Trailing spouses (India)

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Trailing spouses 🇮🇳
India map.png
Location: India
Definition: Women accompanying their husbands on transnational postings and expatriate assignments, excluded from the paid labour force in the host country
Keywords: India South Asia Ethnicity Race Foreigner Gender Women Kinship Marriage Family Migration Mobility Expatriate Network Mutual help
Author: Shalini Grover and Sanna Schliewe
Affiliation: London School of Economics, UK and University of Aalborg, Denmark

By Shalini Grover, London School of Economics, UK and Sanna Schliewe, University of Aalborg, Denmark

Since the 1990s, when India opened its previously isolated economy to global markets, India has witnessed an influx of foreign nationals settling into its newly cosmopolitan cities. These include many citizens from Australia, East Asia, Europe and the United States. Cultural identities and terminologies such as ‘expatriate’ and ‘trailing spouse’ are now commonly invoked in the media and in cosmopolitan circles of the new growth economies such as India. ‘Expatriate’ is now a generic term for the white foreigner in a globalized India (Grover 2018a). Expatriates in India may also be referred to as ‘gora,’ a vernacular term for white people, as well as generic slang for foreign nationals (Grover 2018a). The term ‘trailing spouse’ has for some time been used in the context of global relocations. It is used mainly to describe women who accompany their husbands on transnational postings and expatriate assignments. The gendered phenomenon of wives who ‘trail along’ as dependent spouses may aptly complement country-specific local terminologies. For expatriate trailing spouses, the Indonesian visa, for instance, is designated kit swami, meaning, ‘following the husband’ (Fechter 2007: 15). This visa does not allow women to accept employment (Fechter 2007: 15). It is often difficult to obtain a work visa as a ‘trailing spouse’ in many countries – including India.
Volunteer work by trailing spouses at the British High Commission in New Delhi. Source: Shalini Grover. © Shalini Grover.

More specifically then, ‘trailing spouse’ signifies a married woman’s exclusion from the paid labour force in the host country. Trailing spouses have long been an invisible part of men’s global work performance. In the last decade, however, spouses’ well-being and adjustment have received more attention in the academic literature. Likewise, academic interest now sheds light on their everyday experiences in the host country. The practice of ‘trailing’ may also be considered as reinforcing historical and gendered informal practices. Trailing spouses often take primary responsibility for the household, the children’s care, and the emotional well-being of the family (Arieli 2007; Hindman 2013; Boström et al. 2018.). Katie Walsh (2007: 64) accentuates these gendered outcomes by casting the net transnationally, writing that ‘Research on couples participating in flows of skilled migration has consistently identified the presence of more traditionally gendered divisions of labour within households, irrespective of nationality.’ With trailing spouses having to renegotiate the marital bond and the household division of labour, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression have been reported amongst these cohorts (Walsh 2007).

Yet changes that mirror shifting contemporary tendencies in the labour market, such as women’s participation in the workforce, are also present. In the past, trailing spouses often ‘followed’ their male partners repeatedly for decades, whilst they themselves engaged in volunteer and non-paid work for the employing organizations and embassies. Today, by contrast, trailing spouses often have their own professional identities, even though these are put on intermittent hold. Such temporary career breaks are voiced by them as challenging due to the loss of work-identity (Cangiá 2017). Moreover, in transnational families with a repeat relocation pattern, the constant underlying uncertainty of the working partner’s global mobile career trajectory can act as an obstacle for long-term planning for the trailing spouse’s future career options (Cangiá, 2018). It is therefore no surprise that such challenges and obstacles are being documented in interdisciplinary research. There has been less emphasis on the fact that moving abroad with the family can be simultaneously experienced as a welcome (short- or long-term) opportunity for trying out alternative life-experiences and reinventing careers. Nonetheless, this manifests a socio-economic upgrade and an alternative cultural identity in particular when relocating to countries within the Global South.

Studies discuss how many white foreign nationals share a similar vantage point with their colonial counterparts (Fechter and Walsh 2010; Grover 2018a and 2018b). First, the ‘expatriate’ identity, as opposed to the inferior ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant’ titles, emphasises race-class identities. Second, this superior identity reinforces power relations and international imbalances in the Global South that are long part of erstwhile colonial legacies (Fechter and Walsh 2010). Given that expatriates are perceived as privileged migrants, trailing spouses in the Global South may also be negatively characterised by locals (Walsh 2007). For example, in China they get to be identified as those who go out and have fun (Ariela 2007), while in Dubai they are referred to as ‘Jumeria Jane,’ an idiom directed at their supposedly opulent lifestyles (Walsh 2007).

In India, too, given their class privilege, many trailing spouses hire domestic staff who are part of an unregulated labour market (Grover 2018b and Schliewe 2019). The hiring of cheap domestic staff enables expatriate families to lead comfortable lives, liberating them from onerous domestic chores. Living an affluent lifestyle in the Global South, however, without being in paid employment and having full-time domestic workers, can feel like a ‘golden cage’ for many women (Fechter 2007a). In addition, the temporary work contracts that are part of expatriate relocations place the trailing spouse in a different relationship to the host country than would likely be the case if the family intended to stay permanently. This may make the case of having domestic staff and endorsing affluent lifestyles seem like an exception, and thus ease its legitimisation (Schliewe 2018). Furthermore, such representations of being placed in an ‘exceptional situation’ are often shared and reconfirmed within the intimate social networks of expatriates (Schliewe 2019).

For their everyday existence and emotional anchoring in a new country, expatriates often have recourse to what is popularly known as the ‘expatriate bubble.’ In her Indonesian study, Fechter (2007) notes how expatriates construct a spatial and social western bubble, and have little contact with locals other than their domestic staff. Furthermore, strong camaraderie often develops informally among accompanying spouses. The latter share not only the experience of being ‘foreign’ to the local society, but also their particular experiences of ‘trailing’ in the given setting. In India, trailing spouses comfort each other, providing crucial support and reaching out to newcomers, who then quickly become part of these informal networks. With regard to future research, we believe that a focus on the agency of trailing spouses would enrich the literature and counter stereotypes. We also need more data focusing on the dynamics of expatriate bubbles and how these social networks shape and co-create the everyday experiences and ambivalences that legitimise privileges and informal practices. A theoretical lacuna is yet to be addressed on expatriate women who have entered the workforce in the host country, or those who have reinvented their careers, or others determinedly taking career breaks by choice, and what this entails for outcomes of spousal gender equality.


Arieli, D. 2007. ‘The Task of Being Content: Expatriate Wives in Beijing, Emotional Work and Patriarchal Bargain,’ Journal of International Women’s Studies 8 (4): 18–31

Boström, W. K., Öhlander, M. and Petterson, H. 2018. ‘Temporary International Mobility, Family Timing, Dual Career and Family Democracy: A Case of Swedish Medical Professionals,’ Migration Letters 15 (1): 99-111

Cangiá, F. 2007. ‘(Im)Mobility and the Emotional Lives of Expat Spouses.’ Emotion, Space and Society 25, 22-8

Cangiá, F. 2018. ‘Precarity, Imagination and the Mobile Life of the “Trailing Spouse”,’ Ethos 46 (1): 8-26

Fechter, A.-M. 2007. Transnational lives. Expatriates in Indonesia. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited

Fechter, A.-M., and Walsh, K. (eds). 2010. Introduction to Special Issue: ‘Examining ‘Expatriate’ Continuities: Postcolonial Approaches to Mobile Professionals,’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 36 (8): 1197–210

Grover, S. 2018a. ‘Who is an expatriate? Euro-American identities, race and integration in postcolonial India’ in S. Schliewe, N. Chaudhary and G. Marsico (eds), Cultural Psychology of Intervention in the Globalized World. Charlotte: North Carolina: Information Age Publishing: 283-95

Grover, S. 2018b. ‘English-speaking and Educated Female Domestic Workers in Contemporary India: New Managerial Roles, Social Mobility and Persistent Inequality,’ Journal of South Asian Development 13 (2): 186-209

Hindman, H. 2013. Mediating the Global. Expatria’s Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Schliewe, S. 2018. ‘The mobile life-world map. A dialogical tool for understanding expatriates,’ in S. Schliewe, N. Chaudhary and G. Marsico (eds), Cultural Psychology of Intervention in the Globalized World. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing: 223-44

Schliewe, S. 2019. ‘Inheriting Domestic Workers: A Study of Norm Transmission among Expatriates in India,’ Papers on Social Representations 28 (1): 12.1-12.24

Walsh, K. 2007. ‘Traveling together? work, intimacy, and home amongst British expatriate couples in Dubai,’ in A. Coles and A.-M Fechter (eds), Gender and Family Amongst Transnational Professionals. London: Routledge: 63–84