While completing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Rachel Silvey travelled to Indonesia, as part of a university-sponsored exchange program. “I had always wanted to go somewhere outside of the U.S. to see some other part of the world,” she says, adding: “I started to see different ways that women’s mobility was controlled more overtly than by families and notions of gender propriety and religion.”

Silvey –now an associate professor in the Department of Geography – returned to Indonesia for her doctoral work on gender and migration completed at the University of Washington. She has been studying the effect of gendered state policies on migrants in both labour ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ countries, and her most recent research examines migrant labour and gender politics through Indonesian domestic workers living in Saudi Arabia. Silvey’s work examines how activists, policies and institutions protect – or fail to protect – the rights of migrant women.

The Global Migration Research Institute spoke to Silvey about her time in Asia, the gaps in conversations about mass migration, and feminist scholarship in 2016.

You recently wrote about domestic workers from Indonesia in Saudi Arabia. This is an issue that’s relevant to Canadians with the temporary foreign workers program. How has studying it abroad informed how you think about this issue at home?

Saudi Arabia is an extreme case in that migrant workers do not even have nominal legal protections. I think examining extremes helps shed light on other processes that are happening elsewhere.

In terms of the temporary foreign worker program in Canada there actually are a lot of parallels to what happens to migrants in Saudi Arabia and especially the way that labour and human rights abuses get hidden from the public. Legal systems tend not to be set up in the interests of workers, and this is especially true when it comes to workers on temporary contracts.

The other broad question that the cases of temporary workers in both Saudi Arabia and Canada bring up is what claims workers can make on states that are not their states of origin– and that’s already off the table for most temporary foreign workers. Are there points at which human rights claims can be made such that an international or transnational jurisdiction might be more effective for workers than just a state-led agenda? What rights can be protected and what abuses are intolerable from the perspective of labour across transnational space?

One of the main questions that has risen to the forefront of my own research agenda in thinking about these comparisons is at what scale of jurisdiction could migrants’ rights be better recognized? Also, what are the limitations of a rights-based framework? Because rights have historically been nation-state-based. So what other frameworks might social scientists or policymakers think through to imagine a more just landscape and future for migrant workers locally and worldwide? And we need to think about this not only for workers: for a lot of migration scholars, labour is at the centre of our research because so many migrants are workers, but lots of migration is also prompted by forces not reducible to the labour market, including for example conflict, eviction, drought, and dispossession.

What is feminist geography and how did you come to it?

Feminist geography is thinking about the questions that have been central to geographers’ inquiries with attention to inequalities and differences connected to gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality. Early feminist scholarship focused on simply adding the voices and experiences of women and racialized people to pre-existing conceptual frameworks. Later studies began to examine the ways these differences matter in terms of the way we understand space, place and scale, so reworking the central concepts at stake. So how is a city understood differently when race and gender are conceptually front and center? How is a nation conceptualized differently when the masculine subject of national history is decentered? How does attention to race, gender and other differences help people understand material and subjective exclusions in particular places, and what are the epistemological implications of these fresh understandings?

How did I come to it? I grew up in the San Francisco, Bay Area in the 1970s and early 1980s, and this was a time of real social foment. My mother was a feminist, and my father was an anti-war activist, and they taught me to read with a critical eye. Then in university, as I was increasingly exposed to critical scholarship I started to feel that my own scholarship had real-world purpose, more of a political purpose and an ongoing one that would continue to expand over time.

How has evolution in feminist thought changed the way that you approach your research and teaching?

It has broadened it. My own feminism was never focused only on women’s issues. In fact, a major early inspiration was Angela Davis and her book on race, class and gender (Women, Race and Class ,1981). But as the field has grown increasingly attuned to the way that all the differences including disability, nationality and sexuality intersect with gender, class and race, I would say I feel I learn more from my students now. I think I listen more to my students than I once did because I think students in Toronto, who are living in this city now, and who have so many incredible experiences themselves, have so much to teach the faculty.

In the public view, geography is perhaps not as much associated with feminism as some other social science disciplines. Do your students come in with background in the area?

I would say maybe two thirds of them have either taken courses in the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies or maybe they’ve taken one of the classes in the Department of Geography and Planning that highlights gender as an important dimension of inequality and difference. Or they just have a personal interest in it and maybe they’ve done some reading and that’s why they chose the class at the undergraduate level. And then at the graduate level, any student I work closely with has come already having been exposed to feminist geographies.

As much as I do feminist geography I’m ambivalent about the word. I’m more interested in transnational alliances and working across differences and to me all the best feminism always tried to do that. But I think the word has a complicated history that has been mobilized in troubling, sometimes counter-productive ways.

Do you think that the “feminism” part of feminist geography will eventually be dropped? Do you think it’s a helpful label for this field?

It’s meant so much in terms of opening up certain debates and conversations that had been closed. I guess that’s, in some ways, an unanswerable question: gender and inequality never go away; they take different forms. Many of the historical approaches that researchers today think are deeply problematic still have some value to conversations. So while I do hope feminism doesn’t become part of a strict canon, I also hope that if people find it useful, they can continue to converse in relation to it as one piece in a larger ongoing constellation of concerns.

I would respond with a question: in what ways could it remain or be finished some of its initial work and mean different things to different generations? I definitely see it with students in my classes; they understand feminism so differently from earlier generations, and in incredibly diverse ways among themselves.

How does feminism get articulated in geography in a way that it doesn’t in other disciplines?

I can’t speak for other disciplines—and there has been a “spatial turn” across the humanities and social sciences in the last couple decades—but I would say that geographers emphasize the spatialization of inequality and different ways of imagining and counter-mapping space and place. I think for geographers, because the discipline was initially based on mapping the world for the British empire, so geographers pay attention to what those maps did to people and then how other maps can be drawn: mental maps but also maps of possible futures, alternative futures, what might look a little fairer, more just and how to represent that.

Why is it necessary to study gender as a distinct topic within geography?

I don’t think it is necessary to do it as a distinct topic, but I think that looking at the gender dimensions of concepts has changed the way people assume an analytical starting point, and so it has contributed to opening up research questions that had been ignored. For example, the nation-state wasn’t just built on political dreams; it was also very much based on racialized divisions of domestic labour, and intertwined with notions of what the family should be. It tended to be a hetero-normative understanding of the family, which included domestic roles and particular perspectives on what was public and what was private, all of which reinforced dominant knowledge systems.

Were your findings – when you went to Asia – what you expected?

Not at all. I still believe that going to places that you’re unfamiliar with is one of the best ways to learn, whether it’s a different neighbourhood in your town or another country because doing so challenges your basic assumptions. It’s humbling in a really positive way that is similar to what living in a city like Toronto can do. It makes you realize the limitations of your own singular angle in relation to the innumerable possible angles that exist.

What has been the most surprising finding in the research that you’ve done, whether it’s in Indonesia or anywhere?

It continues to change so quickly. You think you know starting out with a project that you’re going to find something and you’re going to be able to tell a story about it but within the week there’s a new law or a new group of people that’s migrating and it’s just ongoing. So in many ways that makes our job exciting as researchers, analysts or journalists. But I think somehow I used to think or wish the social world was just a little bit more static. The other surprising thing is how much people want to hear about it. To me migration is really important, but I just had no idea that so many people would start to find it important and see it as a lens onto other global struggles.

Is there a question about gender that’s missing from this conversation of mass migration?

So many. I think one of the main ones is to add what’s going on for women in terms of their roles but I think the other really big piece of it is relationships between communities and how women are often put into roles as boundary keepers or defining markers of culture and religion. So when anyone thinks about what it means to move from one place to another, the roles people take on, or are expected to take on within families, faith communities, neighborhoods, nations– all of the ways that groups of people manage to get along with one another, or fail to do so –are all shaped by gender.

Do you see what has been happening for the past couple of years as a tipping point in people’s thinking about mass migration?

To be honest, I feel scared about a lot of the discourse that’s circulating much more overtly than I remember it circulating in the past, at least in North America and Europe, especially with things Trump is saying about that wall. And he’s not alone, of course: there are lots of reactionary politicians all over the world that are clamping down and tightening borders.

I want to see migration scholarship that counters this political trend, and that can help create more socially just immigration policies.

What are the motivating issues in your research and how do they contribute to this conversation of what’s happening in the world today?

My collaborator, Rhacel Parreñas, a professor of sociology based at the University of Southern California, and I have been examining different legal regimes of servitude and bound labour. We have interviewed migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines and their employers in Dubai and Singapore. Their experiences speak to debates about precarity, employer-employee relations, and the violence and isolation that characterize much live-in domestic labour.

The contemporary issue or a question that seems to be pressing on people in relation to this current work is: where do migrants belong? And an intersecting question: how can people share space a little more equitably worldwide? Who has control over the space? Who can make a home and a place? Who gets to decide? And recognizing that the history of these issues has always been deeply unjust; in fact for many currently displaced people, the crisis goes back generations of multiple displacements.

So much of what migration studies examined historically was embedded in an implicit—and often explicit—narrative around progress and aspirational norms and upward mobility and assimilation, and all of those frameworks are deeply problematic because of what they erase. Historically and internationally there’s been so much forced mobility and dislocation. People aren’t moving based on economically rational calculations; the majority of people who move are moving for reasons that are much more complicated.

What are the challenges of doing this work? I imagine it can be difficult from a technical standpoint but also maybe an emotional one as well.

It’s conversations like this that keep me going. When I meet people who I feel are also struggling through the complicated terrain of how one can make one’s work of service to better futures, I feel hopeful. So the emotional toll that the work takes, I would say it’s similar to the challenges faced by any other committed activist or scholar. I think anyone who does this kind of work feels this way, but it’s also such a privileged set of complaints....But that’s yet another reason to refuse the idea that people are powerless, because there are so many people all over, working so hard and so creatively to change things for the better.

What is the main message that comes from your work that is relevant to policymakers?

Migrants’ issues as a whole cannot be resolved solely at the level of the nation state. So when we talk about protecting workers’ rights within a ‘host’ society while they’re under temporary contracts, we’re not actually thinking about the interacting scales at which those rights need to be addressed. What is needed is broader scale, multi-scalar thinking about livelihoods across borders, about the right to migrate and the freedom to refuse migration. But it’s also dangerous to enact global policy because global migration policy often ends up being about creating more migration management, the tightening of borders and the simultaneous expansion of temporary foreign worker programs, promoting the idea of ‘migration for development’. In my view, migration for development, as it is currently framed by multilateral institutions, is not a promising path.

Do you see something missing from the stories that get told about mass migration?

I think it’s the community piece of it. People really do build communities wherever they go, whenever they can under whatever conditions they’re facing and find sustenance through being together, sharing a language, sharing food —unbelievably so, people do these things. People do these things even when you think there would be no way to do them and they have no resources; there still will be that drive to develop relationships and support one another. It survives; I see it. I don’t want to romanticize it or glorify it or say therefore the conditions don’t matter, but it’s worth noting that it resurges. It’s a resurgence of people’s capacity and willingness and generosity with one another.


This interview has been edited and condensed.