Lalaie Ameeriar

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017, 224 pp.

Reviewed by Anar Parikh

In Downwardly Global, Lalaie Ameeriar examines Pakistani women’s economic and social mobility as immigrants in Canada. Unlike other ethnographies of women’s work that focus on their labor as domestic workers, nannies, or factory workers, Ameeriar’s interlocutors are women who were trained as professionals in Pakistan. Contrary to narratives that celebrate the economic possibilities for skilled workers in the Global North, Ameeriar explores how immigrant women who worked as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers in Pakistan struggle to find work in those fields without extensive and expensive reeducation. She engages the “sanitized sensorium” as her theoretical framework for exploring how Canadian discourses about multiculturalism use certain sensorial phenomena—in the form of smells, tastes, forms of dress, and embodiment—to simultaneously demean and celebrate Otherness. By focusing on how foreign bodies are deemed illegible in some contexts and legible in others, Ameeriar is able to illustrate how precarity and poverty are not only economic conditions but also affective and sensorial ones.

The paradox of multiculturalism is highlighted through two field sites in Toronto: at settlement services agencies that aim to integrate new immigrants, and at cultural festivals that celebrate South Asians’ presence in the city, where they have constituted the largest minority group since 2006. This study is guided by an interest in contemporary shifts in labor and governance that have been facilitated by an increasingly global market economy. Within the scholarship on neoliberalism, Ameeriar takes a post-Fordist approach that underscores the complex interplay between continued attachment to Fordist ideas about the relationship between workers’ morality and their ability attain a middle-class life and the increasing precarity of labor in the contemporary workforce. Ameeriar shows how these sensorial regimes gender and racialize Pakistani women.

The first two chapters take place in the state-funded, privately run settlement service agency where Ameeriar follows Pakistani women as they take workforce development classes meant to train them for work in Canada. In Chapter One, she takes up the question of how Pakistani women in Canada end up in situations of un- or under- employment. Many of her interlocutors were attracted to Canada because of the promise of professional opportunities for foreign trained professionals. However, upon arrival they discovered that Canadian licensure boards did not recognize their education and experience from Pakistan. In light of this disjuncture, Ameeriar accompanies Pakistani women in workforce training classrooms at a settlement service agency in Toronto. She shows that although many Torontonians—government agents, non-profit workers, activists, journalists, and everyday citizens—frame the gap between Pakistani women’s training and their unemployment as a matter of bureaucratic inefficiency, the employment workshops instruct women that their inability to find gainful work is a result of their bodily difference, and they must therefore “remold” their foreign bodies to modern and global standards (28).

Continuing in this vein, Chapter Two examines an exception to the Canadian nation-state’s failure to integrate skilled immigrant women into regulated professions by following a government-funded pilot program that trains foreign-educated nurses to become licensed in Canada without extensive reeducation. Ameeriar emphasizes the significance of this exception: not only is the field of nursing feminized as women’s work, it requires emotional, intimate, and affective labor. Building on the “affective turn in anthropology,” she theorizes the notion of “pedagogies of affect”—the instructional and curricular ways Pakistani women are taught to manage their bodies, emotions, and ways of being. These pedagogies hold significance beyond the Canadian context, as they speak to larger questions about how race and gender configure in the global workplace. Ameeriar describes this as a “colonization of the intimate labor that women do” (55). If, however, neoliberalism is characterized by the fracture between a seemingly flat global market and real inequalities along lines of race, gender, class, citizenship status and other kinds of inequality, we might describe such a management of women’s bodies as a kind of recolonization.

Together, these chapters underscore how, in the context of shifting formations of labor and governance, foreign, female bodies are asked to take responsibility for their own racialization, gendering, and Otherness. They also offer a bridge for Ameeriar to shift her attention towards Canadian discourses of multiculturalism. Chapter Three takes place at two field sites: 1) an employment workshop focusing on business etiquette; and 2) a South Asian cultural festival in Toronto. In both settings the question of South Asian cultural difference vis-à-vis the Canadian nation-state is at the heart of Ameeriar’s ethnographic encounter. While the contradictions of multicultural discourses in the age of neoliberalism may be familiar to anthropologists, Ameeriar keenly takes up “smell” as sensorial regime that exemplifies how a “multicultural praxis” is made in Canada—allowing her to juxtapose how women’s bodily affects are managed and domesticated against “state-sanctioned sensorial forms of governance.” Indeed, the Pakistani women who take classes at the settlement service agency are instructed to manage their bodies—including how they smell—in ways that are more palatable to Canadian employers, but we cannot simply understand it as an attempt to eliminate difference. To the contrary, Ameeriar’s ethnographic work at the South Asian cultural festival in Toronto clarifies how neoliberal, modernizing projects produce racialized and sensorial alterities by repulsing difference in certain contexts while embracing the same difference in others.

The remaining two chapters focus on understanding how Pakistani women make sense of their experiences as workers in a post-Fordist, neoliberal economy and subjects of Canadian multiculturalism. Following her examination of South Asian cultural festivals, in Chapter Four Ameeriar examines how Pakistani women relate to the term “South Asian” as an ethnic and racial category in multicultural Canada. In this instance, the construction of “South Asian” is more than just an ethno-racial identity, it is the means by which the Canadian nation-state recognizes immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries in/around the Subcontinent. As a scholar of the South Asian diaspora who also struggles with how to engage “South Asian” as a racial, ethnic, and political construction in multicultural North America, I especially appreciated this section of Downwardly Mobile. There is a small but substantive body of anthropological work on South Asians in North America, but very few of them center the experiences of women. Ameeriar interrogates how “South Asian” as an ethnoracial identification is used by the nation-state to interpellate Pakistani women as citizens and subjects, and they respond to and resist these identifications in turn. Importantly, the absence of women-centered ethnographies of South Asian migration consequently produces masculinist theorizations around citizenship and belonging. By doing so, Ameeriar is able to highlight how in addition to religion, race, class, and immigration status, gender also figures importantly to how people are included and excluded in the multicultural nation-state.

Finally, in the final chapter (Chapter 5) Ameeriar asks the question: what does it mean to live in a state of precarity?” and explores what precarity says about how people contend with the interface between the government, the market, and the social worlds in which they live through life histories of seven Pakistani women who worked as professionals in Pakistan but came to face unemployment, poverty, and social distress in Canada. These life stories illustrate the quotidian implications of precarious life, allowing readers to see and experience how anxiety, desperation, and hope on unfold at the level of the everyday. It is easy to read these life histories and this monograph as a whole and feel a sense of dejection, but Ameeriar is careful to emphasize her interlocutor’s extraordinary resilience.

Conclusively, Downwardly Mobile is a challenge to the popular narratives of multiculturalism in Canada and elsewhere that embrace cultural difference and promise newcomers a sense of belonging and protection. While the multicultural nation-state does indeed celebrate difference at one level, it also strives to make immigrant bodies more legible by managing their embodied ways of being. Ameeriar further challenges predominant understandings about this racialization and the social experiences of “third world women” (166) by studying foreign-trained professional women who possess the skills and training for success but face prohibitive challenges in their attempts to do so. It is important to also clarify that in this focus on women, Ameeriar means to show how the racialization and gendering of the global economy affects both women as well as men. While subjects such as labor, governance, citizenship, and neoliberalism are not new to contemporary anthropology, through her attention to sensorial and embodied aspects of these concepts and experiences, Ameeriar presents a fresh approach.


Anar Parikh is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University. She is broadly interested in South Asian diaspora; anthropologies in/of the United States; political anthropology; citizenship; and the politics of multiculturalism and representation. Her research focuses on civic engagement and political belongings among community organizers, service agencies, and  immigrant and immigrant-descendant South Asians in Chicago, Illinois.

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