CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Salima Amari’s book, based on her doctoral thesis (defended in 2015), describes the social experience of lesbians in migration and post-migration contexts and at the intersection of gender, class, and race relations, and sexuality. The author’s main hypothesis is that these women ‘act on two fronts: constructing their own personal identity and managing family relationships, which they seek to preserve’ (p. 9).

2Her research draws on a rich body of empirical material: 52 interviews with migrant or second-generation lesbians from North Africa and several participant observation periods in Paris, the greater Paris region, and three major French cities (Lille, Lyon, and Toulouse) between 2009 and 2014. The many interview excerpts, together with detailed portraits of some respondents, flesh out her description of different types of trajectories and provide a clear empirical picture of the diverse intersectional situations these women are involved in. The first part of the book analyses the relationships between lesbians of North African origin and their families, while the second offers an in-depth analysis of their ‘lesbian careers’: sexual awakening and first sexual relationships, the questions of couple formation and parenthood, and the personal and political issue of ‘coming out’.

3The author distinguishes throughout the work between women (or girls) who migrated from North Africa and the second generation, showing that ‘the family seems a place for constructing an “ethnicized” self with ties to migration and working-class history’ (p. 12). The family, then, is a tension-fraught territory, at once a protective space where one can be with one’s own people and a locus and source of prohibitions and constraints, especially sexual ones.

4In the case of second-generation lesbians of North African origin, Amari is careful to highlight both the role of certain characteristics common to many migration histories (of ‘biographical capital’, the transmission of ‘subjective resources’ such as the value of work and education, parents’ working-class background) and the empirical diversity of those histories (sibling group size, parents’ social and migration trajectories, post-migration residential moves, and family mobility).

5The working-class origins of migrant families are particularly important in structuring such social and gender roles as the sexual division of labour and a certain ‘working-class emphasis on family’. This ‘classist’ reading of the gendered division of productive and reproductive labour in working-class families is in some cases translated by respondents into cultural terms, a point that highlights the intertwining of social and migrant histories in these families. The sibling group also works to construct inter- and intragenerational relationships: oldest daughters, often born in Morocco, are the path-breakers who confront all the problems thrown up by immigration, while younger sisters’ experience is ‘closer to a post-migration history yet to be (re)invented’ (p. 86). These social and migration trajectories structure the way immigrant and second-generation lesbians develop their identities and begin their ‘lesbian careers’.

6Ultimately, these women seek to distance themselves from the ‘threefold constraint’—virginity, marriage, motherhood—that falls to them. To do so, they use a variety of strategies, described in detail in the second part of the book. Moving away to pursue higher education is one way of escaping the extremely strict parental control imposed first and foremost on adolescent daughters. The first part leads into the second with a discussion of the fundamental ‘filial loyalty’ children must show towards their parents, a sense of duty that weighs particularly heavy on women and even heavier on lesbians, who are generally assumed to be ‘permanently available’ for them.

7The second part details the trajectories of these two groups of lesbians originally from North Africa. Like the ‘homosexual careers’ studied by Michael Pollak in 1982, their ‘lesbian careers’ are influenced by ethnic origin and class membership: ‘Because they share the same intersectional experience of being socially dominated in terms of sex, “race”, and sexual orientation, North African migrant and second-generation lesbian respondents living in France follow the same “moral career.”’ [1]

8The author distinguishes three aspects of lesbian careers: entry and gender and sexual orientation identification mechanisms; lesbian relationships and couple formation; the specificities of coming out for these groups of women who either personally experienced immigration or were born in France to immigrant parents. Without detailing all the contributions of this second part, we can focus on four main points.

9First, the author carefully presents both the various referents used by lesbians of migrant origin in constructing their identities and the role of activist locales; also the role of the media and ‘lesbian culture’ (as depicted in television series such as The L World, for example). These referents are implicated in how they develop their identity as gay women: they ‘restrict’ their visibility to certain places and very seldom expose that identity in the private sphere or the family. Joining the Gay Pride march, for example, an act that would mark their de facto integration into the LGBT community, is ‘not an easy decision to make’, either because they are afraid of being recognized or because they themselves find the practice of nudity at those parades ‘excessive’.

10Second, the women’s migration history raises the question of the role played by their various memberships (sexual orientation, class, race) in constructing their identity and finding partners. Some respondents seek to meet other North African lesbians so as to be with a woman who has had the same or similar experiences. In doing so, they draw what the author calls an ‘ethno-sexual border’ between a ‘Them’ and an ‘Us’. Others avoid North African lesbians for fear of being denounced, judged, or ‘outed’. For women who have themselves migrated, the strong homosociability that characterizes life in Morocco and Algeria paradoxically made sexual and love relationships between women easier, despite legal prohibitions against homosexuality.

11Amari’s analysis of the way the second generation manage their (homo) sexuality and love relationships in connection with their families of origin is particularly interesting. She first shows the variety of strategies they may use with their parents: mentioning television programmes on homosexuality, raising the controversial issue of same-sex marriage, talking first to sisters close in age. Then, using Carlos U. Decena’s notion of ‘tacit subjects’, [2] she shows how the topic of homosexuality can remain tacit within the family. A person’s homosexuality can be known without having to be explicitly mentioned. Criticizing a representation of ‘coming out’ specific to the white middle class, Amari writes that ‘second-generation lesbians of North African parents seem to demand “the right not to tell”’ (p. 317). [3] The ‘western’ way of ‘announcing that one is a lesbian’ appears not to suit most lesbians of immigrant origin, for whom tacit knowledge and the unsaid are part of family and cultural heritage. And the tacit nature of some subjects is intensified by the language barrier: these respondents say they are unable to talk about their sexuality in Arab or Berber.

12As verbalized ‘comings out’ tend to provoke violent breaks between these women and their families, the author analyses the many strategies respondents use to live their homosexuality while maintaining family ties and demonstrating ‘family loyalty’. A key one is a ‘lightning marriage’ lasting only a few months; another is a ‘marriage of convenience’, usually with a gay man.

13Amari’s work offers a clear account of the tensions that these lesbians with ties to immigration have to cope with: finding a balance between constructing one’s own identity and preserving family ties. Those tensions are of course not limited to women of immigrant origin, but they are particularly strong in their case, and they are intensified by their social and racial memberships. Amari’s research is a precious contribution to empirical analysis of intersectional situations. Her material is particularly rich, encompassing specific migration trajectories but also making us aware of the violence that some of these women have encountered in their migratory and sexual transitions. Indeed, the very density of her data makes it difficult at some points to distinguish trends beneath the diverse situations she describes. More might have been said of the distinction between respondent groups: women who have themselves migrated from North Africa and their second-generation counterparts. It is also important to note how religion is handled in the study: it seems to be just one membership among others for these women. Amari does not present Islam as a set of fixed norms that her respondents have to deal with; rather, belonging to the Muslim religion is part of their family and migration history and, as such, may prove either a resource or a constraint depending on the individual woman’s situation and experience.


  • [1]
    Goffman E., 1975, Stigmata: les usages sociaux des handicaps, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, p. 137. Originally published as Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1963.
  • [2]
    Decena C.U., 2008, Tacit subjects, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 14(2–3), 339–359.
  • [3]
    Ibid., 350.
Uploaded on on 26/02/2020
Distribution électronique pour I.N.E.D © I.N.E.D. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait