Crossing the Gulf
Love and Family in Migrant Lives
Pardis Mahdavi




Daisy sits at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, waiting for her paperwork and a plane ticket home. “I would do anything to stay here, to stay in Kuwait. I don’t want to go home,” she says, clutching a brown paper bag that contains all of her belongings. One of the Indian officials motions her over to explain the deportation procedures as they take her fingerprint. She begins to cry and asks to see the labor attaché one more time. “Please, let me see him, maybe he can help me get my baby back.” She is told to wait while the attaché is located. Her plan is to ask him for a white passport so that she may take her eleven-month-old son back to India with her.

Daisy migrated from India to Kuwait to work as a domestic worker for a local family. Like many other women, she made a difficult decision to leave her daughter in India with her mother in order to support her family. Unlike some women from her village, she did not have to pay a recruiter, and her migratory journey was “pleasant” as she describes it. Upon arrival, Daisy was placed in the home of a local family who were very kind to her. “They were the best family, they became like my family. I was so happy with them,” Daisy says. She describes missing her daughter and mother back home tremendously, but adds that “my daughter is my jewel, so I want to work hard to give her jewels.”

Daisy’s employers regularly gave her two days off per week. During her days off, Daisy would go to the bazaar or visit the Hindu temple nearby. It was during one of these visits to the temple that she met Deepak, an Indian migrant worker who worked as a security guard for a Kuwaiti bank. The two began meeting regularly on their days off, and before long Daisy became pregnant. By this time Deepak’s contract was nearly up, and he was sent from Kuwait back to India. Daisy never heard from him again.

Fortunately, her employers were supportive of her pregnancy and provided her additional days off and assistance with prenatal care. As time passed, the female head of household promised Daisy that she could keep her job and the baby if she wanted to. “They were so kind to me, I will always remember their kindness,” Daisy says. She was given a larger room and several boxes filled with hand-me-downs for the baby on the way.

During her days off, Daisy would take advantage of the cooler temperatures at dusk to walk along the water at the edge of Kuwait City. As her belly expanded, however, these walks became more and more difficult. One evening, when Daisy was seven months pregnant, she was stopped by a local policeman, who asked to see her working papers as well as proof of marriage. Daisy had neither. She was arrested and put in a detention center on the spot; she was told that she would be on trial for the crime of zina (or sex outside marriage). Distraught, Daisy begged the police to call her employers, but they refused.

Daisy was kept in detention for the next fourteen months. She was permitted to leave for a few days to give birth but was then returned to the detention center when her son was only three days old. She joined several other women who were being detained with their children. When her son was ten months old, Daisy was told that the zina charges were being dropped but that she would be deported immediately. Because she had no proof of paternity, however, her son would not be permitted to travel with her and would remain in Kuwait at an orphanage.

“My heart broke that day, that day when they tell me he can’t come home with me,” Daisy says. Because of complex citizenship laws whereby citizenship passes through the father in Kuwait, as well as increasing pressure to deny Indian citizenship to the children of migrants born abroad, particularly migrant women who have been criminalized by the legal system, Daisy’s son will be stateless. On the eve of her departure, Daisy begged the labor attaché to permit her to return home with her son. Her request was denied.

Saleema does not know the whereabouts of her mother. Like Daisy, Saleema’s mother was deported when Saleema was only twelve months old. Saleema is a seventeen-year-old young woman who has spent her life in hospitals and orphanages in Kuwait. She doesn’t know much about her mother or the circumstances of her birth; what she does know is that she was born to an unmarried Sri Lankan domestic worker who was brave enough to go to the hospital in Kuwait City to give birth after being raped by her employer. The day after Saleema was born, her mother was sent to prison, where the baby was brought to her five to seven times a day so that she could nurse. “It’s hard to think that all those days I saw my mother, but I don’t remember,” says Saleema. “I never knew her. I don’t remember her smell. No one even thought to take a picture of her for me.”

The doctors and nurses who raised Saleema described her mother as brave and headstrong. When offered the chance to return to Sri Lanka, Saleema’s mother had declined, reasoning that she preferred to remain incarcerated if it meant that she could at least have contact with her daughter. She had been told that because the baby’s father was unknown (and this was how it was written in the chart because the male head of household would not claim paternity), the baby was considered stateless and thus could not leave Kuwaiti borders. “But she didn’t want to leave without me. She really wanted me. She wanted to be with me, and I know I wanted to be with her. But they wouldn’t let us.” Saleema’s mother begged the authorities to allow her to stay in prison with the baby as long as possible. When Saleema turned one, however, her mother was deported, and to this day Saleema does not know where her mother is or how to contact her. “I don’t even know if she is alive,” Saleema says.

After her mother was deported, Saleema remained in the hospital, cared for by doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff. After ten years had passed, she was transferred to a local orphanage, where she was told she would likely remain until someone was “brave” enough to marry her. When she asked if she could work or leave the country to find her only parent, she was told, at the age of thirteen, that she had no legal papers. “That was the first time I know that I’m really different. That is the time that I know that my life will be sadness and darkness. It doesn’t matter how I am in school. Doesn’t matter that I do well at maths. None of it matters. I’m stuck. I can’t leave. I can’t even go to my mother. No one wants me here. My mom wants me there. But I can’t even try to find her.” On account of laws in both Kuwait and Sri Lanka concerning the transfer of citizenship, Saleema remains stateless and cannot leave the country. Last year, she attempted suicide on three separate occasions out of frustration with her immobility.

Anita moved to Dubai in search of economic opportunities to support her two daughters and ailing mother back in the Philippines. When her husband left her for another woman, Anita moved in with her mother and attempted to find work in their local village. She had dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with her first child at the insistence of her then boyfriend. This was a decision she regretted, as it significantly limited her options for finding employment that would allow her to support her family. Anita’s mother had been working as a seamstress and was able to help support her daughter and granddaughters, but when she fell ill one year after Anita moved in with her, Anita knew that supporting the family would fall upon her shoulders alone. Anita had found informal work selling sweets on the street and occasionally helping to clean clothing stands in the village, but this did not bring in enough money. In addition, Anita’s ex-husband had moved in with his former mistress, and the visibility of his romance with another woman weighed heavily on Anita, causing her to fall into a depression.

When she learned of a possibility for employment as a domestic worker in the Gulf, Anita jumped at the opportunity. With the help of some family friends, she borrowed enough money to pay her recruiter and secure passage to Dubai in early 2010. When she arrived, she was placed in the home of a British couple who had recently moved to Dubai themselves. Her first year in Dubai was “difficult,” as Anita described it, because the female head of household was very strict and demanding. She mandated that Anita could not leave the apartment, would not permit her a cell phone, and ensured that Anita worked long hours without any days off. Though this was a challenging period, Anita said that she was “tired, but happy” because her salary was much higher than she had anticipated and the money she started sending home allowed for her mother to receive treatment, her daughters to enroll in a private school, and later enabled her mother to move to a more prominent neighborhood in Manila. Though Anita herself was restricted to the home of her employer, she said she felt “her heart soar” during her biweekly conversations with her mother when she would hear news of how well her family members back home were doing.

After a year of working for her employers, the British couple divorced, and the female head of household returned to England. Anita was left working for the male head of the house, who was much more lenient and generous. He bought Anita a cell phone, moved her into a larger room in the apartment, and gave her regular days off. A year later, Anita and her employer began sleeping together. Anita said that she was not sure if she was in love with him but felt “so happy in Dubai, working for him, living with him, and living my life” that she was overcome with emotion when he expressed his love for her. Moreover, Anita said, for the first time in her life she felt sexually free and was enjoying her romance. Before long, Anita became pregnant and decided that she wanted to return to the Philippines to have the baby. Her boyfriend/employer insisted that she remain in Dubai and promised he would support her, but Anita was determined to return to the Philippines so that she could be reunited with her family. This caused a rift between Anita and the father of her baby, and Anita resolved to move out as soon as possible.

Shortly after deciding to return to the Philippines, Anita discovered she had overstayed her visa and was now living and working in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) illegally. Uncertain of how to resolve her legal issues and unwilling to ask her boyfriend/employer for help, Anita approached the labor attaché at the embassy of the Philippines in Dubai. As soon as she entered the labor attache’s office, however, things began to spiral downward. Despite Anita’s insistence that her pregnancy was not a result of rape and that she had voluntarily engaged in sexual relations with her employer, the staff at the office insisted that she had been “trafficked.” Reflecting on this nomenclature, Anita said, “It was the first time I hear this word: ‘trafficked.’ What does it mean? Why they are assuming that I was raped? Why they are assuming all bad things?” Anita was quickly transferred to a shelter where she was told all “victims of violence and trafficking” were to be held. Though she was emphatic that she did not fit this description and was simply looking for assistance in returning home, the employees of the shelter, as well as those working with the labor attaché, insisted that she needed to remain in the shelter to be “rehabilitated.” Anita was unable to contact her former boyfriend/employer (who was referred to later in court over Anita’s protestations as her “trafficker”) or her family back in the Philippines while her “case” was pending. She gave birth to her son in the shelter in Dubai and spent six months in court insisting that she was not “trafficked” and just wanted to go home. Finally, after many long months in the shelter and in and out of court, on Christmas Eve of 2014, Anita returned home with her son.

This is a book about immobilities and mobilities, migrations and immigrations. A focus on the intimate lives of laborers and their kin reveals the interconnections between movements, emotions, and destinations. Migrants become both mobilized and immobilized because of their families and the bonds of love they share across borders. And just as mobility or migration can lead to immobilities, immobilities or immobilizations can lead to mobility. Mobility and immobility are mutually reinforcing and mutually constitutive forces impacting the intimate lives of migrants and their loved ones. But rather than focus on ways in which intimate subjectivities are produced and explored in and through migration, conversations about gendered migration in the Gulf have recently been couched in the inadequate framework of human trafficking. Were these individuals trafficked? Would or should someone like Anita, Daisy, or Saleema be considered a “victim” of human trafficking? And what would be the outcome of their trajectories if they were? These questions and the flawed framework of “human trafficking” have problematically come to overshadow the intricacies of migrants’ lives and adversely impact the lived experiences of migrants and their loved ones.

Many migrants in contemporary Asia are caught in the web of laws and policies on migration and human trafficking. Migrant women who become pregnant in some host countries can be forcibly detained, deported, and separated from their children. Children of migrants may live and/or become immigrants in countries where they do not have citizenship. Nonetheless, women and men frequently remain in challenging situations because of their own intimate lives. These aspects of their stories are rarely heard.

Migration or the migratory experience is often contoured by the intimate lives of migrants moving across borders. Individuals may choose to migrate in order to honor, support, or escape family and loved ones. They may choose to stay abroad for similar reasons, or their movements may change as their affective lives transform. Similarly, migration affects the intimate lives of laborers and can be experienced as a major interruption, not just for the migrants but also for their families across borders. Intimate and family lives are altered when loved ones are separated, while migrants may be immobilized and altered by the bonds of love that they share with their families.

But policies—especially policies pertaining to human trafficking—rarely acknowledge migrants as multidimensional beings with intimate lives. Therefore laws and policies pertaining to migration, citizenship, and labor that are meant to protect migrants actually increase the challenges faced by migrants and their kin, precisely because they are couched in a human trafficking framework inspired by a type of moral panic (Cohen 1972). In some cases, these very laws produce situations of illegality or statelessness for migrant mothers and their children. In other cases, antitrafficking policies that inspire rescue rhetoric increase surveillance and policing, which result in higher rates of deportation, detention, and abuse. These policies have the added effect of flattening the lives of migrants and their families by focusing exclusively on the conditions of their labor or migration. Bad policies have the effect of creating worse problems.

When the focus shifts to the intimate lives of migrants and their intimate im/mobilities, lived experience is brought to the foreground and shows the mutually transformative effects of migration on the state, as well as on migrant subjectivities. The sphere of the intimate is a space where migrants assert their agency and citizenship in the absence of their ability to do so vis-à-vis the state (Giddens 1990). Many migrants draw on their intimate experiences as a source of inspiration for their activism in fighting for social change. State officials in both sending and receiving countries are often moved to action by the lived realities of migrants’ lives. State policies that do recognize migrants as multidimensional beings are typically more robust than knee-jerk policies on human trafficking, inspired by moral panic rather than attention to lived reality. Policies that affect migration and the lives of migrants and their kin must be grounded in data generated by those who have lived the experience.

The stories of migrants illuminate the messy intersections of human trafficking, parenthood, statelessness, citizenship, and migration in migrant sending and receiving countries. Ethnography is needed to bring migrant voices and stories to the table, complicating the presumed picture of human trafficking or forced labor. Trafficking, as a framework and discourse, has generated a series of responses ranging from policies to NGO-type intervention. Perhaps most damaging is the fact that trafficking as an overdetermined discursive category is not only disconnected from lived realities but has erased the complexity of lived experiences altogether. However, very little qualitative research focuses on the negative impact of trafficking policies, especially as they erase the migrant experience. Indeed, the moral panic that infuses the trafficking discourse has obscured both the texture of migrants’ agency as well as the domino effect of challenges on migrants’ families. Data generated by lived experience directs attention to how financial pressures, a sense of familial duty, and citizenship and reunification laws place many migrants in challenging situations that have been exacerbated by the rescue industry born from trafficking discourses.1 Categories of stateless, trafficked, or deportable persons are socially constructed (often by structures such as laws, policies, and discourses) and run the risk of eclipsing the identities of persons experiencing challenges within migration.

Academics from disciplines such as sociology, legal studies, criminology, anthropology, geography, gender studies, and political science have deconstructed the term “trafficking,” questioning its construction, weight, and capability for doing significant damage. But “trafficking” as a framework blurs the lines of conversations, policies, and research on migration writ large. Some academics, such as Denise Brennan, Carole Vance, Sealing Cheng, Dina Haynes, Svati Shah, Nicole Constable, Alicia Peters, and others, have even pointed to the ways in which “trafficking” as a framework inspired by moral panic has led to policies and responses that do more harm than good.2 This moral panic leads to media portrayals of survivors that are disconnected from lived experience. Furthermore, this type of panic inspires policies that seek to restrict the movements of or immobilize those who need to migrate to make ends meet or, as in Anita’s case, be reunited with their families. But it is important to recognize that human trafficking as a framework has contoured much of our understanding of (gendered) migration to the Gulf and has been a major focus of NGOs, embassies, and those seeking to provide outreach to migrants living in places such as Dubai and Kuwait City. As such, the discursive weight of trafficking has eclipsed the many layers of migrants’ intimate lives and reduced them to their circumstances or the products of abuses within labor migration.

The many layers of the stories of people like Noor, Anita, and Daisy would typically be erased by the trafficking portraiture painting them as victims in need of “rescue.” But it is within the many layers of their stories that migrant subjectivities and the complexities of their situations can be observed. Noor is not looking for “rescue,” and while at times she wishes to return “home,” at other times she feels that Dubai is her home and that returning to Iran is decidedly undesirable. Anita did not undergo “trafficking” because she became pregnant, though her experiences with her female employer were at the level of abuse. But could, or rather should, these experiences be considered trafficking? From the outside, some might gloss Noor’s story as a typical trafficking story because of her involvement in the sex industry. Her pregnancy might be taken to be the result of a rape on the part of her employer (if the rescuers are generous), or it might be taken as proof of her status as a sex worker, given the ways in which pregnancy makes women’s sexuality immediately visible. And what of Daisy’s experiences? Does her pregnancy result in her being presumed to be trafficked? What is evident is that when someone is considered “trafficked,” as in Anita’s case, their trajectory spirals out of their control, and in many instances being labeled a “victim” further restricts one’s mobility and migration. It is in cases like these that the inadequacies of the human trafficking framework, as well as the impact of this framing on the lived experiences of many of my interviewees, can be observed.

A closer look at migrant interactions with various arms and personifications of the state, particularly in the UAE and Kuwait, complicates the imagined “victim”/“villain” dichotomy. Looking at how migrants often work with their employers and are aided by various personifications of the state further highlights the shortcomings of the trafficking framework. Looking at migrants’ intimate lives, their connections with their families, and the challenges to their mobility that fall outside the typical imaginings of nefarious smugglers, recruiters, and “evil” employers allows for more honest conversations about the challenges and transformations taking place for migrants, employers, service providers, and various arms of the state. These conversations may help to focus attention on the shortcomings of policies regarding human trafficking that seek to restrict the mobility of migrants (women in particular) and place blame on certain receiving states and their citizens. The consequences of migration can be harrowing both for migrants and for members of their families. But there are instances of migration wherein individuals find the space to explore their subjectivities and intimate selves. It is also important to remember that the impetus to move, whether in search of love, adventure, or the possibility of making a better life for oneself and one’s family, is something to which almost everyone can relate. Understanding migrants as people and exploring the role of intimacy in their migratory journeys emphasizes how the discursive weight of the human trafficking framework has done more damage—whether to the perceived “victims” or the “villains”—than good. Significantly, focusing conversations about migration to the Gulf on human trafficking functions to legitimate problematic rescue and development approaches to curbing migration that are disconnected from the real needs and desires of migrants, their families, and their loved ones.

A Note on “Family” and “Kin”

The study of what constitutes the “family” has a very long lineage in the field of anthropology. Indeed, kinship studies formed one of the earliest cornerstones of anthropological inquiry by scholars seeking to understand different cultural notions of the family. Throughout this text I am mindful of this important body of literature and take the analyses of anthropologists who preceded me as a starting point for conceptualizing the family.3 However, my use of the term “family” follows the work of scholars who look at the family within migration, including Rhacel Parreñas, Geraldine Pratt, and Leisy Abrego. Specifically, following a feminist methodological framework, I understand family as defined by my interlocutors. I allow my interviewees to decide what constitutes family for them, and I aim to understand familial duty through their own narrations of what this concept means to them. Like other family and migration scholars, I seek to follow the flexibility of my interviewees, recognizing the changing nature of the term “family” and the changing nature of who or what constitutes “the family.”

Scholars such as Rhacel Parreñas have written extensively about the problematic aspects of employers referring to intimate laborers as “members of the family,” a phrase that erases the labor performed by domestic workers and ignores the obvious power dynamics at play between employees and employers (Parreñas 2001b). Furthermore, narrating intimate laborers as “members of the family” has been a tool deployed by employers to blur the boundaries of work and personal life, while ignoring the fact that intimate laborers typically have intimate lives of their own. For this reason, it is important to have an understanding of the family that comes from employees rather than employers, and one that recognizes the contours of power dynamics and lived realities inside the home as work space.

It is true that there are many power dynamics at play between various members of the family as defined not by employers but by migrants themselves. Many of my interlocutors lamented the power that their family members had over them, even when they were thousands of miles away. Some had been compelled to migrate by family members and were resentful of this type of familial pressure. Others felt that they gained power over their families by migrating and becoming breadwinners. The act of migration was also an avenue of familial escape for some of my interviewees, who found a new sense of freedom in severing familial ties. For virtually all of my interlocutors, their families—with family members as defined by them—were an important aspect of their migration. The intimate lives of laborers reflect the complexity of migratory journeys and challenges and therefore must be recognized through their own lived experiences.

Theorizing Im/Mobility and Im/Migration

The migrants I met all depend on mobility and migration for their well-being—emotional, physical, and/or financial. They desire the flexibility to move across borders and between industries. And their families must be flexible as well. Children may go years without seeing one or more parents, while grandparents, aunts, and uncles might raise children other than their own.4 But the very same reason they must be flexible and mobile can also lead to immobility, and vice versa. Mobility and immobility are mutually reinforcing and co-constitutive forces, supporting my use of the trope of im/mobility. It is in the intricacies of and connections between mobility and immobility that the complexity and strength of the migrant experience can be observed.

Migrant workers can become immobilized through the bonds of love that they share with kin and community. These bonds may take the form of feelings of obligation toward familial duty and self-sacrifice, a desire to make kin proud, or a desire to make a better life for loved ones. The immobility that migrants experience can result from their perceptions that they cannot leave the working situation they are in, however good or bad. This is heightened for migrants because they are often working in places far from home, without the support of loved ones. Some of the domestic workers I met emphasized that while their working conditions abroad were acceptable to them, they would still have preferred to obtain employment at home. They remained abroad, torn between feelings of sadness at being separated from family members and a desire to financially support the family. Others found themselves in deplorable working conditions but stayed with their employers in order to pay off familial debt. Though not physically immobilized by any locks or laws, these migrants felt their movements restricted.

Similarly, while the family can be a source of immobility within migration, family and intimate ties can also be a major factor encouraging mobility or migration. Yes, many migrants move in order to support their families, but others move in order to explore their own subjectivities away from their families. There is no doubt that many people’s migratory journeys are motivated by economic factors. Some migrants, however, seek to move for other reasons, tied to emotional and social mobility. Much of the literature and research on low-skilled migrants in particular focuses on “migrating out of poverty.”5 Contrary to common frameworks of migration that focus on poverty and other economic reasons as “push” factors, some of my interlocutors narrate social and intimate reasons for wanting to leave home. Specifically, young women and men describe wanting to migrate not away from poverty but away from their families and communities—away from unwanted or arranged marriages, familial pressures, or social contracts that require them to perform within communal expectations. Some migrate in search of love or adventure abroad, hoping to form new intimate bonds away from the watchful eyes of their social communities. Others feel that they will only be able to express their sexualities, which may be immobilized at home, when they are not in a space where they might bring shame upon their families. Migrants thus move seeking emotional and social mobility, which may also result in upward class mobility for families back home. Some seek and attain economic success, which can enable other types of mobility—such as movement out of undesirable work situations—or can lead to a greater sense of self and self-worth through economic success and an increased ability to support family. While economic success does not always lead to class mobility, all of my interviewees who achieved economic success experienced a shift in their subjectivity, especially vis-à-vis their families and intimate lives. A framework that recognizes the intimate lives of laborers and their loved ones is more robust in understanding the many layers of complexity and ambivalence with which migrants contend in their efforts to navigate and negotiate their migratory journeys.

Migration is a strategy not just for class mobility but also for social and emotional mobility, which for some may be hampered or challenged when they are in their home communities. The desire to migrate, not just to make ends meet but also in search of love, adventure, or “freedom,” can be just as salient a “push” factor as economic motivations.6 It is impossible to artificially categorize migrants based on who migrates for what particular reason. Many people may migrate for multiple reasons that include economic, social, and intimate mobility. My aim here is not to say that economic migration is not a factor but rather to ask that we understand the role of other (intimate) reasons for migration and the impact these decision-making processes have on the experiences of im/mobility and im/migration. I argue that attention to these complex decision-making processes will help us understand the role of migration in producing or challenging subjectivity, masculinity, and femininity for many individuals.

While migration and mobility produce situations of immobility, feelings of immobility can produce the desire and impetus for movement. Caroline and Filippo Osella have written extensively about the interconnections among migration, subjectivity, and social/economic/class mobility. In an article titled “Migration, Money and Masculinity in Kerala,” they describe how migration becomes a major aspect of shaping identities and subjectivities of male migrants from India to the Gulf States (Osella and Osella 2000). They describe different types of masculinity that emerge through migration, some related to newfound income-generating potential (economic mobility), others tethered to new relationships and definitions of the self in the migratory journey. Specifically, they show how masculinity, which may be challenged in the home country, may find an avenue of expression (mobility) within migration. The work of the Osellas on these topics has been groundbreaking and frames my own work on many levels. They argue that migration becomes a formative aspect of the journey into manhood for Keralan male migrants and show how new identities are found and forged through migration. One segment of the construction of new migrant subjectivities is tied to economic prosperity, but the “money” part of their argument is only one aspect of the construction of identity. Most of the Osellas’ interlocutors are not “migrating out of poverty” per se but rather migrating in to new positions of power, new identities, and new subjectivities; money is only one small part of a much larger and more intricate picture. In addition, the important work of Neha Vora on Indian middle-class migrants in Dubai demonstrates the changes in migrant subjectivity that take place when migrants settle and remain in a locale for generations (Vora 2013). Vora points to the many reasons behind migration, but also shows how subjectivity is navigated and mobilized differently in the host country. I build on the work of Vora and the Osellas to argue that while migration shapes subjectivity, subjectivity can also shape migration and the connected mobilities. Migrants often make decisions about when, where, and how to migrate and when, where, and how to work as a result of changes in subjectivity, thus emphasizing the multidirectional effects of migration on subjectivity and vice versa. Migrants’ intimate lives, as well as their intimate subjectivities, are not only affected by migration but also shape migratory decision making and the attendant mobilities that accompany changes in subjectivity through migration.

There is no doubt that laws, poverty, and economic and working conditions do immobilize some migrants. Migrants such as Daisy can become incarcerated (immobilized) when they become pregnant or deported (forcibly mobilized) shortly thereafter on account of host country laws. Migrants who have moved across borders illegally or have chosen to work in industries considered by the state to be illegal may become incarcerated (immobilized) when they are caught, or they may choose to restrict their own movements out of fear of arrest and prosecution. Many people may wish to remain in the home or host country so that they are not separated from their kin; others may be forcibly deported. In deploying the theoretical trope of im/mobility, I wish to focus on the intimate forces and choices that also affect the migratory experience and decision making. While migrants certainly experience the pressures of policies, the weight of poverty, and the challenges of labor conditions as powerful factors in their lives, they also contend with their intimate lives and choices, perhaps on a more daily basis than with larger, macrostructural factors. Thus, while the state, as operationalized in laws and policies and through employers, forms one layer of challenges to migrants’ mobilities, their intimate lives structure their daily experiences and decision making.

In addition, the framing of im/mobility allows for a recognition of often simultaneous challenges or opportunities experienced by both migrants and their transnational families. In other words, im/mobility is a framework that foregrounds instances where mobility (physical, social, economic, or otherwise) may result in a type of immobility back home; or as is more often the case, immobilities experienced by migrants abroad (owing to their working conditions or some other constraint) may lead to mobility (class or otherwise) or immobility back home for the transnational family, as was the case for Anita and possibly Daisy.

In this book, when I discuss mobilities and immobilities, I am referring to both physical and emotional restrictions and opportunities experienced by migrants and their families. I use the concept of im/mobility to emphasize the interconnections between mobilities and immobilities that are brought to the fore when looking at the intimate lives of laborers. Physical immobility or mobility may be a product of emotional bonds of love, fears of deportation, or the physical restrictions placed on mobility by laws or law enforcement—and vice versa. The im/mobilities I write about are experienced on many levels and for many reasons. Foregrounding im/mobility as a messy concept, an emotional state, and a physical experience begins to address the messy but complex lives of migrants and those they love. But policies that don’t recognize these messy intersections and complexities only further exacerbate challenges that migrants and their families experience.

The trope of intimate im/mobilities, then, refers to the ways in which the intimate lives of migrants enforce and challenge their mutually constitutive mobility and immobility. In her pivotal book Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans (2012), Deborah Boehm chronicles the impact that family lives have on shaping migration. She argues powerfully that migrants often make the decisions they do based on their intimate ties and lives. Conversely, Clare Holdsworth, in her book Family and Intimate Mobilities (2013), and Andrew Gorman-Murray, in “Intimate Mobilities: Emotional Embodiment and Queer Migration” (2009), an essay about mobilizing the sexual self, focus on the production of family and intimate lives in and through migration. These authors astutely point to ways in which intimate lives are mobilized by physical movement. My use of intimate im/mobilities as a ground plan builds on these important works by bringing them into conversation with one another, as well as introducing the possibility of immobility as a factor sutured with mobility in shaping both migration and the intimate lives of migrants. I look at how mobility and immobility are affected by and affect both the intimate lives of laborers, as well as the migratory experience as a whole. In this way, I see intimate im/mobilities as allowing for a theorization of migration that understands the mutually constitutive effects of mobility and immobility on migration and vice versa. Rooted in ethnography at the local level, intimate im/mobilities can be used as an instance of grounded theory for speculating about the effects of intimacy, mobility, migration, and love on migrants in various situations across the globe.

Similarly, my use of the term “im/migration” is an attempt at contouring the messy and liminal space in which many individuals find themselves while in a country where they do not have citizenship. When discussing the situations of noncitizens in the Gulf, the term “migration” might be more accurate legally, because attaining permanent residency or citizenship rights in countries such as the UAE and Kuwait is virtually impossible for noncitizens. Sponsorship laws in the form of the kefala, or guest worker system, result in noncitizens’ almost complete dependence on their citizen employers or sponsors, resulting in a situation of precariousness for those whose employers might exploit their status.7

And yet many of my interlocutors were born in the host countries of the Gulf or have lived there for the majority of their lives, even if they do not carry Emirati or Kuwaiti citizenship. Young people like Saleema or the children of migrants who have been living in the Gulf for generations can be termed “foreign-born natives.”8 Despite repeated denials of the right of permanent residency, many migrant communities have spent over two decades in the Gulf and have birthed multiple generations of noncitizen children. These children are not migrants per se, but they are not immigrant children either. And though their parents are technically migrants, and though their parents’ intention or the intention of their sponsors may have been that they migrate to the Gulf on a temporary basis, many have remained for over half their lives in these host countries. Saleema’s case provides a particularly clear demonstration of the liminality between immigration and migratory statuses in the Gulf. Saleema and other children in her situation do not carry citizenship of any country. They are not migrants or immigrants, nor are they citizens; and thus they exist somewhere in between.

My use of the term “im/migrations” is meant to highlight the ambiguity that inheres in artificially assigning status categories to individuals living, residing, and in some cases born in countries where they are not recognized as citizens or permanent residents. It is also meant, like my use of “im/mobility,” to enable me to chronicle the ways in which migrants’ consciousness moves across statuses and borders, where their emotional states sometimes collide with their legal status. Though official immigration may be a goal for many of my interlocutors, the path to immigration in legal or bureaucratic terms is long, complicated, and fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, many have lived in these countries, betwixt and between statuses, for many years. These individuals, though not legally recognized as such, see the Gulf as their home and thus identify as immigrants. I use the term “im/migration” in order to avoid falsely placing migrants in dichotomous categories that may not reflect their lived realities.

Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that many migrants’ sense of self and home changes in and through the migratory process. They may feel disconnected with the home they left behind, or they may feel that they no longer have a home to return to. Some identify with the host country as their home, not necessarily because they were born there or because they have spent significant portions of their time there, but because they feel the host country is the first place to allow them the “space” to explore their intimate subjectivities. For this reason, they identify with the host country as home. Still others feel liminally caught between home and host, even as their understandings and notions of home are changing. Many migrants are would-be immigrants, while others are content to remain migrants yet emotionally identify with their new homes. Much of the migratory experience is about redefining and reconstituting the notion of “home” while in motion. Thus the deployment of the term “im/migration” reflects the liminality many migrants feel and grapple with as their bodies, minds, subjectivities, and intimate lives move and take shape across borders.


1. For a more in-depth discussion of the rescue industry, see the work of Laura Agustín and Gretchen Sodurlund. These authors argue, and I agree, that “rescue” is often experienced as violent by the rescuees, resulting in a situation in which people find themselves trying to run away from the rescuers. Agustín has focused much of her work on criticizing the “rescuers” as lacking in self-awareness and seeking only to advance their own, neocolonial, Western, often religiously informed agendas.

2. For a more thorough discussion of moral panics and trafficking, see Mahdavi 2013; Weizer 2007.

3. For more on kinship studies and anthropological approaches to the “family,” see the work of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, John Barnes, Victor Turner, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bronislaw Malinowski. These authors point out the fluidity of notions of “kinship” and highlight that who or what constitutes the “family” is culturally, socially, and historically determined. They note the importance of accepting and understanding how fluid and geographically specific conceptions of the family are. I aim to follow the important work of these seminal anthropologists in allowing my interlocutors to determine and narrate their own conceptions of the “family” and “kin.”

4. The challenges faced by migrant families and sacrifices made by various family members have been extensively documented in the work of Leisy Abrego, Cati Coe, Nicole Constable, and Geraldine Pratt.

5. The phrase “migrating out of poverty” entered the academic and political lexicon around the turn of the twenty-first century (see, for example, the Migrating Out of Poverty research program consortium at scholars take it for granted that poverty is the primary “push factor,” but my work suggests otherwise, complicating this received notion.

6. I enclose the term “push” in quotation marks to indicate that while it is a received term in academic parlance, I do not agree with the overly simplified binary of “push” versus “pull” factors for migration. Instead, I see the process as much more fluid and circular (rather than linear).

7. There will be a more complete discussion of the kefala system in later chapters; for an overview of the sponsorship system, see Gardner 2010; Longva 1997; Mahdavi 2011; and Nagy 1998.

8. I am particularly grateful to sociologist Eric Thompson for this insight.