Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon – Issues of Access and Space

This post relates some of the ideas in an article just published in the most recent issue of Gender & Society (June 2012). Joya Misra–the current editor-in-chief–is really interested in getting more scholarship from outside of the U.S., and this issue is a great illustration of some of the fruits of her labor. One article that caught my attention documents Amrita Pande’s research on migrant domestic work in Lebanon (here). It deals with inequality and issues of space because Pande documents how migrant domestic workers in Lebanon (primarily from countries like Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) endure severe restrictions on virtually all aspects of their daily lives.

Studying this population at all is pretty amazing. All qualitative researchers confront issues of access, but this struck me as a population incredibly difficult to access. Pande was clearly not deterred by this fact. In fact, one of the initial ways she entered the field was to have “balcony talks” with domestic workers. Migrant domestic workers have sort of colonized balconies as a space for outreach and assistance–some in circumstances of incredibly cruelty and hardship. They speak across balconies with other domestic workers to ask about wages, time off, and trade tips for dealing with some of the more challenging issues with employers. It is a space to which many of them are largely relegated; yet they have found an interesting way of utilizing the space in a way that allows for what Pande refers to as meso-level collective action–playing on James Scott’s conceptualization of “infrapolitics” (here). But their collective action in not confined to the home.

Spatial structures discipline MDWs [migrant domestic workers] in Lebanon in two distinct ways: through the delineation of appropriate space within the employer’s house and through the restriction and surveillance of space outside the house. (390)

Many of these women receive incredibly limited time off–some none at all. But many are allowed to attend church, and church has become a real site for collective action for these women. Pande noted with surprise that many women don’t actually enter the service, but simply mingle outside with the other workers. It’s an incredible opportunity to organize and to help one another in a system that affords limited options to these women (they’re not, for instance, allowed to join unions). The pastor of their church preaches in practical ways that address issues of tolerance and personal safety as well as emphasizing workers’ rights and how to challenge employers who cross the line. Pande calls them “practical prayers.”

Balcony talks and church attendance also give some of these women access to another space: knowledge of apartments rented by and for women who run away. Much of the popular literature on migrant domestic workers in Lebanon focuses of the social isolation so many of them feel. Balconies are–as Pande argues–most commonly discussed as spaces where women jump to their death, feeling hopeless and with few other options. Yet Pande’s research also illustrates how they can be seen as more than this. It is through politicizing the very spaces they have been relegated to that these women have found ways of resisting on the micro-level. Whether or not this will transform the system is less certain–but it seems to have done some good for some women in incredibly difficult circumstances.

It’s also true that Pande was able to use these same strategic sites of resistance to study these women. Is her sample representative of all of the issues with which these women are dealing? Hard to say. Certainly she didn’t have access to the women who endure the most severe restrictions on their lives. But, it’s a fascinating and important (theoretically, methodologically, and practically) analysis of space.

Check out this issue here. I’m only writing about one of the articles here, but it’s a wonderful issue.

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