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Identity across Boundaries

Identity across Boundaries Transnational Migration and the Politics of Identity edited by Meenakshi Thapan; Women and Migration in Asia Series Vol 1 of 5, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005;


Identity across Boundaries

Transnational Migration and the Politics of Identity

edited by Meenakshi Thapan; Women and Migration in Asia Series Vol 1 of 5, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pp 320, Rs 385.


his is the first of five volumes stemming from a conference on women and migration in Asia, held in Delhi in December 2003. The collective enterprise aims at understanding the implications of migration processes for women within and across Asian societies and globally. The project is an ambitious one, and this first volume, focused on transnational migration and identity politics and with authors from several disciplines, sets a high standard.

The editor’s introductions, both to the series and this volume, clearly summarise the relevant theoretical literature and volume contents. Thapan’s discussion of this volume’s contents goes well beyond a summary, setting out a broader context with respect to both theory and other studies of women and migration. Thapan discusses the nine articles thematically in her introduction. For the articles by Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff and Nilufar Ahmed (on bhumihar women in Mauritius and India and on Bangladeshi women in London, respectively), she highlights the ways in which the women link past and present contexts and identities. For Aparna Rayaprol’s article on Indians in the US, Thapan highlights generational differences; for Santi Rozario’s article on Bangladeshis in Australia, she stresses the strength of patriarchy at home and abroad. Thapan focuses on race and its intersections with work and citizenship as crucial to Parin Dossa’s case study of an Iranian woman private care-giver in Canada, Irene Gedalof’s analysis of the representation of women in migration and citizenship discourse in the UK, Christine Delphy’s essay on the headscarf ban in France, Sunera Thobani’s essay on the views of young women of colour in Canada, and Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s ethnographic insights into the relationship of Bengali migrants in Delhi to the state.

Women as Citizens

Thapan’s introductory chapter title and concluding paragraphs emphasise the state’s impact on identity formation, proposing that an abstract, monolithic, and patriarchal “state” constrains women’s mobility as citizens and relegates them to the private sphere. This concept of the state will figure in the forthcoming volumes as well, it seems. Yet the nation states serving as host societies in the nine articles here vary, and the citizenship statuses of the women being studied are not always clearly delineated. As I argue in my study of Hyderabadis in diaspora in seven different sites,1 when people from one place settle in another, their orientation to the future does involve citizenship, and citizenship, following Pnina Werbner, “is deeply dialogical, encapsulating specific, historically inflected, cultural and social assumptions about similarity and difference. The negotiation of these may generate at different times and places quite different sets of practices, institutional arrangements, modes of social interaction and future orientations.”2

However, the attention given by the authors in this volume to the state structures and ideologies relevant for the women migrants studied differs considerably. Four articles undercut Thapan’s thesis about the state, in effect, by putting careful, long-term ethnographic work on women’s agency front and centre. Three focus on women attempting to link their old and new homes and families in meaningful ways, apparently unhindered by national policies. Sinha-Kerkhoff coins the phrase “backlinking” to describe the ways in which upper caste bhumihar women in Mauritius experience themselves as Indian but then, as “return migrants” to Bihar, experience themselves as Mauritian or Indian-Mauritian. Her informants testify that they had not, in Mauritius, perceived India as a foreign country or perceived themselves as non-Indian. Yet upon relocating to India, many brides claimed aspects of a Mauritian identity to fend off patriarchal notions of authentic “Indianness”. Sinha-Kerkhoff uses two extended family histories and her informants’ words well to establish the women’s constructions of locally empowering identities in both settings.

Nilufar Ahmed’s study of 100 Bangladeshi women transnationals aged 35 to 55, women actively maintaining links to the homeland and reproducing a ghettoised Sylheti community in London, also emphasises the women’s changing senses of self and context. The changes in their everyday lives included, for the older women, isolation, lack of extended family support, undertaking chores outside the home, and use of new appliances, while their daughters were expected to take up employment. Ahmed’s informants spoke about their increased sense of being Muslim rather than Bengali or Bangladeshi, and Ahmed concludes that religion was the “essential and fixed base identity”, arguing against current work on identity that posits constant flux (p 121). She suggests that being Muslim is also the primary identity for second generation Sylhetis in London.

Santi Rozario focuses closely on a Christian Bangladeshi nurse, Dipti, who migrated to Australia, sent most of her money home, and brought her youngest brother and his wife to Australia. Rozario argues that single women working in Australia or the west Asia contribute in major ways to family welfare back home but are excluded by their village relatives from the love, affection, and support they were hoping to receive. Dipti experienced “symbolic violence” rather than love and gratitude, and Rozario explains this by Dipti’s unmarried status that forever bars her from the moral position in the family she feels she has earned. Again, careful ethnography links family structures and expectations in the home and overseas settings, finding that patriarchy prevails.

The fourth piece that foregrounds women’s lives and women’s agency is the

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

only one in the volume that focuses on internal migration, or at any rate migration within south Asia, and it does relate identity formation for Bengali Muslim women migrants in a Delhi slum to the Indian state. Maitrayee Chaudhuri argues that these women help their community find ways to evade the state, keeping their status as residents of India or migrants from Bangladesh unresolved. Chaudhuri discusses her own middle-class locality, Vasant Kunj, with a strong emphasis on class as she reviews successive waves of migrants coming to provide domestic and other services. This fascinating study of collective management of a deliberately ambiguous identity argues that class status and interactions with the state mattered very much, the latter intermittently. She examines the women’s actions on two occasions of crisis, when the police arrested and tried to deport the men and, later, some women. The coherent, stable identities maintained by these Bengali Muslim women were rooted in class and language, not religion.

Aparna Rayaprol examines generational differences between first and secondgeneration Indian Hindu women in the US, emphasising the cultural, not the political, context. She categorises most of the former as dependents, while the latter, Indian Americans, are “citizens and full participants in American society” (p 131) and have to learn to be Indian. Her older informants advocated classical bharatanatyam dancing and religious classes in temples to help second-generation members acquire a partially Indian identity, but Rayaprol argues that there was, for second-generation young women, no identity crisis. They were comfortable with dominant American notions about marriage and sexuality, in sharp contrast to their parents. Keenly aware of the shifting terrain of ethnic and racial identification in contemporary America, young Indian-Americans positioned themselves skilfully and seemed more interested in Indian culture than religion. Although Rayaprol mentions experiences of racism as the young women assert a larger American identity, she does not explicitly consider state discourses or policies.

Relationship with State

Two articles in this volume view the Canadian state and society as oppressive. Analysing Canada’s official multiculturalism as inimical to full citizenship and participation for immigrants, Sunera Thobani asked how young women of colour living in Canada imagined their relationship to the Canadian nation. Thobani’s focus groups and interviews with 50 young women (south and west Asian, Chinese, African and Latin American) aged 11 to 16 in Vancouver elicited almost entirely positive responses about multiculturalism and living in Canada. Surprised by her findings, Thobani remarks “they seemed to me to be incredibly generous, refusing to name racism directly as a common everyday experience” (p 277). Rather than exploring reasons for this (the informants’ ages, generational differences between the informants and the author, or possibly the research design), Thobani concludes that “the dominant multiculturalist discourse hinders the acquisition of knowledge regarding the extent of racism within Canadian society” (p 279), asserts her own belief that racism is pervasive, and calls for teaching about it so that youngsters could be equipped to deal with it.

Also working in Canada, Parin Dossa presents a case study of Fatima, an Iranian with landed immigrant status. Fatima experienced downward mobility and eventually gave up her career to care for her disabled daughter; she bitterly resents the state’s failure to compensate her and others for private care-giving. Dossa indicts Canadian society for constructing “third world” people as oppressed, passive, and uneducated, and she states that “Canadian society/the west pushes disabled people into the private sphere where they are rendered socially invisible” (p 206). Dossa’s subtitle, ‘Identity Politics and Social Suffering’, shows the passion with which she and Fatima link the state, migrants, and policies and attitudes affecting disabled people; the article calls for changes in Canadian policies and societal attitudes.

The final two articles focus on national policies and regulations concerning immigrants in the UK and France. Irene Gedalof reviews recent UK legislation and pronouncements on immigration and asylum issues, showing that these official discourses construct dominant images of “home” and of immigrant women who, by refusing to learn English and promoting arranged marriages, present obstacles to their communities’ “belonging” to the national culture. Relegation of immigrant women to “a feminised private sphere in which the work of kinship,


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Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006 affects, and particularised ties of allegiance and belonging, are sited” (p 223) she argues, makes women’s access to the status of citizen problematic. Gedalof analyses well the mainstream sense of Britishness and the discourses distancing immigrants and especially immigrant women from it.

Finally, Christine Delphy considers the recent French ban on the Islamic headscarf in certain public arenas. She argues that young French women wear the ‘hijab’ partly as a sign of resistance to French racism and, further, that French society, rather than working against racism, is acting to repress the sign. Thus “women alone are being punished in the name of women’s rights” (p 229). This informative essay offers an overview of religion, society, and migration in France, but Delphy’s interpretation of the significance of the ban rests on written materials rather than fieldwork.

Most of the volume’s nine articles focus on women engaged in identity formation and maintenance across national boundaries, drawing on solid ethnographic work and relevant theory. Religion, caste, class, and language played important if varying roles in these studies of women’s transnational identities, and most of the studies highlighted women engaged in struggles with family and kin rather than with state-level discourses and policies. This opening volume whets one’s appetite for the four volumes still to come.




1 Karen Isaksen Leonard, Locating Home: India’s

Hyderabadis Abroad,Stanford University Press,

Palo Alto, forthcoming. 2 Pnina Werbner, ‘Exoticising Citizenship:

Anthropology and the New Citizenship Debate’,

Canberra Anthropology, 21:2 (1998), p 5.

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

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