Religion, gender and migration
UNIBO, IMIR, UPSPS,
University of Bologna
General goal of the research
The general aim of the research was to explore the re-positioning
of religion in public and private sphere in particular among
migrant women and to challenge the idea of exceptionality of
Islam as the only religion that poses exceptional challenges to
European secularism and majiority religion of the host country.
This issue was addressed in different ways in the 4 countries
analyzed. The 4 research carried out present infact different
case studies with very different respondents’ profiles for
countries of origin, faith, relationship to religion, attendance of
places of worship.
Goal of the 4 case studies
Italy: the aim of the research was to explore the Islamic and
the Christian revivalism among Sunni Muslim and Baptist
Rumanian Christian women in Rome, and in particular in its
south-east periphery (Centocelle).
Greece: the aim of the research was to analyze the diversity of
religious identities (muslim, christian and atheist) represented
within of bulgarian and albanian immigrant communities.
Bulgaria: the study aimed to investigate the process
of negotiation of religious and gender identities in the
context of Muslim migration and to analyze the role
of religion in the adaptation of Muslim immigrant
women in the secular society of Bulgaria, a country
with an important local Islam.
Turkey: the main focus was on women within the
Christian faith and their experience in a country
where the majority of the population is Muslim.
4 key concepts
1- In XXI century religion is re-positioning in women’s lives
2- Diaspora enables transformations in religious practices and
3- Visibility and invisibility characterize bodily performances
4- Religion can be a tool of women’s empowerment, but also of
of religion in women’s lives
After years of marginalization, religion is once again
emerging in the public sphere in the East and in the
West. The repositioning of religion is a phenomenon
concerning all religions and is one of the elements that
most characterizes the end of the XX century and the
beginning of the XXI. As the 4 case studies show,
religion re-appears in the private and in the public
sphere among immigrants from muslim majority
countries as from former communist countries. Women
are not passive victims of this religious realignment,
they can infact be very active in this process (it is
particularly evident in the Greek and in the Italian
2- Transformations in religious practices
and identities enabled by diaspora
For many first and second generation immigrant, religion
serves as a means of returning toward one’s own
roots, offering spiritual support in order to deal with the
difficulties of daily life and in same cases (Italy,
Bulgaria, Greece) building social networks far from
home. In all the 4 works carried out, migration is
described as a painful, lonely and difficult experience.
In this context religion can become an important
reassurance, an irreplaceable solace.
A- The italian case
All the respondents, Baptists and Muslims alike, point out that in
diaspora their religiousness gains strength; and thanks to the
frequent attendace of places of worship, their ritual system
become strongly codified.
The Italian case points out that turning to religion is a free choice and
all-encompassing experience that does not mean turning to the
past, but instead living wholly in the present and having access to
the public sphere. Going to places of worship can become a way
to get out of the house, meet people, discuss religious principles
B - The Bulgarian case
Upon migration the ritual system of Muslim immigrant women
undergoes changes in two major directions: incorporation and
celebration of local (Christian and secular holidays) and
reduction of the number of traditional holidays that are
celebrated rather modestly with a simplified cuisine. All
respondents indicate that in Bulgaria they started to celebrate
the central local holidays – Christmas and Easter. Their
religious experience is characterized by heterogeneous
religious practices as it is shown by Muslim women
attendance of churches and the attraction for the Focolare
Movement, a Catholic organization.
C - The Turkish case
The research results point out that Christian migrant women
usually experience hybrid religiosity through engaging in
different Islamic religious practices such as fasting during
Ramadan, or celebrating Islamic holidays along with the rest of
the society. They justify this behavior saying that they do not
differentiate among monotheistic religions as they practice
worship and/or prayer in a transnational manner both in the
public and private realm. For those women faith is an internal
source of strength rather than publicly claimed identity.
D - The Greek case
Hybrid religiosities/hybrid practices characterize religion in diaspora
and represent forms of intercultural and interreligious
interactions, as the case of women that, without converting,
attend Greek orhodox churches (to pray and light candles)
shows. This kind of practice reproblematises the assumption that
Greek orthodox churches are ethnically homogeneous spaces
where the same language, attitude and religious faith are
practiced. The research results underline that the attempt of re-
reading religion, of re-interpreting the practices and traditions of
the Greek Orthodox community by migrants has a radical
potential. It serves as a critique towards existing religious
3- Bodily performances between
visibility and invisibility
From the research it appears that female immigrants’
clothing strategy is highly situational. Bodily
performances are the product of interactions with
at least three factors: the body politics of the
receiving country, the immigrant community’s
values and women’s desires. By wearing or not
wearing religious symbols, such as veils and
crosses, immigrants asserted themselves in the
public sphere along the axes of visibility and, or,
Bulgaria: The research results describe different clothing strategies
as outcome of negotiation with men in the family and of different
accommodation strategies in the host country.
1) from mild changes (lighter dress with brighter colors with
keeping the kerchief) to full removal of the veiling.
2) preservation of the dress code of the home country with very
3) veiling of immigrant women who did not use to veil (rarely).
Generally there is the tendency to become invisible in the public.
Turkey: the general tendency is to be invisible. The Christian
respondents report that they would rather be invisible than
visible in the public sphere. They want to blend in to the
public in order to avoid the critical looks and judgments
associated with the Russian and Eastern Europe sex workers
who first came to Turkey.
The research results show that the issue of how to deal with
cross necklaces as a matter of fact, is a very critical sign of
migrant women’s awareness of otherness-foreignness in a
Muslim society. Some times they felt like they had to hide
their cross necklaces with a scarf or a turtle neck blouse
which does not show their necks.
Italy:‘Modesty’ is a key concept in defining the roles and ideal
behavior of women in Islam as among Baptists.
Over and over Muslim respondents express their discomfort with
the general assumption that a woman’s liberty depends on how
she dresses and stressed the fact that veiling is their own
choice. All the respondents wear the veil, considered a duty of
a Muslim woman, even if it cannot be imposed.
In the church Baptist women wear a small veil, or a head band as
a sign of respect to God, and in some traditional churches it’s
even obligatory to put on a long gown.
Greece: According to the results of the research,
religious dress codes seem to be dictated by the
prevailing ethno-religious trends that make public
expressions of Christianity dominant in the everyday
life of Athens, while Islamic expressions are still
considered inappropriate for the public space. All of the
women who participated in the focus group discussions
and those who gave interviews were against the
wearing of the hijab in public. In this context, it is
more likely that even immigrant women who would like
to wear the hijab in public would be reluctant to do so.
On the contrary, none of the respondents-male or
female- expressed negative views about people of
different nationalities who wore the cross.
4 - Gender and religion: empowerment
The adoption of religious identities by migrant women constitutes
a terrain of possibility that it is very differently threated in the 4
case studies. If in Italy and partially in Greece it can potentially
play a role for the integration of migrant women in society,
enable their participation in public life, and allow the
contestation of existing gendered practices in the public; in
Turkey and Bulgaria, it is not a terrain of implementation of
women’s rights and it can become a means of reinforcing
gender inequalities and asymmetries within migrant
communities and amongst migrants and the host societies.
The particularity of the Italian case
By analyzing the results of the research, it emerges that religion
can make women visible and empowered (rather than
emancipated) in the public (rather than in the private). For
example, by attending the mosque, a traditional male space,
muslim women get out of the house and break their seclusion;
increase their knowledge in Islamic studies and in the Italian
language; take on roles of leadership in the community life;
participate in the social and political realm (organizing social
activities such as parties, dinners, conferences and taking part
to political demonstrations).
Conclusion: poliphony of voices
The research results show that national historical political context
of the host country as the origin country affect in different way
the relationship between gender religion and migration. Despite
the globalization we cannot talk about a unique european
model reproduced everywhere in Europe and particullarly in the
4 countries of WP6. The relationship between gender, religion
and liberal secularism is particularly diverse and depends on
the local context. The same notions of secularism, as well as
religion, should also be contextualized. For one thing, there is
no secularism or religion in general, but French laicite or Italian
fragments of secularism, as interpretations of Islam and
Christianity. For another, the exclusive association of religion
with Islam obscures the analysis of the possible ransformations
that entrench different religions in Europe.
In Europe the debate on the incompatibility, or the
presumed incompatibility, between women’s rights,
European identity/culture and Islamic values is very
sensitive and obscures other themes regarding
immigrant women and religion. This transnational study
suggests to redefine the terms of debate by observing
similarities and differences in the process of the public
transformation of minorities’ religions.
Taking religious identities seriously in our thinking about
Considering religiosity as a dynamic social practice determined
by collective and personal experiences (multidimensionality
and multiple meanings of religion).
No considering Islam as an exceptional challenge to the
Paying attention to the local differencies in the costruction of
the relationship gender/migration/religion.
Paying attention to the role that religion can play in immigrant
women’s lives for the effective social participation of
themselves, their families and their communities in the public
Defending the right of building places of worship as places able
to support immigrant women participation in the public sphere
and to promote the building of social networks.
No stigmatizing Islam as an enemy religion coming from
abroad, but considering it as part of the European social,
cultural and religious identity.
Promoting further investigation on the topic of gender,
migration and religion as the results of the research open new
grounds of debate and understanding of migrations for both
academic literature and policy decisions.