It's high time some sociology was written about around here! Today's lunch time sociology seminar at Keele heard from Claudia Liebelt with her paper, 'The Mama Mary of the White City's Black Underside: Reflections on the Filipina 'Block Rosary Crusade' in Tel Aviv, Israel'. This was an exploration of religion and identity in the growing Filipina domestic worker community in Israel (the majority of whom are young women). Claudia spent several months with these women documenting their lives, daily rituals and practices.
The diaspora of Philippine nationals is somewhere around the eight million mark, and is scattered all over the globe. The majority are female and a good proportion of them are well educated, but they tend not to fill highly skilled occupations. Instead the fall into low-waged work that is often insecure and can involve their abuse by unscrupulous employers. In Israel underpayment, passport confiscation, and harassment by immigration officials along with gruelling workloads is the lot of many Filipina migrants. But they are not passive vessels content to let the daily grind wash over them. They have developed strategies of coping and resistance, which, for the group studied by Claudia, was very heavily coloured by religious belief.
The Philippines were ruled by Spain from the mid 1560s to 1898, when it was ceded to the USA after its defeat in the Spanish-American war. Over the 300 year period the archipelago was drawn under a unitary authority and was more roundly developed than Spain's other colonial possessions. Waves of missionaries were drawn to the islands, who in their turn established a network of educational and medical institutions. This way Catholicism was able to strike down very deep roots - today some 81 per cent still list that as their religious affiliation (according to the CIA World Factbook), which is remarkable considering Islam reached those shores three centuries prior to Magellan's expedition.
Many commonplace religious practices are not necessarily 'officially' sanctified, which is the case with the block rosaries. For the group studied here, this was the primary manifestation of their belief. The workers live in the southern districts of Tel Aviv, typically in three-room flats occupied by up to 10 people (this overcrowding is relieved only by workers spending much of their weeks at the employers' homes). Their statuette of the Virgin Mary ("Mama Mary") travels from home to home, taking with it the block rosary prayer meet. The meets themselves are very crowded affairs. Upwards of 25 people can show up. When they enter, they pay their respects to Mama Mary, who is now placed prominently on a home made altar alongside other iconography and paraphernalia. Once everyone has entered the meeting and settled down, the prayers begin. Typically they pray for their families, the health of their employers, safe travel, and the overcoming of their problems and difficulties. The prayer leader then reads an extract from a holy text, passes around the rosary beads, and follows this with a reading from the lives of Mary and Jesus. And it proceeds over and over again, finally ending with a farewell prayer to Mama Mary. Now the prayers are over the workers can help themselves to the generous buffet and share news and gossip. The leader of the group has a link to the community of Catholics in Tel Aviv, and shares parish news and upcoming events.
As befitting an icon, a certain life is attributed to Mama Mary. Ever since the statue was acquired by the group (September 2007 on), her "moods" have been the subject of group speculation. For example, on one occasion 'Gina' dropped the statue and broke something on its leg. Afterwards she herself experienced leg pains until it was fixed. Likewise miracles are acknowledged as the work of Mama Mary. One woman who had spent seven years in Israel had been having trouble with her daughter, who remained behind. She had sent back $1,000 payable to a recruiter who was going to find her daughter work overseas. However, once the money had been handed over the daughter had changed her mind, having fallen in love with a local boy. She prayed to Mama Mary that she would again change her mind and agree to work in Italy and, on this occasion, her prayer came true. As thanks she gave the statue an embroidered coat that it would wear during its procession through Tel Aviv's neighbourhoods.
For those familiar with Philippine processions as busy evangelising affairs may be surprised to find their analogues in Tel Aviv are just the opposite. The procession from one flat to the next is low key and eschews attention, preferring to stick to the dark back alleys of the city (if the next destination is beyond walking distance, or, the weather isn't suitable, then it will take a minibus). In one sense, in their eyes these processional activities sacralise their urban space, one which many of them liken to the latter day Gomorrah in the Holy Land. But the main effect is inward, on the members of the block rosary themselves.
The Filipina workers are from all corners of the Philippines, but what they do have in common from the outset is their religious belief and gender. Mama Mary gives them a focus to gather around, a means of tying together their disparate experiences, and form a solidarity against what could otherwise be an atomised existence. Hosting Mama Mary is a privilege as it blesses the home and the hosts it resides in, but more than that it is also an icon underwritten by nostalgia - prayer meetings offer an opportunity to collectively reflect on the homes and families left behind, which is assisted by the food made available at the buffets. It provides a meaning for being in Israel beyond the need for money and confers a religious value on their care-giving work - as Mama Mary looks after and pities the women, so they too pity their charges, at the same time viewing their work as a sacrifice of their youth so others may benefit. Indeed, it can be read as a way of transmitting patriarchal values in a social space inhabited solely by women.
As far as I was concerned, this type of study shows how useful sociology can be for those of us involved in socialist politics. As a case study it has its own set of unique properties, but there are generalities that can be distinguished that are common to most migrant groups - namely the importance attached to a particular set of rituals and practices that confirms the validity of their selves to themselves, and generates a sense of "we-ness" that gives them the strengths to face the challenge of the social contexts confronting them. These solidarities do not necessarily have to be religious, but in most cases of migrant populations in Western Europe, they have tended to assume that character. If socialists want to work with and influence these groups then it must be done with tact and sensitivity.