Source : Google photo of an arranged marriage in India
Synopsis : The arranged marriage is still prevalent in traditional societies like in India where a woman marries an unknown person and hopes to have a long lasting relationship but it is not certain. Now the educated women wish to select their own mates instead of depending on their relatives. Such marriages are derisively called Love Marriage but should the most important decision in their life be left to others? The writings are on the wall that say that this practice must change for the better.
In some countries there is the traditional way of getting married. What it means is that the family of the bride and the groom chooses who their sons and daughters will marry. It is called arranged marriage that has come under scrutiny to some extent by the educated generation that rejects this system. They now say that the tradition of arranged marriage is obsolete today so the men and women should have the right to choose who they will marry.
The act of marriage between a man and a woman is perhaps the most important thing that can happen in anyone’s life because it affects the lives of both parties in a very fundamental way that changes the way men and women look at each other. For the first time for both men and women they come into a physical relationship apart from the emotional relationship that develops that can last a lifetime although in many countries the notion that a marriage is for life is also being challenged.
I will come back to it a bit later in the blog but for now let us focus on the tradition of the arranged marriage system that the traditionalists still vouch for as the best method that produces a long lasting marriage and low chance of divorce. When we notice how fragile the marriage as an institution has become in the Western countries because of rising divorce rate where men and women choose their partners, we also wonder at the pros and cons of such method.
So let us look into the system of arranged marriage and analyze why it is still being practiced in spite of changing times and the new generation of educated and more tech savvy people who come from the middle class and even lower class of the society who are moving up economically. They are more mobile in terms of where they want to work and where both husband and his wife can find jobs to support their growing economic needs. Many move to other countries where they find employment.
One reason I can think of is that the younger educated generation still defers to the traditional values that promote arranged marriage because they trust their parents to make the right decision for them. Very few show the courage to go against the wishes of their families to marry someone their families may not approve of because most married couples still live with their relatives so they wish the new bride to live in harmony with others. The option of living separately and independently is not available to most married couples unlike in the Western countries unless they live in a different part of the country or go abroad.
It is fair to say that the practice of arranged marriage is under pressure to reform in cities but not so much in rural parts because the new generation of educated men and women who grow up in cities join the work force have their own ideas about choosing their partners. So the workplace romance may develop leading to marriage at some point which was not the case when women stayed home. The new opportunities that open up for women who get the higher education and professional training makes them more independent so they may or may not agree to the old system of arranged marriage. Such women tend to choose their own life partners.
It works if both families accept the choice of their daughter and son. However, this acceptance is based on the social compatibility of the couple that ensures that they are of the same religion, same caste and same ethnicity. When the religions are different, it can cause a great deal of trouble in both families because the inter caste and inter religion marriages are still not acceptable in the traditional societies of India. They also say that the love marriages are less sustainable than the arranged ones giving examples of the Western societies.
The origin of this system has its roots in the social practice of keeping the sexes separate from their childhood so a girl may not know a boy so has no chance of developing a sweet heart relationship that may culminate in a marriage when they come of age. It is the same thing for boys who may not have a girlfriend because their traditional society frowns on such relationship but that is now slowly changing as the co-education spreads that later spills into the coworker situation where many romances develop.
This was not the case some 50 years ago and still not the case in rural communities where the tradition of arranged marriage is still strong and where the girl has no choice but to depend upon her family to choose a groom for her. She may be pretty or ugly but mostly with lower education level and skills that limits her to the life of home and hearth but the city girls fare much better for the reasons mentioned above. ( Please read my blog called The institution of marriage here )
An educated family that favors female education accepts more readily the choice of their educated daughters and sons when it comes to marriage than the uneducated people who live in rural areas and are tradition bound although that too is now changing as rural girls are increasingly getting more education than the previous generation in India. I expect the same trend in other countries where the arranged marriage system still prevails.
The Western culture favors their system where women and men are free to choose their mates .Their parents play a minimal role but may give some gifts to the newly married couple. But the success rate judging by the high divorce rate is not great so many young and not so young people choose not to get married but live with their partners. This arrangement makes it easier on them to part ways without the legal hassles and expenses if and when they decide to do so. The illegitimate children have little or no social stigma where most people prefer a live in relationship but the traditional societies reject it outright and make the couple pay a heavy social cost.
In the Moslem societies, they too practice arranged marriages but often men marry their cousins whom they know but that is not the case among the Hindus who prohibit marriages between the cousins because of the co- sanguinity issues. The Christians are also known to marry their cousins but genetically speaking, it is not a good idea.
I was watching a movie made of a story written by Rabindra Nath Thakur where a beautiful child who was the apple of her parents eyes grows into a more beautiful woman who gets married through the arranged marriage system.
At first all is well but the wife of the elder brother of her husband is a cruel and very quarrelsome woman who hates her and makes their domestic life full of tension every day for one reason or the other making her cry silently. She was told by her parents that she now belongs to the new family by the virtue of her marriage so she must adjust and try to please them as best as she can. The tradition dictates that her new family is now her own although she may still maintain her relationship with her parents depending on how far or near she lives.
She does not have a life of her own because she must live where her husband lives so in this case he lives with his elder brother and his wife in a joint family system. This is very different from the Western countries where the married couple lives somewhere else perhaps in a different part of the country or even abroad but maintains a cordial relationship with the parents and in laws.
In the story the young girl suffers daily until one day her sister in law picks a fight with her husband over money matters in front of the younger woman and her husband and she is blamed for everything bad that has happened since her arrival in the joint family. The quarrel soon gets out of hand and her husband in a fit of rage hits her that makes the toxic woman lose her balance so she falls and hits her head on stone and dies.
Soon the police comes and asks how the woman died and what were the reasons so the husband of this innocent girl says that she was the one who pushed the older woman because of her quarrel so she was promptly arrested and put in jail to wait for the trial. She was shocked and stupefied at the false accusation that her husband made but kept quiet even in the court shedding tears but the judge warned her that keeping quiet can mean a death penalty.
Her father came to see her in jail and pleaded with her to tell the truth but she kept quiet to protect her husband and his elder brother who were the real culprits so she was given the death penalty. Her husband told his elder brother that he can always find another wife but not another brother so he had to sacrifice his innocent wife.
I was shocked but was not surprised at this twist in the story because the blood is always thicker than water so the outsider was sacrificed to protect his brother. The man was a real rascal who put the blame on his innocent wife but his elder brother who was the real culprit was a coward and a heartless person who did not come forward to speak the truth in the court and save the poor sister in law.
Later in the court room both brothers claimed the responsibility for the murder out of remorse seeing that an innocent woman was being punished for what they did but the judge still ruled that the young girl should be hanged.
This movie made me think seriously about the issue and came to a shocking conclusion. The young girl sacrificed herself in order to protect the guilty because she was told that she now belongs to the new family and must show total loyalty even if they mistreat her this awful way. Indian girl growing up in the traditional society will go to any length to protect her husband and his relatives even if it means her own sacrifice so the girl kept quiet and took all the blame.
This sort of friction between women under the same roof is common in the arranged marriage system because the women coming from different families develop no affinity for each other so petty quarrels over household matters develop and may lead to serious trouble as was shown in the Thakur’s story above. Rabindra Nath Thakur often wrote such stories based on some real events.
In the arranged marriage system, the relatives of the would be groom come to interview the girl and ask her very pointed questions like does she know how to cook and do all the household chores, is she educated, is she willing to marry a person she has not seen and live with him in a joint family etc. In rural areas this interview can turn brutal where they may even ask the girl to walk to see if she is in good health and not lame and make her sing. It is like inspecting a cow before the purchase so may be they also look at her breasts. Such crude behavior is commonplace in rural parts of the country.
It is very insulting to any self-respecting woman but she tolerates because she has no choice in the matter. The would be groom is not scrutinized this way that may lead to many unpleasant surprises later but it is the girl who takes all the risk. Nothing can be more degrading to any woman treated like a cow but that is how some women are treated. It is generally the women who treat other women viciously.
Once they agree that the girl is suitable, the serious business of how much dowry and gifts must be paid by the father of the girl starts. After long negotiations, both parties may come to a conclusion so a blessing ceremony date is decided upon but the girl still does not meet the man until the date of her marriage. She knows nothing about the person she is about to marry or his good or bad habits but she accepts because she trusts her parents who decide for her everything.
We have all heard of cases in India where a newly married woman is tormented by her in laws because she did not bring enough dowry and gifts or they become very greedy and keep on demanding more so either she takes her own life or she is murdered. Now there is a helpline for such abused women offered by NGOs.
I also hear of cases where an educated girl about to be married cancels the marriage if the groom or his relatives start making demands for more money and gifts on the day of marriage. It takes courage to do so but I applaud such courage in women who will not put up with such injustice and take the matter into their own hand. Their courage comes from the fact that they can quickly assess the greedy nature of their grooms and decide that they will be better off not getting married to such people.
It also makes the case for “ Love marriage “ in India although the women in other countries find it abnormal that there is no love involved in the traditional marriage because it is simply a physical marriage where love is not mentioned or even required. The traditionalists deride the concept of love marriage because it is so alien to them. They say that the love will develop once people get married but there is no guarantee that it will happen so millions of women and men are locked into loveless marriages where the husbands are real rogues who may think nothing of sacrificing their spouse in order to save their relatives like in the story mentioned above.
In the Western societies, there were arranged marriages in the aristocracy like in Europe where a marriage consolidated the power and the properties of a given family so it was more due to economics and politics than anything else. Often the bride brought a dowry of hundreds of acres of land so the groom’s family benefitted enormously. There are still political marriages that help consolidate their business or financial well beings but such marriages are limited to a certain people and not widespread like in India.
The clash of tradition with modernity:
I know of a case when an educated person decided to marry a woman who was also very educated and in training to become a doctor but it did not sit well with his father who had promised his friend that his daughter will be his son’s bride. He did not like to lose face so he disinherited his son and refused to attend his marriage.
They got married anyway and moved to the United States where both are settled with good jobs and the cherished citizenship so who was the loser? It was the father who lost a son and a wonderful daughter in law.
I know of another case of a beautiful woman who wanted to marry a very honorable and good person but was prevented by her own brother who called her choice a poor one so she remained single but loyal to her choice. The gentleman made great progress professionally but remained unmarried so both got old until the brother died and only then they got married. She died of cancer later but her husband remained steadfast in his love and loyalty until her last breath. This story is sad but inspiring the way they were so devoted to each other although their golden years were wasted because of the brother.
Now many young people denounce the tradition of arranged marriage and dowry so they get married in a civil registrar’s office where no dowry is paid or even mentioned. But it will take millions of young educated men and women to decide who will be their life partner who will marry them for love and not money to eventually change the system. It is already happening in cities but their rural counterparts are still mired in their ways that will take more time to change.
They must realize that the dowry system is outdated and obsolete that puts tremendous economic pressure on the parents of the woman but does not guarantee a successful marriage. The Hindu Code Bill allows a woman to divorce on certain grounds but most remain locked in their loveless and abusive marriage because they have no other choice.
In another story a very pretty woman got married but her husband died only after six months so she became a widow although she was so young. In India no one wants to marry a widow no matter how young and pretty because of the traditions but one day she met a handsome fellow and both fell in love with each other. The tragedy was that they kept silent and did not let each other know what was in their heart so they were heartbroken. Hiding his grief he went off to become a doctor while alone the woman kept looking for him for more than six years until one day she met him by chance in a railway station.
Both were shocked but she finally declared through her tears of joy that she had spent six years looking for him all over the country but now she had no more resources to travel and is very poor. The doctor also then confessed to her about his feelings but while waiting for his train, another woman showed up who was his co- worker and a doctor so the poor woman shed tears and disappeared after leaving him a note in which she wished him happiness. She sacrificed her love that makes Thakur’s stories so sad.
Dowry and property rights:
In the traditional system in India and elsewhere the dowry given to daughters deprives them of their property rights later after the death of their parents because the sons claim such rights in the patriarchal system. The woman leaves her family to join another family that she starts calling her own so her links with her brother or other siblings start to weaken especially when they live far apart.
Another reason why the property goes from father to son is to keep the property in the family and not to invite in laws into it so the daughters are deprived. Perhaps with the changes in the tradition will bring about equality between brothers and sister but that too will take some time and the realization that all children must be treated fairly and equally.
The marriage of widows:
It seems so unfair that a young woman becomes a widow soon after her marriage due to no fault of her own but the society demands that she remains so for the rest of her life giving her no chance of a normal life. Such widows are not welcome by her in laws so she becomes homeless unless her siblings take her back. But there too she faces an uphill battle if her brothers are married and her in laws there do not welcome her either. ( please read my blog What have I become here )
In such dire straits she then seeks shelter in Benares, Rishikesh or Mathura where some charitable organizations maintain such shelters. A great man set up shelters for widows where they are taught some skills to make baskets or embroidery that brings them a modest income to live on but more such shelters are needed to help all who are in need. The government of India now allows a widow to receive the pension of her late husband so it is a great relief to them.
It changes if the widow is educated and finds a job to support herself. In some cases young divorced woman finds a second life when she gets married again to someone who is educated and has a good job. I know of a case where it happened like that.
The great social reformers of Bengal in the 18th century like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and many others encouraged young men to marry widows although how many came forward to marry them is not known. The traditional society still looks down on widows and bars them from attending social events like marriage. This negative view of widows is carried on by married women more than others. I do not know why but it has always been this way. May be it has to do with ignorance, superstition and the lack of empathy.
The dowry less marriages:
It is a fact that often the parents cannot come up with the dowry for all of their daughters if they are poor and struggling. So what happens to such girls? A great man called Swami Dayanand Saraswati set up an organization called Arya Samaj (Society of Aryans) where he performed mass marriages of couples for free so many poor girls and boys get married there even today. But the problem of dowry remains and is not going away anytime soon.
Now with the advent of Internet, Skype and chat media like Facebook and Twitter etc. many find their mates and some of them do get married but this is a modern phenomenon limited only to the urban areas so others living in the hinterland are deprived. May be that will change in the future when the government of India will bring Internet to the villages but it will take more than Internet to change the system.
I hope that someday the tradition will give way to modernization when the boys and girls will be treated equally in all aspects of their life including marriage. I am hopeful although it is an uphill battle.
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