Editor’s Note: The migrant workers of Kerala contribute to two-third of the State Domestic Product - directly and indirectly. While migration is considered as one of the most productive industries, it is the stories of the families that get overlooked in the telling of Kerala's economic progress. In this multi-part series, Firstpost looks at these migrant populations and its socio-economic impact.
In the early 1980s, when the oil boom was at its peak, young men from Kerala who were chasing their Arabian dreams were in great demand everywhere. They were considered eligible bachelors impressing people back home with their newly earned money. But their young brides had to face a different reality after their marriage with these men who worked in the Gulf.
Most of these men worked as labourers living in labour camps and they leave their spouse back in Kerala. These women only get to see their husbands once in two or three years. An occasional phone call connects the two. Before the penetration of the mobile phones and the internet, a letter once in two weeks or a month would be the only means of contact.
The women, who move to their husband's house after marriage, shoulder most of the household responsibilities and their burden increases once they have children or when they are left with the responsibility of looking after the in-laws. Unable to cope, some even slip into depression.
In 2011, 1.01 million such women were living in Kerala, according to a study by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS). They constitute nearly 13 percent of the married women in Kerala. These women are called "Gulf Wives." As per the 2011 data, the average age of the "Gulf wives" is 20.5 years, while that of the men is 27.5 years in 2011.
The CDS study conducted among 891 women from eight of the 14 districts in Kerala revealed that the women were hardly equipped to cope with the separation. It noted that majority of the women were left alone by their emigrant husbands within a few days after marriage.
The respondents cited loneliness as a major problem. The problem is acute among women who are living in separate houses with their children. But they prefer living separately as they feel living with their in-laws may curtail their freedom. Many find it difficult to live with their in-laws.
The CDS study found more than one-fourth of the Gulf wives had problems with their in-laws, because of mostly finance-related matters. Few admit it, they feel like that they are also viewed with suspicion by their in-laws.
Smitha Sasi (name changed), who has been living in her husband’s house in Kundoor, Malappuram district ever since her marriage, said her mother-in law and sister-in law used to eavesdrop whenever she was on the phone or talking to someone online. She said that meeting or talking to male friends was out of question.
“I am not allowed to go alone anywhere. Either my mother-in-law or my sister-in-law accompanies me when I go to my parent’s house or even to a beauty salon. I have no freedom. My husband’s house is like a jail for me,” says 27-year-old Sasi.
Uma Preman, a social worker based in Guruvayoor, Thrissur district told Firstpost that the lives of these Gulf wives are under constant scrutiny by their husbands, relatives and even neighbours.
“Many Gulf wives are better qualified than their husbands and some can easily get a job if they want. This could help them in overcoming the loneliness they face, but their husbands and parents don't allow them to work. They fear that she would get into an extra-marital affair relation if she associates with men,” said Preman.
She pointed out the case of a 28-old woman, who was working in a private firm before her marriage with a man working in Dubai. The woman, who is a graduate, was asked to quit her job a few months after the marriage. The husband accused her of having an extra-marital affair with her boss. Following her resignation, he made her to move to his sister’s house in Kochi. She was almost under house arrest.
“These couples are trapped in a sexless marriage. Disregarding their sexual desires, these women don't stray from their marriages,” says K Anil Kumar, a psychiatrist in Guruvayoor.
Preman says these women feel vulnerable in their own homes and there have been cases where these women were abused by their relatives, including their father-in-laws and brother-in laws. The women suffer silently as they feel their refusal to yield to the sexual demands of the in-laws may fuel allegations against her.
Though demographers agree that sexual deprivation is a major problem associated with migration, no serious studies have been done on the issue so far. Dr Krishnankutty, former head of department of psychiatry at Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram believes it is because sex is not openly discussed by the conservative Keralites.
Hafiz Mohammed, a sociologist in Kozhikode, said that the reports appearing in the media about the rise in extra-marital affairs among Gulf wives were highly exaggerated. He told this correspondent that these stories about extra-marital affairs were being cooked up by those who want to exploit these women.
“The Gulf wives are gaining strength and confidence from the multiple roles they play in the absence of their husbands. It is not easy to exploit these women. The government should try to tap into this vast skill and human resources for the development of the state,” he added.
S Irudaya Rajan, chair professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs Migration Research Unit at the CDS, Thiruvananthapuram agrees. He said that these women have enormous capacity to get things done in the face of various challenges.
“The loneliness, mental strain, punishing work and problems with the in-laws and children these women face are a matter of concern. Their talents, expertise, status and independence have a lot of potential and is a huge asset,” he added.
Irudayarjan told Firstpost that the managerial skills that these Gulf wives have can impact the state. If the government takes initiative to tap into this potential, these women will be able to contribute to the development of the state in a big way. He said that agencies like Kudumbashree could engage them.
Part 1: Opportunity, discovery and how Kerala embraced migration
Part 2: Gulf lures many from Kerala, but few make it big
Part 3: How remittances from migrants account for 36.3% of Kerala's NSDP
Part 4: Kerala's reverse exodus