Men, migration, and emerging masculinities in the transnational sphere


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A migrant worker leaving for Saudi Arabia. Photo by the author.

In June 2020, I met Abdul Wakeel in his house, located on a steep hillside in the village Swara Ghundai, district Dir, Pakistan. Abdul Wakeel, a man in his late fifties and ethnically Pukhtun, had worked in Saudi Arabia for thirty-five years and returned to Pakistan for good two years ago. Upon asking about his migration experiences, he told me that his musafari (the local term for migration) was about adaptability and making compromises. He particularly emphasised how it forced a man to change himself: ‘it turns a brave man into a soft and begheirata (a coward)’. Giving an example of how migration made a man a coward, he told me that he was aware of when his sponsor exploited him, or an employer withheld or refused to pay him, but could neither resort to brute force nor take any legal action against him because of the fear of losing his migration status. However, Abdul Wakeel considered displaying cowardice as a pragmatic manoeuvre necessary for migrant workers’ migration goals. ‘Expressing nartoob (manliness) lands you in trouble, you lose your migration status, and you’re deported. So, you’ve to tolerate and be submissive if you want to [financially] succeed’, he commented. Abdul Wakeel’s comments capture how migrant men are required to negotiate their pre-migration gender practices after migration and how masculinities are reshaped in a transnational context.


During my one-year ethnographic fieldwork, Abdul Wakeel was one of the ‘uneducated’ and ‘unskilled’ men I met who provided for their families by migrating to Saudi Arabia, a primary destination for Pakistani migrant workers. Migrant men, as gendered beings, ‘do not arrive in their new homeland bereft of notions about their own manliness. To the contrary, they usually bring with them firm beliefs and well-established practices about manhood and gender relations’. In Pukhtun society, masculinity is constructed through the idiom of ‘honour and shame’. Honour underpins the notion of badal (revenge), a non-negotiable aspect of a man’s identity. ‘He is not a Pukhtun who does not give a blow for a pinch’, says the Pukhtun proverb. If a man’s honour is violated, it is incumbent upon him to avenge it, ranging from verbal to physical aggression. Failing to restore your masculine honour renders you a ‘coward man’, an insulting word used for not performing normative masculinity. I ask what happens to migrant men’s masculine practice of taking revenge when they leave their home environment. Is it ‘eroded or fortified by their active engagement in migration’?


After moving to Saudi Arabia, migrant workers confront social situations that they perceive as threats to their self-esteem. For example, Abdul Wakeel told me that in their everyday encounters with employers and Saudis, they were hurled the insults of kalb (dog) and himar (donkey). Such degrading and humiliating lived experiences of migrant workers are not unique in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, other exploitative practices, such as employers deducting wages and sponsors demanding a hefty fee for renewing residency permits, were shared with me by my interviewees. To navigate these experiences, they became non-confrontational, compromising on their gendered practice of taking revenge. ‘You can’t achieve anything by using force. You’ve to be patient. You’ve to show softness to get money from Saudis [employers]’, Abdul Wakeel added. Many of the migrant men I talked to, reflecting on their pre-migration and post-migration life, pointed out that their transnational life had made them ‘tolerant men’.


Migrant men make concessions on certain pre-migration gender practices and ideologies, which has been theorised as ‘masculine compromise’. Similarly, the concept of ‘flexible masculinity’ describes immigrant men moving away from the masculine ideals of male dominance while negotiating their subordinate position. A complex interplay between the structural conditions in the sending country and the reality at the destination of migration shaped my interviewees’ performances of flexible masculinities. In the migrants’ home district, the lack of viable employment opportunities and hence men’s inability to fulfil their normative obligation as breadwinners and providers for their families pushed them to migrate to Saudi Arabia. For migrant men, migration was a means of protecting their ‘masculine honour’ (izzat). ‘If you stay here [Pakistan], you fall into disgrace (biizzata) because there is no industry here. There is no opportunity to work in these mountains’, Abdul Wakeel told me.


In the destination context, their precarious migration status – particularly their fear of sponsorship cancellation and forced deportation – operate as ‘key disciplining mechanisms’ of the migration management system (kafala) of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, forcing them to negotiate their masculinity. As a result, they adapt their pre-migration masculine practices and ideals by adopting a flexible subject position, which they describe as ‘performing cowardice’. Since they see it as the only recourse in a transnational situation, they perceive it as powerlessness, associated with their status as a kharija (outsider) in the host society. 


However, in a migratory context, adjustments in masculinities are pragmatic. Therefore, the masculine compromises my interviewees made and the flexible form of masculinity they performed cannot be considered as only an adaptation to the conditions of the kafala system. Instead, their acceptance of exploitations and challenges to masculinities was strategic and pragmatic, shaped by a masculine trade-off. For example, Abdul Wakeel explains how the Saudi riyal real exchange rate predisposes a migrant worker to compromise on masculinity in the transnational sphere. ‘When I earned 1,500 riyals [per month], I quickly multiplied by forty. It became 60,000 [Pakistani rupees] or so. I said to myself, who gets that much salary in Pakistan… People endure being called a dog and donkey in Saudi Arabia because one riyal [they earn] exchanges for forty’. This relationship between migrant men’s enactment of flexible and strategic masculinity and remittances has also been noted by feminist geographers.


Migratory masculinities are ‘challenged, problematic, variable, changing, shifting, fluid, fractured, contextualised, contested, complicated, plural, different, diverse, heterogeneous, self-constructing and always emerging’. I argue that the migrant workers’ masculinities should be studied transnationally, wherein attention should be paid to the interplay of structural factors in the sending and destination contexts of migration shaping masculinities in the transnational setting. Large-scale unemployment in Pakistan and migrant workers’ precarious migration status in Saudi Arabia constrain their options to protest or resist exploitation and thus compel them to be flexible in their gender performances. However, this is instrumental as it helps them adapt to the new socio-legal context and achieve their migration goals.

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Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli

Patrícia is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sheffield. She holds a PhD in political science (2019) from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Brazil. Patrícia has a bachelor’s degree (2014) and a master’s degree in international relations (2015) from the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). Patrícia was a visiting scholar at the Zukunftskolleg (University of Konstanz, Germany), the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development (University of Zurich, Switzerland), and the Carolina Population Center (University of North Carolina, USA). Her research interests include migrant and refugee children, family migration and asylum policies in Brazil and Latin America. 


Twitter: @Patnabuco


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