Social Control in Transnational Families: Somali Women and Dignity in Johannesburg

  • Marnie Shaffer


Transnational mobility often separates families and distances individuals from the kinship and social structures by which they organized their lives prior to migration. Myriad forms of insecurity have been the impetus for Somali movement into the diaspora, with people fleeing the realities of conflict that have marked Somalia for decades while physically dividing families as individuals settle in different countries around the world. Mobility has altered the dynamics of households, families, and communities post-migration, reshaping social constructions as individuals move on without the familial support that sustained them in Somalia. While outcomes of these hardships are variable and often uneven in different settlement spaces, migration can offer new opportunities for people to pursue avenues from which they were previously excluded, such as by assuming roles and responsibilities their relatives once filled. These changes precipitate shifting identities and are challenging for women who find themselves self-reliant in the diaspora, particularly in the absence of (supportive) husbands and close kin.Drawing on ethnographic research in Johannesburg’s Somali community, this chapter explores the assumption that migration provides an opening for women to challenge subordinating gender norms. Settlement often grants women greater freedom to make choices in their lives, such as in employment and personal relationships, and yet they remain constrained by networks that limit their autonomy. Even with transnational migration and protracted separation, women are family representatives who must uphold cultural notions of respectability despite realities that position them as guardians and family providers. Women remain under the watchful eye of their extended families through expansive networks and the ease of modern communication, which facilitate a new form of social control as women’s behavior is carefully monitored and reported to relatives afar. These actualities raise questions about the degree to which transnational movement is a liberating force for women or rather a reconfiguration of social control. I argue that despite women’s changing position in their households and families, they remain limited by social control within their extended families and communities.


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marnie Shaffer
    • 1
  1. 1.Independent scholarColumbusUSA

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