Thursday, March 24, 2011

Who Benefits Most From Arranged Marriages?

Recently, I had to accompany my sister, who was in search of a suitable groom for her daughter. My niece is educated software professional, an engineer by qualification, and is earning a good sum of money. My sister had arranged an address for negotiation from a marriage bureau and she got an appointment with the prospective groom’s parents. The mother of the prospective groom is a teacher in a Government-aided college in Bhubaneswar and his father is a retired doctor. The prospective groom is also working as a software professional in a Metro city.

Though the proposal was selected from a marriage bureau’s matchmaking website, the prospective groom’s family has shown a dominant role by saying that as they are from the prospective groom’s family, they want to interview the parents of the prospective bride first. As my brother-in-law is a busy executive in an oil corporation, it was not possible in his part to attend and my sister requested me to accompany her to the interview.

We agreed to meet at the lady and her husband at the college workplace of the proposed groom’s mother. The lady, who appeared before us an hour late for the interview, came with her husband who, true to my feelings functioned more as a pet than a husband. Seeing me, the lady first declared that she doesn’t like feminists at all as they are the real enemy of Indian culture as well as the real enemy of a happy family life. She claimed that a bride should be sober and should be consumed by modesty so that she could pay regards to her husband and her in-law’s family. It is interesting to note that during the total time period of interview, her husband was very quiet and at last, he had to open his mouth in support of his wife but only after the lady rebuked him for remaining silent over our hot arguments!

The lady, who claims that she had been to America once and could drive a car there, very rudely asked us why my sister had posted her daughter’s photo in the marriage bureau’s website with jeans and a shirt. She again asked my sister, why she mentioned that the girl belongs to a nuclear family.

I asked her what is wrong with a jeans and shirt and is there any relation of personal behavior to what a person wears. Are the girls wearing sarees not garish in nature? Secondly, I asked her what is the wrong with a nuclear family when in most of the metro cities, people are living with that family? The joint-family concept has all but totally been abolished in urban areas and when the lady herself admitted she belongs to a nuclear family, why she has such exasperation for a nuclear family? It was kind of confusing to me.

Arranged Marriages 2011

She told us that they are searching for an ideal bride. So what are the criteria for an ideal bride? In their opinion, the ideal bride is a girl who is highly-educated, could adjust herself to metro city life, and also would be orthodox in mind and mentality, but one who could also put a veil on her head and would manage a large family if required.

The expectations of that lady made me more confused. For what was she actually searching? Does she know herself? Was she looking for a domestic servant who was born and brought up in metro city and who got herself highly educated and employed in a multi national company, and who could behave like an urban girl and could prepare herself as a domestic servant to take care of a large family? How much of a role did the earning capacity of the prospective bride play in the deliberation? Was she expected to bring in a large income yet also take on the full-time task of managing a household as well? Was this a business deal where projected profit and loss was a key component rather than considering the feeling of the two human beings central to the outcome?

I have attended many negotiations of marriage where I find the expectations of the groom’s parents are absurd and contradictory. They need a highly educated girl, preferably a technically-qualified girl, who would be willing to also perform the role of housewife. A large percentage of parents of prospective grooms also want their would-be daughter-in-law to be a fair-complexioned, even if their son is darker skinned. They say they don’t need any dowry, but at the same time, they expect the girl’s parents to give essential assets and jewelries to make proper respect to their prestige.

These dramas are very common in India and whenever an arranged marriage is going to initiate, these dramas are often staged even at the first date of negotiations. Thus the parents of the prospective bride have to bear such humiliation from the prospective groom’s family and relatives. Still, arranged marriages are preferred in India. And that is an irony for me that how it could be still prospering?

Arranged Marriage v. Love Marriage

Many Indians contend that arranged marriages are more successful than marriages in the West, particularly given the staggering divorce rates of the latter. But what are the circumstances driving those staggering numbers? In India, it is believed that romantic love does not necessarily lead to a good marriage and often fails once the passion dissipates while real love flows from a properly-arranged union between two individuals. Besides India, arranged marriages commonly occur in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In arranged marriages, families choose partners based on compatibility, culture, and upbringing. They focus on issues that will foster a loving and fruitful relationship that will last a long time. So when a man or woman comes of marriage age, people around the community act as headhunters getting a man and a woman together if they see a fit.

Arranged Marriages: Then and Now…East and West

During ancient times of Ramayana and Mahabharata, there were many ways through which marriages could be arranged. Svayamwar was one of them. When a king decided to marry off his daughter, he sent out invitations to all the princes and noblemen that he thought were well-suited for his daughter. They would come to the palace where the princess would then choose her husband by putting a garland around the man's neck, after which, the two would be married.

In Western countries, arranged marriages were happening even in Victorian Europe. With the Industrial Revolution and the end of the second world wars, people's attitudes and perceptions started changing as women started to join the workforce and started to make demands for their rights. In England, for example, most of the kings and queens had arranged marriages up until King George V. The present Queen Elizabeth's father broke tradition by marrying a commoner.

What is different between the two global sides regarding marriage is lying with the basic concept of marriage itself. In the West, it is considered as more independence and freedom; in the East, it is considered more of a responsibility.

In Western countries, the emphasis is more on practicality in their mates. The couple looks for aspects such as sex, love, beauty, integrity, diligence, ambition, humility and generosity, which are the center of the relationships among a couple. But in Eastern countries, an arranged marriage seems to be a business deal among parents, who tend to look for material gain, dowry, security, safety, and also for social prestige. The question of compatibility, love and understandings among partners are left far behind. But there are many situations in the West, particularly among the wealthy and privileged and politically active, which very much mimic the arranged marriages in the East as described in the last sentence. So the common denominators in either area become money and status.

The Rules of the Game: The Anatomy of an Arranged Marriage

There are certain rules that apply to arranged marriages in India. For one, you have to be the same nationality, caste, religion and of the same social status. Horoscope matching of both bride and groom has also played an important role in settling a negotiation of such arranged marriages. The post-wedding stability in an arranged marital relationship more than that of love marriages is due to parents dishonouring divorces, which sometimes resulted in bride burning or suicides by the female folks to get rid of a strained relationship.

Social Conservatives always measure benefits of an arranged marriage over a love marriage particularly by giving the latter's staggering divorce rates. It is true that the countries where arranged marriage is an approved social system, the divorce rates are reduced to very few. But do the numbers really tell the actual story? In India, it is 1.1 percent (see bride-burning and suicide statistics below), whereas it is 1.5 percent in Sri Lanka, and 1.9 percent in Japan. Meanwhile in the USA, it is 54.8 percent, 42.6% in the UK, and 38.3% in France. ( source: Divorces and crude divorce rates by urban/rural residence: 2000 - 2004 published by United Nations Statistics Division)

Among the divorce rates in India, 89 percent of love marriages failed and applied for divorce, and interestingly, 11 percent of arranged marriages end in divorce largely due to issues with the elders and not the couple themselves. But these are just numbers and are normally as good as the opinions of those paying for the studies. It does not play a sufficient role to prove that arranged marriages have less of a divorce rate as the numbers fail to take into account other factors such as bride burnings and suicides. If we believe Ms. Avnita Lakhani, there are 17 bride burning death cases per day or more than 6,200 a year in India, which can be considered as a tremendous setback for arranged marriages. (See: “Bride-Burning: The ‘Elephant in the Room’ is Out of Control” by Avnita Lakhani) (

In India, as love marriages are generally not accepted by parents, these wedded couples usually tackle all their crises on their own, because they might have been separated from their family for cultural reasons or for pride. Conversely, in cases of arranged marriages, the married couple can often resort to their parents or acquaintances in times of financial crises or other problems. In addition, if the marriage proves to be a failure, they have a number of people around them from whom to seek support or on whom to put the blame. In addition, their parents would come forward to solve the problems between the couple, if they have married with the elder's consent. This is the reason why arranged marriages are considered secure for the people in India as many in the family have a continuing role.

The caste system also plays a major role in arranged marriages, though in some matrimonial advertisements, we see there are parents who claim their search contend for ‘caste no bar.’ But still, a major portion of arranged marriages in India are settling between the same caste and many times horoscope matching is also a prominent factor for such marriages. These types of marriages are still being performing with an orthodox mentality, pulling back society to centuries-old backward types of thought and process.

The Role of Pre-Marital Sex in the Arranged Marriage Process

Conservatives in Indian society always discourage teen sexuality, though it is a normal phenomenon but not socially granted. Realism can blur into cynicism, and a jaded attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Social conservatives look at the contemporary sexual landscape and remember that it wasn’t always thus, and they look at current trends and hope that it doesn’t have to be this way forever.

To protect and glorify virginity is also a hidden social agenda behind the arranged marriage, as ‘virginity’ is a word always termed with female sexuality. Also, it is interesting to note that no term has been found in the dictionary for ‘sexually inexperienced man.’ So it is a term derived and used by a patriarchal society. During an arranged marriage negotiation, though it has not been asked directly, it has been always expected that the proposed bride should be a virgin. But nobody dares to expect that the boy should be sexually untouchable and pure. I don’t think how and why our society is so sensitive about sex, or categorically and more correct to say, is sensitive to only FEMALE sexuality, skipping the purity of male premarital sexual status.

Indian society is going through a dilemma and confusion in this regard. Parents hope their children keep themselves from teen sexuality, but when times come to arrange a suitable life partner, they prefer their youngsters should love and choose their partner. Though they are not in favour of premarital sex, at the time of marriage, they prepare to accept pre-marital sex, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.

This contradiction prevails in most of the educated middle-class urban parents. And for their youngsters, it is impossible to make them liberal so that they could repudiate the virginity matters from their concepts. They have been taught to give importance to virginity and chastity throughout a quarter of their lives and when they have been expected to remove this idea from their mind, they find themselves incapable in doing so. That’s why most of the young people depend on their parents to choose a life partner for them. Tradition and society have seemed to have confused them greatly.

The Dowry: the Key Negotiating Point…and How It Has Changed

The dowry is another evil open agenda of an arranged marriage, where during the negotiation, it is openly discussed among two parties. The dowry has come a long way since olden times! Today, the groom’s parents demand dowries in the form of lots of money, furniture, jewelry, and expensive household items and now, even homes and expensive foreign holidays to the bridegroom. It is argued that these dowries will help the newly wedded couple to start their ‘new house.’ But the question which is always skipped is why a bride’s parents have to pay these sorts of materials and money and not the groom’s family?

Actually, the dowry is considered as a ‘bride’s price,’ though nobody identifies it in that way.

But have the feminists weighed in on the subject? As there is an absence of feminist discourse in India, nobody, not even a single feminist has raised any question on these arranged marriages. In fact, I haven’t read a single essay in support or against a love marriage or in support or against the arranged marriage system.

The Role of the Boy and Girl in Arranged Marriages

Social conservatives never admit that arranged marriages are a forced marriage but really, is it? They argue that in an arranged marriage, the marriage could not be preceded without the consent of the wedded couple, but is that ‘consent’ by choice or by obedience? But in most cases, we see the parents impose their choice on their sons and daughters and as it is not a matter of heart, either the boy or the girl has to consent on the parent’s will, most times out of respect. So we can say arranged marriage is a polite and developed way of forced marriage. Though today, during the negotiation periods, the boy and girl are often permitted to see each other, are allowed to talk for few minutes and in some cases, parents allowed them to talk over phone or to date socially. But still, there is much more stress and emotional tension on both girl and boy to give consent to their parent’s choice because of family pride, the wishes of the parents, or social obligation.

The boys and girls have been taught by their parents that ‘adjustment’ is the other name of an arranged marriage and that true love will come AFTER marriage from that adjustment. They have to adjust and have to sacrifice, and this sacrifice would bring actual feelings of love among them -- at least that is the concept.

It is a general idea in India that love in a love marriage starts out very high and then over time, it decreases. And in arranged marriages, love starts out relatively low and then it increases gradually and surpasses the love in love marriages at about five years. And after ten years, it’s twice as strong -- or so the proponents say.

In some cases, the bride’s family allows and encourages their daughter to date and make a love relation so that they have to pay fewer dowries and if the daughter couldn’t pursue the boy to convince his parents in dowry matter, the bride’s parents don’t hesitate to cancel the marriage negotiations and even if the engagements would be performed. Arranged marriage, then, seems to be a lot of business dealings between the two sets of parents and as a result the boy and girl have to work accordingly to the wish of their parents; they are almost like pawns and not human beings with feelings. These are just some of the strange factors which make an arranged marriage a forced marriage of sorts and we should have to take them in account. But will we?

This is not a debate on which marriage is better -- the arranged marriage or the love marriage. They BOTH have merits and demerits. It is also wrong to say that arranged marriages or love marriages are social forms related to the cultures from which they are practiced. In 2002, the study reported, 22 percent of Americans aged 15 to 24 were still inexperienced with sexual intimacy. By 2008, that number was up to 28 percent. (Source: National health Statistics Report. Link: But Ross Douthat suggests that this trend may date back decades, and that young Americans have been growing more sexually conservative since the late 1980s due to a concerted effort among health education professionals at schools and beyond. (See: Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times, published on March 6, 2011) The proliferation of AIDS has also had a dramatic effect on the sexual habits of youth in America.

My goal here is not to certify one kind of marriage over the other. What I want to illustrate is that there are many discrepancies which still remain in marriage rituals and kinds of marriages, and these obsolete ideas can be and should be removed from the minds of the masses.

But either way, one has to question who is the real beneficiary in an arranged marriage?