Family Bargaining,Community (Re)Building & Becoming Professionals: Gendered Strategizing of Skilled Migration By Indian Women in the U.S.

Friday, 20 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Namita MANOHAR, Brooklyn College - City University of New York, USA
This paper examines how middle-class Tamil-Indian women negotiate with gender to strategize skilled immigration and settlement in the U.S. by drawing upon life-history interviews with 33 Tamil women who immigrated between 1971 and the early 1990s. Using the concept of embedded agency, it finds that framed by the nexus of gender, caste/class and immigration policy, Tamil women engage in ‘accommodative reconfiguring’—appropriating, reinforcing and (re)articulating hegemonic Tamil gender ideologies and practices in immigration.

Tamil women articulate immigration through visions of improved familial mobility and correspondingly, of enhanced professional opportunities, difficult to realise as upper-caste, middle-class women in post-colonial India. Appropriating gender practices that legitimize Tamil women’s married migration, they strategize immigration by marrying US-based/bound men choosing to become family migrants. In settlement, where they are classified as “dependents”, Tamil women (re)articulate those same practices to strategize settlement by emphasizing wife/motherhood – becoming responsible for their families’ settlement through their carework, making dyadic compromises for husbands’ earlier labor market entry – in order to (re)establish strong marriages and families. They resist their dependence by (re)constructing women’s networks with other Indian wives like themselves who become a community within which they ground their immigrant families. While (re)articulating the salience of wife/motherhood to their immigrant lives, they retain their professional ambitions, successfully re-training in the US to become professionals, albeit with a delayed onset. Indeed, professional work becomes an important component of their mothering, facilitating their families’ upward socio-economic mobility in America.

Rather than resisting subordinating gender relations within their households and immigration regimes, they accommodate them, using them to devise strategies for engaging in gender non-normative actions (becoming professionals) and/or to reframe normative ones (motherhood/wifehood as critical to family adaptation) to accommodate their interests and goals. Accommodative reconfiguring however, (re)produces discourses and practices of Tamil womanhood in migration, albeit in reconfigured ways.