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Migration, gender and social sciences: An interview with Antoinette Reuter, Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines

    Zoom interview 8 February 2022

    By Camelia Zavarache and Marie Ruiz

    The Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines (Center for Documentation on Human Migrations) or Le CentreDoc, as commonly known in Luxembourg, is one of WEMovʼs European stakeholders, and is represented by Antoinette Reuter, a historian who has specialized in European ethnology and cultural anthropology. 

    Marie Ruiz: Welcome Antoinette, thank you for accepting our invitation. We’re very happy to count the Center for Documentation on Human Migrations, Luxembourg, as one of our stakeholders, and we’re happy that you’re representing this stakeholder. You’re a historian, specialised in ethnology and anthropology. So, welcome and thank you very much. Camelia drafted the questions, but she couldn’t be here today, so I’ll conduct the interview and I’m very happy to meet you.

    Antoinette Reuter: So, thank you to Women on the Move for accepting us as stakeholder, and thank you for your interest in the migration and history of Luxembourg and its surroundings.

    Marie: Yes, it’s fascinating. We’re very happy to have you in and to have you as representative of Luxembourg. So, my first question is: one can read on your LinkedIn profile that you are a historian at the Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines, and also that you have been a History teacher for 38 years. Is migration part of the curriculum in schools and universities and if so, are female contributions represented?

    Antoinette: Let me first tell you that my job in real life was to be a History teacher at secondary school. The job at the documentary center is voluntary, mainly. Academia and school are two different worlds and I have the impression that in the last 30 years, migration has become really a topic in the academic world. There are not many universities in academia now which do not offer some sort of migration studies. School is very different and although you can find a lot of teaching material dealing with migration, I have the impression that these are extras. Migration studies are not yet part of the normal scholarly curricula. So, it is up to the teachers to discuss the matter or not. I’m speaking of course about Luxembourg, but since we have mostly no other schoolbooks, we use books from France or from Germany. What I can appreciate is that it’s more global than in Luxembourg.

    Marie: Thank you very much! Considering your own research work, what is the situation with public archives regarding documents that reflect migration and women experiences as migrants?

    Antoinette: I must say, the Documentation Center worked for years and years very closely with a marvellous French association which unfortunately has had to close down for lack of funding. It was “Génériques”, an association which really dedicated its work to highlight migration documentation. The ideas were of two sources: first, migration history is gathered in national or local archives, but it is unreasonable, because the archivists didn’t add the keyword “migration” in their databases. So, often you cannot see the migration part, and especially of women, in the normal nomenclature of the archives. So, one idea is to look at the material which is in the archives and look for the migration entries. That’s what for instance Génériques did in their still active website Oddysseo. You can find a lot of material. Second, it is to look for new material, mainly material from private archives from associations or private persons. This would be archives that traditionally were not collected by national archives or public archives. And in these more private funds, you can find lots of information on migration. So, in these archives, you can find more on the activities of migrant women, such as the jobs they took in the associations. One of my colleagues for instance noticed that in a very special field, in Luxembourg there was a lot of Portuguese women acting as presidents for football clubs. These are places we would not look for women migrants for example. And this could be found by collecting private archives from these clubs and associations.

    For us, it’s looking at the official existing archives by asking questions about women, and trying to have new ways to access these archives and collecting archives that would not be normally taken by national archives, or official archives.

    Marie: Thank you, there’s still so much to do!

    Antoinette: Yes, indeed.

    Marie: You started working at Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines in 1996, so you are by far one of the most experienced researchers in migration. In your opinion, what are the most important changes in migration processes, taking into account the female presence and the gender relations?

    Antoinette: I would start with a conference we’ve been part of for over 20 years, and it’s a conference between Luxembourg, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We organise it each year, so I noticed that in some ways during the last 20 years, women migrants became a topic in a very biased way. When we circulate the calls for papers, we get a lot of propositions on women in the care industry for the elderly, women from Eastern Europe, or women from Third world countries taking care of the elderly or in households, or we get a lot of contributions linked to women from the same origins forced into prostitution. We rarely get contributions discussing what for instance WEMov wants to highlight, which is the agency of women, their success stories also. We mostly get contributions on women as victims. One colleague wondered whether this bias was produced because for a long time, funding for women migration studies came from boards such as the International Labour Organisation, which were dealing with human trafficking. The idea of these international boards was to stop migration, or rather discuss why women relied on these illegal paths to come to Europe, not to discuss that there is in fact no European migration policy which could give women openings to come through “normal” ways.

    Marie: So, what would be a “normal” way for you?

    Antoinette: Opening the labour market, for instance. You could also have proactive migration policies taking into account the promotion of women, by giving points to projects that promote the agency of women in migration.

    Marie: I agree, I think this is really compelling and important. What about the trends in migration research, are researchers more interested today in making women visible than they were a decade or two ago?

    Antoinette: Yes, I think there’s been progress, but it’s still coming slowly and the social sciences are very active, for instance. There’s improvement in history, but mostly in social sciences with projects on care-taking and trafficking, but also on comparative access to school, or studies comparing ethnic groups of migrants. I could be biased because I’m influenced by the German social science research. There are historical studies on women entrepreneurs, in medicine, etc. But we have still some steps to take.

    Marie: Since one of the purposes of the Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines, situated in Dudelange, is to collect individual and associations archives, could you tell us a little bit more about the methodologies and procedures that were developed in order to best examine and understand migration, starting from these sources?

    Antoinette: The center is very small, so we cannot develop all the activities we would like to do. Each time we want to address a topic, we try to get the archives going with this topic. So, we contact associations and identify persons who might have these archives and then we start with these materials. We ask the questions to set up the project. For the women, since the beginning of the documentation center, we always try to give a specific look on women in these archives. To give you an example, two years ago, we had an exhibition about foreigners in Luxembourg during WWI, and we came across a list of more than 100 women who worked in the hardest place in the steelery in Dudelange. The list didn’t give us that much information on the women, we only knew that they were there, but why were they there? What was their motivation to work there? By crossing this list with other sources such as civil state archives, and church archives, we came to know more about these individual women and we understood better why they chose to and sometimes were forced to work in these very hard circumstances. And we also questioned one topic, which is very present in France, WWI was also the entry for women in the labour market to become strong actresses in the labour market. And we noticed that women would take these jobs because their traditional working places were gone, because many of these women in fact had jobs or cafés and were closely working with male migrants. So, when migrant men were gone with WWI, they had no jobs left, so they had to choose these jobs to get their families through. They worked hard, but their jobs were not seen.

    Marie: That’s the main problem with women in history: they’ve been invisibilised very often, and that’s why what you’re doing and what the network is doing is important to make them visible. I really think that WEMov and the Center of Documentation are working side by side. So, the next question is: throughout this process, what are the strategies that you employ to better showcase women and gender relations as part of the migration processes?

    Antoinette: We also have two ways to work. First, we regularly have exhibitions or programmes dedicated to women migrants. For instance, we had an exhibition of women at work, which was set up with the collection of pictures of the Documentation Center. But the other way to showcase women is to look for women in a global subject, such as the one on WWI. Where are the women? How are they involved in this topic?

    Marie: So, could you tell us a little bit more about the exhibitions and the guided tours that Le CentreDoc organizes? These are things that we’re doing within the network. Do these also document the presence of women as migrants?

    Antoinette: Same idea as for the archives, we’d like to do more! We’re a very small institution. We try to have new tours every year: one model questions the idea of heritage for instance in the paths of Luxembourg City. You have a very traditional tour but nobody makes a link with the presence of foreigners. The City of Luxembourg would not have been built without the presence of foreigners, the expertise of Italian building workers and their families behind them, because there are also women involved of course. And the second thematic tour that we offer go to places which have the reputation of being migrant areas and we try to tell the story of these places: how did people come in? How do they live there? What do they expect? What do they do? When do they go out? A typical tour would go back to a town section officially called “Italy”. After the Italians, came the Portuguese, and now it’s a place of global migration coming to Luxembourg which is represented. In all these tours, women are present and we’re really trying to find interesting entries for women’s migration history. For instance, the tour on Italian builders in the Luxembourg history: there were also women behind staying there, organising all the catering for the men; they were teaching the language to the children; they were working in clubs. So, there are many things to tell about women, and also what came up. For instance, some of these ladies were first working for building companies, and they opened the first official Italian restaurant and hotel in Luxembourg. So, there’s an economic success behind too.

    Marie: That’s very interesting! I’m learning so much about Luxembourg. So, do you notice public interest in discovering life stories of migrants, male or female? If so, why do you think this happens?

    Antoinette: I think the interest is really tremendous. All the tours we offer are booked out and we must often double them to get all the people in. In Luxembourg, all people have somehow a migration history behind, and people come to hear it because they didn’t hear it at school. It’s good to hear about the history of their family or the history of what they were doing. For the moment, it’s the main idea.

    Marie: Your cooperation with the Women on the Move COST Action gives us the opportunity to better understand migration, both as a process taking place today, as well as a research topic that is meant to be presented to the general public. CentreDoc is undoubtedly combining all these directions therefore we would like to ask you how did you hear about WEMov and what made you cooperate with the network?

    Antoinette: In fact, I tried to remember, but I think it was WEMov who contacted us, and at first, I terribly misunderstood it, because I thought it was a network of institutions. I understand that it’s a network of individual researchers and with institutions behind. I think my colleague Heidi is filling this idea of individual researcher, working in the network.

    Marie: And she’s wonderful, thank you so much for introducing Heidi! She’s a pillar in this network, she’s everywhere. We’re so happy to have her.

    Antoinette: At first, we were looking for men…

    Marie: I know and that’s because we’re still looking for gender balance and that’s important for us. So, in your opinion, how should the collaboration of WEMov and Le CentreDoc develop going forward, so that both of them benefit the most from each otherʼs experience?

    Antoinette: To come back, maybe, to one of your questions, I think since Luxembourg is a tiny country and, even though we have a developing university, it’s very important for us to have these international connections, to have a sort of critical mass because for instance, migration historians or social scientists do not find colleagues in their own country to discuss their subject. For instance, if I take my own case, I’m very much interested in women in religions in migration and there’s nobody in Luxembourg studying this matter. So, I have to exchange with colleagues from other countries to see if what I’m doing is interesting or not. And so, we are very grateful to WEMov for this international setting which helps us improve our own work. On the other hand, we can offer very practical support. We organise this small workshop in March [for the International Women’s Day]. If there is an exhibition, we can showcase this exhibition in Luxembourg and organise a special programme about this exhibition. As I told you, we are organising each year this international conference about migration and this year it is in Luxembourg, but I must confess that we don’t have to force to build a link with Women on the Move, but in the next editions, we could try to have presentations from WEMov within this conference. Next year, it’s in Cologne, Germany, so I think we could have WEMov in this conference next year.

    Marie: That’s wonderful, thank you so much! So, our next question is: what do you think is the place of migrant women in the narrative that historians are proposing today? Do you still notice the invisibility of migrant women? And if so, is the historical narrative different from that of a sociologist, ethnologist or an anthropologist? You’re very well placed to answer this because you come from history, and now you’re more involved in the social sciences.

    Antoinette: Yes, I think history has the timeline and it’s sometimes interesting to look at the past to see some patterns. For instance, I told you about this colleague who spoke about women trafficking, and this international board which tried to prevent women’s migration because of the risks of trafficking. If I compare this to for instance what was told about Luxembourgish girls who were thousands to emigrate to Paris in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20thcentury, you see the continuity of these ideas, which in fact make people believe that women have to be protected. There’s no confidence in what they’re doing, you fail to see that they were sometimes choosing migration as a way out, as an opportunity. So, I think that history can, through the long distance, offer a look on this, and make us try to follow these patterns and to give another look on the ongoing discourses on women’s migration today.

    Marie: Thank you, that’s really interesting and I think that transdisciplinarity is a challenge, but it’s important. Finally, we would like to reflect together on the main directions that research on migration and female mobility will take in the near future and how this topic will be analysed by the social sciences. What do you think is the best approach to study female migration?

    Antoinette: I think this question is a bit over my role because as I told you, my job was mainly as a History teacher and I’m not that much in academia, so I’m listening to what people from the universities are bringing to me, but I’m not really involved in producing theories and perspectives on migration. But I think the main topic would to me, starting with our job here, it would be to question and look for women. Whenever you are studying migration, look for women, make them visible. So, if you’re looking for instance at industrial work, look where they are. If you’re looking at agriculture, look where they are. I think this would give us a more diverse range of topics and show the full lives and opportunities of women migrants.

    Marie: So, in your opinion, what are the challenges that women migrants face today?

    Antoinette: I think there is a lot of clichés because all this research on trafficking and trying to prevent women from migrating, all this left traces. And often female migration is not seen as the norm. Perhaps one example can better exemplify what I’m trying to say. At a conference once, a scholar was presenting the problems that women in engineering in the formal Soviet Union faced when they tried to work in Western Germany. Very often, they were considered not being very well skilled because the idea was that they only wanted to come to Germany to be on the marriage market. So, they are often seen through this lens and this is something that is also revealed by academic work.

    Marie: I see. To finish, what do you expect WEMov to bring to you?

    Antoinette: I think it’s the exchange, a broader look and insight.

    Marie: Thank you so much, is there anything you’d like to add?

    Antoinette: Thank you to WEMov.

    Marie: Well, thank you, this was very enjoyable and a very concrete cooperation. I think one of the contributions from your institution would be to our repository of primary sources. Knowing which are the main collections on women’s migration in Luxembourg would be really helpful for us.

    Antoinette: We are picking the women from more global sources. For instance, since the 1890s foreigners have had to register in Luxembourg and you have for instance individual records for each migrant and you have a lot of women in these materials. You can for instance take the information out of the global data.

    Marie: Well, thank you very much!