Content Notices: discussion of coerced marriages and child marriages; mild fatphobia in paragraph eight
While arranged marriages tend to either be wholly defended or reviled by those outside of cultures that currently engage in it, the way in which it is practiced varies quite bit. Arranged marriages don’t all work one way or follow one script. This ought to be unsurprising for a practice that ranges through many time periods, cultures, religions, sensibilities, and geographic regions.
A variety in terms of what arranged marriages can look like as well as their differing outcomes can be found within a just single person’s perspective and experience: mine. My family has been part of the Subcontinental Diaspora for multiple generations now, so I have relatives on every continent except for South America (and Antarctica, if you count that as a continent). Combine that with how the generation preceding mine consists of large families where the first child was born when the parents are teens and the last was born right before Mom hit menopause, and you get a family where, within just three generations, marriage practices vary greatly.
Child Brides & Other Overtly Forced Unions
To some, arranged marriages are synonymous with marriages arranged between children and adults, specifically adult men and girls. For an adult man to marry a female child was much more common in the past, when it was considered more socially acceptable, but still happens today in many countries, including but not limited to those on the Subcontinent. Religion, rural residence, and class status play a role along with general culture, with girls from non-Christian village-dwelling poor families most at risk.
Another form of often-coerced marriage comes by way of the “promised at birth” narrative, where families make marriage pacts with each other involving just-born or very young children. Often, this is a cementing of ties, a way for friends or business associates to plan to become family to each other in the future. The children do not have much of a choice in the matter. When done for financial and/or social reasons, this is not dissimilar to the way by which European royalty (and really, most royalty) were often betrothed and then wed. In this context, marriage is not at all about romance, but about the greater context of extended families.
In Pakistan in particular, there are some odd variations on child and coerced marriages. In order to keep the wealth in the family, some Pakistanis keep marriage in the family, wedding cousins to cousins over generations to detrimental outcomes, congenital issues that are not found when cousin marriage occurs less consistently within a family. If a male cousin of suitable age cannot be found, a girl might be betrothed to the next baby boy born to her parent’s siblings and made to raise her husband. If a male child can’t be found, women are sometimes married symbolically to the Quran, as though nuns were a thing in Islam (they aren’t, and adamantly so).
The Most Arranged: Lifting the Bridal Veil
In the most traditional form, an arranged marriage is one where the first time the groom beholds his bride’s face is on the wedding night. She descends from the dholi and her bridal dupatta is lifted; he sees the women who is his wife and to be the mother of his children only after they are wed. The lack of premarital contact of any kind is considered a given rather than anything shocking or bizarre, and children generally are taught to believe that they ought to trust their parents to find a suitable match for them. Direct coercion certainly occurs with this model, though for the most part, the coercive elements are more implicitly embedded within taught expectations rather than explicitly stated. Parents raise their children to know what will happen when they come of age rather than raise their children without knowledge of their arranged future and then bodily and verbally force them into marriage when the time comes. The coercion is through culture and socialization.
Both sets of my grandparents had traditional arranged matches, but with differing outcomes. Nani and Nana’s respective parents found them to be matches for each other, and they were married at about Romeo and Juliet ages. By all accounts, they were mostly content with each other until the day my grandfather died.
My paternal grandparents also had an arranged match, but theirs has a funny origin story and more romantic ending. My Amma and her sister were at a wedding where they saw a tall, stocky young man they didn’t know among the guests. They started teasing each other about who would have to marry the “mohtoo” (fatty). Not long later, Amma ended up arranged to marry to that same young man. Theirs was an arranged match that truly grew into romantic love, especially after they immigrated to the United States, where my grandfather would take Amma on long rides in his carefully-maintained automobile, singing along with Motown on the radio with special emphasis on all the pet names. By the time he died, my grandmother lost not just a husband, but a soulmate and lifelong companion through the periods of stability and prosperity that framed a decade spent as refugees.
Among my parents’ generation exists even more of a variety of heavily-arranged stories and outcomes. On the positive end is one of my aunts, who told a group of us cousins that she shrugged off the offer of a photograph to check out her future husband’s face prior to boarding a plane for the US to go marry him. She said that she figured that her parents had chosen well for her, and they certainly managed to, as she has one of the sweetest and healthiest marriages I’ve ever seen.
On the other side are the quietly companionate and distant marriages. These are marriages where there is a lot of rancor and incompatibility, but social pressure leads a couple to remain married in the community’s eyes even if they truly aren’t husband and wife anymore and want nothing more than to end their relationship. If the couple has enough wealth, they might separate their living situations after the kids are married off but without telling anyone, making appearances at events and parties as a couple to maintain the illusion. The lack of physical or verbal affection between them wouldn’t strike anyone as odd in a culture where wives are encouraged to never call their husbands by their names out of what is dubbed “respect” (meaning that the “Should I take my husband’s name?” debate is quite different than the one that exists among non-Desis, especially choose-your-choice feminists). Because it is considered shameful to talk about such matters and important to serve good face in public, there is no way to know how many such in-name-only unions exist. That I know of at least half a dozen means that there are likely dozens more.
THE Less ARRANGED: A Global Matchmaking Service
For the more urbanized and/or richer Desis, having one’s family “arrange” one’s marriage means far more in the way of agency and power over the process than the word might suggest. While you’d be hard-pressed to find many Desis who don’t feel any pressure from their families to wed or Desi families where the expectation for their children isn’t that they’ll eventually marry, when in their life and to whom the person will be wed is more flexible than “when and to whom the parents say.” This is the spectrum presented in What’s Love Got to Do with It?, an excellent documentary on arranged marriage in India today.
That hardly means most Desis get away with marrying just anyone. With Hindus, there are caste concerns which perpetuate a form of severe intra-cultural and intra-racial discrimination. Among parents of all religions are concerns to do with the prospect’s family’s religion, race, wealth, class, family reputation, and/or village or region of origin. In terms of the actual marriage prospect as an individual, parents care about age, skin tone (the fairer the better), physique, and/or education level. All of these are ostensibly to ensure compatibility and future stability, but often have less to do with their child’s personal preferences and more to do with the perceptions of the community as well as tradition.
The level of power and premarital contact someone whose marriage is being arranged this way has depends on the family. Among the more conservative, the boy and his family come over to visit the girl’s house (the unmarried are referred to this infantilizing way regardless of age), where they meet for the first time as prospective spouses and are given some time to converse alone before deciding whether or not to marry. This is commonly referred to as the boy’s family “bringing a proposal”, despite its lack of resemblance to the proposals most Americans imagine.
Some families might allow the boy and girl to communicate beforehand via phone or online when considering the proposal. Some even encourage them to meet up and date one-on-one for a while before involving the families. In these cases, the formal family proposal is brought to the girl’s house after both the boy and the girl have agreed that they want to marry. Because this form of dating is courtship with the intention to wed, it doesn’t generally last very long before a decision is made one way or another.
How to Arrange the Un-ARRANGED
Despite social pressure, many Desi people fall in love, or at least find someone they would like to wed, without the direct help of their families. Any form of unarranged marriage is referred to as a “love marriage” or “love match” (whether the couple had exchanged the l-word prior to becoming engaged and married is irrelevant). In order to attain optimal levels of family approval, these couples can arrange for the boy’s parents to bring a proposal to the girl’s parents. After the proposal is accepted, the couple is often treated as though they were arranged from the beginning. For example, no matter what the boy and girl did before in their relationship, the assumption is that they never kissed, let alone had sex. This ad-hoc legitimizes the relationship and renders it palatable and socially acceptable. It’s the same impulse that leads to groom-for-groom matrimonial ads and websites, or post-elopement wedding receptions.
My parents, both the youngest in their respective sets of siblings, chose each other. They immediately involved their families in the process, which wasn’t difficult to do because their match was guaranteed to be approved, given that my mother’s elder sister was already long-married to my dad’s eldest brother. Lacking in hypocrisy on this front, my parents told me throughout my childhood that if I found someone on my own, I could marry him. Of course, there were built-in implicit and explicit stipulations about what kind of person that “someone” could be, not to mention the understanding that I wouldn’t be permitted to date him first. Still, it was quite different from the bizarre-to-me assumptions about my family’s approach to marriage, including the mistaken inference that my henna-stained hands meant I was a child bride.
Main image by Sen (Sankarshan)