Divorce, Pluralism, and Individualism in Diaspora

by Muhammad Zubair Abbasi, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

Marital Breakdown among British Asians: Conjugality, Legal Pluralism and New Kinship, by Kaveri Qureshi (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Despite South Asians being the largest ethnic minority group in Britain, made up of many and varied people and with a complex history of migration and settlement, their family lives have often been depicted as traditional, stable and authoritarian, both in contemporary political discourse and academic literature. Kaveri Qureshi’s Marital Breakdown among British Asians challenges such blanket characterizations with rich ethnographic research. She argues against representations of South Asian families as traditional and stable, showing instead the increased prevalence of marital breakdown and the dissipation of social taboos associated with divorce and single parenthood among these families. She also challenges representations of South Asian families as authoritarian, while acknowledging persistent gender inequalities which are shaped, in her view, not by a “timeless patriarchy” but by the “intersections with race, class and immigration” that reproduce hierarchical structures, especially in families that include migrant spouses (p. 300).

Accordingly, the objective of Marital Breakdown among British Asians is to fill the gap in research investigating marital breakdown in South Asian communities “in a way that acknowledges the existence of persistent gender inequalities, without falling back into the dominant discourses that exceptionalise British Asian families” (p. 9). The main arguments of the book are built around the concepts of conjugality and legal pluralism, and insights drawn from the new kinship studies.

In studies of marriage in South Asian contexts, the focus has often been on the dichotomy between arranged marriages and “love marriage.” Very few studies have explored the “post-wedding phase,” to use Shalini Grover’s term. This book usefully examines working-class British Pakistanis’ lived experiences of marriage in the post-wedding phase, and emphasizes the need for more complex and non-linear accounts of change in which conjugality is seen as embedded in kinship formations. Qureshi shows that British Pakistanis have marital expectations similar to those described for Euro-American families, even when the couple lives with extended family members, although women and men still evaluate marriage pragmatically and the notion of the husband as provider continues to have “enduring cultural power” (p. 302).

On legal pluralism, Qureshi finds that men and women do not see the sharia and English law to be equivalent, in part because the sharia is relatively less authoritative and more fragmented in the UK context. In fact, following Boaventura de Sousa Santos, she finds an “interlegality” between the sharia and English law, which, are mixed in the minds and actions of people who may simultaneously use both forums in divorce cases, sometimes using one as leverage against the other. After examining different conceptualizations of legal pluralism and applying them to her ethnographic data, Qureshi endorses the perspective which elaborates upon the law itself as a “culturally distinct and so-recognized phenomenon” (p. 303).

Drawing on the new kinship studies in anthropology, meanwhile, Qureshi highlights many similarities with the experiences highlighted in wider British studies of post-divorce family life. However, she points to cultural particularities in the British Pakistani context, such as the “compulsoriness of a woman being attached to a man, ideas about patrilineages and bloodlines and long-term considerations about children’s marriages” (p. 19). Thus, although shared parenting is the predominant arrangement post-divorce, biradaris (patrilineages) remain very important in structuring post-divorce families, especially as parents keep in mind the future prospect of their “children’s marital alliances” with either parent’s biradari (p. 304). 

The book finally offers a critique of modern individualization theory, as proposed by sociological theorists such as Anthony Giddens and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim. In doing so, the research offers further support to a line of empirical studies of intimacy and family life that situate these in particular contexts and counter the broad-brush generalizations of free-floating social theory. Elements of individualization and traditional family cultures may be interwoven at different junctures in the lives of people. For example, mothers who endured unhappy marriages out of their commitment to religion or tradition may encourage their daughters to exit unsatisfactory marital relationships. In her quest to answer two interrelated questions, whether the rise in marital breakdown amongst British South Asians is a form of acculturation, and whether divorce does really expand individuals’ choice, Qureshi does not completely refute individualization theory. Rather she finds that gender is being reconfigured among British South Asians through marital breakdowns as women claim equality within the institution of marriage. Drawing on the works of Saba Mahmood and Suad Joseph, Qureshi highlights the necessity of exploring forms of gendered agency from a perspective outside the political project of liberal feminism. The book is well-written and canvasses concepts and approaches from legal anthropology in an accessible way. It will be of interest to scholars of minority families in the West but also, as it draws on and contributes to a comparative literature from South Asia, to scholars of divorce in South Asia—an area in much need of further research.

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