The desperation of Indian housewives in the United States of America

Quartz india
Quartz india

There are many reasons why educated Indian women are not working.

Some hit a wall due to conservative in-laws and unsupportive husbands. For others, a sexist workplace is usually the final straw. Many are just not conditioned to be ambitious.

And then there’s the huge cohort of Indian women whose careers are unravelling far away from home—in the United States of America. In the world’s biggest economy, these women are unencumbered by many of the social challenges those in India often face. Yet, their professional lives are being cut short. The culprit is a class of visa that is almost Victorian in its restrictions.

Unwilling housewives

India might be the world’s fastest-growing big economy, but living in the US remains one of the biggest aspirations of its middle-class. Indian men with white-collar jobs in the US, hence, are some of the most eligible bachelors in the country, often attracting women who are highly educated themselves.

Many of these men are in the US on a temporary work visa called the H1B—Indians receive nearly 70% of all H1B visas issued worldwide—and their spouses emigrate as H4 visa holders. The latter is a dependent visa and prohibits holders from working or starting a business in the US. They can’t obtain a social security number either.

“When a wife enters the United States on a dependent spouse visa, she enters at the wish of her husband. Her dependent immigration status allows her husband to control her ability to live in the United States and all rights that stem from that status,” Sabrina Balgamwalla, an assistant law professor at the University of North Dakota, writes in a paper on spousal visa holders titled Bride and Prejudice.

In other words, H4 visa holders, 90% of whom are women, are often reduced to childlike helplessness in a foreign country, completely dependent on their partners for everything, from their social to economic needs.

According to some estimates, almost 80% of the 125,000 H4 visas in 2015 were granted to Indian passport holders. I spoke to over a dozen women who are either current or former H4 wives to understand the financial and psychological toll this forced career break takes.

Honeymoons don’t last forever

For Meghna Damani, the first few months in northeastern US were absolutely joyful. “The town was beautiful. I picked up some hobbies like painting and did things I had never got a chance to do while I was working in India,” the now 40-year-old says. She had moved to Pennsylvania in 2002 after marrying her boyfriend, who, like many H1B visa holders, worked in the information technology sector.

But the honeymoon did not last long. “I could not work and I realized I did not have a sense of purpose. I realized life is not all about walking, exploring, or painting,” she says. Before her marriage, Damani was working at an advertising firm in Mumbai. “I could not even apply for an internship on this visa. I was a housewife, (and could) just do cooking and cleaning.”

The former model and business school graduate went on to make a documentary about her life on the H4, which can be found on YouTube. It begins with this heartbreaking line: “Independence—the very first thing I lost when I set foot in the land of the free.”

In the riverfront Newport area of Jersey City, New Jersey, where Damani lives now, it is easy to spot Indian couples who have “made it” in America. With their apartments overlooking the Hudson river and progeny stamped with an American passport, they seem to be living the dream.

But scratch the surface, and the dream often seems to have been built on dashed ambitions—those of young wives. Many of them could find only one way to fill their long, lonely days. “If I can’t work, I would feel less useless if I become pregnant now,” a 30-year old H4 wife tells me.

There are few other alternatives during this forced sabbatical. Some start volunteering and those who can afford it go back to school.

“My dream was to get into investment banking in the US,” says Sarika Kadam, 40, who moved to the US after her arranged marriage to an IT professional in 2002. She enrolled for a certificate course in investment banking at New York University but she couldn’t find a prospective employer who would agree to sponsor her work visa.

“It is just paperwork to convert from H4 to H1B, but what people don’t realize is how hard it is. It is easy to get a job, very hard to get sponsorship. They (employers) really have to love you so much more than any other candidate,” immigration attorney Shivali Shah explains in Damani’s documentary.

Full-time master’s courses enhance the chances of picking up skills that are in demand in the US and finding an employer who would sponsor an H1B visa. But these courses are often unaffordable for young immigrant couples when only one partner is working. “My husband was just out of college and I did not want him to pay for another course. I had also spent all my money on my wedding,” says Damani, who after five years of unemployment in the US decided to invest in a course at a film school.

Depression visa

“H-4 visa—a curse” is a Facebook page with nearly 15,000 members. It documents the horror stories of women on dependent visas. The page was started in 2011 by Rashi Bhatnagar who moved to the US with her husband seven years ago.

Bhatnagar used to be a journalist in India but now feels that the “huge gap” in her career history would make it hard for her to get back into the news business at age 33. “Right now I am happy because I have a baby,” she told me. “But sometimes I feel a lot of time in my life has been wasted.” In her early days in the US, she used to attend three classes a day at the gym to keep herself busy.

On her Facebook group, and her blog by the same name, hundreds of women talk in painful detail about the H-4 visa-related problems they’ve faced. The least terrifying ones are the accounts of loneliness, of spending several hours at home in a new country with nobody to talk to. It gets progressively darker—depression, marital problems stemming from financial insecurities in a single-income household, and even domestic abuse.

“There are so many husbands who do not let their wives drive a car. And these are highly educated men,” says Bhatnagar.

Damani, who says she has a supportive husband, battled depression. She even called a suicide helpline. “I wanted to just die. To no longer feel this guilt, this wastefulness. To no longer feel like a burden,” she says in her film. “I did not know how I could get the lost time back.”

In 2015, the US government allowed partners of certain H1B visa holders to seek employment authorization. The H1B workers should already have initiated the process to seek permanent residency, also known as a Green Card, through their employers. While Bhatnagar was among those to receive a job permit under the new rules, she feels the regulation is too little, too late for most others. Moreover, they have no control over the speed of the process. “You are dependent on your husband’s credentials and relationship with the employer,” says Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and director of the New York office of Migration Policy Institute. According to him, a lot of H1B tech workers in the US are “garden variety computer programmers,” and “it can typically take three-to-four years,” for them to be in line for the Green Card application.

Even after the H4 spouses receive employment permits, they may have to contend with non-career jobs. “Unlike their husbands—whose engineering skills mark them out as highly desirable global migrants—many (of the wives) have less-immediately transferrable skills, and so continue to struggle to find employment,” says a Guardian article on Silicon Valley’s reluctant housewives.

Coming home

The H4 wives might consider returning to India which—with one of the lowest number of women in the workforce among G20 economies—needs them sorely.

But most women that I spoke to prefer not to. A chance at becoming middle-class American citizens, and the prestige it commands back home, is enough to make them stay back. Money, social freedom, and the needs of their husbands’ careers usually override their own desires.

“I did not want to deal with the social pressures that come with being married in India,” says Damani who carved out a happier life for herself by going to The New School in New York City and becoming a filmmaker. “Also, in the long run, it would help if my husband was here. He would make a lot more money.”

Others are more resigned. “On social media, Indians judge me for being greedy and wanting to live in the US,” says Bhatnagar. “I would love to come back to India, but now my life is here.”

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