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The Star recently reported on the existence of “Begumpura” neighborhoods in Ontario. “Begumpura,” translated from Urdu as “the place where women live,” refers to neighborhoods where immigrant women live with their families. The areas are usually occupied by women of South Asian origin whose husbands work in the Middle East.
The title “Colony of wives” evokes the image of South Asian Muslim women living in harems and impatiently waiting for their “male guardians.” The article, which highlights two South Asian Muslim women and their children, reports on the challenges that these women face. Depression and anxiety are cited as some of the most recurring issues and, despite high levels of education among some of these women, they are depicted as completely dependent on their husbands. According to The Star, women who live in long-distance relationships usually gather in the “Begumpura” neighborhoods, which have earned the nickname of “colony of wives,” because they are unable to live by themselves.
According to the article, Pakistani and Indian women have a hard time living on their own in Canada and raising their children alone. However, the reasoning provided in this piece is that in “those” countries, men take care of everything that has to do with the public sphere; therefore, women are initially unable to pay bills or even attend the doctor because they do not know how. These wives are constantly portrayed as women who are fearful about the outside world.
On top of that, single parenthood seems to be a challenge—not because raising children alone is a challenge in itself, but because the article reports that these women are constantly struggling with the emotional baggage of having a spouse living abroad and the children questioning the long-distance arrangement.
By definition, in this article Muslim South Asian marriages seem to have the men at the top being the breadwinners, and the women at the bottom taking care of the house and the children. Yet, according to The Star, some women are able to engage in Canadian society in a way that they would not be able to do if their husbands were present, and this is a matter of celebration.
While the article may be making some valid points on the challenges (and benefits) faced by women in long-distance relationships (not only Muslim women from South Asian origin), it also tends to dilute the immigrant experience.
Immigrant women from different backgrounds have challenging experiences coming to Canada. First of all, immigrant women often have to deal with the issue of being women and visible minorities at the same time, which arguably affects their chances of accessing education and the job market despite their previous professional backgrounds. In some cases, being part of religious minorities also exacerbates the difficulties. Some of these women are also refugees, in which case they may be dealing with more complex issues than having their husbands abroad. Language is another challenge. Even for those women who learned English in their countries of origin, immigrating to Canada may be a challenging experience because moving abroad is always a difficult.
The fact that women are portrayed as a colony of “married singles” who suffer because they cannot deal with having their husbands abroad is quite simplistic. Many Muslim immigrant women manage to lead a household, raise children, work and pursue an education. Yes, the challenge exists because single parenthood is not easy. But the problems are not unique of Muslim South Asian populations; single parents, male and female, often face challenges regardless of their origins. Immigrant women are particularly susceptible to these difficulties, not only because their spouses are abroad, but because their network of support in Canada may be minimal.
Muslim women from South Asian origin are still treated as the “other” in this piece. The Star conceives these “colonies of wives” as the result of a lack of integration, the argument being that these women live in these neighborhoods because they want to be with “their own people.” However, living elsewhere may not be an option for many women due to economic factors. Besides, these ‘colonies’ may a way in which immigrant women support each other. Some may not know the language and need the support of their communities. Others may work and may not be able to afford childcare. Living in communities might be the only way in which these women are able to pursue education or enter the labor force.
In addition, it is often assumed that South Asian women receive lots of money from husbands living abroad without contributing to Canadian society while seeking Canadian citizenship. Immigrant families contribute to Canada’s economy from the beginning (just by consuming goods in Canada), even when finding jobs may be a challenge and citizenship regulations and requirements have been recently updated. Many of these families need years of residing in Canada before they can apply for permanent residence or citizenship.
Often times, both husband and wife work in low-paid jobs because their education is often not recognized in Canada. People pay taxes and actively contribute to Canadian economy, which heavily relies on immigration. Furthermore, many women pursue education and are eventually incorporated into the work force in specialized jobs. More importantly, some children in these families are born in Canada, which makes them Canadians. Yet, children from South Asian origin born in Canada are often conceived to be “outsiders.”
While there are multiple experiences for Muslim women of South Asian origin in Canada, the article challenges their “inability” to assimilate and celebrates the scarce independence that women find when their husbands are away. Any expression of independence seems to challenge what the West often calls Muslim patriarchy. The Star contributes to the myth that whatever challenges immigrant populations face are due to “their” culture and patriarchies. However, few of the challenges faced by these women are the result of how Canada expects immigrants to incorporate to society, assimilate and participate in specific sectors of the labor market.
In addition, the difficulties faced by these women due to their patriarchal cultures are not overcome by coming to Canada. In many instances, immigrant women are just encouraged to participate in a different patriarchy: the Western one.