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Reena Kukreja. Why Would I Be Married Here? Marriage Migration and Dispossession in Neoliberal India

Paro Mishra
Bibliographical reference

Reena Kukreja. 2022. Why Would I Be Married Here? Marriage Migration and Dispossession in Neoliberal India. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 284 pages.

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1Why Would I Be Married Here? Marriage, Migration and Dispossession in Neoliberal India is a welcome addition to the small but steadily growing literature on cross-region marriage migration in India, also referred to as long-distance marriage migration. The book examines the growing migration of rural women from eastern, southern, and northeastern parts of India to northern and northwestern states for the purpose of marriage. Anyone familiar with post marriage movement and migration in India would know that this is quite an unusual pattern for arranged marriages. Indeed, “marriage distance”—between a bride’s natal and marital home—has remained predominantly small all over India, often extending to close villages or neighboring states but only exceptionally to diasporic Indian communities. In what follows I offer a chapter wise summary of the book and my evaluation of this text.

2In addition to the introduction and conclusion, the book is organized into six chapters. Chapter 1 is a summary of economic, political, and social transformations that fuel these new marriage-scapes. It discusses India’s ongoing rural economic transformation through agrarian reforms since the liberalization era and how it fueled both agrarian distress and gender inequalities. The author argues that along with the imposition of neo-liberal reforms, there were parallel developments, like the spread of Hindu fundamentalist ideology and dominant castes’ violent assertion against Muslims and Dalits that exacerbated their economic and social precariousness through systematic discrimination and violence. The Dalit and Muslim women bore the biggest brunt of structural violence as their experience of oppression at the hands of the dominant groups was shaped by the intersection of caste, class, religion, and gender, eventually resulting in their lack of access to education, productive assets, and social services. The intensified levels of poverty and deprivation combined with commercialization of dowry in neoliberal cultures contributed towards gendered dispossessions of Dalit and Muslim women “including the foreclosing of matrimonial choices in their home communities and regions” (p. 56) and pushing their families to seek marriages alliances without expectations of dowry elsewhere.

3Chapter 2 elaborates on how male marriage squeeze or bride shortage was not universally experienced by all men in regions with imbalanced sex ratios, a point also made by other scholars working on cross-region marriages in India (Chaudhury 2018; Mishra 2018). Men who were either landless, unemployed or “social rejects” (p. 71)—due to old age, widower status, physical deformity or undesirable traits like alcoholism or substance abuse—turned to cross-region marriages after being “rejected” in the local marriage market. This, Kukreja argues, further strengthens her argument about neoliberalism rendering social relations monetized and “determined by market forces” (p. 67).

4Chapter 3 shifts the focus to bride-sending regions and makes two major arguments. First, that the “coercive accumulation” (p. 93) of resources by the state and private players resulted in rural impoverishment. Second, that capitalist accumulation combined with patriarchal ideology reinforced the gendered violence and commodity fetishism of local grooms who now demanded higher dowries as “capital accumulating and, by extension, poverty alleviating strategy” (p. 100) These trends, the author argues, ultimately dispossess poor women of their matrimonial choices and incite them to opt for cross-region marriages instead.

5Chapter 4 criticizes the dominant perception of cross-region marriages as cases of bride-trafficking. Instead, it reveals the multiple channels of marriage mediation and the enactment of agency and verification checks by prospective brides’ parents to control deception by groom’s families and the matchmakers. The next two chapters focus on the lived experience of cross-region brides. Deploying the framework of Dalit feminism, chapter 5 discusses in detail how migrant brides are marked by the “stain of the internal other” and suffer discrimination and exclusion within destination regions owing to their caste, cultural, religious, regional identities, and skin tone. The final ethnographic chapter shows how unlike local brides who come with dowries and have natal kin support readily available, cross-region brides’ complete dependency on affinal kin allows for a “more efficient extraction of their labor” (p. 195), both productive and reproductive, by their marital families. Thus, migrant brides, barring a few cases of resistance, transform into docile bodies fulfilling labor expectations and constantly negotiating strenuous intra-household and community dynamics.

6This book is praiseworthy on several counts. First, it documents cross-region marriage migration into hitherto undocumented host regions—such as Rewari and Nuh in Haryana and Jhunjhunu and Alwar in Rajasthan. It thus deepens our understanding of cross-region marriages in relation to factors like the level of regional development and population composition (as in the case of Muslim dominated and relatively under-developed Nuh). Second, it provides a much-needed analysis of bride-sending regions—Balasore in Odisha and Cooch Behar in West Bengal—and the factors that shape cross-region marriage-scapes not covered by earlier studies. Finally, the book draws its findings from a large sample size of 246 villages and 1546 cross-region brides, which helps in giving a macro picture.

7However, certain methodological issues need to be raised. Kukreja explains in the introductory chapter that her access to the research sites was mediated by 31 locally situated male and female fieldworkers from seven collaborating Non-government Organizations (NGOs) and a women’s advocacy group who came on board for the study in both sending and receiving regions (pp. 28–9). This ignored the possibility of the political orientation of the NGOs and the activists—who are known for their “interventionist impulses” (Doezema 2001:1) as they assume the role of “rescuers,” “helping victimized other.” This is likely to have had an impact on data collection. The author did not reflect on the biases that may result from this method of data collection and how to control or scrutinize them. It is not surprising therefore that in this book cross-region brides, despite “resistance and refusal” (p. 215), remain victims of commodified social relations living under debilitating conditions, routinely discriminated against and denigrated in their marital communities, unlike local brides. This brings me to my second point.

8This portrayal of cross-region brides as “victims” is critical because Kukreja seems to suggest that local brides have radically better bargaining capabilities in comparison to cross-region brides. A comparative study of local and cross-regional brides in Uttar Pradesh by Chaudhry (2019) has already debunked this myth to show how the brides’ bargaining power—local or cross-regional—in their marital homes is mediated by a complex set of factors and not just determined by their natal family’s proximity. Domestic and gender relations in rural north India have not dramatically improved in favor of women, who continue to be disadvantaged under patriarchal systems. The absence of voices of local brides in Kukreja’s account is glaring and makes impossible critical comparisons between the experiences of local and cross-regional brides.

9Finally, the central claim of the book is that cross-region marriages are not simply spurred by masculine sex ratios but are an outcome of neoliberal reforms and Hindutva-politics induced gendered dispossessions of women from marginalized communities. Unfortunately, this claim fails to take into account the long historicity of cross-region marriages in north India. There is ample evidence of cross-region marriages in colonial records (Darling 1928) and ethnographic accounts (Jeffery and Jeffery 1997; Parry 1979). These document how the demand for women’s labor in agrarian economies was met through unconventional marriage arrangements, often contracted over large distances. Further, even as the phenomenon has increased over time, cross-region marriages became fairly popular in the 1980s as growing networks of cross-region brides propelled more chain migration. Overt emphasis on neoliberalism as a driver of these matrimonial arrangements masks the possibility of situating cross-region marriages in the backdrop of the hegemonic nature of compulsory heterosexual marriage in rural India where young, socio-economically marginalized men and women have very limited say in who to marry, when and where. Moreover, the author’s characterization also evades the possibility of viewing cross-region marriages as a way of escaping the social stigma attached with involuntary singlehood for both men and women.

10Despite these limitations, the intersectional approach of this book—that interrogates the criss-crossing of patriarchy, caste, class, colorism, and ethnicity in shaping life outcomes for marriage migrants—offers a compelling account of the lived experiences of cross-region marriages. The book will be of interest to scholars in the field of marriage, migration, kinship, and gender studies, and anyone keen on understanding the changing dynamics of marriage in India.

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Bibliography

Chaudhry, Shruti. 2019. “For How Long Can Your Pīharwāle Intervene? Accessing Natal Kin Support in Rural North India.” Modern Asian Studies 53(5):1613­45. doi:10.1017/S0026749X17000853.

Chaudhry, Shruti. 2018. “Now It is Difficult to Get Married: Contextualising Cross-regional Marriage and Bachelorhood in Rural North India.” Pp. 85–104 in Scarce Women and ‘Surplus’ Men in Communities of Asia: Macro Demographics versus Local Dynamics, edited by S. Srinivasan and S. Li. Canada: Springer.

Darling, Malcolm Lyall. 1928. The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Doezema, Jo. 2001. “Ouch! Western Feminists’ ‘Wounded Attachment’ to the ‘Third World Prostitute.’” Feminist Review 67:16–38. doi:10.1080/01417780150514484.

Jeffery, Roger, and Patricia Jeffery. 1997. Population, Gender and Politics: Demographic Change in Rural North India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mishra, Paro. 2018. “Being ‘Bare Branches’: Demographic Imbalance, Marriage Exclusion and Masculinity in North India.” Pp. 25–46 in Scarce Women and ‘Surplus’ Men in Communities of Asia: Macro Demographics versus Local Dynamics, edited by S. Srinivasan and S. Li. Canada: Springer.

Parry, Jonathan P. 1979. Caste and Kinship in Kangra. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

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References

Electronic reference

Paro Mishra, Reena Kukreja. Why Would I Be Married Here? Marriage Migration and Dispossession in Neoliberal IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 12 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/8908; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/kk1i

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About the author

Paro Mishra

Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIITD)

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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