Thoughts from an Indian emigrant on arranged marriages
By: Sharang Sharma, Contributor
cw: mentions of gender-based violence
As a kid, I was always proud of my parent’s love marriage. For those of you who are not familiar with arranged marriages, the term “love marriage” may feel redundant. As an Indian emigrant, I was always aware of the dichotomy between these two, though I never really understood the difference.
I used to think that arranged marriages were strange, archaic and even barbaric rituals, where families forced their children into unwanted marriages where they would live loveless lives.
So I was proud of my parents. They escaped! They were romantic revolutionaries! But as it tends to be with most things in life, things weren’t this simple.
Though there are still countless forced marriages that occur in and out of South Asia, arranged marriages are just defined as those first set up by the families of those being wed.
One family has an unwed son, another an unwed daughter (since these are, for the most part, very heteronormative) and the two families think they’ll like each other. They set up a meeting and see how it goes between them.
I once thought arranged marriages only occurred in India, but many emigrants still get arranged marriages. Often the couples live out long and loving marriages, as my aunt and some of my uncles can attest to.
Yet still, this notion struck me as strange. Isn’t love meant to be individual? Isn’t love supposed to come before marriage? After all my years living away from India, my family and the culture to be found there, I couldn’t really fathom the idea of getting an arranged marriage and why one would do so. So I asked my parents about it.
Usually I think of arranged marriages as an old tradition, so I was briefly baffled by my dad’s story of putting up an advertisement in the local newspaper to find his sister a match. He took a small break from his doctoral research to go around meeting the families of prospective matches, a “scoping study” as he jokingly called it.
He met a “shady” Delhi family and another from Chandigarh, whom he described as trying really hard to come off as “trim and prim.” Finally, he met my uncle’s family. They were nice, well-off, their son (my uncle) was employed and they even had some links to family friends!
After a bit of vetting with these family friends, they decided to set up a meeting between my aunt and my uncle-to-be and soon enough they agreed to marry each other.
The red thread running through his story was family. Usually in such marriages, the wife will go and live with her husband and his extended family, becoming a part of his family. This isn’t just a union between two people, but between two extended groups.
What my dad did was make sure that the family that his sister would become part of one that would take care of her. This was a process to ensure she would be happy.
However, there was a darker, blood-red thread running parallel. My grandparents wanted my aunt to marry someone from the same caste and class: this was a non-negotiable.
This aspect of arranged marriage is something we cannot overlook, especially as it becomes more normalized through shows such as Indian Matchmaking.
Due to my mom’s bad experiences with arranged marriage, she is not a fan of the institution. She remembered one United States ex-pat, who had a short-list of his prospective matches and the grades he had given them.
That’s right. Grades. B, B+, A- and so on his short-list ran. One word stood out as she spoke about this: “humiliating.” Being graded as though one were a mere collection of attributes and characteristics which could be quantified and maximized.
The other experience was being pressured to marry by a certain age. My mom not so fondly recalled her dad pressuring her to get married before she was “too old.”
Well, she knew a woman who had been pressured into an unwanted marriage and her husband had turned out to be emotionally and physically abusive. This was not the life my mom wanted.
The pressures my mom and other women faced are less prevalent for men. My dad got married in his early 30s and his parents never tried to push him into a marriage he didn’t want.
This dark side of arranged marriages had turned me against it when I was young. My mom had told me all about it: arranged marriages are steeped in patriarchal practices. Though perhaps not the barbaric practice it is often viewed as in many western countries, it is not a clean one either.
Talking to my parents was elucidating, but still, I don’t think I could ever get an arranged marriage. However, this is not to say that love marriage and marriage as seen from a more western perspective are perfectly ethical.
In fact, talking to my parents helped me realize the issues obscured in our own rituals of dating, love and marriage. Class and caste are important for many people but only arranged marriages are upfront about it. It would also be absurd to imagine that we have totally torn down patriarchal structures.
Rather than only criticize these issues in arranged marriages, we ought to use them as a mirror to examine our own practices of love.