Institution of marriage
Source : Google photo of a Hindu traditional wedding
Synopsis : The institution of marriage in many societies is undergoing some changes that are demanded by the present time and the parties concerned. These reforms are demanded by both men and women so certain traditions are being discarded and are being replaced by newer trends. The blog looks at different reasons people get married or do not get married or how some decide to maintain the traditions.
People all over the world rejoice when two people get married because marriage is considered the founding stone of a just society where it becomes more than an institution. It gives it the legitimacy of union between two persons in any society no matter what is the religion, ethnicity, race or creed of the people involved.
The customs, rituals and the process of getting married varies from country to country and even within a country depending on the local traditions, norms and rules but in most countries it symbolizes the union between two people as well as their families.
In traditional societies where arranged marriage is still practiced, the two families pay great attention to the qualities and education of the groom as well as the prospective bride. In India they always look for a girl who is beautiful and fair but are less stringent on the groom as long as he has a stable and good job to take care of his new bride. His family background and his good and bad habits are scrutinized by the family of the bride but the girl herself has little to say in the matter of her marriage because she depends totally on her family to choose a suitable groom for her.
In such societies the boys and girls do not get to choose their life partners because intimacy before marriage is not tolerated by either family although slowly this has started to change. The spread of education among women has made them independent once she gets a job and comes in contact with her office mates or even in college so we see more and more girls choosing their mates. In rural India, the traditions are stronger where women are still dependent on their families because their education and job opportunities are limited when compared to city girls.
Marriage of convenience:
There are many types of marriage. In the aristocratic rich society, there is still the practice of marriage of convenience where such marriages may prove to be beneficial to their business interests or for land and property consolidation but normally people marry because they love someone and decide to spend their life together with the official stamp of approval of a priest and of the society where they live. This stamp of approval is necessary in traditional as well as non-traditional societies where such approval gives the marriage the legitimacy they seek. In traditional societies like in India, the love between a man and woman is not required before they get married but in other societies it is considered a necessity by the bride and the groom before they tie the knot.
Another form of marriage of convenience in some countries is practiced when women marry foreigners to become citizens of that country. They can then avail all the privileges offered by that country to its citizens like easier access to their job market and universal health care. It also helps them escape the poverty trap they find themselves in in their own country.
Rituals of marriage:
I have observed the rituals of marriage in many countries and have often noted that in the Western culture, the act of marriage remains very short where a priest asks a few questions to the man and woman to which they reply in an acceptable manner after which the groom puts a ring on the finger of the girl while repeating the vows prompted by the priest. The priest then declares them man and wife and says you may now kiss the bride. The whole process does not take more than a few minutes for the Christians.
But among the Hindus, the process takes hours and long fasting by the man and woman while the priest decides the most opportune time to get married which may be at 2 am that is long after the guests have departed. The priest calculates the date and the time of marriage by consulting his astrological charts and starts the long and tedious ceremony that includes chanting of mantras and hymns and walking around the sacred fire seven times.
The marriage is completed when the bride puts a flower garland around the neck of the groom and the groom does the same signifying that they have now mutually agreed to be husband and wife. Then the groom puts vermilion powder on the head of the woman where she parts her hair signifying her status as a married woman.
But to get to this point requires long drawn negotiations between the two families and preparation for the marriage. They decide how much dowry the groom’s family will accept in cash and what other gifts the groom will get and give to the woman. It may be costly gold jewelries, silk sarees etc. depending upon the financial status of the brides’s family. In other words the bride’s family spends heavily to literally buy the groom for their daughter. The patriarchal society favors boys more than the girls.
I still do not quite understand the reason for the dowry that the groom shamelessly accepts and often demands more during or after the marriage putting tremendous pressure on the bride and her family as if he is doing a favor to the girl by marrying her and getting paid to do it. The traditionalists may look at it differently and explain the merits of the dowry system that guarantees some financial security for the girl after her marriage if her marriage ends up on rocks for some reason later on.
I know of a family that spent lavishly on the marriage of their daughter to a man who turned out to be a real rascal tormenting the innocent girl so one day she ran back to her parents and filed for divorce. She got married again but this time to a very nice gentleman in England where they now live. Not all girls are so lucky who get married through the arranged marriage system so now we hear more women protesting the tradition.
Somehow it feels wrong for the family of the bride to pay dowry to the son in law who feels no shame in taking the money and often pressures them to pay more in gifts. In many cases the poor parents feel like hostage to the demands. We have all heard of the in laws tormenting the bride for more dowry and gifts resulting in bride burning or suicide in some cases and divorce in other. The Indian government now provides a helpline to those women who are mistreated by the in laws but such abuse continues.
In other cultures the parents of both families help to some extent and give gifts but they do not practice the dowry system. In the United States often the bride makes up a list of gifts she wants from her parents, relatives and friends where such practices are tolerated in the name of practicality but in other cultures it is considered bad manners.
There was a tradition in Hindu India long ago when a woman would call all her suitors in a public competition of their military prowess and choose the winner but this practice was limited to the royalty or people of the higher caste. Now it has completely disappeared because India is now a republic so there are no kings and queens or princesses. Women had complete freedom to choose their mates very publicly in those days but later this tradition was replaced by the strict arranged marriage system.
The spread of Internet, smart phones and co educational schools has contributed to more mixing of men and women in schools, colleges and workplaces that has encouraged the boyfriend girlfriend relationship that now has started to challenge the old tradition of arranged marriage in India and in other traditional societies. The government has also stepped in and has made laws to limit the amount of dowry the parents pay but this law is not implemented effectively. There is also a law in India that limits the amount of money a family spends on marriage but this too is circumvented by most people.
Forced marriage :
In some parts of India where most people are poor and can’t come up with dowry for their daughters who may be illiterate and ugly often resort to forced marriage imposed upon an unsuspecting young man who attends the marriage of his friend in a remote village but such practices are now less reported. The parents of such women who have come of age desperately seek legal mates for them because of their concern that a mature woman may seek sexual gratification with anyone causing scandal and social disturbance. I have noticed sexually aggressive unmarried young women in rural areas in India who will give ample hint of what they want.
Among the uneducated lower caste women in tribal areas in some parts of Eastern India, they tend to be promiscuous and get pregnant without marriage so there are many cases reported when they abandon their babies in hospitals and run away. I know a case like this when the hospital called a couple that wanted to adopt a child so the child was very lucky but not all children born this way are so lucky. What happens to such children is anyone’s guess because adoption in India is not very popular.
What weakens the institution of marriage?
One reason is that many women and men do not like marriage at all and live together, produce children and pretend to live a normal life although they may feel the tension of living in an illegitimate relationship that may influence how they and their children are viewed by the society or the school mates of the kids. The word bastard is often used to denigrate them or they may lose their social standing where most people are devout and believe in the institution of marriage. The Amish people are particularly intolerant of unwed mothers who produce illegitimate children because they are devout and live by the dictates of the Bible. They stay married for life.
In more cosmopolitan areas in big cities people do not know each other and do not care what others think about them. The cohabitation however has some legal benefits because they can easily part ways if the relationship sours for some reason unlike in protracted divorce cases where both parties suffer financially as well as emotionally where the children are always the victims.
I think the religion plays a crucial role to strengthen the institution of marriage because it encourages a legitimate relationship that as a whole binds the families together and the greater society as a whole. The families are stable where there are no divorces so the children benefit from a stable family that has the social status as an integral part of a community.
Man is a social animal that likes the company of others so it is important for him to be accepted by the society although big city people have made this concept irrelevant today and accept the notion that they are free to live anyway they want irrespective of what others think of them.
In some cultures there is no social stigma attached to illegitimate children so women in such culture tend to be promiscuous. They tend to be poor who have no money to get married so they opt for cohabitation with someone or anyone for a while thus weakening the institution of marriage. They are euphemistically called single mothers.
In India some religious societies arrange mass marriage of couples in a temple and even pay for the marriage dress and some other expenses which helps the poor people get the legitimacy they seek. The priests arrange for such mass marriage and help find the match for the girls and boys. I have a cousin who got married this way.
Marriage of companionship:
The married couple take the vow of staying together richer or poorer the rest of their life so by and large we see most people in traditional societies tend to have long married life where divorce is rare and people marry for life. This is not true anymore in the western societies where the divorce rate keeps climbing and where many couples face the problems that arise from divorce like alimony payment, welfare of children and such that tear their family apart.
The Muslims used to divorce their wives by simply saying Talaq Talaq Talaq without giving the women any chance of justice but now this practice has been banned in India recently winning the hearts of all such abused women and their families. The culprit will now face a minimum of three years in jail and pay substantial alimony to the wife.
The happily married couples stay as close companions and friends looking after each other in their old age which is a great blessing of marriage. No one really wants to be alone in his or her old age when their children no longer live with them so they only have each other and no one else. It is not uncommon when one of them dies; the partner also dies of grief sooner or later.
So I believe that the institution of marriage in any society plays a significant role in maintaining the stability of the society by giving the legitimacy to the union between a man and a woman and protect the children from social disapproval. As time passes, certain traditions are discarded in favor of newer trends that are more suited to the present time. One tradition that is now fading in India is that of serving the guests with home cooked food. Now the marriage banquet is prepared by caterers who are impersonal because they do not know anyone and do not care who eats and who does not. The guests may eat and leave their gifts or envelops to someone and may not even see the bride or the groom who are still waiting to be married.
I do not see a total breakdown of the institution of marriage anywhere soon because it plays a significant role in any society that can’t be underestimated. What I see is a gradual change in some of the traditions that have been brought about by the demand of the time , economic progress and the rise in the level of education of both men and women which points to reform that is inevitable and welcome.
I see that eventually the system of arranged marriage will weaken to the point where young people will opt for choosing their life partners in large enough numbers to bring a reform. Many arranged marriages end up in disasters because the groom or the bride was chosen by the ill informed parents so the married couple tend to blame their parents or relatives for the total mismatch. The younger generation now wants to take the responsibility of choosing the mate and not blame the parents if the marriage does not work out which to me seems fair. However, this reform in the system is more visible in urban areas and not so much in rural areas where traditions are stronger.
I think every man and woman has the right to choose a life partner even if the traditional society tries to impose on them the arranged marriage. As the education spreads among both sexes thus giving them the job opportunities and the freedom to choose, the arranged marriage tradition will fade to insignificance. It will also reduce the burden of dowry payment the bride’s family has to make which is also welcome and fair.
In other words the younger and more educated generation will bring about the changes. Such changes will be welcome.
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