CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 In recent decades, the phenomenon of marriage between a woman and a man from two different countries, with different nationalities or cultural backgrounds, has become more and more common (Constable, 2005; Williams, 2010; Charsley, 2012). Switzerland also recognizes an important number of transnational marriages on its territory over the past two decades. We note that one-third of the immigration in Switzerland has taken place through family reunification and marriage (Riaño and Baghdadi, 2007), 25% from European countries and 51% from extra-European countries. With regard to immigration from countries of European origin, men are more in number, while for countries of Latin America, Africa or Asia, the number of women is much higher than that of men. Transnational marriage, as the main means of family reunification, has been largely dominated by the migration of women of non-European countries to Switzerland, because the Swiss immigration policies limit the number of foreigners’ residential authorization for a lucrative activity in Switzerland. Immigration opportunities for people from non-European countries are, thus, limited to highly qualified people (Dahinden et al., 2007), however, women remain under-represented in the so-called “highly qualified” group (Gafner and Schmidlin, 2007). That being said, Swiss immigration policies are relatively less strict regarding women’s residential rights granted for family reunification, especially for women who intend to migrate to Switzerland to marry Swiss men.

2 Researchers on women’s migration in Switzerland have also underlined that a transnational marriage with a Swiss man can be considered as a principal strategy for women from a non-European country to immigrate to Switzerland (Chen, 2021; Riaño, 2011). However, women who migrate through marriage often find themselves dependent on their spouses regarding their legal residential statuses (Gafner and Schmidlin, 2007). They are, therefore, particularly concerned about their rights to family reunification and will be even less likely to be treated as potential labor force members by Swiss society, because the local labor markets usually do not recognize their previous professional experiences and the qualifications they held in their home countries (Marin-Avellan and Mollard, 2011; Piguet, 2005).

3 Riaño has been a pioneer in the study of transnational matrimonial migration of women in Switzerland. However, her investigation has mainly focused on women from Latin American, Middle Eastern and South Eastern European countries (Riaño, 2003, 2007 and 2011; Riaño and Baghdadi, 2007). Very little research has been interested in transnational marriages of migrant women from Asian countries despite their growing number in Switzerland. By observing the increase in the number of Chinese women immigrating to Switzerland through transnational marriages with Swiss men, this article aims to complete the lack of migration studies on Asian women and, in particular, Chinese women marrying Swiss men in Switzerland.

4 Literature on transnational marriage has largely revealed that researchers focus on understanding the reasons and motivations behind the development of these power dynamics (Beck-Gernsheim, 2007; Constable, 2005; Ricordeau, 2012), as well as the processes involved in the creation of a marital foundation between two people from different countries and ethnicities, including multiple ways of meeting their partners via the Internet, personal links or marriage agencies (Fresnoza-Flot, 2017; Tseng, 2015). Some researchers are also concerned with what happens within such marriages regarding the relationship between partners during married life (Akpinar, 2003; Raj and Silverman, 2002). However, few studies focus on divorce within a transnational marriage (Liversage, 2012 and 2013; Mand, 2005; Parisi, 2017).

5 In fact, migrant women often find themselves in vulnerable situations within transnational marriages because they are unfamiliar with local languages and local cultures; they are distant from their homelands and receive very little help from their families and friends who still live in their societies of origin; they sometimes have to face the problem of deskilling (Erez et al., 2009; Sokoloff and Dupont, 2005). Ultimately, they are dependent on their husbands for legal status, economic assistance and emotional support. The isolation, the dependence and the lack of resources make it easy for their husbands to exert dominance through economic, physical and emotional control, as well as through the transmission of traditional familial patriarchal norms (Choi et al., 2012; Menjívar and Salcido, 2002). The vulnerability women experience within transnational marriages is evidently due to their marriages taking place across ethnic and national boundaries (Charsley, 2006 and 2021). Because this form of marriage usually involves changes in women’s legal statuses and physical movements (Chang, 2016), unequal power relations occur systematically between them and their husbands. Previous studies pointed out that the stability of relationships between partners in such a marriage is problematic because of the influence of cultural differences and all of the migration and environmental factors (Cao et al., 2010; Choi et al., 2012; Irastorza, 2016), which proves that there are multiple social power relations in such a marriage and that they cause an increased risk of divorce. Qureshi’s (2016) research on marital breakdown among British Asians has argued that there are persistent gender inequalities which are shaped not only by a family patriarchy but also by an intersection of race, class and immigration. This intersection of different social factors shores up the hierarchical matrix between spouses within a transnational marriage, and may cause migrant women to find themselves in a vulnerable situation and to be victims of domestic abuse (Chiu, 2017).

6 Moreover, in the case of transnational marriage dissolution, women face more trouble with their residential rights. As Ackers (2004) points out, in Europe, in case of failed marriages, non-citizen partners may be forced to return to their homelands as they have not acquired the right of state support and they will not be allowed to continue to stay if they cannot receive financial support from the citizen partner or from a social network. In the context of Switzerland, wives in a transnational marriage basically face the same situation. If they divorce and want to extend their residence permit, according to the law, they need to have been married and to have lived together with their Swiss husbands for at least three years, and they have to demonstrate that they are “well integrated” into Swiss life through their morals, their knowledge of a national language, their social networks, their economic activities and their willingness to work, etc. [1] Given the characteristics of Swiss immigration policies, women who are involved in transnational marriages may suffer unjust treatment with respect to gender, nationality and class at a macro level, which directly leads to unequal power relations with their Swiss husbands, and even produces violence in case of divorce.

7 By adding empirical evidence of divorce in transnational families, this article focuses on divorce between Chinese women and their Swiss partners in Switzerland. It examines the violence suffered by these Chinese wives during the breakdown process and argues that the intersection of gender, nationality, marriage culture, legal status and social class contributes to the victimization of wives in transnational marriages and their resistance to inequality by striving for divorce and moving on with their lives afterwards. I claim that these married migrant women are totally capable of constituting themselves as a principle of meaning, of posing as a free being and of producing their own trajectory through their subjectivity. Whether they are in the decision-making stage of choosing a transnational marriage or confronting marital problems, or even divorce, they are actors who exercise their own capacity to react in ways that are best for them. Even if they have been hurt by the society or their husband and family-in-law, and could remain in a situation of loss of autonomy and incapacity, they are the main actors of their choices and decisions at different stages to consider the situation and look for strategies to get out of the dilemma. In doing so, I analyze how Chinese married migrant women, as individuals, can become subject to the phenomenon of different unequal power relations that negatively affect their marital stability with their Swiss husbands. How could divorce not represent a failure of these migrant women?

8 In order to answer these questions and to carry out my analysis, I am drawing upon the concept of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) as an analytical tool to address the unequal power relations of transnational marriage migrant women within their post-migratory life. Using intersectionality to underline how multiple power relationships do intersect, provides certain advantages in analyzing the processes of women’s class, ethnic and gendered subjectification in a multi-setting institution such as a transnational marriage.

Beyond the Intersection of Force and Power: Subjectivity within the Marital Institution

9 The notion of intersectionality developed by Crenshaw stands for the interests of oppressed minority groups undergoing a combination of the various forms of domination of race, gender and class (Crenshaw, 1991), which has been labelled by Collins (2000) as a “matrix of domination”. The domination is created by the hierarchy of human status, which is based on categories of difference, but such differences are socially and culturally conceptualized by individual and institutional factors. In a marital institution, male dominance is often reflected by the traditional patriarchal familial norms deeply ingrained in society and exclusively male economic, domestic and decision-making authority. Socially and culturally, men’s interests are considered to be more favoured than those of women, which puts women in a powerless situation and pushes the reproduction of gender power relations promoted by macrostructures and individuals at a certain level. The gender relation is not always restricted in the exercise of women’s power in relations with men, but also concerns the so-called “women’s natural domain”, such as motherhood and care work, which is typically undervalued (Pyke, 1996; Resko, 2010). Such gender relations make the relationship between a husband and wife unequal. When it comes to transnational marriages between foreign wives and native husbands, in addition to the unequal gender power relations, the fact that the marriage takes place across ethnic and national boundaries, the differences between the husband and the wife, and local social and legal status will also affect the imbalance of their power (Qureshi, 2016). As women, foreigners, immigrants and sometimes unemployed, wives in transnational marriages are often limited in terms of access to social networks, resources and citizenship rights (Menjívar and Salcido, 2002; Williams, 2010), while their husbands, as citizens, men and employed individuals, benefit from all national rights and make their wives dependent on them. Since local husbands seem to have much more power in their hands, they may consciously or unconsciously make decisions very often for their foreign wives in the name of the good of the family — even if wives negotiate with their husbands for household affairs and also navigate the intricate power relations to attain their personal objectives — which increases the number of unequal, even abusive, relationships between partners in a transnational marriage institution; these wives may, thus, find themselves in an oppressive situation or even suffer marital violence.

10 All differences related to gender, culture, nationality and class, influence the marital power between partners in a transnational marriage. Local husbands’ dominant position combined with the public discrimination of migrant wives’ social, legal and familial roles marginalize women and make them a part of a powerless situation. This does not mean that wives in a transnational marriage are perpetually situated in a weak position; they may be extremely vulnerable in their early post-migration life because of the language barrier, cultural difference and unfamiliarity with the society, but with the intersection of different power oppressions, wives in transnational marriages are also able to reverse their passive situation to an active role in the face of different difficulties in their life. The process of reversing to an active person with their own logic by reacting to a dominant person or a discriminating problem is rooted into the process of their subjectification.

11 In analysing the process of subjectivation, it is not only a question of how married migrant women resist the inequalities and injustices of the marital institution. It is also to know how they accept certain social norms and unreasonable treatments and choose to temporarily remain in a relatively powerless situation, and then, renegotiate the situation with their partner or other powerful factors, once they are more adapted and integrated into the host society and have more knowledge about their rights. It seems to be a process of first knowing oneself, then worrying about oneself and, finally, caring for oneself, which Foucault describes as the practice of the subject “being concerned, taking care of oneself” and which he calls the “technologies of the Self” (Foucault, 2001). According to Foucault (1976, 1984a, 1984b and 1994), the subject is situated in power relations. Individual acts upon oneself regarding one’s relations to oneself, to others and to norms. In Foucault’s view, individuals not only hold the “technologies of the Self” but also manage the technologies of power. By exercising the technologies of power, in most situations, individuals decide upon their reaction and submit themselves to certain ends or domination power, this does not mean that individuals are willing to be oppressed. They can also confront the domination power according to their abilities to act. This means that the individuals finding themselves in a situation in which they become the guarantor of their resistance and their opposition, by agency, they are capable of acting, to subvert the norms, to resist, to negotiate even to break the norms (Butler, 1997). The “technologies of the Self” and the technologies of power together constitute the process of individuals’ subjectification.

12 Crenshaw’s intersection of different kinds of power as domination certainly relates to the notion of power in Foucault’s sense. But power not only signifies oppression for individuals but also allows them to reconfigure relations with others and selves. The reconfiguration of power relations of individuals by their agency in a given situation represents a process of subjectivation. Therefore, situating intersectionality in the process of subjectivation makes it possible to better consider people in an inferior position especially ethnic minority women as subject and actor.

13 Within a transnational marriage institution, wives are active in reconfiguring the power relations with their husbands, the concerned institutions and other related persons, depending on the roles they would like to ensure under certain conditions. Women consistently exert power and re-empower themselves by self-positioning within multiple hierarchies of power, forces and processes, as well as being affected by them. In post-migratory life, women’s subjectivity resides at the categorical intersection of different kinds of power related to gender, culture, nationality and class. For each factor, women exert power to renegotiate their role and identity within the marital institution, which accomplishes their gender subjectivity, cultural subjectivity, and their subjectivity concerning their legal and social status related to their nationality and class. The different aspects of subjectivity also form an interaction that accomplishes their subjectification process. Therefore, they ensure not only their different roles as women, migrants, foreigners, wives and even mothers within the transnational marriage institution but also as subjects; they ensure that they are, as individuals, capable of formulating their choices and resisting the dominant logic at different levels. This article will argue that the subjectivity of women in transnational marriages reconfigures itself, depending on the women’s vulnerable divorce situation and will focus as much on their divorce rights as their gender roles or identity. It examines how these women react as subjects by exerting their subjectivity to react and negotiate during the entire marital breakdown process with their Swiss husbands, both in terms of oppression and resistance.

Methods and Research Context

14 During 2016 and 2017, I conducted fifty-two interviews with Chinese migrant women in Switzerland through online calls and snowball recruitment. All of the fifty-two interviewees are married. Twenty-nine are married to Swiss citizens and nine are married to other European citizens who hold permanent residency in Switzerland. The rest are in marital unions with Chinese men. Among these women, fourteen have obtained Swiss citizenship after several years of settlement in Switzerland. Being married to a Swiss citizen also has a positive influence on the acquisition of Swiss citizenship for Chinese women, but applicants also need to meet certain challenging conditions before they can obtain Swiss citizenship: for example, they must achieve a certain number of years of marriage or of being “well integrated” into the host society, etc. Although it is possible to obtain Swiss citizenship, many Chinese women often delay the acquisition just so that they can return to China whenever they want to, especially if their parents are old, as China does not recognize dual citizenship. If they become Swiss citizens, they will have to renounce their Chinese nationality at the same time (Chen, 2019). In this case, if they want to return to China, they will need to apply for a visa, which will complicate their lives in emergency situations. Without Swiss citizenship, they may face many unequal social treatments because of the differences between rights extended to migrants versus citizens; moreover, the dependency of their legal statuses on their marriages will inevitably make them unequal with their husbands within their marital lives.

15 Among the fifty-two interviewees, only three are divorced, this situation leads us to ask the question why few Chinese women within transnational marriage divorce in Switzerland. In fact, other women who manage a household with a Swiss or European citizen also spoke about their fear of divorcing their husbands. The reasons why these women do not divorce their husbands even if they encounter marital problems, are interesting to consider. Considering the above discussion on Swiss immigration policy, I assume that their fear does not come from the divorce itself, but from a series of effects on all aspects of life. Additionally, divorce may represent a personal failure for them in their minds (Hopper, 2001), especially within the Chinese cultural context, where divorced women are always frowned upon by society and their families at certain levels.

16 This article focuses on the three women’s transnational marriage and divorce stories. It claims that a small sample of three stories certainly cannot make the representativeness of the whole situation of divorced Chinese women within transnational marriage in Switzerland. However, like Ridgway confirmed in her article about three female British marriage migrants in Australia who encountered divorce problems, the lack of representativeness should not lead to the dismissal of these stories; this kind of small-scale study could even help researchers to observe particular social processes at play and offer new avenues of reflection for future research on the same topic (Ridgway, 2021). Moreover, focusing on three persons allows to develop in-depth analysis of the entire process of the foundation of marriage and all aspects of post-marriage life, or the direct and indirect factors that lead to the dissolution.

17 The first-person narrative approach has been used for collecting interviews which allows me not only to center the voices of the three women, but also to recognize them as the authors of their own stories (Somers, 1994). Through the first-person narrative, these women reflect on their own experiences as they have actually lived them, manifest and define who they are while making their private history public. The narrative of their own lives formulates themselves as subjects who participate in their subjectification. Then I employ the biographical research method (Rosenthal, 2004) by sequentially reorganizing the stories told by the three interviewees and reconstructing their life stories to schematize the specific phenomenon concerning marriage and divorce.

From Transnational Marriage to Divorce: Three Stories

Yinli: “Everything is for my daughter”

18 Yinli met her Swiss ex-husband when he worked in China in 2008; they got married soon after and moved to Zurich, Switzerland. Yinli became pregnant the same year. Because she was thirty-seven years old, she considered herself old for her first pregnancy according to the way the Chinese think, said Yinli. She even thought she could encounter some risks during the pregnancy. She thought that it was better for her to receive more care, but her ex-husband and his family were not happy about her pregnancy. Her ex-husband even experienced depression during her late pregnancy. She also insists on the mistreatment she had received from her ex-mother-in-law:


One day, my ex-mother-in-law came to my house and locked me in the apartment to force me to have an abortion. She asked me to divorce her son. To her, it was like I was married to her son for money. She knew very well that if my ex-husband divorced me, he would have to provide me with support for my child, but without children, he would have less worries. My ex-mother-in-law clearly stated that, as the only child in the family, her son must not have a mixed-blood baby, because having a baby with a Chinese woman would bring shame on the family.

20 Yinli refused this unreasonable demand and told her ex-mother-in-law that even if her ex-husband wanted a divorce, it should be him who spoke to her about it, and not her ex-mother-in-law. During the dispute, there was a physical confrontation. Yinli’s ex-mother-in-law kicked her in the abdomen, which made Yinli fear that her baby might be hurt. Yinli made an emergency call to the police, but due to her low proficiency in Swiss German, she faced difficulty in explaining to the police what happened. Her ex-husband spoke to the police instead and said that it was just a family dispute and that there had been a misunderstanding between his mother and his wife. He covered up the violence that had occurred. In the end, the police did not become too deeply involved. In fact, Yinli’s ex-husband told her not to complicate things by involving the police, as that would break up the family, and that would not be healthy for their child in the future. Yinli listened to her ex-husband’s wishes, as she was not familiar with Switzerland. For the sake of her child and the family’s harmony, she eventually decided to not to pursue the matter.


During my daughter’s birth, my ex-husband was absent, and nobody from his family came to see me and the baby. I was very weak after the delivery, my family in China advised me to return so I could recover. Six months after my daughter’s birth, I decided to return to China, to visit my family. My ex-husband agreed and thought that my departure to China would ease our previously cold relationship. But, not long after my return to China, my neighbor in Switzerland sent me an e-mail to inform me that my ex-husband had returned home with another woman; several days later, I received a letter from a lawyer asking for a divorce on my ex-husband’s behalf. The reason given for the divorce in the letter was that I had stolen my daughter by taking her to China. I was really shocked. How could he make these things up?

22 Yinli chose to return to Switzerland without informing her ex-husband because she knew that if she immediately accepted the decision in China, without challenging the divorce, she would receive fewer rights with respect to the custody of her daughter and her legal status in Switzerland. Her husband did not want to face her because he did not want to give her any money upon her return. Because Yinli did not work at all, her expenses were completely paid from her ex-husband’s salary. During her ex-husband’s disappearance, Yinli had to ask for money from her family in China. Gradually, with the help of her neighbors, she decided to go to the Citizens Advice Bureau to ask for help, as she knew that she had the right to receive child support from her husband since she was legally still his wife. She first received economic help from the municipal service and was then advised to go to a family protection service; a lawyer helped her obtain money from her ex-husband with a lawsuit.


I learned to understand and speak Swiss German during the lawsuit process because I needed to know the language to explain the situation and request protection for myself. Since my ex-husband’s infidelity was a moral issue and not a criminal affair, I knew that I would not receive a legal judgement on my ex-husband’s infidelity. Several months later, he returned to ask me to withdraw the lawsuit and promised me that he would end his extra-marital affair. For the sake of my daughter, I accepted his proposition because I really thought that I was not legally or financially strong enough to fight him.

24 During the next five years, Yinli took care of her daughter alone without any support from her husband’s family. She began to learn the local language and tried to integrate as much as possible into her host society. She thought that taking these steps would positively influence her search for a job in the future. She knew that she could not count on her ex-husband for support; she needed to be economically independent. She was certain that the divorce would take place one day, and she stopped caring about her relationship with her husband. The only things Yinli cared about were that her husband agreed to pay the rent every month and that he gave her and her daughter enough money for their living expenses.

25 In 2015, Yinli finally got her category C residence permit [2] with five years’ renewable residence rights. Several months later, she decided to initiate the divorce proceedings because she wanted to escape what had become an oppressive living situation. The divorce was still not complete, however she had already had her category C permit withdrawn by the authorities. For a long period of time, Yinli stayed in Switzerland without a legal permit, although her daughter had Swiss nationality.


I did not want to return to China immediately because my only desire was to stay with my daughter and see her grow up. It would be too difficult to secure custody of my daughter because I lacked economic stability according to Swiss law. I would be repatriated to China without my daughter if I divorced him and did not have a sufficient reason or enough economic support to stay in Switzerland.

27 Yinli finally sold her house in Shanghai with the help of her family and planned to buy an apartment in Zurich as a way to prove that her situation met the requirements of Swiss law. With the help of a lawyer, she was able to negotiate with the Swiss authorities, by expressing her desire to stay in Switzerland to see her daughter grow up, and got a category B residence permit in the end; however, she had to pass a language test and present witnesses of her life in Switzerland. When Yinli’s divorce was finalized, her husband received custody of her daughter as he had a better economic standing, and Yinli’s situation as a legal resident was not stable in Switzerland, even if she bought an apartment. Owning an apartment did not afford her the same privileges as obtaining a Swiss citizenship would, however, she was overjoyed that she could stay in Switzerland and see her daughter occasionally.

Ruolan: Seeking Legal Possibilities to Reside in Switzerland for her Swiss Daughters?

28 In 2004, Ruolin married a Swiss man in China when he worked there. They moved to Switzerland for several years and Ruolan received a Swiss residence permit as a benefit. Because of Ruolan’s husband’s work, they had to return to China, while she came to Switzerland just once a year to visit her family-in-law. During that time, she did not renew her residence permit. In 2012, the couple divorced and Ruolan’s ex-husband promised to send alimony every month for her and their two daughters, however, he never fulfilled this legal responsibility. Ruolan no longer had the means to send her daughters to private school. As her daughters were not allowed to study in Chinese public schools due to their Swiss nationality, Ruolan asked for help from the Swiss Embassy in Shanghai but did not receive a response. Finally, she decided to come to Switzerland to seek a lawyer to claim her rights.

29 After her visa application was sought for what were deemed inappropriate motivations, and consequently refused, Ruolan got help from a Greek friend, who offered her a two-month, temporary work contract in Switzerland so that she could obtain the visa. She explained:


I went to my ex-mother-in-law to ask for help, but she didn’t care. My ex-sister-in-law gave me 500 Swiss francs to leave. I regretted having such close relatives for my two daughters.

31 After visiting her ex-mother-in-law, Ruolan met a lawyer who could help her in Switzerland, but the lawyer told her that obtaining help for her would be complicated because she had not resided in Switzerland for a long period of time; and that it would be difficult to move her family to Switzerland, even if her daughters had Swiss nationalities, unless Ruolan gave their custody to her ex-family-in-law. But Ruolan did not want her daughters to live with people who she felt had no heart or love, like the members of her ex-family-in-law. She returned to China and tried to find a solution, however it was too difficult for her.


In fact, I met a man from Germany while working in Switzerland when I went to Switzerland in 2013. I kept in touch with him. I explained everything to him and told him about the progress of my complaint. This German came to China to see me and then asked me to marry him. I was amazed by his proposal because I was older than him and already had two children. I thought he could find a younger and prettier woman with less economic trouble. I refused to marry him in the beginning. However, because my daughters could no longer go to school in China, I had to find a solution to move to Switzerland for them. In the end, I accepted his marriage proposal.

33 For her daughters, Ruolan had to choose to remarry in Switzerland. She now lives with both her daughters and her German husband in a small city in the Swiss German part. Although she has also encountered several problems with her current husband due to cultural differences and age differences, she does not dare to think about another divorce as she can imagine the difficulties she would have to overcome based on her previous experience.

Lingshan: Marriage in the Name of Love

34 Lingshan is a thirty-eight-year-old woman who arrived in Switzerland in 2010 through marriage to a Swiss man, who was five years younger than her. She met her ex-husband in Beijing and married him after dating for a few months. Before she got married, Lingshan worried that her marriage would be unhappy because of the gulfs in age and education between them. She had earned a master’s degree in France and her ex-husband had pursued a vocational training program after middle school and did not hold a university degree.


Finally, I agreed to marry him and moved to Switzerland because I had reached the age of a so-called ‘leftover woman’[3]and was unlikely to find a boyfriend in China. But both of our decisions to marry were based on true love.

36 Unlike most other Chinese marriage migrants in Switzerland, who cannot find jobs because of the non-recognition of their Chinese degrees in the Swiss job market, Lingshan’s French master’s degree, French language skills and previous professional experience in multinational companies helped her quickly find a job at a bank in Geneva. To better understand the Chinese culture and to live with Lingshan in more harmony, her ex-husband undertook the study of the Chinese language and gained a master’s degree in Chinese language studies; and obtained an appropriate job which allowed him to have a good salary. During her ex-husband’s studies, Lingshan supported their life economically. After five years of marriage, she received Swiss citizenship and bought an apartment and a car with her husband.


I thought everything went well for me. But as a woman, I felt it is essential for me to have a child. And I felt that I was no longer young and I was afraid that it would be too difficult if I waited too long. I intended to prepare in 2016. But every time I wanted to talk about having children with my ex-husband, he became impatient and did not want to talk about the matter. He said that he was still young and not prepared.


From late 2016, my ex-husband began to alienate me. I also realized there was tension in our relationship, but I thought this was normal because all couples experienced a period of tension in their marital lives. At the beginning of 2017, he told me that he had fallen in love with another woman and wanted to divorce me because of the loss of love between us and it did not make sense anymore to stay married. I felt as if I had been hit by a thunderbolt because I had never thought of divorcing him. But I also knew that the best option would be to accept the divorce and try to defend my rights as much as possible.

39 While negotiating with her ex-husband, Lingshan expressed her desire to keep the house and the car after the divorce, as she had invested most of the money when they had bought them. She knew that if she did not fight for the house, it would be difficult for her to buy one by herself later. She had no family members in Switzerland and no other support, and the house could at least guarantee that she would have a stable place to live in Switzerland.

40 Moreover, Lingshan thought that she had made a considerable financial investment in their marriage. She did not care about her husband’s low salary, and even though he had spent several years at a university without a salary, she had never complained about the financial burden, and had always respected and supported him.


You know, as the only child in my family, I felt guilty about leaving my parents, to marry and migrate to Switzerland these years by ending with a divorce. I even had doubts myself about the love and intimate relationship I had had with my ex-husband. I had contributed greatly to our marriage; the divorce was not the result I had imagined. Before the divorce, my sense of security and belonging in Switzerland came from my marriage and my ex-husband. For a long time after the divorce, I could not understand my own logic for staying in Switzerland and contemplated returning to my family in China. But I know I cannot enjoy any rights if I return to China as I have joined Swiss nationality, so I did my best to protect my rights and interests during the divorce procedure. […] The divorce did not cause any harm to my material rights, the emotional harm I had suffered was difficult to recover from immediately.


Power and Violence

42 In her research about divorce in transnational families, Sportel distinguishes between two types of power between spouses by taking gender as the central position in marital power relations: the marital division of labour and domestic violence (Sportel, 2016). However, the unequal marital power relations exist not only at the micro level, between spouses, but also at the macro level, which is political-legal. Migrant women within a transnational marriage may also suffer from institutional violence. When a divorce occurs in transnational marriages, like Yinli, Ruolan and Lingshan experienced, divorced women may encounter several difficulties concerning their economic situation, legal status of residence and morale violence related to the fear of losing their child.

43 Through different lenses, Yinli’s story shows the marital power relations, the injustice and even the violence that a migrant woman in a transnational marriage may encounter within her married life. The breakdown of Yinli’s marriage was not simply a matter of cultural incompatibility, nor did it stem from her husband’s inability to stay faithful in their marriage. Rather, there were multiple intersecting factors that led to her divorce. These factors had arisen since the beginning of their relationship and then intensified. Yinli’s ex-mother-in-law’s prejudice about transnational wives’ motivations for marriage was based on economic interest, as well as her views on the superiority of white people, which were revealed when she rejected a ‘mixed-blood’ baby as a member of her family. This stereotyping and racial discrimination victimized Yinli’s individual dignity and weakened her feelings toward her family-in-law and her ex-husband. Yinli’s ex-husband’s complete absence during her pregnancy reinforced her traditional gender role; Yinli had to stay at home to be a full-time housewife which downgraded her social class. When the atmosphere was tense between the couple, Yinli’s ex-husband managed to emphasize her role as a mother to force her to consider what was best for her daughter and the family’s harmony and to stop her from seeking self-protection. Of course, the request was likely made in light of her lack of understanding of Swiss society and the existing language barrier, and so her ex-husband circumvented her desire to protect herself and violated her rights. From the beginning, Yinli was subjected to domestic violence. Yinli’s ex-mother-in-law was physically abusive towards her even during her pregnancy, and then Yinli’s husband’s actions on different problems inflicted physical, emotional and psychological violence on her. This unequal power relationship is marked by the fact that Yinli fulfilled her traditional role as a wife and mother, lacked economic income, her ex-husband dominated the family affairs and controlled Yinli’s life, and exerted violence on her more easily. Moreover, being a foreigner, Yinli was unfamiliar with her rights in Switzerland, which worsened her vulnerability vis-à-vis her ex-family-in-law.

44 As a mother, Yinli’s ultimate wish was to remain with her daughter. But because of her migration status as a cross-border wife and the fact that she had never worked in Switzerland, it was very difficult for her to obtain her daughter’s custody. She even faced residency rights problems. This power, leveraged against her by public authorities, aggravated her vulnerable situation. As she worked to assume her role as a mother, Yinli struggled at the intersection of various kinds of power related to her gender, her social class as it related to her unemployment status, her nationality and the lack of knowledge of and connection to the local culture. She was left with few alternatives with which to fight.

45 As a Chinese mother of two daughters of Swiss nationality, Ruolan could not receive support from Switzerland when her daughters were losing their rights to attend school in China. If Ruolan did not come to Switzerland by way of a transnational marriage with her current husband, how could she persuade the Swiss authorities to grant her legal migrant status? In fact, there is no Swiss law that explains the possible solutions for Ruolan’s problem. The Swiss family reunification policy allows children to join their parents, who have the legal right to reside in Switzerland, but not vice-versa. This negatively affects the main interests of parents and children.

46 Compared to Yinli’s and Ruolan’s divorce, it seems that Lingshan did not really experience a violence situation during the entire divorce process. It is certain that her Swiss citizenship, her local language knowledge and her independent economic status allowed her to better protect herself. Moreover, she did not have any children to watch over, during the divorce process and after its completion. However, because of the lack of family and networks in Switzerland, she had to face many difficulties in reorganising her life alone after the divorce. It presented an upheaval for her.

47 Considering the three divorce stories, the intersection of the different unequal powers between foreign wives and local husbands in a marriage causes a certain vulnerability for these migrant women. The three stories illustrated that the restrictions placed on migrant women’s residence rights by Swiss policy systematically sustain the legal dependence of these women on their Swiss husbands. Due to the constraints caused by social structures, women like Yinli, Ruolan or Lingshan, who migrate to Switzerland through transnational marriage, can become victims of very vulnerable living conditions. In most cases, these women rely on their husbands for their social and residence rights, which further strengthens their subordination to their husbands. Women may feel extremely disempowered by their dependency. Their legal and economic dependency on their husbands can create more opportunities for their husbands to behave in a domestically violent manner towards them (Raj and Silverman, 2003). Consequently, male dominance in married life could be more visibly identified in transnational marriages. Regarding divorce, if wives do not have citizenship and a stable economic situation like Lingshan does, they will certainly encounter problems with staying in Switzerland and proving their adaptable economic situation to maintain custody of their children. The cases of Yinli and Ruolan demonstrate that being a mother of a citizen cannot guarantee a migrant woman the right to reside legally in Switzerland; this issue also raises the issue of the partial lack of maternal citizenship in the Swiss immigration regime. It seems that only husbands are the reference standard in terms of citizenship or legal rights within transnational marriages. The couple works as an “inverted mirror,” where the husband guarantees the wife’s rights and economic stability, and the wife strives to maintain the appearance of “a good wife of a Swiss” and eventually become a “good Swiss citizen.” If a divorce takes place, these women, who are partners in transnational marriages, do not only divorce their husbands, they also divorce the nation and lose their legal and social rights, a phenomenon in contradiction with dominant discourses on the use of citizenship of so-called “anchor babies” to gain access to the nationality (Bledsoe, 2004). In parallel, this loss perpetuates precariousness for women within the transnational marriage institution and reinforces their dependence on their husbands. This is why many Chinese women in Switzerland who are in transnational marriages rarely choose to divorce, even if there are some problems within their marriages. Instead, they prefer to endure these injustices to maintain their marriage to guarantee the stability of their social and legal status.

Subjectification within Divorce Procedure

48 Within the divorce procedure, cross-border wives not only need to struggle against the repression of different power relations of gender, class, culture and nationality, but they also need to protect themselves to obtain as many rights as possible. During life after divorce, and even in the marital tension period, knowing their needs, worrying about their rights and protecting themselves constitutes their subjectification in Foucault’s sense. However, this process of subjectification is not fluid and smooth, because during the breakdown of their marriage, these women may manifest their sadness, disappointment and even self-doubt, leading them into a reverse direction of the subjectification process.

49 For Lingshan, the failure of her marriage and her shame at leaving her aged parents in China without other siblings allowed her to doubt herself when the relationship with her ex-husband broke down. Her sense of shame certainly negatively affected her rational understanding of her value and even pushed her to think of her life in Switzerland as being meaningless. This was defined by Ortner (2005) as the subjectivity in question, which regards the anxieties of one’s own failures. The subjectivity in question surely negatively affects Linshan’s configuration of subject, but it is also a part of the process of her subjectification, albeit negative. Otherwise, at the time of divorce, her active acceptance of the divorce decision, which inevitably brought more harm to herself, and the property distribution that she had actively mentioned in the divorce procedure, also prove that there was a transformation of self-consciousness through her reactions and concrete actions. During the divorce process, Lingshan implemented a series of thoughtful practices which acted on her body, thoughts and behaviours for a production of a new subjectivity (Foucault, 1994), particularly regarding her role vis-à-vis her ex-husband and the divorce. Her self-protecting actions also represented within the divorce procedure that she was totally active in managing her future post-divorce life.

50 Ruolan’s subjectification is essentially based on the interests of her two daughters and her role as a virtuous mother. When Ruolan found it difficult to request for a visa and residence rights in Switzerland to accompany her daughters, she decided to remarry with a person who resides permanently in Switzerland. The transnational marriage presents like a strategy for her to ensure her legal status and economic situation. Even though she may face an unequal relationship in her second transnational marriage again, Ruolan prefers to keep her current marriage as stable as possible for her daughters because of her experience with her first divorce and the difficulties she overcame. Her attitude towards the second marriage also reflects her strong subjectivity in safeguarding her marriage and stabilizing her residence rights in Switzerland.

51 And for Yinli, all her life in Switzerland could be considered her divorce life, because of the different kinds of power relations mentioned above. She lived with vulnerabilities and marginalities that made it difficult for her to find the right path to take care of herself, so that she could only choose to listen to the misinterpretations —? even falsehoods —? of her ex-husband. Especially at the beginning of her problematic conjugal life, she mostly left her husband to decide on her rights. Yinli’s situation, where she let others decide and do things for her without participation and resistance, does not mean that she had not reacted at all. Rather, it was a situation where she reacted without doing anything, which seems to be a mode of subjugation. In fact, according to Foucault, the mode of subjugation also necessarily intertwines with the practices of knowing oneself and reflects the ways in which individuals have to recognize the obligation imposed upon them. Yinli was probably aware that her lack of language skills and Swiss law and culture did not allow her to negotiate with her husband; her choice of silence also constituted a process of perceiving herself, knowing herself and defining herself. Her position of subjugation or domination by her husband urged her to take further action to break free and promoted her process of subjectification. When Yinli knew that her ex-husband had had an extra-marital love affair, she immediately began to take action to protect herself by asking for help from the public service. Later, to maintain the residency right to accompany her daughter growing up in Switzerland, she agreed to compromise with her ex-husband and stopped caring anymore about their intimate relationship in order to delay the divorce time to obtain a resident permit C, which demonstrated that she could refuse to remain silent for her rights and had started developing strategies against her husband’s oppression and unjust treatments. In the end, she took the initiative by proposing the divorce, which proved that she had completely developed her subjectivity to shift the quasi-dependent situation and repression over a long time. When her permit had been withdrawn, her actions in negotiating her interests demonstrated that she was more knowledgeable about the host culture, language and her rights. All her actions reassured her of the role she would assume in Switzerland and pushed her to be more independent, not only in regard to her status but also emotionally and mentally. All these aspects demonstrated Yinli’s constitution process of subject within resistance and struggle.

52 Yinli, Ruolan and Lingshan’s stories showed that they were the main actors who exerted their capacities to decide to undertake transnational marriage and to react or resist to protect themselves during the breakdown process. Within their marital and divorced lives, their actions and perceptions of themselves or of anyone related to social validation and recognition (e.g., residence permit or citizenship, public opinion, etc.) allowed them to ensure their different roles as woman, migrant, wife and mother. In Foucault’s sense, their “technologies of the self” are basically situated in the consciousness of the rules, norms and requirements of the public systems in which individuals live and act, which also leads them to think and act according to, and even recognize the importance of identity claims in the struggles for power and social recognition, and what constitutes their subjectification.


53 Based on three different stories of transnational marriages of Chinese women living in Switzerland, this article examines the different categories of power relations encountered by Chinese wives in their marital lives with their Swiss husbands, from an intersectional perspective. It reveals that transnational marriage is an institution where women often live in a disadvantaged and powerless position with institutional, social, economic and cultural barriers, especially when they do not obtain the citizenship of their host societies. This article puts forward the great importance of immigration and citizenship policies for migrant women in both the processes of marriage and divorce. From their decision-making steps in their transnational marriage to their marital life in Switzerland, to their divorce, the different power relations related to gender, nationality and class intersect and influence the way that the Sino-Swiss couples get along and the stability of their marriage. The present article highlights that partners within a transnational marriage are inserted into the interweaving of social and legal institutions. Therefore, the rights of transnational wives are restrained, and the power dynamics between partners are unequal. However, many women still refuse to divorce their husbands because of the diverse socio-economic and legal interests that they must take into consideration. Through the three transnational divorce stories, this article highlights the correlations between the residence rights of foreigner wives and the partner relationship. It argues that only marriage and the husband could guarantee the residence rights for migrant women transnational marriages in the context of Switzerland. This raises questions on the public dominant discourse in migration, on “anchor babies” in the United States, and recently, in many European countries, with respect to the means by which parents can stake a future claim on legal residence in their babies’ country of birth (Chavez, 2017; Kim et al., 2018). The stories of Ruolan and Yinli clearly show that the nationality of children cannot guarantee residency rights of a foreign mother in Switzerland. This article not only contributes to the literature on women’s transnational marriage and divorce, but also calls on the public and researchers to consider more socio-political aspects concerning the rights and development of marriage migrant women.

54 By examining the marriage and divorce experiences between Chinese women and Swiss men, this article argues that the intersection of gender, social class and nationality or legal status produces hierarchies and reinforces the oppressed and vulnerable positions of wives in transnational marriages. However, this situation is not static. Although the divorce stories of Yinli, Ruolan and Lingshan show that they are not only victims in the face of multiple social power relations and institutional violence, but they are also the subjects of their lives in Switzerland.

55 The three women, who practiced transnational marriage, demonstrate their capacity for self-determination by fulfilling their roles of a wife and mother, and sacrificing some of their rights and personal interests. The awareness of fulfilling their gender roles does not only present the effects of the self-representation produced by the socio-cultural practices of these women but also determines their female subjectivity. Thereby, the transnational marriage institution is also a space consisting of different categories of power that give new subjective experiences to migrant women. In living their marital or divorce experience, they develop new subjectivity within migration. Their different reactions and actions in different situations prove that they are constantly subjectivizing themselves. Therefore, even at the point of divorce, the divorce does not represent a failure for them as they are also active in negotiating with all the dominating factors and becoming independent and empowered, which is a positive sign for their individual development. This article argues through a very small lens that migrant women in transnational marriages incessantly reconfigure their role in their marital life and manage the intersection of power relations as a tool for reconstituting their subjectivity. The divorce could also be considered as a process of subjectification for these women in transnational marriages, because they fully navigate their agency to react to and fight against the oppression and domination of others. This article also points out that the integration of gender, social class and nationality or ethnicity can also sometimes provide resources for migrant women’s agency in situation and in action. It contributes to the debate about the intersectionality approach that is usually used to unveil the negative aspect of the interaction of social parameters of gender, race and class or other social identity, and encourages future research to question this approach by considering the subjectivation and the agency of women in migration.

56 With respect to the methodology aspect, this article argues that, in analyzing divorce within transnational families, it is not enough to understand how divorce takes place and how cross-border wives have been treated by institutions that provide them with minimal rights (Ackers, 2004); it is also necessary to explore all the moments of marital tension caused by the unequal power distribution between partners, which contributes to a marriage’s dissolution. Although there is an imbalance of power between spouses within a transnational marriage, and wives often receive unequal treatment during a divorce, the women who are forced to suffer injustices by their former spouses and host societies do not remain passive, but rather react with resistance to defend their own interests against the individual or collective obstacles, occasionally by mobilizing transnational resources and social networks in Switzerland, such as neighbors and friends.

57 By considering the fear of divorce that many Chinese women in a transnational marriage in Switzerland have, as well as their panic and desire to return to China in case of a divorce, I focused on women who succeeded in negotiating the right to continue to stay in the host country. However, it would be interesting to explore the post-divorce lives of returning migrant women, in their countries of origin. Therefore, further research concerning cross-border divorce in transnational families is suggested to find out more about how women live in situations where they return, as well as what kinds of power dynamics they confront, how they resist, how they maintain relationships with their children if they all stay in their mothers’ countries of origin and how they manage relationships with their ex-partners after the dissolution of marriages.


  • [1]
    This knowledge is summarized from an interview regarding Swiss immigration laws and practices with the head of the legal service of the Geneva Cantonal Office of Population and Migration.
  • [2]
    In Switzerland, residence permit C can be delivered to persons who have benefited from family reunification after a continuous stay in Switzerland for a period of five years.
  • [3]
    “Leftover women” are defined as women who remain single after the age of twenty-seven in China as after twenty-seven years old, women are considered too old to marry. The label was deliberately invented to curb the rising number of single women in a traditional society which sometimes views not marrying as a moral transgression.

‪Based on an empirical qualitative study, this article focuses on the life stories of three Chinese migrant women who have managed households with Swiss men, to demonstrate how they arrived at the point of divorce and how they reacted to social structures. This article also highlights that Sino-Swiss marriage-divorce is a transnational institution where different kinds of power relations intersect; the phenomenon of divorce in transnational marriages between migrants and local citizens is not so much a private affair, but rather a multidimensional social and political event in which immigration policies are involved. By analyzing both domestic and social violence encountered by Chinese women within transnational marriages in Switzerland, this article analyzes how different power relations such as gender, nationality and socio-economic class status determine the unequal positions of migrant women in claiming their rights during the divorce procedure. It examines how they react as subjects during the whole marital breakdown process with their Swiss husbands, both in terms of oppression and resistance. It argues that women within transnational marriages reconfigure their role and empower by subjectivizing within the intersection of different kinds of power relations.‪

  • gender
  • subjectivity
  • power relations
  • divorce
  • Chinese migrant women
  • transnational marriage
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Yali Chen
Ph.D. in Gender Studies, Geneva School of Social Sciences, University of Geneva, 40 Bd du Pont d’Arve, 1211 Genève 4, Switzerland;
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