Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Who cares? Love, parenthood and the state

‘Large-scale historical formations … structure not only state policies and institutions, but they also influence ordinary people’s intimate experiences of love and family life.’ Such is the opening of Heidi Härkönen’s (2016) ethnography of low-income residents of contemporary Havana. But it could equally be an excerpt from Pardis Mahdavi’s (2016) book exploring the connections between love, family and state policies for a diverse set of people moving in and out of the Gulf. In each case, the public influences the private, finds its way into bedrooms, maternity wards, coming-of-age parties and graveyards—an obvious point but one worth making again and again in the face of ongoing structural developments that ride, paradoxically, on a widespread belief in the timelessness of belonging and care as we know them. Although these two studies have little in common in terms of methodology, theoretical framework (other than a broad structure-versus-agency approach), and scale, which makes reviewing them together a messy business, reading them side by side results in a beautifully complicated set of perspectives on love, parenthood and the state which have applicability beyond Cuba and the Gulf.


Kinship, Love and Life Cycle in Contemporary Havana traces how political, economic and social transformations—from the 1959 Cuban revolution, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the increasingly monetised and globalised post-Soviet era—have shaped gendered caring practices and informed understandings of bodies and personhood. Härkönen productively intersects this diachronic perspective with that of the life cycle, and it is a ‘cradle to grave’ structure (or, more accurately, conception to afterlife), that orders her chapters—unoriginal maybe (see Ghannam 2013 for another example), but at least we know where we are and where we are going. We learn that being born and growing old under Fidel Castro are not the same as being born and growing old today, the state and kin taking turns to look after people at critical moments in life in what Härkönen, drawing on Terence Turner’s ‘dialectical systems’ among the Kayapó (1979), calls ‘the dialectics of care’. It is through these reciprocal practices of care, which change over the lifecycle, that Habaneros (residents of Havana) continually negotiate their relationship to the state and their loved ones. At the same time the state borrows the idiom of family to dole out care to its citizens.

Without making simplistic arguments about the impact of socialism on well-documented Caribbean matrifocality and low rates of legal marriage, Härkönen describes how the Cuban revolution aimed to create the New Man of egalitarian society by interfering in women’s productive and reproductive lives and attempting to reform sexuality and gender identity. Prostitutes and homosexuals were rounded up and sent to labour camps and collective weddings were organised to promote the ‘modern’ nuclear family that was to bring stability to the informal relationships that reigned among poor Cubans. If this had any effect, and there is little data to go on, it was not lasting. During Härkönen’s fieldwork, starting in 2003, ‘Legal marriage was indeed rare, and many people preferred informal arrangements of dating and living together’ (5).

Under the US embargo the Cuban state traded with the European socialist block to provide citizens with ‘nearly everything they needed’ from baby equipment and childcare, to housing, health and funeral services. Individuals, freed from these burdens, were to devote themselves to building socialist society. The economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union forced the state to curtail its provision which, together with a degree of privatisation and the opening of the country to tourists, brought changes in Cuban social relations including a heightened interest in consumption and markers of privilege expressed in the body and through local conceptualisations of gender difference. Härkönen draws on a corpus of literature that rejects the dichotomisation between love and money in female sex work (see, for example, Cabezas 2009), to show that what looks at the outset like the commodification of relationships is the negotiation of material exchanges according to a highly gendered moral framework of reciprocity.

The crucial importance of gendered care in familial and sexual love in post-Soviet Havana is illustrated through the social relations created around the birth of a child, materialised, Härkönen argues, in the collection of maternity items a mother gathers throughout her pregnancy: the maternity package provided by the state (whose care for pregnant women and infants plays an important role in legitimising the socialist system), is complemented by gifts which stand as symbolic demonstrations of care from kin (Chapter 3). This care is gendered, as are decisions about whether to have a child, which seems more a question of whether to carry a pregnancy to term than whether to plan on getting pregnant in the first place (53). Whilst becoming a father is seen as a boost to masculinity, mothers maintain significantly greater responsibility over children and although a potential father’s female kin may participate in decision-making and care, the father himself is often left out. The story of Desirée, whose fertility treatment was the business of a wide range of persons except the potential father, aptly illustrates this (60-63).

Härkönen argues that women’s strong connection to children is an important form of agency: ‘If a man wants children, he has to find a woman who agrees to “give birth for him”’ (55). Wooing usually involves material gifts, so that one interlocutor explained: ‘Freddy has started to treat me very well, he gives me everything I ask for: he bought me chicken, he bought me an ice cream, he bought me beer. It seems that he thinks that I will give birth for him; he is so loving with me’ (ibid.). Indeed, certain material conditions including housing are considered essential for fatherhood since they suggest that a father is more likely to continue providing for a child even if his relationship with the mother ends.

Moral worth is expressed in care of the body throughout the lifecycle so that: ‘A woman who does not tend to her looks risks both her own respectability and that of her close female kin, who share in the responsibility of taking care of her body’ (15). The state too, plays its part in ‘accentuating gender as difference’: plastic surgery is offered free of charge (17). Härkönen describes how girls wear high heels from the age of two and on their fifteenth birthday are thrown a lavish ‘quince’ party, celebrating their feminine beauty and marking a transition into sexual adulthood. Significantly, there is no equivalent for boys.

Chapter 4 offers an ethnographically detailed account of this ritual, which involves choreographed dances, an elaborately decorated cake and up to 300 guests, namely the mother’s kin, friends and neighbours. The birthday girl or quinceañera, in eighteenth-century Spanish-style dress, is paraded around Havana in a convertible car or horse-drawn carriage before arriving at the party location. A minimum requirement of the ritual is a set of professional photos of the quinceañera posing in a range of ultrafeminine outfits against ‘colonial’ backdrops and often among sunflowers—a symbol of fertility. These photos are circulated with pride among friends and family and hung on the walls at home. Härkönen sees the historical continuity of quince parties, in spite of its connection with the bourgeois colonial past the revolution sought to stamp out, as evidence of the importance of gender difference ‘as a crucial social division in Cuban society, without which there would be no sexuality, no reproduction, no children, and no kinship relations’ (104).

As with the maternity collections, the material relations surrounding these costly quince celebrations reveal the structure of the quinceañera’s social universe. Although mothers carry ritual responsibility and are congratulated on the accomplishment of bringing up an attractive daughter—a potential mother (not necessarily wife) who will expand the matrifocal kin group, a girl’s father is expected to contribute financially even if he has had little contact with his daughter thus far. Failure to do so may result in a daughter’s refusing to care for him in old age; this life stage, in which emphasis is shifted to hitherto marginal patrilateral relations, is dealt with in detail in Chapter 6. So whilst for some fathers, quince is a chance to show off wealth, for others it is an opportunity to demonstrate whether they accept the role of father or not for years to come. Since money represents the care expected from men, it makes their kinship links visible at particular moments whilst the rest of the time they may be absent. Interestingly, the book concludes with a note on Fidel Castro as ‘Father of the Nation’, whose ‘absent presence’ in Cuban political symbolism lends a timelessness to the socialist state. Matrilineal kin, on the other hand, are a constant presence.


Presence or proximity appears pivotal to motherhood for the migrant women in Mahdavi’s Crossing the Gulf—motherhoods that are often complicated, truncated or stretched across borders by family reunification and citizenship laws, and misguided anti-trafficking policies. Mahdavi shows how migrants become both mobilised and immobilised not simply because of economic factors, as suggested by the ‘global woman’ literature which focuses on migrants’ intimate labour as domestics, nannies or sex-workers (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003), but because of their intimate lives. She follows Anthony Giddens’ (1993) view of intimacy as a space in which those who feel unable to negotiate their state identity can assert rights and make choices about a different kind of belonging. Härkönen spared us this expression, despite writing about similar subject matter, but ‘intimate’ has become trendy of late (Zelizer 2005, Gorman-Murray 2009, Boehm 2012, Holdsworth 2013), presumably because of the convenience of a catchall term for sexual and family relationships. Indeed, ties to family back home, lovers in the Gulf, and children born there all shape migratory experiences at the same time as migration shapes them.

These relationships take centre stage in the life stories that make Mahdavi’s book both eminently readable and wholly unsettling. A young woman from the global south migrates to the Gulf, meets a man with whom she ‘becomes intimate’, finds herself pregnant, is abandoned by her partner and detained under charges for zina (extramarital sexual relations) and, in the case of domestic workers who are contractually bound to celibacy in the Gulf, breach of contract. If the expectant mother is deported to give birth in her home country she is considered fortunate, but in many cases she gives birth in detention while her case is being processed. Her child, of ‘uncertain’ paternity, is not granted permission to leave the country so she remains immobilised in the Gulf, sometimes still under threat of separation if deported, in which case the child would grow up stateless or bidoun (literally ‘without’) in an orphanage. Mahdavi makes the obvious but overlooked point that many women who migrate do so during their most fertile years and, like other women, have sexual and reproductive desires. What also comes across clearly are the contradictions inherent in racialised discourses which portray migrant women as ‘unfit mothers’ whose sexuality threatens racial purity and must be regulated, whilst at the same time hiring them to perform reproductive labour.

Whilst some narratives illustrate the price mothers pay to be with their children, often choosing to remain in prison, in other cases family bonds involve distance rather than proximity: ‘…I am a better mother when I am away from them. When I am working here to support them’ (103), said Gabriella, who moved to Dubai in 2008, leaving her two children with her mother in the Philippines, where mothers campaign for migration to be understood as the ultimate maternal sacrifice. ‘Motherhood means going abroad nowadays’ (68), was the response of one migrant mother when her grown daughter asks if she too should leave her own children. Mahdavi’s cross-generational perspective encompasses siblings as well as the parent-child bonds to reveal both the elasticity and fragility of family ties. Whilst one man refuses to speak to his mother who migrated away from him as a child, his sister migrates to reconnect with her in the hope of eventually persuading her to return home.

The consequences of contradictory policies that force women to make untenable choices between care and proximity are vividly narrated in Chapter 5: ‘Children of the Emir’. Whilst foundlings in Kuwait may be granted citizenship, and some are even brought up by the Emir’s family, children born to known women who are neither married nor Kuwaiti are excluded. To make matters worse, some sending countries refuse to extend citizenship to the children of migrants born abroad on grounds of ‘morality’—and this at the discretion, it seems, of embassy staff. The result is what Mahdavi calls ‘perverse integration’: an unmarried migrant who manages to give birth without detection by the police may see secretly abandoning her baby outside a shopping mall or hospital as the surest way to give him or her a future.

Such stories of sacrificial family love contrast with another set told in Chapter 4, which demonstrate that some people migrate in order to leave their family, avoid marriage, or sometimes as an alternative to divorce. This often coincides with the formation of new ideas about the self and sexuality and a desire to find love, freedom and adventure abroad. More familiar narratives of sacrifice are still useful, allowing families back home and migrants themselves to save face in situations which otherwise bring shame. ‘I want people to think I’m good. I’m doing this to support my family. Even though I’m here because of me’ (102), said Sylvie, a Malagasy woman who moved to Dubai to get away from her husband. This material flies in the face of the assumption that ‘if given the opportunity, all migrants would return to or stay at “home”’ (117)—an assumption that justifies raid-and-rescue approaches to trafficking and development projects that seek to obviate the need to ‘migrate out of poverty’.

Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of the book is the insightful argument that human trafficking policies ‘rarely acknowledge migrants as multidimensional beings with intimate lives’ (14). The story of Anita is a case in point: Following a break-up with her husband, Anita left the Philippines, to work as a domestic in Dubai. She begins sleeping with her employer, a divorced British man, but on becoming pregnant wants to return to the Philippines to be reunited with her family. The employer would rather she stay and promises to support her but Anita decides to move out. Discovering she has overstayed her visa and has thus been working illegally, she approaches the labour attaché at the Philippines embassy for help to return home. There, however, staff insist she had been trafficked and raped. Despite stating that she consented to sexual relations with her employer, Anita is transferred to a rehabilitation shelter for victims of trafficking and violence where, unable to contact her employer or family, she gives birth and spends ‘six months in court insisting that she was not “trafficked” and just wanted to go home’ (13). The message is clear: the ‘rescue’ rhetoric of anti-trafficking work, which sees all migrant women as victims and fixates on a false distinction between force and choice, can do more harm than good. But I could not help wondering about the employer who, himself a migrant (albeit with more ‘flexibility’), presumably never gets to see his son again. Mahdavi is not interested in fathers, perhaps because most of the stories she collects suggest that fathers do not take an interest in their progeny, or as in her personal narrative told in the book’s prologue, forfeit the right to do so. But surely one could write an equally heart-breaking although very different book about the lives of men who become fathers during their migratory journeys?

Crossing the Gulf ambitiously covers three ‘host’ locations: Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City. What’s more, Mahdavi’s interlocutors seem to come from every country under the sun: Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Madagascar, Malaysia, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, … This multisitedness—what Mahdavi in fact calls ‘global anthropology’ (Ong 2006)—seeks to draw connections between ‘factors, forces, ideas, discourses, choices and relationships that cross borders’ as well as between the ‘micro-lives of interviewees and larger macrostructural forces’ (33). This all sounds very promising and Chapter 6 in particular makes unexpected connections between the microcosm of personal state-migrant encounters and large-scale ‘transformations and mobilizations’ which result from women drawing on their intimate experiences. But I read Crossing the Gulf in the middle of my own ‘migration’ to my fieldsite and after picking up and putting down the book between packing, train stations and airports, the intimate narratives rather blurred into one. I once thought I had found my place only to discover that I had left off reading about a Sri Lankan whereas this was the story of an Ethiopian. Despite Mahdavi’s assertion that she visited migrants’ home- as well as host-countries (a herculean task, given the range), we learn little of the specificities of migrating from one particular location or another. How could we in a single book? An exception might be Madagascar whose grassroots activism that has resulted in policy shifts features prominently in Chapter 6. But what does this blurring of identities tell us, other than that the reader is not paying enough attention, and should use a bookmark? Perhaps it simply reinforces the point that the only significant distinction in the Gulf is that of citizenship; everyone else is simply ‘foreign matter’ (Dresch 2006), used to build the luxurious life for which the contemporary Gulf is renowned but deprived of the rights to enjoy it. In 2012 non-nationals made up a staggering 90% of the UAE’s population and 66% of Kuwait’s (Ahmed 2012: 32).

Whilst a compelling pattern of exclusionary state practices does emerge from the variety of interlocutors’ stories, a more troubling outcome of this global anthropology project is that, like much that is global, it forces people to express themselves in a language that is not their own. Whilst Mahdavi informs us that: ‘Most of the migrants [she] interviewed in the Gulf spoke enough English, Farsi, French, or Arabic that [she] was able to converse with them without a translator’ (34), I was dismayed to read quotes in interviewees’ broken English and shuddered at the thought of my own interlocutors citing me in flawed Arabic, were the ethnographic tables turned.


If Mahdavi reveals migrants’ intimate lives rather than material forces to be the drivers of im/mobility, Härkönen’s ethnography allows us to see materiality as intrinsic to relationships between ordinary Cubans, their loved ones and the state. This dialogue has helped me make connections between economics, love (particularly parental) and state care in my own field situation of Moroccan domestic service. I am often struck by the materiality of signs of parental love among a particular class of ‘ordinary’ Moroccans—signs that take highly predictable forms, as though someone has been circulating a tick-list. A significant example is the purchase of new clothes at the eid that marks the end of Ramadan’s fasting. This is not optional and the inability to meet the requirement gives rise to distress in both parent and child and pity or scorn from those around them. Photographs of children in their new outfits, like those of the Cuban quince, are shared among relatives and friends on social media: certificates of parental love, even if this love was funded by credit.

Click to enlargeDisplay of wedding gifts, near Fes, Morocco. The bride will cease paid domestic work after marriage.

Display of wedding gifts, near Fes, Morocco.
The bride will cease paid domestic work after marriage.

Perhaps because of their materiality these signs of care are easily translated into employer-employee relations in the home. Thus a householder who gives her domestic worker (usually a rural Moroccan) new clothes for the eid, provides her with shampoo and money to go to the public bath, and buys her the same snacks as she buys her own children, is considered to be ‘taking care of her’; the worker is ‘like her daughter’ (Montgomery 2016). Historically organised among kin, neighbours or patron-client relations and couched in idioms of kinship and pious care, household employment in Morocco is soon to be regulated by a new law, recently voted in the House of Representatives (Human Rights Watch 2016). The predictable forms of care that offered workers a sense of belonging away from home, and employers a feeling of ‘doing good’, even in the absence of affection or under exploitative conditions, are to be flattened into a minimum wage and written contract which symbolises the Moroccan government’s concern for these women but will mean having a domestic worker ceases to make sense, economically or morally, for many ordinary Moroccans. In lower-middle class Morocco extending the minimum wage to domestic workers threatens to wreak havoc on the flimsy boundaries that distinguished one Moroccan woman from the next.

Whilst Mahdavi is writing in a school that finds it useful to view domestic service and sex work through the same lens of ‘intimate labour’ (Boris and Parreñas 2010), this would be problematic for my Moroccan interlocutors who are careful to disassociate themselves from ‘girls who go out’ (Cheikh 2009). Local discourse, however, sees domestic service as the only thing keeping these women from working on the streets, and the government is therefore wary of enforcing the new law too quickly. In Morocco as in the Gulf, class or racial concerns are easily expressed in terms of moral decline and the need to regulate women’s sexuality, but behind Moroccan debates about domestic labour law lies a play-off between two systems: on the one hand the personalised connectivity of local community which channels care through hierarchical relationships, and on the other the ‘modern’ state system championed by NGO workers and policymakers, whose version of care means enforcing the moral equality of atomised individuals. Neither position is tenable, and whilst many domestic workers are in less than ideal situations, Crossing the Gulf reveals some of the problems of state intervention.

In a ‘dialectics of care’, Moroccan domestic workers have so far done without the state by moving from being cared for by parents, to employers, to husbands; indeed their mobility is often partly motivated by a desire to find an urban husband. But as households of moderate means cease to employ them and wealthier Moroccans increasingly hire the global women of Mahdavi’s book (whose foreignness leaves local hierarchies intact), opportunities dwindle for these single, uneducated young women from rural communities. When families do not have the means to care for their daughters materially and parental love as proximity is not viable (there is little work in the village), working abroad (the Gulf?) or an earlier marriage might seem the only ways forward. Whatever happens, the state will, no doubt, try to show that it cares.



Ahmed, Attiya, 2012. Migrant labor in the Persian Gulf. London: Hurst.

Boehm, Deborah, 2012. Intimate migrations: gender, family, and illegality among transnational Mexicans. New York: New York University Press.

Boris, Eileen, and Rhacel Parreñas, 2010. Intimate labors: cultures, technologies, and the politics of care. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cabezas, Amalia, 2009. ‘Economies of desire: sex and tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29(4): 987-1015.

Cheikh, Meriam, 2009. ‘Echanges sexuels monétarisés, femmes et féminités au Maroc : une autonomie ambivalente’, Autrepart, 49: 173-88.

Dresch, Paul, 2006. ‘Foreign matter: the place of strangers in Gulf society’, in John Fox, Nada Mourtada-Sabbah, and Mohammed Al-Mutawa (eds.) Globalization and the Gulf. New York: Routledge, 200-222.

Ghannam, Farha, 2013. To live and die like a man: gender dynamics in urban Egypt. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Giddens, Anthony, 1993. The transformation of intimacy: sexuality, love, and eroticism in modern societies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gorman-Murray, Andrew, 2009. ‘Intimate mobilities: emotional embodiment and queer migration’, Social and Cultural Geography 10(4): 441-460.

Holdsworth, Clare, 2013. Family and intimate mobilities. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Human Rights Watch, 2016. ‘Morocco: new law advances domestic workers’ rights’,

Montgomery, Mary, 2016. ‘Je ne suis pas leur fille: domestiques, employeuses, et limites’, in B. Dupret, Z. Rhani, A. Boutaleb & J.-N. Ferrié (eds.), Le Maroc au présent. Casablanca: Fondation du Roi Abdul-Aziz, 233-42.

Ong, Aihwa, 2006. Neoliberalism as exception: mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Turner, Terence, 1979. ‘The Ge and Bororo societies as dialectical systems: A general model’, in David Maybury-Lewis (ed.) Dialectical societies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 147-178.

Zelizer, Viviana, 2005. The purchase of intimacy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues