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Feminisms and Gender in Indian Diasporas

Bandana Purkayastha ( is at the University of Connecticut.


As decades of research have shown, “feminism” and “Indian-ness” reflect dynamic outcomes of often contradictory political, social, cultural, and economic processes. Feminisms and a focus on gender in Indian diasporas offer a glimpse into these local-to-global processes. According to the Migration Policy Institute, by the 21st century, the largest numbers of diasporic Indians were living in Asia (35%), while 20% were living in the Gulf region, 14% in North America, 13% on the African continent, 10% in Europe, 6% in the Caribbean, and 3% in Oceania (Naujoks 2009). Numerically, ethnic Indians (a term that indicates Indian ancestry) are minorities in every place, except in Mauritius. Yet, the relative power of the diasporas are not a reflection of the numerical strength of Indian-origin migrants in each place or how long they may have lived there. Both the terms of migration—whether Indians were permanent or temporary migrants, or whether they arrived as indentured labour, as family dependents, or as migrants who could access jobs and citizenship more easily—and the relative power of the nation states in which they settled, positioned diasporic groups in the global North as powerful players among diasporas. India’s eagerness to acknowledge some diasporas through offers of overseas Indian citizenships also contributes to the hierarchy among diasporas. At the same time, hierarchies and conflicts mark the experiences of different groups within diasporas. This issue of the Review of Women’s Studies illustrates these themes by focusing on diasporas located in Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US), along with accounts of returning Indian migrants from West Asia, as well as on virtual diasporas. The focus on gender (henceforth, a shorthand for intersecting race, caste, class, sexuality, gender, and related structures and ideologies that create hierarchies between different groups of people) and feminisms (the practices that explicitly seek to understand and dismantle gendered hierarchies) allows the authors to discuss power, contradictions, and struggles within diverse Indian diasporas.


The scholarship that draws upon canons from the global North has envisioned diasporas as constellations of people settled in places away from their homelands. Many earlier accounts indicated that diasporas were tied to these homelands through cultures, memories, and circulation of people (Clark et al 1990; Cohen 1997; Peach 1994). In an influential study, Robin Cohen (1997) argued that diasporas began as distinct entities marked by forced migration, a yearning to return, and collective trauma; the cases of the Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, and enslaved Africans fit this form. According to his formulation, other diasporas arose from imperial and colonial systems of indentured labour migration; the earlier Indian diasporas fall within this classificatory category. Commenting on the case of Hindus in the French West Indies, Vingadassamy-Engel (1992) emphasised that suffering and the sense of exile and loss were very much a part of the Hindu labour diaspora in the French West Indies as well. Today, other circumstances are shaping diasporas. New forms of indenture, multiple migrations, and the rapid growth of tangible-geographic and web-based transnational lives lead us to question the assumptions about diasporas, homelands, and nation states.

Samaddar (2015) and others have argued for many decades that it is problematic to normalise the nation state in discussions of migrations and diasporas since these are often shaped by global-level forces. Critical scholars use the term diasporas to indicate groups of people who cross boundaries and settle in a nation where they are identifiable, often through outsiders’ ascriptions, but also by their self-identification with a common place of origin, or a religion, or some other social criteria. They have also pointed to the policies that segregate groups from the mainstream, often creating ghettos—geographically circumscribed areas—where groups are forced to live after migration. Though forced migration was a prominent part of earlier discussions of diasporas, scholars have begun to reassess the boundaries of conceptions such as “force” in their discussions of migration (Samaddar 2018; see Purkayastha [2018] for a review). More recently, the ideas of multiple migrations and partial homelands have drawn our attention to more nuanced constructions of diasporas (Blunt et al 2012; Hegde and Sahoo 2018; Kaur 2012; Joseph 1999; Purkayastha 2005). These shifting conceptualisations offer new ways to think about the geographies, material conditions, and the power tapestries that create and sustain diasporas.

Diasporas continue to exhibit some key characteristics. First, even if there is a collective consciousness of origin, the political realities of the actual places of origin shift and change. The realities of Israel and Palestinian territories exemplify shifting political boundaries and constructions of nationhood. The Indian case illustrates many of the complexities. Sutton (2007) describes the case of Kenyans of Indian origin who were under pressure to divide their loyalties between India and Pakistan after August 1947 (Kalra and Sharma 2013). Arguably, while sections of the UK and US diasporas continue to develop the identity “South Asian,” the wars, conflicts, and political rhetoric in South Asia militate against these efforts. So, the specificities of diasporas, especially the composition and boundaries, remain dynamic.

Second, in most diasporas, a sense of distinctiveness, even an outsider status, persists because ideologies, interactions, and policies emphasise differences on the basis of race, religion, perceived nationality, or sexuality, constructing and sustaining boundaries between the mainstream and “outsiders.” Long residence is not a predictor that a diaspora will disappear: long-settled Indians have experienced expulsion, for instance from Uganda in the 1970s. Sikhs have been present in the US from the early 20th century, but they continue to be targets of hate crimes. Govinden (2008), Kibria (2011), Small (2018), and others have documented the persistence of these imposed boundaries between mainstreams and diasporas.

A third characteristic of diasporas is the nature of the link to a homeland. The complicated patterns of Indian migration, the movement of indentured labour under British and French colonialism (La Guerre 1974; Desai and Vahed 2010; Tinker 1974, 1977; Travao 2012), the forced movement of people during partition of India, the post-1950s migration of highly skilled migrants and their families, and, later, skilled and highly skilled migration on temporary work permits (with little or no political rights) have created many strands of relationships with India as a homeland and between diasporas (Van der Veer 1995; Voigt Graf and Khoo 2004). Earlier scholars argued that cultural links tied diasporas to homelands, but the active recreation of cultures by diasporic groups document how cultural signifiers are recreated, activated, promoted, and resisted (Bachu 1995; Bennet 1997; Maira 2002; Purkayastha 2005).

Fourth, multiple migrations further complicate the constitution of diasporas (Crowley 1990; Kaur 2012). Expulsion might force people to move, but the migration may not be back to “the homeland.” For instance, as Indian migrants moved from Uganda to the UK, Canada, and the US, they arrived in places with diasporas that had more recent migrants from India, leading to a disjunctured understanding of “Indian-ness.” Equally important is the rapid growth of temporary work visas, which encourage migrants to contribute labour to societies without earning political or social rights and have led to the formation of distinctive diasporas—for example, in West Asia and in South East Asia—that are peopled with ever-changing groups of Indians. Diasporas that emerge through stringent conditions of temporary migration generate ongoing circulation of migrants between their “home” and “host” countries, setting up channels of diasporic influence on homelands (see Anushyama Mukherjee and Aparna Rayaprol in this issue).

Fifth, diasporas are not only constituted through people’s movements; money, information, and cultural consumption are among the forces that sustain links between diasporas and homelands. These circulations are evident in all diaspora and homeland ties. However, from the end of the 20th century, the rapid growth of social life on webspaces has created new forms of diasporas. These virtual diasporas link multiple countries and people through socio-political-cultural articulations on webspaces. New structures of power and hierarchies emerge, offering both the potential to disengage from and be drawn into some of the tapestries of power and hierarchy that exist within geographically rooted diasporas. The nodes of these virtual diasporas are the geographic areas with greatest access to technology, rather than places of origin. Transnational structures of race, caste, ethnicity, gender, class, and nationality are evident in these virtual diasporas (see Anjana Narayan and Lise-Helene Smith in this issue).

Gendered Diasporas

General accounts rarely discuss gendered global and local forces that foster the growth of diasporas (see Anthias [1998] for a critique). First, as feminist scholars have pointed out, historically, most women have been seen as costs to political economies of labour recruitment; not surprisingly, most of the earlier migration streams were mostly male.1 Women’s migration meant potential for family formation and more permanent settlement; often series of local laws, including anti-miscegenation laws, attempted to restrict family formation. While some women migrated to seek different lives, a range of laws in the “host” countries attempted to prevent their migration and settlement (Espiritu 2003; Manohar and Banerjee [2016] on restrictions in the US; Kim [2015] on recent marriage migration-related citizenship projects in Korea). Sexuality and sexual exploitation has rarely been a central topic of diaspora studies till recently, yet female migrants often contended with sexual violence during and after their journeys (Desai and Vahed 2010; Seedat Khan 2012). These migratory regimes are important for understanding how women’s2 presence has tested substantive access to citizenship in many countries.

Second, women’s wage and community contributions to diasporas were rarely acknowledged till the feminist scholars began to challenge the gendered perception of work that recognised men’s contributions to the public sphere, while making women’s work and labour in private spheres invisible. Writing about female migration to the US at the turn of the 20th century, Diner (1983) analysed how Irish women and girls laboured in mills and as domestic workers while contributing their earnings to support family back home and to the Irish American community to build their own institutions in the US. Yet, these contributions remained mostly absent from general accounts of Irish diasporas. Now, as the need for caregiving and low-wage labour has intensified around the world, there has been a concomitant increase in female migration (WHO 2017). But, laws and policies in most countries ensure that female migrants receive few political benefits in exchange for their labour (Choo 2013; Kofman 2014). While their families, communities, and sending countries rely on their remittances, female migrants continue to be framed according to patriarchal norms as migrants’ wives or daughters, rather than as migrants themselves (Guevarra 2009; Gurung 2015). Feminist scholars in Indian diasporas have begun to challenge knowledge hierarchies by unearthing and documenting these histories.

Third, women’s behaviours and sexuality remain under intense scrutiny by community members in diasporas. While host societies often use women as symbols of backwardness, traditionalism, immorality, or other such negative signifiers for creating and sustaining racial boundaries, communities attempt to regulate women’s behaviours to ensure they remain integral to the patriarchal reproduction of the group (Espin 1995; Hickey 1996; Yuval Davis and Anthias 1989; see Narissa Ramdhani in this issue). Real and symbolic women also serve as mechanisms to sustain and strategically sanitise religio-cultural practices (Laurenço 2011; Kannabiran 1998; Narayan and Purkayastha 2010; see Narayan and Smith in this issue). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) groups that advocate for rights of sexual minorities, including the need to look beyond gender binaries, often have to struggle to find spaces within assertions of particular religio-cultural identities in their communities and in the mainstream. Often, they have to form “self-crafted kinship, erotic and affectionate networks or lines of affiliation, rather than filiation” (Puar 2008: 51; see Michele Lobo in this issue). Overall, strong forces exist to uphold patriarchal (intersectional) power in households and communities. Walking a fine line between challenging patriarchy and intersectional power within communities while maintaining enough ties to change norms and practices from within, and, at the same time, resisting marginalisation by outsiders, women have engaged in many types of direct activism and acted as allies in other cases. Among the activists, some women are part of conservative religio-political movements in diasporas, many others are part of groups that Monisha Das Gupta (2006) has described as “unruly immigrants.” These unruly immigrants engage in human rights activism, including rights for migrants, anti-violence activism, anti-caste and anti-racist activism, and labour rights (see Sundari Anitha and Sukhwant Dhaliwal, or Bandana Purkayastha and Margaret Abraham in this issue).

Transnationalism and Diasporas

The late 20th-century and early 21st-century phases of globalisation, with significant improvement in transportation and communication that shape today’s diasporas, emphasise the impact of transnational forces, that is, the processes that work globally, through multiple countries, and are not simply reflective of interactions between countries (Bhat and Narayan 2010; Patil and Purkayastha 2018; Purkayastha 2005). Intensification of global security regimes and the attempts by countries like India to attract overseas citizens from selected diasporas only, are part of the larger structural transformations of diasporas today. These transnational forces position the diasporas in the global North to emerge as powerful diasporic voices. As the global North diasporas project the image of model minority migrants in different countries, these articulations also dilute the histories of indenture and struggles of all those who do not fit these model minority profiles (Prashad 2000; Khorana 2014). Groups based in the global North, which are closer to the seats of global power, can become partners in lobbying for support of selected homeland agendas. Consequently, human rights violations raised by activists in homelands can get stifled in the linked interest to project a sanitised image of the home country and a model minority image of Indian cultures in diasporas. These diaspora and homeland relationships indicate contemporary forms of power; all the people, in the home countries and in diasporas, who do not fit the “shining” images projected by economically successful natives and migrants have to struggle against images and messages emanating from multiple countries (Patil 2011).

A specific form of these politics is about the resurgence of religion in the assertions of diasporic (trans)nationalisms. Religio-political groups seek to reassert their political power, using a version of their religion as a currency to distance or vilify all those who do not fit their frames of mobilisation. Both the US and the UK present good examples of these trends—unlike the older diasporas in Trinidad or Guyana where diasporic identity was typically asserted as Hindu Indian (Kannabiran 1998)—with a struggle underway in the US to determine the extent to which forms of casteist Hinduism can be used to redefine Indian-ness. Much like the tangible geographic spaces, gendered, homophobic, casteist, and racist frames are deployed through religio-political organising. Increasingly, however, these groups are encountering feminist and related resistance (see Narayan and Smith in this issue).

Purkayastha (2009) has pointed out that the merging of tangible geographic and web-based landscapes has initiated new ways in which to think about diasporic lives. It is possible to participate in majority groups’ lives in one country while contending with minoritys’ positions in the diaspora. Thus, individuals can be part of minority and majority social locations within transnational diaspora–homeland spaces simultaneously, distancing themselves from racism in one place while claiming privileges elsewhere. But, who has access to these spaces, who are better positioned—often better financed—to project their visions of reality, which types of knowledge are produced and widely circulated, and whose voices and histories are stifled? Individuals who were minorities (Dalits, queers, religious minorities) within homelands, depending on the turn of the politics, could be locked in minority–minority positions within diasporas and homelands (Adur and Purkayastha 2013, 2017; see Narayan and Smith, or Lobo on Australia, or Rayaprol and Mukherjee’s account of the Hadramis in this issue).

Concluding Thoughts

Feminisms in the diasporas emerge through such histories and politics, attempting to find spaces within larger fields of multiracial, multi-ethnic feminisms of host countries, and feminisms in India. The authors in this issue of the Review of Women’s Studies collectively present multiple facets of such feminisms. They present their standpoints, including their privileges and marginalisation. They reflect on their feminisms without claiming to speak for everyone or all varieties of feminisms in each diaspora. The articles feature struggles, successes, and continuing battles in and across different diasporas. Being in the position to write these accounts certainly reflects the privileges of highly educated women; at the same time, the accounts show their simultaneous marginalisation. Most of them are engaged in struggles to improve the structures that affect the marginalised. While the constellations of privileges and marginalisation vary, it is important to note some differences among them. Some of the authors are first-generation migrants (for example, Abraham), others have lived in countries for generations (for example, Ramdhani). Some are religious and/or cultural minorities within these diasporas (for example, Lobo). Some are allies of the groups they write about (for example, Smith, Rayaprol, and Mukherjee). Among the six diasporic accounts that appear in this issue, four focus on more recognised diasporas in the US, the UK, South Africa, and Australia. In addition, the account of the Muslim women who return from West Asia illustrates the influence of “temporary migrant” diasporas on homelands. Since the “Asian diaspora” attracts people from India the most, and West Asian countries host the largest numbers of these migrants—but on temporary visa categories—this non-traditional diasporic account illustrates the influence of diasporas instead of the living experiences. The account of virtual diasporas is also atypical in that it touches on the phenomenon of religio-political organising in web-based spaces, as well as the growing resistance against it.


1 The recent exception is of female migrants who move as caregivers. The WHO’s recent report on female migrants, “Women on the Move: Female Migrants and Health” (WHO 2017), provides an overview of this trend. Eleanore Kofman and Parvathi Raghuram (2005, 2012) have created a significant corpus of work on female migration.

2 I use the term women and female in most of this discussion to engage with the scholarship that is written in gender binary terms. I am well aware of, and have written about, the reality of policies that restrict the migration of LGBTQ people, and the community-based resistance to move away from gender binary thinking.


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Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019


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