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The intersection of gender and marginalised identities on opposite ends of Europe

By Lana Gonzalez Balyk, Suzan Ilcan & Seçil Daǧtaș | Issue 23

Courtesy of Lana Gonzalez Balyk.

Our research emphasises the lived experiences of displaced Muslim women from Syria and other Arab countries in Paphos, Republic of Cyprus, and Brazilian migrant women in Porto, Portugal. These country contexts are distinct, but both cases highlight how complex historical and present circumstances impact social relations between “host” cultures and specific migrant groups. Against this background, we share the stories of four women, two in each country, to provide insight into how they respond to gendered stereotypes and inequalities. Our analysis is based on in-depth interviews and participant observation from the two field sites.

The ongoing division of the island of Cyprus since the 1974 conflict with Turkey, along with the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers, impacts the Cypriot reception of Arab and Muslim migrants and refugees. In recent years, the Republic of Cyprus has received the highest number of asylum seekers per capita in the European Union (EU). Public perceptions towards refugees and asylum seekers range from supportive to negative, though a recent survey finds an uptick in negative sentiments. Recently, tension flared to violence between Greek Cypriots and Arabs in the community of Chloraka, where 20% of the residents are Syrians, often living in subpar housing conditions. Many Arab women, particularly those who wear the hijab, report experiencing discrimination. During recent field research in Paphos, several Arab women elaborated on this topic.

Rashida*, a divorced mother from Syria, tells us how neighbours she has known for years still remark on her hijab and her choice to wear it. Rashida also found employment options limited, ‘…especially with my hijab.’ Conversely, as a divorced woman who drives a car and takes on various odd jobs to support her children, she also confronts discrimination within the Arab community. Nevertheless, Rashida's motivation, experience, and linguistic skills have made her an integral part of community initiatives that support refugees and asylum seekers in Paphos, and she is a crucial conduit for women in the Arab community.

Asha*, a Palestinian mother from Jordan, describes her experience with the hijab, stating, ‘… when I came here the first time I felt it, like […] if I'm not wearing the hijab, it would be different.’ She says that, alongside factors such as Greek language proficiency and cultural/family dynamics relating to women working outside the home, wearing a hijab forms a barrier to employment for Arab women, as many employers refuse to hire women who wear the hijab. She notes that Cypriot sentiments towards Muslims are affected by the 1974 conflict but sees a change in attitudes as the younger generations have grown up exposed to more cultures. She observes that many younger Arabs speak fluent Greek and English, study at the university, and work in public spaces, even women wearing hijabs. Asha founded an Arab women's community organisation that, besides offering support and belonging to Arab women, enables them to engage with the Paphos community and rewrite some of the perceptions people might have about them.


Brazil’s links to Portugal stem from the colonial past, and as members of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), the countries have a relationship that facilitates migration. However, Brazilians confront various forms of discrimination in Portugal, with many reporting prejudice when seeking accommodation owing to their accent or appearance. Some discrimination may be “nuanced” and challenging to recognise or acknowledge. Many Brazilian women confront discrimination through hyper-sexualisation and racialisation, which in Portugal goes above skin colour or ethnicity and links to nationality.

As a single Brazilian mother, Anita* found herself confronted with decades-old stereotypes that construct her as a “whore” or “prostitute”. A café owner even demanded that she ‘…go back to your country, don't come here to steal our men’. Anita called out her accuser for her judgments and for failing to understand migrants’ wish to create a better life for themselves and their children. Having gained the café owner's respect, they ultimately became friends, and Anita observed a shift in the former's perception of migrants. Anita continued to greet neighbours who were suspicious of her and to frequent businesses that shunned her, and in time she gained acceptance in her community. Anita extends support and solidarity to other migrant mothers by collecting and distributing donated children’s clothing.

Bia*, who identifies as a woman of colour, details how her upper-middle-class background allowed her certain privileges despite Brazil's issues centred around race. Her upbringing contrasts her experience in Portugal, where she is reduced to a Brazilian woman of colour. She reveals that during a short stint working at a café, men would approach her to go to a hotel, assuming she must be open to sex work or at least be sexually available. Bia and her Portuguese friends compared their experiences using dating apps and noticed that the Portuguese women would go on coffee dates several times without men making sexual advances; meanwhile, ‘…with Brazilian women, they try to approach [sexually] on the first date’. However, she has learned to take a stance against discriminatory actions and responds by halting disrespectful conversations or calling out poor behaviour with a pointed joke or rebuke. She has taken it upon herself to educate people when the situation demands it. For example, when Portuguese friends try to touch her hair, she outlines the importance of asking permission to touch someone and to first consider their relationship to that person and the meaning their actions might convey. In another situation, when a Portuguese friend negated Bia's blackness by arguing that their tanned skin made them darker than Bia, she explained how race goes beyond the tone of one's skin. Bia has proudly embraced her identity and actively participates in community-building experiences for black women.

These four women and many others we spoke with in both research sites have found unique ways to respond to and navigate gendered stereotypes and inequalities, such as negotiating their belonging and participating in community-building activities. Nevertheless, the marginalisation of Muslim women in Cyprus and Brazilian women in Portugal highlight persistent social justice issues.

*All names have been changed.

Lana Gonzalez Balyk is a PhD Candidate in the Global Governance program in the Balsillie School of Affairs at the University of Waterloo, Canada. Her dissertation research focuses on migrant women’s community building in Portugal. Her supervisor, Dr Suzan Ilcan, is a Professor in the department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. Suzan and her colleague, Dr Seçil Daǧtaș, a Professor in the department of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo, are currently conducting research as part of a multi-year SSHRC funded project in the Republic of Cyprus studying migration and border frictions. Lana supports their project as a Research Assistant.


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