Beyond dichotomies: Gendered migration in the global economy
Mahler and Pessar (2006: 42—43) suggest a concept of gendered geographies of power to articulate how gender operates in relation to migration. Geographical scales, social locations, and human agency and imaginations (such as meanings and values) all intersect with each other. Recent studies of marriage migration following such an understanding of power (Constable 2005; Faier 2009; Nakamatsu 2003; Suzuki 2004; Wang 2007) have challenged a number of reductionist and dichotomous interpretations of marriage migration.
These recent ethnographic studies, attentive to women’s agency, collectively debunk a dichotomous portrayal of marriage migrants as either helpless victims or cunning deviants. The ‘mail-order bride’, a depiction of Asian marriage migrants widely disseminated in the West, is one such representation (Constable 2003: 13); and marriage migrants in East Asia are described in similar ways, with different local expressions (Freeman 2005: 84—85; Nakamatsu 2005a: 406). These studies offer more nuanced pictures of how economy, gender and ethnicity constrain women, and how the women express their agency through the material and discursive resources available to them. These studies (for example, Constable 2005: 10—12) also question the view that marriage migration is a form of global hypergamy, with women moving up the socioeconomic ladder by marrying men in wealthy countries. The lived experiences of marriage migration, such as the low socio-economic status of many husbands and limited job prospects for migrants negate a simple dichotomy of upward or downward mobility in marriage migration.
Another dichotomous understanding that some studies (for example, Piper and Roces 2003: 1—2) challenge is the tendency to categorise women’s migration as either labour or marriage migration. In Japan, an imaginary distinction between urban entertainers and rural brides has circulated for many years (Nakamatsu 2005a: 405—6). Marriages may occur after the initial labour-focused migration, as for some Filipino bar workers in Japan (Faier 2009: 16; Suzuki 2008: 70—71). Likewise, marriage migrants may subsequently enter the paid workforce. Or, marriage and labour migration may be intricately linked, as is the case of Korean-Chinese marrying in South Korea (Freeman 2005: 87). Compartmentalisation obscures the diverse and fluid processes of migration on the one hand, and the commonalities that inform women moving within the global economy on the other.
Concepts such as the globalisation of reproduction (Liaw et al. 2010: 50), the global politics of reproductive labour (Lan 2008: 1801—2) and the commodification of transnational intimate relations (Constable 2009: 50) reveal a structural connection which links patterns of feminised transnational migration in sex work, care work, domestic work and cross-border marriages. These frameworks are not about migrant women’s subjective positioning. Rather, as analytical tools, these frameworks help us to understand how women’s reproductive labour, in marriage and paid work, has been reconfigured in globalisation. They thus enable us to situate the question of marriage migration in a wider context of gendered migration, and in turn to clarify specific local issues. In Taiwan, for instance, while upper – and middle-class households employ migrant domestics, working-class households tend to seek foreign wives to perform unpaid domestic labour (Wang 2007; cited in Lan 2008: 1803). The Taiwanese state does not prohibit unskilled labour migrants from marrying local citizens (unlike Singapore), but it is rare for local men to marry foreign domestic workers as a maid is not considered a desirable wife (Lu 2008: 131). These local logics, on top of global rationalities, further reconfigure and differentiate migrant women’s reproductive labour and intimate relationships with men in their destination countries.