[URBANTH-L]REV: Hoffman on Salih, _Gender in Transnationalism_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Mon Feb 14 17:24:17 EST 2005

Published by H-Gender-MidEast (December, 2004)

Ruba Salih. Gender in Transnationalism: Home, Longing and Belonging Among
Moroccan Migrant Women. Routledge Research in Transnationalism Series. New
York: Routledge, 2003. xi + 192 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
$114.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-4152-6703-X.

Reviewed by: Katherine E. Hoffman, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern

Solitude, Isolation, and Marginalization

Scholarship on migrants and diaspora populations increasingly has been
concerned with the issue of simultaneous participation in home and host
countries, as people find themselves neither fully assimilated into their
adopted country nor at home in their country of origin. A recent push to
replace the concepts of emigration/immigration (implying a break from
origins and settling in the host country) and diaporas (stressing the
displacement from one's home country) has led to the spread of the concept
of transnationalism. Transnationalism is not just a new word for an old
phenomenon; it emphasizes the dynamic process of nation-making as anchored
across nations (and states), privileging neither place of origin nor adopted
land, and collapsing time and space into a single social field (Glick
Schiller et al 1992: 1 in Salih 5). Salih raises the important theoretical
issue of the role of gender in transnationalism, a neglected domain of
research. Her ethnographic focus is on Moroccan women in Italy, however,
more than the mutual construction of maleness and femaleness through
interaction. In this and other respects, the book seems partitioned into
thoroughly researched theoretical passages and sparser interview-informed
sections. From an ethnographer's perspective, the book suffers from a lack
of integration between theoretical foci and ethnographic data. Nevertheless,
there remains much to recommend this text.

Salih takes up such questions as Moroccan women's relations with the new
places they inhabit and their changing conceptualizations of home. How are
women's identities and cultural practices shaped by the transnational
dimension of their lives and by living in a world supposedly increasingly
interconnected? What are the relations between marginalization and lack of
recognition in Italy and transnationalism? How are migrants represented by
the Italian state and how in turn do they respond to these representations
(p. 3)? Despite the ample literature on Moroccans and other North Africans
in France, little has been written about these emigrants to Italy, in part
because their arrival began in earnest only in the late 1980s, and in part
because, as Salih notes, Italians are more accustomed to considering their
country an exporter of labor rather than a draw for emigrants. The dominant
themes that emerge from the accounts of women Salih interviewed are
solitude, isolation, and marginalization. Structurally this makes sense, as
there are few conglomerations of Moroccan emigrants sufficient to be
considered a community in its conventional sense in the region of Emilia
Romagna, where research was based. But even those emigrant women familiar
with other Moroccans tended to avoid them, critical of the ways in which
other emigrants adhered to competing discourses of secularism and Islamic
piety. The state and Italian society, for their part, put up obstacles to
women's integration, simultaneously endorsing discriminatory discourse
against Moroccans as a whole and embracing an essentialist image of Moroccan
female personhood that revolved around her honor, restraint, and modesty in
the service of her husband's reputation, qualities inherently compromised by
her immigrant status. Salih's Moroccan informants longed for the food,
clothes, and companionship they knew growing up in Morocco, yet many felt
isolated by their domestic and public lives that offered neither the
benefits of European citizenry nor the familiarity of Moroccan residence. In
an effort to stress the dissimilarity between emigrant women, Salih refuses
to characterize them as a type of community. This makes it difficult,
however, to assess the ways in which her informants' experiences are
particular to Moroccan emigrants, shared by other emigrants in Italy, or
shared by Moroccans in other diasporic locales. However, one argument that
emerges from the particularities is that discrimination in social service
contexts is gendered: headscarved women complained of being denied
acknowledgement of their personhood apart from male protectors, especially
husbands. More analysis of the women's profiles--indeed, more people in the
text in general--would better flesh out this and other arguments in the

Indeed, while the theoretical arguments and scholarly literature on
modernity, globalization, migration, diaspora, and transnationalism are
amply discussed in this book, the ethnographic portions are limited to
interview excerpts and sparse descriptions. One facet of women's experience
is clear: the respects in which emigration, even when first perceived by
women as emancipation, turns out not to be liberating because of the ways in
which the nation-state is an extension of male domination (p. 50). Thus
whether the women migrated to Italy to join husbands, or instead to free
themselves from men and restrictions, they faced many of the same
constraints once settled in Italy. Yet their sense of home while living in
Italy, and during return visits to Morocco, was rooted less in their
structural position in a family network, as female head of household, and
more in their engagement with commodities that reminded them of the other
home (p. 78). Despite such insights, the areas of most interest to North
Africanists and anthropologists are not adequately addressed. Some of this
is a problem of sloppy editing and awkward phrasing. For instance, in the
first profile introduced on p. 40, the reader learns that Samia's mother
basically lives between Casablanca and Reggio Emilia. What does this mean,
exactly? In a book on this kind of transnational practice, the reader
expects more probing into the texture of transnational lives. Ultimately,
however, the reader is left yearning for more about the women and their
lives, and less about the scholarly literature.

Salihs book may interest scholars of transnationalism, gender studies,
Italy, and North Africa, but ultimately it falls short of contributing
significantly to regional studies or social anthropology. There are many
threads that may interest specialists even if they are not tightly woven
into a neat whole. Its most valuable contribution may be in raising
questions about the ways in which subjectivities are shaped by belonging to
multiple locales that are collapsed in time and space, and the ways in which
our conventional models for understanding personhood and place-making are
inadequate to capture the complexity of contemporary migrations.

Citation: Katherine E. Hoffman. "Review of Ruba Salih, Gender in
Transnationalism: Home, Longing and Belonging Among Moroccan Migrant Women,"
H-Gender-MidEast, H-Net Reviews, November, 2004. URL:

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