Arranged marriage is a notoriously controversial issue. In the West, some people are scathing about the practice (erring, to my mind, towards the grey area of ‘the white man’s burden’) but I must be wholly honest and confess that the notion of marriage in this part of the world, whether love or arranged, has always flummoxed me because each person’s information has contradicted the next.
Yet talking to an Indian friend recently has thrown some light on the topic; she suggested that being ‘blindly’ in love and choosing the wrong husband can be avoided with a measured decision on the behalf of the parents. Granted this requires the parents to know their daughter or son fairly well. The very lack of understanding that I have for the topic is intrinsically rooted in my rather different upbringing and culture, so I think to understand in the sense of empathy will be asking too much of myself, I seek comprehension.
It is in fact a topical issue in the UK at the moment, not solely amongst Indian communities, but across South Asian, Turkish and Kurdish communities where some 8000 cases of forced marriage are reported annually. The home office have in fact declared that they will clamp down on such practices. Responses I have found online have been as varied as: ‘this is the beginning of the end to female slavery’, ‘Eastern communities must stick together - the white man is the greatest enemy’ and ’an arranged marriage from childhood is beautiful… and surely one less thing to worry about’.
The final comment seems to miss the point; arranged marriages and forced marriages are two separate things entirely - the Indian government are seeking to quash forced marriage practices, but the practice of arranged ones are as much a part of everyday life as is chai.
It is worth noting that what follows is a series of slightly abritary but nonetheless interesting statements, which have, as l said, made the issue clearer for me…
There is some suggestion that higher castes and wealthier families are more predisposed to arranged marriages in efforts to preserve ethnicity and supposedly elite breeding
The ‘curse of the dowry' is still something of an issue, although officially outlawed by Indian government. Orphaned girls and the daughters of poorer families quite simply have a lesser chance to be traded in the ruthless marriage market, owing to their lack of funds, and there are instances of persecution and of being 'cast out' if the sum is not produced on time. This is not a light issue - all the time 'domestic accidents' see such women abused, and one only has to look at the rates of female foetal abortion and the new laws to ban foetal sex determination, to appreciate this
Watta satta or exchange marriages take place in rural Punjab where a brother sister duo will be paired with another sister brother duo ie. a straight swap of daughters!
Levirate marriage also still exists in some regions, where the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his widow, predominantly to ensure land rights remain in the right hands.
A market for private detective agencies started in the 80s and has been growing since. These matriomonial investigation agencies seek out the personal and professional histories of a prospective spouse for a fee.
Above all, it is a gendered process; women become the goods to exchange, and their ‘market value’ dramatically decreases with age, and factors such as skin colour, body shape and cooking ability are fundamental to the marriage agreement. What is more, it is traditional for potential grooms to have as many ‘vetoes’ as they wish as these brides are introduced, but women have far fewer opportunities to say no; for men a complaint of a bride being too dark is valid, for women it would have to be a far more weighty issue.
Finally, the rise of the internet has led to numerous matchmaking websites for hopeful parents, the biggest of which is www.shaadi.com (the hindu/urdu word for wedding), which claims to be the biggest matrimonial service in the world. They assert that they have ‘touched the lives’ of over 20 million people.
Ultimately, talking to the aforementioned friend who is from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, has broadened my opinions on arranged marriage. In her pragmatic words, ‘if I fall head over heels in love, I can rely on my parents to have a level head and consider carefully a man’s personality and prospects’ - perhaps we are just too romantic in the West!