[eng] Ekaterina Panyukina - Gender and migration, migration of what gender?

I have been living in France for almost 7 years now. A woman [1] migrant from Russia and a non-European foreigner in France: how did I become one and how does it feel to be one? Each individual story is part of global mechanisms (social, economic, cultural, etc.) specific to the country of origin and the host country, but also in the relationships between these countries. My immigration is also closely linked to gender, to “gender” inequalities.

Before immigration, there is emigration, as Abdelmalek Sayad, a French-Algerian sociologist, used to say, whose research has renewed our view of migration. There is a “before” to every immigration, that is, the conditions that make people leave their “home” country. My emigration/immigration begins in Russia and with the history of this country, with that of my family and especially with that of my mother.

I was born in the early 90s, the time just after the end of the Soviet regime. If during the regime the population lived very modestly, at that time, while freedoms and coca-cola arrived in the country, most of the people suffered an impoverishment, even plunged into misery. This was the case of my family. My father lost his job at the University [2] without ever finding another job until his death, fifteen years later. My mother's newly acquired degree in pharmacy no longer provided her with job stability. She was the sole breadwinner in the household even before we left my violent father.

At that time, for a single Russian woman, one of the solutions to escape poverty was to migrate заграницу [3] through marriage. The opening of the Soviet borders was also the appearance of a new international market of the wife, the moment when supply and demand meet. On the one hand, there are women who want a better life. On the other hand, men are looking for “Russian women”, “women from the East”. They are known for their beauty. They are said to be more domestic than European women, those feminists who have lost the sense of traditional and family values [4]. However, it is important to emphasize that the exchanges in this market are defined by socio-economic and gender inequalities. I can also point out that this “woman of the East” never existed, she was created by the Western male gaze. It is demand that creates supply. Femininity and sexuality are products that are shaped and exchanged.

My entire childhood was marked by my mother's desire to leave. I watched her work (work, I chose the word well) daily on her body, on her English. It was hours spent on dating sites (in internet cafes at first). I saw names, postcards, some gifts and money received (it was a valuable and necessary help), several departures of my mother to meet these European, American men.

Until recently, I was very embarrassed about this story. I hardly spoke about it. I did not mention it in Russia, nor when I started living in France. The traditionalist discourse and the mainstream feminist discourse in Russia and France have in common the stigmatization of women who use their femininity, their body, their sexuality, explicitly to find a better life. I understood it recently: it is a form of economic-sexual exchange (among others), considered an illegitimate form [5]. And if it is illegitimate it is because it allows women a certain economic advancement outside of legitimate capitalist institutions (I am thinking in particular of salaried employment and inheritance) and that pleases neither the patriarchy nor bourgeois feminists.

Although my mother never succeeded in her enterprise, her attempts had a strong impact on my worldview. I was brought up with the speeches about the lack of future in Russia, I have well assimilated those about the superiority of European culture and morals. When I became an adult I knew that I was going to do everything possible to leave заграницу. I came from a poor but intellectual family (my parents had university degrees) and so I was privileged to have access to free University in Russia. The path of immigration through studies was open to me. On the other hand, the authoritarian and liberticidal turn of the 2010s (the против пропаганды гомосексуализма laws [6], fraud organized by the ruling party in the 2012 elections, armed repression of the protest movement) did nothing but convince me to leave for “the freer and more egalitarian Europe” (what a lie!). I came to continue my studies in France in 2014. I became a “non-European foreign student”, then a “foreign worker” (yes, these are real institutional names). In short, I am an economic migrant. Very few French people know what non-European foreigners experience in France: it is discrimination that is not recognized as such. I will write about this in another article. What I wanted to talk about here is the fact that, in addition to being a migrant, I am also, in the eyes of French society, that “woman of the East” that I have already presented. This means being the object of a particular ethnitization and sexualization. This is where gender and heteronormativity, on the one hand, and migration and being a foreigner, on the other, intersect again.

When I arrived in France I was looking for a job, everywhere. At one point, I advertised for private Russian lessons and babysitting. Naive at the time, I mentioned in the ad that I came from Russia. My origin did not fail to appeal to those who later offered me sexual services. I am well aware that many students in search of a job receive such proposals, but there was a link with my origin. And that is the problem, not the sex work (which is also a job) itself. Besides, I am sure I am better at giving a blowjob than explaining the pronunciation of Russian vowels and consonants, and it is a bad idea to trust me kids.

I once dated a guy who told me “I like women from the East”. He told me his ex was an Estonian girl. To me there is nothing that unites us in that category, it does not make sense to me, but to him, a European guy, it did. Another guy, when we were getting to know each other, told me about his trip to Russia and how easy it was to take Russian women to bed. “In a nightclub, you pay for a bottle of vodka, a bottle of champagne, caviar and she is yours!” he proudly told me of his recipe - what an asshole! you do not eat caviar in nightclubs! And, if your story is true, poor you, who took more advantage of whom? You did not understand anything!

When I was studying in France, I was afraid that I would not be taken seriously, that the fact that I was in college would be seen only as a pretext to find a guy and to get married. It was the same when I entered the professional world. The worst thing is that the immigration policies in France prevent us from getting jobs. These same policies push us to get married because it allows us to have a residence permit in a rather safe way. This is exactly what an association for foreigners advised me to do at one point. I almost followed this advice. That is how the stereotype becomes “reality”, but it is them who put us in boxes, symbolically and effectively.

Two stories, my mother's and mine. Migration, economic migration, migration by marriage, economic marriage, women who migrate to have a better life, women who marry in order to reach a social ascension. The goal remains the same, the means change. National borders are crossed, but divisions and hierarchies of gender, heteronormativity and ethnicity are reinforced. What unites these stories is the cliché of “women from the East”. The difference: one tried to take advantage of it, the other suffers it.

[1] It is more about the fact that I am perceived as such than about my gender identification.

[2] Although these two jobs require high levels of education, in Russia they are not very well paid jobs. This is shocking in France, but in Russia a University teacher can earn less than an unqualified salesman or saleswoman. Diplomas are not worth much and salaries vary mainly according to the sector of activity, public or private, rather than according to professional classifications.

[3] This word can be translated as “foreigner” and literally means “beyond the border”. In practice, this word does not refer to any foreign country, but mainly to European and more widely Western countries. This word is not used when talking about, for example, Ukraine or Kazakhstan. I think that these usages reflect what could be called colonial relations between Russia and neighboring countries, and what the Russians understand as “outside their home”.

[4] You can find a description of “Eastern women” in general and by category (“Russian woman”, “Ukrainian woman” etc.), for example, on this international dating site https://www.cqmi.fr/fr/les-femmes-slaves.
Or one can read in this generalist web-magazine https://www.bhmagazine.fr/2906/le-mythe-de-la-beaute-des-femmes-russes/ : “The beauty of Russian women is of course a criterion of choice for aspiring lovers, because it is the result of an ethnic mix of multiple origins [...]. In addition, Russian and Slavic women are often adept at living in a traditional family environment and thus perfectly meet the expectations of many Westerners in search of the perfect wife.”

[5] I refer here to the concept of “economic-sexual exchange” elaborated by the Italian feminist anthropologist Paola Tabet. This concept highlights the presence in heterosexual relationships of economic transactions linked to the sexual services provided by the woman. Marriage (“economic” or “for love”), maintenance, concubinage, prostitution, etc. are then only forms of the same continuum.

[6] This can be translated into laws against "gay propaganda". A meaningless notion, but these are the laws intended to restrict the expression and public manifestation of non-heterosexual and non-cis people, the “non-traditional sexual relations” according to the law. Beyond the laws, public debate has further ostracized them.

* Ekaterina Panyukina grew up in Siberia, Russia, and has been living in France, in Lyon, for 7 years. She is a feminist and an anti-discrimination professional, and is also a free sociologist. She writes, specially about her migratory experience.

[1] Translated from the French by Andrea Balart-Perrier.

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