Representing the Social Costs of Migration: Abandoned Wives or Nonchalant Women by Malika Bahovadinova, Oriental Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

The workshop

In the spring of 2013 a private workshop was organized by a major international donor for its Tajikistani state and NGO partner organizations in Dushanbe. The event was part of the reporting process related to a large labour migration program being implemented by three large international development agencies. I attended this event as a part of fieldwork on the bureaucracy of migration management I conducted between 2012-2014.

At the workshop, each of the three organizations shared the results from their portions of the program from the last two years. In many ways, this event was similar to other conferences organized by international agencies in Tajikistan: first, high-ranking state officials opened the event, then the donor thanked its government partners for the opportunity to speak to this esteemed audience. Then, the floor would be given to the people who had actually been working on program, while the bureaucrats who had opened the event would sneak out. As a rule, these meetings would often spark disputes or heated conversations between state officials, NGOs, and experts from local or international research organizations. This one was no exception: toward the end of the tiring day of reporting and planning, a lively discussion took place – this time between the invited experts and the employees of the organization reporting on program implementation.

The building that hosted the event.  Photo by Oyat Shukurov. [i]

The dispute was over the concept of the “abandoned wife.” An employee of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was one of the three implementing agencies, had made a presentation about the organization’s work. Initially in passing, she had noted the growing problem of abandoned wives in Tajikistan and everyone’s responsibility to provide services to these women. When she said “abandoned wife,” she meant a woman who had been left to fend for herself and often children, after being “abandoned” by her husband, who had left for work in Russia and cut off ties to her. In some cases, men decided to leave their families for better financial prospects or women in Russia; in others, they simply decided that they no longer wanted to support their families financially.[ii] The husband could also be imprisoned or could have simply disappeared during migration.[iii]

After this IOM presentation, one of Tajikistan’s migration experts asked for a word. This expert reprimanded the IOM employee for making up the problem altogether. She said that Tajikistan could not possibly have any “abandoned” women, arguing that according to local culture a woman is always considered to be part of an extended family (her natal kin), and thus she cannot be abandoned. Someone in her natal family would always take care of her if her husband left her.

The presenters listening to the expert’s critical reprimand, however, were skeptical. How, they asked, could this argument explain the crying women they frequently encountered in rural areas, who had been left without any financial means to support their children? The expert’s characterization certainly did not seem to align with the state of affairs faced by an increasingly large number of women across Tajikistan. The expert, though, accused international organizations of making up the problem, which would be financially beneficial for them through the provision of funds to “help” these women. By doing so, moreover, she was educating everyone present about local kin norms and the responsibility they create in terms of taking care of women.

The state and the family

Institutional and professional interests aside, both arguments about the largely rural women affected by migration were fixed on far ends of the spectrum. For the past few years, employees of international organizations have presented the figure of an abandoned woman with her hungry children left without a roof and mistreated by her in-laws, while the expert depicted a woman taken care of by her kin, surrounded by brothers, uncles and a father in her natal family. In either case, however, women were represented strictly in terms of their relationship to men. The very term “abandoned,” represents a woman within the confines of her relationship to men. When a husband divorces his wife for better prospects in Russia, or simply disappears, she becomes “abandoned” in the humanitarian vernacular of development aid. This term invokes a helpless woman who has neither the capacity to demand alimony, nor to take care of herself and her children.

Although the image of an abandoned wife sits uneasily with traditional Tajikistani cultural norms, it is exactly this representation that has helped female bureaucrats from NGOs and development agencies to articulate the pressing need to accept this as one of the social costs of migration. For these bureaucrats, the social costs of migration are represented by the image of rural women left alone without (male) support. Research has been duly requested by international development agencies and implemented, thus providing statistics that support the claims made about the growing problem of abandonment. In addition, the representation of women as abandoned has provided the patriarchal state with an opportunity to step in and take control by appealing to natal kin to take greater responsibility for their women. In this framework, it is understood that women make claims to the state to intervene and resolve their problems – but only by strengthening the social contract of marriage. If this were to fail, the state’s role would be to assist women’s requests for alimony from their husbands in Russia.

In other words, when an abandoned woman is removed from the domain of her family, she is to be transferred to the domain of the state.[iv] The state’s support, however, is of a limited nature, and should ultimately prepare a woman to take care of herself. After all, development aid was meant to prepare entrepreneurial citizens who needed to learn the skills related to becoming independent and free. According to humanitarian logic, freedom from the suffering of being alone for these women, was to be found in self-actualization under the guardianship of the state.[v] This implied a bifurcated system of support: the state and village elders were to step in and shame men for leaving their women, while financial support to abandoned women would be provided within the confines of neoliberal logic. An abandoned wife should be taught how to take care of herself and her children – she should learn how to open a business or engage in other entrepreneurial behavior. Interestingly, even the bureaucrats from international organizations did not put forward proposals to support such women directly as single mothers or endow the state with funds to provide social support and other services. State officials, for their part, also wholeheartedly supported the convenient self-help dogma of development aid.

Of course, this all continued to presume that the problem existed – that abandoned wives were a growing phenomenon in Tajikistan. On the other end of the patriarchal spectrum was the image presented by the migration expert: that of a woman dutifully cared for by her kin. If her husband had failed in his obligation to provide for her and his children, she could nonchalantly return to the domain of her natal family under the protection of her father and male siblings. According to the expert, this was the way of a local culture that could not possibly allow for an abandoned woman to appear in its midst. The natal family’s honor was inherently connected to protecting its women. In a way, the expert was invoking images of an idealized traditional Tajik village, where norms were deeply rooted in a patriarchal power structure over the reproductive rights of women. In this presentation, kin structures would absorb any social costs from migration.

The idealized idyll of a Tajik village: Kumsangir District, 1987.  Photograph by V. Smirnov. [vi]

This expert did not discuss or note the well-known and frequent conflicts associated with women’s return home after a failed marriage. She did not evoke the legal challenges of divorce, or women’s failure to seek housing or alimony from their husbands, the anxieties of brothers left to provide for extra mouths in the context of rural poverty, the fear of abuse by brothers’ wives, or the simple inability of parents to provide an extra room for daughters after their marriage. All of these potentialities were moot in this representation, embedded in patriarchal families’ cultural responsibility to women. The support of the family was there: bureaucrats could focus on more pressing needs, rather then imagining the case of suffering abandoned women in rural areas.

Understanding change

Whether or not women are being abandoned, labor migration in Tajikistan has had an undeniable and increasing impact on society. One of the major (and overwhelmingly accepted) social costs of migration is associated with human absence. Being away from one’s family and friends is the price many men – and women – pay to support these individuals financially. For those who stay behind, the cost is in the waiting, which shapes their lives and experiences of daily life. Absence and waiting can vary in degree and depth, but as long as they continue family remains the ideal unit of migration – maintaining the social contract of marriage itself. The flouting of social norms that is expressed by men leaving their families is not only tied to mobility, but its degree and density grows as migration increases, making labour migration a marked threat to traditional family structures.

What the expert’s argument made clear – and what the dialectic of “abandoned wife” vs. “nonchalant” or “supported daughter” made explicit – was the underlying patriarchy taken as a given and left unchallenged by all involved. Whether the abandoned woman existed or not, it was the social cost of a weakened family unit that was accepted and worried about by all of the bureaucrats. How to approach the problem depended on one’s epistemology: the solution might lie with the guardian state and the neoliberal logic of self-help; or it might require no action at all, since the woman enjoyed the protection of her natal family. Yet both of these representations of women by the state and NGO bureaucrats positioned them strictly within a relationship to men. By considering them only as “abandoned” or “supported,” these visions failed to articulate any meaningful position for women as full citizens with their own voices, desires, and agency. In both the humanitarian cry for rapid intervention and support and the denial that a woman could possibly be in a financially precarious situation, the women themselves remained voiceless.

The images conjured of women either abandoned or taken cared of, moreover, are embedded in the wider context of gendered representations and articulations of meaning about what it means to be a woman, mother, sister, or wife.[vii] The imagined collective societal ownership of women is at the heart of these representations. When a young Tajikistani artist recently exhibited female nudes in a protest against sexual harassment in Dushanbe, for example, the public reacted angrily. The artist was accused of showing “their mothers” and “their sisters”: the public shamed the artist for exhibiting their bodies.[viii]

Challenging traditional norms. Marifat Davlatova, 2018. [ix]

In Tajikistan, the assumed collective responsibility for and ownership over women cannot be separated from debates over the social costs of migration. Yet the dichotomy that emerges from these debates of women either abandoned or taken care of provides a valuable lens with which to analyze the meaning and perceptions of social change. Ongoing changes in the social contract of a marriage, as well as the impact of migration and its social costs, are dealt with by applying the context and concepts from individuals’ previous “habitus” – their structural frameworks of daily life.[x] The apparent “chaos” is dealt with in a manner and by applying an order that both bureaucrats and experts understand. These experts, NGO workers, and civil servants all attempt to restore this previous order in the new context of poverty and neoliberal unequal accumulation of wealth. The positionality of local subjects, including “women,” has been transformed, producing novel configurations of life trajectories, but their representation remains embedded in the established and shared meanings of what it means to be a woman in Tajikistan. To what degree these concepts capture the complexity of ongoing transformations, however, remains an open question.


[i] See Oyat Shukurov, “‘Dushanbe-Plaza’ – arkhitekturnaia oshibka?” Asia-Plus, November 7, 2015. Online:

[ii] Also see Sophie Roche and Sophie Hohmann, “Wedding rituals and the struggle over national identities,” Central Asian Survey 30, no. 1 (2011): 113-128.

[iii] For more context on this point, see the report “Impact of Labour Migration on ‘Children Left Behind’ in Tajikistan,” UNICEF Tajikistan, 2011. Online:

[iv] V. Das, “The Figure of the Abducted Woman: the citizen as sexed,” in de Vries and Sullivan, eds. Public Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. Das similarly describes the ways in which familial responsibility for women transformed into state responsibility for women, in the case of women abducted during the Indian-Pakistani partition.

[v] Rose, Nikolas. 1996. “The death of the social? Re-figuring the territory of government.” International Journal of Human Resource Management 25 (3): 327-356

[vi] Photograph by V. Smirnov. State Archive of Movie and Photo Documents of the Republic of Tajikistan (TsGKRT), k.ia. R3-30, 0-104180. Courtesy of Isaac Scarborough.

[vii] Following Stuart Hall, “Introduction,” in Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, ed. Stuart Hall (London: SAGE, 1997).

[viii] Liliia Gaisina, “ ‘Eto ne ikh zhenshchiny, a moi’: Marifat Davlatova o svoei vystavke v Tadzhikistane,” Asia-Plus, September 15, 2018. Online:

[ix] See Asia-Plus, “Ee tvorchestvo podverglos’ zhestkoi kritike, a ona prosto risuet nagluiu krasotu,” Asia-Plus, September 5, 2018. Online:

[x] See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).