On a bitingly cold night in November 2013, I found myself waiting at a police station. Samina and one of her husband’s aunts, Mrs Ali, were with me. I had first met Samina ten years ago in a village in Mirpur district, Pakistan’s out-migration hub for the UK. Back then she was caring for an infant son and waiting for her visa to materialise. Her British-Pakistani husband, Shoaib, had not succeeded in holding down a full-time job for six months, which was the requirement in 2004 for sponsoring a spouse visa. It took another three years before Shoaib was able to collect enough payslips to apply for Samina’s visa. Further delays followed while the British High Commission ran DNA tests to ascertain whether Shoaib was the biological father of Samina’s son.
In 2007, Samina finally arrived in the UK with her son, then nearly four years old, and went straight to Shoaib’s parents’ house. Three more children followed quickly, but the marriage was not a happy one since she faced abuse from her mother-in-law. She attempted to leave home twice. But without any relatives of her own in the UK, and unable to muster support from Shoaib’s family, these attempts were ultimately futile. On her first attempt, she took the children to one of Shoaib’s cousins, but returned after two days because the cousin could not accommodate her for long. The next time she took an overdose of paracetamol tablets and ended up in hospital.
This time around, her third attempt, she asked one of Shoaib’s more approachable aunts, Mrs Ali, for help. Mrs Ali, alarmed at the prospect of taking on a needy single-parent family of five, had called me, asking if I would accompany them to the police station to try to get Samina and her children into emergency accommodation.
We arrived at the station a sorry sight, with Samina pushing a pram onto which she had balanced a hold-all full of clothes, while straddling the youngest child on her hip. Mrs Ali translated Samina’s problem to the station officer, shouting through a thick pane of security glass. The officer said we would have to wait a few hours because everyone at the station was busy. She gave us phone numbers for some charities for the homeless and told us to call them ourselves. Back in the waiting room, Mrs Ali and I tried one number after another. After being repeatedly put on hold, one of the charities put us through to an operator who told us that there was no vacancy. Meanwhile, Samina was telling us about her marital problems. “Mera ghuzara nahi hai” (I can’t tolerate it any more), she sobbed. “Shoaib is abusing me. I keep telling him – ‘get me a house’ – and he promises that he will, but he keeps going back on his promise. Then this morning, my mother-in-law chucked me out of the house. I came back from dropping the children at school and she told me to pack my bags and be out by the time they came home”, she said.
Separations, and the choices that divorcees made about what to do next, were not simply grounded in their own considerations as individuals, but rather, bearing their families in mind
Mrs Ali advised her not to ‘break’ her home, and instructed her to wait until she had her ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’, her permanent residency as an immigrant, before she tried to leave her marital home again. By then, Samina had been in the UK for nearly six years, but her in-laws had not applied for her residency. Samina felt insecure about surviving in the UK without this. In addition, her parents in Pakistan were waiting for her to become a permanent UK resident so that she could become the long-awaited conduit for her brothers to emigrate as well. This made her completely reliant on her in-laws.
Eventually, Mrs Ali took Samina and the children back to her own house for the night. The next morning, after much imploring by Mrs Ali, Shoaib agreed to pick up his wife and children. As he drove off, he shouted back that he was stuck in the middle and that his mother was right in judging Samina to be ‘mouthy’.
Samina’s attempt to leave home was resolved within 24 hours. The statutory services were unsupportive, the non-government and voluntary agencies completely overwhelmed, and she was returned to her marital home through private negotiations enabled by family mediation. The drama was nipped in the bud, and nobody else ever got to know about it. But as a window into the institution of marriage, this drama is significant as it is an example of the rising marital discord and divorce among British Southasians over the last two decades.
Rising marital breakdown
Writing about the rise in marital breakdown in Western societies, British sociologist Anthony Giddens argued that divorce is a sign of people exercising greater ‘individualism’ in their decisions about how and with whom to live with. He argued that personal relationships are less bound by set scripts associated with unquestioned roles and obligations, and are now based on the expectation of a mutually satisfying, emotionally fulfilling personal relationship. Moreover, women are taking the lead in renegotiating intimacy in marriage.
In the last few years, there have been reports published about rising divorce rates in Southasia and within the Southasian diaspora. Indian anthropologist Shalini Grover is critical of the generality of these claims, arguing that they may reflect the situation of the culturally conservative middle classes among whom divorce has long been taboo. Her work in a Delhi slum indicates that among the urban poor, marriage dissolution has existed all along, though unencumbered by the bureaucratic procedures of legal divorce.
Since 2004, I have worked with hundreds of Southasian families in the UK as a researcher of gendered life courses, family life, migration and diaspora. I was struck by the frequency with which the families I worked with were facing marital discord, often leading to separations and divorces. Some of the men and women I worked with had examples of divorces within their family trees, in earlier generations. This shows that marital dissolution, though rare in previous generations, is not an entirely new phenomenon in these diasporic communities. However, a majority of my divorced informants also reported that theirs was the first divorce in their families, suggesting that there has been a genuine increase in marital breakdown.
The UK Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities in 1993-1994 reported that, of those who had ever married, just four percent of British Southasians were separated or divorced compared to nine percent of White British and 18 percent of Black Caribbean adults. But on reassessing trends using the data between 2010-2013 from the Labour Force Survey – a national survey conducted every quarter – I found that there has been a striking increase in separation and divorce since the mid-1990s, especially among Pakistani Muslims, Bangladeshi Muslims and Indian Sikhs. Within these communities, 10 percent of adults in the ‘ever-married’ category reported themselves to be separated or divorced. In contrast, only six to seven percent of ‘ever-married’ Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims adults reported themselves as separated or divorced. These statistics underestimate the full extent of marital breakdown, as a number of those in the ‘currently-married’ category are British Southasians who opted for second or third marriages, after divorce. In addition, there are plenty of others who, like Samina, are in marriages that are unstable for a long time, but are statistically invisible.
Between 2012-2014, I undertook a detailed study of marital breakdown in working-class Pakistani Muslim and Punjabi Sikh families in one metropolitan city and one provincial city in the UK. In keeping with Giddens’ claims about women’s unmet marital expectations being the primary driver of divorce, I found that in these Southasian communities too, the majority of divorces were initiated by women. However, Giddens’ predictions about the rise of ‘individualism’ contributing to divorce did not apply so neatly, as the problems that arose were not only about the primary spousal relationship but about the stress created in the marriage because of the pressure exerted by family members and relatives of both spouses. Moreover, separations, and the choices that divorcees made about what to do next, were not simply grounded in their own considerations as individuals, but rather, bearing their families in mind. Empirically-grounded studies indicate that these problems with Giddens’ seductive narrative of ‘individualism’, starkly evident in the Southasian context, are also true in the case of White Euro-American families, though to a lesser degree.
Changing patterns and expectations of marriage
While migration of people from Southasia to the UK after marriage has contributed to the rising marital instability among British Southasians, it is not in the ways we might expect. Approximately 22 percent of British-born Indians, 50 percent of British-born Pakistanis and 46 percent of British-born Bangladeshis marry a partner born and brought up outside the UK, overwhelmingly from Southasia. Picking cues from depictions in popular culture, we might assume that intercontinental marriages would be dogged by problems of cultural difference. But it is too simplistic to blame the rise in divorce on cultural differences in such marriages. I found that if there were some cross-border marriages in which differences in upbringing made for spousal incompatibility, there were plenty of others that were perfectly satisfactory, or which involved only ordinary unhappiness, where couples were able to negotiate their differences. A more stubborn problem that emerged in my research was the way in which UK immigration legislation seems to encourage the mistreatment of marriage migrants by their British-based in-laws. I met worrying numbers of migrants from Southasia who were forced to tolerate outlandish abuse from their partners or in-laws because they could not turn to their own families for support and feared that if the marriage broke down before they got their ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ residency, they would be deported back to Southasia.
Amarjit, 27 years, is one such case. She had migrated to the UK from the Jalandhar Doaba area of Indian Punjab and married into a working-class Sikh family. Her in-laws confiscated her passport and refused to apply for her ‘Indefinite Leave’ once she completed her stay on the probationary spouse visa. After being forced to stay beyond her visa’s validity, and enduring years of domestic abuse, Amarjit left her in-laws’ home and became an ‘illegal’ fugitive. She slept on the bedroom floors and couches of women she had befriended whilst working in Southasian shops for rates well below the minimum wage because she did not have her passport. Her parents were broadly supportive about her decision to leave her husband, but they too instructed her to stay in the UK until she became pukki (permanent). Eventually, one of Amarjit’s acquaintances introduced her to a lawyer, who informed her that she was eligible to apply for asylum on the grounds of domestic abuse and that her staying on in the UK, despite her visa expiring, was legitimate because her in-laws had wilfully allowed the spouse visa to lapse. She finally got her ‘Indefinite Leave’ and got divorced. When I met her, she was looking forward to her first trip to India in six and a half years. But as much as she had missed India, her plan was to return to the UK and start again, rather than stay with her natal family forever.
I heard similar stories of abuse from migrant men. Their harrowing testimonials ranged from having to live with abusive in-laws, their pay being taken away, to their movements being tightly controlled, of not being permitted to make phone calls to their families in Southasia and outright threats of deportation should they try to change the status quo. In the Southasian diasporic context, therefore even migrant men are marginalised by oppressive family structures. Despite the frequency with which abuse is reported, it is worth noting that, like Amarjit, almost none of the divorced marriage migrants expressed a wish to return to Southasia. They felt it is preferable to start from scratch as a single person in the UK than return to Southasia with the story of their unsuccessful marriage and failed emigration, or – in the case of women – depend on the support of their ageing parents or married brothers. They said that the UK offered them the potential to live independently, supported by the labour market and social security system.
The legal regulation of marriage migration is therefore a significant complicating factor in marital conflicts. Effective campaigning by Southasian women’s groups such as Southall Black Sisters and Newham Asian Women’s Project has challenged UK immigration policies, such as the ineligibility of a foreign national on a probationary spouse visa to any form of welfare benefits or legal support. Today, by law, a woman survivor of domestic abuse can get into a women’s refuge, even if she is on a probationary spouse visa, without risking deportation. However, at the same time, recent changes have added to the vulnerabilities of such migrant spouses. In 2012, the David Cameron-led coalition government pushed through a law raising the number of years during which a foreign spouse is subject to staying on a probationary spousal visa from two to five years. This is ostensibly to crack down on immigration visa frauds through sham marriages, but feminist lawyers contend that the real goal is to curtail marriage migration to the UK.
Families accepted separations and divorces eventually and encouraged their children to remarry, challenging the stereotypes about Southasian families being overbearing and unsympathetic
If one major cluster of reasons for marital breakdowns centred on the refusal to being controlled or abused, the other was an unmet desire for love and intimacy. An example of this is Afshan, a British-Pakistani woman who married a cousin from Pakistan at the age of 16. She said she had got on well enough with her husband while they were in Pakistan, but things changed when he came to London. According to her: “The problem was that he wasn’t actually in love with me, we found out later. When he became my fiancé, he came to this country and then he was supposed to get the permission to stay. He got his stay. And that’s when he just changed. He said ‘I got what I wanted, and that’s it, now’.”
When I met her, it was four years since Afshan had, with the support of her mother’s family, left her husband and filed for divorce. Over the course of my research, she proceeded to remarry. This was a difficult decision for her. Her second marriage was again to a Pakistani national, this time a distant relative by marriage. She met him at a wedding, and the two developed a mutual understanding. Afshan was cautious about the danger of being ‘used’ again for a visa. But telling me about the conversations she’d had with him before agreeing to the marriage, it was clear that what she really craved from the marriage was love. “I explained my situation to him before the wedding. I said, ‘if you want to come to London, if it’s only for a visa, I can call you as a student. I can help you get to London. But I don’t want you to play with my feelings’. He said, ‘no, it’s nothing like that’”, she said.
Thankfully, Afshan seemed very happy in her second marriage. Her description of her second marriage illustrates vividly the kind of intimate couple relationship she had craved: “We’re very close. He’s almost a friend. He’s my husband, but he’s a friend too. He’ll talk to me about anything and I’ll talk to him about anything. He’ll listen to me and he doesn’t care whatever I do, whatever I wear – he just wants to know what I’m feeling. That’s all he wants to know. He says, ‘I just want to know what’s inside your heart. I don’t care what you wear, I don’t care what you do, what you eat or how you dress’. He says, ‘I don’t want you to keep anything in your heart away from me’.”
A sign of just how differently she regarded this relationship with her second husband was how she called him her ‘partner’, rather than ‘husband’ – the very word conjuring up a more contemporary sort of loving relationship between equals.
Marriage is still an expected part of the life’s trajectory for the vast majority of Southasians in the UK, but as an institution, it has seen significant restructuring. There is an increasing insistence on intimacy and some kind of mutual regard. Increasingly, it seems, men and women feel compelled to end a marriage if they feel it doesn’t offer them respect or companionship.
Families and communities may still be conservative, at least initially, unwilling to acknowledge marital problems, encouraging couples to stay in unhappy marriages. Marriage migrants are told by their families to work on the relationship, at least until they get their ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ – that legal categorisation without which they face the constant threat of deportation. However, whilst the initial impulse is usually to try to save the marriage – if not make errant spouses mend their ways – in almost all cases, families accepted separations and divorces eventually and encouraged their children to remarry, challenging the stereotypes about Southasian families being overbearing and unsympathetic.
As Southasian women’s organisations have persuasively argued, separation, divorce and remarriage are critical sites for feminist legal interventions. The new family immigration laws, with their five-year probationary period, entrench the vulnerabilities of migrant spouses, especially women. There is manifestly a growing need for organisations providing refuge services, marriage counselling and mediation services to couples going through marital crisis or divorce. Furthermore, there is a huge unmet need for legal support, especially in the wake of policies of austerity that have led to brutal cuts to the legal aid system. There is also an urgent need for services to address the housing problems, mental wellbeing and welfare of single-parent families.
There are thorny debates about the policies of multiculturalism and the selectivity of financial support for voluntary or non-governmental organisations in the context of the continuing need to address language barriers, and establishing culturally-appropriate and anti-racist provisions for Southasians in the UK. On the one hand, there has been a drive to support faith-based organisations. But do these merely meet community demands, or do they play into the interests of tradition-bound religious conservatives and thus restrict minority freedoms to exit oppressive family structures? On the other, there is pervasive scepticism and fear about Muslim organisations, despite evidence of continual demand for Islamic family mediation. As much as the state makes provisions to facilitate divorcing couples and support those who are separated or divorced to live independently of their families, there are obvious limits to the extent to which this safety-net allows people to leave unhappy marriages. Perhaps there will always be people like Samina, whose marital breakdowns will go unrecognised; who will attempt departures, only to be discouraged; and who will quietly return, discouraged by the lack of alternatives.
But in the long run, even such private resolutions of marital crisis may give parties grounds to renegotiate their marriage, if very gradually, inch by inch, through the influence and mediation of other family members. Such was the case with Samina. While her bid to leave home was not initially successful, her protest did eventually allow her to redress the problems in her marriage. By the summer of 2014, Shoaib finally agreed to move out. Samina and he are now living with the children in a different neighbourhood, which is a 20-minute drive from his parents’ home.
~ Kaveri Qureshi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Her book, Marital Breakdown among British Asians: Conjugality, Legal Pluralism and New Kinship, will be published by Palgrave in 2016.