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A stranger for a husband: Face-to-face with India's ancient tradition

 The Big Issue South Africa 02 September 2019

Manasa Tejeswini faced being shunned by her family and community when she refused to marry the man her parents had picked for her. Yet some young Indian men and women are in favour of this 3 000-year-plus tradition. Tejeswini looks into the practice of arranged marriages and its place in contemporary India. (1750 Words) - By Manasa Tejeswini

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Reuters_Hindu Marriage

Brides and grooms arrive at a mass marriage ceremony REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

At the age of 23 I was told it was time to get married. Just like my parents and my cousins before me had done, I was taken to meet my potential husband-to-be and his family for the first time. The procedure was quick but uncomfortable. Clad in a sari, I had to travel kilometres to meet a boy and decide if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. He sat opposite me and we exchanged awkward glances while our parents spoke. If he didn't like me, rejections were to be made over the phone the next day. But if I didn't like him, that didn't matter too much, as long as he fitted "the bill". All this was new to me, and I hated it.

But it shouldn't have come as such a surprise. My responsibility of growing up as a Hindu in an orthodox, overprotective Brahmin family meant I was to spend an hour in prayer every day, visit temples and find joy in mindlessly helping my mother follow traditions.

During my days in college I was never allowed to have a boyfriend and was told that only my parents had the right to choose the right guy for me, and they would decide when the time was right. Last year, they decided, was the right time.

As the wedding - the cost of which would be borne solely by my parents - neared, I knew I couldn't go through with it and bucked hard against the tradition. My future husband may have fitted my parents' criteria - well settled, educated and from a good family - but I knew nothing about him. He was a stranger and my parents were giving me away to someone whom they had known for less than a month. It was more like a business deal. I cried. I pleaded with them to think about my future, my dreams, my career. How was I to wake up next to a stranger? How was I to know if he was a good man? How could I call his family mine when I did not know them? Where was the love? Where was the happiness?

No one was listening. They presumed that my life would fall into place once I was married, like they believe theirs did, and their parents before them. For the first time I felt alone and helpless, cast out by those closest to me.

Not even my family's threat to disown me and the inevitable scandal it would cause in my community was enough to force me into an arranged marriage. I finally mustered up the courage to tell the groom how I felt, and the fall-out wasn't pretty. I was blamed for disrespecting my family, for hurting people, bringing shame to my caste. But I was hurt, too. My family had failed me. They had decided to give me away to a stranger. They had failed to see me as a person, a person who wants the freedom to choose who to love and spend the rest of my life with.

Sadly, my story is not unique. It is the tale of almost every woman born in a nation that still thrives on caste-based, arranged marriages.

 

Form of exchange

Arranged marriages have been custom in India for more than 3 000 years. Although the tradition has always lacked official recognition and governmental support - even today - stats by Shaadi.com, one of the world's largest online matrimonial sites, show that more than 90% of Indian marriages are arranged.

"The practice of arranged marriages was common to all societies [in the world] in the early period. Ancient tribal society saw marriage as a form of exchange, including exchange of daughters/brides, who were seen as a prize asset in view of their reproductive capacities," says Dr Indu Agnihotri, deputy director of the Centre of Women's Development Studies in New Delhi.

"Over time it evolved in different ways with regard to different sections of society. In feudal Europe, if a daughter was married outside the boundary of an estate, the father had to gain permission from the lord and perhaps even pay compensation for loss of the labour service contribution that would be denied to the lord on account of the daughter moving to another estate."

In India, the caste system, whereby a person's birth into a particular family determines his or her position in the social hierarchy for life, has direct links to the feudal system.
Although India has progressed beyond a land master and peasant-based society, it is still strictly divided into four main castes which clearly reflect wealth and status in society.

While some of the so-called lower castes have broken free of arranged marriages, the upper castes - including my Brahmin caste - still widely practise the custom.

"Of the eight forms of marriage known in ancient times, the Brahmin form of marriage corresponds most closely to the practice of arranged marriage that prevails in large parts of India…Arranged marriage is therefore still seen by the upper castes as the most legitimate and morally superior form of contracting a marriage," Agnihotri explains.

Although not as big a taboo as in the upper castes, free choice marriage within the lower castes is, however, still frowned upon, especially when the couple come from different castes.

"Inter-caste marriages continue, but social attitudes to such marriages are hostile and now, as the spate of honour killings [murder of a couple who defy their parents to marry] shows, young couples meet with more violent reactions from parents, especially if either of the partners is from an untouchable [the lowest caste] community," says Agnihotri.

She adds that parents mostly oppose inter-caste marriages because of issues around status, property ownership, inheritance and the dowry.

 

Hassle-free marriages

As India modernises and becomes more firmly entrenched in the global village, one would expect the youth to move away from a society where caste determines who they may or may not love. Surprisingly, many Indian youth still go along with arranged marriages.

"I have never had a girlfriend because I belong to a rigid community and I know my parents will not approve of it. Hence, I have left it to them to find me a nice girl," says Shyam Sundar*, a Bangalore-based PR consultant.

He hastily adds: "But obviously at the end of the day I make the call. Besides, arranged marriages are hassle-free because, as you grow up, you know you don't have to worry about finding the right partner."

Shaadi.com pioneered online marriage matchmaking and today has 20 million plus users across the globe. Lopamudra Mohanty, spokesperson for the site, says it is not only a platform for Indian families worldwide to find the perfect match for their children, but also for independent men and women to meet their match. According to Mohanty, the site is used more by single men and women - 70% - compared to 30% of profiles created by parents for their children.

For women like 26-year-old Madhumita Rangarajan*, a software consultant at a leading IT firm in Bangalore, matrimonial sites offer some freedom of choice. "It is definitely not easy being single and career-oriented for a woman in India. My marriage is the only thing on my mother's mind and I know my parents are frantically 'groom hunting'. But I am on matrimonial sites because I know with my busy schedule the chances of meeting someone is rare, so this is my only opportunity to make an effort to find my own husband."

Young people toeing the line when it comes to arranged marriages may have more to do with entrenched conservatism within Indian society than real support for or belief in the tradition, says Agnihotri.

"Continued practices of segregation of the sexes and social restrictions on opportunities for interaction between young men and women remain the primary reason for continuing the arranged marriage system. This is changing with more inter-mixing. However, given the fact that women have less opportunity to get jobs and assert economic independence, the freedom to assert choice with regard to who to marry also remains restricted."

Agnihotri points out that young people in India often agree to arranged marriages due to "fear of social ostracism", much like I experienced when I rejected my chosen groom.

"Possible violence against their families also acts as a constraint on young men and women who may want to take an independent decision but may not be able to do so," she adds.

 

Widely practised outside India

Outside India, arranged marriage is still widely practised by Hindu families. Agnihotri says many young men often opt for an arranged marriage because they believe girls from back home "will be more docile and will adjust within the joint or extended nuclear family".

"There is a widespread notion that choice-based 'love' marriages and marriages where the partner or both partners have lived outside India are likely to be less 'lasting'," she explains.

But in South Africa "pure arranged marriages are virtually non-existent", according to Jawahir Nandha, secretary of the Hindu Association of the Western Cape.

"However, several meetings would be arranged between families by a facilitator [also known as a matchmaker or "influencer"] usually known by both the families. Preference would be given to couples within the same linguistic, tradition, career and socio-economic background. In the case of love marriages, the youth of today are already courting their partners from work and community environments," he says.

Although a member of the small Brahmin community in South Africa, Nandha is opposed to the practice of arranged marriages based on caste. "This is segregation, segmentation, shallow and narrow-mindedness and does not support Hindu Dharma [belief] of vasudev kutumbhakum, which means 'the whole world is your family'," he emphasises.

Nandha believes social change is needed to do away with caste-based marriages, but concedes it will be a long and difficult battle to force this change.

"The fact is the issue remains entangled with the socio-economic status of the family. Change will be slow until a more thorough democratisation of both the institution of the family as it operates in society, and the rights of individuals within the family - especially the rights of daughters - is confronted," he says.

For me, confronting those rights - or the lack thereof - has been an agonisingly painful process, one that has cut wide chasms between me and my family and my community. It's a high price to pay for simply wanting the most fundamental of human rights: the right to choose who to love.

*Names changed on request

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