F-words: Words against stereotypes

Juliana da Penha is a freelance journalist and founder of Migrant Women Press, an independent media organization about women’s experiences with migration. Here she blogs for us about the stereotyping of migrant women, and the power of words to challenge that. Follow Migrant Women Press on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

hat are the implications of these words on the collective understanding of migrant experiences? More importantly, what is the impact of these words on women’s experiences with migration?

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think about migrant women?

If you are used to the mainstream media coverage about migration, while reading news about this topic, you will probably find the prevalence of some words. What are the implications of these words on the collective understanding of migrant experiences? More importantly, what is the impact of these words on women’s experiences with migration?

It’s a fact, exposed mainly by organizations focused on gender and migration, that the issues migrant women face are underreported. Although many scholars and migration specialists emphasize the phenomenon of “feminization of migration, migrant women stories are invisible in the mainstream media coverage. Though, when we see news about them, what words are related?

In a quick Google search, I found words like “vulnerable”, “problem”, “difficult”, “exploited”, “crisis”, struggle”.

Unfortunately, we find this sloppiness also within some NGO's discourse. It is common to see migrant women portrayed as a “disenfranchised” group. In some advocacy campaigns, in their attempt to support migrant women, many fall into the “white saviour” discourse and we easily find words like “victim”, “unfortunate”, “destitute”, “helpless”, “unprotected”.

Stereotypes are oversimplified believes, images or ideas of a particular type of person or group. The words used to describe a heterogeneous group as migrant women reduce their experiences in what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie thoughtfully explained in her speech “the danger of a single story”. Normally, we find a single story about migrant women and the words used to describe their experiences reinforce it.

Let's think about the variety of situations in which a person is in a migratory context: they can be low skilled workers or professional elites, students, entrepreneurs, unemployed, job seekers, asylum seekers, refugees, EU citizen, non-EU citizen, family reunification, citizenship acquisition, undocumented, economic migrants or tourists. So why do we only see migrant women reduced to their unfortunate stories and the words used to describe them stereotyped? Why we don’t acknowledge that each experience is unique? Why not words like “confident”, “encouraging”, “strength”, “determined”, “powerful” to describe these women’s stories?

On the other hand, it’s necessary to recognise that if not for the work of migrant women organisations, especially grassroots organisations, empowering and supporting women to overcome their barriers we will not see the changes on the narrative about this group. Also, is central to acknowledge the effort of some journalists engaged to their real responsibility, especially from ethnic media outlets, many of them lead by migrants or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), providing citizens with accurate information. If it wasn’t for their work, we would probably see only images of migrant women described as “poor”, “needy”, “invisible”, “deprived”, without voice and devoid of agency.

Some words reinforce stereotypes, increase irrational fear and depose people from their existences.

Discussing a global issue such as human displacement, acknowledging that migrant women might face multiple discrimination and are a vulnerable group for many reasons, is a challenging mission. A legal framework in practice and monitoring bodies to guarantee migrant women rights is imperative. Moreover, the network of organisations raising awareness around these issues, discussing and looking for possible solutions should be valued for their essential work and have the appropriate support from local governments and international organisations.

Words matter. And nobody will better use the words to speak about ourselves than us.

If migrant women speak from themselves what kind of words we would see?

I would say “strength”, “adaptability”, “creativity”, “resilience”, “sorority”, “empowerment”. I believe migrant women should create spaces to speak for themselves so they can transform the narrative about their experiences.

As a journalist, a black woman from Latin America and a migrant woman I feel it's my mission to challenge the perspectives about how we are portrayed. Fortunately, I am not alone. It’s extremely important to recognise the amazing work done by individuals and organisations creating a fair narrative about migrant women experiences.

Step by step we see the changes, and more use of words like “independence”, “autonomy”, “freedom”, “self-confidence”, “change”, “future”, “hope”, “love”.When we start to write about us, the words used change, and the stereotypes are deconstructed.

Words matter. And nobody will better use the words to speak about ourselves than us. Words can inspire. Words can build bridges rather than walls. It creates a mutual understanding and supports the revolutions we want to see in the world.

F-words is a blog series exploring feminist language, from specific terminology to general reflections. Read all of the entries here.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own. Bloggers have received some editorial support from Engender, and may have received a fee from our commissioning pot. We aim for our blog to reflect a range of feminist viewpoints, and offer a commissioning pot to ensure that women do not have to offer their time or words for free.

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