“Intra-ethnic Diplomacy” and Labour Market Chances

A recent study based on interviews with young people of immigrant origin living in Stockholm revealed some surprising gendered patterns with regard to possibilities and barriers in the labour market. In general young women, whether Turkish, Latin American or Greek encountered less discriminatory barriers than young men did. They had also more often managed to establish themselves in the labour market.

The study was on labour market chances for young people of immigrant origin living in Stockholm and surrounding suburbs. A total of 35 young women and men of Turkish, Latin American – mostly Chilean – and Greek origin were asked to speak about how they were preparing for and entering the labour market in Sweden. Although the process of labour market entrance was the principal research question, a number of other issues needed to be analysed and discussed before addressing the core issue. One such initial question was what it means to be young in multicultural Sweden. Another question raised, was to what extent the young are encouraged to prolong adolescence by investing in studies past basic schooling, alternatively expected to form a family and/or to enter the labour market. Is traditional gender ideology interfering in different ways in these matters for young women and young men?

For the young of immigrant origin, born or at least brought up in Sweden, the question can be asked whether the view on youth and adulthood is perceived in the same way as among ethnically Swedish young people. An assumption in this study was that there are differences both between and within ethnic groups, depending on the parent generation’s socio-economic background, urban or rural origin and the strength of culturally embedded traditions that are handed over to the young generation. Turkish and Greek parents were primarily of rural origin and more than half of the fathers and almost all mothers had only few years of formal education, several of them illiterate, while most Latin American parents came from major cities with predominantly good educational credentials.

Suburban social control

Depending on ethnic background and the strength of parental traditionalism, young women in particular are often expected to reproduce their group both culturally and biologically.

Especially in ethnically segregated suburbs, social control from one’s own nationals – often more than from parents – means constant surveillance and risk of gossip over young women’s behaviour. This, as the study indicates, is at least partly explained by the fact that with high concentrations of one’s own ethnic group and little contact with mainstream society, the village mentality from the home country is re-created, allowing for little anonymity. Thus traditional values alone do not explain why young women from certain ethnic groups are objects of strict social control, while others are not as confirmed by a young woman:

This suburb is another for the young Greek than for the young Turkish people. The Greek young people enjoy much greater freedom.

The suburb as a phenomenon is one common social space and many social spaces encased into each other.

Yet results from the study show that there is a wide variation of how normative gender systems are followed in practice, whether we speak on a collective level of ethnically defined groups, of Muslim, Christian or other religious communities or of individual standpoints. Although the family generally plays a significant role in young women’s choice of lifestyle, certain families strictly impose the norms dictated by their culture, while others from the same religious or ethnic groups are much more pragmatic or liberal in their attitudes. Not even for Turkish parents of rural origin with little education did we find any common pattern of restrictive behaviour with regard to their daughters’ ambitions of studies and a career. For the young of Latin American and Greek origin, although the family was conceived as a haven of security in a sometimes alien environment, differential treatment according to gender was not an issue of major importance.

Good educational achievements

An interesting result of the study, which challenges stereotypical thinking with regard to culture and class background as measured in parents’ ethnic origin and socio-economic position, were the good educational achievements by the majority of both Turkish, Greek and, more obviously, Latin-American young women and men. All but four of the Turkish young, two women and two men, had successfully finished upper secondary school and a majority had headed for or were planning higher education. Only one Turkish young man had chosen to start working to help his parents to support a large family after basic schooling.

The educational histories, career ambitions and professional achievements reported by the young Turkish women contradict the generalised imagery of the oppressed ’Muslim woman’. It would, however, be wrong to argue that they were not submitted to restraints of movement or supervision of behaviour. While young men enjoyed liberties and were out partying, young women were living a ’more concealed life’, i.e. controlled life, as a young man put it. But in their determination to succeed in their studies and to achieve a professional career the women were strongly supported by their parents. The parents – many of them illiterate or semi-literate – referred to their youth on the Turkish country-side with little chances for schooling and subsequent unqualified, hard jobs in Sweden. They saw education as the prime avenue for a better future and jobs for their children, both daughters and sons. This is what a young woman, 20 years old, who had chosen to wear the Muslim headscarf the hijab – said about her parents:

– All they want is that I go on studying. They had no chance to do it, so that’s why they want their children to do it. /…/ They just say, just go on studying, so you won’t be like us. That is what my father says. Go on studying, make something out of your life, so you avoid becoming like us.

“Intra-ethnic diplomacy”

Another young woman’s choice of career, to work as a skilled waitress in a restaurant, was not taken well by her mother. For a young Turkish woman, the mother argued, it is not acceptable to come home late at night from a restaurant where she has been serving alcohol:

– So she /the mother/ has tried to make me stop working at a restaurant. Therefore I sat down with her and explained that it is not I drinking alcohol, I only work there. And if I don’t work evenings, I don’t get enough hours and I am trying to get enough hours there. It is better now, I can come home late.

This is one of many examples of how young women are negotiating with the older generation for acceptance of their career choices and for more autonomy, without losing respect or risking a break with their family. Another example comes from a woman, working as a trained nurse, who wanted to study at a university college for nursing outside of Stockholm. Her negotiations went on for the good part of a year, more due to her parents fear of “what the others would say” than their own reluctance. In bridging the gap between the older generations’ traditionalism and modern autonomy, the young women have developed a kind of ’intra-ethnic diplomacy’ when broadening their degrees of freedom without causing damage to the reputation of their families. These young women were in many ways pioneers, breaking new ground, transcending their social heritage and paving the way for other young women.

Negotiating their way was not needed for the young Latin American or Greek women we interviewed. The Latin-American parent generation, themselves often with higher education, supported educational efforts and career plans of their young as something self-evident. But both the Turkish and Greek young women, all daughters of working-class parents with minimal education, told of their parents’ pride over their educational and career achievements.

Contrary to their sisters, the young Turkish men enjoyed much more freedom, one of which was being allowed to stay out late partying. They were at least initially in their upper teens, less inclined to invest in studies. But with increasing age they have become aware that only studies will give them a decent chance on the labour market. Once that decision is made, they become very dedicated and determined. Before opting for a career of their own choice, some had made a detour working out of loyalty in the family business for a few years. A major professional attraction for young men, apart from the restaurant sector for the Turkish, was in computer sciences, IT and multimedia. Interest in these new technological fields was obvious both for Turkish and Latin American young men, but also different types of academic studies for the latter.

Satisfying jobs

The study revealed some surprising gendered patterns with regard to possibilities and barriers in the labour market. In general, young women, whether Turkish, Latin American or Greek, encountered less discriminatory barriers than young men did. They also more often had managed to establish themselves in the labour market. Especially women who had opted for a career in healthcare and nursing had achieved their ambitions, finding themselves in jobs they were pleased with. Another attractive line for young Turkish women was working in travel agencies, where logistics allowed them to keep contact with their country of origin. For young Latin American women, and also for the men, the pattern of career choices was more widespread. One typical picture that emerged was a combination of academic studies and artistic activities in music, theatre, film and literary writing. The double career path was dictated by a realistic view on the harsh conditions prevailing in artistically creative fields.

For young women, the most tangible barrier was wearing a Muslim head-scarf, the hijab. Both labour exchange officials and the young women themselves confirmed that the visibility of covering their hair, forced them to look for educational careers and jobs were they would be relatively invisible. For others, the sexist criterium of being at least ‘partly pretty’ was making chances for a job easier. But then, what chances do those young women have who do not correspond to Western ideals of prettiness? External characteristics thus literally cover personal aptitudes and skills for young Muslim women wearing a hijab and those who are not considered ‘pretty’ in Western eyes.

Armory of negative stereotypes

Young men were surrounded by an armoury of negative stereotypes, which worked as barriers on the labour market. Among the many stigmatising characteristics, we found a generalised image of criminality or aggressiveness, spread by the media. Physical characteristics such as colour of the hair and the skin depict them as ’the others’. Living in an ethnically segregated area is one more stigmatising barrier. But, more than anything, a name which is not originally Swedish works as a stigmatising signal to employers, who are reluctant to even invite them for a job interview. Non-Swedish names are referred to as ’peculiar’, ’funny’, ’tricky’ or just as foreign or different names, indicating that still only genuinely Swedish names are markers of normality and belonging.

In what looks like quite a sombre story, the hopeful picture comes from the young people themselves. They were prepared to struggle, to endeavour, to sacrifice time and effort to create their own possibilities for a future in the country where they were born, had grown up and had gone to school. If mainstream society goes on treating them as its unwanted children – as ’immigrants’ or ’foreigners’, as some of them called themselves – the multi-cultural Sweden risks being divided into a mainstream society and a marginalised ’Immigrant Sweden’.

By Wuokko Knocke


W. Knocke and F. Hertzberg (2000): Mångfaldens barn söker sin plats. En studie om arbetsmarknadschanser för

ungdomar med invandrarbakgrund, Svartvitt Förlag i samarbete med Arbetslivsinstitutet.

W. Knocke (1986): Invandrade kvinnor i lönearbete och fack. Women immigrants in wage-work and in the unions, Stockholm: Arbetslivscentrum.

W. Knocke (1996): Gender and Ethnicity at Work, Research Center for Women’s Studies, Mumbai, India.

W. Knocke (forthcoming): “Problematizing Multiculturalism: Respect, Tolerance and the Limits to Tolerance” in NORA, Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies.

Leiniö, Tarja-Liisa (1995): “Invandrarungdomars inträde i Vuxenvärlden och i det svenska samhället” i Invandrarnas hälsa och social förhållanden, Stockholm: Socialstyrelsen.

First published in NIKK magasin 1 2001@ NIKK

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