On the spouse’s trail: Are accompanying wives compromising on their careers when they move abroad?

Women cannot work on dependent visas in the US, it’s difficult for them to procure employment visas in some Gulf countries, their academic qualifications are just not enough in Canada or Australia…. Here are the stories of some such women.

On the spouse’s trail: Are accompanying wives compromising on their careers when they move abroad?

Wednesday April 03, 2019,

8 min Read

This is a story that stems from my own experience. And one I am sure thousands of Indian women will identify with. When we give up our lives and careers in India to follow our husbands abroad. Into an unknown world, sometimes with very little help, support, or career choices.

Where restrictions and lack of opportunities can derail your career and where your current qualifications are just not enough. And you may have to start all over again.

Not all is rosy in the saat samundar paar, or the American or Gulf mapillai (American or Gulf sons-in-law) stories. Behind the dollar-dirham salaries are a number of helpless, frustrated women wanting to make it on their own, but unable to do so because of a number of compulsions. Dependent visas and expensive childcare are just at the root of the issue. We are talking of loss of self-esteem, self-worth, and the feeling of despondency creeping in when you’re ambitious but hemmed in by the reality of your host country.

Let me begin with my own story. I was 23 years old when I got married and moved with my husband to Oman, a small country in the Middle East. I had three years of experience but even before I boarded the flight I was warned that employment visas for women were hard to come by.

This was in the late 90s and I managed to get a job I liked with an employment visa that would make me ‘legal’ to work in the country. Coupled with the perks attached like medical insurance, rent allowance, annual holidays, and flight tickets, I would also be ‘secure’.

Apurva Iyer, Lamiya Mustafa and Aparajita Mukherjee

Legalities and “scope of job”

Not so for young Lamiya Mustafa Patanwala, who has been living in Muscat for the past four years. After completing her MSc in Biotechnology, qualifying in the GATE exam, and with a couple of years of experience, she remains unemployed in Oman, where she moved to after her wedding. “My work life came to a full stop in Oman since my in-laws were not ready to fuel the travelling expenses I would have incurred to go every now and then for my PhD, which I had applied for in India. Plus, in Oman, I didn't find a single place to continue my work. Getting a driver’s licence is a big task here… when there is no freedom of movement, it restricts multiple things,” she says.

Twenty-five-year-old Apurva Iyer moved to Amsterdam after her techie husband landed a plum assignment there. She had just finished a year of working in an American multinational company in Bengaluru and felt “stable” in her career.

“It’s almost a year of trying hard to find a job. But minimal work experience, not knowing the local language, and living in an area where there are very less American companies/English-speaking jobs have worked against me,” she says.

Not really a welcome change

Sometimes, one moves thinking a new place would be a welcome change from the present. Aparajita Mukherjee thought so too. Currently, in Doha, Qatar, she had left a senior corporate communications role battling depression and anxiety, and followed her husband to Muscat.

“I assumed a new place, new milieu, and a less stressed place, compared to India, would help,” says Aparajita. But she was wrong. With two Master’s degrees, she was overqualified for most jobs. She settled for an editorial assistant job that was clerical and stressful and did nothing to relieve her from anxiety. Now in her seventeenth job and more than a decade in the region, she is enjoying her work ‘mostly because I aspire less than I did earlier’.

Learning through unlearning

Sometimes, your professional and academic competence just doesn’t suffice in a new country. Nandhini Suruliraj learnt it the hard way when she moved to Australia after she got married in 2012.

“My BDS degree from India isn’t valid abroad so I had to write a series of exams that are expensive and tedious. I also started to work as a dental assistant and a practice coordinator eventually. Dental practice overseas is entirely different from what it is in India. The biggest challenge was unlearning all the things and doing them the Australian way. It was basically like starting from scratch. I’m still in the process of completing my exams to get my licence to practice as a dentist, and in the very last stage now,” she explains.

Willing to take a step down

Khushi Shah has moved three continents in the search for a good life and the golden pot at the end of the rainbow. At 24, she resigned from her job as an Assistant Area Sales Manager in Mumbai to follow her husband to London. She applied to several job everyday but received no response. Finally, she settled for a job in a retail boutique, which was a lot of hard work but paid very less. After a stint in London, she moved to Muscat, and then migrated to Canada on a PR.

“When I reached Canada, I learned I was pregnant. So I did not look for a job until a few months after my daughter was born. Without any scope of a job in my field, I joined an Amazon warehouse where I was on my toes all day for around 10 hours. My husband was very concerned and asked me to quit and start studying again. I enrolled in an advanced accounting course following which I got a decent job. But I struggled for six years, and that’s really unforgettable,” says Khushi.

Knowing what to expect

Sometimes knowing what’s in store can help make the transition easier. Even if it comes from taking a step back and reassessing career options.

Anushya Mamtora was a Senior Reporter in The Hindu Business Line when she moved to New Jersey in 2013 with her husband, who moved on a H1B visa.

“I went on a dependent visa so I knew what to expect. Visa restriction was my biggest challenge. My professional life took a different turn but, personally, it was my time to explore and learn new things, I never got a chance to before. I did compromise in terms of pay. But there was no dearth of freelance writing opportunities. I did a zentangle art teacher training course, and also started blogging. Kids came into the picture soon and life changed dramatically.”

Dealing with the situation

For people like Anushya, living in the present rather than pondering on lost opportunities has worked. “Seven years of absorbing a new culture and life, extensive travelling, and exploring hobbies with my family more than makes up for the career hibernation. I do sometimes wonder where an active career would have taken me back home,” she says.

For others, it is a calm acceptance of their situation. There was no other way except to compromise, says Lamiya wistfully. “I have no chance in my field anymore. Since my GATE qualification for PhD has expired, I will have to start all over again. I have lost complete touch with my subject too. I did try my hand at random jobs but now I have started a family, so I have basically become a homemaker.”

Apurva is learning Dutch hoping that it will help her land a job in Amsterdam, while Aparajita is largely “okay” with her present job in Qatar. Nandhini plans to give the dental exam a try a couple of more times and maybe decide what to do. She is confident that there are heaps of options to choose from in the health industry in Australia.

Dealing with change

Not knowing Arabic was a major impediment towards looking at career choices in corporate communication in the Middle East, says Aparajita. Add to that, the high cost of recruiting house help from India added to the burden of managing family and work. So for her, the compromise was to work for half days only.

For Lamiya, the difficulty in obtaining a driving licence and able to move around freely was the roadblock. Khushi’s mother came over from India initially to look after her daughter since childcare was expensive.

Add to all these, expat blues - a feeling of being “lost” in a foreign country, overwhelmed with a lot of responsibilities and very little help - and a number of women undergo depression and anxiety.

Life as an accompanying spouse isn’t easy. While technology may have replaced Pankaj Udhas’ soulful chitti aayee hai vatan se chitti aayee hai with instant video calls on WhatsApp, the problems are much larger for women as they make that all-important call.

As Anushya puts it succinctly, “One cannot have it all. It’s a choice we have to make.”

Also read: The women who are transplanted into a new life – story of expat wives