Migrant Emplacement: Gendered Subjects, State Regulations, and the Discursive Erasure of Elders in Sri Lanka by Prof Michele Ruth Gamburd
Date : 20 Mar 2018
Time : 16:00 - 17:30
Venue : Asia Research Institute, Seminar Room
AS8 Level 4, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC


Assoc Prof Thang Leng Leng, Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore


Controversial assumptions about family structure and care work underlie a recent Sri Lankan state regulation, referred to colloquially as the “Family Background Report” (FBR), which restricts the transnational labour migration of women with children under the age of five. Since the early 1980s, women from Sri Lanka have migrated to the Middle East to work as domestic servants in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A culture of migration has developed, with labourers’ remittances forming key parts of family financial strategies.

Using ethnographic data gathered in 2015 and 2016, Gamburd delves into current ethnographic realities, considering how extended families in rural Sri Lanka deal with the FBR’s politically persuasive but practically inappropriate restrictions, and the potential and actual consequences of these rules for both migrants and elders. She evaluates how the FBR policy affects household finances in families that have in the past depended on female migration, and she explores how the regulations force poor families to adjust to employment options newly narrowed by gender, age, and parental status. The paper highlights the effects on women in the grandparent generation as the policy destabilizes informal kin-work and long-standing practices of intergenerational reciprocity.

The focus on women’s “emplacement” provides a crucial counterpoint to current theoretical focus in the migration literature on issues of “deportability.” Scholars have convincingly argued that uncertainty around a migrant labourer’s right to stay in the host country constitutes a form of structural violence and creates a docile, productive workforce. Compared to the adverse effects migrants experience under threat of deportation (inability to stay in the host country), Gamburd suggests that FBR restrictions (inability to leave the country of origin) creates converse but equally oppressive situations of social suffering and precarity for migrants and their families.


Michele Ruth Gamburd is Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, USA and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1995. A cultural anthropologist, she focuses on issues of power, politics, and identity in a Sinhala-speaking village in southwestern Sri Lanka. She writes about gender, family relations, and power struggles in The Kitchen Spoon’s Handle: Transnationalism and Sri Lanka’s Migrant Housemaids (2000) and Breaking the Ashes: The Culture of Illicit Liquor in Sri Lanka (2008). She explores humanitarian aid, class hierarchies, and disaster diplomacy in The Golden Wave: Culture and Politics after Sri Lanka’s Tsunami Disaster (2013) and in a volume (co-edited with Dennis B. McGilvray) entitled Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions (2010). Her current book project addresses issues of aging, demographic transformation, and changing intergenerational obligations in rural families.


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