks that Ghanaian women migrants belong to (such as diasporic churches, women’s associations, and female-led businesses), the project intends to identify the transnational (gendered) resources that women mobilize in order to become upwardly mobile. How does gender influence (enable or restrict) the kind of opportunities that women have in the migrant community (position of influence, status)? The hypothesis is that certain networks may provide alternative pathways to ‘success’ for Ghanaian women migrants. For instance, women may use their prominent roles in Ghanaian churches in Europe to gain recognition and be viewed as ‘successful’ migrants. Another door to social mobility is the existence of small-scale businesses, such as hair and beauty salons, door-to-door sales, and online businesses, that allow women to control their income and invest in further activities. The project gives particular emphasis to such economic endeavours and their implications for women’s emancipation and social becoming. Furthermore, it will analyse women’s strategizing of their identity – namely, how women organize, use, and manage their multiple identities (gender, age, marital status and motherhood, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.) in order to seek social mobility in various arenas, both in the host society and in diasporic networks. The project looks at the relevant markers of social mobility: What social markers are important for women to gain in order to display higher status towards other migrants? How do they gain status in those groups of peers that are important to them? Do strategies of ‘integration’ into the host society play a role in these processes?

Love, Ageing, and Migration from a Gendered Perspective

A book project by Anaïs Ménard

This project addresses changing patterns of intimate relationships, love, and marriage in relation to ageing in migration. Transnational migration can result in the reconfiguration of established gender relations. This project explores the transformation of the perceptions of love in the life courses of West African women who live in Europe and in particular their partnership choices later in life, which are shaped by ideas about individual autonomy and gender equality. How does the life trajectory in contexts of migration reframe individual subjectivities with regard to gendered relations? How does ageing in migration impact individual choices with regard to love, relationships, and the gender relations they involve? Initially, the context of migration tends to assign rigid gendered roles to migrant women, who often start out socially isolated and economically dependent on immigrant men. In articulating the process by which they ‘broke free’ from male control and tried to establish new relationships, successfully or not, West African women express individual emancipation from collective norms concerning marriage. They present love as an individual choice. Nevertheless, the ageing process plays an important role in these individual choices: when women are no longer of reproductive age and/or have adult children, when they have a stable situation in their host country, new choices and perspectives are open to them. This project explores the critical dimensions of age and life stage regarding women’s dependence on (or emancipation from) collective gender norms.

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