Brides without borders: new topographies of violence and the future of law in an era of transnational citizen-subjects.

Author:Lodhia, Sharmila
Position:Gender on the Frontiers: Confronting Intersectionalities

As she peeked through her rich and intricately woven maroon and golden veil to catch a glimpse of her husband Manoj, 18-year-old Neeta started daydreaming about the luxurious life that lay ahead of her. The first in her family to go abroad, she thought to herself: "this wedding is a dream come true."

Reminisces Neeta's mother; "We thought this was a God sent match as he was well established abroad. We were happy that our daughter would lead a secure and comfortable life and enjoy all the luxuries" we lacked. The family, who hails from a remote town in Bihar was so impressed with the suave and sophisticated Manoj, that they even sold their ancestral property in the village to meet the hefty $20,000 dowry demand.

Manoj left India a week after the wedding, promising to send his new wife the documents she needed to get a visa. Neeta ... waited.... And waited. After nearly one year of anxious waiting, the divorce papers came along with the news: Manoj had used most of the dowry money to sponsor his longtime Indian girlfriend. (1)


Lavina Melwani has described non-resident Indian (NRI) abandonment cases as the "ugly underside of outsourced marriages." (2) As the introductory narrative suggests, patterns of marriage and migration within the Indian diaspora have generated new forms of abuse that manifest themselves in a wide range of desertion scenarios involving new brides. Anti-violence activists are receiving a growing number of calls from women experiencing what some advocates have characterized as "transnational abandonment." (3) It is estimated that at least 20,000 to 30,000 Indian women have been abandoned by their non-resident Indian (4) spouses, and true figures may be significantly higher due to underreporting. (5)

As the issue of abandonment receives increasing international spotlight, (6) So too has information concerning the many different circumstances in which it occurs. Depending on their objective, spouses in abandonment cases file divorce papers, initiate custody proceedings, or avoid paying child support in the jurisdiction they believe to be most supportive of their interests. (7) In many of these situations, women are powerless to contest their spouse's legal actions because of financial constraints and/or the inability to travel due to immigration restrictions. (8) In addition to being severely disadvantaged in these cases from a legal perspective, these women are often subjected to other forms of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their spouses, and in some cases, their in-laws. (9)

The issue of transnational abandonment highlights Saskia Sassen's concept of the "global city," or that which signifies the "unbundling of the exclusive territoriality of the nation-state." (10) In this juncture between globalization and sovereignty, the absence of national and international legal strategies to address the emergent issue of abandonment leaves many women without access to vital legal protections.

This Article examines the phenomenon of transnational abandonment, or what has emerged in media and legal discourses as the figure of the "NRI abandoned bride." In particular, this Article investigates the potential of the NRI abandoned bride for advancing a more transnational approach to jurisprudence involving family law and child custody issues; and the extent to which the US. and Indian governments have responded to the problem of NRI abandonment, given the distinct challenge of advocating for women across national boundaries, and in the absence of a coordinated system of intergovernmental communication and meaningful cross-border advocacy networks. By tracing the figure of the NRI bride in and through these multiple national, transnational, legislative and jurisdictional entanglements, this Article aims to complicate legal theory, which has resisted meaningful engagement with the altered jurisdictions globalization has produced.

Part I of this Article situates the issue of NRI abandonment within a broader examination of the complexities of gendered violence in the Indian diaspora, as well as other global studies of transnational marriages and the myriad socio-legal questions they present. This Part also revisits key concepts, suggesting that terms "domestic" and "violence" ought to be expanded in order to meaningfully address the rapidly shifting and increasingly transnational landscape of anti-violence advocacy. Part II examines the varied incarnations of NRI abandonment by exploring advocates' direct encounters with the issue while serving Indian women at NGO's and community-based organizations in major urban centers of India and the United States. Part III conducts a purposeful sampling of Indian Supreme Court and High Court cases on NRI abandonment decided between 1975 and 2007, highlighting the ways in which Indian courts have intervened in claims involving NRI marriages, with a particular focus on the Indian judiciary's response to judgments from foreign courts. Part IV of the Article considers recent law and policy initiatives undertaken by the U.S. and Indian governments to begin to address the complexities of cross-border marriages and abandonment. This final section includes an evaluation of the extent to which such interventions could positively impact the legal rights of abandoned NRI brides, and concludes with some recommendations for future advocacy efforts to address this complex issue.


    This Article derives from a broader study of law and advocacy responses to violence against Indian women living in the United States and India. (11) In order to understand how Indian women's lives are shaped by varying degrees of access to and representation within diverse legal systems, my research has examined the particular constraints faced by advocates working on violence against women across geographic borders and endeavors to unpack the diverse sources of those constraints. This analysis of migrating spouses, traveling cultures and evolving bodies of law suggests that new types of legal subjects are being produced within transnational spaces that undermine the meaningfulness of legal remedies conceived within the narrow boundaries of the nation-state. My examination of laws and legal advocacy efforts directed at Indian women experiencing abuse reveals that the legal frameworks which encompass crimes of gendered violence against Indian women are increasingly inadequate because they define domestic violence too narrowly and are unable to address the shifting and complex legal entities that emerge within transnational spaces. (12) What immediately becomes evident is not only the growing interconnectedness between the United States and India-engendered by globalization and recent patterns of cross-border marriage and immigration--but also the new configurations of violence these shifts have enabled. (13) One such pattern is the issue of NRI abandonment and the difficulties these scenarios present for both advocates seeking to assist transnationally abandoned women, as well as for the legal systems being relied upon to adjudicate these claims. It is this contemporary dilemma in law and advocacy work that this Article examines.

    1. Gender, Law and Violence within Posteolonial and Transnational Spaces

      For legal systems rooted in traditions of Western liberalism and committed to "neutral" principles and standards, the idea of complex, intersectional identities presents a considerable challenge. While the presumed fairness of the law resides in its ability to treat all those subject to it to colorblind and gender-neutral justice, in actuality, one's ability to enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship is severely constrained by hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality and other power dimensions. (14) Accordingly, transnational feminisms provide the overarching methodological framework of this Article's analysis of NRI abandonment, which traces law and advocacy through various local and global sites. This feminist literature highlights the importance of contextualized and historicized analyses which take into account the impact of globalization, nationalism and colonialism in the lives of women. (15) Transnational practices demand a consideration of the various local and national identities that are produced by the expansion of social, political, cultural and territorial borders due to movements of people, goods and ideas. (16) This framework enables an exploration of legal activism for Indian women in an era of increasingly mobile legal subjects--including both victims and perpetrators of violence--within a sociopolitical moment wherein even the terms "domestic" and "violence" require reconfiguration.

      Critical race theory provides a rich and multifaceted critique of the ways in which race, gender and class alter the experiences of minority groups within dominant legal systems. (17) Literature that examines intersectionality and thereby makes evident the failure of mainstream law and advocacy efforts to address interlocking forms of oppression helps to inform the analysis of the increasingly complex legal subjects that globalization has produced. (18) Through the concepts of political and structural intersectionality, Kimberle Crenshaw suggests that intersecting and mutually reinforcing systems of racial and gendered subordination work together to alter women of color's interactions with the law.

      Specifically, she argues that structural intersectionality--the unique location of women of color at the intersection of race and gender--distinguishes their experiences of rape, domestic violence or reproductive rights, from those of white women. (19) Similarly, the failure of mainstream domestic violence agencies to address the specific needs of South Asian women experiencing transnational abandonment, combined with the legal system's ineffectiveness in addressing the complex subordinations stemming from race, gender...

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