Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 324
Reviewed by Naseem Jivraj
Kaveri Qureshi’s book argues that the stereotypical way of characterizing British Asian families as being ‘old-fashioned’, stable and authoritarian (Berthoud 2000) are no longer appropriate (2016:2). Her key argument pivots on her analyses of 1993-94 and 2010-13 UK national surveys which, she argues, show a rise in marital breakdown amongst South Asian families. Qureshi draws on the analysis of interviews she did in 2005 – 2014 with 51 working-class British Pakistani women and 23 working-class British Pakistani men to understand their lived experiences in their ‘post-wedding’ phase. Qureshi posits that rising divorce rates in British South Asian families cannot be understood simply as a direct result of the kinds of ‘individualization’ processes that Giddens (1992) theorized and on which Berthoud’s (2000) ideas about personal relationships are based. Instead, she argues that when it comes to decision-making, South Asians weave traditional family cultures and elements of individualization at different points in their life. In this book, she shows the impact of gender relations, family and community pressures and politics intersecting with structures of class, race, and immigration on marital breakdown.
The book is divided into four parts, each containing multiple chapters. Part I, ‘Grounds for Conflict’, focuses on conjugality and, Qureshi argues that expectations of marriage are changing amongst both transnational and UK-born South Asian couples. Qureshi suggests that the expectation of intimacy is similar in both arranged and love marriages. Documented causes of marital disruption included lack of commitment; sexual infidelity; and unrequited love.
Part 2, ‘Staying Together’ and Part 3 ‘ Splitting Up’, both center on instances of legal pluralism where couples draw on multiple resources including family mediation, the Sharia Council and Family Courts to resolve their conflicts. Based on her analyses of the interviewees’ experiences of family courts, Qureshi argues that they were confronting the professional culture of the law from a very emotional standpoint, and further that law practitioners were deemed to have disempowered litigants by reframing their wishes during legal negotiations. In many instances, this often led to outcomes that differed from those initially agreed upon between the litigant and practitioner, and which resulted in the litigant feeling let down. Qureshi argues that divorce is not the only end result of marital instability. She documents cases of long-term separation, estrangement and ‘yo-yo’ marriages whereby individuals become less dependent on their spouse for intimacy and in some cases, become more embedded into natal families. Qureshi argues that such a situation exacerbates matrilateral asymmetry in British South Asians families.
In Section 4, ‘Rebuilding Families’, Qureshi documents the emergence of a new moral dictum amongst her interviewees about the importance of not remarrying for the sake of the children. Giving rise to new cultural possibilities represented by women living unattached to their husbands and finding support in female friendships. In some cases, contact with children is acquired through consensual spousal negotiations rather than court-imposed judgements. By illuminating the varying pathways that her interviewees adopted whilst enduring unstable marriages, Qureshi critiques Giddens’ (1992) model of individualization as a means of understanding action in a marital context. Instead, she argues that the ‘unstable marriage’ within the British South Asian context can have varying outcomes. Qureshi’s examples show that in some cases, natal families helped women to rebuild their lives after divorce. They also point to a gradual breaking down of social taboos surrounding single parenting and stepfamilies.
Qureshi’s book makes a rich contribution to broader scholarship on South Asian families, marital breakdown, legal pluralism, new kinship formations and single parenthood in the British South Asian context. It would most likely benefit anthropologists, sociologists, community leaders and students interested in family, marriage, family law, new kinship formations generally, and in the UK South Asian context in particular.
However, I contend that Qureshi has possibly underplayed the element of psychological strain that many of her interviewees, being recent immigrants, have undergone as part of the migrant experience (Skirbiš, 2008). She has also underplayed the push-pull dynamic between the individual and the collective whether in the form of family or the broader community in the transnational context and its impact on the individual (Goulbourne et.al., 2010). Another ‘elephant in the room’ is mental health. Qureshi documented 32 narratives involving domestic abuse, from which 22 cases were of extreme abuse that led to diagnoses of clinical depression. The long and short-term impacts of the psychological stress of being a migrant whilst also suffering from domestic abuse and managing at the same time family/community dynamics on a transnational level is not discussed at any length by Qureshi. This is something that forms the core of my own Ph.D. research on middle-class South Asian women who have come to the UK on spousal visas and later escape abusive marriages. After having followed 10 women closely, for periods ranging from nine months to three years, I have found that the experiences of coping with, and escaping from, domestic abuse, together with the various strains of migrant life and transnational family relationships can lead to extreme psychological distress. My informants’ decision to escape from abusive marriages brings about a range of challenges including shame and stigma, uncertain legal status in the UK, loneliness, and absence of family support, unfamiliar living arrangements, difficulties in accessing social security and employment, all of which can lead to extreme psychological distress and instability.
Qureshi’s book is a welcome contribution to scholarship highlighting different pathways and outcomes couples illustrate in marital breakdown in British South Asian families. Yet, in my view, her analysis of marital breakdown would benefit from a more explicit focus on their transnational context, as well as, the psychological state of her interviewees, and its intersection with structures of class, race, and immigration on South Asian marriages in the UK. What is required is more than ‘just a nod to the interior domains of life’ when considering human agency (Frank, 2006:282).
Berthoud, R. (2000). Family formation in multi-cultural Britain: Three patters of diversity. Colchester: University of Essex: Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Frank, K.. (2006). Agency. Anthropological Theory. 6 (3), 281–302.
Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy: Sexuality, love and eroticism in modern society.. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Goulbourne, H. Reynolds, T. Solomos, J. Zontini, E. (2010). Transnational Families – Ethnicities, identities and social capital. London: Routledge.
Skrbiš, Z.. (2008). Transnational Families: Theorising Migration, Emotions and Belonging. Journal of Intercultural Studies. 29 (3), 231-246.
Naseem Jivraj is a PhD student at the Department of Social Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Sciences. Her research focuses on how South Asian women newly arrived in the UK cope legally, socially, economically and emotionally after the breakdown of their marital and family relationships.