In January 2019, the news broke that women ‘rescued’ by the British government’s Forced Marriage Unit (a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office initiative) were being made to pay for the costs of their protection. If they were unable to pay outright, they had to agree to sign up to a loan, usually in the region of £700, to cover the costs of food, flights and accommodation. Their passports were confiscated and held until the loan had been repaid in full (Guardian, 2 January 2019). There is much to be said regarding the implications of this policy in relation to the government’s vocal concern about coercive cultural practices, and the matter of the passport seized as collateral for an involuntary debt requires particular attention. In ‘saving’ women from being taken from the UK against their will, the state then ensures that they are unable to leave the UK.
The Forced Marriage Unit thus ‘liberates’ women from situations in which passports are routinely seized as a means of control (such as by family members attempting to prevent women from fleeing a forced marriage) by using precisely the same mechanism of immobilisation. Further, while British state institutions tend to present forced marriage as an adherence to (anachronistic) cultural norms, they also critique its underlying economic or practical motivations, with marriage to a UK national aiding in access to residency and citizenship. As such, forcing women into debt in order to avoid an unwanted marriage appears to collude with, rather than contest, the notion that a woman’s value is primarily financial: whether being forced into marriage or ‘rescued’ by the state, she must earn her keep.
In my Identities article, ‘What’s love got to do with it? Marriage and the security state’, I ask: which expressions of love are sanctioned by the state? What kinds of kinship can be recognised at the border? Which relationships can be chosen freely, and which are antithetical to the dominant liberal notion of freedom? Whereas the pursuit of romantic love culminating in a wedding is considered to be a universal good, arranged marriages are viewed as a dangerous anachronism which threaten individual liberty. Western conceptions of modernity refigure marriage as the natural or inevitable home for individual sexual and romantic desire, obscuring the fact that marriage is a relationship with and through the state.
Within such notions, state control over sexual life is, of course, largely obscured, and sexuality is conceived of as deeply personal and individual. As Gargi Bhattacharrya (2008, 14) notes, ‘we live in a culture that imagines fulfilment in terms of intimacy and sexual autonomy and views sexual expression as one of the purest expressions of self – what we really really want’. Drawing on postcolonial and queer theory, I argue that the simultaneous vilification of arranged marriage and embrace of gay marriage functioned as a highly effective way for the British state to shore up its own relevance to people’s intimate lives: in other words, the legalisation of gay marriage fortified the self that is made coherent and legible through sexual autonomy. By illuminating the differences between the state’s policies on gay marriage versus arranged marriage, however, we can see how gender, race and sexuality come together to uphold this version of the self in service of the state.
Blog post by Sita Balani, King’s College London, UK
Read the Identities article:
Balani, Sita. What’s love got to do with it? Marriage and the security state. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.1949814
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International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union
Cultivating membership abroad: Analyzing German pre-integration courses for Turkish marriage migrants
Narrating marriage: negotiating practices and politics of belonging of Afghan return migrants