Recently, in the small bowling alley where Shelby works, three immigrant women and eight children came to the counter to pay for their games. After Shelby realized that none of the women could speak English, one of them tried to apologize, saying, “Normally my husband…” Shelby asked if her husband usually did the talking. She nodded and kept her eyes glued to the floor.
Over twenty million immigrant women and girls live in the United States today. Many come to the Unites States searching for a better life, but it can be difficult to fit into US society. Obviously, men are not immune to the challenges of adapting to a new culture, but women often have additional challenges that men do not experience.
We wanted to learn more about women's experiences, so we interviewed eighteen women who immigrated into the US either as adults or as children. Their stories can give us a glimpse at the challenges they've faced. They can also teach us how we can help women immigrants feel included in our society.
Through the words of these women, we are reminded of three crucial principles for those of us who advocate for biblical equality:
1. Our experiences are not those of every woman, and we need an understanding of experiences other than our own to achieve true equality.
Like most women all over the world, immigrant women don’t have the same employment opportunities as men. They also don’t often get help with family responsibilities to offset the time they spend working outside the home (this is often called the “second shift”).
Their stories are an essential reminder for women who were born in this country: while women as a group are marginalized in the workforce and the church, immigrant women struggle in ways that we do not. These women battle many of the same restrictions we do—all while learning the language we speak fluently and feeling isolated from others who could provide support and help.
2. Even in our differences, we all need community.
One woman reported living in an area where most of the other immigrants were men working construction. She reported, “I didn’t know anybody, my husband was the only person I was able to talk to.” One stated that the language barrier made “learning the culture and expectations” difficult. Another reported, “Some people just avoided me…or they left me after they heard my…accent.”
Still, some of the women we interviewed talked about feeling welcomed and encouraged in their efforts to adapt. “I work in a place that embraces and encourages diversity. I get along well with people,” reported one woman. She was among the majority who identified having jobs and/or being in school as helpful in feeling more a part of American society. Another spoke of friends who were encouraging in “words and actions…who were very supportive and spent time” with her. Several specifically said that involvement in church is helpful in adapting to their new culture.
Immigrant women also deal with challenges unique to them, like learning to speak a second language in order to navigate daily life and build relationships with others. Those who are unemployed also face another challenge—isolation. Without the day-to-day interaction with others that a job typically involves, learning the language and feeling a part of US culture becomes even more difficult.
3. If we can learn from and live in community with each other, the Christian message will not just be good news for men, but also for women; and not just for some women, but for us all.
Happily, the good news of Christ and the fellowship we experience as his followers extends to everyone. We egalitarians can help by doing what we do best: promoting equality for all.
As we—men and women—spread the good news, we should remember that women are a diverse group of people. We do not all have the same privilege, and we don’t all experience the same challenges to reaching our goals. When we acknowledge the additional obstacles immigrant women encounter and listen to their stories, we can become more aware and help our sisters feel less alone.
We can also help ease the isolation these women often experience. As egalitarians who work for equality, and as Christians who strive to love others as ourselves, we have more reason than any other group of people to reach out to immigrant women in need of fellowship. Inviting and welcoming them into our communities of friendship and faith can help them feel less isolated, and it will also edify us with new knowledge, traditions, and relationships.