Arranged Marriages: How are promises of a lifetime made in one day?

Published: April 16, 2018
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Was she looking into the boy’s eyes and falling in love or seeing a reflection of herself as some crazy-cat-lady without him? PHOTO: PINTEREST

I grew up with a mother who constantly wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn’t gotten married at 23. What if her college days were spent in Delhi instead of in her own small town? Would the lap of a big city nurture a strong independent woman just like itself?

My mother was meant to go to a renowned college in Delhi but for some reason had to settle for the one which was a bicycle ride away from my grandparents’ home. After she finished her MA and graduated top of her class, the wedding talks started.

I am 23-years-old now, and my mother was already married by the time she was as old as I am.

I have heard more about the antics of my oldest cousin on that fateful day when my mother met my father than I have about what my parents said to each other. He was a big-city man with a bank job (stable!), and she was fresh out of college.

How are promises of a lifetime made in one day?

What made her do it is a question I ask her often, and I think she is still looking for the answer to that question. Her immediate answer to this question and many others that I ask (I can be quite annoying) is that “in those times, things were like that.”

Life is not usually as dramatic as a Bollywood film, so there were no villains in this story who forced my mother against her will, no blackmailing, no cajoling and no drama whatsoever. My grandfather was a respected Hindi poet and teacher who was reluctant to get his only daughter married so young. He asked her if she was happy with the decision and wanted to go forward with the wedding.

My mother sometimes ponders if it was my grandmother’s worry that got to her or was it the lack of exposure to the outside world and opportunities? We both usually jokingly settle on the latter, and she insists that the marriage was ultimately a great idea because she got great offsprings out of it. She did go on to become a strong independent woman in spite of the two abovementioned offsprings and found her strengths, interests, and passions.

From a young age, it appeared to me that the answer to a lot of world’s problems is education, exposure, and opportunities. I believed that poverty, pollution, illiteracy, sexism, classism and a variety of other -isms could be solved through these three essential ingredients. My mother’s experience of arranged marriage made me believe that all a woman needs to do is get a taste of the real, diverse, incredible, complicated, tough world and it would be too hard for her to settle for anything less.

When I was 16, I moved away from India and was constantly barraged with questions about India and arranged marriages; it seems like we have a bit of a global image when it comes to arranged marriages.  My answers were always a combination of cluelessness about marriage (I was 16!) and the Indian middle-class’ despicable tendency to blame everything even slightly “controversial” on the poor. It was always a thing that happened in the past or in the present only the uneducated and unaware resorted to it as they could not afford the organic ingredients of education, exposure and opportunities.

It has been some years since and now marriage does not seem like such a distant reality with the everyday announcement of another classmate or friend getting engaged. Although there is little change in the story that I have heard for the past decade, the girl and the boy (man and woman probably) meet once or twice and decide that they want to spend the rest of their lives together.

How are promises of a lifetime made in one day?

These are friends that I studied in school or university, women who I have shared my opinions, hopes, and dreams with. Women, who have previously acknowledged the absurdity of having to decide on a husband one fine day. My friends can afford the organic ingredients of education, exposure and opportunities, so they have definitely tasted the real world.

Questioning the arrangement of arranged marriages is not necessarily a point on the love marriage side. There are great marriages and terrible marriages on both sides. Yes, arranged marriage has evolved from the bride and groom meeting for the first time on their wedding to some sort of a dating app wherein the family swipes right for you, and then you meet or date that person for the sole purpose of getting married. Perhaps a lot of times, it is an informed decision, and there is nothing wrong in actively seeking companionship for life.

Recently, a friend said that she actively plans on fighting the pressure that she knows will eventually come. In a sense, we all know that pressure is coming so when someone finally decides to go for an arranged marriage, I cannot help but wonder if she made an informed decision or was just tired of all the fighting and finally gave in? Was she looking into the boy’s eyes and falling in love or seeing a reflection of herself as some crazy-cat-lady without him?

Another friend who recently got engaged mentioned in passing, that the older girls of the community who did not want to get married when the “time was right” are now at 28 and are somehow equivalent to the soggy-brownish, leftover lettuce on the supermarket shelf that nobody wants to buy.

It is this phenomenon of a woman having an expiration date where much of the fear and coercion lies. This is also where the major gender difference lies as men don’t have the same expiration date and are perhaps not as commodified as women (does not mean that there is no pressure on men, just that it is a whole other thing).

The communities are tight, gossip is plenty, and the options are seemingly limited. So even if you traverse the world and come back to the same smirking aunties and uncles whose foremost adjective for you is unmarried, then it is understandable how mindsets don’t change. Even if you are top of your class but are somehow still bringing shame and worry to your family just by the mere act of being single, then I see why most women take the decision that my mother did. The pressure in our “modernised” Indian society has become implicit rather than explicit.

Irrespective of how the marriage turns out, women often make this decision because they have to and not because they want to. I just wish that someone looked into the eyes of all the old uncles and aunties, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers and asked them, how are promises of a lifetime made in one day?

This post was originally published on BrownGirlMagazine and republished with permission.

Sonakshi Srivastava

Sonakshi Srivastava

The author lives and works in Hong Kong. She has a day job and an evening job so she usually writes late at night about the things she loves, like animals, books, Bollywood, feminism, TV shows and culture.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Rahul

    Marriage is based on a kind of barter, the man may be good at certain things (Financial Security/Protection etc.) while the woman may be good at other things (Looking after household/rearing children etc.). In an arranged marriage, the terms of the barter are clear and the roles are already defined. That is why the success rate of arranged marriages is very high as long as both partners stick to the bargain they have made. In a love marriage, the bargain is muddied by all kinds of other expectations. Love is not a sufficient glue for a marriage because love wanes and interests may diverge with time.Recommend

  • Stupid Intelligent

    Fine analysis.Recommend

  • jay jay

    If an arranged marriage works because the social and domestic pressures, then I guess you cannot really take the guarantee of success rate of arranged marriages. Being trapped in an arranged marriages, because your parents told you that your husband’s home is your final home is not a successful marriage.Recommend

  • Usman Razzaq

    There is no gurantee in love marriage or arrange. The possibility of success or failiure are the same because because in Pakistani society marriage does not mean living a couple in isolation but building relations among two familities. Therefore, you will see alomst equal ratio of success or failure in both cases.
    This is my personal opinion and observation.Recommend

  • Muhammad Iftikhar

    Sonakshi, you have written a good articles based on existing customs but still I would support Rahul’s point of view. In arranged marriages, at least you have someone to support you but in love marriages even your parents will not support in 90 % cases. Recommend

  • Fahad Yousuf

    great analysis :)Recommend

  • Patwari

    Agree with you to an extent. As everyone knows, arranged
    marriages are not limited to the Sub Continent. They had them
    in China, in Russia, and other cultures and societies. Even in the
    West. The term “Matchmaker” is well known there. They were
    professionals. and charged a fee for their services.
    True, loves wanes after a few years, and if the two partners are
    mature with common sense, and develope a bond/affinity for each
    other, they are in, and will do good for the long haul.Recommend

  • Sami Thinker

    The percentage of success in arranged is 90% and the % of unsuccessful marriage in love marriage is 90%. But issue is when one is ready to marry in arranged system and one does not wants to be in family then what should be done?Recommend

  • AJ

    Quite an interesting read. I don’t care if marriage is arranged or not, I simply detest the way we so casually keep asking (read annoying) people about their marriage plan, who are still single. When married, about children, after one child, when’s the second one coming. Please STOP. Real life trollsRecommend

  • Dante

    Statistics don’t agree with you. Just look at the >50% divorce rate in USA. The divorce rate is not that high in the sub-continent.Recommend

  • vero caleb

    The divorce rate isn’t high in sub-continent because the women here are taught how they should ‘compromise’ and not utter a single word to their parents despite the husband physically abusing her! She’s rather told how her husband’s home is her home and should stay there and ‘compromise’, and the problems are not resulting because of the man being uncooperative they are because the woman dpesdoe want to wrap her head around his ways. So the domestic problems in the west and here are the same except for the fact that ‘we’ Desi girls are instructed to compromise while they have the guts and freedom to rid themselves off of a relationship which does not match up to them!Recommend

  • vero caleb

    The part of primitive society we live in, quaid-e-azam’s quote sits best for it and to all the sub-continental women; “The weak and the defenseless in this world invite aggression from others. The best way we can serve peace is by removing the temptation from the path of those who think we are weak and, for that reason, they can bully or attack us. That temptation can only be removed if we make ourselves so strong that nobody dare entertain any aggressive designs against us”.Recommend

  • fae

    Spot on vero caleb! Plus a lot of women in pakistan are married young and arent allowed to go on to further study or work, so if they were to divorce, then financial stability would be hard especially with kids.

    And the fact that men have to “allow” women to divorce them makes it even harder for women to escape.Recommend