Abe, A.: Migration and Post-colonialism, 2008

Download PDF Document


Migration patterns and historical ties

One of the important factors that influence migration patterns is historical linkage between former imperial powers and their colonies of the past. Clear examples can be found in the immigration patterns of Britain and France, where large groups of ethnic minorities have come from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and from the Maghreb, respectively. Such migration has been continuous since the big rise of immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. At street level, such ethnic minorities are frequently deemed ‘foreigners’ regardless of their formal and legal citizenship in those countries. Political and socio-economic problems surrounding immigrant populations are often interpreted as a failure of policies intended to aid in the integration of those people into the host society. And this failure, in turn, frustrates local people exacerbating anti-immigrant attitudes among the public. Post-colonialism challenges such situations by flipping the viewpoint from that of the locals to that of the immigrants. While immigration is a major concern for western democracies, post-colonial perspectives provide common stories of immigrants in those societies, stories that indicate the perpetual discrimination against non-European values. 

Post-colonial approach to migration  

Post-colonialism is a way to look at a history from different perspectives. Post-colonial studies, the ideas of which are represented in the writings of Franz Fanon, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak et al., provide an alternative approach to understanding these immigration issues. The concept of multiculturalism in Britain and republican ideology in France usually explain the way those countries handle immigrants and their integration policies. Republicanism faces severe challenges from post-colonialism, as the former denies any alternative value system, such as that of Islam, to construct sub-groups within the state system, since it would undermine the unity of the community (read: the nation-state). The separation of church and state (läicité), for example, is a foundational principle in France since the modernization in the 19th century, which categorically denounces that part of the Muslim way of life that rejects the distinction between religious and secular spheres. As a result, Muslim immigrants are looked at as ‘backward’ and ‘pre-modern’. Post-colonialism, in turn, denounces the hierarchy of values that republicanism assumes. Post-colonialism provides a framework through which immigrants’ narratives can be heard and taken into account, as opposed to just being measured by modernist scales.
Multiculturalism, on the other hand, seems more or less similar to post-colonialism, as the former seeks to allow diversity and community-building by ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, problems of hate crimes as well as the 7/7 suicide bomb attacks by British citizens in London in 2005 have proven that multiculturalism has not been effective in preventing the ostracism of ethnic minorities from the wider society, allowing extremism to penetrate into ethnic communities. While multiculturalism has encouraged minorities to build their own communities, it designates the minorities to remain minorities, segregating and consequentially excluding them from the main stream of the society.  Ghettos are the most visible and extreme example of segregation by which there is no blending of members across racial or ethnic categories. Although ghettos no longer exist in Europe in a strict sense, there are ethnic quarters or areas where de facto segregation can be found. They live in limited areas because it is often cheaper in terms of living expense and it is convenient to receive communal supports. Nonetheless, by sticking together, different ethnic groups (including locals) hardly have any communications or transactions. There is a dilemma between autonomous communities and integration of the larger group such as a nation. Headscarves have a similar function as to make a person (in this case a woman) belong to a Muslim community but to isolate her from a bigger community surrounding the Muslim community. After all, the narratives of the immigrants have not been shared by the majority of the nation. Post-colonialism focuses upon such narratives, which have been unheard or remoulded in the western frameworks.
Post-colonialism is not limited to the specific bilateral relations between states based upon imperial/colonial history. Europe as a whole faces a mass influx of people as a result of the post-colonial transformation of the world. The issue of the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women is a model case; not only in France has the collision between the läicité principle and a particular Islamic custom caused an explosion in national politics, but also in Germany, where historical ties with the immigrant-sending countries are lacking, the headscarf issue has created a much heated debate.

Headscarf issue

The issue of Muslim women’s headscarves exemplifies the deficiency in communication between the host European societies and the immigrants whose narratives post-colonialism focuses upon.
In 2004 France finalized the dispute over Muslim headscarves by legislating a constitutional ban of religious symbols, in effect targeting headscarves at public schools. The initial case took place in 1989 and the then socialist government was ambivalent about the question. The government decided that the potentiality for those Muslim young women to become ‘modernized’ through public education was more important than a strict application of läicité. Since then, French politics has swung to the right, and, consequentially, a scarf ban came into legislation in 2004.
Also, in Germany, Muslim female teachers provoked national debates when they tried to teach at public schools with their headscarves and the school and administrative authorities prohibited this behaviour or fired them. The federal system in Germany leaves the management of education systems in the hands of the individual states, and about half of them ban headscarves at public schools.  
The argument from those who are in favour of headscarf ban is based on the modern European value system, that is, to distinguish the private from the public and religion is in the former sphere. In Islam, such a distinction does not make sense, and it is not a question of ‘advancement’ and ‘backwardness’ in the scale of modernization. Post-colonial perspectives make it possible to place European and non-European value systems on an equal footing.
In the argument of the pro-headscarf-ban side, Muslim women’s headscarves are considered a symbol of ‘oppression against women’. But is it not necessary to listen to those women in order to decide whether they are oppressed?  When they are asked, many of them say that it is their own choice to wear headscarves. It should be noted that not a few highly educated Muslim women have begun to wear headscarves in the name of self-expression or establishing their own identities, a behaviour much influenced by European culture. It is also true that there are Muslim women who support the argument that family or Muslim community pressure forces them to wear scarves. The point is the diversity of Muslim women and the categorical assumption of ‘oppressed Muslim women’ ignores the various narratives of those in the centre of the debates.
Also important to note is the meaning of the headscarf. Except for very small minorities in secluded areas, it is a universal custom to cover one’s body in public, i.e. people wear some kind of clothes. Post-colonialism draws attention to the narratives of those women who feel the exposure of her hair is nearly equal to the exposure of her body. The act of her headscarf being removed then becomes a violent one, as though she is being stripped of her clothes. On the other hand, there is a concern that headscarves, being used as a symbol of ‘clash of civilizations’, deepen the divide amongst ethnic groups, thus worsening the segregation of ethnic minorities. Post-colonialism turns the table and insists that the segregation derives from the ostracism by the mainstream, not from the headscarves. It points out the fact that the violence involved with the banning of headscarves goes unnoticed within the European framework.

While post-colonialism can open another route to tackle the migration issues in Europe, it is not only in the Western democracies but also in Asian countries that post-colonialism provides an important perspective to understand the difficulties that immigrants face. In conclusion, post-colonialism urges us to listen to those who have been unheard, thus, in the context of migration, focuses on the narratives by immigrants instead of treating them as objects.


Ali, N., Kalra, V.S., and Sayyid, S., eds., A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain. London: C. Hurst& Co., 2006.

Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Benhabib, Seyla, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Cantle, Ted, Community Cohesion: A New Framework for Race and Diversity. Revised and updated edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Erzan, Refik, and Kirişci, Kemal, eds, Turkish Immigrants in the European Union: Determinants of Immigration and Integration. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.

Fanon, Franz, Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1952.

Fetzer, Joel S. and Soper, J. Christopher, Muslims and the State in Britain, France and Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Keaton, Trica Danielle, Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics & Social Exclusion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Koopman, Ruud, et. al., Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Okin, Susan Moller, et. al., Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Sayad, Abdelmalek, The Suffering of the Immigrant. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Past. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Takle, Marianne, German Policy on Immigration – from Ethnos to Demos? Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007.

Atsuko Abe, Associate Professor at the J.F.Oberlin University, Tokyo, 2008