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Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: the Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia

This article discusses two dominant and contradictory representations of Indonesian female migrant workers: as national “heroes” who contribute to Indonesia’s economic development, or as exploited “victims” of labor abuse. By analyzing public statements by Indonesian state actors, news reports, and migrant activists’ websites, I argue that representations of migrants as victims do not undermine representations of migrants as heroes of development. Instead, in Indonesian public discourses about migrant women, various institutions and actors often evoke similar gendered moral assumptions of what makes a “good” or “bad” Indonesian woman and worker. These assumptions serve narratives that imply which migrant workers are heroes who deserve media attention; which migrants are unfairly abused and deserve state protection; and which migrants partly deserve their tragic fates. I term these assumptions gendered moral hierarchies, which distinguish between “tolerable” and “illegitimate” violence. Gendered moral hierarchies in representations of migrants downplay the responsibility of states and institutions for migrant safety, labor protection, and aspects of social welfare, by emphasizing individual moral responsibility and blame. More attention to gendered moral assumptions behind migrants’ narratives of development and victimhood can illuminate how they experience the risks and promises of transnational labor migration in gendered and culturally specific ways.

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