Dispossession of Matrimonial Choice in Contemporary India: Examining the Link between Cross-region Marriages, Neoliberal Capitalism, and New Forms of Gender Subordination
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In India, in the mid 1990s, a new form of non-customary marriage emerged on the rural North Indian marriage-scape. Transgressing rules of caste endogamy and marriage within one’s religion, the men, largely drawn from the lower classes of Meo Muslims and the dominant-peasant Hindu castes, travelled long distances across India to seek wives from lower castes, other ethnicities, and/or different religions. This dissertation examines the status of these “cross-region” brides in their conjugal homes. It argues that the spread of the neoliberal market economy in India has led to the hyper-commodification of the female body; intensified gender subordination; eroded women’s bargaining ability around their labour and their bodies; and increased women’s vulnerability to new forms of gender-based violence. The neoliberal accumulative process in India has accentuated the socio-economic inequalities of historically marginalized groups like the Dalits and the Muslims, with the women from these groups being dispossessed differentially due to their gender. This makes them vulnerable to cross-region marriage proposals. The dissertation draws on a four-year-long field-based inquiry conducted in 246 villages, from the four conjugal and natal regions of Haryana, Rajasthan, Odisha, and West Bengal, to interrogate hegemonic knowledge formations about these brides and their marriages. It analyses how the transgressions of caste, religion, and ethnicity shape the everyday lived experience of the Dalit and Muslim brides. Findings show that, while their bodies are desired for their free productive and reproductive labour, these women are treated as “internal others” by their conjugal families and communities due to their undesired ethnicity, caste, and/or religion. Their othered status in combination with the dispossession of matrimonial choice exposes them to caste discrimination, forcible cultural assimilation, and ethnoracist and religious prejudice within the intimacy of their marriages, and within their conjugal households and villages. This research illustrates that the cross-region brides occupy a contradictory space, as these marriages foreclose their agency, yet provide them the space to challenge established patriarchal norms and power structures through hidden transcripts of everyday acts of resistance.