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Women's Agency in the Context of Family Networks in Indian Diaspora

In diasporic settings, such issues as to who is a citizen, who can enter the family networks after obtaining which kind of visa are also located in "family" domains. Women in diasporas collaborate, acquiesce, co-opt and at times subvert the communication channels in family networks in order to negotiate economic hardships and gender-based oppression. In the process they tend to either become victims or emerge as stronger, more empowered and innovative beings.


Women’s Agency in theContext of Family Networksin Indian Diaspora

In diasporic settings, such issues as to who is a citizen, who can enter the family networks after obtaining which kind of visa are also located in “family” domains. Women in diasporas collaborate, acquiesce, co-opt and at times subvert the communication channels in family networks in order to negotiate economic hardships and gender-based oppression. In the process they tend to either become victims or emerge as stronger, more empowered and innovative beings.


he notion of agency is defined as initiating an action by one’s own choice. Giddens (1979:55) has defined agency as “a continuous flow of conduct” or “a stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the-world”. Further connecting power and agency, Giddens (1979: 25657) has argued that the notion of power is entailed in the notion of human action for agents to exercise power as a resource to produce and reproduce interaction. In analysing women’s agency we may focus on the ways in which they draw upon structural attributes in the building up of social relations.

Women’s agency refers to the capacity of women to make on their own rational choices or decisions and in this sense their agency involves social competence in different arenas of action. Their discursive capabilities and practical consciousness and the dialectic of control are often reflected in modes of coping with new and many times oppressive social environments. It is not out of place to also refer to Sen (1999 and 2005: 221), who considers agency as “the pursuit of goals and objectives that a person has reason to value and advance”. To begin with questions before me are that if one was to study women’s agency in the settings of Indian diaspora, what would be the context and what would be my methodology of pursuing the research?

I have so far looked at women’s agency from the perspective of their creative capabilities.1in patrilineal north and northeast India where women migrate to another social milieu after their marriages [Jain 1984, 1986; 1988, 1995, 1996 and 1998]. For migrant women we may refer to Deutsch (1987), who has studied the role of Hispanic women migrants to southwestern US in maintaining as well as transforming their culture and building social networks. Similarly, Di Leonardo (1987) has brought out Italian women’s emphasis on maintaining kin relationships even after migrating overseas. In most cases in the north Indian families, a girl goes through experiences of various types in the form of anticipatory socialisation for her future adjustment in stable marriages. After marriage, she moves out to another set of living patterns with varying degrees of similarities and differences in values she has lived with in her family of orientation. Coping with excitement of new experiences and both joys and traumas of new situations involves most women into constantly working on their capabilities of creating and then sustaining new relationships. Their social competence in the various arenas of action over the years keeps the cultural process of life-long learning alive. The liminal spaces that keep challenging the limitations imposed on their capacities show us the kind of strategies women employ to create the social fabric of everyday life. Collaborating, acquiescing, co-opting and sometimes also subverting the communication channels they respond to demands of building new relationships in order to carry forward human sustenance. This is how I view women’s agency vis-à-vis the whole gamut of sociological findings on women’s exploitation and oppression reported across time and space. It is largely through women’s agency that we have even the dimension of women’s agency brought out into open and sustained debating and questioning on their part has taken place over the causes and processes of women’s oppression and legitimacy or illegitimacy of not acknowledging their competencies. Along with fighting oppression of the masses across countries and historical periods, and positing our faith in democratic norms of governance, there is now exhortation to build an “inclusive society” in an open economy [Singh 2005]. Is the inclusion inclusive enough to recognise women’s everyday competencies for participating in a shared arena of human capabilities? Or, is it simply confined to official patronising of women to save them from exploitation and oppression in unsuccessful marriages overseas [see GoI (2006), the guidelines proposed by the ministry of overseas Indian affairs (MOIA), presented at a consultation seminar at New Delhi on February 18, 2006].

Keeping these questions in mind, we need to discuss basic methodological issues in terms of our broad understanding of women’s capabilities of taking action on the basis of their own choices. Just as diasporic settings of Indians living abroad provide a window to understanding processes of social transformation in India, we may say that looking at diasporic Indian women may give us an insight into situations of our own fast changing social fabric in India (see in this regard Chaudhuri’s explorations about gender figuring in the notion of Indianness). To this end is guided my quest for finding out possible ways of studying women’s capacity to make rational choices in a global arena.

The purpose of discussing the ways women define their individual identities, hierarchies, especially in the domestic

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

arena and strategies they evolve for coping with the cost and consequences of the prevailing features of Indian diaspora is mainly to work out the perspectives for studying women’s agency in various contexts and settings. Let us briefly look at the ways researchers have by and large conceptualised the issue.

Available ApproachesAvailable ApproachesAvailable ApproachesAvailable ApproachesAvailable Approaches

In classical as well as neoclassical economic thought, we find that there is quite early in history the discussion of women’s wages and conditions of their employment. For example, Smith (1776) noted that women work for wages but at the same time he thought that a man should have enough wages to bring up his family. He considered women’s reproductive roles as essential for society. Adam Smith held that women did not have capacity to take rational decisions in economic matters. Later, Mill (1879) commented on lower wages earned by women and demanded economic reforms to encourage economic autonomy of women. In both cases, there was some sort of recognition of women’s capacity to participate in socio-economic processes. It was Bodichon (1859), who made fun of the idea of men supporting women while in her perception as a matter of fact women nurture all members of the family, including men, through their work in the family. She was against all women getting married and thought it reasonable that some women should do things other than nurturing families.

The trend to question the links between capitalism and patriarchy followed throughout the history of economic thought in the western world. The practice of introducing gender in economic analyses in India was only an offshoot of the mode of theorising in economic thought in general.

Sociologically speaking, those of us (for example, Geetha 2002) who are mainly concerned with exploration of women as social actors take women’s capabilities for granted. The questions asked in this approach are how women’s capabilities are acknowledged and how do they manifest or are forced to remain invisible? Also what is the dialectic of control or how are they controlled in and through their everyday relationships?

For some feminist scholars, it is only by looking into the social worlds of women that we can bring women’s capabilities out into the open and fully discuss them. In this view it is held that the institution of patriarchy segregates them off from men in such a way that their capabilities remain hidden. These capabilities become apparent only when one looks at the ways in which women’s own social relationships construct a women’s world that is not only different, but also special in its form and content [Harding 1987 and 1990 for three feminist epistemologies, namely, feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint theory and feminist postmodernism; and Lerner 1979 for “women-centred history”].

In contrast to this approach, for some of us, the main concern is to look at women as key actors in a social world, where they can be viewed as participating in a shared human competence, rather than in a womanspecific set of capabilities, which are confined to being of and about women’s issues. In the approach of understanding women’s agency as their participation in a shared human competence, women take on characteristics of general population and we study them as part of the general social milieu [Mohanty 1991 and Smith 1974 and 1987].

In yet some other researches, the focus is on finding out how womanhood is structured for and by women. Here one looks at the ways in which a social space for women is marked out in different societies and as such it indicates the particular competencies or their absence. Women form social relations with others in society and tensions that arise are often centred on what women can or cannot do. In this context, it may be worth exploring women’s relationships with one another, revealing a sophistication of social interaction that is not widely known. Such explorations often show women’s facility with the material and technological world and raise question as to why this competence has long been not acknowledged. Tsing (1993) has looked in terms of female marginality at women’s lives as immigrants, minorities, poor, black, sex workers, maids, professionals, academics.

Without going into pros and cons of the various approaches mentioned above, one can perhaps attempt synthesising them for gaining a fuller understanding of diasporic Indian women’s agency in different social arenas.

Culture as a Dynamic ProcessCulture as a Dynamic ProcessCulture as a Dynamic ProcessCulture as a Dynamic ProcessCulture as a Dynamic Process

To come back to my notion of women’s agency referring to their ability to create a web of social relationships in a post-marriage milieu, which is both new and different to what they have known in their families of orientation, studies of the family in the Indian diaspora have shown that Indian diasporic family reflects structures of support and nurturing [Visweswaran 1999]. At the same time, scholars of the diaspora, including Visweswaran, have shown that the family is also an arena for debate and contest about marriage, sexuality, childcare and aging. In this context, it is of considerable interest to find out how the diasporic community deals with its own dissenting individuals, for example, those women who are battered, abused, divorced or widowed and lesbians and bisexuals. Almost always such persons face social stigma, as mentioned by Visweswaran (ibid).

It has been reported that Indian diasporic women, much like women in India, play a key role both in construction and sustenance of nuclear as well as extended family networks. Their role in socialisation of diaspora-born children is equally central. Quite like their men, the diasporic women often follow the strategy of splitting their private and public domains and maintain a rather fossilised version of Indian culture in domestic life. Sircar (2000: 229) has observed that the Asian immigrant women in the US have come to possess “a hybrid identity drawing on multiculturalism, transnationalism and the colonial discourse of a distinct Indian womanhood”. In addition, she finds that “role overload still persists in these families, as does spousal hierarchy on a reduced scale”. To my mind these observations reveal immigrant women on H-1B and H-4 visas, negotiating the constraints put on their capacity to forge new relationships. The H-4 visa wives are not allowed to work in the US. Even if they get jobs and obtain H-1B visa, they express a “heightened consideration for their family and their roles as mothers”.

In actuality, this may be a “forced choice”, says Devi (2002: 4426). Dependent wives “make adjustments in their career aspirations and some of them become very defensive and offer arguments couched in cultural and ethnic terms for keeping out of the labour market” [Devi ibid: 4426]. South Asia women’s organisations, based in New York and other parts of the US to help battered women have reported an increase in the number of complaints by H-4 visa wives (the MOIA guidelines seem to have taken the cause of such women). The legal right of such women to be in the

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006 US depends solely on their wage-earning husbands. The immigration policies of the US have given their husbands full control over their lives [Chaudhry 2000]. Apparently, immigration laws of the US are based on the notion that a man owns his family and lawmakers in the US appear to have indeed taken Adam Smith quite seriously. Devi (2002: 4424) found that against the onslaught of immense legal and financial constraints, both H-4 visa wives and H-1B visa married women with children were a confused lot about the way they would re-define their roles. In such cases, proliferation of women’s organisations to address such issues as domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse, marital rape and incest, etc, shows women’s agency to work through the interstices of interactions within the groups and those intrinsic to immigration process.

The above discussion of complexities of developing a capacity to aspire in inhospitable environments may reflect only a limited potential for exercising effective agency. All the same such perspectives go beyond narratives of victimisation and they challenge the sterility of researches which view women in the Indian diaspora exclusively in terms of norms and values and therefore, certain culturally prescribed roles. This is an approach that essentialises culture and supporters of cultural determinism argue that its culture inhibits or promotes a society from effectively operating in the modern world. On the other hand, looking at culture’s role in relation to “identity, aspiration, symbolic exchange, coordination and structures and practices” helps us conceptualise culture as a dynamic process that is invariably subject to contestation over different kinds of interaction [Rao and Walton 2004: 4]. Instead of looking at culture as set of traits permanently defined in a society, culture is to be viewed as a set of constantly contested attributes, which come into being as a result of socio-economic dimensions of interaction among people. Here we may also refer to Bourdieu’s (1977 and 2001) ideas of cultural, social and symbolic resources, which people draw upon to create and sustain their places in society. Cultural capacity of actors, in the case of diasporic women, would, of course, differ among various groups and is to be recognised as a component of their capabilities. I have known cases of women, hailing from rural parts of India, migrating after marriage to Australia and picking up English spoken in Australian accent. I attribute this shift to their desire of being able to communicate in the language of their new homeland. Desire to communicate is an outcome of their aspirations to establish new relationships. Aspirations or the capacity to aspire for a better future may be thwarted by constraints that restrict the capacity to aspire, whereas equality of agency, which is built on equality of opportunity, has to consider the outcome of interaction between individuals within the socio-cultural settings of their operations.

It is well known that Indian diasporic women are unable to find in Indian community marriage partners, who would encourage and support them to be selfdependent, outspoken and ambitious (cf the notion of female exogamy mentioned by Dasgupta and Dasgupta 1996). It would appear that for the same reason, Indian diasporic men make goal-oriented visits to find spouses in India. It is a different matter when some of them find marriageable Indian women of their economic standing “too smart and modern” to fit their image of typical Indian daughter-in-law (proverbial ‘bahu’). One retired diplomat now turned a successful businessman in Australia requested me to refer to him a welleducated family in India that could help him find a suitable bride for his son so that when he and his wife go to India on pilgrimage, the competent, well-educated, English-speaking daughter-in-law may look after their son as well as oversee their business matters. In my naiveté I referred him to a family which helped him to find a young woman who had just completed a course in business administration from a well known institute of management. The son of the non-resident Indian (NRI) in Australia found the young woman “overqualified and too smart” for his comfort. These observations suggest that among the second generation diaspora-born Indians there is little confidence between the genders. Many diaspora born Indian women and men have been known to seek parental help in arranging their marriages [Lessinger 1995]. These are indications of different aspirations of women and men of Indian diaspora.

Another example of aspirations refers to the reversal of gender roles, as they relate to husband-and-wife roles within marriages, reflecting the nature of domestic hierarchy. It may be said that in India a generalised and broad guideline seems to exist to prescribe how husbands and wives act in both public and private domains. In the Indian diasporic setting and also in cosmopolitan milieu in India, such guidelines are not clear-cut and often they are thrown out altogether. It is not uncommon to find married persons often dealing with confusion of marriage rules in relation to cooking, working outside the home and looking after the children. To put it in very broad terms, as per so-essentialised Indian marital culture, women are solely responsible for cooking and doing household chores, as well as becoming completely domesticated with the arrival of children. Men are on the other hand, generally, responsible for taking up outside-home jobs and providing their families with a monetary income on a regular basis. In the same vein on the basis of published material on Indian diaspora one finds that most men and women in the diasporic setting encounter new and at times shockingly different gender stereotypes and roles in their new homelands. Generation gaps, culture shock upon moving away from the homeland and question of sexuality play their roles in interpretations of gender and what it means to Indians in diaspora to deal with their new experiences.

It has been pointed out in reviews of literary books commenting on diasporic

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Indian family that while in India, it is the woman who falls apart after a divorce/ separation from her husband or completely breaks down after husband’s death, in the diaspora, it is generally a man who falls apart at the dissolution of his marriage [Large and Quinn (2002), reviewing gender roles in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies). Is this an example of reversal of gender roles? To take another example from Large and Quinn’s review comment on Jhumpa Lahiri’s This Blessed House, the wife, feeling excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavour of ice cream or dropping a letter in the mailbox may be a quality that the husband brought up in the Indian diasporic setting may not be able to comprehend and appreciate. It may make him feel stupid; as if the world contained hidden wonders he could not anticipate or see. His wife has not come out of her girlhood. This image of sustained girlhood is often admired in a wife in India. Women are expected to be docile homemakers. But their girlish charm may not be a quality an Indian husband in the diaspora may admire or tolerate in wives. As a matter of fact, the same may happen in a metropolitan city in India. Even in rural areas of Haryana, which is even now dominated by the jat patriarchal control over sexuality as prescribed under ‘gotra’ exogamy rules, in several cases young women and men have defied traditional rules and gone to the court of law to validate their marriages. Is this an example of redefining roles by knowingly breaking out of boundaries earlier demarcated? Could we not, alternatively, say that it is not possible to view culture in terms of once and forever set of rules and we need to review this matter in terms of everchanging aspirations of those who construct culture?

To continue with Large and Quinn’s review, in the case of The Treatment of Bibi Heldar by Jhumpa Lahiri, looking at the idea of sexuality and one’s own agency in establishing it after being seen oneself as a sexual object, the questions arise about how much is one an agent in one’s own sexuality and how much is left up to the community?

It would seem that subsequent to her marriage overseas, the diasporic woman happily renounces security of the confines of “four walls” at her home in India to tread the path of freedom. What are the four walls, how do we define them? What are the terms of recognising self-identity? What are the ways in which they are viewed and how they view themselves? In this regard, we need to look at the ways in which they interact with others in social hierarchy. Reviewing Dasgupta’s (1998) A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America, Mathur (2000: 2) holds that diasporic women’s self-definition is restricted at three levels. (i) Who am I? Or re-questioning identity (here the focus is on language, religion and sexual orientation that defines women’s identities; (ii) the woman, family and community (in this case the focus is on domestic hierarchies between mothers and daughters on the one hand and husbands and wives on the other;

(iii) the issues of nation and immigration, involving rethinking about the “model minority” concept (this emphasises cultural and material rigidities of territorial locations in a global context).

In each of the above levels there are liminal spaces that challenge the limitations imposed on women’s agency and there appear visible cracks in the superficial fronts created by essentialist identity politics. For example, self-identification as a “south Asian of dual Tamil heritage born and brought up in Malaysia” suspects the usefulness of such politically correct terms as “Asian American” or “woman of colour”. It highlights that “language was never meant to be a culmination, only a movement toward transformative change” [Poore 1998: 27].

Regarding expression of sexuality again [Islam 1998], there is never any easy universalistic definition as sexuality manifests itself in historically and culturally specific contexts. Further, though there is always a back and forth reference to one’s country of origin and associated images that may be alien to the host country’s cultural fabric, there comes a constant contestation between anti-racist and feminist models prevailing in the west and the ethnic, the global and postcolonial experiences of diasporic women of Indian origin. Of interest to us is “the necessary transformation diasporic women create in their places of arrival, making immigration a complex process of transcreation rather than simple translation” [Hasnat 1998].

Studying such contestations and resulting constructions of identities, one comes face-to-face with discrediting stereotypes, which determine identities in terms of “others” in new homelands. In this context, it is no use of treating India as traditional and new homelands as modern and then looking at Indian diasporic women as liberated from shackles of traditions upon their arrival in the so-called modern parts of the world. Taking an example from an entirely different context but demonstrating a similar logic of articulation of women’s aspirations I refer to Nathan (2005), who has discussed new norms of gender relations based on poor women becoming wage earners, working outside the home and moving around in the setting of microfinance institutions functioning in such developing countries as Bangladesh, India and Laos in Asia and Kenya and Uganda in Africa. Both the microfinancing institutions in developing countries and macrofinancing institutions of global capitalism around the world have equally affected everyday relationships, which give impetus to developing a capacity to manage one’s own affairs with dignity. Women are no exception to this global process, which has significant imprints of their agency. We need to carry out further researches in understanding this dimension of social reality.




[This paper was presented at an International Conference on Indian Diaspora: Trends, Issues and Challenges, organised by the Centre for the Study of Indian Diaspora and Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad on February 24-26, 2005. I am thankful to C S Bhat for inviting me to the conference and thus receiving feedback from scholars in the field of Indian diaspora studies. I also acknowledge the permission to attend the conference, granted by the authorities of Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.]

1 Sen (2005: 222) has also viewed women as “active promoters and facilitators of social transformations”. Also see Sridevi (2005: 191-95 and 212-25) who has shown how the Chettiar women drew power from whatever little space they found to emerge as decisionmakers and creators of social networks.


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