In the Footsteps of Jesus and the Prophet: Sociality, Caring and the Religious Imagination in the Filipino Diaspora

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Inst for Law Politics and Justice


This multi-sited study of a new diaspora centres on the International migration of huge numbers of Filipina women, over 2 million strong, to work as domestic carers in Europe and the Middle East. It challenges a dominant scholarly and popular discourse that views these migrants as economically deprived, semi-educated 'maids to order who endure harsh working conditions and unjust legal regimes in order to remit a few meagre dollars to folks back home. Instead, the project aims to disclose the rich cultural and religious lives of Filipinas in the diaspora by studying them as cosmopolitan travellers who develop and maintain identity, community and international networks across national borders and cultural boundaries.

The research will redress an under-researched and under-theorised aspect of Filipino migrant lives. Most Filipinos are Catholics, some are Muslims and increasing numbers belong to new Protestant churches. The principal hypothesis of the project is that religion is central to Filipinas' migratory experience, and especially so when they work in places sacred to Islam or Christianity. What role do Filipino religious congregations play in creating sociality community and social networks among fellow migrants, both local and transactional? Does it facilitate relations with their hosts? How does their faith empower women negotiating status and identity within and beyond the workplace? What are the symbolic and experiential dimensions of belief re-discovered, practised and reinscribed in a sacred landscape? What kind of cultural capital does living in centres holy to Christianity and Islam give migrant returnees? Indeed, does religion affect their decision to work in particular countries, beyond economic considerations?

Filipinas working as carers for the elderly construct their identity through notions of religious sacrifice and an ethos of caring and responsibility. The project aims to disclose whether caring for the elderly in their homes endows carers with dignity, status and independent decision-making power and how it contributes to a more Inclusive and encompassing sense of 'home' and family as transnational and multi-sited.

These two central objectives determine the project's proposed locations: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Europe and the Philippines. There are over 30,000 Filipinos working in Israel as foreign workers. Most work as carers for the elderly, chronically ill and disabled. Recently oversteyers have been brutally rounded up by police and expelled, either returning home or moving to Europe. Saudi Arabia is home to the largest overseas Filipino migrant community, numbering over 900,000 Filipinos, approximately 10% of which are Muslim Filipinos, mainly women, working either in health, carers or domestic helpers. Along with Italy these countries are religiously significant for migrants. Christian Filipinos have historically imagined a 'national closeness' with Israel based in the strong Filipino ascription to Judeo-Christian traditions, while Saudi Arabia is the holy symbolic centre of Islam for Muslims in the Southern Philippines, as Rome Is for Catholics. Recent Filipina migration to the UK adds a further comparative dimension.

The project will thus investigate how religion and caring mediate notions of an expanded 'home' and sense of belonging, and ways that religious congregations provide havens for new arrivals and/or migrants in distress, as well as forums for leadership and oratory, philanthropy and celebration. In doing so, the research will dispute the stereotype of the powerless and impoverished cultural lives of Filipino migrant women, challenge the view that an open and creative engagement with other peoples and ideas is the preserve and privilege of cosmopolitan elites, and contribute to the overall AHRC programme by providing new empirical date on an important global diasporic community and by advancing our understanding of gender and religiosity in a transnational context.