Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor the State, and Mobility Across Asia

Sara L. Friedman and Parvis Mahdavi, eds.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 256

Reviewed by Christianne F. Collantes


Feminist scholars have been engaging with the gendered, racial, and political dimensions of migration for decades. Literature on the movements of bodies from parts of Asia, in particular, have provided critical insight into the nature of care and reproductive labor economies, international marriage migration, and transnational families.

Sara L. Friedman and Parvis Mahdavi’s edited volume, Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor, The State, and Mobility Across Asia (2015), continues to investigate details of the oftentimes unharmonious encounters between migrants and their host states.  Its authors explore how discourses on national belonging and systems of “(il)legality” in host states produce precarious and even desperate circumstances for migrants and their families.

Secondly, they investigate how gendered migrant subjectivities and intimate lives are disrupted and reconfigured by these confrontations.

Intimacy—as a form of migrant labor and as a set of relationships, sexual desires, familial and spousal dynamics, and gendered livelihoods—is foregrounded as the analytic site where such disruptions and conflicts take place or are produced.  Concurrently, the ways in which “(il)legality” and the “(il)licit” are framed and implemented by government authorities and state actors are explored.  Each chapter teases out the instabilities of these systems and how they are created as a way to limit (or delimit) migrant movements and presences.

We see how developed Asian states—while requiring the intimate labor (e.g. child or elderly care, or filling spousal and reproductive roles) of migrant (usually female) bodies—also grapple to “protect” symbols of national identity from these same “foreign” subjects (see the chapters by Kim, Hsia, Suzuki, and Osella).  And the complicated relationships between developed Asian nations and migrants from poorer Southeast Asian economies can produce hostile encounters that heavily impact the livelihoods of migrants and even their own kin.

Mahdavi’s chapter, in particular, depicts the grim effects of state produced systems of illegality in her discussion of children of migrant women in Kuwait.  While citizenship there is automatically granted to abandoned children of unknown parents (i.e. they are deserving of “protection” from the state), the state refuses to extend this recognition to those born to unwed (and therefore “illegal”) migrant mothers.  These children grow up socially and affectively impacted by state exclusion, and experience abandonment and desperation as outsiders of the only home they have ever known.

Throughout the volume, the authors show the instabilities of the very concepts used by host states to produce social and political inclusion and exclusion (see Suzuki, Hsia, Yeoh and Chee, and Friedman).  These states contend with migrant subjects by constantly defining and redefining them as legal or illegal, licit or illicit, or as foreign or integrated members of society.  “(Il)legality,” in fact, is described by Yeoh and Chee as a “product of a particular confluence of circumstances which…may be understood differently in different periods and places” (p. 186). In the Gulf and United Arab Emirates, Johnson and Wilcke explain how the concept of “privacy” worsens the circumstances of foreign domestic workers who experience exploitation within the homes of their employers.  As a result, state authorities rarely intervene “to protect migrant domestic workers’ interests either as foreign residents or employees” (p. 137).

Markers of status and (un)belonging are, thus, fluid and inconsistently applied to individuals while national landscapes and the multiple borders that shape them continue to be altered by migrant presences.  This is one of the major contributions of the work as a whole.  The authors urge us to reconsider these power dynamics as the Asian region continues to globalize.  They remind us that these relationships are evolving and shifting, and are now comprised of reactions, careful strategies, and countermoves.

Feminist scholars and students are also likely to find the most value from how this volume showcases the different and newer ways that migrant women are strategizing as liminal members of their host states. Indeed, the most intimate dimensions of migration are impacted by policies and state regulations that seek to exclude them.  However, the intimate also creates opportunities for migrant agency and empowerment.   An example of this is Constable’s chapter, which looks at the use of “tactics” by foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong who lose their work visas after becoming pregnant. These women file torture claims as a way to buy time before applying for asylum.  In the process, they are relieved from their work contracts even if they are rendered stateless from their home countries.  This “tactic” creates a momentary opportunity to become somewhat “legal” within illegal spaces, even if it is fraught with uncertainty and displacement.

Collectively, the chapters provide a broader portrait of how the Asian region continues to develop and globalize, and how its own migrant subjects are caught up in these processes. More importantly, however, Friedman and Mahdavi, and the authors of this volume share their research as an act of solidarity with their interviewees, who continue to find creative ways to challenge state restraints and subvert the contours of “(il)legality” and the “(il)licit”.  Our engagement of this work, and how we can incorporate it into our feminist research and teachings, can help to further expand those spaces of possibilities and solidarity.


Christianne F. Collantes is a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who researches gender and reproduction, feminist methodology, globalization and the Philippines.  She recently obtained her doctorate from the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  Her recent publication on “reproductive dilemmas”, labour, and remittances can be found in South East Asia Research journal.  She is currently working on her book project, Globalized Intimacies and Reproductive Dilemmas in Metro Manila.

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