Marriages are an inescapable reality especially in India. It’s a landmark event in the lives of millions of people. This collaboration is not just between two individuals, but of two families who take the marriage, arranged or love, very seriously. The participating families invest a great deal of money and effort in arranging a perfect marriage because the honor of both the parties is at stake. This social construct of ‘honor’, hinges on factors like caste, social status, the bride’s character, dowry and such ideas that are bound in antediluvian traditions. These are matters of grave import and cannot be left to the hands of two young, ‘inexperienced’ individuals.
This holy institution carries on despite the vulnerability of today’s youth to ‘westernization’. In urban India, arranged marriages are back with a bang. They are back in a snazzy new form that is appealing to the educated middle-class. Indian weddings have gained great notoriety over the years, especially for the atrocious amount of money that gets spent. The wedding industry in India is booming, regardless of the economic downturn. Seven-day weddings have replaced the more modest, two-day affairs; the grander, the better it is for the ‘prestige’ of the two families. Money is both saved over years (if it’s a girl child, parents start saving for the wedding from the time of her birth!) and borrowed to fund these one-time extravaganzas. The families are complimented on the showmanship that they deliver during a marriage. A family’s pride and honor are at the forefront of these ‘memorable occasions’. In the way it reinforces pride and honor, an extravagant wedding emphasizes the family’s involvement in ensuring the success of a couple’s marriage. There is practically a mammoth investment in the marriage. In these marriages, dowry is not a word that is expressly uttered. It is implicitly understood by the bride’s family and it is directly related to the bride’s class and worth.
Through the practice of arranged marriages, patriarchy thrives in modern day India. Despite the incessant glorification of love marriages in Indian cinema, ironically, in reality, the majority of people do not care to find their own partner and arranged marriage is the prevailing trend.
Arranged marriages, in some cases, are the consequence of a failure in the exercise of dating. Dating in India is not easy. There are too many social as well as individual pre-existing limitations. Notwithstanding these difficulties, some people are active in finding partners mostly through their college and office networks. These interactions play a crucial role in enabling love marriages.
But many, after getting socially thwarted, give up the effort to date and eventually settle for traditional choices. They seek arranged marriages, simply because it is easier and also because of the fewer responsibilities it entails in taking up the weighty task of choosing a partner.
The rigmarole of choosing a suitable partner has been made more palatable to the educated, ‘free-thinking’, middle-class men and women. Keeping in mind the essential segregations of class, caste and religion that need to be maintained, the first-cut shortlisting of prospective suitors is done by the two families. This is the crucial step where a love match would make the world of a difference.
Love marriages by definition are not limited by traditional constraints, allowing for men and women to choose each other based on compatibility and individual preferences.
Once this shortlisting is done, the girl and the boy are ‘given the freedom’ to choose from an array of choices. This is followed by a brief courtship, under the keen surveillance of parents, before or after an official engagement. The brief few months of supervised courtship satisfies them with the illusion of freedom and they are ready to play the role of obedient children. The subservience to authority is seamlessly transferred from parents to the husband and his family.
The so-called modern women feel pride in opting for an arranged marriage.
“We are so cool, yet we follow traditions“.
This idea is sold as ‘striking a balance’. This is increasingly becoming rampant among immigrant parents who insist on fixing the weddings of their children, the stereotypical “ABCD”s (American Born Confused Desi). Even among immigrants there is a persisting suspicion of the West and its culture (or the lack of it, according to many Indian parents). These parents feel inclined to protect their children from the ‘corrupting’ western culture. Though many children grow up in foreign countries, following different traditions, studying with multi-ethnic people and yet they are raised to think that they cannot have love marriages. There is a curious fascination to a culture that they have not been raised in, but one they have been taught to identify with and belong to. Arranged marriages facilitate these people to marry another desi and consequently preserve ‘Indian culture’. These are privileged women who get pacified by the superficial choices presented to them and happily squander their freedom without even a thought about the consequences.
Back in India, parents of boys are extremely careful in picking the right girl for the role of a daughter-in-law, the bahu. A working woman, enjoying even a moderately influential role in her workplace is highly likely to be self-confident and self-reliant, demonstrating the attributes of individualism. In contrast is the often docile and obedient housewife, who is least likely to be ‘headstrong’ and hence more sought after by prospective mothers-in-law. Financial dependence is the age-old measure of stripping the wife of any meaningful power or position within her family. She is more manageable compared to the educated, employed and free-willed woman. The identical nervousness about a high-earning wife is seen when selecting a bride who is ‘highly educated’. A fair amount of education is encouraged, in order to make the woman more marriageable (or, ‘marketable’ is more apt). A certain amount of sophistication that comes with education is appealing since it can win the husband some praise for possessing such an arm-candy. But too many qualifications, like a graduate degree or a PhD, can corrupt the wife into displaying a scarily independent behavior.
Life after the wedding is not easy by a long shot for working wives, housewives or for stay-at-home mothers. Indian wives, in addition to being devoted to her children, are expected to do almost all the household chores. Her duties also include taking care of the husband. And no, it is not intended as a sexual innuendo. It isn’t uncommon for husbands to expect their clothes to be ironed, dirty laundry to be magically cleaned and folded, lunches packed and the house kept spotless everyday. Even when both partners are employed, wives continue to do the majority of the chores, with little or no contribution by the husband. This phenomenon is unfortunately more universal than people think.
Sure there are men who lend a hand occasionally, but I am talking about the difference between the occasional aid that comes when requested and shared responsibility which is more common in non-conventional love marriages.
The wife’s responsibilities only multiply in the case of an arranged marriage. The joint and extended family systems are still predominant in India. The bahu assumes all the burdens of running a family, including participating in frequent, demanding religious rituals and discharging other social duties.
Arranged marriages, the so-called successful ones, are dependent on the low expectations of the couple involved. And towards this end, parents use several pressure tactics and exhortations to reduce the expectations, especially of the girl.
“You will not find a better boy than this. You’re fortunate that he has agreed to marry you.” (Try reading that with an Indian accent to get a better picture). Ad nauseam chants such as these erode the girl’s self-confidence, making her believe that she is worth only so much.
In such marriages, everyone involved has an agenda other than love. It’s free life-time sex for the man, not to mention, a stay-at-home maid forever. If the woman is unemployed, it’s financial security and protection forever. If she’s the modern, employed sort, then she’s just happy that she isn’t single anymore (since being single is a huge stigma till date).
Another defence of the arranged marriage is the failure rate of marriages in India. India’s divorce rate is one of the lowest in the world at 3% and this strengthens the parents’ convictions in arranged marriages. After all, it is love marriages that contribute to a significant chunk of this statistic. This isn’t all that surprising.
People agree for arranged marriages with so few expectations, that they are more likely to be pleased with the outcome. Even in the event of a failure or disappointment, the people involved, having established their dependence on their parents, continue to be dependent on them for resolving marital troubles. There is an active involvement by the families in the lives of the couple, especially in times of crisis. Quick fixes are done, usually followed by the insistence that it’s about time the disgruntled couple procreated. The existence of an offspring then ensures the co-existence of the couple, despite their own differences. Hatchets are buried and they learn to endure their marriage with brave stoicism and with the blessings of their parents.
Ultimately, it boils down to the definition of a successful marriage. If the parameter is “living together forever”, then perhaps yes, most arranged marriages can be deemed “successful”. It’s no wonder that the stale joke of equating marriages to ‘life-term sentences’ continues to strike a chord with mirthless sympathizers who feel trapped in their own marriages.
Despite the number of people opting for a divorce, it remains a huge taboo in the Indian society. The soaring divorce rate is worrisome to many who subscribe to the traditional way of living. The divorce rate (to which I have contributed) ought to be delightful news instead. Sure the men are worried that their wives no longer tolerate the crap that is thrown at them, like they used to; that they are more independent now and empowered enough to walk out of their marriage; that women no longer have to endure abuses or remain in an unfulfilling marriage. Traditional men do not like having the trouble of having to put in extra efforts (like respecting the wife and treating her well) into making the marriage a success. Patriarchy had always made sure that they would reap the benefits of being married quite easily. These independent women are unsurprisingly viewed as a threat by traditional men.
Did I mention the sex lives of traditional men who prefer virgin brides and missionary position? There are so many of these couples who make love with the lights out. The sex lives of most married couples deteriorates within three to four years, with the frequency sometimes dwindling to even once a month. It particularly nosedives with the birth of a child. Both partners experience a tremendous amount of sexual frustration, which is almost always never addressed, with some men resorting to buying sex from prostitutes, or seeking extra-marital affairs, sometimes both the husband and the wife seek sexual and emotional fulfillment elsewhere, or some even leading an austere, asexual life. These can cause rifts which later become unbridgeable chasms that are endured in their unfixed states purely for the sake of society. A healthy sex life is indispensible to a good marriage. The solutions put forth to fix an ailing sex life are not easy to adopt by traditional couples; broadly speaking, couples who have had a love marriage are relatively more open to experimentation and hence manage to keep their sexual interest alive. As a sex positive feminist, I believe that a healthy and an active sex life is the way to self-fulfillment, happiness and good health.
In most marriages that have gone sour, women suffer more and by that I don’t mean just mental anguish. They bear the brunt of cruel and out-dated traditions and frequent domestic violence . This suffering gets deepened by impositions posed by an arranged marriage. As a feminist, this is one of the main reasons why I think arranged marriages are a bane not just to women, but the society at large. It’s a cesspool for patriarchy.
Patriarchy though it literally means “rule of the father”, it manifests itself in multitudinous ways in the different power structures of society. In India, there is a great emphasis on identifying the authoritarian figure, usually the oldest male in the family— the father or the oldest brother. He is the provider and protector of the family. The dignity of this figurehead is tied to his caste, class and also to the conduct of his subordinates— the wife, children and other dependents. Such a structure is highly iniquitous and various reform groups led by feminists and other egalitarians aim to destroy this behemoth for a more equitable structure. But through arranged marriages, patriarchy perpetuates its power structure. It counteracts the conflation of different religions, castes and classes, which is more likely to happen in the absence of such artificial enforcements of tradition that are steadily maintaining and reinforcing these discriminating practices.
For all that bragging that India is a diverse country, any mixing of the various divisions is actively discouraged by these traditions. I am yet to witness a family, intending an arranged marriage for its children, but one that seeks to mix a Dalit and a Brahmin, or a Hindu and a Muslim. It’s unheard of, since this is exactly what arranged marriages seek to prevent.
Arranged marriages limit diversity—the intermingling of races, castes, classes, religions, genders— the one thing that can effectively bring about collective peace and harmony.
Arranged marriages actively subvert feminism. No matter what form they take or however palatable they have become, arranged marriages reinforce the antiquated system of patriarchy. Dismantling this order, by denying arranged marriages, is a major step towards an India that is free from the menaces of hierarchies and societal segregations that continue to haunt the country for centuries with extremely deleterious consequences.