Book review of Reena Kukreja's Why Would I Be Married Here?: Marriage Migration and Dispossession in Neoliberal India (2022)
Why Would I Be Married Here?: Marriage Migration and Dispossession in Neoliberal India, by Reena Kukreja (2022). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Reena Kukreja opens her ethnography on marriage migration and dispossession in India with a vignette from the time leading up to a parliamentary election in 2014, in which a group of unmarried men from rural Haryana state chanted the slogan “Bahu Dilao, Vote Pao” (“Get me a bride, take my vote”) (p. 1). This vignette serves as a poignant entry into the monograph’s analysis of an emerging social practice wherein men from north Indian states, such as Haryana, cannot find marital suitors and, thus, seek out cross-region marriages with women from distant corners of the country. Kukreja clarifies, however, that migration for marriage is not a novel phenomenon in India. Instead, her research illuminates the histories and politics that condition the form that marriage migration currently takes against the backdrop of India’s ongoing neoliberalization.
Her basis for analysis stems from two particular facets of what she refers to as “noncustomary marriages.” The first facet is that these noncustomary marriages transgress marital norms in India, such as endogamy, which are essential for reinforcing caste hierarchies. That said, the book does not valorize a transgressive reading of noncustomary marriages. The second facet is how marriage operates as a means to ameliorate labor shortages and agrarian distress in neoliberal India. What will be valuable to scholars studying gender and neoliberal economies both in and beyond South Asia is how Kukreja’s book traces the expansion of neoliberalism, as it reshapes social relationships and entrenches existing inequalities.
The intellectual genealogies that the author brings together play a key role in determining the political stakes and the force of her overall argument. Feminist political economy and Dalit feminism serve as the two central frameworks throughout the book. She draws on feminist political economy to show how India’s turn to neoliberalism in the 1990s exacerbated structural and systemic inequalities for socioeconomically marginalized groups, namely women. Dalit feminist frameworks allow her to challenge the primacy of patriarchy and analyze how gendered labor intersects with the subjective experiences of Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim women in India. Both frameworks demonstrate how neoliberal programs, such as structural adjustment policies and privatized public services, enable state and private institutions to accumulate capital while dispossessing marginalized groups. Kukreja shows how agrarian distress factors into the increased reliance on women for agricultural labor and, as a result, also the hyper-commercialization of their marriages. Put another way, when neoliberal reforms generated labor shortages, as they did in the 1990s and 2000s, rural women cushioned the ensuing agrarian distress by taking up unpaid agricultural labor. An important point to highlight here is that Kukreja’s focus is on Dalit and Muslim women who become cross-region brides, thus illuminating the challenges that these women face in their daily experiences of life and work after marriage.
Why Would I Be Married Here? aims to understand marital migration in India through a methodological approach that challenges pervasive and totalizing portrayals of migrant brides as victims of human trafficking. Whereas anti-trafficking activists perpetuate a “mute bridal slave-victim” scenario (p. 23), Kukreja uses a collaborative approach that invites her interlocutors to craft narratives about their decision-making processes that lead to marital migration. This book is the culmination of extensive research conducted over four years, and in 246 villages, the vast majority of which are located in the bride-receiving states of Haryana and Rajasthan in north India. Ten villages in two states from which brides emigrate, Odisha and West Bengal, were also incorporated into the study. In these contexts, Kukreja used mixed methods including surveys, interviews, focus groups, and participant-observation to engage Hindu and Muslim communities and, in doing so, undertook a comparative analysis of gender relations in India’s agrarian economies.
Kukreja’s book is divided into an introduction, six thematic chapters, and a conclusion. Chapters 1 and 2 detail the agrarian distress that has emerged in the wake of the neoliberal interventions that began in the 1990s. During this period, the Indian state pursued austerity measures and withdrew support for essential agricultural inputs. Furthermore, these agrarian “reforms” occurred alongside state-led enclosure and land grabs. The beginning sections of the book are historically rich and emphasize that rising agrarian distress has been foundational to the feminization of agriculture, a preference for male children, and consequently the shortage of brides. Chapters 3 and 4 unsettle the widespread depiction of families from bride-sending areas as uncaring people who traffick their daughters. Instead, these chapters highlight a range of factors that affect marriage outcomes for poor women, including a lack of assets, colorism, and birth order. Kukreja asserts that lower-class Dalit and Muslim women in peripheral areas are particularly vulnerable to such circumstances. It is under these conditions that they receive offers from men from states such as Haryana and Rajasthan who are unable to marry. The final two chapters bring ethnographic attention to the lived experiences of migrant brides. In these chapters, Kukreja’s nuanced ethnographic writing features a frame of “constrained agency,” which foregrounds the ways that migrant brides navigate the immense structural violence that they encounter in the form of caste, color, and cultural discrimination.
Ultimately, Kukreja illustrates how ethnographic research can unsettle totalizing narratives about how women come to paid and unpaid labor amid violent circumstances. The book also shows how multiple methodological tools can be used alongside ethnographic techniques to enrich understandings of how people are differently situated and subjected to work. Furthermore, the text contributes a nuanced understanding of the ways in which neoliberal interventions implicate gendered labor in agrarian settings. The book’s use of Dalit feminist approaches will be instructive for students of South Asian studies, and the rich engagement with feminist political economy – as well as the expansive use of methodological tools – will no doubt attract broader audiences interested in ethnographies of work.
Parijat Jha is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. He researches apple cultivation and climate change in the western Himalayas.