In contrast to the domesticity traditionally assigned to immigrant women, their contributions to the life of Barcelona are many. First generation immigrant women, who have been here for some time, often play a key role in assisting newcomers to their communities in relocating. As community leaders, their activities and exchanges reflect the revised values, freedoms and norms that they have acquired in Barcelona. Women from severely patriarchal cultures find that within the urban landscape of Barcelona, and despite what are often difficult circumstances that continue to confront immigrant women, they evolve into individuals in the absence of the family networks within which they had been shielded or confined. In contrast to many metropolises, many speak of Barcelona as a hospitable city, one that offered them opportunities and a good life. This reflects back, no doubt, on Barcelona’s active policies in place to integrate immigrants through a range of schemes, courses and shared public spaces intended to create affiliation with the local.Parvati Nair
(Parvati Nair has directed and worked on the Women of the World: Home and Work in Barcelona project for the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility.)
"We have to learn to change without losing our identity, improve and change ourselves, show respect, learn how to obtain a permit, a space, share space, respect rules and adapt to all that’s good, not only for our wellbeing, but also for this country, because it’s our country now. Although we’re migrants, we’re all Spaniards now, and also Catalans. We’re new citizens. We’ll learn to adapt to everything with an open mind. We’ve started anew.
"I’ve stopped giving classes to kids, now they go to mosques. I’ve had many conflicts with mosques, because before I said Urdu or Punjabi or English classes couldn’t be held in mosques, as they’re not made to hold classes. They have to be done in schools or community centres, where there’s enough space to teach and learn. So it started when the conflicts began. A lot of newspaper articles about Pakistanis living here or in England: “Be careful of Huma. She wants to change minds. She’s a dangerous woman, because women will ask for a divorce from their husbands. They’ll become modern.”
"The first thing they think is that a modern woman is divorced and then that power leads to disobedience, so everybody started calling me a disobedient woman who wanted to be extreme, or they forbid religious women to greet me. But they still came to secretly see me for help or information. I was respected, because sometimes their husbands said: “If you go to Huma, don’t bother to come home or I’ll break your legs.” But the women told me: “We’ll still come to see you even if they break our legs.” So I said: “No, listen to and talk to your husband, or let me talk to them.” They were afraid, because all of them were in arranged or forced marriages, so they weren’t confident enough to discuss things with their husbands.
"A marriage is about how long you’re together, how many children you have, but they’re not happy. They pretend to be very happy even though they’re abused. I offered them a solution: “Stay home and let me try something.” So I began holding several training sessions, calling their homes and talking to their husbands to tell them: “Your wife has to learn this because it’s very important for her wellbeing.” Some awareness sessions were held to explain how to renew your permit or health card, or how to enrol in an adult school, find a job. A few courses to provide the tools that are needed to find a job and raise awareness of diseases that are very common in women, such as thyroids or diabetes, or if they have autistic, disabled or intellectually disabled children, or other diseases, because all these women arrived through family reunification. The husbands first come here for five to seven years, then they can ask for family reunification, because they can’t bring their families until they’re making enough money to pay rent and cover family expenses. So it takes a migrant about six to seven years."
We’re new citizens. We’ll learn to adapt to everything with an open mind. We’ve started anew.
"I’ve changed a lot. I remember it was difficult for a girl in Cambodia. She has to live with her family, follow its customs, without much chance to participate or do things she wants, because the family rules. They didn’t let me go out there; they filled me with fear.
"So it was very difficult for me at first when I came here. I didn’t trust anybody, but it’s become a little easier after all these years. I think I’m braver. I like my freedom, not being so traditional. I think to myself: It’s great, because I can do and think what I want here, the way I need to. I don’t care about the cultural or traditional, that they have to control and what I have to do, parental control. It’s really tough for girls there. But since they’ve never left, they don’t know what it’s like here, that girls and women have rights, can participate in social, political and economic life. I was surprised and said: I’ve got something in me and I can do it too, so that’s what has changed.
"It was a big struggle for me to go to university. I could hardly continue, studying and working in an NGO. It’s very difficult for a girl or woman born or living in the countryside. She can’t leave. Those things are just for boys or men. But I can see that it’s not like that here. People are equal and men and women can do the same things. Yes."
It was very difficult for me at first when I came here. I didn’t trust anybody.
"I’ll always be a Venezuelan woman at heart and belong to Caracas, my city. But over time you become a part of the city you’re living in, with your circle of friends, places you go, habits and things you do, and I also feel very welcome in my surroundings. I feel as if I belong. I’m connected now and feel that a part of me also contributes things here where I am and that’s very interesting.
"It happened gradually. There were also low points, when sometimes things didn’t go as expected and you felt as if you had nothing. Then it somehow works out and you begin to feel part of things again, but it was after a year or so. I was doing my post-graduate course for the first few months, and then completing it. It was just one course and whatever happened after depended on me and what I could do. Once I finished and managed to find a job, that’s when I felt the change. It was like I had finally arrived, with a little more stability. I began as an intern, and then was contracted. It was after that 10 or 11 month transition period that I felt I was more secure here in Barcelona."
I’ll always be a Venezuelan woman at heart. But over time you become a part of the city you’re living in.
"They were hectic months, a little like when an Erasmus student comes to a city where almost everything is a party. You meet people, are impressed by what’s here, discover the city and have many different adventures. They were really crazy months, because I realised I felt really alive in this city and had a lot of opportunities to do many things, meet many really different people and that’s when it all clicked. Especially because I knew I would find many labs where I could do my thesis. There are many universities and large institutions where the money circulates and it was very easy to find labs to work in.
"I completed my pharmacy degree, then started my doctoral thesis in a research lab here and obtained my PhD in pharmacy, then I started working in various pharmacies. I returned to research and was doing a post-doctorate, which is the most common thing to do. I did it in the same lab where I did my thesis, but I left science for let’s say “ideological reasons” and dedicated myself to the circus. I’d been doing the circus for many years, ever since I came to Barcelona, so I decided to try my luck. I completely abandoned science, because it was ideologically very frightening for me, and got into another area. Now I teach trapeze and aerial acrobatics."
They were hectic months, a little like when an Erasmus student comes to a city where almost everything is a party.