About the Project

In the Footsteps of Jesus and the Prophet:

Migration as a Sacred Journey

FOOTSTEPS has been a multi-sited study of a new diaspora centred on the international migration of Filipino women (Filipinas) who make up the majority of the 2 million Filipinos at work in the Middle East. It challenges a dominant scholarly and popular discourse that reduces these migrants to 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.

Against that image, the project has disclosed the rich cultural and religious lives of Filipinas in the diaspora by studying them as pilgrims, tourists and cosmopolitan travellers who build identity, community and international networks across national borders and cultural boundaries.

Most Filipinos are Catholics or Muslims while some belong to new Protestant churches, but despite this, religion remains an under-researched and under-theorised aspect of their lives as migrants. Our principal hypothesis has been that ritual, religion and other forms of celebration and conviviality are central to Filipinas' international migratory experience, and especially so when they work in places sacred to Islam or Christianity.

Our research has explored the role that Filipino religious congregations play in creating sociality, community and social networks among fellow migrants, both local and transnational; the ways these facilitate relations with their hosts; how faith may empower women negotiating status and identity within and beyond the workplace.

Above all, we have asked: 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?

By describing their sojourns abroad in the idiom of sacrifice, suffering and sacred journeying, Filipina migrants situate their care giving work within a religious worldview of spiritual power and personal growth. Investigating these themes ethnographically, our research has aimed to challenge prevailing stereotypes of migrant Filipinas as ‘a nation of servants’, victims of an expanding capitalist labour market, and to reveal women’s agency in shaping their migration experiences.

Through their work and leisure, the project has found, Filipina migrants have forged an open if demotic working class cosmopolitanism. They engage positively with their new environment and the people they care for, inventively devising new coping and mobility strategies and building wide-ranging trust and support networks.

The research has challenged the stereotype of the powerless and impoverished cultural lives of Filipino migrant women, and critiqued the view that an open and creative engagement with other peoples and ideas is the preserve and privilege of cosmopolitan elites. It has contributed to the overall AHRC programme by providing new empirical data on this important global diasporic community and by advancing our understanding of gender and religiosity in a transnational context.

Methodology: Israel and Saudi Arabia

THESE research questions and objectives determine the project’s orientation as a multi-sited ethnographic study among Muslim and Christian Filipinos in the Middle East, in centres holy to Islam and Christianity. Our methodological approach is anthropological, based on fieldwork and intensive participant observation. It includes innovative use of visual and audio tools both for data collection and dissemination purposes. The aim is to disclose holistically, in-depth, the world views, social networks, economic strategies, religious subjectivities, communal congregational meetings and ritual practice of urban migrants who are full-time workers.

This aim has determined the project's research locations: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Europe (the UK) 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 overstayers 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 one million Filipinos, approximately 10% of which are Muslim Filipinos, mainly women, working either in health, as carers or domestic helpers. These countries are thus 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. Recent Filipina migration to the UK adds a further comparative dimension.

Expanding Homes in the Diaspora

IN STUDIES of diaspora, ‘home’ is often assumed to be a place of origin, with people living away from home experiencing dislocation and disempowerment. For Filipina believers migrating as workers to the Middle East, prior homes of the religious imagination are rediscovered as real places of worship. But in what ways does such shared participation in rituals at sacred sites alongside fellow believers engender a felt sense of belonging and attachment to a larger faith community? What shape do newly formed social networks take and how is social and symbolic capital enhanced both at ‘home’ and abroad? While domestic work and care giving may often be experienced as restrictive and oppressive, they may also enhance a sense of power and authority. Carers often manage households. The construal of their labour as part of a larger project of sacrifice is central to their sense of self, identity and agency in relation to those for whom they work or have responsibility. Care-giving becomes a spiritual vocation enacting service to God through serving others. Our aim has been to disclose more specifically, however, how and when such experiences and narratives of caring as sacrifice are confirmed or altered through work? To what extent does religion enable caregivers to develop strong bonds with their employers and wards and build networks of consociates – both Filipino and co-religionist? And in what ways does religion provide a language for negotiating relations of dependency and obligation, or asserting legal rights and responsibilities?

Should you wish to find out more about this project please write directly to either Prof. Pnina Werbner or Dr. Mark Johnson.

The Project Team

Hull University:

Dr. Mark Johnson


Dr. Alicia Pingol

Research Fellow


Nada Elyas

Research Field Assistant

Keele University:

Prof. Pnina Werbner


Dr. Deirdre McKay

Senior Research Fellow


Dr. Claudia Liebelt