Gendered Crossings: Gender and Migration in Muslim Communities in Thailand’s Southern Border Region

Michiko Tsuneda

Migration and Communities Along the Border

“In the past, things were the opposite. Malaysians used to come here looking for work. Now, everybody here goes to Malaysia for work.”

This was the refrain I heard countless times in my research community, several kilometers from a Thai-Malaysian border checkpoint in Narathiwat province. Labor migration to Malaysia, briefly mentioned in the first ethnographic account of Malay communities in Southern Thailand by Thomas Fraser, was a seasonal and agricultural activity carried out by groups of men in fishing villages (1960, 86). Half a century later, in my research community near Sungai Kolok, not only men but many youngunmarriedwomen are making their way to Malaysia to work on a long-term basis as servicesector workers (Thaweesit 1984; Dorairajoo 2002). Nowadays, many men view their work in Malaysia as a transient undertaking away from home that they must go through out of economic necessity. On the other hand, young single women are finding new possibilities in life through their work in Malaysia. Particularly through marriage, women are also playing an increasingly important role in establishing critical social networks that traverse the national border.

Narathiwat province has the highest percentage of Muslim population in Thailand (Thailand 2003), as well as one of the lowest income levels in Southern Thailand (Bank of Thailand 2001). While many people in communities near the national border engage in border trade, a lack of capital limits opportunities for poor villagers who can only work as underpaid laborers for legal and illegal traders. Residents of my research community also sought employment in the border town nearby, but the dwindling economy of the area has caused decreasing job opportunities. In the past few decades, increasing numbers of Muslims with a Malay ethnic background in southern border communities of Thailand have been heading to Malaysia where more jobs with higher wages are available. Among the families that I interviewed in my research community, about 70 percent had one or more family members who had been to work in Malaysia, and in nearly 20 percent of the families, one or more members were married to a Malaysian. Whereas only 8 percent of interviewees over age seventy had lived or worked in Malaysia in the past, nearly 40 percent of people in their teens and twenties had worked in Malaysia. While social relations across the national border have long been a part of everyday life for people in the southern border region of Thailand, the increase and shift in the patterns of border crossings are changing the social terrain of these communities.

“It’s better to be home”: Men and Border-Crossing

Men in Malay-speaking Muslim communities in Southern Thailand have had more freedom in mobility and decision-making than their female counterparts. While women covet the greater freedom available to men, many men resent that nowadays women have it better than they do. “It’s not like in the past. Life is easier for women now,” says Po Surome, 1 a widowed man in his fifties. “They can sew, they can sell things in the market, and they can work in the house. But men have no jobs [unless they leave Thailand for work].” Chronic job deficiency and the gender ideal of men as the providers for the household (albeit conventionally inconsistent with actual conditions of household economies) have propelled many men to head to Malaysia for work. The comparable sense of freedom available to men in their home communities diminishes as they cross the national border, and this leads many men to view their experiences in Malaysia negatively.

MalaysiaThailand_(en)The majority of middle-aged men going to Malaysia engage in construction work, while men in their teens and twenties may work in restaurants, construction sites, and factories. Most villagers work in Malaysia on tourist visas. They usually work for one month straight, often on 10-12 hour-per-day work-shifts with no days off, and then go back to Thailand for several days before heading back to work in Malaysia. Not many employers are willing to help their workers obtain work permits, and with increasing stringency in immigration control in Malaysia since the late 1990s, workers live in fear of arrest. A sense of belonging to Thailand strengthens among the members of Malay-speaking Muslim communities in southern Thailand, as they witness discrimination against “foreigners” in their daily lives in Malaysia. 2

Thai magazines and cassette tapes of Thai pop music are piled up in the living quarters of Thai restaurant workers in Malaysia. When Thai soap opera appears on Malaysian TV, workers at Thai restaurants gather around, gripped for the duration of the show. They often speak in Thai amongst themselves, especially when talking about their Malaysian customers, even though they speak mostly Malay at home in Thailand. Workers prefer employers who are themselves from Thailand, saying, “Malaysian employers only think about money. They don’t understand us and our problems. As for employers from Thailand, we are the same people, so they can understand us and help us.” Malaysians are often distrusted by the workers for mistreating them as foreigners and not helping them in case of arrest, unlike employers from “home”: Thailand.

As literature on service sector work suggests, this increasingly prominent form of labor entails constant negotiation of one’s identity and emotions (Adams and Dickey 2000; Hochschild 1983; Parrenas 2001; Paules 1991). In interpersonal service work such as restaurant and domestic work, worker-client interaction is the core of labor activity; it can reproduce existing hierarchies as well as create new social boundaries. Emphasizing their “Thai” identity in contrast to the surrounding Malaysians may be a way for the Malay-speaking workers from Thailand to resist seeing themselves as “servers” who are inferior to their Malaysian customers.

These conditions apply to both men and women. Nevertheless, having enjoyed a relative degree of freedom in their home communities, men are particularly inclined to emphasize that Thailand—as “home”—offers more freedom to them than Malaysia, which is “their [Malaysians’] place.” Thus, many men say they work in Malaysia solely for the money.

“I decided to come because my friends told me that work in Malaysia is fun, and that they can go to places and get good money,” said Ibrahim, a cook at a Thai restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. “But when I came here myself, I thought ‘well, but fun to what degree?’… It’s better to be home.” Before coming to Malaysia, he had found work in a Bangkok factory through a family connection. His Thai Buddhist co-workers showed misunderstanding and prejudice towards him and his friends, who were the only Malay-speaking Muslim workers in the factory. Nevertheless, he says he prefers living in Bangkok to living in Kuala Lumpur if the money issue is put aside, “because in Bangkok, it’s our home. It’s fun. I can go anywhere at anytime in Bangkok. Over here, I cannot go anywhere because you have to be careful with the police. So I just work and go home. It’s pretty boring.”

Desire, Marriage, and Network-Building: Women and Border-Crossing

Whereas men emphasize the limitations involved in working in a “foreign land,” young single women see more opportunities in Malaysia than simple monetary gain. Earlier labor migration from Malay-speaking Muslim communities in southern Thailand to Malaysia was dominated by men. Women who went were with their husbands or were bujae—widows or divorcees. Going to work in Malaysia was not an option for an ano daro, a young never-been-married daughter, whose mobility was under closer watch (Fraser 1960, 199; Patya Saihoo 1974, 65-73). (For documentation of the onset of changes to this gender norm, see Chavivun Prachuabmoh 1980, 176-178; Arin Sa-idi et al., 1993; Sawan Lertrit, 1992).

It was in the 1980s that young single women began to work in Malaysia, mostly as maids in Malay households. Usually these were the houses of relatives or of someone know by their relatives. While this opened up a path for young unmarried women to become economically independent, it provided very little freedom in time and mobility once they had moved into the work household. Later, as large numbers of Indonesian women began to work as domestic servants in Malay households in Malaysia (Chin 1998), young Muslim women from southern Thailand began to work in restaurants and food stalls in the Malaysian towns.

Mariam, now in her early thirties, experienced this transition when she first left for Malaysia in the late 1980s. At age sixteen, after attending a private Islamic school for four years, she decided to work in Malaysia. She had friends who were working there already, and she wanted to make money and live in a big city like them. At the time, most girls’ parents did not allow them to work in restaurants; there was no telling what kind of trouble they might encounter, especially with men, Malaysian or otherwise. But they thought it was safe for girls to work as maids for a relation or acquaintance. Mariam pleaded with her mother, who convinced her father to allow her to work as a maid in the household where her friend was already working.

However, Mariam found the job to be disappointing as she had little freedom. Her employer always kept her under close watch and complained if she spent time outside the house, telling her she was an ano daro and should not behave in an unsuitable manner. Her salary was two hundred ringgit a month, “but with monthly travel back to Thailand, there was nothing left!” In the meantime, some friends had already started working in a Thai restaurant nearby. She thought the job would be more interesting, so after her fourth trip back to Thailand, she simply did not return to the house where she worked as a maid. Instead she went to the Thai restaurant where her friends were working. Fearing their objection, she did not tell her parents that she planned to change jobs. Nevertheless, when her parents found out after a month, they allowed her to continue working at the restaurant. She worked at the restaurant for about one year before it went bankrupt. Soon thereafter, she married a Malaysian man who had been a regular customer.

Although she has been married to her Malaysian husband for over a decade, Mariam does not have Malaysian citizenship. She believes that her past stays in Malaysia as an illegal foreign worker disqualify her from citizenship. In addition, she says she does not want to “be a Malaysian” because she wants to remain khon Thai (a Thai person) and does not want to risk having her Thai citizenship revoked. She feels comfortable with her access to what Malaysia has to offer through her marriage and two children with her Malaysian husband. For example, for several years she has used her husband’s connections to find jobs for her brother Yusof in Kuala Lumpur.

For women like Mariam, money is not the only advantage in restaurant jobs. In fact, women working at restaurants in Malaysia tend to earn less than men, as most women are hired as servers and most men as cooks with double the wages. Nevertheless, even with such gendered economic disadvantages, job possibilities in Malaysia are appealing.

Many of the young single women from southern Thailand that I met in Thai restaurants in Malaysia first worked for their relatives or someone from their village, often in states close to the Thai-Malaysian border, such as Kelantan, Trengganu, or Kedah. From there, they used their own networks of new and old friends to find jobs in other places thought to be more desirable, especially Kuala Lumpur. In Malaysian cities, particularly the capital, they can dress more boldly than they could back home. Generally, Muslims in Malay-speaking communities in Thailand consider “modern” women with revealing outfits and flashy make-up to be “like Thai Buddhists” and to disregard the way Muslim women should dress and behave. Being away from home in Malaysian cities, young women who aspire to be more fashionable and “modern” face less risk of damaging their credibility as Malay Muslims. They chatter on their cell phones—prized possessions made possible by their wages—with friends from Thailand and new friends made in Malaysia. These “friends” sometimes include men. Most women say they take money back to their family when they return to Thailand, fulfilling their good daughter role through economic contributions. And despite having to wrestle with suspicion over “free” (bebas) women’s morality, many say they want to work in Malaysia for the “life experience” they can gain in a city or another country.

Mariam’s case also points to an important difference between men and women who cross the border: the prospect of marriage. A working class man from Thailand, whom Malaysians tend to view as too “under-educated and economically insecure” to be a suitable husband, has little chance of marrying a Malaysian woman. People also note that obtaining residency rights in Malaysia is particularly difficult for men marrying Malaysian women, in comparison to women marrying Malaysian men. For young women, unlike their male counterparts, marrying a Malaysian and settling down in Malaysia is a possible future. In my interviews, most of the non-elite women from Malay-speaking Muslim communities in southern Thailand who had married Malaysian men in the last few decades said they first worked in Malaysian restaurants and met their partners there.

The fact that many women marry Malaysian men does not mean they idealize Malaysian men in contrast to men in their communities in Thailand, beyond the social and economic access and comfort they may bring. And while they recognize the Melayu ethnic link, distinctions between Malaysian Malays and Thai Malays have been emphasized through increased interactions between the two groups as people with different national backgrounds and social belongings. The perceived increase in the number of marriages between “foreign immigrants” and Malaysians is viewed as a social threat in Malaysia (Healey 2000). Across the border in Thailand, many women who have married fellow Muslims in Thailand consider marrying a Malaysian a dangerous gamble. They characterize Malaysian men as “womanizers” always looking for second and third wives. According to them, women from Thailand are often “tricked” into becoming second wives or easily abandoned when a man finds a new wife.

Nevertheless, many women do marry Malaysian men, and for some it is an aspiration to pursue. They say they are fortunate to live a comfortable life in Malaysia and to be able to provide a good education for their children. The parents of many women proudly tell stories of their daughters in Malaysia who help them financially. And financial support is not the only advantage that women who marry Malaysian men can bring home. They become an important mainstay of networks of people across the border, opening doors to their friends and relatives in Thailand to live, work, or study in Malaysia. Malay-speaking communities in southern Thailand depend heavily on these informal personal networks to find jobs across the border and avoid jobs brokered by middlemen. They are critical in the pursuit of expanded economic and social opportunities.

Concluding Remarks

Malay-speaking Muslims living in the southern border region of Thailand both suffer from and take advantage of the presence of the national border, much like residents of borderlands elsewhere in the world (Donnan and Haller 2000; Donnan and Wilson 1999). As members of an ethnic minority on the national margin, they navigate their lives maneuvering among ambiguous and multiple identities. Yet how much one can control and use such ambiguity to advantage depends on the position an individual occupies in the “power geometry” (Massey 1994, 149) of the region. Furthermore, in the “gendered geography of power” (Pessar and Mahler 2002), individual agency is influenced not only by politico-economic and judicial forces, but also by various types of imaginations and desires.

Border-crossing is neither all-empowering nor all-oppressive to Thai-Malaysian “borderlanders” (Horstmann 2002; Takamura 2004). The ability to choose to stay or move is not available equally to everyone at the border, but is structured by gender, ethnicity, and class. Men and women of different generations and marital status in Malay-speaking Muslim communities in the southern border region of Thailand experience the borderland and border-crossings with different degrees and forms of limits, pressures, and advantages.

As attaining dual nationality is becoming increasingly difficult due to tightening state control, women have come to play ever more important roles in establishing cross-border networks. While men often view themselves as transient workers in pursuit of money in a land that is “not their own,” young single women working in Malaysia maintain and create social links that the national border shapes, while cultivating new possibilities unlike those offered by conventional gender relations at home.

Michiko Tsuneda
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 7. States, People, and Borders in Southeast Asia. September 2006
This article is based on my research conducted in Thailand and Malaysia in 2001, as well as 2003 through 2004, with funding from the Matsushita International Foundation and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.References

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  1. All the names in this article are pseudonyms.
  2. Since the time of my research, the unrest that erupted in Southern Thailand in 2004 has intensified. The long-term effects of the unrest on the issues discussed in this article require further research.