Reimagining Women and the Family in the Age of Migration and ICT
Using ICTs to maintain family relationship and responsibility is, of course, well and good. What becomes problematic for migrant women, particularly mothers who compensate for their physical absence with the help of ICTs, is when such actions reinforce or create new forms of oppressive gender roles and relations. Bonka Boneva, Robert Kraut, and David Frohlich point this out in “Using E-mail for Personal Relationships: The Difference Gender Makes”38 where they illustrate how the use of new technologies perpetuates traditional gender roles in communication behavior. They point to how previous researches suggest that women are more likely than men to define themselves through their social relations and argue that women have now appropriated communication technologies, particularly the internet, for such purpose.
The use of ICTs to maintain family roles and relations becomes more problematic in the Asian context where traditionally it is still presupposed that Asian women, particularly mothers, will be primary caregivers or parents responsible for family and domestic labor. When one talks of the “Asian family,” for instance what usually comes to mind is that of a kinship system where decision-making is hierarchical and consensual whereby individual desires are usurped by the greater good of the family and based on a nostalgic vision of femininity that is accepted as inherently or culturally “Asian.” Even migration as a life-changing decision and process is deeply embedded, and must be understood, in the context of family norms, relations, and politics that often reconstitute the Asian family in ways which are sometimes destabilizing, sometimes affirming.39
Ke Yang’s study, for example, explained that the use of mobile phones among migrant workers in communicating with their loved ones back home “help mollify role-conflict that they experience as a result of living divided lives.” Yang dubbed this “concern in absence” which means that migrants express concern for the family members by calling them in their mobile phones to ask about their day-today experiences, especially their problems and concerns. He explained that this “concern in absence” makes distant motherhood possible and helps to alleviate the pain these migrants experience as a result of separation from home and family. Yang concluded that the use of mobile phones among migrant workers provides a method for reinforcing and maintaining family ties.40 This means, however, that migrant mothers bear the triple burden of work, family care, and sending remittances to their home countries.
Indeed, as Rhacel Salazar Parrenas argues, while the maintenance of transnational families holds tremendous promise for the transgression of gender boundaries41 it also upholds gender boundaries, for example, caring practices still maintain female domesticity.42 This gender paradox, Parrenas contends, could be seen in the fact that while the reorganization of the household into transnational structures questions the ideology of women’s domesticity, women’s migration has not led to a more egalitarian division of labor in the family.43
The burden is reinforced for migrant women in Catholic moral teachings in the way motherhood is presented as the locus of the dignity and vocation of women. Within Catholic Social Teaching (CST), for example, one gets the impression that women’s duties are, first and foremost, to be a good mother and wife.44 Maria Riley singles out and critiques what is embedded in such perspective.
The image of family in the doctrines is the patriarchal family with very clear delineations and authority structures. The ideal is the so-called “traditional family” with a father who is employed and a mother who takes care of the home and children.... This image does not reflect the reality of today’s post-industrialized world [and even the Third World where the mother has to work]. Because the doctrines place so much stress on the meaning and role of womanhood, the meaning and role of fatherhood is insufficiently recognized.... It disenfranchizes men from the full potential of their fatherhood, while it disenfranchizes women from the full potential of their personhood.45
The CST’s approach could be problematic if not alienating for women, especially for migrant women workers who are also mothers. Overall, it is—as Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler point out—the use of complementarity as a foundational sexual ethical concept in magisterial pronouncements on human sexuality46 that poses difficulties. One could see such concept reflected in the dualistic anthropology that informs the CST. Riley writes: “This biologically determined view of women also becomes evident in the documents when they purport to be speaking of human nature and human rights. Women’s ability to participate fully in all arenas of the human community is consistently being circumscribed by their so-called nature.”47 Christine Gudorf echoes this dualism by pointing out how, on the one hand, “papal social teaching on politics, economics, and social policy in the public realm is characterized by a social welfare liberalism assuming equality, pluralism, democracy, social dynamism, and optimism about creating a just egalitarian order through gradual altruistic efforts within existing social structures” and “papal teaching on the private realm, on the other hand, continues to be characterized by assumptions of static institutions rooted in divine and natural law, hierarchy, and paternalism.”48 Gudorf notes further that papal concern for the stability of family and reluctance to support any equality that might free women of double workloads is influenced by a traditional theology of marriage.49
Obviously, the desire to go on being a family in the context of female migration means that theological understanding on the nature of women and, consequently, the idea of marriage and the family must be re-imagined.50 Migration clearly offers women and their families opportunities toward survival as well as greater freedom and autonomy economically, politically, socially, and culturally. Transnational families and virtual migrant communities created and nurtured by communication technologies also drive home the point that the family is no longer or not just the biological, nuclear activity but one in which the formative relationships are those that operate on a vertical axis. Furthermore, transnational family life in the age of feminization of migration challenges dominant discourses that generally frame gender relations within households or families and ignore how state policies and programs influence family-level-gender politics and the political economy of emotions.
A migrant mother/worker-friendly theology then, needs to take into account, how the nuclear-family-centered perspective is problematic as it overlooks how migrants transform the meanings of motherhood (and fatherhood) to accommodate spatial and temporal separations. A nuclear-family-centered perspective also fails to take into account how migration and global labor market policies contribute not only to the spread of transnational families but also the serious difficulties these policies pose to the well-being of the family, particularly mothers who are also overseas workers.