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1A trend recently observed across Western Europe suggests that descendants of South Asian immigrants return to their parents’ country/ies of origin to find spouses. “Marrying back home” is one transnational practice found in the Pakistani diaspora. Transnational interconnections of this sort have attracted the attention not only of European immigration policy-makers but also researchers. Katharine Charsley is one of the very few academics to have studied the often disregarded question of how organizing marriages between families when one family resides outside the home country works to preserve transnational ties. Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol, Charsley has worked extensively on gender, family and migration, particularly marriage-related migration. Her eight-chapter monograph, Transnational Pakistani Connections: Marrying ‘back home’, is based on ethnographic research conducted in two phases, 2000-2001 and 2007-2008, in the Pakistani Punjab and Bristol. It provides extensive and extremely interesting insights into transnational marriage arrangements, focusing on the issues of risk, trust, emotions and – for the first time – accounts of the difficulties and unhappiness of “imported” husbands who emigrate to join their future spouse. Charsley goes well beyond describing strategies for finding a spouse across borders; emotion-related behaviour and motivations are central to her interpretation of respondents’ accounts of this major component of their life stories.

2The author begins the introduction with a concise overview of transnational marriage in Europe; then narrows the focus to the ethnic Pakistani community. She offers an elegant, detailed description of how Pakistanis migrated to the United Kingdom and reviews recent developments in immigration policy in Pakistan, the UK and Europe. The second part of the introduction presents the various social and demographic characteristics of Bristol Pakistanis. The author also refers to her field experience and the difficulties she encountered.

3The first chapter, “Weddings”, describes in minute detail the ceremonies for that event that the author attended at her two field sites. A typical Pakistani wedding ceremony usually lasts three days: the henna day mehndi, the wedding day barat and the marriage feast day walima. The author also fully documents the particularities of atypical weddings, which are due to such factors as differences in socio-economic status, participants’ specific geographic origin and technological advances. And she endeavours to elucidate how wedding rituals differ by gender-based ideologies and whether or not those ideologies are directly related to the matter of family honour. The reader wonders, however, in discovering the three-part explanation – religious, traditional and modern – offered by Charsley’s respondents and presented without comment, what exactly the religion says about nuptial rituals.

4Chapter 2, “British Pakistanis and transnationalism,” briefly reviews the literature on transnational ties in the Pakistani diaspora. The shift of focus from ethnic minorities to a transnational perspective is an opportunity to discuss methodological challenges. Throughout the chapter Charsley presents accounts drawn from interviews so as to identify varying degrees of symbolic and practical transnational engagement across generations. She also describes some interesting, not readily interpretable behavioural aspects of the community. Behavioural code switching, for example, is a strategy for avoiding conflict in a context of dual cultural expectations (i.e., in the UK). Meanwhile, young British Pakistanis visiting Pakistan may find themselves at a disadvantage due to their lack of the relevant cultural capital. In the author’s view, identity and power are negotiated transnationally. But if this is so, does a particular nationality status – i.e., ‘being British’ or ‘being Pakistani’ – (re)produce a status-power hierarchy?

5There are various ways of finding a spouse in Pakistan. The most reliable is to turn to relatives and close family friends. Chapter 3, “Zarurat rishta: Making and maintaining connections”, explores in detail the desired characteristics of life partners and how those partners are sought. Strategy and feelings play an important, conjoined role throughout the process of spouse selection. The Urdu word rishta has many connotations, which vary by context. It may mean marriage proposal, the existence of blood ties or the construction of new bonds between two families. Charsley’s detailed and comprehensive analysis of the rishta concept is a treat to read.

6Pakistani marriage arrangements are different from those of neighbouring South Asian societies in that they include marriage between close kin (preferably paternal and maternal cousins). The author analyses this preference from a different yet interesting perspective in Chapter 4, “Close kin marriages: Reducing and reproducing risk”. Just as risks vary in magnitude and nature – ranging from individual agency to structure – so do strategies for managing them. Thus close kin marriages “back home” are preferred over the other available options of marrying inside or outside the local Pakistani community in the host country.

7The nikah contract is an integral part of the civil and religious wedding that allows the couple to start their conjugal life. Normally it is signed on the wedding day, and the bride’s departure to her husband’s home rukhsati is supposed to take place the same day. However, in transnational marriages, rukhsati is delayed due to the factors described in Chapter 5, “Married but not married: The divisibility of weddings and the protection of women”. The legal pluralism of the transnational situation introduces variations in marriage rituals and behaviour while lengthening the period between nikkah and rukhsati. This means that the bride’s departure is not celebrated and the marriage remains unconsummated. In this connection, quotations from respondent accounts reveal that the motivation behind lengthening the marriage process is above all to protect British Pakistani brides from the potential risks and unknown dangers involved in rukhsati. Here the author presents a brief overview of the laws designed to protect women within the institution of marriage, including the religious concept of mahr, though she does not specify its meaning in Islam. Individuals often interpret religious concepts and practices according to their own religious knowledge and as a function of circumstances. Such interpretations do not necessarily correspond to the original meaning of the religious teachings, and the author would have done well to provide that meaning, in order to contextualize her cultural interpretation of religion.

8The matter of Chapter 6, “Conflicting interests: Rifts, concealment, izzat and emotion”, is an account by a physically disabled woman named Yasmin of how her marriage decision was made and the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of that marriage. How a web of relationships gets woven by marrying within the baradari (kin-group); how and why the baradari acts to save a marriage and thereby its izzat (honour), and how marriage dissolution may create a relationship rift within the whole baradari network if clashes are not settled – these are some of the issues discussed here, highlighted by classic examples of conflicting interests between the marriage partner from ‘here’ and the one from ‘there’. After analysing the term izzat, Charsley makes an extremely convincing argument for re-thinking the interplay between honour and emotion. However, a multidimensional analysis that included “responsibility” as a third term would have allowed for apprehending interplay between the three components: responsibilities vary in nature and duration; they affect and are affected by developments at the level of feelings and emotions, and they are linked to individual, family and baradari honour.

9The subjective constructions that we have encountered in the book up to this point, of suspicious, tyrannical, unfeeling husbands who marry British Pakistani women only to obtain British pounds and British citizenship, are in turn deconstructed by accounts from “imported” husbands in Chapter 7, “Migrant mangeters: Masculinity, marriage and migration.” As in the previous chapters, emotions are taken into account and add colour to these accounts, for, as the author explains, there are also “positive experiences” and they too need to be understood. Migrant “imported” sons-in-law/husbands may find themselves without the occupational skills required in their new environment; they may experience work-life conflicts, have to cope with downward mobility and gender-related power configurations; they may feel lost. Marriages where the groom leaves home to join his wife and family-in-law not only reverse the rukhsati norm but make the man feel he is a ghar damad (son-in-law residing with his family-in-law), which, from the patriarchal Pakistani perspective, amounts to a disgrace and failure to meet one’s conjugal responsibilities.

10Transnational marriages are considered forced marriages in cases where parents arrange them against the will of children brought up in western countries. But while some marriages become a nightmare, Charsley’s last chapter, “Gender, emotion and balancing the picture”, presents some examples of successful transnational marriages.

11Transnational marriage raises a wide variety of issues that may be analysed at different levels, from the micro level of individual and family agency to the meso level of kinship structure and the macro level of the nation-state. This type of marriage meets the kinship structure demand or expectation that transnational ties be maintained. It establishes relationships between relatives residing in different countries. For descendants of immigrants, it may be a means of maintaining the identity of origin. By taking emotion into account, the book offers a new angle for ethnographic research into conjugal relationships in the community of Pakistani immigrants living in the country of their formal colonial rulers. Charsley’s real skill here lies in how clearly she illustrates the difficult, easily misunderstood issue of the ad hoc construction of transnational subjectivities; i.e., how married couples interpret their marriage as one of the most important events in their lives. In Pakistan, marriage is considered an alliance between two families rather the mere union of two individuals; how the partners’ parents interpret such marriages would thus seem readily comprehensible. But since marriage decisions are heavily influenced by parents and the close kin group, it might be useful to understand how they are made collectively, to identify what characteristics parents-in-law would prefer in a son- or daughter-in-law, and how parents and children on each side negotiate or otherwise interact throughout the process of spouse selection and marriage arrangement.

Abida Sabir
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Uploaded on on 02/07/2015
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