For women, migration after marriage isn’t just about moving from one house to another.

Meet Indias biggest group of migrants married women
news Migration Wednesday, November 09, 2016 - 14:51

Eleven years ago, Chennai-born Harsha married her Kannada-speaking husband whom she met when she was a student in Bengaluru. This could have translated into an interesting confluence of cultures in the household, but it did not happen.

They decided to live in Bengaluru as her husband’s parents were dependent on him. Both of them missed out on several professional opportunities because of this decision. But two years after their wedding, his parents passed away. Her husband, however, refused to move for professional reasons, saying he couldn’t adjust to any other city. "If it were up to me, I'd be in 10 different places in 10 years," she laughs.

Women whose place of residence is decided by their marriage form the single-largest category of migrants in the country. According to the 2011 census, during the last decade, 69% women moved out of their place of residence after marriage - either to move to their husband's place or to move elsewhere with them. In total marriage was the reason for over 217 million women migrating as compared to approximately 6 million men.

Comparatively, only 2.3% women relocated work or employment and 1% for education. However, employment and education overall constituted 10% and 2% of migration movement respectively.  

Despite the high numbers of women who have had to migrate because they tied the knot, the implications of female migration have not been sufficiently studied.

“The lack of attention to marriage migration means that very little is known about its extent, geographical distribution, how it has changed over time, and its relationship with age, distance, caste, household consumption, and geography,” says Scott L. Fulford in a 2015 research paper titled “Marriage migration in India: Vast, varied, and misunderstood”.

But within families, one notices the change, or lack of it, across time. For women, migration isn’t just about moving from one house to another.


As with any other type of migration such as for educational, economic, or business, moving cities for marriage means adjusting to a different climate or language.

The one thing 25-year-old Silvy really wanted was to leave Indore to move to a metropolitan city, but there wasn’t much of a choice because her husband could only get a transfer to Chennai. “It was a metro, but not one I'd have liked to move to,” she says.

The match was an arranged one and after the wedding, Silvy and her husband moved to Chennai in the first week of January. It was a huge change. She had to quit her job, and get around in a city whose language she did not speak. Communicating with everyone from the domestic help to auto drivers was a challenge for Silvy, who did not speak Tamil. 

The worst impact the city had on her was a fundamental one: Chennai's climate, which was starkly different from Indore. "I'd often miss my period in November and December in Indore because of the cold. Here, I missed it in January when the weather was similar to what receding summer feels like back home. Of course, I panicked, but my husband said he would be supportive no matter what,” she says. 

Born and brought up in Raipur, 54-year-old Padma moved to a small town in Maharashtra at the age of 24 when she got married.

“Adjusting to the town wasn’t difficult. Back then, every town was just like any other. Maybe it was easier for me because even in Raipur, we were Gujarati and everybody else was different from us.  The biggest cultural shock I can recall was when I first saw that my husband’s family used coconut oil in food. I remember being shocked because it was something we put in our hair,” says Padma. She found that the town she moved to was nicer than her hometown, even though it took her a while to learn Marathi.

All these years later, marriages are still largely arranged, but the times have changed. In a globalised world, many parts of hitherto distinct urban landscapes have been painted with the same consumerist brush; the initial strangeness can soon transform into familiarity and even belonging.

Women have become more aware of their dreams and aspirations, even if they aren’t or can’t always be assertive. Things have progressed from Padma’s time, when she hardly knew her husband, to women today, who do talk with their future partners, even meet them before making a decision.

Yet, many women – even those who have had love marriages – don’t feel whole-heartedly accepted by their husbands or in-laws. They continue to be judged by ‘daughter-in-law’ standards incomprehensible to them, and which by default, do not apply to anyone else.

Thirty-year-old Neema is a working professional who lives in the US with her husband. “In my hometown (coastal Andhra Pradesh), everyone knew each other. The whole village was one extended family. I hadn't travelled much, it was always a secure environment and the exposure to the outside world was minimum.” 

Even though Neema and her husband belonged to the same community, the differences between the two families were stark.

“We were never told boys were superior, but were taught to be good people, to put others before ourselves. This was very different to my husband's aggressive competitive family – arranged marriage in this case did not mean 'similar' backgrounds in any way. I belong to a matriarchal community but sanskritisation, influence of popular culture has made most of us move towards patriarchy.” Her husband’s family included.

“I did not feel appreciated for my efforts. They took it for granted that that's how I am supposed to be. I also felt I was silently judged for not knowing to cook, or not being as efficient as one of their own children. My husband didn't make things easy for me either. He was the only son – very close to his family and wanted me to please them,” Neema says.

Apeksha, a post-graduate, too had a similar story to tell. She got married at the age of 24 and moved to Mumbai from Chennai.

“As a kid I used to do basic house work, and my mother would always tell me ‘You’ll know when go to your in-laws’ house.’ Now I know. The daughter can go and lie down when she wants to but the daughter-in-law can’t. The whole day you work, except when you’re sick. Until then, you’ve to slog your ass,” she says. It has now been six years.

She learned to cook along with the other women in the joint family, some of whom made snide remarks all the time. “It got to a point when I began to think that I was completely stupid and useless, and couldn’t do even the simplest of things.”

Things couldn’t have been more different in Padma’s time three decades ago. “We always knew that we were supposed to start with a blank slate. When you come with zero expectations, you don’t really care if somebody scolds you.”

After 25 years of being married, she can now see that in the early years of their marriage, her husband would take her out every month for a couple of days. “Those outings re-charged my batteries. He had the maturity to do that. Without it, I think I would have broken down under the pressure,” Padma says.

Today, women who get married are more conscious and are taking their own baby steps towards a gender-just world. From demanding toilets in their in-laws’ houses to cancelling weddings altogether over dowry and other demands, or choosing a partner who believes in living separately from in-laws. Yet, they still struggle with patriarchal behaviour in varying degrees, or the awareness that they have been forced to make unjust choices.

Harsha, who has had a love marriage, is in a constant cultural tug-of-war with her husband.

“He has never said that he has a problem with our (Tamil) customs but a person's actions often speak louder. He is uncomfortable when our children speak in Tamil,” she says. The children are bilingual.

Over the years, Harsha's visits to her hometown Chennai have lessened. She even had to quit her job three years ago, given that her husband travels a lot and so automatically, child-rearing fell onto her shoulders.

“People start giving in once they have entered a union. I don't like that he disregards that I too have been a part of a culture for two decades before he came into my life," says Harsha.

Because of a particularly rough period in her eight-year marriage, Neema can see how society and the course that the world has taken, have shaped her life and influenced the choices she has made.

There was a time when in Neema’s community, a man moved into the house of his wife. Now, that has changed. Having watched her community’s matriarchal culture crumble against the onslaught of patriarchal forces, Neema believes that the way that sons and daughters are brought up needs to be changed, beyond both matriarchal or patriarchal ideas.

“Daughters are taught to be too tolerant, too adjusting, too sacrificing - this is not right. Sons are taught to be dominating, aggressive, 'manly', proud. There has to be a balance.”

“What is unfair to women is making us believe that we need to put marriage, children, family before anything else, that we need to 'sacrifice', that if we don't get married or have children we are 'incomplete'. We need to bring up our children to believe in themselves and their capabilities boy or girl.”

Neema negotiated the turbulent waters of her marriage and has made a place for herself in the world. She is happy as she has a good job and has lived abroad, away from the familiarity of her language and the stories of the first feminist of her community – a story of a woman who stood up to her drunken husband told in a night-long performance.

But she’s well aware of the nature of her choices. “I have cared about people around me and their opinion a lot - be it my parents or husband. I’ve always done things to get their approval at the cost of my own pain. This is the pressure that society puts on you and your family especially when you are from a small town.”

(The names of the women quoted in this story and some of the details of their lives have been changed to protect their privacy.) 

With inputs from Geetika Mantri.


This story has been updated.

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